Scott Coulter twisted his shoulders to ease the discomfort caused by hours of riding on the train. The stretching was pure reflex; the possibility of an enemy assault preoccupied his mind. As he sat at the back of the passenger car full of armed soldiers, his gaze was drawn over and over again to the window of passing scenery, searching for suspicious movement. He chided himself for allowing the situation to exert this magnetic effect on his eyes. He had an irrational feeling that if he stayed constantly alert, nothing would happen; but if his vigilance faltered, disaster would overtake them. At one point, he stood up, lifted the window beside him, and stuck his head out, careful to turn his face immediately away from the cinders flying from the engine that pulled the convoy. As the train slowed and traversed a curve around a finger of water, Scott had a good view of each car. His was immediately behind the coal car. Another one full of soldiers rolled directly behind his, with two boxcars loaded with rifles, cartridges, and dynamite from Davely Armory next in line. Then two flat cars carrying cannon and crates of ammunition concealed by tarpaulins followed, with another passenger car of soldiers and civilian representatives from Coulter and Davely behind. A caboose brought up the rear. Satisfied that all looked in order, Scott pulled his head back in and sat down. He glanced self-consciously at Phillip, who was seated facing him. "I hate this uncertainty."
"It's better than the reality of battle," Phillip said. "But let the guards worry about it." Scott knew his friend had posted soldiers at strategic points inside the passenger cars, and even on the roofs of the boxcars. But he had noticed that Phillip occasionally became restless too. With little other activity available, Phillip traveled periodically from car to car, checking in with the guards and the other soldiers. Each time, he returned to his seat and met Scott's questioning gaze with the same words, "Relax. Everything's fine."
Now, Scott's fingers played with a fob on the chain that lay against his vest, until finally he couldn't resist pulling out his pocket watch. "About twenty more minutes," he said. Then what? his nerves screamed at him.
Bren pounded through the forest on Redfire, riding low against the animal's neck to avoid getting slapped in the face and arms by the springy branches. She didn't even bother rolling down her sleeves after a few broken branches gouged her arms; she was too focused to care. Grateful for her mount's sure-footed response to her urgency, she spoke words of praise to him, which he answered with even greater effort.
The imminent danger to the men she loved threatened the emotional self-control on which Bren prided herself. Filled with horror by the possibility of losing either Scott or Phillip-maybe both of them-she drove Redfire to the very edge of his endurance before stopping to give the animal needed rest. During these short delays, Bren tried to relax too, but the gravity of her mission made that difficult. Several times, she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion then woke after only a short rest and hastened again on her way, carefully skirting picket lines of both armies.
When at last she topped the final mountain ridge, a clear spot allowed her to search the valley below and she could see Hadley's Run, probably at least two miles away on horseback. Beyond the town, a string of smoke puffs billowed into the air from a train slowly approaching the junction. At this distance, Bren couldn't tell what the flat cars carried, but dread that it might be the munitions train hammered through her. "Faster, boy, faster," she called to Redfire and sent him pell-mell straight down the mountainside.
Nervous excitement shivered through Scott as they neared the junction. Pulling a linen handkerchief from the inside pocket of his frock coat, he pressed it to the slight depression above his upper lip to soak up the perspiration gathered there. As he returned the cloth to his pocket, his friend glanced at him with a slight smile. Phillip's eyes mirrored Scott's tension as the big man stood up and said, "So far, so good." He stepped into the aisle and spoke to his lieutenant, who sat in the next seat. "Lt. Murray, tell those in charge in the other cars to stay alert and be prepared to disembark as soon as we stop. I'll order the transfer of the material immediately afterwards." As Murray left, Phillip raised his voice to the other soldiers. "Men, we're almost at our first destination. Keep your eyes open for anything suspicious. Be ready to leave the train and form up at the nearest freight car as quickly as you can."
Scott rose and teetered a moment before he caught his balance by grabbing the top of the nearest backrest. With his other hand, he lifted his derby hat from the seat next to him, placed it on his head, and turned toward Phillip. "The train has slowed enough. I'll jump off and check to make sure the wagons are ready for transferring the shipment to the other train. Maybe I can hurry things up. I'd like to get free of this junction as soon as possible."
Phillip nodded and stepped aside, allowing Scott to pass him toward the door of the car. "I agree. We have plenty of protection, but sitting here without moving is an invitation to attack." He watched Scott reach for a handrail and disappear through the doorway. Then he turned back toward his troops as the men stood and gathered their gear. From a seat, he picked up his sheathed sword, removed earlier in the name of comfort, and belted it around his middle, then donned the blue kepi that had rested next to the weapon.
Suddenly, the sound of an explosion burst against his ears. The car shifted as though shoved by a giant hand. Soldiers stumbled and cursed, some falling to their knees. Phillip pushed frantically to the door. He wrenched it open and leaped through it. A second explosion slammed him to the ground. Paralyzed, he looked up and saw Death hurtling toward him. "Oh, God!" he cried aloud, then a gigantic force struck him and his world went black.
Just emerging from the network of tracks that met at the junction, Scott felt a prickle run up his back. He slowed and glanced back across the yard at the train, catching the sound of a strangled cry. He heard the first explosion only a split second after being knocked off his feet, his hat sent flying with the force of the wind. On instinct, he rolled behind a railroad equipment box sitting near the station building.. When he tried to peer around it, a second explosion sent pieces of shrapnel flying by. One grazed his cheek and he pulled back. Rolled into a ball, he protected his head as bits of metal and wood rained down around him. He grimaced as explosion after explosion shook the air and rocked the ground. When the blasts stopped, he cautiously poked his head past the side of the box and froze in horror at the sight.
