Chance Hooper slowly limped his way through the neglected pasture toward the old log cabin he had grown up in.
The limp, a souvenir gift he received at Gettysburg when a Northerner’s ball plowed into his leg, was all he had to show for the two and a half years of fighting for the South… that and a head full of memories, some good, most bad. The war ended but his leg could have cared less. It healed no faster when it was announced the war was over. Still, it was better than being dead like his twin brother Micah.
The twins had joined the Confederate army together believing at the time that the war would be a few rowdy skirmishes at best. Afterward it was assumed, the politicians would resolve the issue with both the North and the South having to give and take on the issues until a deal was made. Sadly it took many thousands of lives to resolve the differences that the politicians could not settle peaceably over a table.
Up ahead on a small rise at the end of the field sat the log home Chance, Micah and his father had built years before the war. Chance and Micah were just boys then but in the 1850’s, a man was judged by other criteria than just his age. Each log was cut, shaved and carefully notched by hand. A small wood fired steam sawmill in one of the open sided sheds had cut the logs into planks to be made into floorboards, window frames and doors. The single stone fireplace at one time supplied the only source of fire for cooking and keeping the winters cold out. Years Later, a steel chimney pipe poked its way through the side of the house and upward past the roof. Inside, the pipe attached itself to a new cast iron cook stove in the large kitchen.
Continuing his walk forward, the peak of the cabins roof slowly exposed itself. The closer he got, the more the cabin exposed itself. Finally fully presented, Chance saw for the first time the full extent of the damage done to his home resulting from his abstinence during the war years.
Stepping up onto the front door stoop, Chance pushed against the weathered door. It swung in on noisy hinges revealing a surprisingly empty house. Making his way slowly throughout, he realized the house had been methodically stripped of all its furnishings. Not a knick knack, pot or curtain remained. Where once the cook stove had stood in the large kitchen now only a gaping stove pipe hole in the wall remained. Anger was not the first emotion he felt, hopelessness was. Anger came afterward. Stomping from the house he headed directly to where he was sure he’d find the answer to his question of who stole his parent’s and his property. Double checking the Navy Colt pistol he wore on his hip, he made his way painfully to the road that wound its way through the countryside connecting each farm to its neighbor, he limped to the home of his closest neighbor, that of Bo Spivey.
Pounding on the front door, Chance yelled out, “Spivey! Come on out here, I wanna’ talk to you, you piece a thieving crap!”
The upper window jerked open under protest and a bearded pocked face looked out. “You stop your bangin’ Chance Hooper, I got my sisters babies nappin’ inside. Besides, I ain’t got nothin’ a your’s so get your sorry ass offa’ my property!”
Chance refused to lower his voice and hearing Spivey mention his missing property fed his anger even more.
“I been gone all these years and the first thing you tell me is you ain’t got nothing that belongs to me? That’s a might tellin’ ain’t it Bo? Get down here or I’ll burst down your door and drag your toothless ass outside and kick it raw into the next county! I ain’t playing Bo, get down here or I’m coming in!”
“OK, hold on a minute, an you just stay right there!”
Less than a minute later the door cracked open a few inches and Spivey’s pock marked face peeked through the crack and shouted. “What’s this all about Hooper, I ain’t done nothing wrong. Besides I heard you all got shot an’ died with your brother Micah!”
“Well you heard wrong. We got shot but I sure ain’t dead! Where’s all my stuff now Spivey? There ain’t nobody around here that would have entered my house while I was gone except for your rotted ass!”
“I ain’t took nothin’, now go away!”
Stepping over to the side of the house, Chance looked up at the metal stove pipe haphazardly exiting the side of the house. Pointing to it he yelled, “That there pipe is the pipe from my stove! You got my cook stove inside Spivey? You got your fat assed shit coated undergarments inside my Mama’s missing chest a drawers too?”
“I ain’t took noth..”
