And so it begins…
Yesterday morning, I sent out a missive on Facebook, asking my friends and family to start sending me pictures for short story inspiration. I am so grateful to Hope for sending me my first picture, one of the beautiful gristmill in Cades Cove, Tennessee.
My original goal was to write a story involving the mill itself, which I started to do, but the characters took over the story as usual, and the mill ended up disappearing altogether. Despite that, this first work does take place in Cades Cove during the Civil War. I learned so much about the cove area and the families that lived there while I was doing my research yesterday, and for that I am so grateful! I can’t wait to go and visit the area again with my newfound knowledge.
One other thing that I learned was that I can, in fact, get myself to write historical fiction if I push myself hard enough. And complete said story in a day. Since it was such a quick turnaround, I hope you will forgive any grammatical errors.
All of the people in this story with the exception of Joseph Miller were people who actually lived in the cove. While I did take some creative liberties with Lizzie’s story, the rest of the history is accurate based off the research that I did.
So, without further ado, my first work of historical fiction, ‘Until I See You Again’:
~~ Russell Gregory had been killed. I couldn’t believe it. Why him? Mr. Gregory had been well liked in Cades Cove, Tennessee. I had particularly fond memories of him, because he used to let me follow along with him as he would lead his cattle herds up the mountains every spring, his loved gun, Old Long Tom, over his shoulder. I’d struggle to match his pace, my bare feet working as hard as they could. Often he would slow down just enough to let me catch up before his strides would lengthen again.
As soon as I heard about his death, I ran to find Papa in the fields, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill. Cades Cove had gone through so much since the war had started. The Confederate raids had continued over the last year despite the Federal occupation of Knoxville, and everyone had suffered in one way or another because of it. Poor Dr. Calvin Post, a strong abolitionist and Union supporter, had gone into hiding to avoid being murdered like Russell Gregory. Elijah Oliver’s barn had been burned down, and he had fled like Dr. Post. Rumor was he had found a place to lay low on Rich Mountain. Livestock had been stolen. People lived in fear of the next attack. When would it end?
I spotted Papa’s still figure, standing among the dirt mounds in the evening light, his eyes staring off at some unseen thing. I knew he was thinking of his future crops, even though it was only December, and planting season was still a long ways off.
“Papa,” I called out as I came up behind him. I may have been sixteen years old, but at that moment I felt like I was five, and I wanted nothing more than to throw myself into my papa’s arms and cry until the ache from Mr. Gregory’s death passed.
He turned, the lingering cloud of future plans in his eyes. The corner of his mouth lifted into a smile when he saw me, but then it fell again when he saw my expression.
“What’s wrong, Lizzie?” he asked, worry creeping into his voice.
“Russell Gregory’s dead!” I cried.
There was a moment’s pause as Papa let the news settle in, then his legs were moving, propelling him toward the Gregory’s property.
“How?” he asked as I fell into step beside him.
“Susan Gregory said some… some Confederates… took one of the calves. Butchered it… butchered it for dinner.” I was trying to make some kind of sense, but the now fast falling tears were making it difficult. “Mr. Gregory demanded they pay for it, and they… they… they killed him!”
Papa started walking faster, his head swinging from side to side as he took in his surroundings. The rifle he had taken to carrying with him to the fields in case of attack was clutched firmly in his white-knuckled grip.
“Stay close,” he ordered. “They might still be around.”
When we reached the Gregory’s property, the first thing I saw was the circle of men. They were all familiar to me, most of them people I had known since I was born. At that moment, though, all of their features blended together.
The one face that stood starkly out was that of Mr. Gregory. He was lying on the ground in the middle of the circle, the front of his white work shirt covered in blood, eyes closed, never to open again. Papa saw him too, and stopped.
He turned to face me and placed his free hand on my shoulder.
“Go home,” he said, tone not to be argued with. He then grabbed my hand and pushed the gun into it. “If you see any of those men, don’t hesitate to shoot. You understand me?”
I gave a quick nod. He gave me one in return, then turned me toward the direction of home and gave me a gentle push that direction.
