Technically, this story might not be considered uber, but everything Iíve written has sprung from the XWP well of creativity, so I feel I should give it due recognition. Just as I post this story in due recognition of the Xenaverse fans who have welcomed and encouraged my writing, both as PruferBlue and as Nann Dunne. Thank you so much.
This is the prepublication, "unedited" version, but the whole story will be posted, several chapters at a time. The story is set in the American Civil War era and contains some scenes of violence.
Please address all comments to: PruferBlue@aol.com
THE WAR BETWEEN THE HEARTS
(c) 2004 by Nann Dunne
Western Virginia, 1862
"I canít wait to see you wearing a beard and mustache." Lindsay Coulterís bonneted head turned up toward the woman walking next to her. In her haste to match strides with her taller companion, Lindsay stumbled on a loose stone. She pitched forward, about to sprawl into the path of a horse-drawn wagon full of lumber.
"Careful!" Sarah-Bren Coulter grabbed her sister-in-lawís arm and pulled her back to the sidewalk. Oblivious to the near accident, the driver guided the horse on down the brick-paved street, while creaking wheels swirled eddies of dust in the wagonís wake.
"Thanks." Lindsayís blue eyes were wide. "I didnít expect shopping to be so dangerous." With one gloved hand, she tucked a loosened strand of black hair beneath the edge of her bonnet. Her other hand brushed at her long, brown skirt, scattering a puff of dirt motes into the sunshine.
Sarah glanced down at her companion and her lips curved in a wicked grin. "Shopping with me is always dangerous." But her voice shook a little. Lindsay had come close to being seriously injuredóor killed.
She continued to be surprised at her love for the small woman. Sarah was disdainful of most of the girls she had grown up withótheir main goal seemed to be catching a suitable husbandóand she had expected merely to tolerate anyone who married her twin brother, Scott. But Lindsay walked right into her heart and became her sister and confidante.
Tightening her grip on Lindsayís arm, Sarah steered her to the opposite curb. Once safely out of the street, she released her hold and fished a piece of paper from the pocket of her dark green dress. Two staring men tipped their hats as they walked by. Lindsayís polite nod barely acknowledged them, while Sarah ignored them altogether. Her unusual height often captured attention, while her dark brown hair, cream-colored complexion, and unusual amber eyes turned the attention into admiration. But her bearing drew the most notice; she glowed with confidence like a beacon in the night. This woman obviously believed she could do anything she set her mind to.
Sarah unfolded the paper, checked the shopís address, then looked farther down the street. She and Lindsay were standing in the center of Wheeling, a growing city in what used to be northwest Virginia. Shortly after the southern states had seceded from the Union, counties in the western half of Virginia had sent delegates to Wheeling to consider the formation of a separate state. Eventually, several battles within the area had been won by the Union forces, and a constitutional convention in January had agreed that the new state of West Virginia would be formed on May 23, 1862. The state hadnít been officially accepted into the Union yet; it still had a few requirements to fulfill, but it was well on its way.
The Coulter women were on a mission. Or rather, Sarah was. She had invited her co-conspirator to accompany her on a supposedly innocent shopping trip, and when Scott offered to mind the baby so his wife could go, Lindsay jumped at the chance. Sarah tucked the paper back into her pocket and waved toward the buildings. "Weíre on the right street. The costume shop should be somewhere along here." The Coulters visited Wheeling once or twice a year, but they had never before been looking for a costume shop.
Sarah and Lindsay gazed around the area. Downtown Wheeling covered a flat finger of land squeezed between the Ohio River and a few steep hills. The town had spread along the river and partway up the hills, and because of its location along the busy Ohio, it had grown into a center of activity.
Besides a young steel industry and various retail and commercial establishments, Wheeling boasted theatrical stage shows that provided entertainment for the whole area. The theater drew shops catering to the professional needs of actors and actresses, and this was what had brought Sarah to town from Fairmount, several hoursí train ride to the south. "Letís try down this way," she suggested to Lindsay and started walking in that direction. They passed a number of shops and took the time to look at some of the window displays. A menís apparel shop exhibited the latest fashions for the well-dressed gentleman; a millinerís shop showed womenís bonnets and gowns; a barber shop had curtained windows; and a general store offered work pants, teapots, and a coal scuttle. At last, Sarah spied the costume shop. "There it is," she said, tugging Lindsayís sleeve.
