Carl and Rod headed for the house as the sun dropped toward the horizon. The rain earlier in the day had left the air cool and sweet, and a light breeze was blowing the final clouds away. Carl handed the milk pail to his father at the door.
“I’m all covered with mud, Pa. Best I wash up before I eat.”
“You’ll have to use the crick, son. The Yankees knocked the top of the well apart and dumped it into the shaft. I ain’t got it cleaned out yet.”
“Then I’ll bring back some water.”
Carl took two pails from the back stoop and slogged his way through the muck of the yard to the creek path. He felt like a small boy again, recalling the times he’d walked this path before the well was dug.
Carl came up to the creek, knelt, and dipped the pails into the deepest part of the water. After he set them high on the bank, he removed his shirt, tossed it aside, and plunged his arms into the water. Gasping with the impact of the cold, he splashed it onto his head and chest.
Once his face was clean, he wiped off his boots and rubbed most of the mud from his pants, then rinsed his shirt in the stream and wrung it out several times. He shook out the shirt and put it on, shivering when the cold, wet cloth made contact with his flesh.
Twilight took away most of the daylight as Carl paused to look into the water of the creek where it pooled below him. He saw a distorted reflection of the outline of his form in the dim light. Nineteen years had built his body well and tall, but the last four, with the privations of war, had hardened the muscles of his frame and made his features gaunt. His hair was too long, and the week’s growth of sandy red beard itched. He’d have to hunt up scissors and a razor as well as a comb.
As night fell, Carl shrugged his shoulders to rearrange the damp shirt, picked up the pails, and headed back to the house, guided by the lamplight from the kitchen window. Breeze on the shirt chilled him, and he walked a little faster. At the steps he re-scraped his boots, then opened the door and went inside.
“We’re just fixing to eat,” Julia called. She turned and saw the water buckets. “Thank you, son. You saved me a trip.”
Carl pulled up a chair to the table and joined Rod and Albert.
“It ain’t much, Carl, but it’ll keep you from blowing away.” Julia waved her hand toward the food. “We’re lucky to have greens. They popped up down by the crick, and I picked them late this afternoon. ‘Course, there’s corn pone, and we have milk, but there ain’t no real coffee, just roasted chicory.” She sighed as she sat at her place. “We’ll have real food again once we get a crop up.”
“That’s something we need to do some talking about,” Rod declared. “First, let’s give thanks for Carl’s safe return, and for this food we got.”
At the end of the grace, Carl glanced across the table at his father. There’d been something in his voice that foretold serious business. Rod must have felt his stare, for he looked up, his beard wrinkling as he chewed.
Rod swallowed. “Tell me how it looks south of here, son. What did Sheridan leave for the folks in the south end of the Valley? You came from Staunton, I reckon?” Rod took a bite of greens.
“He burnt or pulled down homes, barns, crops, orchards, ‘most everything, all the way to Staunton and beyond. It’s a famine time. A crow flying by would have to bring his own rations.” He paused to chew a piece of pone. “Ma, it’s a wonder to me the Yankees left our house alone when they came back through.”
“I had my good Sharps rifle, and I set right there in the doorway and wouldn’t budge none. After a while they left me be and went out back to burn the barn.”
“Marie could-a been killed,” Albert said, frowning. “Them dirty Yankees didn’t wait ‘til she was out of the barn to set it afire.” Albert’s eyes looked dark and fierce. “I wish I’d a been down here shooting me some Yankees instead of up in the hills with Clay and all them cows!”
“Likely they’d have shot you, Albert,” Carl said. “Praise God you was up there!”
Rod’s mouth tightened. “What about livestock, son? What did you see?”
“I reckon we’ve got more cattle than any five stock men down the Valley, Pa. Maybe five pigs, thin stuff; not more’n ten hens anywhere. I reckon Grant didn’t want no more supplies coming out of the Shenandoah. He meant for little Phil Sheridan to clean us out, and he did the job.”
“Lucky I was warned some,” Julia said, “or I wouldn’t have had time to send the boys off up the hill.”
Rod chewed his food slowly, his face looking thoughtful. “I reckon we’re eating about as well as Rand Hilbrands. The Yankees missed burning the store in Mount Jackson, so he still has food to put on his table.”
“What happened over to Chester Bates’ place, Pa?”
“He lost his barn, and the house is gutted out. They burned his fields bare. The Bates family is about wiped off the face of the earth, I’d say.”
“Are they all dead?”
“They’ve got their lives and little else.”
“That’s sure a pity.” Carl wiped his mouth with his hand. “They had the prettiest stone house I believe I’ve ever seen. Where are they living now?”
“Right on the place, in the old tool shed.”
“Hush, that’s a shame. There’s no finer man than Chester Bates, ‘cept for you and John Mosby, Pa.”
“Andy Campbell says his pa’s so mad about his place being wrecked, he wants to clear out and go someplace else,” Albert reported.
Rod Owen cleared his throat. “That’s just what I aim to do.”
Rod Owen just dropped a bombshell on his family. (Considering they just survived a war, perhaps that wasn't the best thing he might have done. Sorry. Poor joke.) How do you suppose Julia feels about this unilateral decision on the part of her husband? Have you ever faced the necessity of changing the course of your life in a moment's time? How did you manage?