An overwhelming numbness replaced my tears as I walked away from the Gregory’s property. The rifle hung limply in my hand as if it, too, felt hopeless. We both knew I wouldn’t be able to defend myself against a group of Confederate raiders if I were to happen upon them or them upon me. I’d be lucky if I could get a single successful shot off. Papa had taught me how to shoot before, but those targets had been motionless pieces of stacked wood, not living, moving men.
I don’t know how much time had passed, or even really how my feet had gotten me home, but when I looked up, the cabin was in front of me. It was usually a place that made me happy. I loved my family and the home we shared. At that moment, though, I couldn’t bear the thought of going inside and facing their questions. Mama hadn’t wanted any of us to go out when she heard about Mr. Gregory’s death, but I had pushed out of the house despite her protestations. If I went in right away, there was a chance I would be in for a solid tongue lashing. I may have been too old for the switch, but that wouldn’t stop my mama from dolling out a verbal punishment.
The barn was about fifty feet or so to the right of the house, and it was in that direction I turned my feet. I would face Mama when my heart didn’t feel quite so heavy.
The barn doors squeaked familiarly as I pushed them both open, dust clouds dancing in the patch of evening light that streamed into the new opening. I placed the rifle by the door and welcomed in the smells of hay and manure. Grace and Bert, the two plowing horses, gave soft nickers to welcome my presence. The cows were quiet, which meant James, my younger brother, had already been by to milk them.
I stood in the middle of the barn, wanting to simply soak in the peace and quiet. Even when I closed my eyes, though, there was no peace to be had. Instead, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. A subtle shiver ran through my body and I knew it, clear as day. I was not alone. There was a chance that it was one of my siblings, but they weren’t patient enough to remain hidden for so long.
My eyes darted to the gun by the door while I mentally berated myself for giving it up so easily. If I moved for it, would I get there before whoever was with me could get to me? Whatever the answer, it was the only choice I had. Trying to move slowly and as if I was not wound tight as a yearling colt, I took casual steps toward the door. I was about halfway to the gun when I heard the rustling behind me.
Giving up all pretense of ignorant ease of mind, I darted the last few steps to the rifle, picked it up, and swung around, my finger pressing in on the trigger.
“Please, don’t shoot,” a quiet, strangled man’s voice came from the shadows just beyond Bert’s stall.
“Show yourself!” I demanded, fighting to keep the quiver out of my own voice.
There was a silent pause, as if the owner of the voice was trying to decide on the best course of action. Then, there was more rustling as the man shuffled into view. I barely stifled a gasp when I saw him.
His right arm hung uselessly at his side, a mix of fresh and dried blood showing through the tattered, cotton sleeve of a once white shirt. His face, stained a deep brown by the sun, was hollow and haunted, a patchy beard covering his cheeks and chin. Long strands of brown hair poked out from under a worn, wool hat. As if his very appearance wasn’t enough to identify what sort of person he was, the upside down ‘US’ belt buckle shouted it loud and clear.
“Confederate,” I said, finger tightening a little more on the trigger. I had heard the stories of how the Confederates took the belt buckles off dead Union soldiers. How they took pride in wearing them in a manner they knew would seem disrespectful to their opposition.
“Please,” he said again.
A Confederate being in the vicinity around the time of Mr. Gregory’s death was no coincidence.
“I should kill you. After what you and yours did to Mr. Gregory. Killing him so heartlessly.” I made no attempt to hide the anger I was feeling.
“Shouldn’t have happened,” the man said, a kind of desperation in his voice. “We were hungry.”
“Being hungry gives you no right to kill someone.”
The man gave a small shake of his head as he wobbled unsteadily on his feet. I lowered the rifle a little bit and studied him. The man was not doing well, that much was clear. He was physically spent, but it was more than that. He looked raw and confused, and I couldn’t help the small softening in my heart at his pitiful state. He seemed genuinely alarmed by the killing.
“Lizzie! You in the barn?” It was Mama.
