As happened occasionally, the dispatch satchel held information Bren dared not telegraph from Confederate-held territory. But delivering it to Theo, her Union contact, meant a four-day journey on horseback. She watered Redfire at a nearby stream and fed him a bag of oats scrounged from a camp sutler a few days earlier. Afterward, she filled her canteen and checked her supply of beef jerky. Most of it was in her saddlebags, but she had learned to keep a daily ration in her trouser pockets. A scout could never be certain where she would find her next meal. Although food and water were available along most of the trails, bypassing them as often as possible saved time. Finished with her preparations, she started her journey.
Bren felt comfortable in the forest. One of the attractions of being a scout was the chance to spend so much time there. Even as a child, she had felt an affinity for trees. Their wide branches offered warmth and shelter without asking anything from the traveler; trees and bushes provided nuts and berries to eat in season. Stalwart and noble, trees afforded a stability that soothed her-an especially welcome trait now that her world sorely lacked any permanence.
After more than two days of sleepless travel, Bren decided she and Redfire needed rest. The town of Cranston was near, so she headed there and stopped at the livery stable on its outskirts. After arranging for her horse's care, she untied the saddlebag that held the dispatch satchel and hooked it over her shoulder. Following the stable keeper's directions, she walked to the nearest tavern with intentions to feed and rest her exhausted body.
Bren pushed through the door of the Brass Rail Tavern and stepped into a large room. Oil lamps glowed along the edges of a wagon-wheel chandelier hanging from a heavy chain in the center of the ceiling. A jumble of voices issued from the occupants of a few tables, mostly Confederate soldiers with a small number of women mixed among them. Opposite the door, other soldiers congregated at a long bar, fronted by a brass foot rail with spittoons placed along it. To the left of the bar, a stairway rose to the floor above.
A loud voice jarred Bren from her weariness. "Hey, Cordell!" A gray-clad soldier standing next to a table waved an arm at the scout. "C'mon over here!" The man pulled out a chair next to him, and Bren walked over. "I ain't seen you in ages. Where you been?"
Bren hung her saddlebag on the back of the offered chair and nodded toward the speaker. "Sparks. Good to see you." Two other men at the table watched the exchange.
Sparks waved a hand toward the men. "These are a couple of my buddies, Taggert and Smoot. Cordell here is a sort of itinerant scout," Sparks said by way of introduction. He lifted a glass of beer from the tray carried by a woman who was serving the table then sat back down. "He's an expert on the terrain around here and goes anywhere he's needed."
Dropping onto the wooden seat, Bren ordered a sandwich and beer from the woman server before answering the soldier. "I just came from Burchfield. Captain Holt gave me a few days off." She lowered her voice. "I heard there was a real slaughter."
"Someone came through about an hour ago with the same news," Taggert said. "He said the damn Yankees knew we was comin' up that very trail at that very time. He said even the foot soldiers didn't know where they was goin' or when, so how did the Yanks find out?"
Smoot turned an accusing look on the newcomer. "You're a scout. How come you didn't see the Yanks was ready and waitin'?"
Bren shrugged. "I told you. I just came from Burchfield. Someone else was scouting for Holt that day. I wish I'd been there; I might have made a difference." The four people at the table sat a few moments in contemplation. "There has to be a spy, maybe a turncoat officer," Bren said. She dug a coin from her pocket for the server and began gobbling the chicken and cheese sandwich, grabbing intermittent gulps of tepid beer.
"Wish I could git my hands on him," Smoot said. "I'd castrate the bastard."
Bren choked, and Sparks pounded on her back. "Slow down there, Cordell. You don't want to be stranglin' yourself before you git a chance at tonight's fun. We got somethin' on the way that will take your mind off this damn war for a while." Bren got her gagging under control and questioned him by raising her eyebrows. "This place has some interestin' choices of repast," Sparks continued, bringing chuckles from the other men. He waggled a finger for the server's attention and whispered in the woman's ear. She nodded, whispered back, and held out her hand, which made the soldier lean closer to Bren. "There's some willing women here," he said. "We just made arrangements for their services for the night and are waitin' for the word to go ahead upstairs. Kate here says they can rustle up one for you too." Sparks grinned wolfishly and again banged the flat of his hand on the scout's back. "If you got a dollar, you got a woman. For the whole night."
Bren would have choked again, if there had been any food in her mouth. "Uh, thank you, Sparks, but no thank you. I'm just looking for a good night's sleep. I've been on the trail for two days, and I'm really worn out. I don't think I'm up to it."
"I never heard of a soldier bein' too tired for a little hay-rollin'. Besides, these women are good. They'll make sure you're up as much as ya need to be." Sparks guffawed. He pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and handed it to the server. "I'll even treat ya."
Bren glanced around the table. There was no way Sparks was going to let her off the hook. She would have to take her chances that she could convince the woman she only wanted to rest. After all, the woman might be happy to be paid for doing nothing. Bren forced what she hoped was a lecherous smile and clapped Sparks on the back as hard as she could, grinning inwardly at the mighty huff that sounded forth. "All right, then. Who could turn down such an offer?"
