The Coming of the Magi by Steve Batson
She smoothed down the little girl's hair in the firelight. The sleet hit the roof of
the cabin and she sat down in the old rocking chair and rocked. Poor . . . poor Christmas,
she looked at the sad little shuck dolls in the hands of the little girls. Well, least
they had a good meal fore she told the story and they sang and prayed. Soon as she felt
like she could, she would go over and get what was left of the dumplings and rabbit.
Cornmeal dumplings and rabbit . . . she thanked God for putting that little animal in her
gum and thanked God for Old Man West.
He had walked all the way up the mountain . . . said he was looking around his house
and founded five pounds of meal and some beans and thought she might could use it. Said he
was sorry it was all he had and he was sorry to hear about Sara and Ellis and Hez. He
asked about Tol but she hadn't seen him since afore Thanksgiving. She had gone out to the
woods and looked in the stump . . . pulled up the wooden box and got half of all the bacon
that was left and give it to Mr. West. So many of his folks gone too. She was so tired and
so hungry but she just couldn't move.
The knock came on the door and she started, the bar was down and the windows was
shuttered. The three little girls jumped up quietly from by the fire, the oldest took the
other two and went quickly and quietly up to the loft of the cabin. The biggest girl got
down the shotgun and opened the trap. She hid the other two in the corner and she waited.
In her youth she knew much and had seen much. She could kill whoever stood behind that
door if it came to that. She had done it before and would do it again.
Her Ma went to the door and said, "Who comes this late hour on this day."
A weak voice answered, "I do and I wish nothing more than some food and
The little girl cocked back both hammers on the shotgun. This was a voice like no other
she had ever heard. She knew the words or some of them but they were slick and fast and
she knew this was no man of the mountains. It was a man and a stranger and that was a
dangerous thing. She heard her Ma say that she had no food for her children and little
shelter, she heard her say to the man . . . pass on that she had no truck with strangers
and she didn't wish to kill him.
The voice outside said that he could not pass on as he had two friends and one of them
would die without shelter. Then he said it, she heard it clear, "Miss, I am a
stranger in a strange land, a widow's son and I am with two of my kind; one who will
surely die if you do not help. Is there no person that you know who is lost . . . that you
would wish to be given the help that I seek." Her Ma looked up and gave her the sign.
Ma was going to let him in and from her place in the shadows she could watch. She would
kill him if it went bad.
The man came through the door. He looked a sad sight. He was thin but the girl had never seen a fat person so that meant nothing to her. It was something else . . . it was in his eyes . . . his eyes looked like Tol's eyes did the last time she had seen him. The stranger had a long beard and long hair but that was nothing new to her. His pants and shirt was wore out but he wore boots . . . had
been good boots. Soldier she thought and that was bad. No strange soldier ever brought
anything good to the mountains. He and her Ma talked quietly and the soldier went outside
and brought in two more like him. One was near dead but not shot that she could see.
The first soldier laid the sick one by the fire . . . they was all chilled . . . froze
up. Ma went over and got the little wooden bowls and filled them up with the dumplings and
rabbit. The first soldier put his bowl on the hearth and took to getting something in the
sick one. The third one held the sick ones head up. She watched as they fed him and laid
him out on the pallet she had been on by the fire. Something strange . . . the other two
"Miss, I wish to thank you. I would never have allowed my wife to do what you just
did," he said. "I need to tell you about us, we owe you that. I am a Yankee
officer . . . been in a prison in a place below Columbia, these are two of my men and we
are trying to get through the mountains to our western armies. We have been six days
without food and my man has croup or something far worse. I believe it would go hard on
you if we are caught here and I expect that you will feel the need to turn us in at first
light. We have come as far as we can with him that sick and I was obligated to see that he
ate . . . "
She listened in taciturn silence.
"Miss, he started again, I going to have to sleep soon and my men are good men and
I don't want them killed. I believe that I would feel better if whoever is up in that loft
would come down or I knew something about your politics. You have not spoken since we came
in and I . . ."
She exploded, "Well Mr. Yankee Officer, I'll tell you something about my politics
so you can lay your head down on my hearth and sleep with a belly full of my food while I
go hungry. My husband is dead on the coast of the flux, got two nephews, like sons to me .