My heart gave a jolt in my chest, and the man in front of me gave me a pleading look. I couldn’t decide what to do. If I was smart, I’d shoot the man down where he stood. He was one of the Confederates who had killed Mr. Gregory. I’d be a hero in the cove for years to come. Or I could at least keep him at rifle’s length until Papa got home. But Papa would give him up to the other men of the cove and they’d all probably decide to kill him. Could I really face the rest of my life knowing I had been the one responsible for a man’s death?
“Lizzie!” Mama again.
Giving a frustrated sigh, I motioned to the dark corner the man had been hiding in.
“Get back over there,” I hissed at him as I inched toward the barn door. To my surprise, the man obeyed. “If you take a step out of this building, I’ll shoot you,” I said to the shadows, then I moved out of the barn, lowering the rifle as I did.
Mama was standing on the porch of the cabin, hands on her hips. Her eyes widened when she saw I had the gun.
“Why do you have the rifle?” she asked. “Where’s your Papa?”
“He’s at the Gregory’s place. He gave it to me in case the Confederates were still around.”
Mama shook her head and said, “Poor Mr. Gregory. May he rest in peace. Now get inside. It’ll be dark soon.”
She walked back into the house, her long skirt swishing around her ankles, and I knew I would be spared her anger that night. It was the solemnity of the evening’s happenings, and her own fear of marauding Confederates that made her hold her peace.
I didn’t return to the barn until late that night after everyone else had gone to bed. Papa had gotten home after dark, his face tired and burdened. I knew the rest of the men in the cove would be greeting their families with the same expression. He didn’t tell us much because there wasn’t much to tell. There was no justice that could be done for Mr. Gregory. His killers were long gone, or at least so everyone thought. So many times throughout the evening I thought about telling him about the Confederate out in the barn, but something always stopped me.
By the time I snuck out of the cabin with a lantern, the rifle, a few pieces of food, and something to patch up the Confederate’s wound, my stomach was in one huge knot.
When I got to the barn door, I set my supplies down and lit up the lantern, then pulled the door open, rifle pointed into the dark exterior.
“Come out where I can see you,” I said.
He emerged from the corner I had ordered him into earlier in the day, but he was on his knees instead of his feet. I picked up the piece of fabric I had wrapped cornbread and a piece of dried meat in and threw it toward him.
“Some food if you want it,” I said.
In the glow of the lantern, I could see his dull eyes take on a small spark when the bundle dropped near him. With labored movements, he moved toward it and, once he had pulled the food out, began shoving it into his mouth like he had never eaten before.
While he was distracted, I stepped fully into the barn, closing the door enough behind me that the light wouldn’t be too obvious from the cabin. Not that there was much to worry about. The joke in the cove was that God himself would have trouble waking the Greer family.
When the Confederate finished eating, and it didn’t take long, I motioned to the other things that had been in the bundle.
“You should sew up that arm. I put a needle in there as well as some strips of clean cloth. Also some liniment if you need it.”
The man gave a murmured, “Thanks.”
He pulled out the needle, which I had already threaded, and eyed it warily.
“Have you never stitched up a wound before?” I asked.
“Never on myself.”
“Can’t be much different.”
The look he gave me suggested he thought otherwise. He held the needle above his arm for a minute or two, then gave a small sigh and fairly jammed the sharp tip into his skin. Even I winced at the harsh first prick. The stitches he administered to himself were rough, but they seemed to hold the wound together well. After he was done, he wrapped the cloth around his arm and studied his work.
“You need to leave,” I said. “If anyone sees you here, they will not show you mercy. Not that you deserve it after what you did to Mr. Gregory.”
“I didn’t kill him.” The man’s grey-blue eyes met mine, the same desperation in them that I had seen earlier.
“Well, you were at least privy to it, now weren’t you?” Hot tears were burning the backs of my eyes as I recalled Mr. Gregory’s lifeless body.
“It happened so fast.”
“I’m sure. Now, please leave.”
The man tried to stand to his feet, but his legs were shaking under the weight he tried to give them and collapsed before he could get all the way up.
“I don’t think I can,” he said when he was back down on his knees again.
“Well you can’t stay here,” I responded, my voice rising with the panic I was starting to feel. “Crawl if you have to.”