Before Bo Spivey could finish his sentence, Chance angrily ran up onto the porch and kicked the door open with his good leg. Spivey was unprepared and the door slammed into the side of his head nearly taking off his right ear.
Grabbing his head, Spivey screamed, “Aiieee! Ma’ ear!”
Spivey fell backwards into the house on the floor while trying to mash his dangling ear back onto his head using his palm of his hand. “Oh my God!”. Spivey cried, “ Damn your soul Hooper, look what you did to my ear!”
Chance paid no attention to the crying man but stepped inside and walked past Spivey as he continued to thrash about on the floor screaming.
Glancing about, he saw many of his parent’s belongings placed about on shelves and even his grandmothers China tea set lay carelessly in an open crate on the floor.
Walking into the kitchen his eyes rested on the wood burning cook stove he and his father had given to his mother on her fortieth birthday.
Seeing his mothers once spotless stove now covered with rancid grease and old food splatters, Chance’s stomach churned. He stomped past Spivey and looking backwards at him shouted.
“I’m getting the Sheriff Spivey, you robbed my place while I went off to war. That’s a hanging offense in this county!”
Chance limped out of the house slamming the door loudly behind him. Partway down the porch walkway, the front door was thrown open and Bo Spivey appeared from in the doorway with an old flintlock rifle that had been hanging over the fireplace mantle.
Turning to face the noise, Chance recognized the Kentucky long rifle as the one his grandfather had given to him years ago before he had passed. Seeing Spivey lift the rifle to his shoulder, he watched in horror as Spivey’s finger began to pull on the trigger.
What Spivey did not know was that the rifle’s barrel had been severely damaged decades before. Chance had been sternly warned that it was never to be charged and fired for the barrel would never hold. It didn’t.
The warning had just begun to leave Chances mouth when Spivey pulled the trigger. A loud boom and a massive white cloud tinged at its edges with a wet red mist exploded where Spivey’s head was just moments before.
Spivey’s headless body stood teetering slightly from side to side, then fell backwards into the room. Chance had seen many men die in battle but it was a scene he never accustomed himself to. Spivey’s death was no different. His bare feet lay at the entrance to the door quivering as if trying to re awaken the headless body. Soon though, the feet gave up trying and came to a stop.
Chance could not believe what he had just witnessed. Not realizing the gun was a relic and never having meant to be used again, Spivey had foolishly loaded it and hung it over his mantle for emergencies.
There was no helping Spivey at this point, he was dead through and through. Chance stood staring at Spivey’s feet when his eyes caught a flicker of light from within the doorway. Shaking himself out of shock, he focused on the flicker of light, it suddenly dawned on Chance that something within the house had been started on fire by the exploding gun.
Running inside the home past Spivey’s body, Chance headed upstairs taking two steps at a time, His leg throbbed terribly but Spivey had said there were babies sleeping and they needed saving.
Throwing open first one door then the other produced no sleeping babies.
“You lying son a bitch! You never had any babies up here.”
It was then Chance realized his only route of escape by using the stairs was now in flames. Opening a window he let himself out onto the porch roof where he jumped painfully onto the ground. Turning to face the doorway again, he saw the flames beginning to consume Spivey’s clothes.
Backing away, he watched in silence as the home quickly became engulfed in the hungry flames. Sadly he realized that all his and his stolen parent’s belongings inside were being destroyed. The intense flames removed all hope in salvaging anything. All he had now were the clothes on his back, his gun and whatever monies he had saved up in his money belt.
Feeling utterly exhausted from the recent events, Chance found a nearby tree stump to sit down on. He watched somberly as within minutes, the flames consumed the Spivey home in its entirety. In one final pyrotechnic display, the burning frame leaned forward and collapsed in a massive explosion of sparks.
