Stonewall's Gold: A Novel of the Civil Warby Robert J. Mrazek
The Civil War Sociey, in a break from tradition, gives in Seal of Approval to a work of fiction: Stonewall's Gold. Former Congressman Robert J. Mrazek, long a leader in battlefield preservation, is the author of this major Civil War novel. Mrazek played pivotal roles in all of the major Congressional actions to preserve battlefields through the 1980s and early 1990s, including boundary expansions at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Manassas, and Gettysburg. He also extracted land acquisition funding from Congress for those and other Civil War sites. A National Park Service source called Mrazek "the single most important figure in Civil War battlefield preservation during the past two decades." and we predict that his first novel will meet with equal success.
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Constable Kilduff has told me to put the whole thing down in writing and that is exactly what I'm going to do. He said if I could offer enough evidence to prove it really happened the way I said it did then everything would come out all right in the end. He said he thought Judge Burwell would not go hard on a fifteen-year-old boy, even for the murders.
When I'm finished writing it all down, he'll take it to the judge over at the courthouse in Harrisonburg. After that, Constable Kilduff said I would likely be able to start life again with a clean slate.
Don't ask me why this happened to me. My mother said it was part of God's plan. If it was, I'd say He needs a lot more practice. Anyway, it all started in those last few months before General Lee surrendered at Appamatox.
Jubal Early and his Shenandoah army were finished once and for all in the valley. A week after they got whipped by the Yankees for the last time at Cedar Creek, a long train of hospital wagons arrived in Port Republic and the wounded were laid out on piles of straw around Fairfield Hall. My mother and the other women went over there to help ease their pain and try to comfort the dying.
Now those men were gone too. A lot of them were buried in the same fields around the hall. Most of the others had slipped across the Blue Ridge through Brown's Gap to join General Lee for a last stand around Richmond and Petersburg.
General Sheridan had sent his cavalry raiding up the valley again in late October. They swarmed all over like locusts until that great leader finally figured out there was nobody left to bother with. Of course, that didn't stop them from burning or destroying almost everything in their path for the pure pleasure it gave them.
On the day I turned fifteen, they came to our place. After piling straw around the barn, the soldiers drove our two milk cows inside, shut the doors and set it on fire. Then they killed the chickens and stole all the cured meat from the smokehouse. They were very good at their job. The whole matter took less than ten minutes.
We had our first hoarfrost a few days later. By late November the ice in Dorsey's pond was already four inches thick and people were saying it was the coldest winter they could ever remember. In mid-December we began having fierce storms almost every day with snow squalls and ice rain.
It wasn't much past four o'clock on the afternoon the stranger came. The sky was already turning dark. With another bitter night coming on I was making sure our last horse, Jupiter, was safely bedded down in the run-in shed near the back of our house.
That's when Achilles began to growl. The big mastiff was so old that his muzzle had turned milky-white but his ears were still fine. I turned to look down the hill toward the woods and saw him riding up out of the gloom.
His animal was making an ugly snuffling noise like it wasn't too happy to be out on such a miserable day. When he reached the top of the hill, the stranger rode slowly across the yard to the hitching post near the back porch. He never looked in my direction although Jupiter whinnied out a friendly greeting as they went by. Dismounting, he tied up his horse.
His head was covered by a high-crowned beaver hat and he wore a long military greatcoat with its collars turned up to protect his ears from the cold. The insignia had been ripped off but I knew it was an officer's coat because my father was wearing one just like it when they brought him home after he was shot at Chancellorsville.
A short-barreled carbine hung across the stranger's back, held on by a crude strap that ran from his right shoulder down to his left hip. What looked like cowhide breeches were stuffed into long cavalry boots. He must have been wearing spurs because they made an odd jangling sound with every step he took up to the back porch. He knocked loudly twice on the kitchen door.
When my mother answered it, he said, "They told me in the village you had room, Miz Lockhart." His voice was loud enough to carry over the wind. It was deep and grizzly.
I couldn't hear her answer but the next thing I saw he was heading inside. A few minutes later I walked over to look at his horse. It was short, stubby, and narrow-chested, about the only kind you saw anymore in the valley since General Hunter's bummers had come through back in the summer and stolen everything that wasn't nailed down. Aside from his satchel bag, the only thing the stranger's horse was carrying was a corked jug that hung from a length of twine tied to the pommel of his saddle.
I know my mother would never have rented him our room if we weren't so hard up for the extra money. Not that it was any palace. When my grandfather built his fruit cellar into the side of the hill behind the house, he constructed a large room above it with a second-story loft. For years it was used as a place to store tools. Later, my father fixed it up as an office before he began teaching at the Mossy Creek Academy.
My mother started renting it after the Yankees captured Winchester for the first time and prices at the store right away doubled for just about everything. Our first boarder was an old widower whose house took fire during the fighting at Tenth Legion. He stayed with us for almost a year until his daughter came up from Kentucky to get him. After that it was a mixed trade. Most of them were bargemen who had brought freight goods up the river and then got stuck in Port Republic when the fighting blocked their passage any further.