Bren knocked on the upstairs door that the server Kate indicated. As Sparks passed by, he elbowed Bren in the side and winked, then followed Kate down the hall. When the door opened, the scout removed her cap as a pretty, slightly overweight woman near her own age appeared. The young woman's garish yellow robe matched her hair, and her hazel eyes looked up at the tall soldier, widening in an attempt to appear welcoming. "Hello, there. Come on in." She closed and locked the door, then took Bren's cap, tossed it on a bureau, and hung the saddlebag on the door hook. Bren removed her holster and hung it above the saddlebag. "What's your name, soldier?" Taking Bren by the arm, she led her to the turned-down bed. A kerosene lamp on a small table near the bed lit the room dimly, but Bren could see it looked clean and neat. A double bed, a bureau, two chairs, and the small table made up the bare furnishings. A multicolored throw rug rested on the hardwood floor next to the bed.
"Bren," the scout muttered, finding the situation totally embarrassing. Blast that idiot Sparks.
"Glad to meet you, Bren. My name's Leah. Why don't you sit here on the bed?" When the scout didn't respond, Leah reached for the lace tie at the top of Bren's shirt. "Or maybe you'd rather we start standing up?"
Bren pulled the tie away and a blush rose as she thought about what this woman was expecting from her. "Look," she said weakly, then cleared her throat for a stronger try. "No offense, miss, but I'm not here for what you think. One of my friends pushed me into this. I just want to get a good night's rest. I'm so tired I can barely stand, and I surely can't do anything else."
Leah dropped her hands and stepped back to take a good look at the decidedly handsome man. "Am I hearing what I think I'm hearing?" Putting her hands on her ample hips, she tilted her head to one side and grinned. "This has got to be a first. A soldier who is too tired to-" Leah noticed the blush and thought she knew the cause. "Ah, you've never been with a woman, have you?"
"Uh, well, I uh, no, I've never been with anybody," Bren stammered. "Never much wanted to." There had been times when men sought Bren's favors, but she was affronted by their attempts to turn a friendly kiss into permission to explore her body. A few sharp words or an occasional slap soon prevented any further familiarity. She had never been drawn to the flirtatious games played between the two sexes; in fact, she could not relate to their mutual attraction at all. Though vague hungers sometimes plagued her, she usually managed to repress them and considered her sexual desires to be nearly nonexistent.
"Well, maybe you just need a little warming up first, honey." Leah's grin broadened into a smile. Putting her dimpled hand on the scout's chest, she brushed circles against the shirt. Bren grabbed the woman's hand and backed away as fast as her feet could move, but Leah stepped right along with her, until after only three steps, the wall stopped them. At that point, in spite of Bren's hold on her hand, the woman reached out her other hand and clutched the triangle between the scout's legs.
No one had ever touched Bren there, even through trousers. In spite of the exhaustion that flowed through her like a sluggish river, she was shocked beyond words. She grabbed Leah's shoulders and clumsily pushed her away. "Stop it," she managed to protest. "I told you I just want to sleep."
A puzzled look replaced Leah's smile. Before Bren could react, she quickly ran her hands across the soldier's shirtfront, encountering the constricted but telltale shapes beneath. "You're a woman!" she said, her expression changing to surprise. Alarmed, Bren sucked in a sharp breath.
Leah grabbed one of Bren's hands and pulled on it. "Honey, I think we both need to sit down." She followed her own advice and drew a shaky Bren down to a seat next to her on the bed. "You want to tell me what's going on?" she asked, her whole attitude one of curiosity.
Bren, at first disconcerted by Leah's touch, but now distracted by the woman's discovery of her gender, groaned inwardly. What can I say? she wondered. I surely can't tell her I need to masquerade as a man so I can spy for the Union. I'll try the 'serve the Confederacy' bit and hope that works.
"I was determined to fight for the Confederacy, and they won't let women be soldiers. So I decided to dress like a man." Then her own jeopardy occurred to her. "Please, don't give me away. I could get into a lot of trouble."
"I won't give you away," Leah promised. "Soldiering has to be a hard life for a woman."
"Yes, it is," Bren said. "Harder than I ever imagined."
Leah cocked her head. "But you could leave whenever you want." She watched as Bren scowled.
"I'm not a quitter. The men are having a hard time too. They risk their lives for the cause. I can't see me doing any less."
"I guess we each have to do our part in our own way. Me-I just try to keep the troops happy. But in your case, my usual methods aren't going to work." Leah grinned. "You sure look like a man. Of course, the beard's false too. And here I was thinking how handsome you were compared to those other three, and how lucky I was to get you."
"I'm sorry," Bren said, sympathy actually showing in her eyes. "But do you mind if I just go to sleep? I really am terribly tired." As if on cue, she yawned and closed her eyes, then struggled to reopen them.
"Hey, you paid the dollar, sweetie; you can do all the sleeping you want. I sure don't mind getting a rest myself." Leah patted her on the back. "But look, you'll be here all night. Why don't you take off that beard and those bindings and truly relax. They can't be all that comfortable."