“If you expect me to crawl out of here, you’d better just go ahead and shoot me. I won’t make it more than half a mile before dawn.”
I looked down at the rifle I still had pointed at him and knew I could never kill a wounded, defenseless man. Or was he defenseless?
“Do you have any weapons?” I demanded.
“A musket. A knife. Over there.” He jerked his head toward the shadow he had been hiding in.
“Nothing on you? Nothing under your shirt?”
“Would you like me to lift it so you can see?”
My face turned bright red. I could tell based solely off the heat rising to it.
“How dare you?” I sputtered. “You are a scoundrel! No true gentleman would ever say such a thing.”
Suddenly I was very aware of the fact that I, a young woman, was all alone at night with a man whose intentions were completely unknown to me. It was downright scandalous, and I was almost certain I’d be shamed out of the cove if anyone ever found out. I took a step back.
The man opened his mouth as if to offer up a defense, but then sighed and closed it again, seeming to have no energy left for an argument.
There was an awkward, silent moment that passed. It was necessary to keep my eyes on him, but I found it hard to meet his gaze given our embarrassing exchange.
“What’s your name?” I asked when I couldn’t take the silence anymore.
“Joseph. Joseph Miller.”
“Where are you from?”
“Durham, North Carolina.”
“Do you miss home?” I asked, then snapped my mouth shut. The question was too personal. If I could have taken it back, I would have.
“What do you think?”
At first, I assumed he was being impudent with his answer, but then I saw his face had no malice about it. He was a tired, hurt man who looked like he hadn’t had a decent meal or night of sleep in a long while. Of course he’d be missing home. Who wouldn’t be?
“You miss it very much,” I said quietly.
“I do.” He scooted himself back so he could lean against Bert’s stall and asked, “And you?”
“What’s your name?”
“My name?” Did I want him to know my name? Was that dangerous? It wasn’t like he could figure out where I lived with a name. He was already there.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he said. “I was just being polite in asking back.”
“Elizabeth Greer. But everyone in the cove calls me Lizzie.”
“Lizzie.” He repeated my name and gave a nod as if he approved.
The silence enveloped us again, and I saw Joseph’s eyes sinking dangerously close to sleep. He needed rest, and I had been there long enough.
“I better go.” The rifle was getting heavy in my arms so I set it against my shoulder. Unless he was a first rate stage actor, Joseph was in no position to do me any harm. “You can stay here, but you have to stay hidden. My brother will be in before the sun’s up. Leave him be and for goodness sake don’t let him know you’re here.”
“I didn’t touch him when he came in earlier, and he didn’t see me.”
“You were here then?”
I lifted my eyes to Heaven and silently thanked the good Lord that it was a man with no malicious intent in the barn and not someone who would have harmed my precocious little brother.
“I appreciate you leaving him be,” I said with sincerity.
“I have a little brother about his age. Back home.”
“They’re a handful,” I said with a smile.
Joseph gave a tired smile back, the two of us sharing a moment of solidarity.
“Goodnight, Joseph,” I said as I moved for the barn door.
“Good night, Lizzie,” came the murmured reply behind me.
Over the next three days, I continued my ritual of taking the lantern, gun, and food out to the barn once the family had gone to bed. Joseph had managed to stay quiet and out of sight as he fought to gain back his health and energy. Our conversations, stilted at first, had been coming with more ease. It astounded me that, despite him being a Confederate, we actually thought very much the same on a lot of things. His family was just as important to him as mine was to me. He had been raised on a farm as I had been, and worked there until he left for the war. He even seemed to view the world in the same way I did. How could he be so similar to me, yet fall in with the Confederates? There were so many more serious questions I wanted to ask him, but I managed to reign in my tongue before I threw us headlong into true debate.
On the fourth night, I was sitting on a hay bale by the barn door, rifle leaning only for show next to my leg. We both knew I wouldn’t shoot it, but I figured I could use it as a prop to preserve my dignity if someone were to discover us in the barn. I felt guilty that I was willing to sacrifice Joseph at gunpoint over losing my reputation, but I was, after all, saving him by letting him stay where he was.