After they entered the shop, Lindsay followed Sarah to a counter display of false hairpieces. They looked them over, and Lindsay pointed to a beard and mustache combination a shade darker than Sarahís coppery brown tresses. "That looks like a good match. Why donít you try it on?"
Sarah picked up the hairpiece as the shopkeeper, a small, thin man, approached. She held the hair to her face and gazed into a mirror. The shopkeeper stopped next to her, clasped his hands, and bowed slightly. "Hello, ladies. Iím Mr. Hennig, at your service." He nodded to Sarah. "That suits you perfectly, Miss. Are you acting the part of a man in an upcoming show?"
"Something like that." Sarahís eyes shone and a smile played at her lips. "Iíve never used a false beard before. How do I keep it on?"
The man went behind the counter. "Iíd be delighted to show you." He opened a drawer and removed a bottle and a rag. Unscrewing the top from the bottle, he poured a small amount of sticky gel onto the rag. "This is spirit gum. It acts just like glue." He dabbed a little of the gum onto the back of another hairpiece, attached the piece to his own face, and pushed at it with his fingers. "As long as nothing scrapes hard against it, it will stay in place. And it comes off easily." He gave a sharp tug on one edge and peeled it off.
Lindsayís deep blue eyes showed her puzzlement. "Doesnít the gum irritate your skin? And how do you get the residue off your face?"
The shopkeeper beamed and teetered up and down on his tiptoes. "Itís not difficult to remove." Reaching again into a drawer, he fetched another bottle, poured liquid from it onto the same rag and swished it across his face. Then he wiped it away with a clean rag and performed the same act on the back of the hairpiece. After he laid the rags on the countertop, he closed the bottle and turned it around to display its label. "Just plain alcohol melts the gum away. And as for irritation," he said, setting the bottle down and rubbing his chin, "maybe if someone has sensitive skin and wears the piece for long periods of time, I suppose it could irritate the skin. But just wearing it for the usual three or four hours of a show probably wonít hurt."
"Iíll take this one," Sarah handed over the beard and mustache combination Lindsay had suggested. "And two bottles each of spirit gum and alcohol."
"You probably wonít need so much," the man told her. "I wouldnít feel right if you purchased more than you can use. A little bit goes a long way."
Sarah laughed. "This little bit is going to go a very long way." As a matter of fact, she thought, probably over a big part of Virginia. But she didnít answer the manís quizzical expression, and he didnít ask her to elaborate. She paid for the purchases, accepted the small bag they were placed in, and walked with Lindsay back out into the sunshine.
"Do you have everything you need now?" Lindsay asked as they headed toward the train station.
"I think so." Sarah tucked the package under her arm and ticked her fingers up one at a time. "Shirts, trousers, shoes, belts, underdrawersó"
"Underdrawers?" Lindsay covered her mouth to squelch a giggle.
"Of course! Those rough trousers would rub my skin raw." She resumed itemizing her list. "A canteen, weaponsó"
"Weapons? What kind of weapons? Wouldnít they be given to you?"
"Iíd rather have my own and be confident that they work. Iím not using any from the house, though. I bought what Iím taking with me: a Colt revolver, complete with cartridge belt and holster, and a Springfield repeating rifleóthe newest one out. And the proper shells for each of them."
"Do you know how to use them?" Lindsay tilted her head to look up into her sister-in-lawís gleaming eyes.
"Father taught Scott and me to shoot when we were six years old." Sarah slowed her strides as she realized Lindsay was struggling to keep up with her fast pace. "Of all the things I bought, I had the most trouble finding a kepi."
"A kepi?" Lindsayís giggle bubbled again. "Iím beginning to feel like a talking parrot. Whatís a kepi?"
"Itís that little cap both the Union and Rebel soldiers wear. The Union one is blue and the Rebs gray, of course. You know, the one with the round, flat top." She raised her hand above her head and moved one finger in a circle. "It looks like a hill of mashed beans that someone sat on. Itís also called a forage cap, and some call it a bummer."
"Are you taking Redfire?"
"Iíve ridden Redfire all over this state. You know I wouldnít go without him." The women arrived at the railway station, bought their return tickets, and sat down to wait for the train.