"Sounds good to me." Bren suppressed the unease she had felt at Leah's touch, just as she had tried to suppress all emotions for the past two years. Now she stood and shuffled over to look in a mirror atop the bureau. Leah watched her remove the rawhide tie from her shoulder-length hair and stick it in a pocket. Then Bren peeled the beard from her face and laid it carefully on the bureau, her movements hampered by her exhaustion. Almost constant wearing of the false hair had protected the lower part of the scout's face from the sun, allowing only a light tanning of her cheeks and chin. As a result, she seemed to be wearing a brown mask wrapped around liquid amber eyes. Bren's arm shook as she lifted the pink-flowered water pitcher resting on the bureau and poured some liquid into the matching bowl.
"Wait, let me do that," Leah said. "Might as well earn my money some way."
Bren nodded. "I do appreciate your offer, but first I have to wash off this spirit gum. Takes alcohol to do that." Bren reached in her pocket and brought out a silver flask and a cloth. She poured some of the liquid onto the cloth and cleaned first her face, then the hair she had just removed. As she finished putting the cleaning materials away, Leah came over to her. She picked up a washcloth and dipped it into the water. The blonde raised the cloth and washed the taller woman's face, then grabbed a towel and dried it. "I really should give you a bath," she teased.
"I sure could use one, but I'm used to going without, and I'm too tired to wait for the water to be heated," Bren said with a lopsided grin. "Make that offer again tomorrow." She was enjoying the woman's ministrations. After two years of trail roughness, it felt good to be coddled for a change.
Leah winked. "I just might do that. Now, get those boots off, then we can undo those bindings." Like a good soldier following orders, Bren removed her boots. Leah grasped the hem of Bren's shirt and started to lift it, but Bren shook her head and pulled the shirt back down. Leah grinned. "Shy, huh?"
"I guess I'm just not used to undressing in front of someone else."
"Even another woman?" Leah didn't wait for an answer. "How did you manage with all those men around? Didn't they ever jump in a river to wash, or take their shirts off from the heat and expect you to do the same?"
"Actually, I'm a scout and I travel a lot. I'm not around soldiers all of the time, so I've been able to keep my secret-and with so many streams around, I can stay cleaner, too. Lice are a real problem in the camps." Bren grinned as Leah wrinkled her nose and scratched at her head. "Body lice, too. Most soldiers neglect to wash and rarely change clothes for weeks at a time. When I ride toward a camp, I can smell it before I see it." Reaching under her shirt, Bren worked one end of the binding loose and placed it in Leah's waiting hand. She lifted her arms and slowly turned in circles as Leah unwound the cloth then folded it and laid it on the bureau.
When finished, Bren sat on the edge of the bed and tightened her arms across her chest. Grimacing at the painful tingling as feeling returned, the scout closed her eyes and fought the moan that tried to escape. The ache doubled her over for a few moments while Leah looked on sympathetically. "I could give you a massage," the woman offered.
Bren smiled as the short-lived pain receded and she straightened up. "Some other time, maybe, though it does sound really tempting. But right now, I just have to get some rest." Turning her body, she swung her legs up onto the bed, laid her head down, and fell immediately to sleep.
Leah smiled and shook her head. None of the other women would believe her if she told them the truth about this night. But she had given her word, and she wouldn't betray the soldier's trust. Hell, this was the easiest money she had ever earned. She covered Bren with a brown wool blanket, crawled in next to her, and gradually drifted off.
As dawn arrived, fingers of light reached into the room, touched Bren's eyelids, and stirred her from her dreams of war. Flat on her back, she took a few moments to remember where she was. She felt the nearby warmth of a body, and for a brief moment, strange sensations oozed through her. She tilted her head to see Leah curled next to her. Smiling at how childlike the woman looked, Bren inhaled the perfume that rose from the yellow hair, happy to have it supplant the memories of battlefield odors. Then she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
Several hours later, she woke with a start, alone in the bed. It was time to get up and get moving. The scout knew she couldn't tarry now for a bath or a massage. Even if Leah's offer had been serious, she had already wasted enough time. For the same reason, she decided today's rations would be beef jerky; she could eat as she rode. Although Bren's work with the army gave her a lot of freedom to move around, if anyone noticed she had been missing for better than a week, it might be hard to explain. With a groan, she got up and locked the door. She washed her hands and face, using the pitcher of water, bowl, and linens sitting on the bureau. That done, she quickly lifted her shirt, rewound the binding on her chest, and reapplied the false beard and mustache with fresh spirit gum. She pulled the rawhide string from her pocket, ran her fingers through her hair, and tied it into a tail.
After she unlooped her holster belt from the door hook, Bren notched the leather tight around her hips, then lifted the saddlebag and laid it on the bureau. She pulled out the dispatch pouch and checked to make sure the papers were still inside. Next, she returned everything to the saddlebag, threw it across her shoulder, and went into the hall. Daylight showed above a door at the far end of the passage, so she headed in that direction. When she pulled the door, it opened onto a short porch that ended in steps to the street level. She was pleasantly surprised to see Leah sitting on a step near the bottom.
The woman turned at the sound of the door opening. She gave Bren a big smile and motioned her forward with a raised arm. "Come on, soldier," she invited. "Have a seat for a few minutes." Bren clambered down the stairs and sat on the step just below her, bringing them nearly to eye level. "How about some breakfast?"
"Thanks, but I really have to get moving. I have some jerky I can eat."
