Editor's Note: This short
story first appeared in the October 2015 Charger.
Sam was his name, or at least
that’s what he told people. Not that too many asked, not these days,
not when they saw his eyes.
had once worn gray and cheered the Confederacy as loudly as anyone,
but victory was no closer now than it had ever been. The war was the
war, all-encompassing, and the news lately had been grim: Stonewall
dead, Lee marching back downcast from Gettysburg, food riots in
Richmond, niggers fleeing north by the thousands. If he was honest
with himself – something that didn’t come naturally, not these days
– he had to admit that he really didn’t care much anymore.
He had seen things and done things
that he wouldn’t even have been able to imagine before the war.
Terrible things, and too many of them, yes. He was not proud of it.
He was a young man by years, not even yet twenty-three, but he had
grown old, far too old, far too quickly after the deaths of his
parents and sister. He had been away when it happened, on a
now-forgotten errand to Somerset, and through his tears upon
returning had found nothing to tie their murders and the ruination
of their farm to those clad in either gray or blue. Freebooters,
deserters, ruffians and vagabonds of both sides came through the
area regularly by then; it could just have easily been either. As a
Southerner, of course, it suited him to blame the Lincoln men, but
in his heart he could not be sure.
Sam had joined a cavalry regiment
and been proud of his new uniform, determined to repay the Federals
in blood and iron for what he had by then convinced himself they had
done, but four battles – each worse than the one before – had
changed him; had dissuaded him from the virtues of patriotism and
martial ardor. The incompetence of his officers, the wretched food
and shoddy supplies, the filth and boredom of military life, and
most importantly the horrors of the merciless battlefield had
further set his thoughts adrift. It had all made him question his
oath, the Cause, all of that, and had finally led him to decide to
go his own way.
And so he had. There came a night,
on a two-man patrol with a corporal he’d long hated, not far beyond
the Confederate lines near Ensworth, that he had shot the other man
and ridden off into the darkness. From then on he would fight for
himself and no other. From then on it was his war alone. All alone.
Upon due reflection, what he
decided upon was a sustained practice of horse thievery. That, he
figured, would do nicely. That would be his war.
Sam had called upon the remote
farms and ramshackle country houses of Dobbs County for almost three
months now, taking what he wanted and knocking down anyone who got
in his way. Sometimes a glare was enough for him to have his way, or
the display of his pistols, but sometimes it wasn’t. He had been
cursed at, and shot at, had endured cold and rain, and changed
mounts as the occasion arose, which was often. He had not eaten
well, but there had been enough. The lice bothered him, and he knew
he smelled, but that was of no importance to him.
He was tired enough of his own skin
and of the privations of life in the wilderness that he had not
particularly minded the threat of death when it presented itself
forthrightly to him. If he died, he died, and he had grown almost
comfortable with the thought. He was not a fool; he avoided the
armed and uniformed men of both armies with the same disinterested
skill. When he nevertheless inadvertently met up with them, or with
the farmers or townsfolk of the county who had come over time to
hate and fear him, sometimes the bullets whizzed past and he had
found something almost whimsical in the sound. Death came his way
now and then, yes, it surely did, and he dealt it out to others as
the need arose, which it occasionally did.
It was not yet his time to die. It
just wasn’t. He knew that in a way he did not understand, but
nevertheless accepted with calm and without pride, for he was not a
prideful man. He had a talent for horse thievery, though, which
surprised him at first, before he came to take it for granted.
It was early October – he could not
rightly say the exact date, having had neither the opportunity nor
the need to consult a calendar in some time – but a crisp autumnal
afternoon in any event, and he knew it was time to get himself
another horse, for this old mare was becoming lame. He thought maybe
he might get himself some food, and a spot of whiskey would not be
He was making his way towards the
Carpenter farm, well away from the Widow Marsden’s place, when he
came across two niggers on a back road. He had plainly come upon
them unawares, the fall of his horse’s hooves too soft to be heard
in the thick dust of the road. They were carrying knapsacks, were
these two men, and were filthy, as was he, and their eyes widened
when they saw him. He was too tired to find it comical, as he had in
his former life, what now seemed like ages ago.
“Who are you?” he asked them, in
the old and customarily peremptory tone of command, now once more
taken up as a matter of course, of a Southern man talking to a
One looked at the other and they
wordlessly seemed to communicate something in that instant. Sam
repeated, still more harshly, “Who are you?”
