Once upon a time at Shooting Creek, near the border of Franklin County, after three super-moons in a row, unusual happenings demonstrated to folks in PatrickCounty and thereabouts that the Season and the Times were changing directions dramatically. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as in neighboring mountain ranges, there dwells a culture of customs practiced by the indigenous people whenever and wherever at least two or three of them are met together. All the hill-folk born in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Shooting Creek know their kinsmen, colored and white,whenever they meet them near or far, even when they have never met before. And sometimes ancestors or descendants are looped into the mix because sooner or later everything happens again, or close to it.
If there is such a place as “never, never land,” a place where one might catch glimpses of the old village, surely that place is in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A place where the seasons come and go but time ceases to be; a place where a code of the hills and the commandments of God have never expired; a land where the soil and the people are one, where so long as the people do not scorn the ways of their ancestors there will be no break between the generations that would sever the people from their land or their Creator .By the time of the vernal equinox of 1865 the land of Virginia was laid waste by the harsh detrition of civil war. Most recently, the great Battles of the Wilderness and campaigns around Petersburg had completed the decimation of the ranks of the 42nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment that was begun at the First Battle of Kernstown and in Jackson’s Valley Campaign. A few of the colonels were gone to assist in Appomattax operations, the few other men of valor still fit for war were slowly mustering out and returning to the counties from which they had been recruited. They found their homes, generally, in a deplorable state.
Agriculture was the most important industry in Virginia, and nearly all of the returning soldiers had worked before the war in planting and harvesting tobacco, peanuts, or apples. And the poorest of them had labored in the fields of the other money crops of cotton, pears, and grapes. The two weeks following the equinox was usually planting time, but the sharp curtailment of the production of tobacco which resulted from the outbreak of war had worsened during the continuance, so that by March of 1865, except for hidden house gardens, the farmland was become callow and agricultural industry had ceased altogether. Having lost the revenues to maintain their plantations along with having lost many menfolk in the great battles fought on Virginia soil;and fearing now the approach of the U. S. Cavalry under George Stoneman raiding through Southside Virginia mainly for horses, feed, and bacon, many owners of Virginia land--singularly positioned to see the war as one of Northern aggression--deserted their farms, sometimes leaving them in the care and sole possession of slaves or former slaves long attached to, if not born on, those farms. During the war it was some of these slaves and free people of color who, on their own initiative, did the labors necessary to preserve the apple trees on their lands. The returning soldiers found these well-attended trees tall and verdant, while the rest of the countryside woods looked overgrown and cluttered with windfall.
Even worse than the economic stagnation visited upon Virginia in wartime was a precipitous descent into lawlessness: unscrupulous wind-hovers, cheats by nature, seized upon an opportunity to plunder deserted lands and to terrorize defenseless widows and colored people. As the war drew to a close small and large gangs of marauding deserters from both sides, in anticipation of sturdy resistance from returning fighters, now feverishly rampaged throughout Southside Virginia, especially in Patrickand adjacent counties. Since shortly before the vernal equinox farms had been pillaged on successive nights at Campbell’s Branch, Patrick Springs, and Stella—all the way to Spencer and Ridgeway in Henry County.Without deputies to assist him, Sheriff Turner had no time or inclination to pursue marauders of homesteadswhere there were no white men who would aid him; concerned colored people, who would have no legal recourse against white malefactors until 1875, had to face this crisis on theirown with only suchhelp from white friendsas the bonds of blood or honor might induce.
When Captain Reynolds, the commander of Company I Fifth Battalion Virginia Reserves, returned home to Rock Springs Plantation in late March of 1865, he found his father’s entire household abuzz over the news of the imminentarrival of George Stoneman’s U.S. Cavalry in Patrick County. His father feared his Negro men, like many in other Counties,were going to bolt and follow Stoneman, and he was nearly panic-stricken at the prospect of losing to the Yankee raiders hismanyprized horses and his considerable storehouse of provender. So, unable to secure the confidence and loyalty of his father’s Negro men chomping at the bit to join in a crusade for freedom,the Captain, oldest of all the Reynolds sons, immediately set about planning a way to hide the horses and food and thus save Rock Springs Plantation from utter bankruptcy. He was not without allies at the homestead: he could depend on his mother and father’s two younger sons for some help, and there was no question of the loyalty of the cook Kittie, a slave owned by his father since before he was born, who lived in a room adjacent to the kitchen along with her two young sons who more or less lived in the yard.
Captain Reynolds first learned of the homegrown raids against deserted farmsteads on the night before the incident at Shooting Creek, when shortly after his parents retired for the evening, Kittie rushed into the parlor to inform him that Pinah was come suddenly from Chestnut No band needed to speak with him right-away. Captain Reynolds had last seen Pinah back in 1862 when together the two teenagers drove a team of four horses into the hills of West Virginia to fetch a load of salt for the Rock Springs Plantation storehouse, an arduous journey requiring not only the considerable skills of savvy wainers but also the dexterous ingenuity of consummate barterers.