"I guess you don't have time for that bath, either, huh?" Leah's smile turned wicked as she leaned toward Bren and lowered her voice. "I could probably find a man or two to help us out." Her smile turned to laughter as she saw Bren's face redden, and she gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze. "Stick with me for a while, friend, I'll get you over that shyness."
Before Bren could respond, a small girl with blonde hair and hazel eyes appeared at the bottom of the steps. She held an old metal serving platter on which sat a couple of dented tin cups and several cakes formed from mud. "Mama, look! I made lunch for us. Do you-" She lifted her eyes and stopped speaking for a moment at the sight of Bren. Then, adjusting to the stranger's presence, the girl lifted the tray toward her. "Would you like some?"
"I surely would," Bren drawled and flashed a broad smile, "if you'll tell me your name."
"Amy," the little one answered, returning Bren's smile with a small one of her own.
Picking up a mudcake, Bren brought it toward her mouth, pretending to bite and chew it. "Um, this is really good. May I have some coffee too?"
"Please do," Amy answered with a tiny curtsy, bringing a chuckle this time.
Bren lifted one of the tin cups and gurgled as though drinking from it. Amy giggled and held the tray out to her mother. Leah went through the motions of eating and drinking, then nearly choked when she heard Bren belch. She clapped a hand over her mouth as Bren said, "That was really good."
Amy laughed out loud. "I better go make some more for all my other friends." She disappeared back behind the staircase.
Bren watched her go. "Can't deny she's yours; she looks just like you." Her eyes turned to meet Leah's smiling ones. The scout jumped upright and reached for her saddlebag. "Hey, I have to get going. It's been really great meeting you, Leah. And Amy." Bren held her hand out, and Leah rose and shook it.
"I enjoyed meeting you, too, Bren. Next time you come this way, let me know, and I'll see you get the right partner." She stood on tiptoe and kissed Bren's cheek, then winked as Bren blushed again. The scout waved and walked around the corner of the building to go fetch Redfire. She reached in her pocket for a piece of jerky, chiding herself for not getting up in time to have a decent breakfast. But she needed to get this dispatch into Theo's hands.
Several hours after leaving Cranston, Bren took off the Rebel cap, stuck it in a saddlebag, and replaced it with her beat-up, wide-brimmed trail hat similar to the ones worn by recruits on both sides of the war. For the greater part of the next two days she moved northwest. Because so much undergrowth littered the spaces between the trees, keeping away from known trails made the trip longer and more difficult. But it increased the likelihood she would arrive at the Union headquarters in one piece.
While she journeyed, the brief interlude with Leah kept nudging into her thoughts. I enjoyed having a warm body close for a while. I wonder if that's part of the appeal of marriage. Would Phillip make me feel warm and affectionate? Maybe I should think more seriously about his proposal. That thought brought a grin. I mean his proposals . . . plural. Bren swished a hand in front of her face as though to brush away her muddled thoughts. Feelings are too damn confusing. I'll think about marriage when this hell is over.
As she got closer to the Union lines, she moved onto the trail, holding Redfire to a slow pace. A picket line of sentries guarded the Union headquarters, and Bren was expecting a hail. "Halt!" The words came from the vegetation along the trail, though no one was visible. "Identify yourself."
Bren raised both hands. "I'm Lady Blue," she answered.
"Come forward, Lady Blue, and be recognized." A click of Bren's tongue moved Redfire forward as a soldier appeared next to the path. He stepped closer and squinted up at her as evening's rapid approach left just enough light to make out her features. He nodded, raised a hand, and waved a signal. "Pass, Lady Blue." Because the sentry recognized her, the hand signal would be relayed along the picket line, assuring no others would slow her progress.
Now that she was secure in Union territory, Bren urged Redfire along the trail more quickly, hampered only by the descending darkness. Headquarters was in a town that had grown up near a railroad station. Several coal mines in the area provided work for the townspeople, and houses, stores, a church, a school, and even a hotel helped the town lay claim to being middle-sized. Bren intended to exchange news with the officer in charge, who she assumed was still Theo, then get a room and-could she possibly hope?-a bath. Too bad she had slept too long at the tavern and had to turn down Leah's offer of one. Bren smiled at the memory of the blonde woman and the little girl who was the image of her mother. Those moments stolen from the clutches of war had been brief but delightful. As soon as she had time, she would write something about the incident in her journal and add drawings of both Leah and Amy. Her hat shifted as she slipped all five fingers beneath it and rubbed them across her head. The prospect of running a brush through a clean mop of hair brought a groan of anticipation.
The trail broadened out and joined one end of the town's gravel-paved main street. Redfire cantered toward the group of lights that indicated some of the town's central stores and offices were still open. Knee-guiding the horse to a hitching rail, Bren dismounted and tied the reins to the rail. She removed the dispatch pouch from her saddlebag, slung it across her body, and again gave her password to a soldier on guard outside the building housing the commander's office.
With the formalities taken care of, the guard smiled at Bren in recognition. "Hey, Blue, you sure don't look like any lady I ever seen. Didn't your ma ever teach you to shave?" He gave a hearty laugh at his recurring joke before turning to knock on the door behind him. At a sound of acknowledgment from within, he opened the door, stepped in, and saluted. "Colonel, Lady Blue is here, sir."