“I’m Fred,” said the taller one,
“and this here’s Eustace, suh.”
“Fred and Eustace. I don’t know
you, but I don’t reckon I would. Where you from, boy?”
“We’s from Kingston, originally,
suh. But now we’s goin’ to Boyle’s Crossing.”
“Is that so. Who’s your master?”
The eyes on the tall one, Fred he
said his name was, narrowed just a little. Just a little, but enough
that Sam noticed it. “We don’t got no master,” he replied with
something passing for dignity. “We’s free.”
“Yeah? You got any papers to show
“Let me see them.”
Fred straightened a little. “Well,
suh, why do you want to see them?”
Eustace was looking at Sam, staring
at him really, and Sam didn’t like it. He said, “Never you mind
that, boy. You see this uniform? I’m a Confederate soldier, and I
ain’t supposed to let no slave property high-tail it north when it
ought to be back on the plantation, doing what it ought to be doing.
You hear me? This here road heads north, don’t it? So if you’re
free, let me see those papers.”
Fred seemed to consider that for
awhile. “Well, sir, you know what, I think I’ll decline.
Respectfully, of course.” Eustace smiled a little and nodded. He
didn’t take his eyes off Sam.
Sam laughed, and spat on the
ground. “I don’t give a damn for your respect, nigger. To hell with
that, and to hell with you. But I’ll see those papers or kill you on
the spot. It’s all the same to me. Runaway slaves as good as dead if
I find ‘em.”
“We ain’t runaways,” Eustace said,
finally speaking up, but Sam thought he was lying. Knew he was. The
black man went on, “You just a no-account deserter and we don’t have
to show you nothin’.”
That was more than Sam could bear,
although – and maybe especially because – it was true. But they
didn’t know that, and he’d be damned if he’d concede the point. He
drew a pistol, his favorite, the big Navy Colt, dark and heavy in
his hand, and immediately felt a kind of calm that was yet still
angry enter his veins. He pointed the weapon at the two darkies.
Fred, it gave him a little thrill of satisfaction, flinched to see
it. Eustace just kept staring and staring at him, like he was going
to knock him off his horse by the sheer directness of his gaze.
“You want to watch your mouth, boy,
and quit staring,” Sam said sharply. “Watch that mouth or I’ll close
it for you once and for all. Now let me see your papers.”
The two looked at each other again
and, after what seemed like an intolerably long time, Fred said
quietly, “No, suh, I don’t think we’re going to show you our papers.
Why don’t you just leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone, what
do you say?”
But Sam shot him where he stood,
and when Eustace, with a cry, began reaching into his knapsack Sam
shot him too, and they both fell and Fred was still moving so Sam
shot him again, shot them both, made sure they were dead, which in
due course they both were.
He was not a prideful man, as
heretofore stated. He went through their blood-spattered clothes and
their knapsacks, finding three Yankee dollars, and some apples, and
some neatly-wrapped yellow cheese, and a hunk of bread, as well as
some other things, odds and ends of no use to him. He took the
money, and he put the food away for the moment, still in hopes of
finding a better meal at the Carpenters’. Eustace, he found, had a
big knife in his knapsack, and he thought maybe the nigger had been
going for it when he shot them. There were some papers but he didn’t
trouble to look at them, there now being no particular reason to do
Not three minutes later he mounted
up and rode on, leaving the dead to the flies and the scavengers.
The autumn sun began dropping to the horizon, and somewhere not far
distant a bird called. He did not look back.
Several weeks later, it was getting
colder day by day, and Sam could tell that the snows were not far
off. He had moved out of Dobbs County and into what was new
territory for him. He had had the sense now and then that he was
being watched, that unfriendly eyes were marking his comings and
goings. He did not want to become so known as a presence in the
backwoods and farms in those parts that his movements might be
anticipated, and that he might then run into an ambush or a patrol,
taken unawares despite his precautions.
So he left Dobbs County and found
himself in the adjoining Jessup County, relatively unfamiliar
territory to him. He hadn’t been in Jessup much at all before the
war, and was uneasy in having to learn his way, but by now he had
some confidence in his ability to live wherever he found himself.
The day came when his horse was
beginning to wear out and he knew that he again needed a new mount.
