A copperhead snake slithered out of the strawberry patch and onto the road. Sensing vibration, the reptile’s languid trek came to a halt. Only the tongue continued moving, darting out to smell the air for prey. Tan and black markings matched the underbrush so well, Jackson barely caught sight of the telltale triangular shaped head. He pulled up on the reins, then gave Charger a pat. The horse had nerves of steel. Having survived the war, there wasn’t much his mount couldn’t face, except, a snake. “Men, don’t move.” His assistants pulled up their mounts. Quietly, Jackson removed his colt revolver from the holster. Getting a bead, he aimed right for the head. The shot echoed across the Valley as the snake jerked, then lay still. Jackson tipped his gun to his mouth and blew away the smoke. He was a man used to taking care of trouble.
They continued on across the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Apple orchards were in full bloom and birds chattered to one another announcing the arrival of spring. The horrors of the civil war were finally over. After four long years, the valley lurched and crawled its way into recovery. It was going to be a long, arduous, process.
Jackson Daniels, accompanied by his assistants, Lawrence, Felt, and Manning, were there to buy up land for the railroad. “Look right through that pass boys.” Jackson pointed. “Just where that little cabin sits. The slope of the land suggests this will be a perfect spot for laying track.”
Manning, the most talkative of the group, agreed. “Yes, sir, Mr. Daniels, the only thing blocking the path, is this farm. Not too many rocks or trees though, it won’t be much of a problem. The B&O will roll through here like Sheridan on his valley campaign.”
Jackson ran his hand along his beard. “Unlike Sheridan, we, Mr. Manning, won’t be torching the place.” His thoughts drifted back to the Battle of Cedar Creek. Jubal’s Early’s attack had nearly broken through the Union lines. The loss of life and depth of suffering rested heavy on his heart.
He shook the depressing thoughts from his mind. “Men, the Shenandoah was the breadbasket of the south and will be again. The Baltimore and Ohio will usher in a new day for these people and for the nation. Let us push on.”
He brought them to a halt and gave instructions. “Split up and fan out across the area. Cover a one-mile swath. The survey team wants that report as soon as possible.” He pulled his watch out of his waistcoat pocket. “We will meet back in two hours’ time. That would put us at about one o’clock, understood?”
“Yes, sir,” they replied in unison. Jackson smiled to himself. If this had been the war years, the young men would have given a smart salute. He was glad it was not. Their current mission did not cause him nearly the same consternation. For that, he was grateful.
Jackson directed Charger up the apple orchard path as it veered to the right. He passed a rickety chicken coop and a broad field being prepared for spring planting. The mountain laurel displayed white foliage in celebration of spring. He was lost in thought as he gazed at the lovely display.
“Stop right there.” A sharp little voice rang out from behind a large apple tree. The barrel of a shotgun accompanied it. He heard the lever click as the gun was lowered straight toward his head. Hair on the back of his neck stood up at the familiar feeling.
A skinny boy stepped from around the tree. Dressed in overalls and tattered shirt, his feet were covered with boots that had seen better days. A floppy hat was mashed so low, Jackson could barely see the young man’s eyes.
The high-pitched voice continued. “Git. We don’t abide trespassers.” The boy motioned with his head. “Git off my land.”
Jackson ground his jaw in anger. What did this little bootlicker think he was doing? Charger gave a snort and pawed the ground. Jackson reached up and removed his hat. With his handkerchief, he slowly wiped the sweat off his brow. He knew from experience it was best to try and distract the enemy when held at a disadvantage.
As cool as a cucumber, he sat back in the saddle. The weight of the pistol on his hip made his hand itch. He would bide his time. “I like to be introduced before having a gun pointed at me, young man. Jackson Daniels, of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, at your service. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
The shotgun was slightly lowered and the miscreant licked the sweat off his upper lip. “The railroad, huh? I don’t give no never mind if you’re here with the angels in clouds of glory. You git off my land.”
This little ragamuffin was infuriating. Charger took a step forward and whinnied. Jackson rolled the tobacco in his cheek and spit a brown wad on the ground. “I’d be glad to answer any questions you pose, just as soon as you lower that weapon.”
“Ain’t got no questions.” The young man looked suspiciously at Jackson and narrowed his eyes. “I just want you off my land. You and those Yankees you came with.”
“And just how do you know we’re Yankees?”