Lindsay tugged at a piece of skirt that had folded under her when she sat down. She looked askance at Sarah. "You know your brother wonít like what youíre planning."
Sarah gazed off into the distance before answering. She thought Scott too cautious by far. He missed a lot of life by never braving the unknown or reaching out for adventure. "I know he wonít, but his disapproval hasnít stopped me yet."
"And what about Phillip?" Lindsay said. She stood up and straightened her skirt then sat back down. "He wonít be too happy that his sweetheart wants to join the army. Theyíll both think itís a foolhardy action."
"Sweetheart?" Sarah poked her elbow into Lindsayís side. "Now Iím the parrot. But you know I donít consider Phillip to be my sweetheart." Phillip ShowellóCaptain Showell, now, of the Union Armyógrew up with the Coulter twins and gradually fell in love with Sarah. He had proposed marriage a number of times, but Sarah continued to insist she didnít return his feelings.
She screwed her face into a grimace. "I know he cares for me, and I love him dearly, but Iíve never been in love with him. And probably never will be." Sarah sometimes wondered whether she would ever marry. Even when she felt lonely, the idea of marriage didnít hold any attraction for her. She couldnít imagine herself performing wifely duties for anyone.
Lindsay persisted. "But you know heíll be upset."
"I donít care!" Sarahís temper flared, and she slapped a hand against the top of her thigh. "Well, I do care, but Iím going anyway." After a moment, she calmed down. "And I think Theo might be more understanding than his brother. Heíll see I can be of enormous help to the Union, and heís too dedicated to let his personal feelings get in the way." Then she turned to face Lindsay and shrugged. "Thatís why I havenít said anything to Scott or Phillip yet. Iím waiting for Theo to come home on leave. I hope to persuade him of my intentions, then he can convince the other two. You know theyíll listen to him."
"Colonel Theodore Showellóthat sounds so dignified, doesnít it?" Lindsay clasped her gloved hands together and smiled.
Sarah nodded. But then, Theo always had been dignified. And much more practical than his younger brother. Sarah was counting on that. She intended to go ahead with her plan whether Theo approved or not, but it certainly would be a lot easier if she had him as an ally. A sigh escaped her, and Lindsay frowned.
"Are you having second thoughts?"
"Sarah, are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes, Iím sure. I need . . ." She hesitated for a moment to collect her thoughts, then rose and paced back and forth, fiddling with a pearl button on one of her white cotton gloves. "I need some kind of focus to my life. You have a husband and son. Scott and little Pres are your focus."
Lindsayís gaze never left the agitated woman. "Youíre part of my focus too," she said. "And you could have a husband in a minute."
Sarah stopped and smiled at her sister-in-law as a rush of tenderness touched her. "Being a wife suits you, Lindsay, but I havenít found my perfect mate. Besides, you know I donít want a husband. Not yet, anyway. Iím not sure what I want to do with my life. I know I want some adventure and excitement first."
Lindsayís cheeks dimpled. "I think your announcement will raise some excitement."
The train pulled into the station and Lindsay stood. Sarah picked up her package, and they headed toward the train. "That sigh, by the way, was over having to wait to deliver my news. Phillip told me Theoís not expected home until Wednesday."
"The day after tomorrow?" Lindsayís voice rose. "Why donít you invite them to join us for dinner Thursday night? You can tell everyone then."
A rush of excitement filled Sarah, and she hugged Lindsay with her free arm. "Thatís a great idea. Now that I have everything I need, I can hardly wait to get started." Lindsay slipped an arm around the taller womanís waist and gave her a quick hug back. They climbed aboard the train and headed home.
So far, so good, Sarah thought. But she hadnít made her announcement yet. Theo and Phillip had joined the Coulters for dinner, then Lindsay and Sarah cleaned up while the men settled in the drawing room. Sarah put the last of the clean dishes away while Lindsay went to check on her baby, Prescott Coulter, III. She soon rushed back into the kitchen and hurried to the ice chest. Sarah raised her eyebrows at the unusual activity. "Is Pres all right?"
Lindsay made a face and shook her head. "He awoke as soon as I opened the bedroom door, and heís really cranky. I just know itís that new tooth heís getting. Iím going to put a little chunk of ice in a piece of cloth and let him suck on it. Maybe that will soothe him." As she spoke, she grabbed an ice pick, opened the door to the bottom section of the ice chest, and chopped a piece from the foot-square block of ice sitting there. Sarah pulled a cotton dishcloth from the linen drawer and took it to her.