He found an isolated farmhouse and, by careful scouting, determined
that a man, a woman and what appeared to be their teenage daughter
lived there. There were three horses in the barn. He needed food,
too, so he decided to take the direct approach, as he had so many
times in the past. He rode up, dismounted and kicked in the door,
pistol in hand.
The three were at the table
together. They were plainly alarmed but said nothing.
“Get me some food,” he ordered the
lady of the house, a thin, stringy-looking woman who looked like
she’d never smiled once in her entire damn life. She stood up. The
husband, a small man, older, with tiny eyes and a thick beard, and
the daughter, freckled but not ever likely to be called pretty, were
still sitting at the kitchen table, watching him as carefully as
could be. They said nothing, so he went on, “Give me some food in
whatever you have to carry it in, and be quick about it.”
“All right, mister,” the lady said,
slowly opening a drawer and then a cupboard, filling a small sack
with hard bread, dried corn and some peanuts. She handed the sack to
him, glancing uneasily at his gun as she did so.
He weighed the sack in his hand; it
would do. He could see they didn’t have much, and he retained some
tiny residual residue of human charity, at least, such that he
didn’t want to clean them out entirely. “All right,” he said. “Don’t
none of you come out of the house for ten minutes, now, you hear?”
They all nodded like marionettes;
the father’s eyes narrowed a little as he did.
Sam went back outside, closing the
door behind him; it swung on just one hinge now. He led his horse
quickly to the barn, selected what looked like the best of the
horses there, and transferred his saddle, blanket and other gear to
He was just finishing when he heard
a sound, a small sound, not far away. He turned to see the husband
there with a shotgun. “You ain’t taking no horse of mine, mister,”
the man said in an even voice, and at once pulled the trigger.
Sam was already moving, throwing
himself behind a beam, onto the uneven dirt floor, hitting hard and
rolling. The roar and the stink of the shotgun blast filled the
barn. The man had fired where he had just been, and had plainly
missed. Sam drew his own gun and came up shooting. He missed too,
the first shot, but the second and maybe the third hit the man in
his side and he fell without a sound, fell like a dropped hammer.
Sam didn’t check him. Unsure what
the wife and daughter might be up to by then, he figured he ought to
be taking his leave of the place, and did just that. As he galloped
back down the road, he thought he heard screaming somewhere behind
him, and then another bang, a rifle from the sound of it. Instantly
he felt the impact on his upper right back, knocking him forward,
almost out of the saddle, as if a giant had walloped him in some
ill-conceived gesture of companionship and good cheer.
Far from it. He had been shot. He
gave the spur to his horse and kept going, as the pain hit, as it
sunk in, wave upon wave of agony radiating out from his wound. He
kept going and left the farm behind.
Sam rode along for a long time – he
didn’t know, couldn’t tell through his pain, just how long – and
eventually the sky began to turn orange, then red. He hurt, he hurt
real bad. He heard nothing more behind him, but on he rode just the
same. His new horse, as if resentful for its master’s killing,
fought him as they went, and he used the reins and spurs harder than
he might have otherwise. His back hurt terribly and he wanted
shelter, but found none until night had come to the woods around
him. At last he came to a closely-growing group of trees that, he
hoped, would shield him from hostile eyes. He tied the horse to a
tree, wincing, almost screaming, as he did so, and eased himself to
the ground, onto his stomach. He was very hungry, starving even, but
his fatigue and pain won out, and he fell into an uneasy asleep.
He awoke to a long rumble of
thunder. He did not feel at all rested. It was still dark, and he
was dimly aware that he was soaked to the skin. A steady cold
drizzle of rain fell on him, and in a flash of lightning he saw the
horse not far away, where he’d tied it, looking as forlorn and weary
as he himself felt. The thunder sounded again and he pulled his wool
coat around him, hurting far too much to rise and get his raingear
from the saddle.
The storm went on and on, and he
eventually drifted back to sleep, never free of the fiery pain of
his wounded back.
The next time he woke, it was with
a start, almost a jolt, instantly aware that he was not alone. He
was on his back now, and hurt even worse. His hand went to his
pistol, but a booted foot stepped on his wrist and he could not draw
“Watch out there, son,” said a
cavalry trooper in Federal blue, three yellow chevrons on his
sleeves, bearded and grizzled. He reached down and took the pistol
away. “Don’t think you need this just now.”