“You can ask,” Joseph said as he shoved the last bite of cornbread into his mouth.
“Whatever question has been on your mind the last few days.”
“Who says I have a question?”
“Not one. Many.”
“I don’t have any engagements for the evening. Ask your questions.”
“And you’ll answer?”
“If I can.”
“Fine.” I leaned forward and propped my elbows rather unladylike on my knees. “What happened the night Mr. Gregory died?”
“I told you. We stole a calf to eat. He came demanding payment. One of the other men shot him. It wasn’t me, though. I wouldn’t do that…” he trailed off as if he were speaking his disinclination to commit such a horrible crime for his own benefit more than mine.
“Why did you men steal the calf in the first place? It wasn’t yours to take.”
“We were starving. All we had between the six of us was some hardtack and a handful of rice.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“A matter of perspective I suppose.”
I didn’t feel like delving into that any deeper. We’d probably never agree.
“How’d you hurt your arm?” I asked instead.
“Grazed by a bullet in a skirmish with a Union patrol the night before we stole the calf.”
“When did you join up?”
“November of ‘62. After we got news of Antietam.”
“Has being a solider been everything you expected it would be?”
“I get my thirteen dollars a month, as I expected I would when I joined up.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
A furrow appeared between Joseph’s eyebrows as he contemplated my question.
“I thought being a solider was a noble thing,” he said. “A chance to die in glory for the place I call home. But we don’t even get that. I’ve lost four close friends since I’ve been a soldier. From battle? No. Dysentery. Typhoid. There is no glory in dying from disease. I guess I’m resigned to going that way now, too. I just hope I get a chance to throw out my playing cards before the fever makes me delirious.”
I smiled at him. Joseph had already shown me the cards in with his meager belongings. I’d never seen a deck before, and didn’t think anyone in the cove owned one. Cards were of the devil, a sinful thing to take part in, which is why Joseph said most soldiers tried to get rid of them when they thought they were about to die. It wouldn’t do to face the Maker with a pack of cards in pocket.
“I hope you make it home long before death finds you,” I told Joseph, and I meant it. In our brief time together, I felt we had developed a true sort of comradery. I could see he was an honest, earnest person.
“Me, too. It’s beautiful there. Perfect. The sunsets over the mountain behind our homestead, I wish you could see it.” His eyes lit up as he imagined it, momentarily wiping away the shadows that still haunted his face. The fire died out from his eyes, though, and he began to look concerned. “You believe me, don’t you?” he asked, turning to me.
“That I didn’t kill Mr. Gregory. That I wouldn’t have killed him.”
“Why do you want me to believe you?”
“I need to know that I’m not so depraved yet. That someone else doesn’t think I would do something like that, not even during slow starvation.”
“I didn’t know you before, so I can’t say whether you were ever that depraved or not.”
“So you think I would have done it?”
I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “The fact it bothers you so much tells me you wouldn’t do that. Not even while starving.”
“Thank you, Lizzie.”
“I needed to hear you say that.”
His eyes dropped to his sad excuse for boots as he fell deep into thought.
“I better go,” I said, my common ending phrase for our nights together. I stood up from the hay bale and shook clinging strands from my skirt. When I looked back at Joseph, he was studying me.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“I’m leaving tomorrow night,” he said, seeming bothered by it.
I swallowed past the quickly growing lump in my throat.
“Isn’t that a good thing? You can go back to your troops, with your fellow soldiers. It means you’re well again. That you’re strong.” Even as I tried to convince him he should be happy, though, I felt the same kind of sadness I saw in his eyes creep its way into my heart.
“Yes, all of that is good. But…”
“I think I’ll miss our conversations.”
“Me too. Good night, Joseph.”
Knowing it was probably going to be the last time I ever saw Joseph Miller, I wanted to make sure our last meeting was one of good memories. To that end, the next night, I packed up more food than usual for him so he could go at least a few more days without hunger gnawing at his belly. I also grabbed scissors, Papa’s razor, and lye soap and slipped them into the pocket of my skirt. I left the rifle behind. If this one night someone happened to find us together in the barn, well, that was just how things were going to be. My conscience was clear before God and man.