Bren was about a mile and a half from the junction when huge clouds of smoke sprouted into the sky like ugly black blossoms streaked with white. Almost immediately, the sounds of multiple explosions rippled toward her. Please, no. Please, no. She rushed her horse across the seemingly endless valley. For several seconds, her brain quickened into emergency mode, and she saw herself and Redfire slogging across the ground in slow motion. Bren shook herself back to real time, desperate to reach the train.
She swept to the north, turning a lathered Redfire toward the outskirts of town where the rail tracks met. Passing through hordes of people streaming toward the site of the explosions, she saw others already there, trying to rescue victims of the destruction. Frantic to find Scott and Phillip, Bren dismounted, wrapped Redfire's reins around her hand, and pulled the uneasy animal through the chaos. The scene was as bad as any battlefield she had seen. The train's engine lay on its side, knocked free of its wheels. The cars behind it had twisted into misshapen clumps of metal, like huge chunks of grotesque sculpture erupted from the earth's bowels. Heat pulsed from everything like a physical presence, and Bren rolled her sleeves down to reflect it away from her scratched arms.
The roar of flames, screams of injured, and calls of rescuers pummeled her ears like an erratic thunderstorm. Fear gnawed her stomach as she tugged Redfire through pieces of building material, body parts, and wreckage strewn amid the injured and dying. Flames spurted and smoke billowed above and around her, and she choked in the noxious, cinder-filled air. Her nose and eyes burned from the fumes, and Redfire tossed his head and snuffled. She wiped her sleeve against the water oozing onto her face, but most of it ran into her beard.
As she searched the ground, she saw the back of a blond-haired soldier, wearing a captain's insignia. He was impaled on a piece of wood from the shattered ammunition crate he lay sprawled against. As Sarah ran toward him, she tripped on a rail and stumbled, but her hold on Redfire's reins helped her keep her balance. When she reached the man, she knelt down, grabbed his shoulder, and yanked him over. He wasn't Phillip.
Bren closed her eyes and swallowed several times, trying to settle her stomach. She felt sorrow for this unknown soldier, but fresh tears of thankfulness eked out. It's not Phillip, it's not . . . but where is he? And Scott? She wiped again at her wet face, then staggered up to continue searching.
Off to one side, townspeople were removing debris so soldiers could place dead bodies one next to the other in rows. Almost as quickly as workers cleared a space, another body filled it. With sinking heart, Bren threaded her way through the first of the rows, holding a nervous Redfire at her shoulder. When she looked toward the train, she saw a dark-haired man kneeling next to the first of the overturned cars. She blinked several times. Something about the man's bearing was familiar enough to lift her heart. She mounted Redfire and guided him in that direction, allowing the stallion to pick his way through the rescuers and the debris. Most of the cars were aflame, and the billows of black smoke hindered Bren's eyesight even further, but she thought she saw someone lying on the ground next to the man's knee. Why are they still by the train? They should move away. Her heart thudded harder as she got closer to the car, and she rode Redfire as near as she could without the flames spooking the animal.
She dismounted, tied Redfire's reins to a small sticker bush apparently denuded of leaves by the explosion, and hurried toward the two figures. The heat became stifling as she neared them, and the roar and crackling of the flames grew louder. She squatted next to the kneeling man and only then saw that he was truly her brother. He opened his mouth and his lips contorted, moving soundlessly. "Scott." She gave his arm a quick squeeze. "Thank goodness you're all right." Her burning eyes immediately went to the person lying on the ground, and she sucked in a sharp breath. Phillip. He looked perfect except for one horrible situation. The top corner of the fallen boxcar was crushing everything below his right knee. "Oh my God, Phillip! Your leg…" The words came out in a hoarse shout, and at the sound of her voice, Phillip's eyes opened. Smiling at Bren through his pain, he tried to speak.
With the noise of the fire crashing around them, she had to bend close to hear him. "I'm in a mess," he struggled to say, "and Scott's reluctant . . ." He blinked and sighed. "But here you come to the rescue." Then he slipped into unconsciousness.
Bren lifted her head. Forget this is Phillip. Put his leg out of your mind. He needs help. Think! Her eyes roved the area, and it was plain there was nothing available to raise the car from Phillip's leg. Fire shot up into the sky, and her body overheated as flames worked toward them, inching ever nearer. "We have to do something-fast!"
She turned to Scott, who squinted against the tainted air, tears coursing rivulets down his dirty cheeks. She couldn't tell how much of the tears were from the cinders and how much from fear for his friend. He held a hunting knife, and as their eyes met, he shook his head. "I tried to find a medic, but everyone is so badly hurt . . ."
Bren leaned forward until her lips were next to his ear. "I'll do it, Scott," she said gently. As she spoke, she placed her hand over his, then her fingers joined his on the hilt of the knife, and she tugged at it.
Scott locked his grip on the knife and spoke thickly, "I'll do it."
"No, I've seen worse. I'm better prepared for this." How could I ever be prepared for this? The thought surged through Bren's mind, unsummoned. But it's either cut off his leg or let him die, so there really is no choice. And I can't let Scott carry the burden of crippling his best friend. That would cripple him too.