Sam started to get up but became
dizzy from the pain. He slumped back, wet and hurting. He saw that
it was not long after sunrise. The Yankee sergeant was with four
other men, each in blue, all ragged, unshaven and smelly. They had
carbines slung over their shoulders, and sabers hung at their sides.
Three remained mounted; one, a gangly youth, stood nearby, holding
his carbine at the ready with a nervous alertness.
“He looks mighty pale,” the youth
“Reckon he’s been shot,” said
another. “Bleeding out. I know the look.”
“You been shot, son?” the sergeant
asked, not unkindly. Sam nodded. “Whereabouts? Where on you, I
“M’back,” he whispered.
“My back,” he said, more
distinctly, finding that it hurt even to talk now. “Here.” He tried
to gesture but found, to his mild surprise, that he couldn’t.
“Is that right?” the sergeant said.
“Well, let’s see.” He patted Sam down for other weapons, taking his
other pistol and his knife, and lifted his shoulder. Sam screamed in
pain, flushing a bird from a nearby bush. The sergeant held his
shoulder up off the ground for what seemed like forever, looking him
over. Sam nearly passed out from the agony before the sergeant let
him back down. “Yep, you were shot but good, son. Why’d somebody
want to shoot you?”
Sam licked his lips. “Don’t know.”
The sergeant chuckled softly. “Oh,
I reckon you do. I surely do. Couldn’t have been on account of
you’re that horse thief we keep hearing about ‘round here, could
Sam shook his head. It hurt and he
“This your horse here?” The
cavalryman nodded at the tethered beast.
Sam nodded, and gasped a little.
That hurt, too, even worse.
“How long you had it?”
What should he say? “Dunno. Six,
seven months, maybe.”
“Uh huh. Is it branded?”
Sam didn’t know; there hadn’t been
time to check. “I… I forget.”
“Not the kind of thing you’d be
likely to forget, having a horse that long, is it?” one of the other
Sam didn’t look at him; didn’t
The sergeant hawked up a gob of
phlegm, a long, disgusting sound, and spat it on the ground. “Come
to think of it, looks a lot like the horse Mrs. Spence said got
stolen yesterday by a man she described as looking a lot like you.”
“That’s right,” said the youth, as
if eager to please.
Sam said nothing.
“A man she thinks killed her
husband, but who her husband shot and wounded ‘fore he died,” said
the sergeant. “But I guess he got his licks in, huh?”
Sam didn’t like the sergeant’s
expression, to say nothing of his words, and was silent. Didn’t seem
to be any point in saying anything.
The silence stretched out.
“You’re in secesh uniform, armed,
with a horse that ain’t yours,” the sergeant said at last. He looked
at Sam a little longer, speculatively, then turned to the others.
“Well, now, General Thomas don’t like no horsethieves, does he,
boys? Or secesh deserters, murderers?”
They answered. “No, he surely
“Hell, no, Sergeant.”
One of the troopers still in the
saddle said nothing, clearly bored with it all.
“I reckon I could just shoot you
now, and nobody’d say boo,” the sergeant said, hefting Sam’s guns in
his hands, “but I ‘spect you’re gonna die soon anyway, from the
looks of things.”
Sam stared at him, tiredly hating
the man but not able to do much about it.
The sergeant spat on the ground
again and turned to Sam’s horse. He untied it and mounted his own
horse, leading Sam’s behind him. With it went Sam’s provisions, his
gear, his blanket, and with it, most likely, went the possibility of
any kind of tomorrow. “Well, g’bye, then, Johnny Reb,” he said.
“Nice talking to you.”
They rode off, and Sam just lay
there. That seemed like the thing to do. He closed his eyes, alone
with his wound, alone with his damn pain, the wave upon wave of it.
He was cold and wet and unarmed and hungry, and something else he
didn’t even want to think about. No. He wouldn’t.
Time passed, a long time. It was
Clouds passed overhead, then
thickened. It grew dark once more. After awhile the rain started up
again, a drop or two, then a dozen, then a cold, steady downpour,
but he did not feel it. He was no longer in pain. He felt nothing,
saw nothing, knew nothing. Alone and unmourned, he never would
The war kept on, of course, but
then after awhile it stopped, too.