IF I BE WRONG
By John Thomas Tuft
The ancient willows hang their weeping shoots over the old tombstones in an abandoned graveyard just off the tired dirt road, tucked back in a far corner of the county in southcentral Pennsylvania. Locals call it the Demon’s Hide. Human beings, being what they are, have made concerted efforts over the years to find reasons to declare graveyards frightening places, and this one is no exception. Of course, that only applies to after dark. In the darkness, shadows and sounds, fears and frettings have us peering with the faint tickle of unease into the dark corners of what it means to be alive. And we don’t like to admit to ourselves that we often find reasons that have no rhyme or reason. If something has a beginning then, by definition, it is finite and has an ending. Except the graveyard is too deadening, so we fill it with ghosts and demons, vampires and vagaries.
The Demon’s Hide is the home of Old Sam. He of the grungy coat, whiskered chin, pained expression and world-weary attitude, walking with a slight limp among the stones of memorials and monuments to endings, overgrown with the fruits of discarded seeds and casual misplaced weeds. He stops in front of two simple stones. One reads Ebenezer. The other says Josiah. That is all. The area around the stones is neatly trimmed and fresh flowers adorn the twin graves. Old Sam fills his pipe, tamps it down, lights it and tells me the story.
Josiah was a Mennonite farmer in the Shenandoah Valley when the Civil War broke out. Being a confirmed pacifist, he hid when the Confederate soldiers came looking for conscripts. They burned down his barn and took his mules, so Josiah set out on foot for his parents homestead up north, near Gettysburg. The second night, sleeping in the woods in the mountains, he was awakened by the sounds of horses galloping, dogs barking, and ungodly screams. Fearful for his safety, Josiah made his way to the stream. As he hid among the rocks he came upon Ebenezer, a runaway slave, fleeing for his life.
Ebenezer jumped up to run into the shadows of the trees. Startled, Josiah shouted for him to not be afraid. The bounty hunters shot blindly, striking Josiah in the leg. Intent on their prize, they rode on. Josiah lay in the stream, bleeding and in pain. After a long while, he felt someone lifting him up and taking him underneath the canopy of the forest. It was Ebenezer, who laid him down, built a small fire, then disappeared. After long hours, right before dawn, Ebenezer returned with bandages and medicines he had taken from a doctor’s office in the town at the foot of the mountain.
For weeks, fearful of being discovered, Ebenezer crept into town through the dark, getting food and dressings for Josiah. He returned and nursed Josiah back to health. When he could travel, they decided to make their way north together. Trying to avoid surging armies from both sides, they traveled a circuitous route, sometimes ending up in North Carolina, other times stuck along the Dan River in Virginia. They decided to try to catch a train and head for Washington, DC. Ebenezer pretended to be Josiah’s slave and Josiah carried a forged pass to get through the Confederate lines.
Somewhere around Richmond, the train was stopped and the two were caught. Refusing to carry a rifle and insisting that Ebenezer was his, the Confederate Army forced them to be stretcher bearers. Before they knew it, the two found themselves in the middle of the Battle of the Wilderness, carrying broken men out of danger. In the awful fury of the battle, they were surrounded by Union soldiers and taken captive. The soldiers declared Ebenezer free and left Josiah in the mud with the other prisoners. That night, Ebenezer came back for his new friend, untied him and they escaped into the wilds.
Dodging patrols and scrounging to stay alive they traveled north. Along the way they promised each other that they would never be apart again. Josiah said Ebenezer would be welcomed at his home. As they neared Washington, they devised a plan. Josiah found a broken rifle and they pretended that he was bringing Ebenezer with him. But as they neared the Union picket line, all the soldiers saw was a raggedy Confederate holding a gun on a Black man and fired. Josiah fell, mortally wounded. After he died, Ebenezer would not let the soldiers touch him. He made a wooden casket for his friend, found a wagon and took him home to his family in Pennsylvania.
Old Sam finished his story. “Ebenezer made his life here and insisted that he be buried next to his friend, right here.” He started to walk away, but turned, and said, “Don’t spend your life trying to avoid dying. Everyone has the opportunity to take a look around at the times they find themselves born into and ask, if I be right, this is all about me. But if I be wrong…”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.