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Walker's Trail

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Chapter Two

Pa planned to make our way to Greens Cut, then follow the Savannah Rail Road to Augusta. From there, we would follow the Port Royal Rail Road line on to Knoxville. It was not considered a hard passage, other than being a long one if done during warm weather.

Grandpa had tried to get Pa to wait until next spring to make the trip, but he had his mind made up. He figured that even though it was already September, we could make it through the Blue Ridge Mountains before the first snow if we pushed hard.

Grandpa knew something about the Blue Ridge, having been there a few times himself when he was a younger man. He warned Pa that getting caught in the mountains during the winter could be mighty dangerous. The weather was unpredictable, and snow can cover the trail, making it easy for a person to get lost.

However, we could not have picked a better day to leave on had we tried. The sun had come up bright and warm, burning off the morning dew from the grass and thereby keeping our shoes dry. There were now just a few clouds in the sky and a light, steady breeze out the east which helped to keep the bugs down. Yellow flies were a big problem this time of year, and they would cause the horses a lot of irritation. Them flies also hurt like the devil when they bit. Thankfully, there was just enough wind to keep ’em down to a minimum.

That first day we made a good twenty miles before stopping to camp when it became too dark to see the road. Since we had such a big meal for breakfast, we ate little during the day and only stopped when it was necessary. Of course, with Emma, necessary was every hour.

Pa believed we were in Screven County now and would easily make it to Sylvania the next day. There, we would hopefully stay in a boarding house before pushing on to Greens Cut, which we could make in another day and a half. That, of course, depended on the road, the weather, and the number of Emma’s necessary stops.

We set up camp in an open meadow just off the road, under a couple of big oaks. Being it was late in the year, most of the wildflowers had already gone to seed and the grass was beginning to brown. It was still rich enough though that our horses were eager to be tied out.

After a meal of leftover cured ham and biscuits, Pa made room in the wagon for Ma and Emma to lay down while we fixed us a simple bedroll next to the wagon.

Under the big oaks, I could see a multitude of stars between the scattered branches and not a single cloud. It was still plenty warm, and we kept our fire low, just enough to discourage any curious animals.

The next morning, we were up with the sun. I had slept all night soundly, except for getting up a time or two to feed the fire and once to take Emma for a necessary. I think even Pa slept pretty well, considering he wasn’t much for outdoor sleeping. I did see him get up a couple of times to feed the fire too.

After a quick breakfast, we started again. It was another nice day for traveling, and we made good time. By late afternoon we were in Sylvania, and Pa found us a boarding house to stay the night.

We supped that night indoors, and the lady of the house put on a fine meal of venison roast and potatoes. She must have cooked it a long time ’cause the meat was tender and had a thick gravy-like my grandmother made. Her biscuits weren’t too much though. They were odd shaped and had a hard, thick crust. I had to soak ’em some in the gravy just to have something to sop. I sure missed Grandma’s biscuits.

We had to share one small room that night. All the others were taken, and we were lucky to get one at all. Another family had to make do sleeping in the parlor with a couple of strangers. Ma and Pa took the bed whilst me and Emma took a pallet on the floor. At least the floor was clean.

I think I slept better the night before under the open sky as I did in that strange house. Not that it was a bad house, it just felt odd knowing strangers were sleeping nearby.

Of course, some time during the night Emma woke and had to do her necessary, and woke me during the process. She said she couldn’t see, so I had to get up and light the oil lamp. I don’t think Ma and Pa even knew we had gotten up during the night.

The next morning, we were off again as soon as it was light enough to see. The lady of the house had told us at supper she would fix us a nice breakfast and have it ready the next morning by seven. Pa told her thanks, but we hoped to be several miles down the road by then. She did pack us some lard biscuits that were left from supper and a few fresh pears to eat on. The pears were a little knotty and had some brown spots as they were the last of the season, but they tasted sweet.

We camped again that night, having put a mighty good many miles behind us. Pa believed we had made over twenty miles, perhaps even twenty-five that day! The road was well-traveled and in good condition as well as the weather cooperating with us.

It was at this stop I first noticed my pa doing something odd. As soon as the wagon stopped, he climbed in the back and fetched a small leather satchel, the kind one would keep important papers in. Without saying a word, he slipped out into the woods, only to return a few minutes later without the satchel. My guess was he was hiding something of importance.

It was at this stop we had our first mishap, too, if you could call it such. Pa had the ax and was trying to split open an old lighter knot to get to the sappy part when a chunk flew off and hit Emma just above her eye. It was only a scratch and didn’t bleed much, but you would have thought it much worse by the way she carried on.

After the fire was going and everything was set up, I suggested that I should go out and try and get some wild game. I had not even shot my new rifle Grandpa had given me, and I was itching to try it out.

I had already grabbed up my rifle and was starting out when Ma called me back. She said we had plenty of food for now and didn’t need any fresh meat. “Besides,” she said, “no need in killing any of God’s creatures when you don’t have too. You will get your chance when the need comes.” Then, seeing the look on my face, she added, “Of course, it doesn’t hurt to practice a little with your rifle for when the need comes.”

