“Jimmy. Jimmy, my little love, wake up.”
Mama’s voice sounded through the fog of sleep inside Littlejim’s head. It was too cold. He didn’t want to wake up. The small window at the end of the sleeping loft was dark. Only a sliver of moon shone through the branches of the chestnut tree outside.
“Jimmy, your father needs you to drive the second wagon along with him to Spruce Pine today,” Mama’s voice said.
“Today is school,” mumbled Littlejim. Mama did not like for her children to miss a day when school was in session.
“Hurry, love. This shipment must go out to the army today. Robert cannot leave. There’s no one else,” said Mama.
She helped Littlejim to sit up. She kissed his hair and placed one of his arms into the sleeve of the warm flannel shirt hanging on the chair by his bed.
“I can do it, Mama.” Littlejim pulled away. He was not a baby who had to be dressed.
“So you can. I’ll have you some breakfast ready when you come down to the kitchen. Hurry, now.”
She left the kerosene lamp on the floor by the top of the stairs.
Although it was late April, Littlejim shivered from the cold. He buttoned up the back flap of his long woolen underwear and climbed into his pants. His stiff fingers managed to tie the laces of his heavy winter boots. He pulled on his heavy sweater, added his warm coat, and pulled his toboggan cap over his ears. He grabbed his mittens and picked up the lamp. Halfway down the narrow stairs, he ran back to the bed. Under his pillow he had hidden some precious pages which he had worked on late into the night. He stuffed them into his shirt pocket.
When he got to Mama’s warm kitchen, Bigjim and Uncle Bob were there drinking coffee. Eagerly, Littlejim sat down at the table. He lifted the mug of warm sweet coffee to his lips.
“Jimmy. Wash your face and comb your hair before you sit at my table,” said Mama.
“Gert, no time for fancies today. We have a load of lumber to deliver,” barked Bigjim.
“Now Jim, let the boy clean up and eat his breakfast. He’ll be the better for it,” said Uncle Bob with a wink at his nephew.
Littlejim broke the ice in the washbasin on the back porch to wash his face. Then he combed his hair, all without taking off his coat. Dripping water onto his collar, he sat down at the table. Quickly he ate the hot apple turnover Mama lifted to his plate.
Uncle Bob walked with Littlejim out to where the two wagons sat loaded at the edge of the road. The horses snorted, their breath like twin curls of steam out of Mama’s teakettle.
Littlejim had often handled a farm wagon, and occasionally Fayette had allowed him to manage a half-empty pole wagon around the mill yard. But as he looked up at the pole wagons fully loaded with lumber, the load looked higher than Spear Tops Mountain. He felt proud that Uncle Bob and his father thought he was man enough to handle such an important job.
The pole wagon had no box on it like a farm wagon. It was only two sets of wheels joined by a coupling pole. The stack of boards rested front to back on two bolsters built over the front and back axles. The back bolster was braced solid with the axle, but the front axle was attached to the bolster by a wooden pin to allow the axle to turn corners. The boards were fastened down with chains that were wrapped all the way around both the lumber and the coupling pole. The wheels on the wagon were as tall as Littlejim’s shoulders and were outlined with metal rims that helped the wagon get through the muddy roads. Brake blocks were attached to each of the thick wooden wheels. The brakes were controlled by a brake lever beside the right front wheel.
As soon as he climbed onto the four boards Uncle Bob’s men had placed forward so they stuck out in front of the rest of the load to form a seat, Littlejim checked to make sure his arms could reach the brake lever. Just barely.
“Be sure you can get to the brake lever, Jimmy,” said Uncle Bob. “That’s the most important part of your job. The horses can do most of the rest of the trip themselves.”
Littlejim looked up behind his head. The stack of boards was just a bit taller than he was. The horses would have a hard time with such a heavy load.
Uncle Bob handed him his dinner bucket and a sack of leaves to cushion where he sat.
Then Bigjim set two baskets of apples on the seat boards beside the boy and tied them securely with ropes. “Promised P. D. Price to deliver some of Gert’s Winter John apples on this trip, last of the year. Mind you, they’re your mama’s finest. Don’t spill a one.”