"Very well, Sergeant. Show him in. And order some victuals for us." The sergeant, still fighting a smile at the incongruity of a man being called "Lady," held the door wider and gestured for Bren to enter, then saluted and left the room.
Bren tossed her hat on a nearby table as Theo rose from behind his desk. He strode toward her and grasped both her hands in his. "Sarah, it's good to see that you're safe." Still holding her hands, he stepped back and let his searching blue eyes survey her from top to toe, then shook his head and grinned. "You sure do make a fine-looking man." He released her hands and slung an arm over shoulders that were a little higher than his, leading her to a seat by his desk. "But I have to tell you, you make an even finer-looking woman. I'll be glad when this war is finished and things get back to normal."
Sarah-Bren slumped into the chair and rubbed a hand across her eyes. The sleep with Leah had helped, but being awake for thirty hours since then was catching up to her. "You think we'll ever get back to normal, Theo?" As she finished speaking, she removed the dispatch pouch from her body and laid it on the desk.
Theo sat back against the edge of the desk. "You're certainly doing your part to help it along. That information you gave us last month about the movement of Rebel troops was right on target. We had a large force in place this past week and whipped the hell out of them."
"I know. I was there." Her expression dimmed for a moment, but she didn't explain. Instead, her hand flicked toward the desk. "There's the dispatch pouch from the captain of that force. It mentions the possibility of an attack on a railroad junction that's close to Confederate lines."
The colonel reached inside the pouch and lifted out the papers. After a quick perusal, he shook his head. "They obviously had some information about-" He stopped and looked up as a knock came at the door. "Enter," he said. Two soldiers brought in a platter of sandwiches and a tin pot of coffee with sugar, cream, and mugs; then they left.
Theo didn't finish his sentence. Instead he waved the papers and said, "We'll be sure to be prepared for them. Many thanks, Sarah." He set the papers on the desk and rested his hands on his knees. "I have a surprise for you. Guess what?"
Almost too tired to care, Sarah leaned against the chair's high back and stretched her arms above her head. She lowered them and made a desultory attempt to cover a yawn that pulled her bearded cheeks out of shape. "I'm not in the mood for guessing games, Theo. What is it?"
Instead of answering, the colonel raised his voice. "Come on in, gentlemen."
Sarah let her head roll sideways toward the room's other door. As soon as her eyes lit on the figure entering the room, she became galvanized and jumped to her feet. "Scott!" she yelled and hurled herself at her twin. He met her with open arms, flung them around his sister's waist, and lifted her off the floor, turning with her in circles. Meanwhile, Sarah wrapped her arms around Scott's neck and squeezed. When he stopped whirling her around and set her down, she kissed his cheek then pulled him to her once more. "Oh, my God, Scott, I sometimes wondered whether we would ever see each other again."
Scott's arms tightened and his voice roughened. "I wish I never had to let you go. When I think of you facing the dangers of battle over and over again-" After a moment, he pushed away from Sarah, and she could see tears seeping from the corners of his eyes. She knew his show of emotion embarrassed him, and his next remark, an attempt at humor, emphasized that. "I swear, Sarah-Bren Coulter, you have more hair on your face than I have on mine." Sarah's fingers wiped the tears from her brother's smooth-shaven cheeks, and he grinned wryly. "Why am I always the one who cries?"
Tears sprang into Sarah's eyes, too, and she wiped them with her sleeve as she choked out an answer. "Because you're the one with the softer heart."
Another voice broke into their absorption in each other. "What a sight. First, two men who look almost exactly alike are kissing each other, and now they're crying like babies." A big, blond-haired man in a captain's uniform grinned at the twins.
"Phillip!" Sarah gave her brother's arm a squeeze and turned to greet the speaker. "Would you like to kiss a man too?" she said with a laugh. "In fact, while I'm dressed as a man, you all better call me Bren."
Theo's brother stepped forward. "Try to stop me." The two embraced and kissed. "You look and taste a lot better when you don't have hair on your face . . . Bren," Phillip said. Then his voice lowered. "But I'll take a kiss from you anytime I can get one."
Sarah's face flushed as she stepped away, unsettled by her friend's dogged persistence. "What are you two doing here?" she asked in a rush, looking from Phillip to her brother. "And where's Lindsay? Did she come too?"
Scott shook his head. "No, someone had to keep an eye on Pres-and the foundry. She was really disappointed that she couldn't come, and she sends her love."
"It would have been wonderful to see her." Sarah made a face. "Especially since I'm usually surrounded by dirty, sweaty men."
Theo rubbed his chin and said very slowly and deliberately, "Men aren't the only ones who can be dirty and sweaty."
The other two men snorted as Sarah blushed, then laughed. "All right, I guess I deserved that. Be assured I'll get you back for it, Theo." Then she sobered. "But tell me what this meeting means."
"First, come sit down and eat something," Theo said. "We might as well get comfortable while we discuss this." The colonel sat behind his desk and waved the three to the chairs in front of him. He poured four cups of coffee then handed them around and pushed the cream, sugar, and spoons within reach of his companions. After each person took a sandwich, he continued. "Go ahead, Scott. Your family's foundry is involved in this, so you might as well start. Then my little brother can fill in his part." Since Phillip was a good seven inches taller than Theo, the colonel's use of "little" was a familiar brotherly jest.