She knew this would affect her also, but she dismissed the idea as a distraction from the task at hand. She gave her brother a fierce look. "We don't have time to argue. Give me the damn knife." He seemed to recognize the determination on her face and gave a nod of surrender, then released the knife without any further struggle.
Bren slashed off Phillip's pant leg and exposed his knee, allowing a quick glance to determine where and how she should begin. She touched her finger to a spot on Phillip's leg. "Take off his belt and tie it tight right here." she said, then turned back her cuffs and rolled up her sleeves. Scott tied the belt and looked back at his sister, who continued, "Get my blanket roll from Redfire. We can use it to pull Phillip to safety when I've . . ." She blinked her eyes several times then shut them tight while she offered up a quick prayer. "I can do this," she muttered, calling up her favorite phrase, which always seemed to work.
Scott reached over and patted his sister's arm. "I'll wait with you, first."
Bren whispered, "Thanks," and swallowed hard. She bent down, locked her grasp on Phillip's leg below his knee, and made the first incision near the edge of the crushed tissue. At times she grabbed the hilt with both hands to power the blade through jagged bone. Phillip's blood ran down her hand and across her arm, but she barely noticed how it stung the cuts gouged in her skin during her frantic journey. Bren clenched her teeth together so hard that her jaw was sore for several days. She wondered if her heart would ever recover.
Scott and Bren sat at Phillip's bedside in the impromptu field hospital set up by the army. Bren dropped her hat on the floor by her feet, and glanced around at the other patients, some with visitors. "Scott, I want to hear everything that happened to you and Phillip, but it's important that you remember to call me Bren," she said in a voice low enough for only Scott to hear.
Her brother quietly explained how he and Phillip escaped death, finishing with the aftermath of the explosions. He nodded toward Phillip. Their friend was still asleep from the chloroform given him before the surgeon cauterized the stump of his leg. "I found Phillip pinned and he begged me to-" Scott hesitated, unable to put the facts into words. Instead, he just waved his hand. "Then you appeared, like a guardian angel." He gave his sister a grateful look. "You saved us both."
Bren reached up, pulled the rawhide tie from her hair, and stuck it in a pocket, then thrust her fingers through the loosened strands. She bowed her head with her fingers still splayed across the crown. "I'm not anyone's guardian angel. I tried my damnedest to get here in time to warn you, but I didn't make it." She jerked as a realization struck her like a blow. If she hadn't purposely dallied on her way to deliver the dispatch to Colonel Arborough, she could have saved everyone. "I used some bad judgment, and a lot of people are dead because of it."
Scott's voice gently chided her. "Why do you insist on blaming yourself? You didn't set off those explosions. The fiends who did that are the real culprits. The authorities need to find out who they are."
Bren removed her fingers from her hair and sat up straighter, making an effort to ignore her distress. "That's right. The dispatch from Colonel Arborough mentioned an informant. In all the turmoil, I forgot about that." Bren's whole being went into "thinking mode." She had always been good at analyzing situations. Her brain seemed to go right to the crux of any problem, then systematically examine every possible answer. Scott was blessed with this same talent, but his showed up more in the business world. Bren had no such limitations. She thought out loud. "One man could do it. He wouldn't need to smuggle explosives aboard, the train was carrying explosive ammunition. He would only need to set up some fuses ahead of time then light them at the proper moment. By using several different lengths, he could light the fuses from one or two spots. He also had to have been riding on the train to the junction, but wouldn't want to be on it when it blew up." Bren rubbed the back of her neck, a habit that seemed to help her concentrate. "Did you see anyone leave the train when you did?" she asked, focusing her gaze on her brother.
"Now that you mention it, I think there was someone else who got out of a car farther down from me. I was in such a hurry to make sure the wagons were ready, I didn't pay too much attention to the him."
"Are you certain he got out of a car? Or could he have been emerging from between cars?"
Scott's brow furrowed as he tried to picture those few moments. Then he answered slowly, the words measured, "He was down by the two boxcars, so he could have been coming from between them."
"Was he a soldier?"
"No, I think he was a civilian. Yes, that's right; he was wearing a dark brown suit. And I sense he was hurrying away from the train just as I was. But he went in a different direction."
"You need to give that information to the authorities. Tell them about the informant, but do it without implicating me. I have to get back and figure out some way to excuse my absence." Bren picked up her hat and settled it on her head. She stood and put a hand on Scott's shoulder to keep him from rising.
Her brother placed his hand over hers and spoke quietly. "Stay here. You've done more than your share. Aren't you tired of this masquerade?"
"Yes, I'm tired, but of the war, not of the masquerade. And I've been instrumental in changing the tide of battle more than once." Bren sat again in the chair and rested her hands, palms down, one on each thigh. "Did you hear any details about the battle at Hainesville?"
"Some. I heard the Rebs were making a great advance, but one reserve group failed to move forward, and the advance failed. After that, our forces drove them back."
Bren nodded and her eyes flashed. "That's right, and that group didn't move forward because it received the wrong orders. From me."
"How did you manage that?" Scott's eyebrows lifted.
"I walked right in among General Torlynn's troops. I had met his courier before, so I found him and just hung around him, in case I could cause some mischief. There was so much going on during the advance that the General didn't even write down the orders for the reserve regiment. He had one of his aides deliver it to the courier verbally." Bren looked down at her hands. "I heard every word. So I followed the man, put him out of commission, and delivered the wrong orders. Then I just disappeared."