I smiled at her and took off a short distance down the road. I soon found me a tree with a nice knot in the trunk that was a good target to practice on.

The sun was already gone, and it was getting darker by the minute, but I got off a half-a-dozen shots or so. The little rifle was true, and I was even getting fast at loading it. I imagine I could get off three, maybe four shots a minute if I really tried!

I was about to go back to the camp when I heard someone coming up behind me. It was Ma.

“Getting dark,” she said, “and supper is ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I loaded my rifle again and turned to go back to the camp.

“Can I try it?” Ma suddenly asked.

“Uhm, sure,” I said, handing the rifle to her. I don’t know why that surprised me, after all, my grandpa was her pa, and he had taught me to shoot.

She eyed the rifle for a moment, then looked at the tree knot. It was almost completely dark now, and the tree blended in with the others around it making it almost impossible to see.

“Tell ya what, why don’t I aim for one of those pine cones,” she said, pointing to a nearby tree

Against the sky, the pine tree was easier to see, but it was a good distance further away and I had my doubts.

Taking aim, Ma squeezed off a shot and to my amazement, a pine cone fell. In the dim light, I could see a slight smile on her face as she handed the rifle back to me.

I have to admit, Ma looked mighty pretty that night. Folks were always admiring how well she looked. She was slim figured with light golden-brown hair that when she let down fell in waves to her shoulders. And her smile. Pa always said it was her smile that melted his heart.

Ma was the youngest of the Palmer children. She had three older brothers, Chad, Samuel, and Henry. There had been another between Henry and ma, but she died of fever before she was two.

I guess Grandpa knew my ma would be the last of his children, and he took up a lot more time with her, teaching her to shoot and letting her ride with him on business trips. It all paid off in that she was hard as nails when needed, but as Pa would say, soft as a flower too.

That night we had a meal of cured pork and vegetables that Ma had cooked into a stew along with some pan-fried cornbread. I really enjoyed having a hot meal again, and the cornbread was fried crispy on the edges like I liked it.

Afterward, Pa found a spot where he could lean a straight-back chair against the wheel of the wagon and smoke his pipe. With a hurricane lantern hanging overhead, he had enough light to study a map he had of the land.

“By my figuring,” he said taking the pipe from his mouth and using it to point at the map, “we should have no problem making Greens Cut by noon tomorrow. We can stay the night there, resupply, and if we get an early start, we might make Augusta by nightfall.”

Ma was brushing Emma’s hair and nodded. “Aren’t we pushing it a little hard, though?”

“Have to,” Pa said. “We got to try and make through the Blue Ridge before the snow.”

“I know, Gerald, but we have to think of the children too… and animals.”

“We will rest when we can, Mary. Besides, the sooner we get there, the sooner we can all get settled in. We can get Emma started in that girl’s school like you wanted and Zach can get back in school too.”

“I’m in no hurry for that,” I said quickly.

Pa chuckled. “I know, but you need to finish. Then, we will get you into a college in Knoxville.”

I wasn’t thinking about college, but I knew it was Ma and Pa’s dream that I go. What I wanted was to go back and work with Grandpa at the lumber yard. Didn’t need college for that. I had everything I needed for that; strong arms and a strong back. After all, Grandpa only went to eighth grade himself, dropping out to go to work and support his family. He made out alright without college.

I started to say that out loud but thought better of it. We’d had this conversation before, and it didn’t turn out well. Anyway, I was in the tenth grade now and had one more year of schooling no matter what. Even Grandpa insisted I finish grade school, so there was no arguing that.

We started again the next morning, hitching the wagon by lantern light and breaking camp just as it was light enough to see the road clearly. We didn’t even build a fire for our midday meal, eating quickly, and getting back underway. By late afternoon, we were close to Greens Cut and came upon another wagon going the opposite way.

It was a small freight wagon loaded with goods that were covered by a canvas. The driver was a thin man with a scruffy beard and thinning hair. On the back of the wagon was a young black boy about my age. The man said he owned a general store back in Sylvania and had been to Augusta trading for goods.

He and Pa exchanged greetings briefly, and Pa asked him how the road was up ahead. The man told us that it was in good shape until you got around Augusta. Seems they had some heavy rains this year and some places were washed out.

He told Pa he would have to leave the road a few times and cut around the washout, but it was clear enough where to do it from the tracks of other people going that way.

Pa thanked him, and we each went on our way.

It was dark when we finally made it to Greens Cut. There wasn’t much to it other than a post office and a train depot. The only thing it was noted for was that President George Washington passed through there once on his way to Augusta.

They did have a mercantile of sorts, but it was closed by the time we arrived and there was nobody in sight. We ended up bedding down in an open field.

As soon as it was light, we were off again. I didn’t say anything, but I was starting to get a little tired by this time. While we rode mostly, it was still hard and my backside was ready for a break.

