Talitha - Chapter 4

T a l i t h a

Chapter 4

   It was the year 1865. The Civil War had ended and it was soon to be cotton chopping time at the Sammons homestead. Mr. Sammons' illness was very little improved, and for this reason he engaged Uncle Teb to make another crop for him on the same acreage he had tilled the year before. And now, once again, Uncle Teb could be found under the spreading pin oak tree sharpening hoes and replacing hoe handles when needed.

   A neighbor of long standing had only recently returned from the Civil War, and on learning of Mr. Sammons' illness called one afternoon to see him. In the course of conversation the subject of war came up. Talitha, seated on the floor at her mother's knees, showed as much interest as Jane, who often interrupted to ask questions concerning the battles. Talitha, too young to understand it all, was later to ask her mother, "What were those men fighting about? Why was that man carrying a white flag?" On and on the questions went. Mrs. Sammons, recalling Jane's interest when her father and the neighbor were discussing war affairs, called her and said, "Go with Talitha to the shade of the pin oak and explain to her what you know about the war."

   Seated with her little sister on the handles of a plow, the fourteen-year-old Jane told Talitha about the battle of Gettysburg as best she could remember, knowing it only as she heard her father and the neighbor discuss it. How the Northern soldiers climbed a high hill west of Gettysburg with a schoolhouse on it, and how early one morning the Northern general climbed the clock tower of the schoolhouse and saw the roads leading into Gettysburg filled with long columns of Southern soldiers, while more were coming from other directions. How the Northern soldiers strung their men and guns along the top of the hill, and how it surprised the Southern soldiers to learn there were many more men than they once thought. Then, how the Northern soldiers were slowly driven back through Gettysburg to a hill called Cemetery Ridge. And on the second day of the battle more Northern troops arrived, and when a Northern officer noticed a hill that neither side had taken, the Northern soldiers started placing their guns on this hill, soon to see the Southern soldiers coming up from the other side of the hill. When both sides had used up all their ammunition, how they started fighting with knives and even stones. Then, with the arrival of more Northern soldiers, how "our men" were driven back.

   Talitha often interrupted to ask, "Why was that man carrying a white flag?" Then at last Jane related the surrender of Lee to Grant, how Lee reached the courthouse to find the Northern soldiers across the road. There being many soldiers and cannons and Lee knowing he was trapped, he sent a messenger to Grant carrying a white flag. The two men talked a few minutes and Grant wrote the terms of surrender and Lee signed them, giving each man back his mule if he had one, Then Jane said, "There was no more war." "Jane," Talitha said, "tell me about the white flag again." Jane again explained the purpose of the white flag until she was positive Talitha understood.

   To Talitha it was only another fairy tale, but one she was always to remember.

   It was a Saturday morning and Uncle Teb had walked to the back of the field to inspect a stand of growing cotton. On returning to the house he came back by a short cut. After climbing several cross fences he came to a point on the Gallion. There in a tall tree were a number of jay birds chattering and flittering from limb to limb. As Uncle Teb stopped to watch the birds he heard human voices somewhere near. On investigating he saw Talitha and John a short distance downstream. They were sitting on a log at the edge of the water. Talitha was holding a live frog and she and John were examining it thoroughly. They were so interested they failed to see Uncle Teb until they heard him call, "Children, come here." Quickly they made their way to him. "Look at all those jay birds," he said, pointing to the tree where they were still chattering. "You know," he continued, "today is Saturday and they are gathering, for they all go to hell this afternoon." Talitha, puzzled by the word "hell," asked, "Are they going to the bad place?" "Yes, honey," Uncle Teb told her, "The jay birds spend each Sunday in hell, but they will be back Monday morning."

   The following Sunday Talitha and John roamed up and down the Gallion watching each bird as it flew from tree to tree, hoping to find a jay bird. Sure enough, not a jay bird could they see or hear. Monday morning Talitha and John were on the Gallion earlier than usual, again looking for the jay birds. Jay birds could be seen and heard here, there and everywhere. "Look, Brother John," she said, and she pointed to a jay bird on a fence. Then another flew down from a tree to join him, and in their saucy manner they could be heard in the distance. "Uncle Teb said they would come back this morning," Talitha said.

   When the first cotton chopping day arrived at the Sammons home all the children, especially Talitha, were excited, chiefly for the fact that this was to be Talitha's first experience in the field. Talitha recalled what fun it had been as she and John played up and down the cotton rows when her father, mother and older children were at work in the field, and naturally she associated this day as another day of fun. Uncle Teb had placed a hoe for each chopper at the kitchen door, including one for himself. Some hoes had new handles and all had sharpened edges. As they gathered there,  each to take his pick of the hoes, Talitha was given first choice. She picked one with a new handle. John was too young to join the list as a chopper, but Mrs. Sammons permitted him to go along, knowing that Talitha would look after him. Mrs. Sammons, remaining home to be near the sickbed of her husband, had spoken to Uncle Teb to keep a watchful eye on Talitha, making sure she didn't cut down the cotton.

   Once in the field, Uncle Teb started Talitha on a row next to his so that he might be able to counsel her. Although Uncle Teb had anticipated no trouble, he was soon to learn that keeping Talitha at work was a job in itself, and carrying her row along with his was another task.