"Coulter Foundry and Davely Armory are combining to ship a huge supply of munitions by rail. It's designated for the troops in northern Virginia, so it will be transferred at the rail junction in Hadley's Run."
Tired as she was, Sarah's brain raced faster than a team of horses. "Rail's the quickest, but it's also the most dangerous. Part of the rail lines run close to Rebel territory, and that particular junction is within striking distance for them." Sounds like that's what the dispatch was about. "You'll need extra guards. On the train and on the ground."
"That's where I come in," Phillip said. "And we're going to do just that. I'll have a detachment of troops on the first train, and some others will be on land in wait at the junction. If there's no trouble at the transfer point, after the second train is loaded the troops will change over to it. Once we get past the transfer area, the rest should be an easy trip."
Sarah cocked her head toward Phillip. "The munitions and troops are being changed to a second train? Why aren't the cars just being uncoupled and switched to another engine?"
Scott answered instead of Phillip. "We have another shipment going out within the week. We'll need the cars back for that one." Sarah nodded as she assimilated this information.
Theo spoke again. "Maybe you can help us, Sarah. I mean Bren." He pointed to the papers on the desk. "That information you just brought sounds like the Rebs have some knowledge of the shipment. If you can feed them false information about which trains are involved, or even which day, then we can set a trap, clear out the opposition, and send the real trains on their way."
Sarah nodded. "Good idea. Maybe you can make up a phony dispatch, and I can claim to have stolen it from a Union courier." Sarah shifted in her chair and stretched her neck. "I don't want you all to think I don't appreciate seeing you, but I'm absolutely worn out. I need to get a bath and grab some sleep. You settle all the details and decide what messages need to be delivered, and I'll catch up on everybody's news in the morning."
Sarah stood, and the men rose too. Theo smiled and gave her some welcome information. "I already have a room reserved for you at the Midtown Hotel-with a connecting bath. While we're headquartered here, it's a permanent reservation for whenever you have a chance to stay overnight. It's in the name of Brendan Coulter."
My grandfather. "Bless you, Theo." Sarah kissed each of the men good night and plodded from the room. Her heart was singing from the unexpected visit with Scott and Phillip, but her body just wanted to drop on the spot and never move.
At the hotel desk, Sarah arranged to have hot water and towels brought for her bath, then dragged herself to her room. Rooting in her saddlebag until she found a nightshirt, she tossed it on the bed and dumped the bag in a corner. Not wanting to dirty the bedclothes, she dropped into a chair and watched as a man brought buckets of steaming water to fill the metal tub in the adjoining room. When he finished and left a stack of towels, she locked the door and tore off her shirt, exposing her cloth-covered upper body. She quickly unwrapped the cloth, sighing with relief as she freed her breasts from imprisonment. As she ran her hands up and down her chest, the ache of returning feeling was offset by remembrance of Leah's proposed massage, and a smile broke through the pain.
Now this damn beard and mustache. Watching in the mirror atop the bureau, she removed the disguise from her cheeks and the area above her lips. As she scrutinized her two-tone skin, she addressed her image. "You might look like Grandfather Brendan with the beard on, but you sure don't look like Grandmother Sarah without it." Wonder what they would think of their namesake now? Sarah-Bren Coulter, betrayer of thousands. Has anyone any idea of how many deaths I'm responsible for? Can I ever atone for that? Sarah quickly submerged the haunting question, as she always tried to do.
With a helpless shrug at ever finding a suitable answer, she skinned off her boots and the rest of her clothing. Grateful to be free of the sweaty garments, she headed into the next room. She bypassed a chair that held several white towels, tested the bath water with her fingertips, and stepped into the tub. She sat down slowly, prolonging the pleasure of her body meeting the water as she sank into it up to her armpits. For more than ten minutes, she luxuriated in the rare delight of a warm bath, moving occasionally just to feel the water lap over her shoulders and stir against her body. Then, realizing that the warmth was fleeting, she washed her body and her hair.
She reached for one of the towels piled on the chair and emerged from the tub, enjoying more moments of sensory pleasure when she stroked the soft towel over her body. She watched, amazed, as her hands turned into Leah's and the tingling of her body took on another dimension. What is going on with you, Sarah? Yes, a massage would have been nice, but Leah was half-joking. Are you so tired you can't think straight? She shook her head and brought her wayward thoughts and feelings under control. Quickly, she moved the towel to her head and concentrated on the task of rubbing her scalp and drying her hair.
Ambling back into the bedroom, Sarah shrugged on the thigh-length nightshirt, dug a brush from her kit, and sat on the edge of the bed. Starting at the bottom of her hair, she worked the brush slowly through her tangled tresses, fighting to stay awake to complete this delightfully familiar, but now rare, ritual. Using her fingers, she helped the bristles tug the knots loose. When all the knots were gone, she brushed her hair a hundred strokes, raising shimmering bronze highlights within its brown hue. At last, she put the brush away, lifted the covers, and slid into the bed. A moment later, she fell asleep with a tentative smile on her lips, hoping for at least one peaceful dream before encountering the staring eyes of a fallen boy-soldier and his small, dark-complected comrade.
