The Man from Shenandoah
The gaunt-featured young man with the lanky build choked down the last of his moldy bread, then got to his feet and climbed atop the stone wall against which he’d been sitting. Carl Owen looked as far as he could see down the Valley Pike, about 200 yards, but no one was in sight. Turning to look at the burned-out field the wall enclosed, he surveyed the gray-toned devastation made muddy by today’s intermittent rain.
Rage rising in him, thundering in his ears as his heartbeat quickened in frustration and hate, he shook his fist at the sky.
“Phil Sheridan, may God spit in your eye for the ruin you brought to this valley. Rot in hell, Sheridan!”
“Get him!” he heard, just before he was tackled from behind, tumbling him off the wall and into the mud. Carl came up sputtering muck. As he wiped gluey sludge from his eyes, someone kicked him. He was hauled to his feet—arms brutally twisted behind his back—and dragged over the wall to where a huge, red-faced sergeant in a faded blue uniform stood waiting for him.
“Yankees,” Carl groaned, berating himself for letting his guard down enough to miss their approach. Panic coursed through his belly. He tried to tear free, but two soldiers gripped his arms, and he finally quit struggling.
The sergeant stood with his legs spread apart, looking Carl up and down. “Johnny Reb, you’re on the loose. We have a stout prisoner of war camp for you up in Washington City.” He bent forward, laughing in Carl’s face, who involuntarily wrinkled his nose and squinted shut his eyes at the overpowering odor of liquor fumes. The man frowned, drew a knife from a sheath on his belt, and tested it on his thumb.
“You look at me, Johnny Reb,” he snarled. “Look at me when I speak to you!”
Carl opened his eyes and stared into the Yankee’s mean eyes. “I have parole papers,” he said, raising his muddy, stubbled chin in defiance.
“You’re violating your parole, wearing the uniform of the Confederate Army,” the Yankee said, and put his blade against Carl’s throat. The young man sucked in a breath, then held it, careful not to move.
Just then, a burly soldier came up behind the sergeant. “Sarge, you told us we were going to find some Southern belles to entertain us,” he complained. “Let’s dump him in the woods.”
“Keep your nose out of official business. I’ll open him up a bit and teach him how to act around his betters.”
From the north, a rider came pounding up the road, spurring his horse, then sawing on the reins to bring it to a halt. He alighted and ran to the sergeant.
“The major’s coming down the road. You’d better not let him catch you cutting another Reb.”
The sergeant cursed and turned back to Carl, grabbing the front of his coat.
“You got no right to wear a uniform, you dirty Rebel pup.” He took a fresh grip on his knife and addressed the soldiers restraining Carl. “Hold him tight while I teach him a lesson.”
Carl felt the tight prickle of fear racing up his spine as the soldiers freshened their hold on his arms. The sergeant looked around at the road, cursed again, turned to Carl, and cut the embossed buttons from his coat. He jerked the coat open, grinning evilly, and cut the buttons from his shirt, as well.
“Now you’re not a soldier.” The man cackled as he pocketed the buttons and sheathed his knife. “Let him loose,” he ordered, motioning to the soldiers. As they dropped his arms, he looked Carl up and down once more, his expression changing to hatred. The sergeant half turned away, then spun back, and with a massive fist knocked Carl flat. “Mount up,” the sergeant barked, and strode toward his horse, weaving a bit.
Lying in the mud, propped on one elbow, Carl wiped blood from his jaw, tasting salt as he tongued his molars to see if they were still tight. He watched the patrol leave, hate burning his belly. He turned over onto his knees and got to his feet, wincing at the pain, then whistled for his horse. Looking around for his hat, he found it on the wall where it had landed when he was attacked. He brushed at the soft, shapeless felt, removing a splash of mud, then he jammed it onto his head.
Sherando came trotting out of the trees, gray coat glistening in the misty rain that had once again begun to fall. The horse jumped the fence to reach Carl and nickered softly. Carl checked to see that the Yankee rifle was secure in the scabbard. “Sure glad them Billy Blues was so drunk they didn’t find you, boy,” he whispered through raw lips.
He swung into the saddle and straightened his back, swiped at his face with both hands to remove as much mud as he could, then ran his fingers through the blond hair at the nape of his neck, tugging loose both tangles and mud. He hoped someone at home had a comb, for he had lost his personal gear in a wild, last-ditch ride for freedom with Colonel John Mosby. Carl’s patrol had ridden into a Yankee camp to surrender after the war’s end. Union officers gave the Confederate cavalrymen parole papers and turned them free instead of holding them as prisoners of war. Carl had stolen the rifle as he left camp, but hadn’t had a chance to replace other gear.
The young man turned his horse onto the Valley Pike, laughing as joy surged through him. “Benjamin will have a comb. It’ll be fine to see him again.” Carl kneed Sherando to a trot, and launched into a tune he’d heard somewhere. “Oh Shenandoah, I’m comin’ to ya. I’m here, you rolling river.”
Carl looked toward the shallow river flowing beside the road and grinned at the cleverness of his new words to an old song. “Hold up that head, horse. We’ll show the folks that a passel of Yankees can’t lick a Virginia boy. We’re goin’ home!”
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