To folks in the Blue Ridge Mountains the boys proved their mettle as accomplished grownups with the successful completion of their mission, and the two young men discovered through their labors a fraternity of respect and fondness that the upheaval and turmoil of civil war had not diminished: Unhesitatingly he instructed Kittie to bring Pinah into the parlor, and when she returned with the visitor from Chestnut Nob, the conversation amongst the three went like this:
“There’s this bunch of scallywags, three of ‘em, maybe from up near the Franklin County border, going around raiding any farmstead where there ain’t no white men. Last night they raided our place at Chestnut Nob, which of course they wouldna dared if Colonel John wasn’t over there in Appomattax. What they didn’t figure on was Colonel John sending my brother Samuel on ahead a-carrying the Colonel’s two Enfield rifles. Nobody got hurt, and they didn’t get no horses, but they did ransack through the pantry and take away the last of the damson jelly and all of Sister Easter’s chow-chow; and for some reason they stole Muh-Dear’s high-back rocking-chair, the one Mis’Anne give huh when she got married, so you know she is upset."
”“Kittie, you think I ought to wake Papa?”
“No need. Mary Catherine’s all right, you say?”
“Me and Samuel got all the womenfolk out first off, and then we took them all to our hiding place on the other side of Grassy Creek—Muh-Dear, Sister Easterand her younguns, and Sally Frank was there too. They’s fine.”
“I don’t suppose we got any chance of catching up to these rascallions? No telling where they might be. I sure wish Colonel John was back home.”
“I don’t think the Colonel’s coming back to Henry County to stay. Samuel says he don’t want to struggle more and die in Virginia, wants to go down Reidsville way where his kinfolks is prospering. We got to solve this problem here ourselves, because these dung flies a-pestering us is horse thieves and backstabbers, and they ain’t gonna stop before they got all our horses and somebody gets killed. And they done showed they ain’t above robbing the same folks twice!"
“I’ll send word to tell Sheriff Turner so he can do what he can do, he knows Patrick County well enough to find these horse thieves, but with no deputies I doubt he can handle this gang. You got any ideas?”
“Samuel found out where they’re making camp tomorrow night! He went back to the house when they was in the pantry and he heard them talking about going to their camp. He figures three people with the Enfield Colonel John gave him for himself, and maybe one more Enfield, they could catch up to ‘em and put a stop to this raiding, if they left from here before noon .On the way here he stopped at the Washburn place to recruit Cousin Thompson who’s got his own Enfield, give to him by Major William T. Akers of the 51st. Of course, the man in charge is got to be a white man, Cap’n.”
"Here’s what we’ll do: I’ll send Nat down to Stuart with a note to give to Sheriff Turner; he was always friendly to Colonel John and his people, especially the ones like Samuel that joined the Infantry, so we can depend on him if I can get word to him. I’ll go write the note, and you stay here with Kittie tonight in case she needs you for anything, and Nat will be back ‘fore long.”
“Me and Samuel figured that’s what you’d say.”
“While you’s here, I want you to go out to the Quarter and send Nat up to the house and then I want you to talk to Tucker ‘cause I’m worried about him, this war done turned everything inside out, and he can’t talk to nobody seems like, ‘ceptin” Warrickor Town, and they ain’t old enough to tell him nothing.”
“I’m on my way, Kittie.”
“Me too, I’ll see y’all later.”
“All right now. And don’t you boys forget to keep a sharp lookout for Mary Catherine’s rocker!”
“Pinah, you hear what I say?”
When Pinah arrived at the meeting-room in what used to be called the slave quarters, he found Tucker, Nat, Dillard, Walker, Edith and Emma—all lifelong workers at Rock Springs who grew up in the yard. (Warrick and Town, still youngsters, were asleep in the bunk house.) The women were house slaves who technically were subject to Miss Anne’s control, but basically they worked under Kittie’s direction. After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, all of the Reynolds Negro men and women were simply left alone to do whatever they deemed necessary for the survival and comfort of all who belonged to the farmstead; this arrangement worked well enough because in many respects old-fashioned common sense required that the good order of the household continue unabated, though the news of Stoneman’s raids had recently unsettled this arrangement. Everybody was genuinely happy to see Pinah; when growing up in the yard he was always unquestionably the favorite of his peers as well as his owner who in later years used Pinah as competent foreman in the work of planting and harvesting tobacco. When Pinah arrived the men were starting in on a jug of apple brandy obtained by Tucker from the big house, no doubt with Kittie’s tacit approval.
After a few general pleasantries, and Pinah had taken a swig from the jug, the ladies excused themselves; Nat was dispatched to the big house, and the following conversation ensued,
"Colored man all got to eat, and their young ’uns got to eat and go to school and get doctored on when they’s sick, and we all sho’ nuf gonna be needing to get ourselves buried in a grave one day. Some things don’t change. Lately I been thinking scuffling gone be just as rough after the war as it is now, maybe more. But now that I hear about you and Samuel coming into four hundred acres and putting in yams and feed, well now I don’t know, maybe there’s better days ahead.”