"Thank you." Lindsay pushed the chest door closed and straightened up. "Iím afraid Iím going to miss your announcement. Iíd like to get Pres back to sleep." She put the ice in the cloth and formed it into a finger shape for the baby to suck on. "I wanted to be there in case you needed an ally."
Sarah patted her shoulder. "Just knowing youíre on my side is enough." She looked around the kitchen and saw that everything was done, then followed Lindsay into the hall.
The smaller woman reached back and squeezed Sarahís forearm. "Good luck." She was surprised when Sarah continued up the stairs behind her. "Youíre not going into the drawing room?"
With a wry grin, Sarah shook her head. "Iím going to my room and bolster my courage a bit first."
Lindsay returned the grin. "You know what you want, Sarah. Go after it. Iím behind you one hundred percent." They parted at the top of the stairs, and Sarah continued toward her own quarters, a little unsettled by what she was about to do, but abuzz with the thrill of anticipation.
She sat down at the vanity table in her bedroom and her luminous amber eyes stared into the mirror. She separated out some strands of hair, gathered the rest together, and used the loose strands to tie the dark mass into a tail. Her gaze shifted downward as she reached into a drawer and lifted out the bottle of spirit gum, followed by the false beard and mustache. After dabbing a few spots of the gum onto the back of the hairpiece, she placed it on her face and her gaze returned to the mirror. Her eyes widened once again at the change in her appearance. The closely trimmed beard and mustache looked genuine. She removed the Confederate forage cap from one of the posts supporting the mirror and tried it on. After several poses, she settled the kepi straight on her head and tugged on its short brim to pull it tight. The round top of the hat tipped forward as though eager to get on its way.
Sarah tapped a finger against the nose in the reflection and addressed herself with a satisfied smirk, "With the beard on your face and the cap on your head, you look the perfect man, Sarah-Bren Coulter. Or should I just call you ĎBrení?" Her teeth showed in a full grin as she spoke the seldom-heard part of her name, which she planned to use in her masquerade. She settled the hat back onto the post and removed the disguise. As the shopkeeper had demonstrated, she used a small amount of alcohol to clean the spirit gum from her skin and the false hair, then returned the items to the drawer.
From another drawer, she lifted a leather-bound book, empty of writing except for a few words on the cover. Sarah traced her fingers along the letters that included her pseudonym: Personal Journal of Bren Cordell. Iíll write in this journal as often as possible, she promised herself. I can keep track of my adventures and illustrate them with my own drawings.
This could become a family keepsake, she mused. Someday, it might even get published. Sarah beamed at the bold thought, then slipped the journal back into the drawer. She sat for a moment, drumming the pads of her fingers on the vanity table, then told herself she needed to get moving.
She released her hair from its tail and lifted a silver-backed brush from its place on the vanity top, next to a matching hand mirror and comb. As she viewed her actions in the larger mirror, she ran the brush through the dark copper strands and made a face at her image. "Well, my girl, youíll have to use the scissors on this mane. Men wear their hair much shorter than this."
At last, she could think of no other excuse to delay joining the others in the drawing room. She felt a brief touch of the nervousness that had brought her upstairs in the first place. She expected all three men to be astonished at her idea, but she had confidence she could persuade Theo that her masquerade would help the Union cause.
Sarah replaced the brush on the vanity, gave herself one last stern look to put some steel in her spine, and started back downstairs. It was time for the grand announcement.
Colonel Theodore Showell stood next to the fireplace, resting his elbow on the polished surface of the stone mantel. His remarks about the recent battle nearby at Cheat Mountain Summit had given rise to a lively discussion about the war in general. In unconscious imitation of his brother, Captain Phillip Showell, stood at the other end of the fireplace, also leaning one elbow against the cool stone. In an overstuffed chair near the fire, Scott Coulter sprawled comfortably, a brandy snifter in his hand, while Sarah sat on one end of the sofa, her fingers tapping noiselessly against its arm. Theo noticed that Sarah was unusually silent during most of the discussion.