"Put him out of commission?" Scott asked.
Bren closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and fixed them on her brother. "I killed him, Scott. He saw me. There wasn't any other way."
Scott put a hand to his chest and turned pale. "You killed him?" His head wobbled back and forth. "You always were strong, but the war has made you ruthless. I'm not sure I know you any more."
Bren stood once again, but Scott made no move to rise, though he knew she was leaving. His condemnation had hurt, but she would never admit it to him. She spoke harshly, "Yes, it has made me ruthless. Ruthless enough to save Phillip's life by cutting off his leg, when you were too damn scared to do it." Though Bren regretted the words as soon as she spoke them, she didn't apologize.
Her reproach hit Scott like a blow to his belly, and his shoulders hunched in reaction. "I don't appreciate your accusation. Yes, I was scared, but I could have done it," he said. "I would have done it. You think I would've let Phillip die?"
Sarcasm pulled Bren's lips awry. "We'll never really know the answer to that, will we?" Pushing the unpleasant moment out of her mind, she walked to the side of Phillip's bed, bent down, and kissed his cheek. "Tell Phillip I'm sorry I had to leave before he woke." She straightened up. "And you better wire Lindsay that you're both all right. She'll be worried sick about you when she hears of the explosion. Let Theo know too."
Scott got up, then, to walk his sister to the entrance. "I will. Thank you for reminding me." Bren knew both she and Scott were hurt by the harsh words between them, but she chose to ignore that. She lifted her arms to her brother. As they hugged goodbye, he said, "Thank you for getting here in time. Phillip and I will be forever grateful. God be with you."
"With you too, Scott." She whispered in his ear. "I love you."
Scott's voice also dropped so Bren alone could hear. "You know I love you, Sarah. We all do."
Bren pulled away and gave her brother a sidelong look. "I know that's not always such an easy task." Bitter thoughts tore at her. Deceiver, betrayer, killer . . . if they really knew me, would anyone love me?
"These dispatches are damn late, Cordell." Captain Lockman said. "What's your explanation?"
Bren fingered the gray cap she held in her hands and shifted her weight from foot to foot, in a pretext of nervousness. She dragged her answer out in a slow drawl, as though each word struggled to pull the next one along after it. Each hesitation between sentences seemed a necessary pause to regain her breath. "My blasted horse stumbled, sir. Threw me off, and I fetched up against a tree. I don't know how long I was unconscious, maybe a day or even two. I just know I woke up mighty full of pain and mighty hungry. I broke several ribs," Bren said, as she circled the cap once more through her fingers, "and banged my head pretty bad, and I couldn't move for most of a week except to get my canteen. Good thing I always carry jerky in my pocket, or I would have been near starved."
She removed one hand from the cap and patted her stomach.
"Finally, a soldier came along the trail, and I got a piece of cloth from him." She pulled the bottom of her shirt out of her trousers and lifted it to show the edge of the cloth bound around her. "Once I got this on, I could pull myself onto my horse, but riding fast was out of the question. I had to walk Redfire all the way back here. Colonel Arborough didn't indicate that the dispatch was urgent, and I surely hope it wasn't." She raised her head and looked earnestly at the officer. "I've never been this derelict before, sir. I hope that counts in my favor."
"I've had good reports about you, Cordell. I suppose we can overlook this instance since it was unavoidable. In fact, you'd better have some more time off for those ribs to heal well. We need you to be able to ride. I'll have one of the regulars substitute for you. Report back to me in two weeks."
"Thank you, sir." Bren turned and left the room. Two weeks, she repeated to herself. Hallelujah! That will give me time to check on Mother and Father. My being in this war has played havoc with keeping in touch with them.
During the three-day ride to Paramalin, Virginia, Bren twice bypassed Confederate encampments, giving them a wide berth. Now, as she guided Redfire along the approach to Brendan Manor, her parents' home, a feeling of nostalgia spread through her. Anxious to see her parents after a three-year absence, she clucked the sorrel into a trot along the tree-lined entry.
At one time, the manor had been a vast plantation, but when Cynthia Coulter inherited it, she followed her husband Prescott's urging and sold most of the land and slaves. Cynthia and her young twins had spent many summers here with Prescott joining them during his vacations from Coulter Foundry. When cries for emancipation began to be acknowledged, Cynthia and Prescott freed the remaining slaves and offered homes and wages to the few who stayed to care for the house and what remained of the grounds, setting an example frowned upon by many of their neighbors.
Bren smiled as a few childhood escapades played through her mind, but a loud scream jolted her from her reverie. As she spurred her mount into a gallop, a shot rang out, and her heart leaped. What could be happening? No battles were being waged in this area. Still, it paid to be cautious. Near the end of the lane, still out of sight of the house, she reined Redfire in and threw herself off of him. Peeking through the trees disclosed a disturbing scene. About a hundred feet away, Matthias, the family butler, lay on the ground, a shotgun lying nearby. His wife Pearl knelt next to him, using the edge of her skirt to fight a red stain spreading on the front of his white jacket.
