By Sam Wood
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As the son of a farmer I had learned to drive a tractor at a very early age. Though the twentieth century had brought paved roads and electrical power lines to much of this part of the Tennessee valley Most of my families land was still accessed by dirt roads and wagon trails packed hard from years of horse drawn traffic.
My father grew peanuts and it was my task to plow the field located at the base of what my grandmother called Indian hill, a place where Natchez Indians had dwelled for hundreds of years. A particularly forlorn and sequestered spot surrounded by small hills and dark pine forests. I remember as a small child walking through the freshly turned soil finding arrowheads and colorful bits of pottery.
“I need you to plow the west end of the field below Indian hill after school this evening son,” my father instructed me that morning.
“I have practice after school for the game Saturday,” I informed him.
“Do it when your through, it shouldn’t take to long, its liable to rain and you won’t be able to get in there.”
The Old Ford tractor sputtered and jolted its way down the road and with much effort crossed the drainage ditch arriving on the spot at least a couple hours before nightfall. The smell of the freshly turned earth and diesel fuel filled my nostrils as I went round and round manipulating the various levers and pedals preparing the ground for planting.
Making the finale circuit a cool breeze caused me to shiver and I realized the sun had set below the hill.
Towards the east a star had appeared heralding the approaching darkness. The twilight pressed in made more so by the shadows of the surrounding hills.
A flicker of light at the point of the hill caught my eye.
I brought the old tractor to a stuttering halt.
Watching the small dot of light my first thought was that father had sent Joshua, my younger brother, to fetch me in to supper.
“Joshua!” I called, expecting some snide response in reply.
The light continued its haphazard wonderings but didn’t seem to approach any closer.
“Pa!” I called again shutting off the tractors engine.
The dark seemed to press in. From the depths of the pines a coyote barked.
At the other end of the field a whip-or-will began to call, a mournful sound in the gloom.
My curiosity peaked, I climbed down and taken the large flashlight and small handgun my father kept under the tractor seat, I began to approach the now almost glowing orb.
Out of breath I scrambled the short distant to the top in time to see the light disappear behind a large rocky outcrop. My heart pounding I approached the place holding flashlight and gun out before me expectantly.
I peered around the rock warily. The light was gone!
In amazement I played the beam of the flashlight around at the surrounding trees, but the light had disappeared!
Looking to the ground a glint of metal, and I stooped to pickup what appeared to be a coin covered in red clay.
All thoughts of the mysterious light gone, I pocketed the object returned to the tractor, and hurried home to investigate my find.
At home my Brother Joshua was anxious and full of questions.
“Was it a Will-o-Wisp, you saw?” He asked wide-eyed.
“Did it lead you to a treasure?”
Removing the object I showed him, and ignoring his questions and obvious excitement we went into the bathroom to clean off the red clay.
To my chagrin what I had found turned out to be a brass button with the letters US carved deep into the brass.
“Aw a dumb old Yankee coat button,” he said disappointed.
“Still it’s in great shape and might be worth something,” I replied hiding my disappointment as well.
During the Civil War much of the land around had been crossed and re-crossed by soldiers from both Confederate and Union armies. While Union artifacts weren’t worth as much as Confederate, I decided to return to the spot on the morrow and carry my fathers metal detector to search for more relics.
The next day, Friday, dawned dreary and overcast. My schoolwork and chores at home completed I hurried back to Indian hill carrying my fathers metal detector, a knapsack, and a little shovel, one of those small folding ones used by the military.
I began to search around the outcropping passing the circular end of the metal detector back and forth inches from the ground.
To my surprise I was instantly alerted to the presence of metal. Eagerly I began to dig but to my disappointment was rewarded with only a spent shotgun shell casing. In the next couple hours I was alerted twice more, first another bullet shell and the second time an old tin can.
A rumble of thunder over the hill warned of the approaching storm.
The wind moaned in the surrounding pines a hint of rain.
Despondent I had decided to give up when at the base of the outcrop I was again alerted to the presence of metal.
Digging with not much hope I uncovered what appeared to be something bundled in a foul smelling animal skin.
Lightening split the sky a sharp crack of thunder, and without thinking about it I stuffed the bundle into the knapsack and raced for home.
Once home in my room, my brother watching wideyed, I laid out some old newspaper and removing the bundle placed it gingerly down.
“Oh gosh!” Joshua cried pinching his nose. “What’s that?”
“Something wrapped in animal skin,” I replied.
“Something dead” said he as he rushed from the room.
Ignoring the smell I gently began peeling away the rotting covering.
By this time the rain was pounding the rooftop.
First thing I discovered was a small penknife obviously very old, I placed it aside. Next an old single bladed razor rusted and decayed with age. A quill pen was there also nothing but the tip and a small part of the handle was left. A small locket on a thin chain was next corroded and tarnished whether gold or brass I couldn’t tell right off. And finally a small leather wallet containing several shreds of money, worthless now and what looked like a letter sealed with wax.
To this I turned my attention.
The address on the front was illegible, spotted and stained yellow with age. The wax seal flaked away at my touch. Carrying it over to my desk I gently unfolded the thin paper. The letter was written in old script obviously by a shaky hand and dim light, many of the words hard to make out
My dearest Jessica
I hope this letter finds you and Jared well. I am writing to tell you that my homecoming may be delayed. Though I do not wish you to worry I must tell you that I have fallen ill. I am presently encamped with a tribe of Indians who have taken the horse and my ring in exchange for food, lodging and whatever medicines are available to them. I began my journey as soon as word of Lee’s surrender reached us here hoping to make it home to you before winter. It is cold here my love, the wind cuts through me and though I try to steady myself to write it is hard. Has our son grown Jess? Has he forgotten me? I know that you have not. I keep the locket you gave me close and I can feel you. Your dark hair the softness of your hand against my check, your sweet smell. Please do not think less of me Jess when I tell you that sometimes I cry
at night when I’m alone. Not from pain or homesickness but because of the many years of war that has separated us. When I get down like this I think of what Dad said when he saw this new country for the first time, your remember, about freedom and sacrifice. This land was meant to be free, I know you understand.
Tomorrow the sun will shine and know this, I love you more than life and though I may have to walk, nay crawl I am coming home.
The storm continued as I considered the words I had read. It was obvious that Thomas had not survived to post the letter to his beloved. Most likely he had succumbed to his illness and his personal possessions were buried with him for use in the afterlife as was the Indian way.
I cleaned the locket and kept it with me. In the summer of 69 I graduated from high school and was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. During my tour in that troubled land I kept the locket as a reminder of the sacrifices made by countless families on the altar of freedom. The letter was lost during my parents’ move to Mississippi. Buddies have asked me about the locket and when I told the story of the mysterious light and circumstances surrounding its discovery have been ribbed for being a superstitious Tennessee farm boy.
The Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway has covered Indian Hill and the land surrounding it. The locket is in the possession of my grandson currently stationed aboard one of the warships in the Indian Ocean.
The photos on the TV of people ridiculing America and burning the American flag sadden me.
I sit here on my front porch gazing up at the stars and strips fluttering in the warm breeze. From the far corner of the yard a Whip-or-will calls, a mournful sound.
I hope that Thomas has found peace and been reunited with his family in the afterlife. His long journey at an end.
I console myself with the knowledge that though the world may not know our children and grandchildren will, the struggles and ideals that make our country free and that is, really, all that matters.