Emma, on the other hand, had no problem letting everybody know how tired she was. She whined a lot, and I can’t say I blamed her. The last couple of meals we had eaten were bread and cured meat. Ma did break out a jar of her blackberry preserves to go with our bread that morning which was a tasty treat.

After another night in the open, we packed up and started for Augusta. We had not been on the road long when we reached the first washout and had to cut off the road on a trail that ran through the woods.

At one point we were near what the map said was, Boggy Creek. I figured they must have named it right because the cut we were on got mighty boggy in places, and we were concerned that the wagon might get stuck. It took us nearly two hours to make just a mile or so.

Finally, the cut took us back to the main road, and we made better time for the next several miles. Still, there were a lot of washed-out spots on the road, and we had to travel slow when we came to them to keep from breaking an axle.

Pa said we were over halfway to Augusta when we stopped finally at nightfall. After he got back from his little walk in the woods, we pulled out what was necessary from the wagon and made camp.

There wasn’t much talking that night as we were all dog-tired. Even I was looking forward to reaching Augusta and the prospect of sleeping inside again.

Late afternoon the next day we pulled into Augusta. It was the first time I had been in a city other than Savannah, and I was amazed at the number of people on the street.

We found us a boarding house to stay in, which was no easy task. Seems there were a lot of wealthy people from up north in town and most rooms were taken. We had to settle for an older house in the lower part of the city. Most of the other guests were laborers staying there to be close to construction work.

Rather than eat in the boarding house, Pa found us a little diner nearby. We washed up some and put on clean clothes before leaving the boarding house to eat, and Ma even wore one of her best dresses.

When we walked through the door and saw the other diners, I wondered why we had made such a fuss over cleaning up. It was filled with mostly men, and I don’t believe a one of them had even taken the time to dust off their clothes before sitting to eat. From somewhere in a back room I could hear tin-pannie music, and people talking and laughing.

Normally, these kinds of folks don’t bother us, and we sort of fit in with them being timber people and used to hard work. But since we were strangers in town, we kind of stuck to ourselves, choosing a table against the wall.

The meal was simple but good, and we even had peach cobbler for dessert. Ma particularly enjoyed the tea. It was the first time she had ever had it in a glass with ice, and she drank a full two glasses after dinner as we sat there and Pa talked about what laid ahead.

“I won’t kid you,” he began by saying, “It’s not going to be easy going over the Blue Ridge. And, we can’t waste any time if we are going to beat the first snow.”

“You’ve already lost,” a deep voice suddenly said from behind me.

Turning, I faced a man who had somehow sat down at the next table without me ever seeing him enter. I don’t know how I missed him; he was a good bit taller than Pa and a lot heavier.

His face was bearded, and he wore an old hat that was either gray or brown; it was hard to tell from the dirt and dust. But the most distinguishable thing was the scar on his face. It ran from the bridge of his nose all the way to his ear, cutting right through his cheek.

“Pardon?” Pa asked, pulling his chair around so he could see the man’s face.

“Snow’s already hit the mountain. Going to be an early winter this year.”

“Are you certain, sir?”

The man shifted in his chair and leaned forward. “You think I’m lying?” the man said in an angry tone.

“No, of course not,” Pa said, quickly.

“I just come off the mountain. Lived there all my life. More snow’s coming soon, too.”

Pa nodded. “I guess it will be a long, hard ride across then.”

“Don’t have to be so long,” the man said abruptly.

“Oh?” Pa shifted in his chair and leaned in closer.

“There’s a pass that will cut days off… if You’uns don’t mind leaving the main road.”

Pa glanced at Ma, as did I, to see what her reaction would be. She said nothing, but her face showed concern.

“I… uhm, I guess not. How hard is the pass?”

“Passable,” came his short answer.

“Well, how do I find it?”

The man suddenly stood up, looming over me.

“Got a map?”

“Well, yes,” Pa said. He opened the brown satchel beside him, quickly pulled out the map, and closed it back.

The man took one long step and was at our table studying the map. After a quick look, he put a thick finger on the paper.

“Right ‘ere,” he said, pointing. “Just past Stallings Station, there’s a cutoff. It’s marked with a post an’ a board pointing the way. Was a logging road at one time.”

The man then cut his eyes at Ma. “It’s not easy, but it’s passable and will get You’uns across the mountain before the heavy snow. You don’t need to be caught there in the snow.”

“Well, thank you, sir,” Pa said standing to feet, drawing the man’s attention back to him.

“Hate to see anything bad happen to yo’ family. Unless you take the pass, You’uns best not try and cross that mountain until next spring. I’d be glad to guide You’uns there if ya don’t mind waiting a few days… and for a price,” he added, looking down at the brown satchel.

Pa quickly put the map away, stuffing it the satchel.

“I think we will be okay. Besides, we plan to leave tomorrow morning.”

“Suit y’self,” the man said with a shrug. “If you do change your mind, the name is Carlton.”

“Thank you, Mr. Carlton,” Pa said eyeing the man.

As he walked away, he glanced over his shoulder once more at Ma and said, “It’s just, Carlton.”

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