As far as I was concerned we didn't need any more boarders now. No matter what the old men said down at the store I knew in my heart the war couldn't last much longer and my father would be coming home again soon. I couldn't wait for things to be just like they used to be.
I finished currying Jupiter and headed inside. After hanging up my coat, I went through the back pantry into the kitchen. The stranger was sitting in my father's chair in front of the fire. He had removed his hat and coat to reveal a filthy red shirt covered by a rawhide vest that was held together by a leather watch chain. I saw that the sole of one of his boots was sprung wide open and he wasn't wearing any socks. But that wasn't unusual. Dr. Cassidy had said more than half the Confederate soldiers were completely barefoot.
He was by far the hairiest man I've ever seen. The roots started growing out of his forehead just above the brows of his fearsome black eyes. Like some kind of pelt it rose straight back over the crown of his head and fell way down below his shoulders. It even sprouted out of the backs of his hands. There were tiny icicles frozen into the long black beard that began just below his lips.
My mother was telling him exactly what I had hoped to hear. It was what she always said when she didn't like the looks of someone who asked to stay.
"My husband is away at the moment but we've received word that he is on his way home. We expect him to arrive any day now. I regret that he is usually accompanied by another officer who will have need of our spare room."
At this the stranger broke into a smile that shattered the ice particles covering his chin. I'll say this for him. He still had all his teeth.
"I reckon I cain understand that," he said. "'Course, I don't need it for mor'n a week at most. If'n your husband come home I'd get right out for sure. Don't want to get in the way of no homecomin' party. No, sir. I just wisht I had somebody waitin' for me at home after all I been through. Now I was with the artillery myself. Back in sixty-two I fought right here under ol' Stonewall hisself. Right across them fields yonder," he said, pointing in the direction of the battlefield.
"Well, I'm truly sorry but "
"Ma'arm, I surely would like a place with a real bed. I'll pay three hundred dollars the week if'n you let me stay. How's that sound?"
Of course, he was talking Confederate. Three hundred was barely enough to buy a good pair of pants but it was five times what she would have usually asked and I could see she was already spending the money in her mind on things we needed to last out the winter.
Then he said, "'Course, I'll get out the first minute your husbin come walkin' through that door."
I was about to ask him what was so special about any old bed in Port Republic when I heard my mother tell him, "If we have to ask you to leave, I will return the unused portion of the rent. And you're welcome to take meals with us although I'm afraid there isn't much to put on the table these days."
"That's mighty kind of you, ma'arm," he said.
"You'll find a pitcher and bowl on the washstand in your room and the pump is in the well house by the side porch," she went on. I doubted he would soon be taking her up on that knowledge. His fingernails were caked with dirt and he looked like he hadn't washed in a month.
"The necessary can be found in the grove of black walnuts beyond the run-in shed."
"Yes, ma'arm," he said, looking around at everything as if he now owned the place. "My name's Blewitt. Corporal Blewitt."
The black eyes stopped on me and his nose curdled up as if he smelled something bad. I figured it was probably himself.
"An' how old are you, boy?" he demanded.
"Fifteen!" he repeated, making his eyes go wide. "Mite small, ain't you?"
I said nothing in return. It was regrettably true. My mother always said, "God may have made you small so far, Jamie, but he also gave you common sense and a good brain." Personally, I'd give a good chunk of it back to Him if He would make me around six feet tall.
"I'll say this," Corporal Blewitt added. "You as pretty as a girl."
My face got hot and I was about to take his and the Lord's name in vain when my mother said, "Jamie, please go tend to Corporal Blewitt's horse while I finish preparing supper."
"Mighty obliged, ma'arm," he said.
Putting on my coat again in the pantry, I was about to walk out the door when I heard him say, "They tell me you a Yankee lady."
There was a pause and then she replied as if all the life had gone out of her.
"Who told you that?" she asked.
"Fat boy runs the store."
"I'm originally from New York," she said so low I could barely hear. "I've lived here for sixteen years."
I went outside and led his mare back to the run-in shed. She seemed grateful when I took off the saddle. In the light of a guttering candle I saw why. The saddle was U.S. Army issue but in very bad condition. Someone had made a hasty repair to the girth buckle and it had chafed a big raw spot on her belly. I also found a cluster of scabby wounds along her flanks where the man had dug in his spurs.
Right from there I hated Corporal Blewitt. I would hate anyone who could be so heartless to an animal that carried him everywhere without complaint and asked nothing more than to be treated decently. After cleaning and dressing all the raw spots, I began grooming the rest of the mare's mangy coat. Jupiter came over and showed his pity for the fellow creature by gently nuzzling her face and neck. When I was finished I gave them each a handful of ground-up cob corn.
It was starting to rain hard again as I headed across the yard in the dark. The stranger was at the wood pile gathering an armful of split hickory for the potbellied stove that kept his room warm. We ignored each other. When I got back to the house my mother was slumped over the kitchen table, her face cradled in her hands, sobbing. I put my arms around her shoulders.
"Don't worry," I said. "The war will be over soon and then Pa will be back. You'll see."
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