“A razor?” Joseph asked in bewilderment when I showed him my procurement.
I couldn’t help but laugh at his quizzical expression.
“Yes, Joseph, a razor. Men use these to get rid of all that scruff.” I placed my hands on my cheeks to illustrate my point.
“I know, I just haven’t used one in so long. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage with my arm.”
“No excuses. If you can’t do it yourself, I’ll do it for you. Don’t look so horrified! I’ve done it for my papa before, and he’s only got a small scar left over.”
For a split second, Joseph thought I was serious, but then he gave me an amused scowl.
“Now,” I said, “lean back against Bert’s stall. Since I don’t have a good chair for this, you’ll just have to be uncomfortable for a time.”
I used the scissors first, cutting the hairs as close to his face as I could. Then, using water and the lye soap, I got enough of a lather on his face to begin the actual shave itself. I bent low enough over him that I could work well, but not so low in his space as to be scandalous. Who was I trying to fool, though? The entire situation would be perceived as scandalous by society as a whole, not just the folks in Cades Cove.
“How about a little less thought and a little more concentration,” Joseph said when I lifted the blade away to clean it off.
“Trust, Joseph. You must have trust.”
Joseph muttered something unintelligible, but quickly stilled his face as I lowered the razor again.
When every last hair had been cleared from his cheeks, chin, and neck, I moved away and gave a low whistle, astounded by the transformation.
“Why Joseph Miller, you look to be a new man without all that scruff hiding you.” And he looked about ten years younger. “How old are you?” I asked.
“Well now you actually look your age.”
“That’s not a compliment to a man, Lizzie.”
“Oh, really? Don’t worry. It’ll grow back.” I smiled and crossed my arms over my chest, pleased with his new look.
I watched as he began gathering his things. He slipped on his leather belt, which held his percussion box, then he strung a leather strap across his chest that carried his cartridge box, haversack, a small cup, and his canteen. His lone knife went into a sheaf on his belt.
“No bayonet?” I asked.
“Lost that awhile back. Haven’t picked up another yet. It’s ok, though. The thing’s too cumbersome when I’m trying to shoot.”
“Are you a good shot?”
“One of the best,” he said, with one of those cocky smiles that only men could master. “I’ll show you one day.”
“Show me? I hardly think that’ll be possible. Unless you intend to make your way back to Cades Cove when all of this war madness is over.”
His look grew serious. He took a step toward me and my heart started beating erratically in a way it never had before in my life.
“I’ll come back,” he said, voice solemn with the promise it carried.
“I hope you do,” I said quietly.
He gave me a smile that contained both sadness and hope, an odd mix, but one that was appealing on him. Grabbing his musket in his good hand, he strode to the barn door. I followed close behind him. Before he stepped out into the night, he turned to me. In a move that seemed to slow time and speed it up all at once, he bent down and placed a light kiss on my cheek.
“Until I see you again, Lizzie Greer,” he whispered.
“Until I see you again, Joseph Miller,” I replied breathlessly.
He moved out into the night and stopped just before the tree line to turn and give me a last smile while I gave him a wave. Then, he disappeared into the night, and I had the strong suspicion he took part of my heart with him.
That was the last time I ever saw the face of Joseph Miller. He died In the Battle of Five Forks in Virginia on April 1, 1965, just days before the surrender of the Confederate army and the end of the Civil War.
Months after the war ended, I finally received a letter he had sent me the day before his death.
Dear Lizzie Greer,
Battle is before me, and I can’t help but feel like this will be that glorious death I spoke of in your barn what feels like lifetimes ago. Better this way than through sickness, but I did want to see you again so very much. Please know that you were a very bright light in a very dark world, the brightest light I ever did see. You saved me, Lizzie, not just from starvation, but from the man I was becoming that I did not want to be. I wish I could have come back to you. I wish I could have taken you to see that beautiful sunset over the mountains in Durham. But know I have carried memories of our time together from the moment I left. My pockets are empty of playing cards, and I look forward to the day I can see you on God’s golden shore.
Until I see you again,