That Awful Piece of Paper
West of the Catawba River, North Carolina—1779
So it’s come to this, Sarah thought angrily. Her shoulders sagged in despair, eyes hollow from worry. The worst happened—a fight that reduced her family to a drunken brawl. For weeks, menacing shadows crowded the horizon. Cornwallis burned through South Carolina. Red Coats laid siege to Charlotte. Rebel militias marched across empty pastures in a fury of preparation. Neighbor accused neighbor, brother fought brother. Liberty in the hearts of frontiersmen exploded like a creek eddying and flooding beyond its banks. War was at the door of North Carolina; and after last night, her door.
Papa’s passion for rebellion and his hatred of Tories left no room for anyone, especially his family, to disagree. Papa and Reuben’s brother, William, talked of nothing but Liberty, but Sarah saw no liberty, no love, no tolerance for her husband. Family ceased to mean anything to either of them. Reuben was a Tory.
Papa’s curse that he’d tolerate no Tory in his family could not be put aside. She knew he meant what he said, an edict she feared would split her Sherrill family beyond reconciliation. Her only chance to stop him was to get to Mama before Papa carried out his threat.
Before dawn, she rose, wearied, numb, and cross, but took care not to disturb Reuben who lay beside her, dead to the world, his chest rising and falling the way of a heavy sleeper. Light from a three-quarter moon beamed through the window and guided her to the kitchen where she roused her house maid asleep on a feather-filled tick near the banked coals in the fireplace.
“Ma’am?” A groggy voice responded.
“Sh-h-h. Ain’t light yet. Not time for you to fix breakfast. I’m going to Mama’s.”
At the sun’s first burst, she hurried to the barn, hitched her gig, and entered the road to Sherrills Ford—her childhood home, her Mama.
With dogged determination, Sarah strained her body forward and brushed away tears that filled her eyes. Anxious and impatient, she fidgeted in her seat, her old, tender-spirited dun mare laboring down the narrow, rutted road at a pace far too slow to satisfy her fever to reach Mama. Nothing around her rushed. Black and white shadows from sun-lit trees shrouded the road. A soft breeze rippled through yellowed leaves of gnarled sycamores. Her rustic, once proud gig moved on.
Irritated, she cropped her horse. “Faster, faster!”
A sharp-shinned hawk with an alarming trill swooped. Startled, her horse misplaced a hoof making its next step tentative on the dirt-packed road. Sarah yanked the reins, the gig stopped. She raised the hem of her skirt, dropped to the ground, and checked the leg of her mare. Nothing more than a slight bruise, no swelling, a bit tender.
I have to go on, she thought. Must get to Mama in time to tell Reuben’s side. She felt caught in a spider’s web with Papa embracing rebellion and her husband tenaciously holding on to the security of the Crown. She cringed at Reuben’s stubbornness. To him, the outcome was certain: the Loyalists would absolutely win.
Her old mare pulled the gig with each step more cautious. Anxiety throbbed viciously in her head. What if Reuben was wrong? What if he was killed? Echoing too close to her heart, thoughts more dreadful than she’d ever imagined pounded like a sledge splitting a stump. Sarah, once again, took the crop from the cracked leather canister and placed a compelling stroke on her mare’s flank, moving her faster to Mama’s house.
Sarah pounded the door and called, “It’s me. Let me in. I have to see Mama.”
Old Moonie opened the heavy door only wide enough for a narrow shaft of light to enter beyond her ample ebony body and large bulging arms. She wrung her gnarled hands on her stiff white apron and squinted into the glaring sun. “Oh, it’s you, Miss Sarah. Missus says if you come knocking at our door this afternoon, I can’t let you in.”
Astounded, Sarah asked, “What do you mean?”
“She says you ain’t one of us no more,” Old Mooney responded, her voice curt, almost as if she was angry to see her. From Mooney’s glaring eyes, Sarah sensed she wanted no part of Mama’s edict and resented being asked to turn her away.
“Can’t be so. I belong here. You know Mama doesn’t mean that. Don’t pretend I’m nobody. You’ve known me since I was a baby. Stop this nonsense and let me in.” She jammed her foot inside, determined to push her way through the door into the parlor.
Old Moonie heaved her shoulders in despair and with a sideways shift, blocked her advance. “Now you know, Miss Sarah, I can’t do what your mama says I can’t.”
“Moonie,” Sarah begged, her heart pulsing, “please ask Mama one more time.” Her head swooned, leaving her dizzy, a stranger in some other place, in some other time. Couldn’t be her house. Couldn’t be her Mama. Couldn’t be her old Nanny.
“Child, won’t do no good.” The catch in her voice told Sarah she was doing only what Mama demanded.
“Please. . .”
“I’ll ask, but you’ll have to stay right here. I can’t let you in.” Old Moonie grimaced and closed the door firmly, moving the bolt across the lock. Within minutes she returned shaking her head, her voice a raspy whisper.
“Your mama says to go away, got nothing to talk to you about.”
With the door closed its final time, Sarah’s heart sank, every
part of her body in despair. She wanted to rip the door from its hinges; but her stomach ached something terrible. Daylight would be gone long before she could get back to Reuben. Her desperation escalated to panic.
She went back to the door, pounded hard—then harder. “Let me in. Please.”
No one came. After long minutes, she staggered back to her gig. She looked over her shoulder and stared at the house. Her eyes didn’t focus on the stark lines of the two-story structure, the white painted porch, or the shuttered windows with their shining glass eyes; her childhood home was where candles flickered their welcome, joys and sorrows echoed from the walls, and the kitchen smelled like browned crusts of bread, spicy raisin cakes, and herb roasted duck. Best of all, home at the Ford was where she again could be Mama’s child.