His mind wandered back to the day the two wide eyed brothers went marching so naively off to war. Friends and neighbors waved and cheered as the towns young stepped in time through town smartly adorned in their freshly pressed uniforms. Gettysburg ended any soldier’s hoorah bravado. Twenty eight thousand Southern souls left their bodies in that battle. Chance knew the North lost almost as much. When you came from a town of three hundred, twenty eight thousand was incomprehensible.
Taken to a makeshift hospital outside Gettysburg for his leg wound, Chance was told his brother had been killed trying to pull his wounded superior to safety. Both the wounded Captain and his brother had been found afterward with multiple killing wounds. In recognition for his brother’s bravery, Chance was permitted to have Micah’s body interned back home in the family cemetery rather than in one of the mass graves many soldiers would call their last place of rest. A walking wounded soldier from the same town as the brothers hailed from, volunteered to travel back with Micah’s body to make sure he was given a Christian burial.
Chance thought, “At least Ma and Pa didn’t have to deal with Micah’s death.”
The parents had already passed ahead of Micah. Shortly after the brothers marched off to war, they were informed by their Commanding officer that their parents had passed away from a local cholera outbreak. His grieving brother was granted leave time to see them laid to rest properly. Chance grieved but thanked God that being busy learning to be a soldier kept his mind from dwelling too much on it.
Resting on the stump, Chance sat watching the house morph into a large pile of glowing coals. He knew there would be no evidence of Spivey’s remains. With his parent’s belongings gone along with Spivey’s in the fire, Chance felt no great rush to inform the Sheriff of what had happened. For all anyone would know, Spivey simply died in a house fire. In fact, no one was even aware yet the Chance had returned home. Spivey’s death was no fault of his and to tell the story as it happened seemed unnecessary. He decided to just let the Sheriff know that he had discovered the Spivey home burnt down with no sign of Bo Spivey being seen.
A females voice behind him made him jump.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to startle you. My names Mary Jane Ashley, I live up yonder up the hill from this place.”
Chance quickly stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. “I was just sitting here. My name is Chance Hooper. I was raised up the road a bit ways. I guess I should explain what happened here.”
“No, There ain’t no need. I saw and heard most everything. You passed nearby me on your way over here. I was over in the elderberry bushes with my pail pickin’ berries when you came by. I didn’t know you so I stayed hid. My Mama told me never to go near here alone but I wanted them berries growin’ alongside the road for a pie. My Mama had an earlier run in with Bo Spivey some time back. I think that’s what did her in.”
“Did her in?”
“ About two months after we moved here from Tazewell, Mama come home one day shakin and I seen she’d been crying. She had some bruising on her face an’ her prime apron was missin’ but she wouldn’t tell me what had happened. We’d just rented the old Haney place up yonder atop that hill over there. She told me she was headin’ to our nearby neighbors to properly introduce herself to ‘em and try an’ sell some of our eggs. Mama would not tell me but I figured it all out. When I said I was going down here to kill him, she begged me to leave things be.”
“What about your Pa? Didn’t he do anything?”
“Pa went off to fight in the war an’ we ain’t never heard back from him. I don’t think he died, just ran off, that’s all. It didn’t grieve Mama much seein’ as all they ever did was fight anyway. Pa wanted a baby boy an’ when I was born he blamed my Ma. They never had no more kids but me.”
“How did you Mama pass?”
“She just died, that’s all. After her meet up with Spivey, she just sat around a lot. She lost all interest in things. Most times, I’d have to scold her even into eatin’. Then one day she just never woke up.”
“So now it’s just you? How do you live being all alone?”
The thin but pretty blond haired girl with sky blue eyes looked shyly downward at her bare feet. “I get along. I hunt and we had us a good garden goin’ from earlier on. I got a coop with some chickens an’ when I gather a basket full of eggs, I go to town an’ sell them. What about you? I saw what happened here, served Bo Spivey right! I’m glad he’s dead.”
“Do you mind if I sit back down? I know it’s impolite to sit in the presence of a woman but my leg is aching something fierce from jumping off the porch roof.”