The next morning, Sarah wrapped her bosom and applied the fake beard with fresh spirit gum. Since these townspeople weren't engaged in the actual fighting, she felt she was not in any danger of being recognized as a Rebel scout. But she didn't want to draw any attention to herself by appearing in their midst as a woman dressed like a man.
As she entered the hotel's otherwise empty dining room, she saw Scott and Phillip in the far corner and walked over to them. Phillip started to rise, but Scott's hand on his arm stopped him. "I don't think captains rise to greet scouts," he said with a chuckle. "Good morning, Sarah. We've finished breakfast, but join us while we have our coffee."
Phillip kept his seat and shook his head. "And I don't know any men named 'Sarah,'" he said, reminding Scott of the name change. "Good morning, Bren."
"Good morning. I'm grateful we're alone at the moment, or my disguise would be useless. You each get a point for being correct. And a point gets subtracted for also being incorrect." Sarah pulled out a chair and sat down as she favored two of the dearest men in her life with a tender look. While they taunted each other like schoolboys for their mistakes, she was reminded of the day in the Coulter drawing room, when she first had spoken to them about becoming a spy. They haven't changed all that much, she thought, but I have.
"And what are you smiling about?" Scott asked his sister when the men finally ended their verbal jousting with each other.
"I was just thinking about the day I told you I had decided to masquerade as a man. Remember?"
"I remember being totally against it," Scott answered. "But that obviously didn't deter you."
Phillip's lips pursed, then he blurted, "You should have forbade her! The army is no place for a woman."
Both Scott and Sarah turned to look at him, and Sarah's words held the chill of a winter wind . "You keep forgetting that no one is in a position to forbid me to do anything."
Scott lifted an eyebrow when Sarah spoke but only shrugged. "You heard her, Phillip. You know Bren's never let me or anyone else order her around. I don't even make the attempt anymore. I'm not happy with the decision, and I'm constantly worried, but I don't have the right to stop her."
"Well, I'm not happy with it either." Phillip's expression showed his disapproval. "I won't be happy until you quit."
"Oh hush, Phillip. I'm not about to quit. The information I've carried back and forth has helped in a number of battles. I've been there to see it, and I'm none the worse for it. You do agree I'm serving a useful purpose, don't you?" Without waiting for an answer, Sarah lifted her plate from the table and carried it across the large room to the food-laden sideboard.
"You sister is the most hardheaded woman I know," Phillip complained.
Scott gave a short laugh. "You say that like you just figured it out. You grew up with her, same as I did, so the idea is not a new one." He took a sip of his lukewarm coffee. "Maybe you're lucky she keeps turning you down." Scott had teased his friend for years about Sarah's lack of commitment to him, but today for some reason, Phillip flushed.
"Do you think she'll ever have me, Scott? She knows how I feel about her," Phillip said in a low voice. He ran a finger under his collar, as though it were too tight against his skin. His gaze followed the object of his affections as she made several selections from the available food.
Scott watched Phillip watching his sister. "Sarah told you a long time ago she's not the marrying kind. My sister is independent and hardheaded." He smiled at Phillip before continuing. "As far as I can recall, she's never mentioned being attracted to anyone. I know she cares a lot for you, though, if that's any consolation."
Phillip took a deep breath and released it as Sarah made her way back to their table. "I guess it will have to be, for now."
Theo forged a dispatch and included a false date and time for the shipment of the munitions Coulter Foundry was preparing; the real shipment would go a day earlier. When Bren was satisfied the dispatch looked authentic, she stuffed it into her saddlebag and headed back to Confederate territory. She knew the area so well, she was able to slip past the Rebel picket lines without detection. Scouts always had passwords, but she avoided using hers whenever possible. No sense in publicizing how often she passed across the lines.
She estimated the approximate distance the remnants of Holt's infantry probably retreated after their defeat and guided Redfire through the hills and valleys until she found the force. She headed right for the headquarters tent, which displayed the regiment's flag just below that of the Confederacy.
"Hey, Cordell," the soldier posted at the entrance said and nodded.
"Beecher." Bren nodded in return. "I have a dispatch for Captain Holt."
Beecher shook his head. "Where've you been? Captain Holt got killed in the last battle. We got us a Captain Lockman now."
Bren feigned a look of shock. "Damn shame. Holt was a good man. I did hear you took the worst of it."
"We surely did. Lost nearly half our men." The soldier stuck his head in the tent flap, spoke some words, then ducked back out and motioned for Bren to enter. "Captain said to send you in."
Bren entered the tent and introduced herself. Captain Lockman was seated at a small, ornate desk that held papers stacked in several piles. "Good to meet you, Cordell. I've come across your name in Captain Holt's papers. He had a high opinion of your abilities." Lockman's voice held the soft drawl of the deep South.
"Thank you, sir." Bren set her saddlebag on the floor and reached into it. "I have something here that looks pretty important." She pulled out the false dispatch and handed it to Lockman, who read it immediately.
The captain made a low whistle and raised his eyes. "This could be very important. How did you get this?"