“Dressed up like a fancy rooster. Nobody got no money for such things round here except Yankees. Now turn that horse around. I’ll follow you till you leave my place.”
“I’ll be glad to leave. Just as soon as you lower your weapon. I didn’t survive the war to be shot by the likes of you. I’m here to speak to the owner of this property. Kindly put down that gun and take me to him.”
“You’re talking to him. I know the railroad is buying up property all over the valley. We ain’t selling.”
“To whom do you refer as ‘we’?” Jackson was growing impatient. He didn’t like bandying words with a child and he liked having a gun pointed at him even less. The boy was far too ignorant and aggressive for his taste and it didn’t look like he had any intention of taking him to any adults on the place.
Charger shifted from foot to foot as Jackson adjusted his weight. The leather saddle underneath him squeaked. “I assure you, young man, I pose no threat. I’ll ask you one last time, put that gun down.” The mountain boy slowly stepped from behind the tree, his shotgun still raised. The skinny body was covered in a pair of overalls, two sizes too big. A rumpled hat framed a face so dirty, it was nearly the same color as the red-brown earth of the mountains. Jackson noticed the boy’s shirt had a large, un-mended tear in the elbow
Slowly, the boy un-cocked the shotgun and brought it down. “All right. I’ve done what you asked. Now git.”
Jackson kicked Charger into a run and headed straight for the young rapscallion. The rebel was overtaken in mere seconds and so shocked, he dropped his gun to the ground. Jackson swooped down and jerked the boy up by the overalls dangling him by Charger’s side. “How dare you point a gun at me, young man! You’re lucky it’s me. Another man would have shot you clear through.” The little waif struggled to free himself but Jackson held him roughly by the gallouses. “I see you’ve still got some fight left in you.” Tossing the boy facedown over his lap, he directed Charger to the closest apple tree. “You’ll not do such a foolish thing again, I’d wager.”
Jackson reached over and picked a switch. Leaves dropped to the ground in a flurry as he ripped it loose. With rapier-like precision, he lay a set of six stripes across the skinny, wiggling rear end. Giving the boy another shake, he dropped him to the ground whereupon the scrawny young man danced up and down, rubbing the seat of his pants and waving his boney fists. Amazingly, the miscreant had managed to keep his filthy hat on.
“You cussed Yankee. Owweeee!! How dare you whip me! Why, I oughtta…”
“Ought to what, young sir? Be careful of that mouth. There’s plenty more switches on these apple trees if you haven’t had enough.”
The boy flashed Jackson a look of pure hatred then took off running for home. The floppy boots didn’t seem to slow him down a bit and soon, he disappeared over a small rise. Jackson guided Charger to the shotgun, dismounted and scooped it up. Cracking it open, he let the shot fall to the ground.
“Let’s go find the owner, Charger.”
Jackson turned his horse back along the road toward the small cabin that sat in the cleft between two hills. He expertly scanned the area. It looked as if the next heavy thunderstorm would save the work crews the task of knocking it down. Chickens scratched in the yard and an old hound dog slept in the shade. Boards needed mending and junk was stacked on the porch. The smell of wood smoke permeated everything. A pair of long johns lay across some twine stretched between the porch posts. Having perused the land plat to the property before arriving, Jackson knew the owner to be, one, Thomas Overton.
“Whoa, Charger.” He called to the cabin from his horse. “Overton! Thomas Overton! I am Jackson Daniels of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. I have business to discuss.”
The weathered door opened a crack. Jackson could see a pair of eyes peering out from the darkened interior. There was no reply. He was getting more aggravated by the minute. “I say, my name is Jackson Daniels and I’m here representing the railroad. I’ve business with the owner of this property. I need to speak with Thomas Overton.” After a few more moments of silence, the door was finally pushed ajar and the same young miscreant stepped out onto the porch.
“Paw ain’t here, Yankee. Why don’t you just go on and git like I said!”
It was beyond infuriating. He did not have time to exchange jibes with a no account child. Holding the shotgun as he dismounted, he walked toward the cabin. The boy’s eyes grew round and he retreated behind the door, quickly slamming it shut. Jackson heard the sound of a latch falling into place.
The high-pitched voice called from inside. “Leave my shotgun on the front porch, Yankee.”
Jackson surveyed the scene. He wished he had inquired about the owner of the property before coming. It was one thing to read the name on a plat. It was another to find out what the owners were like. Enough was enough.