“For sure! Sit down, I’ll set next to you.”
Before he could answer, she sat down cross legged in front and facing the stump. She motioned for him to sit down.
Chance lowered himself back onto the stump and looking down at her he could not help to notice the blond girls bare knees and legs. A sudden jolt, not unlike a shock one gets off a wool rug while in stockings struck his lions. Embarrassed, he quickly averted his eyes.
Mary Jane Ashley sat staring up at him smiling unaware of what had just occurred. “How did you hurt your leg?”
Chance explained his army service, the death of his twin brother and how he was wounded. He told her the Surgeon wanted to take off the leg but there were so many limbs he had to cut off from other wounded that when Chance begged him not to, the Surgeon just patched it and told him to leave.
“I bled halfway from Gettysburg to here. It’s healing but it’ll be some time yet before I’m back to being whole.”
They spent the entire afternoon talking. Both felt completely at ease sharing the most intimate secrets with each other. It was as if they had known each other for ages.
At one point, Chance drew back his long brown hair from out of his green eyes and smiled down at the girl staring up at him. “I know this sounds a mite forward Mary Jane, but seein’ your face smiling so pretty and all, I realize there’s more than just sadness in the world. It gives me hope”
Mary Jane beamed wide eyed up at him. “That’s the sweetest thing I ever been told!”
“I think you’re beautiful!”
Shocked at his own forwardness, Chance quickly changed the subject saying, “I suppose it’ll be getting dark before too long. I should be heading home to see if there’s a place to lay my head tonight without the raccoons and snakes investigating me while I sleep. It’s been a heap of time since I spoke to a female, especially one so kind as you. I’ve enjoyed your company immensely and I want to ask if I could stop by your place tomorrow and visit you. I will try to find some fresh meat first though, that is, if you say it’s fine for me to visit you.”
Mary Jane’s face lit up. “I would like that very much Chance but I must ask you, have you eaten anything yet today? We been sittin’ here talkin’ for hours. If you’re hungry I can pick us some vegetables from the garden and make us some soup. Your leg will not heal well unless you eat. Come, let me cook you a meal.”
Saying that, she reached out her hand for him to grab onto after she stood up. “You can lean on me if you are still too sore.” At the touch of her hand he again felt the electric shock he had experienced earlier. Walking side by side back to her place, he put his arm over her shoulder for support as they slowly made their way uphill.
After an hour they neared her house, Mary Jane regretted that their walk would soon end and so would the warm feeling of his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him closer and slipped her arm around his waist. “Chance? Why did your Mama and Dad name you that?”
He looked down at the girl tucked so comfortably under his arm and answered. “My brother’s name was Micah. My Mom said it meant to be “Like God” or Godly like… something along those lines. When she named me I wasn’t doing so well. I wouldn’t suckle at first and I acted like I didn’t want to even taste it. So she spoke and said, ‘C’mon my little fellow, just try it once, if you never take a chance, you’ll never know how good it is for you’.”
“You must have eventually taken to it, you look mighty healthy to me…other than that leg of yours.”
Chuckling, he answered, “Yeah, I guess you could say I took the chance!”
When the two reached her place, neither felt like letting the other go. Mary Jane dropped her head and quietly said, “I guess I better let you walk up the step by yourself now.”
Reluctantly they parted and Chance followed her into the small log home where they sat down at a rickety wooden table with peeling paint. It was far smaller than his own place but it had the wonderful smell of herbs and drying flowers. He commented on it.
“I like flowers a lot.” She said, “They are so pretty. I think of my Mom when I smell them. She would gather up bunches every day while out walking and place them on the table in a jar. She did that even when I was a child. She’d say that even when you ain’t got nothing, you can always have flowers. It was one thing my Daddy and her never argued about. I think secretly, he enjoyed them too.”
The look on Mary Jane’s face gave Chance the impression that she was a million miles away and in a different time of her life. He let her stay that way until she blinked then looked at him with searching eyes.