"From what I read in the Wheeling Intelligencer," Scott said, "that rebel Jackson has been causing havoc all over eastern Virginia while McClellan is fiddling around at Yorktown. No wonder the president replaced him as Supreme Commander; the man is too cautious."
Theo stood a little straighter. "Thank goodness Grantís been successful. Heís chased the Confederates clean out of Kentucky. But youíre right about Jackson. It would help a lot if we knew where his army would hit next. Heís a wily one. He makes up his own rules of engagement."
"Trouble is, we need more reliable information about the Rebel troop movements," Phillip said.
Sarah jumped to her feet. "This whole situation is ridiculous!" Her cheeks reddened, and the vehemence of her tone commanded everyoneís attention.
Theo mused that this visit to the Coulters wasnít going at all as he had expected. Yesterday, he had come home on leave from the army and happily reunited with his brother, who was fortunate enough to be stationed in the area. Shortly after Theoís arrival, they accepted an invitation to join the Coulter family for this evening. Now, here they were in the Coulter drawing room, surrounded by dainty Victorian furniture and portrait-covered walls that radiated peace and tranquility. The current atmosphere, however, didnít seem very peaceful.
All eyes centered on Sarah. She strode across the drawing roomís carpeted floor, her legs thrusting against the long, black skirt that hindered them. As she fetched up against an ebony desk and swung around, her hair swirled like a cape across her countenance. Abruptly, she tossed her head, clearing her face and bringing her eyes to bear on her audience. The men struggled to face her anger without shifting away, but they remained mute.
Sarahís expression demanded a reaction, and Theo finally broke the silence. "Perhaps you could explain your indignation, Sarah? I donít believe we understand what in particular is disturbing you." His glance touched the other two men. Phillip looked similarly confused, while Scott grinned wryly, then bowed his head and raised a hand to shield his eyes as though expecting a blow.
Theo riffled stubby fingers through his sandy hair. Uh-oh. At thirty-two, he was eight years older than the others in the room and well aware that he was the shortest. The Coulter twins, both taller than average at 5'9", surpassed him by three inches, and Phillip at 6'2" towered over them all. Theo had watched the other three grow up as close friends and noted, sometimes with consternation, that Sarah was the leader of this pack. Though he admired and respected her intelligence, resourcefulness, and abilities, he wished Phillip would allow some of his own to show; instead, he followed Sarah around like a lovesick puppy. And Scott . . . he was the only one with any great influence over his twin, but even he had his limits. Whenever Sarah was adamant about having her way, he caved in.
Now Sarah led the conversation, in a tone that would not be ignored. "Phillip is right. The Union Army does need better intelligence about troop movements. And Iíve been trying to help with that." She scowled with impatience. "But I need to be more active. Why should only the men get a chance to serve in the military? All of you know I can ride and shoot just as well as you can. And Iím more familiar with the terrain in large areas of Virginia than almost anyone. During the summers that we stayed at Red Oak Manor with Mother, I rode for hundreds of miles around."
Everyone in the room recognized the truth of her statement. Mrs. Coulter had often complained to anyone within earshot about her inability to cope with her daughterís strength of will. Instead of the young lady she hoped to form into a genteel member of southern society, she had a daughter who insisted on being left to her own devices, which included donning trousers instead of dresses and camping out alone for days at a time. It didnít help that her father admired and encouraged Sarahís independent spirit. Her mother eventually gave in, deciding it was easier to grant the girl permission to wander about the wilderness than be faced with continually punishing her. Indeed, Sarah never came to any harm. If anything, her travels helped calm her restlessness.
Scott sipped his drink, then raised it, slightly tilting it toward his sister in a silent toast. "Sarah, you are serving the Union. As a cultured woman traveling between here and our parentsí home, youíve been able to cross back and forth over the lines without being questioned. Passing along tidbits of information you hear at the social affairs you attend has been helpful, Iím sure."
Sarah shook her head in frustration. "Iím wasting my time dashing hither and yon, picking up meager and unreliable gossip about the movements of the Confederate Army." She crossed her arms and stared at each of them in turn. "The best way to make a real contribution would be to travel along with the Rebels, while spying for the Union." Taking a deep breath, she waited, but no one spoke. "Iíve given this a lot of thought, and Iíve decided to do just that. Iím going to hire on as a scout, or maybe a courier, and work for the enemy."