“Well, Tucker, Sister Easter made me promise to say this to you, to all y’all here: If Colonel John does what Samuel says he’s aiming to do after the war, Sister Easter say‘If any of your people come from the Mali Kingdom of the Yorubas, or from one of them northern desert tribes, then you is more than welcome at Chestnut Nob!’”
Early the next morning at breakfast the Captain decided that since Nat hadn’t been able to deliver the note to Sheriff Turner in person, it would be wise to leave Pinah at Rock Springs so that he could look after things there, while he, Thompson, and Samuel Arthur chased down the marauders.All three men had been soldiers who rendered honorable service in a war not yet concluded in a signed peace treaty: They haled from the same neck of the woods and the same school of thought; they knew their duty to uphold the law, and they were intent on doing it. They were born into the code of the hills, and it pleasured themto be amongst their kin. Early in the day on March 27th, 1865, three Virginia patriots departed Rock Springs Plantation on what to them was a mission of justice.The men rode in silence, but during their rest-stops, they carried on some conversation.
At the first stop, Captain Reynolds remarked to Samuel that the last time he had been up near Franklin County was back in 1862 with Pinah, who at that time, he recollected, couldn’t get that gal named Sally off his mind. Samuel commented that Sally Frank was still on his brother’s mind.
“You know,” Samuel said, “Pine never was no slavish kind of man, Pine don’t take orders, you got to reason with Pine, you know that’s true, Cap’n. Back before the war started him and me got to talking about running away to Canada, but Pine couldn’t leave Sally!”
At the second rest-stop Samuel asked Captain Reynolds what he planned on doing when the war was over. The Captain confirmed the rumors everybody at Rock Springs Plantation, saving the Captain’s papa, had heard: The Captain agreed with his newly-found Quaker friends, he hated tobacco and didn’t want anything to do with growing it or selling it. He told Samuel Arthur and Thompson that he planned on leaving the Plantation, but hadn’t yet decided between going west or seeking his fortune in the east, probably Richmond. At their last stop the men discussed what they would do when they reached the cabin near the creek where the marauders were encamped: if they saw the marauders were in the cabin the Captain planned to lay siege, but if the marauders were not at the camp, the plan was to enter the cabin and wait.
At this time the Captain observed to the former infantrymen: “You men realize what you are doing here, don’t you? We’re here to enforce the law, to do what Sheriff Turner would do if he was here; Virginia ain’t never had no colored deputies before, not that I heard of. There’s some Confederates who would say we are more dangerous than the thieves we come to arrest.”
“Well,” said Samuel Arthur Penn, “Virginia got to realize that the war is over. They’d best get ready here, and North Carolina, and everywhere else:there’s going to be a Samuel Arthur Penna-coming,or maybe his namesake, a-wearing a badge and a-carrying a gun.”
When the three former infantrymen gained sight of the marauders’ hideout, the one-room cabin looked deserted, and so the Captain asked Washburn to stand back to cover their flanks while he and Sam Penn entered the building. They did not know that Sheriff Turner himself had been pursuing the marauders that day and had already arrived at the hideout and was waiting inside to arrest the marauders. When the two men entered through the opened door, Sheriff Turner, obviously not recognizing them, ordered them to halt, to which command they responded with raised arms. But in that momentary flash of time, Sheriff Turner mistook defensive movements as offensive ones, and instinctively he fired the shotgun he was pointing in the two men’s direction. Captain Reynolds took part of the load of buckshot in the right shoulder and side, agrievous lifelong debilitating wound. Poor Samuel Arthur Penn was mortally wounded—mistakenly, by someone he had known as a friend. The marauders escaped justice that day, but after the end of the war in April, the then-Provost Marshal Sheriff Turner, with the assistance of Deputies Reynolds and Penn, pursued the Shooting Creek marauders, apprehended them, and brought them to justice. Samuel A. Penn survived the shooting for weeks, but what justice can there be for valorous Sam Penn, killed before he married or sired offspring? In the balance one must consider the fact that Samuel had a brother who married a lady named Sally (later known as Muh Penn) and they named their firstborn Samuel Arthur Penn, who named his second son Samuel Arthur Penn who became one of the first descendants of a slave to become employed in the State of North Carolina as a municipal law enforcement officer and who as a matter of public record is reckoned to have served as an officer of the law in the cause of justice with honor and distinction; and, moreover, is reckoned by many living nephews, nieces, and namesakes as the best uncle there ever was.
Author Thomas Penn Johnson was born on August 22nd, 1943 in Greensboro, North Carolina where also in 1961 he graduated from James B. Dudley High School, and in 1968 he received an M.A. in English from UNC-G. In 2009 he retired from then-Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida after serving for 26 years as an instructor of English and humanities. Although "Once Upon a Time at Shooting Creek" is fiction and not straight nonfiction, the nature of the historical theme of the story would seem to require acknowledgement of the sources used in the story: (1) "Reynolds Homestead Library -- Civil War History at the Reynolds Homestead" (2) The author's maternal grandfather was named Samuel Arthur Penn, son of Pine Penn of Virginia who had a brother named Samuel Arthur Penn. The principal source of this story was the author's grandmother Mary Alberta (nee Diggs) Penn, wife of Reverend Samuel Arthur Penn.