. . dead cross that mountain som'ers, or so say J.D. Cooper. My son was shot with Bobby
Lee and I begged him to come home and plow and he done it. They caught him and said they
was going to hang him fer it. Far as I know, he is across the mountain wearing the blue
trying to steal something so my young'uns can eat. He probably dead too. He got a brother
in some place called Point Lookout and another we ain't heard from since 63. Now all that
is what you expect to hear, but I'm goin' to tell you what you don't expect . . . I would
walk sixty mile to spit in John C. Calhoun's face and hundred to wet on his grave. My
husband was a Union man fore he died of flux. We air all Union people . . . would still be
in the Union and would never have lifted a hand against it had you folk not decided to
force us to stay. It's simple to me. If my husband is mean to me . . . I leave him and he
ain't got no right to come after me and put a gun to my head to bring me back. The only
thing I hates more than Greenville politics is Columbia politics and the only thing I
hates more than Columbia politics is Washington politics. We got Outliars in the cove
waiting to rob us . . . Confeds calling us traitors and trying to arrest us and everyday
they say that demon Stoneman gonna ride over the mountains and kill us.
I let you in for two reasons: one, I wanted a lay my eyes on some creature in God's
earth that I can take pity on and two I figure of all the man folk missing hereabouts, One
of 'em might be like you or your friend there on the hearth. I hope some Yankee woman will
do the same for him, so you lay down and go to sleep. No harm will come your way from any
person under this roof."
She was spent and she went over and picked up the little shuck dolls and went to the
loft steps and up. She took the shotgun from the child and laid the young'uns out on the
old quilts in the cabin loft. She looked back down and saw the officer looking at the
fire. God deliver me I hate 'em all . . . everyone an 'em. Looks like none of them will
quit til' nothing is left.
The men stayed several days. She sent the sign up to the cove and one who she knew came out. Yes, they could get them across the mountains and into Tennessee and no harm would come to them if they carried the sign and if they was kin like she said they was. She nursed the sick one as best she could. She used up all she had on them, except a bit of salt and some meal. The confeds came and she hid them. It early January and the snow was deep before they could travel. She spoke to them not at all during that time but she watched as the officer would handle the little shuck dolls and she wondered why it was so important to him.
Finally she gave him the little cross she had made from laurel, she told him to say he
was kin of Nancy Brookshire . . . that he had married her sister who run away. Then she
asked for her price. "Show that sign to no man, unless you come in harm's way in the
mountains." She said to him. "They will meet you at the spring in the morning
an' take you over but I want something from you."
She went to the hearth and moved a large stone, from under it she took out the box. In
it was nothing but an ink well, a quill, and a few ragged sheets of old wall paper.
"I wants a letter signed by you that says I is a loyal Union woman. I wants something
to show those devils with Stoneman if'n he or his demons come howling round my
He took the cork from the ink well and wrote:
Above Greenville, South Carolina,
To whom it may concern,
Nancy Brookshire, is a loyal woman, she has rendered great service to me and I would
consider it most important that she, her property, and her family remain unmolested by any
man that would find himself in possession of this letter. Further, I would hope that
should this letter come into the possession of any true Union man that he would choose to
serve her every need. She has provided great service to this your humble servant, a
stranger in a strange land.
John Mason Holmes
General Benjamin Butler
He handed the letter to her and she inspected it. She folded it once and put it back in
the box and replaced the hearth stone. Carefully she raked ashes from the fire into the
cracks around the clay mortar until it looked like an eternal and immobile part of the
He looked at her and said, "Miss, I have said on many occasions that no true lady
could be found south of Boston, but I was wrong. I regret those occasions and shall regret
them until I die. My friends and I are eternally grateful and I hope in the future that it
will be my honor to repay your service to me. Should I die today, know that I have seen no
greater angel or saint on this earthly
Nancy Brookshire said nothing and she wondered what it meant. He turned and departed to join his friends and headed across the mountain. Nancy Brookshire thought that he was a strange man and must be from a very different world. She wondered what it must be like in that world and would think for many years to come that she should have talked to him and truly known him. She was right about one thing above all others, she would never see another man like him in all her long life
About the Author - Steve Batson
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