“Chance, I’ll make us up some soup right quick, but may I ask what your plans are? I mean are you going to try and salvage your parents place and stay there or are you thinking of moving on?”
“To tell the truth, after Spivey’s house burnt down, I figured there was no reason for me to stay around any longer. The farm is over grown and all the equipment we owned looks like it was took and sold off. I’m sure Spivey and his friends were the culprits. They even managed somehow to remove the steam engine that powered our sawmill. How they did that I’ll never figure out since it was so heavy. No, there’s nothing left for me here.”
Looking into Mary Jane’s eyes he continued talking. “Until you stepped out of those elderberry bushes, I was figuring on having left here by now. I had the intention of heading west. A friend of mine in the infantry unit I was in told me if ever I was to get out to Wyoming territory that I’d be more than welcome there. We talked of setting up cattle ranches near each other. I know it was just a dream to keep our minds off the war, but somehow that dream kept me sane. I think I’d like to try that though.”
Mary Jane reached over and put her hand in his. A tear rolled down her cheek and with quivering lips she asked, “It sounds wonderful. If you go, would you take me with you? Please?”
Without saying anything, Chance gathered her onto his lap and held her close to him. Tears ran freely down her face and dripped onto Chances shirt. He could feel the hot drops splashing on his chest and knew for certain that he had fallen in love. Slipping is fingers under her chin, he lifted her head to his face and kissed the tears running down her cheek.
“Mary Jane, before today, I hade no hope I’d never know the type of love my parents held for each other. I was too young when I left for the war to seriously court a girl. Before I had a chance to really grow up I saw things in battle that made my world look dark and terrible. I was alive but I had no hope. You’ve changed that. I want nothing more than for you to come with me. But I need to ask you this, “Could you ever love me? The way a wife loves her husband?”
“Chance, that’s the only reason I want to come with you. On our way back to the house, when we were holding onto each other, I didn’t want you to ever leave… not after I just found you. I have nothing here. My Mom’s grave on a rented property? Do you know I buried her myself up on the hill? I marked it with a stone and dug here grave so deep so no plow will ever disturb her rest. No one knew us, we never even met the owner of this place. My Mom set it up with the help of a friend of a friend. They weren’t even sure the person even really owned it! My Mom figured if the day came and someone told us to get out, then we would without any complaint. We only paid two dollars to rent the place an’ they never came back an’ asked for rent ever again. I could leave here this minute without regrets. But if you leave here and decide I ain’t goin’ with you then my heart will close itself off and break in silence ‘cause I’m in love with you.
“Would Wyoming be a place you could be happy at? I know nothing of it but what was told to me. He said it’s got fields so big you could ride horse back for days without coming to the other side. It’s got forest and cold clean rivers and a sky so big that it makes you feel small.”
“It sounds like heaven to me and who would not be happy in heaven. Will you do like your Mama asked when you wouldn’t suckle? Will you take me and give us two a chance?”
“My Mama sure named me right. Yes, let’s take that chance. Will you marry me Mary Jane Ashley?”
Upon making their way into town, Chance told the Sheriff of his finding the Spivey house recently burnt down. The Sheriff didn’t seem too concerned and he never asked about the whereabouts of Bo Spivey. Instead the Sheriffs only comment was, “Good riddance!” Chance figured Spivey had made no friends and wouldn’t be missed.
Afterward, Chance and Mary Jane stopped at the judges office to take their vows.
Mary Jane Ashley became Mary Jane Hooper and Chance became the husband to the thin but wonderful smiling barefoot girl he met during her berry picking.
They stayed in her small cabin throughout that fall and that winter. When the spring crocuses poked their heads up through the melting Virginia snow, Mary Jane became satisfied that Chances leg was well enough healed to finally travel. A roundness to her tummy foretold that there would be three, not two new emigrants entering Wyoming territory. If it were a boy, he would be named Micah, if a girl… then Hope.