   Talitha and John noted every bird that chanced to fly their way, and they wanted to save every bug and worm they saw, declaring it was good fish bait. When Uncle Teb saw the other choppers were leaving them far behind, he attempted to hurry Talitha along, "Come, come, honey," he said, "Let's catch up with the others." But Talitha, standing on her hoe, wasn't the least bit concerned. As Talitha, at play with John, was lagging farther and farther behind, Uncle Teb said, "Come honey, get to your chopping;   this being your first day, it will please your mother to know you chopped a good row. Won't you do this for Uncle Teb?" Talitha replied, "Uncle Teb, let's quit, you are too old to chop cotton. How old are you, Uncle Teb?" "Too old to count the years, honey," Uncle Teb said, be added, "Come, come now, both the old and young need to learn to work and like it."

   Through the next few weeks of chopping Uncle Teb tried in various ways to interest Talitha in the field, but seemed to make no progress. One day he coaxed Talitha down a cotton row, and the three had finally reached the end, when John picked up a clump of trash wood, and from beneath the clump came dozens of crickets, hopping here and there. Talitha quickly dropped her hoe to help John, who was trying to catch each and every cricket, declaring there was no better fish bait. "Don't harm the little crickets, children, they are jumping to London. Uncle Teb said. "What are they going to London for?" asked Talitha. "To view the Queen in her carriage," he said. Talitha wasn't sure she knew what Uncle Teb meant but she had come to believe what he said was true.

   In early September of 1865 Mr. Sammons, after months of illness, was gaining some strength and showing signs of improvement. One morning he walked with Uncle Teb to a lower field, a short distance, to inspect a plot of cotton. This was his first chance to view this cotton which would soon be ready for picking. It was a bountiful crop, as Uncle Teb had told him. Giving Uncle Teb all the credit for this, Mr. Sammons said, "I don't believe I have ever seen a better crop, and if I continue to improve I'll be giving you a race picking this good cotton." But Mr. Sammons was not to pick a boll. Only a few days later he was suddenly stricken and died. He left his widow with eight children, the youngest, Tucker, a baby in arms.

   After the death of Mr. Sammons, Uncle Teb stayed on at the homestead to fulfill his contract and assist Mrs. Sammons in selling the cotton. When all the crops were harvested and the cotton situation well in hand, Uncle Teb began to make plans to be on his way. He discussed the matter with Mrs. Sammons, and having set a day for his departure, Mrs. Sammons promised to have his clothes ready in due time, planning to patch and launder if need be. Mrs. Sammons had not told Talitha and John of Uncle Teb's intentions to leave and the day of his departure came as a complete surprise to them.

   The morning of Uncle Teb's departure Talitha and John and walked up and down the Gallion with him in search of a forked stick, one that could be carried on his shoulder, from which he planned to hang his bundle of clothing. Talitha and John, excited over the search for a stick, had not thought to ask Uncle Teb for what purpose he wanted it. Later that morning when their mother and children gathered around Uncle Teb to say good-bye, Talitha and John knew for the first time that he was leaving. Talitha asked over and over, "Where are you going, Uncle Teb? Are you going to see your sweetheart in Old Ireland? Are you, Uncle Teb, are you?" Finally Uncle Teb, putting his arms around her and drawing her nearer, said, "No, no, honey." As the conversation of the grown-ups continued, Talitha kept interrupting with, "If you are not going to Old Ireland, Uncle Teb, where are you going? Tell me, Uncle Teb, tell me." Just a-wandering, honey, just a-wandering," Uncle Teb would say.

   Mrs. Sammons permitted Talitha and John to accompany Uncle Teb to the end of the lane, As the three slowly walked together, Talitha said, "When are you coming back, Uncle Teb? Come back Sunday, you know we always roast peanuts then." Uncle Teb,  wanting to avoid Talitha's questions, kept John engaged in conversation concerning the fattening pigs in the pen which John had the task of feeding.

   Pausing at the end of the lane to say good-bye, Uncle Teb fumbled in his pockets to find two buckeyes he had picked on the Gallion that morning, believing it to be a symbol of good luck if given to one at parting. He gave Talitha and John each a buckeye and said, "Keep these, children, Uncle Teb hopes they will bring you lots of good luck." Just then a yellow butterfly flitted by. "See the yellow butterfly?"

Uncle Teb said. "He flies alone, bringing you a message from the fairy godmother. She will kiss you tonight while you sleep and your dreams will come true." Then, patting them on the head, he said, "Hurry home to your mother." He turned to survey the broad open road that ran north and south. He took the left-hand road and, without once looking back, he was southward bound. Softly, in the morning breeze, could be heard the familiar ballad:

When my lassie's smiles are meant for me,
I know what's in her heart.
I'll wed her in Old Ireland,
And there we'll never part.

     Talitha, treading down the lane hand in hand with John, looked over her shoulder for a last glimpse of Uncle Teb, but the undergrowth on the rail fence hid him from view. Yes, Uncle Teb was gone, from whence he came, and where he went the Sammonses never knew. No one but Talitha had bothered to ask him. As they were trekking the road, squirting mud between their toes, Talitha said, "Brother John, what are you going to dream about tonight?" 


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Charlotte Curlee Ramsey

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