“Young man, I am through dealing with you. Is this the residence of Thomas Overton?”
“Where is he?”
“He ain’t here.”
“Where is he?”
“Don’t rightly know, Yankee. He’s out amongst our apple trees. Could be anywhere on the place.”
Including inside, thought Jackson. By this time, Lawrence, Felt and Manning were riding into the yard.
Manning removed his hat before addressing the boss. “We’ve finished our trek, Mr. Daniels. It looks as perfect for the pass as you thought. We’re ready to write up the report.”
Jackson nodded then turned his attention back to the front door. “You tell your Paw that I was here and I need to talk to him. You hear me young’un?”
There was no reply.
“You’ll get your shotgun back just as soon as I meet with Thomas Overton.” The stubborn boy refused to answer. Jackson tucked the shotgun under his arm and turned Charger around to leave. “Come on men, we’ll come back when the owner is home.”
The horses clopped along the dirt road paralleling a swiftly flowing creek. Water splashed up around them as they crossed. Jackson made sure he held the shotgun so it could be seen. He reached behind to check the saddlebags.
The grimy little boy, still wearing the dirty old hat, stood on the front porch. He lifted his skinny arm and shook his fist while his voice echoed across the mountain. “You come back here, Yankee. I’m going to unload a round of shot in that uppy arse of yourn.” Jackson ignored him and rode completely out of sight.
Olivia Overton took off her floppy old hat and hit it with frustration against the door post. A mass of long brown curls fell down her back. It wasn’t the first time she’d been mistaken for a boy. Perhaps that would work to her advantage. Men always thought they were smarter. She’d show them. How dare those Yankees think they can come on my place! They took my scatter gun too! She rubbed the spot where the Yankee had spanked her bottom. It made her burn with rage to think that any man could get away with such a thing let alone a good-for-nothin, lower than the belly of a snake, Yankee. The hired hands, Job and Sam were on the far side of the farm, tending to the apple orchard. She wished they had been home, though it was doubtful they could have done anything. Paw lay sick in bed.
She had heard talk in town months ago that the railroad was coming through the valley. Many farmers had grown tired of the unrelenting work and economic depression and decided to sell. She wasn’t one of them. Besides, where would they go? This farm was all they had.
“Olivia, Olivia, come here.”
Paw was calling from his small bedroom. He had been ailing for some time and it didn’t look like he was any better today. I’d like me some water, girl. Who was that I heard atalkin outside?”
Brushing the hair from her face, she tied it at the back of her neck. Gathering a pitcher of water and a cup, she went to the old man’s room. “Here you go.” A plate of eggs and ham from the morning sat untouched. “You didn’t eat hardly anything for breakfast. I’ll go fetch some dinner. Got some dried apples and black eyed peas. Your favorite.”
“Who was that outside? I know I heard voices.”
“You did. It weren’t nobody. Just some men passing through.”
“Were Job and Sam home? Are you all right?”
“Job and Sam are working on the orchard in the far field up the mountain. Those men didn’t bother me. They thought I was a boy, anyway. I was wearin my work clothes.”
Paw chuckled. “Well, see to it that any stranger coming on the place keeps thinkin that. These are hard times and it ain’t safe for a young girl to be about. You’re a beauty. Maybe it is best for you to wear those cussed overalls.”
“Don’t worry about me.” Olivia looked down at the wizened old man in bed. He looked like the north wind could pick him up and blow him away as easily as it might a dandelion seed. “Let me bring you some supper, you need to eat.”
Paw shook his head. “Ain’t hungry much but you can bring it.” Olivia was worried. They couldn’t afford to call the Doctor again. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. Doc as much as told them there wasn’t any more he could do for the old man. She was tired. The drudgery of working from day break till sunset was wearing, not to mention trying to take care of Paw. Job and Sam didn’t understand. They were good men, but if the farm failed, they would simply leave and find work elsewhere. What would she and Paw do?
The war had ruined the economy. Apple prices were at an all-time low. Olivia had no idea how they were going to make it through another year. The arrival of the B & O railroad seemed like just another harbinger of hard times. They were buying up property at rock bottom prices. The Overton farm had been in the family for generations. Olivia wasn’t going to sell, no matter how bad it got and she wasn’t going to burden Paw with the problems either. There was nothing he could do about it.
Job came bursting into the kitchen as she prepared a plate of food for Paw. “Ollie, Cow got out and been eating wild onions. We won’t be able to stand to drink that milk nor make butter for a week!”