Bren gasped in anguish. The rest of the scene nearly stopped her breathing. Just beyond Matthias, four men struggled to push Bren's father beneath a tree limb that had a rope thrown over it. Prescott's arms were bound behind his back, and the waiting rope had a noose tied in one end. Her mother had grabbed one man's arm and was digging her heels into the ground to try to stop their progress. Bren flew into Redfire's saddle and drew her pistol. Screaming "Yiyiyiyi," she charged the sorrel toward the scuffling group just as the man threw her mother down and turned toward Bren. He pulled a pistol from the belt at his stomach. Bren fired. The shot hit the man square in the chest, knocking him to the earth. A second man released Prescott, drew a pistol and stepped away. He spread his feet, lifted the pistol with two hands, and sighted along the barrel, swinging it to zero in on the rider's approach. Bren's second shot hit him in the neck just before his finger tightened on the trigger. His bullet went harmlessly into the air as he was flung onto his back.
Bren saw the other two men shove Prescott away. Her father stumbled to the ground, rolled over, and wound up facing the action. "By God, it's Scott!" he yelled.
Bren kept Redfire going at full gallop as the two men separated, grabbed their weapons, and aimed at her. At this close range, she was in great jeopardy, but she shut her mind to the danger and focused on the man to her left. Aiming her pistol past the side of Redfire's neck, she fired, then ducked to the right. But her quick action wasn't needed. Just as she was switching her aim, a shotgun roared behind her, and the man on the right went down with half his face gone. Bren pulled Redfire hard to the right and swung her arm toward this new shooter. Her heart leaped with astonishment when she saw who was dropping the shotgun to the ground. Mother! Still in fighting mode, she dragged her gaze away and looked to make sure she had hit her most recent target. The man was gut shot. He twitched and fell still as Bren caught sight of him. All the attackers were down and most likely dead or dying. She reined her horse to a stop, holstered her pistol, and slid from the saddle.
Dropping Redfire's reins to the ground, she ran to her father. "Are you all right?" His face had a few red scrapes on it, but Bren didn't see any other blood.
"Now that you're here, I'm fine." Bren pulled a knife from its sheath on her belt, cut the rope binding Prescott's hands, and helped him to his feet. They grabbed each other in a mighty hug.
She felt another pair of arms encircle them. "Scott, oh Scott," Cynthia cried. "I always knew you were courageous. Thank goodness, you got here in time."
Bren's heart was still thudding from the activity. At first, her mother's words surprised her, then she realized it was natural to be confused for Scott, though he had never worn a beard. They did look remarkably alike. And since she had gotten in the habit of pitching her voice a tone lower, they even sounded alike-except for the deeper drawl she affected around other people. She decided to wait and enlighten her parents privately, to avoid needlessly giving away her masquerade. "Let's check on Matthias," she reminded them, pulling away from the embrace and dashing toward the fallen man. She knelt next to him and looked at Pearl.
"It's not as bad as it looks, Mr. Scott. Praise the Lord you showed up to help us," Pearl said. "The bullet skipped off a rib. Don't even need a doctor. He just got a lot a blood on him, and a mighty sore side."
"Wonderful news, Pearl." Bren smiled down at Matthias. "You just stay there, my friend. We'll get a couple boys to help you into the house." Cynthia stood behind Bren and nodded her agreement. Prescott had moved away from them to check on the fallen attackers.
Matthias reached for Pearl's arm, and she helped him sit up. "No need, no need. I was just a little dizzy for a minute-had the wind knocked outta me. I'm all right now. Just need a mite more rest." He gazed around then peered a little more closely at Bren. "Why you riding Miss Sarah's Redfire? Something wrong with your Blackstar?"
Bren winked and patted Matthias' arm. "Nothing serious. Come on, I'll help you into the house."
Pearl shook her head. "Never you mind, Mr. Scott. I'll see to him. You take care of your Mama and Daddy."
"All right, then." Bren stood and turned toward her mother.
Prescott had just rejoined her. He slapped his hands together as if cleaning dirt from them. "They're all dead. That was some shooting."
"Mother certainly helped," Bren said with sincere gratitude. She noticed her mother looked paler than usual and was not her talkative self. "Why were they trying to hang you? Who were those people?"
"We'll tell you all about it. First, let's go inside and get Lettie to break out some brandy. I think we're all a little wobble-legged. At least, I know I am." Prescott smiled as Cynthia slipped an arm around his waist to give him a quick hug.
"What about the bodies?" Bren pointed a thumb over her shoulder.
Pearl spoke up. "I can send a couple boys into town for the sheriff." With a move of her chin, she indicated a few older boys who were peeking from behind the outbuildings. "Let the law worry about those heathens. And I'll get one of the boys to care for Redfire too."
Prescott reached down and touched her shoulder. "Thank you, Pearl. I would appreciate that." He beckoned to Bren. "Come on, now, let's go inside and chew over all this."
Bren looked around. Several families lived on the grounds, yet only a few of the older children were visible. "Where is everyone? All this commotion, and no one heard it?"
Cynthia released Prescott and threaded her arm through Bren's as they headed into the house. "Today's market day, and nearly everyone's in town with Lettie's orders of what food to look for. Her arthritis kept her home, as usual, but you know she doesn't hear all that well." She tugged against Bren's arm. "It's so wonderful to see you, Scott. With this Godforsaken war, we didn't expect to see any family for a while. And we hardly ever receive mail from the north."
They entered the home and settled in the parlor. Cynthia rang for Lettie and asked her to bring some iced drinks. "Do you want something to eat now, dear? Dinner won't be served for another two hours."