A woman’s shadow moved in the upstairs window, a hand pushing the half open shutter to full view. In the glow of a bright afternoon sun, the image peered to the bent figure standing on the ground below. Their eyes met.
Sarah’s heart surged and skipped a beat. Gone were Mama’s cheery eyes which made her entire face smile. Now all she saw was Mama’s hateful stare, nearly covered by her lace dust cap, her sunken cheeks and down-turned mouth reflecting a forbidding sternness.
“Mama!” she screamed. The woman in the window, with a second shadow looming behind her, abruptly banged the shutter.
Last night’s madness returned with a vengeance. Fear burned through her heart as if bolts of jagged lightening struck the ground beneath her feet. She started her gig, then stopped. She could go no further. But there was no choice. When night caught her, she would be alone and that was another matter for a woman on this road.
She turned her old mare from the gate to retrace her journey, her mind too stunned to think clearly. If the reins slipped through her fingers, her horse would meander untethered and uncontrolled. She tried to put last night from her mind but the scene—her family arguing in a drunken brawl—played over and over in her head
Sarah feared nightfall with Reuben’s stories of outlaws, runaway slaves, and looters who would kill, but try as she might with all her strength, she could not stop the nauseating pain in her stomach nor its sharpness in her chest. She struggled to breathe and finally drew in a large gulp of fresh air.
Abandoned by Mama? Her family sideways in turmoil? What lay ahead?
Papa, the Captain of the large Catawba militia, until now, battled Indians. An energetic man, he was short, well-built, usually affable, and one who teased his grandchildren with games as to which hand held the arrowhead. His well-trimmed, graying beard accented his tanned face and he was most comfortable with his briarwood pipe penetrating the air with woody, sultry smoke. Now, he was a zealot committed to lead the fight. William was the first to volunteer for Papa’s new militia. They made wild accusations the British ravaged land, burned fields, confiscated horses and cattle, and killed any Rebel who resisted.
“Some of it’s true,” Reuben told Sarah. “Happening on both sides.”
The Sherrill and Simpson families were English and lived near each other. Over the years they were good friends with sons and daughters marrying into each other’s family. None was prepared for the passion and hatred that now split their families as to the side each was on. They no longer visited without violent arguments.
That’s what happened last night at Sarah’s table. As usual, Papa reeled off names of neighbors. “John Perkins pretends he isn’t, but I know for a fact he’s a Tory. Ralph Bledsoe and Dave Caldwell are true to our cause. Don’t know yet about Pete Dellinger. Someone said he leaned Tory.”
“You sure Bledsoe’s a Patriot?” William countered as he picked up an unopened jug of Reuben’s whiskey. “Heard he refused to sign the Allegiance.”
“No, it was Ralph’s brother, Thomas, who refused to sign. Ralph’s ridden with me for years—a true Patriot,” Papa reaffirmed.
“Thomas is a goddamn fool.” William swore as he removed the rag plug from the stone jug, took a large gulp, and belched loudly making it evident the stout brew took a path straight to his belly. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and handed the jug to the Papa.
William was taller than his brother and much more muscular. He possessed a chest like an ale keg, chewed and spit tobacco as he talked, and was gregarious with whomever he met, which many found crude or even vulgar. His bull neck, with his loud, foul mouth, was where Reuben once told Sarah his brother’s brains were lodged. His temper ran wild, whether drunk or not, and he passionately hated his enemies. Reuben often said, in everyone’s presence, that the Good Lord, tending his Pearly Gates, would have a hard time finding anything good about him.
Sarah could see William came for a fight. Reuben was quiet and William seized the opportunity to press the issue. “Heard the Allegiance was passed around in Tryon County and everyone signed. It’s goddamn time you signed since you ain’t seen fit to make your commitment known. Have you seen it?”
“Ain’t seen it. Don’t know what’s in it.”
“Well, since you’re the only one with any learning, and to you, I’m a whiskey-drunk asshole, I’ll read it to you.”
To Sarah’s dismay, Papa didn’t stop him, but advised, “Reuben, you need to listen to this, it’s a damn fine declaration.”
William belched his last gulp of whiskey as he pulled a tobacco-stained sheet from his pocket and began to read:
We therefore, the subscribers, freeholders and inhabitants of Lincoln County, do hereby faithfully unite ourselves under the most solemn ties of religion, honor and love to our country, firmly to resist force by force and hold sacred till a reconciliation shall take place between Great Britain and America on constitutional principals, and do firmly agree to hold all such persons as inimical to the liberties of America who shall refuse to sign this Association.
After a long pause, Reuben shook his head and asked quietly, “And this, Brother William, gives both sides reason to murder each other?”
William ignored Reuben’s comment and demanded, “You damn well better sign. The Captain and I are giving you one last chance.”
“Plain to me you ain’t interested in anything I’ve said. I can’t sign this. Ain’t losing to rebels everything I’ve got.”
William’s face turned violent with anger as blood rushed to his face like sleeping embers catching fire on a windy day. He drew his fist and lurched forward, the weight of his body crashing his chair to the floor. William’s threat missed Reuben’s face only by inches. Unable to recover his footing, William stumbled, fell hard, and screamed, “You’re a goddamn, son of a bitch fool, Reuben. I ain’t having you as my brother! I’ll go to hell first.”
Sarah felt Papa’s fiery eyes penetrate hers as he helped William to his feet. He pounded the table, and swore, “Make no mistake about it, Sary, there won’t be no goddamn Tory in my family. Not now, never! That’s all I have to say.”