“And don’t eat more than two samples,” said Uncle Bob, as he reached up playfully to pull Littlejim’s toboggan cap down over his eyes. He looked at Littlejim’s worried face as the boy straightened the cuff of his cap. Then he slapped his nephew on the knee. “Jimmy, don’t you fret. I am trusting you with a man’s job. You can do it. This lumber has to go out on the two o’clock train. Remember, son, today the U.S. Army is depending on you. I am, too,” his uncle said.
Bigjim slapped the reins on his wagon, just ahead of Littlejim’s. His big wagon creaked as the team strained with the load on it.
On the back wagon, Littlejim smacked his lips together and snapped the reins. “Giddiup,” he said. Scott and Swain, Bigjim’s matched Percherons, set their huge hooves on the roadbed at almost the same time. One side of the wagon lurched forward, then the other. The lumber swayed above Littlejim’s head. Then the team began to move in rhythm. Littlejim felt the wagon sway gently side to side in time to the horses’ steps. A chill April wind burned the boy’s cheeks and nose.
The two wagons met the rising sun of the chilly spring day at the crossroads where the Creek Road met the River Road that led into the town eight miles away. They passed a few wagons and buggies on the River Road. Bigjim tipped his slouch hat and called a howdy once in a while to a passerby. At Wright’s Curve, they met Mr. Vance and Ivor in their buggy. Littlejim waved at the older boy, who waved back and shouted, “Hold the reins, Littlejim.”
He felt very much a man as he handled the reins of the team hauling the heavy load. Littlejim was very proud to have his friend see him in charge of the team.
“Uncle Bob had said I am almost a man. Now maybe at last Papa will see I am growing up and will be proud of me, too. I have to be my very best today,” he said to Scott and Swain.
“What be ye doing back there, boy?” called Bigjim, leaning around the side of the stack of lumber on the front wagon.
“Nothing, Papa. Just talking to myself.”
“Fool dreamer,” snorted Bigjim. “Always woolgathering.”
The road ran along the course of the North Toe River. Daily use had worn deep ruts that the wagon wheels could follow. Some of the ruts were filled with muddy water that splashed up on Littlejim’s shoes. The road and the bank above it were studded with rocks too big for man and horse to move. Sometimes the road jogged to miss the largest of those that formed part of the roadbed.
As the wagons approached Davenport Bridge, they paused and Littlejim searched the upper bank for marks left by the picks, shovels, and dragpans the local men had used to widen the road. The shipments of goods for the war made a wider road necessary from the farms in Avery County to the rail yard in the neighboring county.
Then the two wagons passed the place where he could remember hiding with Uncle Bob around the curve while the blasts of dynamite loosened the soil and rocks so the men and horses could move them from the road.
Littlejim had been too young to help with the work then, but one day when Papa and Uncle Bob had brought their teams of big timber horses to pull the heavy dragpans, Uncle Bob had brought Littlejim with him to watch. He remembered how Uncle Bob had allowed him to sit on Scott’s broad back when the huge horse pulled the flat metal pan heaped to the top of its three sides with soil and rocks. Scott pulled the pan from the upper bank to dump a load off the lower bank toward the river. Back and forth, back and forth, until a firm, almost flat roadbed was made.
Uncle Bob had told Littlejim that each man who hauled goods over the River Road had been conscripted to give a week’s work toward improving the road. By working together, the men of the neighboring counties, Avery and Mitchell, built one of the finest roads in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, or so said Uncle Bob when he was in a bragging mood.
Littlejim was proud that he had ridden on Scott’s big back to help build that road, but Bigjim had only snorted, “Boy’s just in the way.”
But Uncle Bob had wound his arms tighter around the boy’s ribs where Littlejim sat on the saddle in front of his uncle that day. Bigjim’s voice trailed off as he began to hitch the horses to their traces. Littlejim could no longer hear the words, but his eyes still stung with tears.
“Best be on our way if we’re to make the two o’clock train,” Bigjim called back to his son.
The morning sun was growing warmer. Littlejim took off his coat, and hung it on the end of one of the boards. The last long climb before they reached Spruce Pine was Riverhill, which began at Davenport Bridge and wound, shaped by the crescent of the river, into the edge of the little railroad town. He giddiupped the horses, and the steep climb up Riverhill began.