"No thank you, Mother. I can wait. But I do have a question for you." She waited until both parents were looking at her. "That was a great shot! But when did you learn to fire a shotgun?"
"When the war started in earnest, your father insisted I learn to shoot. My eyesight has failed a bit, but I can still see well enough at a distance. He set up a small target next to the barn, and I practiced each day until I hit it every time." She pursed her lips and gave a little shiver. "Though I never really expected to have to shoot at another human being."
Prescott rubbed his hands together. "Your mother was a real quick learner too. Good feel for it. She took to it naturally."
Bren grinned at the look Cynthia threw at her husband. "How did you know to shoot the man on the right?"
Cynthia's cheeks colored. "He was the one closer to me."
Bren laughed out loud as she looked at her father and gestured toward her mother. "What a great strategist. Who would have guessed?" She rose and walked over to stand in front of Cynthia. A smile crooked up one side of her face. "I guess you know you probably saved my life."
Cynthia stood and put her arms around Bren. "Oh, my dear Scott, you have a life eminently worth saving," Cynthia said rather formally. Then she leaned back and looked into Bren's eyes, which were quickly filling with tears. She seemed puzzled for a moment, then realization dawned. "You . . . you're Sarah!" She held her daughter at arm's length and repeated herself. "You're Sarah."
Sarah forced words through her clogged throat. "Am I still eminently worth saving?"
Cynthia forcefully pulled her daughter to her. "Always," she choked in return. After several moments, they parted and Cynthia looked at Prescott. "You knew," she said with a short laugh, and he nodded. "But how?" She looked back at Sarah. "You look just like a thinner Scott in those men's clothes. Scott with a beard, that is."
Prescott stood up and joined them. He put his arm over Sarah's shoulders and smiled at her. "I recognized that distinctive Get-the-hell-outta-my-way-or-I'm coming-through-you attitude." He gave his daughter's shoulders a squeeze. "Now let's sit back down, and you can start explaining why you're dressed like a man and how you got here. Then you can give us all the latest news from Scott and Lindsay."
After they returned to their seats, Sarah swept her arm in a wide circle. "First, you must tell me what this attack was all about? Why were they trying to hang you?"
Prescott's hand lifted unconsciously to his neck. "This pack of rats has been terrorizing everyone around here. They've already killed four other landowners. When word gets out that you've stopped them, the whole area will be relieved."
"Why didn't you have guards out?"
"Like whom? All the able-bodied men are in the war. I hoped Matthias and I could protect our women and children. They were smarter than I reckoned, and they caught me alone."
"What was their purpose? Was it related to the war?"
"I don't think so. They were just taking advantage of the unsettled times and trying to fill their pockets. As soon as they killed an owner, they stole everything movable worth taking. The killing must have satisfied some bloodlust and greed they had. No real reason for it."
"Sarah-Bren, please take off that beard. You don't look like yourself at all." Sarah's head turned to her mother, knowing that she would see the "sour stomach" look on her face. Sure enough. She turned back to her father and rolled her eyes. Prescott put his fingers to his lips to suppress his smile.
"Mother, I'm not supposed to look like me. It's a disguise."
"Why do you need a disguise?" Cynthia frowned in confusion.
Oh Lord, Sarah thought, do I dare tell her I'm spying for the Union?
"I wanted to be a soldier. The only way I could do that was to masquerade as a man. So I did."
"You're a soldier? You fight in the war?" Cynthia's eyes were wide pools of astonishment. "I wondered why your visits had stopped. I thought it was because of the war, but I never . . ." She let the sentence die away.
"Actually, I hardly ever fight. I'm a scout. That's why I'm not wearing a uniform."
Cynthia shook her head, shock stilling her breath but only for a moment. "Sarah-Bren Coulter, sometimes I just don't understand you. Why can't you act like most other women?"
Sarah voice was sharp. "Obviously, because I'm not like most other women." Then she was sorry-she knew her mother had never understood her. Why would today be any different? In some ways, Sarah didn't understand her mother, either. But they loved each other, and bickering only hurt them both. "I apologize for sounding so rude. Please, will you just accept me as I am, and let it go at that?"
"Let it go? How can you think I could let it go? My only daughter is dressing up like a man and pretending to be a soldier. How can I ever hold my head up among my friends when they hear about this?"
"Mother." Sarah hesitated. Her mother didn't seem to realize that southern society as she knew it would never be the same. With its vast resources and unending supply of soldiers, the Union would win this war, and southern gentility would lose most of what they held dear. But Sarah couldn't tell her mother that. She took a deep breath. "I'm not about to change. But let's not fight with each other. I just saved your life, and you just saved mine. Let's call a truce and be thankful we still have each other."
Her mother looked and sounded defeated. "I'll try." Then she apparently decided to change the subject.. "Tell us about Scott and Lindsay and the baby. How are they?" Sarah caught her parents up on whatever information she could pass along, including the attack on the munitions train and the injury to Phillip. She played down her part in the incident, concentrating instead on the severity of Phillip's wounds.
"The train carried ammunition for the Union. What were you doing there?" Cynthia said, surprising Sarah with the speed of her insight.
"I was trying to warn them. I work for the Union, Mother, not the Confederacy." Sarah let this information drop into a pool of silence.
Her father broke the stillness. "That makes sense to me. Your mother and I both favor the strength of a united country. Although we don't say that too loudly around here."
