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Gaston’s Last Run
A historical short story by
June is hot and still. Since the news of the surrender in April an’ the last fight of the Nor’ Ca’lina Cherokee Confed’rates in early May, there’s been not much reason t’git up. No one comes down th’ road much. Far up the line I can see a soldier in blue standin’ by the track but there’s no train comin’ and not a sign of Uncle Gaston. So, here I sit, starin’ at the ol’ rail line and wishin’ I’d a’kept my big mouth shut! If Uncle Gaston gits wind o’me, he’ll skin me proper an’ I guess I deserve it, too. Now it’s June an’ the heat’s a’comin’ on. I should be happy th’ fightin’s over and done, but all I can think of is Uncle Gaston and that train he used t’ bring and how he’d still be runnin’ if i’t’weren’t fer me. I’m as low as gully dirt and as miserable as a slug in it. It all looked jes’ fine in th’ early days, when th’ Wilmington an’ Weldon Railroad ran by our house. Ma’s brother, Gaston, was the engineer an’ he called his rig th’ ‘Blue-Steel Throbber.’ Gaston was said to have a wife in Wilmington and a sidegal t’walk out with at every take-on-wood stop along the track. Gaston had a funny thing to say ready, like how it’s agin the
law to drink milk on a train in th’ state of Nor’ Ca’lina an’ how he’d put a bean in his shoe to keep him awake on a long trip. I’d put an ear to th’ rail to tell if he was a’comin’ an’ I could usually tell how long it’d take him to git here. Then here he’d come! I’d pop off the porch an’ run ‘cross the field to wave at Uncle Gaston as he’d pull ‘er around the curve. He slowed some so he’d make it smooth. Those days he chunk stuff out at us, me and Tad, my little brother; Sara and May-Belle Wheeler from acrost the road and Calvin from just down a ways. Calvin’s black, but Uncle Gaston don’t care; he’d throw chalk an’ apples an’ now an’ then a newspaper all rolled up. We all got some, even Calvin an’ that’s jest fine. At fust the war didn’t have much notice, ‘cept fer the men-folk signin’ up down in Wilmington and goin’ off t’fight in Virginia. Some stayed to man up Fort Fisher and Fort Anderson and the line of works to keep the Federals from comin’ up the Cape Fear River. I remember the time Uncle Gaston chunked out a newspaper all wrapped up in a railroad man’s red kerchief. Me bein’ the oldest, I set down an’ read t’others how the Gov’nor John W. Ellis “appointed a board of off’cers to select a uniform for Nor’ Ca’lina’s volunteer an’ state troops.” The uniform was issued on May 27, 1861 an’ it was a straight sack coat of gray cloth wit’ six buttons an’ a strip of cloth on each shoulder to tell what part of th’ army they was with; black for th’ Infantry, red for Artillery an’ yellow for Calvery. That was back when you could still git a bushel of corn fer a dollar and a dime, and sugah for six-bits. Flour, my ma tol’ me, was only $18 a barrel. We had bread at every meal back when th’ set-to started up. There was some who took to the Blue and’ went oft to fight for the Federals. Their families had it tough, with no friends to help ‘em, as most were on th’ Confed’rate side and hopin’ t’make a nation of ourselves. Heck, at first it looked like it would only take a few months to make th’ point an’ the boys’d come back an’ we’d all have barbecue an’ dance ‘round a big ol’ fire t’celebrate our new country. ‘Course, that was before th’ fall of Charleston in 1863. Th’ Federal blockade of th’ coast looked like it would end th’ war ‘cept for th’ Blockade Runners an’ Uncle Gaston with his train. I guess I was feelin’ pretty good about him the day th’ feller come down the road with a pocket full o’ licorice an’ sassafras candy.
“Boy,” he says t’me, “You look like a smart ‘un. Bet you got all the licorice and sassafras you want even in these lean times.” I eyed them candies stickin’ outen his pockets an’ my mouth took up t’waterin’. “No suh,” I says, “We’re low on jest about evahthing. My mama’s took to boilin okra fer coffee and spinnin’ her own dresses. She says I ain’t ‘lowed t’wear leather shoes ‘cept on Sunday. I don’t mind – I’d druther go bar’foot. But we do run short of store-boughts of late.” “I can see that, with the war and the blockade and all. Why up in Raleigh, corn is going for $30 a bushel; sugar is that much for a pound and a barrel of flour can fetch $500 if you got it.” My eyes went wide as pinwheels an’ I let out a loud whistle. I ain’t never seen $100, much less five of ‘em. I wondered what form of work this stranger were up to, what with everyone off to war or th’ salt works out on the coast. Me an’ th’ other boys had to scrape th’ smokehouse floors fer salt. “Ain’t you gone off to th’ war with th’ rest?” I said, liftin’ my head, so he’d know I was a smart ‘un. “Well, you’re sharp as briar! Yup, I’m up here studyin’ – studyin’ for when the Confederacy establishes itself and we need to put every port to working just like Wilmington.” He cocked his head at me, one eye squintin’ in the sun. My eyes was fixed on those candies practically fallin’ out of his coat pocket. My mouth was startin’ t’water somethin’ fierce. Th’ feller noticed it. “You’re probably wondering why I am carrying so much licorice and sassafras,” he said, turning away as if to notice the breeze, as if he didn’t care if I answered or not. “I mighta,” I said, diggin’ my toe into the soft dirt at the edge of the rut in the road. I didn’t want t’seem too eager, either. “Well, it’s rewards,” he said, turnin’ his head to catch the breeze as it brushed by. “Rewards for a smart boy who might know a thing or two. Might that be you?” He turned to me with a purpose now. “It might be,” I said, “I know a thing ‘r two, bein’ as my uncle runs the railroad that’s been called ‘The Lifeline of the Confederacy’ an’ he tells me ev’ything.” “Really? And do you know about the Blockade that’s going on at the coast? Do you know the great feats of daring that ‘our boys’ are performing almost daily to get around the Union Blockade?” His eyes were big now and right on me. His eyebrows went way up on his head.
