Happy Juneteenth StoryTime

©  L.E. McCullough 1996


“No Camel, Sirhan” &
Other Stories You Don’t Want to Hear
About People You’d Rather Not See

– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

*     *     *      *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *

AS SHE DID EACH DAY that last summer, Esther Lyons spent the hours from sunup to sundown on her front porch reading and re-reading the latest letter from her son, away in the Army these past six months. She rocked slowly back and forth, her frail, bony fingers handling each tattered page as if it were made of delicate gold leaf.

“Jimmy will be so pleased when he sees how well the crops are doing,” she whispered, gazing at the corn ripening in the late September twilight, their stalks throwing thin, wavy shadows across the dirt road leading to town. “Oh, but he will have plenty of work getting in the harvest. Mercy! What is that?”

A noise from over the hill startled her, and she peered anxiously into the setting sun. “A bugle? Why, the war must be over! Jimmy is coming home! Oh, that glorious, glorious bugle!”

Mrs. Morton, the minister’s wife, squeezed the horn of her husband’s new 1899 Duryea steamer at the scrawny brown-and-white dog meandering across the road. She rolled down the hill and coasted to a stop in front of a green, two-story wood-frame house built before the Civil War, when New Rome was still a day’s carriage trip from the state capital at Columbus.

The house, which had once stood at the center of a tidy fifty-acre farm, was now surrounded by an unruly patch of one-story clapboard-and-stucco cottages strung out along the asphalt highway like sleeping hobos.

“You see, Miss Krieger,” Mrs. Morton explained to the nurse sitting beside her, “when Mrs. Lyons’ niece passed away this year, there were no additional living relatives. My husband and I became concerned, Mrs. Lyons just turned seventy-four. We got to thinking it might be for the best if she was placed at the county rest home.”

“Is she ill?” asked Miss Krieger.

Mrs. Morton hesitated. “You are the expert. We will abide by your recommendation.”

Miss Krieger paused at the edge of the porch, regarding the tiny woman in the large rocking chair, a heavy woolen shawl cloaked around her shoulders, a frayed night bonnet tied around her silver hair. Mrs. Lyons seemed not to notice her presence, but stared into the distance, humming a haunting melody Miss Kriger had heard somewhere before, as a child perhaps. . . I gaze oer the hill where he waved his last adieu. . .

Miss Krieger coughed politely. “Mrs. Lyons? I am a friend of Reverend Morton and his wife.”

The old woman slowly turned her head, as if awakening from a dream, to face her visitor. “Is it time to go to church? I am not rightly dressed.” Her voice was raspy and small, her skin as transparent as the papers she clutched in her lap.

“No, ma’am,” replied the nurse. “It is Thursday, not Sunday.”

“My word! Every now and then time gets away on me.” Mrs. Lyons chuckled softly and reached for the teacup and saucer on the railing. “Would you care for some — oh my!”

Her wrist bent, and both cup and saucer slid from her grasp, crashing to the boards. Miss Krieger retrieved them. “The cup handle is badly chipped,” she said.

“Never you mind, young lady. When my son Jimmy gets back, he will mend it. Jimmy will put everything back in good order.”

“I did not know you have a son, Mrs. Lyons.”

“Of course I have a son! He has been away fighting in the war.”

“With Colonel Roosevelt in Cuba?”

“Cuba? Goodness no, he is with General Grant. . . in Tennessee!”

Miss Krieger raised her eyebrows and was about to reply, but the words caught in her throat as the old woman’s trembling hands raised the papers. “Look here. He writes me every week.”

Miss Krieger took the crumpled papers, smoothing them as she strained to decipher the smeared, yellowing parchment. A telegram. . . Secretary of War, Washington, D.C. . . . Private James G. Lyons, 53rd Ohio Infantry cited for bravery at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6th, 1862. . . a newspaper clipping. . . “one of Franklin County’s bravest recruits, young Jim Lyons, stood his ground at the bloody Hornet’s Nest against a horde of Rebels thicker than fleas on a dog’s back”. . . and a torn sepia photograph of a thin, dark-haired youth in a Union infantry uniform, cap cocked jauntily over his brow and a musket propped against his shoulder as if he had just returned from a squirrel hunt. . . My brave lad sleeps in his faded coat of blue. . .

Mrs. Lyons was humming the familiar melody again, and Miss Krieger placed the papers in the old woman’s lap. “Is your son coming home soon?” she asked.

“Why, any time now. Did you not hear the bugles?”

“Bugles, Mrs. Lyons? Where?”

“Just over the hill yonder before you came up. The war is over! Long live President Lincoln!” A smile spread across her wrinkled cheeks, and joyous tears welled in her eyes. “Thank goodness my Jimmy has come home! I can see him at the head of the regiment. . . oh, Jimmy, welcome back!”

Miss Krieger quietly stepped off the porch and hurried to the road. “I will have the doctor make arrangements,” she said as Mrs. Morton put the automobile into gear and turned on the head lamps for the drive back into town. Above the engine’s rattle, Miss Krieger heard the sound of humming. . . I’ll find you and know you among the good and true, when a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue. . .

Miss Krieger had a sudden urge to turn and look back at the farm house.

Staring into the deepening twilight, she glimpsed movement on the porch — a tall figure rising from the encroaching darkness to stand over the old woman slumped in the rocking chair.

Slender, with a military cap slanted over the eyes and a musket cradled loosely in an elbow, it bore the formal aspect of a man while moving with the fluid, tentative gestures of compassionate youth.

Miss Krieger blinked and started to call out, but her voice caught in her throat. As the house disappeared around the curve in a quick shimmer of shadow, she thought she saw the old woman’s shoulders and head sink peacefully into the heavy woolen shawl.

“She will be more comfortable with someone to take care of her,” remarked Mrs. Morton.

Miss Krieger nodded. “I believe you are right,” she said, pulling her coat close to ward off a sudden chill.


To hear “The Faded Coat of Blue” as performed by Jay Ungar & Molly Mason from their CIVIL WAR CLASSICS album: http://payplay.fm/jayandmolly91/mp3/13

Words & Music by J.H. McNaughton, 1865

My brave lad sleeps in his faded coat of blue
In a lonely grave unknown lies the heart that beats so true
He sank faint and hungry among the famished
And they laid him sad and lonely within his nameless grave

No more the bugle calls the weary one
Rest, noble spirit in thy grave unknown
I’ll find you and know you among the good and true
When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

He cried, “Give me water and just a little crumb
And my mother she will bless you for all the years to come
Please tell my sweet sister so gentle, good and true
That I’ll meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue”

No more the bugle calls the weary one
Rest, noble spirit in thy grave unknown
I’ll find you and know you among the good and true
When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

Long, long years have passed and though he comes no more
Yet my heart will startling beat with each footfall at my door
I gaze oer the hill where he waved his last adieu
But no gallant lad I see in his faded coat of blue

No more the bugle calls the weary one
Rest, noble spirit in thy grave unknown
I’ll find you and know you among the good and true
When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

For a history of Juneteenth, see the new documentary produced by historian Michael Emery on Austin, Texas KLRU-TV: http://www.klru.org/juneteenth/

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