Cynthia chose not to remark on it. "It's good you reached them in time to save Phillip's life."
Sarah shrugged. "Scott would have done it if I hadn't been there."
Cynthia tilted her head and looked at her daughter rather speculatively. "I'm not so sure about that. He could have saved Phillip before you arrived, couldn't he?"
"I suppose so. But Phillip is his best friend, Mother. That had to make him hesitate."
"Phillip is your friend, too, Sarah, yet you didn't hesitate for one second. And today," Cynthia said as her voice lifted, "I don't think Scott could have done what you did. Like me, he's too cautious. You have your father's daring streak-and his courage." She nodded as if agreeing with herself. "I've never really given you credit for that, Sarah, and I should have. I'll never be reconciled to your being a soldier, but you're a very courageous young woman."
Sarah could feel herself glowing even as her eyes stung with threatening tears. She couldn't remember the last time her mother had paid her a compliment. Usually Cynthia was too busy doing mother-type things like telling her to stand up straight, sit and walk in a more ladylike manner, or ride sidesaddle. Her mother had to know that most of her admonitions to Sarah were a waste of breath, but still she kept trying, perhaps hoping that some would bear fruit. And a few had, but not the ones meant to turn her daughter into a southern belle.
Today was notable because Sarah had saved her father's life. But it also was notable because her mother showed her some acceptance. It was a long-awaited step in the right direction, and it lifted Sarah's heart with pure pleasure. How long that pleasure would last was a question Sarah didn't care to pursue.
Sarah spent three days at her parents' home, allowing everyone else to believe she was Scott. She was amused at the thought that her brother had "become a soldier"-and a Rebel at that. Though in this part of Virginia, she knew you better be a Confederate. A Union soldier would be in grave peril.
With eight days left of her leave, she said goodbye and headed north. She was homesick to see Scott, Lindsay, and little Prescott, and anxious about Phillip's recovery.
The weather stayed dry and mild for the biggest part of the journey, and she made good time. As soon as she entered Union territory, she sent Scott and Lindsay a telegram, so they would be expecting her. She told them she had two days to visit and signed it "Bren Cordell."
"Sarah!" Scott pulled his sister through the doorway with barely enough time to drop her knapsack before he engulfed her in an embrace. Lindsay followed his example, then Sarah knelt on the hallway floor and held out her arms to Pres, who toddled toward her. Her nephew hesitated for a moment, then hid behind his mother's skirt. Sarah made a rueful face and stood back up, laughing.
"He doesn't know you in that disguise," Lindsay said. "He'll recognize Aunt Sarah when you take off the beard and let your hair down."
"Well, I'll take it off around the house, but I'll need to use it if we go out in public. I have only half a tan on my face, and the differences in skin color might be hard for Sarah Coulter to account for. If need be, you can introduce me as a distant cousin."
Scott snorted and shook his head. "I'll be damn glad when I get my sister back." Sarah rolled her eyes, and Scott made a beeline for the door. "I'll go get Phillip. I promised to let him know as soon as you arrived."
"Scott, for heaven's sake, give me time to get cleaned up first." Sarah saw a hand wave as he hustled out the door, then she shook her head and snorted in perfect duplication of her brother's reaction.
Lindsay laughed and grabbed her sister-in-law's arm. "It's easy to see you two are twins." Sarah snatched up her knapsack and hooked its strap over her shoulder as Lindsay led her toward the stairs, with Pres still holding onto his mother's skirt. "Go ahead and get cleaned up, and we can talk in comfort later. I put several pitchers of water on your dresser for you and set out some towels."
"Thanks, Lindsay." Sarah gave her sister-in-law a wide smile and patted her arm as Lindsay let go. "I have missed you all so much." She ran up the steps two at a time.
Just as she finished washing up and was donning clean shirt and trousers, she heard Scott and Phillip arriving. She yanked on clean socks and her boots, ran a comb through her loosened hair, and hustled downstairs into the drawing room. Phillip had heard her coming, and he stood waiting for her. Sarah entered the room and hesitated for just a split second as Phillip's crutches and shortened trouser leg slammed her senses. She hastened to embrace and kiss him. "Hi," she said hoarsely, affected by the thought of her friend's narrow escape from death. "It's wonderful to see you."
"You, too, Sarah." He looked down at her and grinned. "At least, I think you're Sarah. Your face is two different shades. And . . . you're still dressed like a man."
As she pulled away, she wrinkled her nose at him in answer. Truthfully, she was so used to wearing shirt and trousers that choosing a dress hadn't even occurred to her. She waved a hand toward the crutches. "So, how are you doing? Can you get around all right?"
"I've gotten used to the crutches, though balance was tricky at first," Phillip answered. He took several steps to show how well he could maneuver. "The stump is still tender, so I can't get an artificial leg yet. The government is providing them for soldiers." His voice deepened. "I hate losing a leg, but that's a helluva lot better than losing my life. You saved me, Sarah, and I'll never forget that. I owe you."
Sarah shrugged and a pink flush came and went in the white part of her face. "You would have done the same for me, so let's just forget about owing anyone anything."
Lindsay came in and said, "Why don't you all sit down, and I'll bring us some coffee."
They followed her suggestion, and got comfortable on the stuffed chairs and sofa. Scott pointed to a newspaper lying on an end table. "The Confederates almost got to Washington. Wallace's resistance at Monocacy gave Grant time to send reinforcements to the city and save it."
