Though only an hour past dawn, the air was already hot and heavy with the aroma of wood smoke, frying fatback, and horses. Jonathan Lydell stepped through the front door onto his porch. He adjusted the brass buttons of his newly brushed and pressed gray uniform and took in the road below. Cato, the slave he rented by the day to Cartwright the innkeeper, had the coach horses in hand, leading them, snorting and stamping, from the barn at the rear of the inn across the road. The old man moved slowly, leading the wheel horses out first. The coachman held up his long coiled whip and saluted Lydell.
“Captain Lydell, your lodger up yet? We’ll be pulling out ’soon’s the boy gets us hitched up.”
“I haven’t heard a peep out of him all morning. I reckon he’s a heavy sleeper.”
“Well, pound on that door, if you please, sir. I’d hate to leave him behind. There’s worrisome news on the wire.”
“I’ll see to it. And if that nigra doesn’t move fast enough for you, why you just give him a touch with your coach whip. I reckon he’ll jump to, then. You hear that, Cato?”
“Yessuh.” The old man stepped a bit livelier at the threat. The coachman cracked his whip in Cato’s general direction and laughed when it made him jump as predicted. Lydell turned and pounded on the door to the stranger room. “Say, you in there. Your coach is fixing to leave. You up?”
The wheel horses, now harnessed, stamped and snorted, tails flailing. August brings out the flies early. Cato held them close for a moment, cooing at them. The coachman set the long brake.
“Well, come along then, boy. Fetch out them other hosses.” “’Suh.”
The coach, stage to be precise, had a team of four. They were not well matched. In the old days, before the war, there would have been six, matched and fresh. But the war had taken all but the scrags. The stage line had to make do while its manager, Col. Michael Harman, fought the damyankees elsewhere. The two wheel horses, one gray and sway-backed, the other an ancient roan, its ribs clearly outlined through its shaggy, un-brushed pelt, stomped and nodded their massive heads impatiently.
Lydell pounded on the door again. “You there, your coach is about ready. It won’t wait.”
“You’d better open up that door,” the coachman said, and fed a withered apple to each of the horses.
“Ain’t you got a spare key?”
Lydell removed a key from his coat pocket and held it up for the coachman to see. He tried it in the lock.
“He’s locked the door from the inside and left the key part the way turned. I can’t turn her.” He pounded on the door again.
“I’ve got that man’s goods on the top here.” The coachman pointed to the vehicle’s roof. “I’ll have to unload them.” He didn’t look happy. “Try that key again, if you would, sir.”
Cato applied his shoulder to one of the wheel horse’s rumps to straighten it out, adjusted its harness, and went for the leads.
Lydell wrenched the key back and forth. “No luck. Say, you don’t suppose he’s sick or something, do you? He seemed fine last evening when he retired.”
“Can’t say. Here, you boy, watch yourself, there.” Cato led the lead horses to the coach. They’d drifted a bit turning the corner and pushed the coachman back a step. He laid the coiled whip on the old man’s bent frame. Not hard, but still painful. Cato lowered his gaze.
“Yessuh. Sorry, Suh.”
“Captain, there’s no connection between your stranger room and the rest of your house…no window?”
“No sir. Didn’t see the need of a window for travelers and I surely don’t cotton to them imposing on my hospitality. If they wish to avoid the others in the inn, they may rent my room. If they feel the need of a window, well, there’s other rooms and houses. That’s all. If I know them, they may stay as my guest. But in these times…well, sir, there’re deserters and Yankee spies aplenty. I don’t take chances…Cato!”
“You run fetch Big Henry and tell him to bring a log. I need this door broke down.”
“Yes Suh, Captain Lydell.”
“If he ain’t dead or damned near it, that fellow is going to buy me a new door.” Lydell applied his fist to the heavy pine door again.
Cato and an enormous black man, carrying a six foot log that had to weigh at least eighty pounds, climbed the steps from the road and shuffled on bare feet down the length of the porch. The slave handled the log with no more effort than if it had been a toothpick.
“Henry, you just swing that there log at the lock and bust this door open.”
Big Henry cradled the log and then took hold of its end. He took a deep breath, swung the length of it back and then forward at the door, which flew open with a crash and splintering of wood.
