The heavily laden riverboat lazily picked a path through a bevy of Union warships, while two hundred yards away the main body of the fleet laid anchored midstream, apart from the city and its sometimes hostile inhabitants. A brownish haze hung over the city and the humid air pressed the sweltering heat down upon the detachment of blue-clad soldiers waiting on the dock for the arrival of the side-wheeler.
A slender lad stood with the rest of the passengers on the once elegant staircase where they had been stopped by a rank of Union soldiers. A sudden hush fell those waiting to disembark as another rank joined the first forming two lines that soon stepped apart which formed and opened a corridor from the cargo deck to the gangplank. Soon, unwashed, thin and ragged Confederate soldiers began passing through the aisle, shuffling in sync, the only pace the fetters and chains to which they were bound permitted.
A battered hat had been pulled low over ears while wary gray eyes stared out at the goings on. He looked no more than a dozen or so years, his face was grimy and the lad, adorned in overlarge garments focused on the smallness of his frame. Baggy trousers had been gathered at the waist by a rope belt and the loose jacket over an oversized shirt with its sleeves rolled back a few times, inherently flopped over narrows wrists. He leaned against a wicker basket that stood near his oversized boots. His face was smudged from the soot of the steamboat but just visible through the grime the beginnings of a sunburn showed over the bridge of a thin nose.
Dirt-smudged features wore a pensive frown as he, and the other passengers, watched his defeated countrymen being led from the boat in such a manner of shackles and fetters. Once the Confederate prisoners had been loaded onto a riverboat, the Union soldiers followed suit and thus began the disembarking of the passengers that had fallen silent to witness such a sad and perhaps demeaning event.
Short of coin, he wasn’t able to afford a ride, and it was a fair distance to his aunt’s house. No doubt, he presumed, there would be more Yankees to contend with along the way. The presence of the blue-bellies was everywhere, oppressive and unwanted. He’d not been to New Orleans since its fall and as such felt very much a foreigner. The bustle of the waterfront far exceeded what it had ever been, especially now with the Yankees moving supplies onto other boats or warehouses for storage and other transport elsewhere.
Not too long after getting on his way, a loud curse caused the youth to swiftly move out of the way of a wagon and its four plodding horses laden with heavy casks. Unfortunately for the lad, as intent as he was for getting and staying out of the way, he inadvertently stepped into two Yankee soldiers that were nearby and had obviously been drinking.
With a gruff curse and ill-placed foot to the youth’s backside that sent him sprawling into the road, the lad quickly picked himself up, turned around and gaped at the two soldiers and then with a bravado that he really wasn’t feeling, approached the two solders. One leaned forward and with outstretched hand plucked his hat from atop his head to reveal a shaggy mop of reddish-brown hair. The young man opened his mouth to speak his anger, but thought better of it and tightly clamped his mouth shut. He made an angry attempt to get back the hat taken only to watch as it went flying to the other soldier who caught it effortlessly.
“You blue-bellied sot!” the lad screamed, the voice a high tenor apparently on the verge of changing from youth to man, “Gimme that back!”
Back and forth the two soldiers threw the hat laughing at the lad’s shrieks of rage and feeble attempts to retrieve a hat that had seen much better days. But as the first soldier caught the hat, he burst into laughter only to yelp loudly in pain as a well-placed oversized boot connected with his shin, and just as quickly his knee exploded into pain as well. Bellowing, he shot to his feet and grabbed the lad by a scrawny arm, shaking him and saying angrily,
“You sow-belly little brat,” and shook him again looming closer to the lad and expelling soured and repugnant breath that near choked and caused the lads eyes to water, “I’m….”
The young lad was immediately released and went tumbling to the ground, tripping over his wicker basket. At the same time, he saw the object of the soldier’s attention falling only to land a few inches away from him and he scrambled to retrieve it, jamming the hat to his head only to whirl with fists doubled and at the ready to fight.
Gray eyes blinked and his mouth fell open as a tall figure burst into view, attired in a dress-blue uniform with brass buttons that shined, bright braids adorned the cuffs and gold epaulettes bearing the rank of an officer rode on wide shoulders. The lad, keeping his stance and ready to fight, watched as the tall man barked orders to the other men and almost broke into laughter as they made haste to do his bidding.
But when the tall man turned his attention to the young lad, the boy shuffled his feet as the officer offered an apology of sorts to the lad about being far from home and manners needing to be improved. The youth remained silent a bit in awe in the actual company of a Yankee officer, glancing away as the tall man gazed over his appearance upward from the tips of his oversized boots.
Fidgeting under the scrutiny and evading questions as to whether or not he was waiting for someone or if he had run away from home with a non-committal shrug of the shoulders, the officer then announced that if he was looking for work, that they could always use the extra help at the hospital or elsewhere. The lad in turn sniffed, eyes avoiding the officers as he quipped, “I don’t fancy workin’ fer no Yankee.” That in turn prompted the officer to inform the youth that it wasn’t required or demanded that he shoot anyone.
The young man sniffed again as he mulled over his possibilities, which were, at the moment, very slim. The lad finally nodded his head, asking “What’ll you have me be doin’ Yankee?”