She was disgusted. “I told you to fix that fence down by the pasture. I knew that cow was going to get out. You’ll just have to drink onion flavored milk and eat onion butter. We’ve nowhere else to get any.”
Job shook his head. “Why you foolin with this old farm anyway? Ain’t nothing but trouble. Me and Sam ain’t been paid for months.”
“You been putting your feet under my table everyday haven’t you? I told you I couldn’t pay you by the month anymore. You agreed to wait until the apple crop came in and got sold this fall. Stop frettin me with nonsense.”
Job snapped up a piece of corn bread left to warm on the wood stove. “Fine.” He stomped out the house.
Olivia sighed. They’d made it through last winter, but just barely. One bad season would be all it would take to push them over the edge. She finished making supper. Sam would be along soon. She could hardly wait to finish with the chores, clean the dishes and fall into bed. Perhaps she would dream of Jim like she had the night before.
Jimmy Simpson…the most handsome boy in all the Shenandoah Valley. Olivia had loved him since she was a child. His father had owned the neighboring farm and he had been the best friend Olivia had ever known. He was her protector. He’d even punched Slim Hanes in the nose for calling her a name. As they had grown older, Jimmy had even kissed her one time, down by the creek. But that was right before he left to go to war. Olivia never heard from him again. His mother and father gave up the homestead and headed back to eastern Virginia where they had other family. Jim had been on the missing lists after the battle of Bull Run. His body was never found and he was presumed dead. Olivia thought she would never stop crying over it.
But just as Paw had said, you couldn’t cry forever, she eventually got used to the idea that Jimmy would never be coming over the mountain to see her again. They wouldn’t get to fish in the creek and she could never gain the courage to kiss him back. Well, she supposed it was a silly girlish dream anyway. She was eighteen. Time to grow up and face facts.
The last of the dishes were done and the damp cool of the night began to creep over the house. It was warm enough not to need much of a fire in the stove but Olivia gave it one last check. She fell into bed and immediately went to sleep.
She awoke after a good night’s sleep and quietly lay awake for a few moments, as dust motes danced along a beam of light. She was going into town to pick up a few supplies today. At least it would be a little change of pace.
After checking on Paw, and helping him to the outhouse, she got him settled back in bed and encouraged him to eat. He did better than usual. She took his plate and pulled the blanket over him while giving the rough cheek a pat. “Going into town, Paw, you need anything?” He was already asleep and didn’t answer. Just getting out of bed for a few moments had tired him out. She sighed and rubbed the worried frown across her forehead. She would tell Sam and Job to check on him while she was gone.
She called out as the rickety front door slammed behind her. “Boys, I’m headed out to town for some flour and a little sugar. We need anything else?”
Job laughed. “I got a list as long as my arm but your pockets is empty I’m afraid.”
Sam chuckled but tried to be encouraging. “Don’t let it worry you. Just you git what you can. We don’t need nothing.”
She went to the barn to hitch up the small wagon to their old mule Penny. Penny was on her last leg like the rest of the farm but Olivia guessed the old thing could make it into town. The weather was nice. It would be fun to get away for a couple of hours. A heavy rainstorm had blown through the day before, and everything was bright and green. She enjoyed the whisper of spring as it fell over every branch and hill across the mountain.
The nearest town was Goldsboro. Olivia always wondered why the timeworn town had been named that. It certainly never had any gold in it as far as she had ever heard. Filled with only a few hundred residents, there was just one general store. Mr. Lacey and his wife had run it as long as she could remember. A fair man, the couple helped out whenever they could. They allowed the Overton family to keep a running tab and pay when the apple crop came in.
Olivia pulled up to the mercantile and looped Penny’s reins around the hitching post. Placing a bag of oats around her head, Penny happily began to munch. Olivia looked over to see another horse tied to the post. Strapped ignominiously to the saddle was her scatter gun! It was that damn Yankee’s horse! Luck was finally on her side. She happily took her gun and hid it under a blanket in the back of her wagon. Throwing her shoulders back, she entered the store, determined to call him out. There he was, standing like the king of Egypt himself, right by the cash register. A pile of goods he was obviously purchasing piled on the counter. Well! He certainly didn’t lack for any money. The men who had been with him were nowhere to be seen. What was that jackdaw’s name? Daniels? She couldn’t remember his first name and didn’t care to.
