April 28, 1863
I won the race, there is no doubt about it! My horse Molly and I, up Harrisburg Road from Gettysburg and then across the field to our farm we galloped, a good twelve yards ahead of Stephen and his nag most of the time. I lost my hat as we jumped the ditch by the crooked pine, but I can retrieve it in the morning. I would not stop for a hat when having a win was so close at hand!
Stephen did pull up beside me as we reached the orchard, and for a moment, as I leaned into Molly’s sorrel mane and shouted, “Go girl!” I could see them beside me, neck and neck we were, with Stephen grinning his triumphant grin and his horse straining at the bit and foaming at the neck. The three deer hides we’d retrieved from the tannery in town were tied to his saddle, and flapped behind him like the wings of an enormous and furious bird. Stephen shouted, “I’ve got it!” But then at the last moment, when we were to pass the finish, which is always the hooded well, Stephen’s horse crashed beneath an apple tree and Stephen was off. Dropping like a stone he was, and bouncing on the ground, crying out even as he struck the dirt, “I won! I passed the well first!”
He did not win. I say one must stay astride to win even if, perhaps and only perhaps, one might have been-a hairs breadth ahead before he took his tumble.
We curried our horses in the barn, and gave them an extra hand of grain and extra minutes of grooming for their racing, then took the leathers inside the house to show Uncle Silas. Uncle Silas is actually my Great-uncle Silas Preston. He is seventy-three years old and has been abed for many years with a rash of infirmities from gout to asthma to dropsy. From his bed in the parlor by the fireplace he pawed the three deer hides Stephen held out for his inspection, then said, “I suppose the tanner did what he could with these pitiful specimens. Next time, Stephen, hunt like a man. Go after the full-grown animals and not the babes.”
Stephen huffed, and took, the hides to the kitchen. Uncle Silas is always criticizing Stephen, and often criticizing me. The tanner, Mr. Bowler, did a nice job with those hides. And I know they came from three good-sized does.
Our Great-aunt Darcy was in the kitchen, darning a pair of her stockings at the small table. She is our father’s mother’s sister, seventy-one years of age and not infirm as is Uncle Silas, but in her own way is limited. She smiled at the hides and said they were nice, then her eyes grew narrow and she asked, “You did not hunt them from Pratt’s Woods?” No, Stephen assured her, he had not hunted the deer there, for Pratt’s Woods, the small acreage of trees on the west side of the farm, contains a spirit who haunts Aunt Darcy mercilessly, so she claims.
With a little help from Aunt Darcy, I fixed supper for the four of us in the Dutch oven out in the backyard, for it is too hot to cook in the kitchen on most spring days, and we don’t have a cookstove in the cellar as many neighbors do. I boiled the peas I had shelled in the morning and the sweet potatoes from the cellar, as well as a leg roast from one of the does Stephen had gutted and put in the smokehouse. When we were finished with our supper, I then took scraps to the pigs in the pen by the barn.
I wish I had a dog to eat scraps under the table at dinner. When Stephen and I lived in Rhode Island with our parents, we had a dog. His name was Tommy. Tommy could sit up, roll over on command, and sleep at the foot of my bed. Uncle Silas says dogs are a nuisance, for they chase cows and cows chased by dogs give no milk. I say pah to that! One time when I was mad at Uncle Silas I chased the cows myself and swore a fox did it.
The cows still gave milk, anyway.
I received a letter today. When Stephen and I were in town we stopped by the post office and found there was mail. A letter for Aunt Darcy from her daughter, Rudine, who lives in New Jersey with her husband and son, and a letter for me from my friend Marjorie Olson who went to Pittsburgh in March to work at the Allegheny Munitions Factory. Marjorie wrote that work is long and hard, but she lives in a boarding house with other girls and has made new friends. “Our army is in so great a need of ammunition,” her letter said, “with the war against the Southerners having gone on a full two years now. You should come join me, Susie, and make your own money while helping our good men save the Union. I earn nine dollars a week! Surely you should not find yourself missing your aunt and uncle, whom I know drive you to distraction.”
But I shall not go to Pittsburgh to work. I shall not leave this farm. Regardless of how difficult it is, living with a curmudgeon and mild-mannered lunatic. I will bear with it, for someday this farm will belong to Stephen and me. I am quite plain in appearance, and scarred on my arms from the fire which claimed my parents. I shall not make my way in this world by my looks, Uncle Silas has told me so, and on this one matter I am afraid he is right. I must, then, be strong and stay put. There are times when I cry, but I don’t let anyone see. It would do no good, and would only make me feel worse.
When our home burned in Rhode Island, and our beautiful sweet mother and gentle father with it, I thought we should go to the charity of the church, and then to some family we did not know for servitude. But word reached Gettysburg, and we were sent for, and have lived with our great-aunt and great-uncle ever since. We were twelve when our parents burned to death. We are now sixteen. A long four years it has been. Yet I will stay strong. I will stay put.
Stephen received no letter today, but snatched up a copy of the Daily Gazette from the druggist to read about the on-going war. He has on occasion said he would like to help put the Southerners in their place, but I’m sure he would not really go to battle. First of all, he is not old enough. Second of all, he knows I need him here. Uncle Silas grew up in South Carolina. I think when Stephen gets angry with Uncle Silas he likes to imagine that he could face a whole line of South Carolinians with a rifle and chase them clear to the Gulf of Mexico. But I do not think Stephen would enlist, for what would I do then?
Aunt Darcy is coming upstairs now, huffing and puffing with her age. I will blow out the candle and feign sleep.
—Susanne Annalee Blackburn
Copyright © 2000 by Elizabeth Massie