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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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,
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
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
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
"Don't worry," I said. "The war will be over soon and then
Pa will be back. You'll see."