Uncle Bert's Romance
The first days of the year when the holidays were over and the Big Farm had settled into its winter routine, always made Uncle Bert restless. He'd pack his valise, hop on the train and disappear for a week or two, returning with gifts for everyone and renewed peace of mind.
I had always accepted Uncle Bert's January trip as I accepted his stiff leg, expert horsemanship, and endless supply of interesting or amusing stories. As I grew older, I realized this was not a happy trip made in a holiday mood, but more of a solemn pilgrimage. My curiosity was aroused and I coaxed Ma until she told me where my uncle went and why. Later I read some of his letters that had been saved over the years.
Bert was one of those men who are immediately popular when they join any group, so he made many friends during his army service in the Civil War. Gus James, a lanky, rawboned Tennessean with a wrap-around grin that still beams from a battered tintype in Grandma's old album, found Bert a kindred spirit on the subject of horses and sisters so they became fast friends. Gus lived for the sole purpose of riding on, tending to, and talking about horses. His father raised Tennessee Walkers that earned wide recognition for their stamina and comfortable gait. Gus couldn't say enough about them nor about his sister, Jenny Sue, who rode, schooled, and hunted horses with the skill of a centaur.
Gus was wounded before Bert was and they were parted but not before they had made plans to get together after the war. Bert wrote the details of Gus's injury to his family knowing mail from hospitals was often delayed and Jenny Sue answered with a grateful, warm-hearted letter. Thus their correspondence began and continued throughout the remainder of the war.
It was nearly a year after Bert's discharge before he felt free to accept his friend's invitation to visit. He wanted to buy horses for the stud he was starting and he wanted to see Gus again. He also wanted to see Jenny Sue.
According to the letter Uncle Bert sent home after his arrival, Gus' greeting left no doubt of his joy at their reunion. Bruised ribs, dislocated shoulder, crushed hand, and "busted" ear-drums were jokingly enumerated as the outcome of their meeting.
"He done right well for a man with only one arm," the letter went on. "Gus's sister, Jenny Sue, was at the station, too. She sat in the buggy, looking pretty as a picture in a fur-trimmed bonnet and cape, with her dainty hands in firm control of the ribbons leading to two of the finest horses I've ever seen. I didn't know where to look first, at the girl or at the horses.
"Gus is reading law in his uncle's law office in town but rides in every day from the farm. He has his own horses, as does Jenny Sue, and keeps close watch on their care. He don't muck-out stables himself, but he sure sees that it's well done and the horses have the best of care. I don't know how I'll ever be able to choose which I want to buy but Jenny Sue says she'll help me. There are several horses on other farms that she and Gus want me to see, so I'll be staying a while. There's some parties they have promised to bring me to, though I'm not much good at that sort of thing with my game leg.
"Having lost an arm hasn't changed Gus at all. He still rides and drives like Jehu, talks a blue streak and likes a joke better than any man I ever knew. Jenny Sue is quieter than any of our girls, except Mary of course, and she is as blonde as Bea but her hair is longer. I told her about Bea's short crop of curls and she'd sure like to try that hair style but she said her Pa would horsewhip her if she dared cut her mane.
"Mr James is as tall as I am but he out-weighs me by near a hundred pounds. He leaves the outside supervision mostly to Gus and Jenny Sue but he keeps close track from the windows of his library. Every Sunday afternoon the stableboys parade the horses past while he watches from the veranda. He's got shelves full of books on horses and can recite the blood-lines of every animal foaled on his farm."
There were several younger sisters and a small brother, whose birth had cost their mother's life. A maiden aunt lived with them, relieving Jenny Sue of housewifely duties.
Many contented days were spent inspecting horses and evenings discussing their relative merits. The round of parties didn't prove too onerous, for Jenny Sue seemed to think Bert could do anything he really set his mind to and encouraged him to try whatever was going on. Their friendship deepened under the approving eyes of Gus and his family until even Little Brother began saying "Bro Bert" just as he said "Bro Gus".
"I wish I could be Bro Bert for sure, Ma," Bert wrote,"but how can I ask Jenny Sue to leave this gay, busy life to share the uncertanties of a new horse farm with a stiff-legged old fellow like me?"
Just before Bert was to leave, the James family gave a huge party in his honor. There were musicians to play for dancing and a lavish buffet laid in the dining room. Late in the evening, Jenny Sue prevailed on Bert to try a waltz with her. In deference to his unsure steps they sought the seclusion of the veranda where Bert reported he was doing quite acceptably until "some of Jen's flounces got in the way of my stick-leg and I lost my footing completely. I tried to get free of her and she tried to hold me up so we both went down in a heap. My head struck the railing and I saw stars for a minute and woke up in a rain-storm that turned out to be Jenny Sue crying over me. She thought I was killed.
"I never could stand to see a girl cry so I took to comforting her and that led to kissing and then I went and asked her to marry me. She said YES and cried all the harder because she'd been afraid I'd go away without asking her. When I tried to get up I couldn't for my gamy old leg was twisted for fair. It took Gus and three other fellows to haul me up to bed where the doctor, another uncle of Jenny Sue's, says I'll have to stay until he's satisfied my knee ain't broke.
"I told the doctor I sure wished it had broke loose but he just shook his head and patted my sholder in a kind sort of way and called me 'son'. I guess I'll have to give up thinking my leg will ever work right again. But I can stand even that if I have Jenny Sue. As soon as the doctor lets me travel, I'll be home to get things ready for my bride. I know you'll love your new daughter, Ma. She's sweet and kind and smart and pretty and just about perfect."
So Bert came home. Letters flew back and forth between the two happy young people. Then one day the letter was from Gus, not Jenny Sue. There had been an accident. Jenny Sue's horse had pitched her headlong into a gulley. The horse was dead and the girl unconscious, her back broken, not expected to live.
Bert hurried to Jenny Sue's side as fast as the trains could carry him. This time there were no letters, no word at all until Bert returned, looking both relieved and sad. Jenny Sue would live though she would never ride or even walk again. She had sent him home, refusing to consider marriage now, despite Bert's pleas. Refusing even to allow him to visit her again for at least a year.
A year later Bert found Jenny Sue sitting in a chair, her body encased in a steel brace. She still refused to marry him and made him promise never to ask her again on pain of not being allowed to visit her at all. And so he kept faith with his love and his dream, going to visit the invalid every year while she lived and every year thereafter as long as his health permitted.
No other smile or saucy glance ever tempted Bert's heart, though more than one girl tried her best. He spent his energy on the horse farm and his affection on his many nephews and nieces. If his heart ached in the lonely night watches, he had only to think of the constant physical pain Jenny Sue bore to reproach his weakness.
After Ma told me Uncle Bert's story, I found Jenny Sue's picture and the letters he wrote home from that first wonderful visit tucked away with those he had written during the war. Grandma never threw away a letter, but tied them with ribbon and packed them in candy boxes to be read years later by her inquisitive granddaughter.
To read more about Bert and his family during the Civil War
Aunt Katy's Civil War Tale