“Get in there and see what the fellow is up to,” Lydell said to Cato.
A pair of legs, booted and still, were all they could see with the early morning light in the front portion of the room. The old man crept in the darkened room. “Oh Lordy, Lordy,” he said and scurried back into the daylight. “That man, he dead, Cap’n Lydell.”
“Dead? What do you mean, he’s dead? He can’t be dead. He’s asleep or drunk, or both, you stupid nigger.”
“No suh. He’s a-lying there face up. They’s blood everywhere, and his eyes…they dead man’s eyes.”
Lydell aimed a kick at the old man, but Big Henry stepped between them and took the blow instead. The look he gave Lydell would freeze a man’s soul. Lydell started to say something, saw the look, and turned away. The coachman had climbed the stairs by that time and peered into the room. Lydell lighted a lamp and they studied the dead man.
“Well, I don’t reckon he’ll be riding with us today. You, boy, get that travel trunk with the brass fittings on it down off the coach roof.”
“Yes Suh.” Cato shuffled off the porch and across the road. “I’ll leave it with you, Captain Lydell. I reckon you’ll be fetching the locals and they can figure this out. Key was stuck in the lock on the inside, you say?”
“More’n I say. You can see for yourself. Turn that door around and have a look.”
The coachman did as he was told. “She’s still in there alright. I’ll have to write that in my paper work. Well, Captain, it looks like you got yourself a mystery on your hands. Who was that man, anyway?” The two men entered the room and studied the corpse.
“Don’t know and don’t care. Wished I’d never laid eyes on him. Cost me a very fine pine door, he did. Now I have to get some witnesses in here and make a determination as to the how of it. Though, for the life of me, I can’t figure how someone could get in here, shoot that man dead, and get out with the door being locked on the inside and no other way in or out.”
“Only if our killer was thin as a snake. Franklin stove with a six inch flue.”
“Maybe he killed himself.”
“Doesn’t seem likely. Appears he’s been shot in the back, rolled over and maybe shot in the head to boot. I reckon there’s easier ways to kill yourself than that.”
“Well sir, as soon as that boy finishes harnessing them horses, I’m off. I’ll be wishing you a good day, sir.”
The coachman descended to the muddy thoroughfare, picked his way through the puddles that dappled the road, and began haranguing Cato. Thirty minutes later, one passenger short and a brass studded trunk lighter, the coach rattled south toward Roanoke. It would be the last trip on this coach road until after General Philip Sheridan had scorched the valley in “The Burning,” after Appomattox, and after the venerable Robert E. Lee had taken up residency in Lexington.
# # #
THE STAUNTON SPECTATOR
August 23, 1864
Mysterious doings. We are in receipt of correspondence from Bolton Township to the south of us that a great mystery has been visited on that fair city. Captain Jonathan Lydell, Commander of the Home Guard, reports that a traveler resting for the night in his stranger room was found robbed and foully murdered. The method of the deed remains a mystery at this time. The room had no access to the rest of the house and the door was locked from the inside. The traveler is reported to have been a Mister Franklin Brian of undetermined address. He had no baggage and no apparent reason to be in the Valley in these perilous times.
# # #
Sad news. Reports from Richmond describe the massacre of a company of General Jubal Early’s cavalry, under the command of Captain Lane Duckett, on the Covington road last week. Details are sketchy but early reports suggest that a spy revealed the troop’s bivouac position to a detachment of Sheridan’s cavalry operating in the valley. In a surprise attack at dawn, the entire company of fifty-six good and loyal men was set upon and all killed, except for one brave bugler, Harry Percival, aged 14, of Bristol, Tennessee. We sincerely hope the Yankees involved in this dastardly display of cowardice will soon suffer some of the same. Our brave General Early most recently viewed the sights of Washington in his last foray north. We await in anticipation his return to that dismal city and a proper lesson meted out.
# # #
A later bulletin from Bolton reports that a slave, Big Henry, a buck Negro known to be a hard case, was found with twenty Yankee greenback dollars and a map to Pennsylvania on his person shortly thereafter. The Home Guard took him into custody and promptly hung him for a traitor and an enemy collaborator. It should be a warning to any slave contemplating dealings with the Yankees. Slaves should be kept close at night and reminded that any contact with the enemy will not be tolerated.