He turned when she entered and a hint of recognition flitted across his face. She had never seen such a stern looking man. His hair was as dark as coal but had an unruly curl to it. When he turned his sky blue eyes on her, they were so piercing, she felt like he was looking into her soul. His face was covered with a long beard that ended at the top of his chest. It was hard to tell how old he was, but there wasn’t even a hint of gray in the black locks. The charcoal colored suit he sported, fit like a glove. A pinstripe short vest underneath the long tailed coat set off the light grey tie at his neck. The matching traveling hat which sat atop his head, caused the ends of his hair to curl around the brim. The britches he wore, were tucked into black leather boots that came nearly above his knees. He cut quite an intimidating and very fine figure. Completely relaxed, one hand lay on the counter, the other rested on his hip. He stared at Olivia in distain.
“Have you found your father yet?”
She blushed to the roots of her hair despite her anger. Her real father had left her on Paw’s doorstep when she was only two years old. The whole town held Thomas Overton’s son in the lowest regard. She wasn’t about to tell that jackdaw any of that. Besides, he still thought she was a boy.
Jackson Daniels picked up a big pouch full of tobacco and put it in the saddle bag resting on the counter. “I’m not going anywhere till I talk to Thomas Overton. You should expect me tomorrow afternoon, young man. This time, I won’t be leaving until I accomplish my goal.” He motioned toward Olivia and spoke to Mr. Lacey. “Do you know the Overtons, Mr. Lacey?”
“Shore, shore, of course. No finer man than Thomas Overton. That there is…” He motioned to Olivia but she jumped in before Mr. Lacey could finish.
“My name’s Ollie. Ollie Overton. We ain’t been properly introduced have we?”
Jackson threw the saddle bags over his shoulder and picked up the crate of supplies he had purchased. “No, indeed, sir, we have not.” He turned to Mr. Lacey again. “One of my associates, a Mr. Felt will be by to pick up these supplies this afternoon. I shall leave them by the front door.”
“Shore, shore,” Mr. Lacey replied. “They’ll be fine there.”
Olivia turned her back on Jackson Daniels. “I need some flour and sugar, Mr. Lacey. Put it on our tab, thank you kindly.”
“Shore, shore.” Mr. Lacey turned to collect the items and Olivia turned to look at Jackson.
She tried to meet his challenging stare with courage. “I ain’t gonna let no damn Yankee push me around.” The last word came out in a whisper. She had wanted to appear bold. Now, she just felt like a fool. Staring at the ground, she stubbornly crossed her arms.
Jackson Daniels’ voice rang out across the store. His voice was so deep, it carried all the way out the door. “You think swearing at me makes you a big man? Ha! If I wanted to push you around, no one, let alone you, would be able to stop me. I WILL meet with your father, whether you like it or not.”
Olivia jerked her head up and tried to stare him down. The effort was ruined by his tall stature and looming presence. He continued. “You tell Thomas Overton, I’ll be arriving with my assistants tomorrow, by noon. I won’t be tolerating any bad behavior from you this time, either. The railroad has sent me to make a good offer for your farm and I won’t leave without doing so. You can have your shotgun back then. And, let me remind you, there are plenty apple tree switches growing around your place.”
How dare he! He was so disrespectful. He was treating her like a child! How dare he threaten to whip her again! This jack nape had no idea who he was dealing with. Well, Ollie Overton was going to show him.
“You come right on ahead, Yankee. We’ll prepare a right fair welcome for you.” Mr. Lacey had her order ready and Olivia grabbed it off the counter in a huff. She turned and stomped past Jackson Daniels and out the store. Her hatred for him was growing by the minute. Placing the flour and sugar securely in the wagon, she pulled out her shotgun. Hopping up on the buckboard, she lay it across her lap and waited for Jackson to exit the store. He appeared on the steps, saddlebag over his shoulder. Cupping his hands around his face, he lit a big fat cheroot.
“Yaw, Penny, yaw.” Penny moved forward at a ponderous pace, pulling the little wagon right in front of Jackson Daniels and right through a heavily rutted mud hole. Muck splashed up and covered the Yankee’s pants. It even ruined his top coat. Olivia wasn’t sure, but she thought it even put out his cheroot. He angrily threw it to the ground. She loved his reaction. Laughing with glee, she waved her shotgun up and down as Penny lurched toward home.