"Really? I hadn't heard that." Sarah said.
Scott picked up the paper and handed it to her. "It just happened last week."
"April 9," she said as she skimmed the article. She finished and laid the paper back down. "General Grant has been as tenacious as a dog chasing a bone. I like that in him."
"I do too," Phillip said. "Even his setbacks don't stop him."
"Yes," Sarah said, "and he's not giving Lee a chance to rest. Gradually, the Confederacy is running out of men and material, and the men are starting to realize it. The lack of success at Gettysburg took a lot out of the whole south, not just the ones who fought there."
Phillip looked grim, even though the Union was winning a step at a time. "Let's hope it ends soon and all the killing stops. Our country has lost enough of its young men."
"Amen to that," Lindsay said as she brought in the coffee and set it on the low table in front of the sofa. After they each served themselves, Sarah gave them her news.
"Mother and Father had a little excitement at their place," she said. Of course, Lindsay and Phillip asked to hear the details, and she explained the whole drama. "I'm sure you'll get Mother's version in the mail before too long, if it's able to get through."
Lindsay set her empty cup on the table. "So Mother Coulter mistook you for Scott? How amusing."
Scott frowned at his wife. "I can't even join the army, and my sister is a war hero. I don't find that particularly amusing." He reached for the cut-glass decanter on the table, lifted two glasses from the tray next to it, and poured some liquor into them. Pushing one toward Phillip, Scott grabbed the other glass and tossed the whiskey down in a single gulp. "I should have been the one to help them," he muttered.
Sarah's eyes narrowed as she looked at her brother, but Lindsay forestalled her answer by patting her sister-in-law's arm. "Well, you couldn't be there, Scott, and I for one am delighted that Sarah was. Your parents could have been killed. We owe Sarah a debt of thanks."
Scott poured more whiskey and lifted his glass toward his sister. "By all means. Thank you, Sarah, for upholding the family honor-again. You always seem to be in the right place at the right time." His voice had a resentful edge to it, and Sarah could sense the others' embarrassment. She wasn't embarrassed. At first, she was angry; then she was sad.
She took a glass from the tray and poured two fingers of whiskey into it. She lifted it toward Scott then brought it to her lips, her eyes challenging her brother to object. But she knew he wouldn't dare. She shrugged. He might as well get used to the idea that the niceties of the drawing room were lost on her. Soldiers are not ladies.
As though recognizing the emotional byplay, Lindsay turned the subject to Coulter Foundry's recovery from their loss at the train tragedy. "Inventory can be replaced," she said during the discussion. "In fact, the government had already paid for the munitions before their destruction, so we were fortunate. But lost lives can never be replaced."
Sarah nodded her head in sympathy. "Has anyone figured out how the explosions started?"
"I'm on the army's investigating team," Phillip answered. "We think he must have had a couple of fuses secreted within the ammunition boxcars. He could have pretended to be inspecting the cars, lit the fuses, and jumped off the train. At that point, all eyes were on the perimeter, expecting trouble from outside, not inside. All he needed was about thirty seconds to get away. But we won't know for sure until we catch him."
"Has there been any progress in identifying him?" Sarah asked.
"Not yet," Phillip admitted. "We've been working from a list of people we knew were on the train. Most of them died, and many of the bodies were impossible to identify, so it's been a difficult task." Phillip hit a fist against the chair arm. "But I won't stop until I find him."
Scott eyed his emotional friend. "And when you do find him? What then?"
Phillip's face darkened as his fist opened and closed. "I know what I'd like to do with him. But I think of myself as a civilized man. I'll turn him in to the authorities."
Sarah fumed inwardly. You should kill the bastard. The strength of her hate sickened her. Her eyes turned toward Scott who was looking straight at her. She saw a shadow flicker across his face and a nearly imperceptible shake move his head. Good grief, he's reading my mind. This had happened more than once between the twins, and it worked both ways. But it was rare enough to still be surprising. "I hope you find him, Phillip." Her voice reflected her anger. "I'll keep my ears open, too. He might feel a need to brag about his success, and that would be more likely to happen in Rebel areas."
"That's a good idea. But I wish you would give up your masquerade, Sarah. War is no place for a woman."
Sarah lifted one eyebrow. "War is no place for a man, either, I think. No mother's child should be blown to bits like some I've seen." She heard Lindsay's indrawn breath. "But I'm driven to help put an end to it, so save your words, Phillip. I'm not changing my mind."
Phillip grinned wryly. "You know I'll keep trying. I'm driven to protect you."
Struggling to reach a lighter plane, Sarah winked. "I know that. You want to be my knight in shining armor, but this damsel isn't in distress. I think you need to find one who is."
Scott jumped up, also apparently trying to lift the mood. "Speaking of damsels in distress . . . How about a game of Charades? Men against the women." He cast a sly smile at Sarah and rubbed his chin. "Or is that men against a woman and a half?"
Sarah laughed out loud. "I'll show you who's half a woman. Come on, Lindsay, let's give them their comeuppance." They all joined in the laughter and fun, thriving on the camaraderie. Knowing she had only one more day to spend with her family made the time even more enjoyable to Sarah. The lighthearted competition was a welcome respite from the darkness of the war hanging over of them. A war she would soon rejoin.
To be continued in Part FourPlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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