“Yes, suh, I do. I know that th’ Federal wooden boats under sail’re no match fer our faster wheeled steamers with a shallow draft an’ they’re comin’ out with two new’uns made of metal an’ pretty nigh unsinkable.” “Well, that’s good for a licorice stick,” says the man and he pops a long, black stick of sweet licorice out of his pocket and into my hand. Time stood still just then an’ the flies seemed to hang in the air. I looked ‘round sly-like to see if Tad ’r Sara ‘r May-Belle ‘r Calvin were sneakin’ up from behind, but they weren’t there. I turned back to the man and squeeked out a “Thankee!” ‘fore I shoved that licorice into my mouth. “So you know about those iron ships, do you? They must carry a lot of freight.” “You don’t know nuthin’,” I said, between bites, “they’re fightin’ ships. The Blockade Runners don’t go armed. If they was caught, they’d be hanged as pirates, so they don’t carry guns. The Federals don’t like t’sink ’em anyway on account o’ they get a reward for the cargo. But the Albermarle and the Neuse don’t carry much cargo, they’re fightin’ ships.” “Sounds like you prefer them.” “I’d go and join ’em if Ma’d let me, but she won’t. There’s boys my age totin’ powder bags aboard the Albemarle. My frien’ Benjamin Gray is one and he’s a black boy just a year older’n me.” “So the Blockade isn’t for you,” said the stranger, pulling another stick of licorice from his pocket. “Could be, those paddle-wheel steamers are mighty fast and slip right through, though now and then one’ll git stuck on a sand bar and they have t’ pull the stores off with wagons from th’shore. The Federals come up from the water with boats to pull it off and take it, but by the time they gits there, the stores are gone.” “And you know where they go, don’t you,” the man’s eyes went all narrow and the heat got thicker, though it was comin’ on evenin’ and suppose t’ be gittin’ cooler. “Don’t you?” I says, lookin’ more at the licorice than him. “Well, sure I do. I know just about everything about the Blockade, I helped set up the whole Confed’rate end of the ‘Lifeline’, I just wondered if you really knew or if you were just pretending. I bet a stick of this sassafras that you don’t know.” He held out a stick of sassafras candy so brown that if he were to drop it in the road, it’d be lost in the ruts an’ never found. “I do so! They load it onto the railroad and my Uncle Gaston rides it out of Wilmington and right by our farm to
supply the Confed’racy and that’s why we’ll win ‘cause the Federals can’t stop us with a Blockade.” The stranger smiled and handed me the stick of sassafras. “Well, you do know what you’re talkin’ about after all, don’t you, boy. And what do you think is the fastest Blockade Runner there is?” “That’s easy! ‘The Advance’, it’s the fastest thing on the water and it’ll outrun everything the Union Navy has afloat.” “Well, don’t that beat all! And all those supplies come right up by your farm on that railroad?” “Yup! Gov’nor Vance said that the Blockade Runn’rs bringin’ supplies from other countries is a complete success.” “And did you know, boy,” suddenly, the stranger got real dark an’ mean, he put his face down right next to mine an’ made his voice real quiet, “that General George B. McClellan said that much would be gained by ‘the eventual destruction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.’ Did you know that, boy?” I stood there shakin’, though it was powerful hot, with sassafras runnin’ down the corner of my mouth. The stranger stood up and gave a smile, though I know he didn’t think anything much was funny. “I’ll just keep this last piece for myself, because I think I’m just a bit smarter than you. Goodbye, boy,” and he walked on down the road, a sort of a jump in his step. I felt a hole in my stomach. It was like the whole world was lookin’ at me and thinkin’ how I was not very smart. Each day I would go out an’ stand by the tracks all alone an’ look for Uncle Gaston, but he only came by three more times. One time he come ‘round, he threw a paper at me and waved, just like he didn’t know anything about what I done. The paper told of how the Advance was captured. The paper called it “the beginning of the end.” The next time he came by he waved at me but he looked sad and the train was slow and there were cars missin’. The third time he didn’t wave, didn’t slow and didn’t chunk nothin’ out. He went by lickity-split, bent fer sundown an’ payday. Uncle Gaston didn’t come by no more. No one did. General Lee surrendered the following April, on the ninth. General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered on April 26 and the Cherokee Confed’rates on May 9 in Waynesville, up in Haywood County. It was over. So now there’s just me an’ ma, Tad and the girls over across the road. Even Calvin is gone, gone up north with his
folks. The railroad don’t run an’ the Blockade Runners ‘re tied up in port. I feel as empty as an ol’ sack. The war is over and the Confed’racy is gone. Ma says the money’s no good an’ most of the men ain’t comin’ home. An’ it’s all my fault. I’m low as gully dirt and that’s a fact. If I’da kept my mouth shut I’da never got licorice but I’d still have Uncle Gaston wavin’ at me from th’ cab o’ his train.
About the author: Jon Batson is an accomplished songwriter turned author. His prize winning story Powder Monkey of Cape Fear and fastpaced action-adventure, The Rands Conspiracy are available at Lulu.com. “Gaston’s Last Run” is the first place winner of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society annual short story contest for 2006. As a boy Jon spent many summers in Wilmington, waving to the engineer as the train chugged by. A generation earlier it was his great uncle, Gaston Thompson, who would throw gifts from the train to his nieces and nephews running along beside the track. Jon added his boyhood memories and family tales to his research of the local history in the writing of this story.
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