Bren pitched her voice lower. "I know this land well, sir. When I was returning from my leave, I crept near the Yankee lines to see whether I could find out anything worthwhile. I was just in the right place at the right time and came across a courier carrying that dispatch. He and I had a little 'discussion' about it, and he lost." She hesitated a moment for emphasis. "I hid his body in a cave. When I saw what the message was, I hurried here to pass it on. I figured since this force is near the railroad junction in question, maybe we would be able to do something to stop the shipment."
"Good work, Cordell. I'll see that this gets into the proper hands. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to get a part in that action." Lockman laid the dispatch on his desk. "You go on and get some rest. I might have some work for you later today."
"Yes, sir. I'll be on the north edge of camp." Upwind. Bren hoisted her saddlebag over her shoulder and left the tent. Leading Redfire by the reins, she walked to the outskirts of the other tents. As soon as she picked a spot to settle, she tied the end of one rein to a tree limb, allowing Redfire enough slack to nibble at the grass. While he fed, Sarah relieved him of the saddlebags and saddle, setting them on the ground then using the saddle as a backrest.
She had missed the noon mess, and although she had some food in a sack she kept in a saddlebag, she decided to rely on her supply of beef jerky. She pulled a piece from a pocket, tore off a chunk with her teeth, and chewed the hard substance while her mind went over the plan about the ammunition shipment.
She nodded to herself, satisfied that the ruse concerning the false shipment was working. Captain Lockman expressed no doubts about the validity of the dispatch. Now all she had to do was keep her eyes and ears open for the next few days to be sure that whichever troops were assigned to stop the train would arrive there at least twenty-four hours too late.
Tugging the saddlebags toward her, she removed her journal and pulled out a nibbed pen and a stoppered bottle of ink. Fixing the bottle comfortably within reach, she propped the journal against her knees and began writing. For most of the afternoon, she wrote what she could of the past week of her daily activities without divulging her masquerade. When she finished her recording, she drew pictures of Leah and Amy and added a camp scene of the men within her current field of vision.
Around suppertime, she grabbed her tin bowl and spoon, then took a couple of potatoes, two apples, and a large hunk of bread from the sack in her saddlebag. With the food as an offering, she hunted up a group of soldiers who had a "don't-ask-what's-in-it" soup pot going. She had learned early that these thrown-together meals beat the standard mess rations by far. Her potatoes got chopped into the pot, her apples and two pears from another soldier were sliced for dessert, and she got one chunk of bread back-for dipping. For all that, Bren received two bowls of one of the best soups she had ever tasted. It was a good day.
The captain didn't send Bren anywhere that day, but the very next morning he summoned her to take a message to an adjoining regiment, about a day's ride away. As soon as she was out of sight of the camp, she pulled Redfire off the trail and inspected the message she was carrying. Captain Lockman was merely passing on the information she had delivered to him yesterday and asking advice and orders from Colonel Arborough, the leader of the neighboring force.
Thinking to slow any preparations for attack that reception of the dispatch could set in motion, Bren took her time delivering it, a choice which later would come back to haunt her. When Colonel Arborough received the information, he had Bren wait for his answer to Captain Lockman. He finally handed Bren his response, and she quickly mounted Redfire and left the campsite. After she had traveled a safe distance, she stopped near a stream and dismounted. While the sorrel drank his fill, she read the newly written message. Once she got past the usual flowery greeting and read the text, she gasped. She reread it, but of course, the words had not changed:
We have an informant who sent us a report of this shipment two weeks ago. I, indeed, sent Captain Holt a message notifying him of the shipment, thinking we could mount a combined attack and perhaps capture the arms and ammunition for our own cause. Then I received a second dispatch from our informant, advising that the shipment would be heavily guarded, both on the train and at the transfer point in Hadley's Run, resulting in a useless loss of many lives. The term "useless" was chosen because it is the informant's belief that any attempt at securing the shipment would likely result in its destruction before the Yankees would allow it to be seized.
This probability has given rise to an alternate plan. The informant will ride on the train, hide incendiary devices amid the munitions, and cause them to detonate at Hadley's Run, thus ridding the area of as many of our enemy as possible. In addition, the destruction of the munitions will hurt the Yankee cause.
I must call to your attention that the message you have forwarded to me names the date of the shipment as one day later than the actual shipping time. This discrepancy will cause no problem, even if your message proves to be more accurate. Our informant will be at the site of departure and will be on the train regardless of the date.
Your troops and mine can stand down from this action. I will be informing you soon of your next mission.
Bren's hand shook from the implications of this message. She stuffed the message back in the dispatch pouch, climbed onto Redfire, and kicked her heels into his flanks to urge him forward. As the horse bolted through the trees, Bren fought against the numbness threatening to shut down her brain. This is not the time for panic, Bren. Scott and Phillip will be on that train. And hundreds of others will be in jeopardy. You have to warn them.
Even while Bren was yelling at herself, she realized the odds were against her. She was now three days away from the endangered junction and three days away from the nearest Union telegraph office-and the shipment was three days away too. Her best bet was to intercept the train before it arrived at the junction. Redfire just had to get her there in time.
To be continued in Part ThreePlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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