The Horse Boy
by Scott Rhew
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This story is dedicated to my Uncle Ed, Lt. John Stewart and the other members of the 1st NC Artillery, Reilly's Battery, Civil War reenactors (and Little Joe).
I remember seeing the floating, white clouds and feeling the bright sunshine on my face. I always liked to find shapes in the clouds. Suddenly, I became aware of the creaking sound of the hay cart as my Ma moved it in the barn below me. Billowy gray clouds blocked the sun as I realized, almost at the same instant, that my head ached tremendously and I was not standing in the door of the hayloft as I remembered. "Ma!" I call out weakly and to my surprise a man leans over me and tells me to take it easy. He has a weather-beaten face and shiny blue eyes that remind me of a summer sky. His voice is gentle as he tells me I need to rest. I ask him for my Ma, and his gentle face looks incredibly sad. "Your Ma's gone, son." he replies in a soft drawling voice. "Gone, gone where?" I ask, not believing she would leave me alone. He explains that we were hit by an artillery shell fired from some distance, but he couldn't say which side had fired the shot. It was at that moment I realized he was dressed in a gray uniform and reality crashed down on my little world. I knew then my Ma was dead and not just gone somewhere. I also knew that this blasted war had once again reached out to change my life.
My name is Jeb and I am ten years old. My home is on a small horse farm in the Shenendoah Valley of Virginia, outside Lexington. My Pa's name is Caleb and my Ma was Mary Virginia. My older brother, Luke, was killed in action at the First Battle of Bull Run, known as Manassas to us Southerners. My Pa serves in the 1st Virginia Cavalry under Major General J.E.B. Stuart, at least I think he's still alive. We last heard from him six months ago before the Battle of Chancellorsville. When Luke died, my Ma took comfort from the fact that he had lost his life in a battle which was considered a great victory for the South. She was also proud that he had served under Brigadier General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who by all accounts had fought brilliantly at Manassas. I, on the other hand, could find no comfort in any of that, all I knew was my life was changed forever by the loss of a brother I loved. My simple pleasures of being a boy and running and playing with the horses we raised on our farm were stolen from me. I hated both sides with a white-hot fury for starting this wretched war.
My thoughts slowly returned to the present when I heard the creaking sound that reminded me of our hay cart. I turned toward the sound and saw a small group of gray clad soldiers with horses pulling a cannon across our pasture. The pain in my head returned but I pulled myself to a sitting position to look around. The hay barn was destroyed and some soldiers were gathered around a fresh mound of dirt that could only be my mother's grave. The soldier with the blue eyes tells me that they want to say a few words over my Ma's grave and place a cross constructed by one of the soldiers as a marker. I nod at him as the tears begin to burn my eyes, but I won't let them see me cry. Slowly everything fades to black as my head begins to pound.
Sometime later I hear voices speaking in angry tones. I open my eyes to a starlit sky and hear the sound of a fire crackling nearby. Someone says, "How can we Watch after a boy when we're fightin'?" A softer voice replies, "He'll stay in camp and help care for the horses, he knows how, he was raised on a horse farm." Another voice calls out, "Why can't we just leave him here, he'll find someplace to go?" The softer voice says, "Would you want your son left like that?" A gravelly voice says, "How we gonna feed him, John?" Again the softer voice replies, "I'll give him part of my ration." After a pause, a deep voice says, "He's your responsibility, John." The soft voice speaks once more, "Yes, Sir, I understand." I remember thinking that it sounded like an argument over whether or not to take in a stray dog and my resentment grew.
The next morning I'm loaded onto a supply wagon by the soldier with the blue eyes and I realize he's the one called John. As the days and nights pass he watches over me and feeds me cheese or bread from his rations. I discover that he is 1st Lt. John Stewart, by listening to the other soldiers talk. The one thing I notice about him is his horse, an exquisite light bay colored quarter horse called Little Joe. He was the most beautiful horse I'd ever seen. He was proud and strong, a large horse who demanded your attention.
My strength has returned now and I have started with my chores just as I would have back home. After the day's battle I feed, water and brush the horses and talk to them about my day in camp. I don't talk to the soldiers, only the horses. They are here, like myself, not by choice. I know the soldiers think I'm odd because I only talk to the horses, they call me the "horse boy". I've never spoken to them and I don't intend to. John comes to check on Little Joe every night. He rubs him and talks to him about the old days on their horse farm. I can tell he misses those days and I almost feel like talking to him, but I won't.
The days drag on and I begin to count the battles by the number of horses who don't return to my care in the evening. I find myself watching for Little Joe. When I see his proud head with his reddish mane blowing in the breeze and see the guidon flag I relax because I know he's safe. I always take extra care with him and no matter how tired he is when John comes in the late evening to check on him, he stamps and prances like a young colt. John always tries to bring him a treat, a bit of an apple or a raw turnip he has foraged from a field. I suppose I shouldn't have been eavesdropping on John from my small canvas tent near the horse picket line. John probably thought I was asleep anyway. After listening to him reassure Little Joe that after this crazy war was over they could go back to their normal life on their horse farm, I slowly begin to see that John and I aren't so different. Unlike my brother, Luke, who had rushed off to a war that he thought was glamorous and full of parades, John had been pulled into the war not for glamour, but by a sense of duty and responsibility. He hated the war as much as I did, but didn't show it because he had to lead his men.
Days dragged on into months and months into a year. Battles became more fierce and desperate. Food was always scarce and John's shared rations became smaller. He never failed to feed me or find some small treat for Little Joe. I couldn't understand his kindness for me when I had never said thank you or even told him my name.
One evening when the soldiers were returning to camp from battle, I didn't see the guidon flag flying or Little Joe's proud head. A soldier came to the horse picket line leading Little Joe, but John was nowhere in sight. Little Joe wasn't prancing and his head was held low. I wondered what was going on. Later in the night when John didn't come to talk to Little Joe I knew something was terribly wrong. I ventured into the main camp to look for John. I overheard the soldiers talking about the terrible battle that day and how many soldiers had been wounded or killed. It was then I realized John must be one of them. I asked one of the soldiers where I could find 1st Lt. John Stewart, not thinking how strange it would seem to them that the "horse boy" had finally talked. He pointed me in the direction of the field hospital. I would never have gone near that place if I hadn't been so worried about John. I found him there lying on a cot looking horribly pale and still. The doctor said he had been shot in the arm and had not come to since the surgery. I was afraid to see if he'd lost his arm. I finally gathered the courage to look, and was relieved to see his arm bloody and bandaged under the covers.
That night I talked to John as I had always talked to the horses knowing he couldn't answer and probably couldn't even hear me. I told him my name, what my life had been like before this war, what I missed the most and finally how much I hated both sides for starting this war. He was ghostly white against the sheets, pale and lifeless. I finally thanked him for all he'd done for me fearing I'd waited too late. All that long night I sat with John hoping desperately that he would come to. I was shaken awake by the doctor just as dawn was breaking, he said I should return to the horses. I stood and turned to leave when I heard a feeble voice say, "Thanks Jeb, I feel the same way." I wheeled around to see John's shiny blue eyes looking at me. I realized that he had somehow heard me talking to him through the night and understood how I felt. I smiled for the first time in what seemed like years, as John managed a weak smile himself. I looked at him and said, "I've got to go tell Little Joe that this war is over for the three of us."
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