The suggestion startled Theo, but he noticed Phillip and Scott seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps they didnít put much credence in Sarahís remarks. Phillip even conceded his agreement with part of her announcement. "Of course, the best way to glean information would be to travel as a member of the army," he said, then gave a snort of amusement. "But a woman canít do that."
Sarah turned her gaze toward the big, blond man. Her chin thrust up and her eyes shone with gold highlights. "What if the woman were a man?" she asked, as she set her hands on her hips. Phillip frowned as though trying to make sense of this remark. Phillip professed admiration for everything about Sarahóher beauty, her generosity, her daringóbut the workings of her mind often perplexed him.
Scott gave him a withering look, then said, "Please, Phillip, donít give her any wild ideas." Then he nodded toward his sister. "Sheís quite capable of coming up with them on her own."
This produced a sardonic grin from Sarah. "Joke if you must, Scott, but Iím completely sincere about this. Iíve collected my disguise, and with my height and a false beard and mustache, Iíll make a passable man." The announcement quieted the men as she continued. "I can fit right inóafter spending so many summers in the south, I can speak with a drawl that sounds genuine." Her pointing finger accompanied the next words, underscoring her intentions. "I expect to leave within the next few days, with or without your blessing."
Apparently, Phillip finally understood that Sarah meant to do exactly what she was threatening to do. "But, Sarah, be sensible. Donít go running off pretending to be a man. You want something to do? Marry meóstay hereómake a home for us."
"Phillip!" Sarah shook her head. "Iím not interested in marriage at all. How can you suggest something so ordinary while the future of our lives hangs in the balance with the outcome of this war?" Phillip lifted both hands in supplication and looked toward his other friend for assistance.
Scott set his drink down on a side table and sat straighter in his chair. "Sarah, you canít be serious. I know youíve never been overly concerned about your safety, but this cockeyed plan will put you in terrible danger." He paused a moment, then continued. "Of course, I know the idea of danger intrigues you, but what will Mother and Father say when they hear of it? What will our friends think?"
"I donít need permission from our parents, nor do I intend to ask for it," Sarah said sharply. "I know they wouldnít understand, and I donít want anyone telling them. Battles are being fought very near Red Oak Manor, but the last time I visited them, Mother and Father sat on the verandah, looked out over the gardens, and pretended there was no war. And why would I say anything to anyone else? This needs to be kept completely confidential, or I could be put in danger. You can tell people I went to stay with our parents."
Sarah hesitated, then plunged ahead and expressed her thoughts. "You know, Scott, this fighting has been going on for more than a year, and every family on this street has sent someone to serve. All except us." A wisp of disappointment crossed Scottís features. Everyone knew he wanted to be a part of the Union Army, just as Theo and Phillip were, but the government requested that he stay at his position as director of Coulter Foundry.
Sarahís demeanor softened. "Look, Scott, I realize you have to stay here to run the foundry. Making cannons and ammunition is essential to the war effort. But I donít have to be here." Her hands formed into fists and her voice grew harsh. "I donít have to be anywhere. Iím not making any difference in this war, and I want to. I need to. Iím sick of sitting back and doing so little."
Scott made another effort. "I think your idea has a lot of merit, Sarah, but I just canít agree with your going into such danger. Mainly because of the fighting, of courseóbut thereís also danger in hanging about with men who are away from the civilizing influence of home and loved ones. Things can happen to a woman worse than being wounded in battle."
Such reasoning obviously made no impression at all on Sarah, and Theo cheered inwardly when Scott changed tactics. "Stay here and run the business, and I can join the army. Iíve shared everything I ever learned about the foundry with you. You know Father made me the manager only because Iím the son."
Everyone in the room knew this to be true. On the twinsí twenty-first birthday, their father turned over management of Coulter Foundry to Scott and supervision of the office work to Sarah, stipulating that the twins would share equally in the profits. Then Prescott Coulter and his wife Cynthia retired to Red Oak Manor, the Virginia plantation Cynthia had inherited, which the Coulter family had used for years as their summer home. Cynthia insisted the southern way of life was superior to the northern. Regardless of Prescott and her children being Yankees, she refused to budge when the war between the states began.
Scott warmed to his argument. "You can run the company as well as I, maybe even better. As long as the business provides enough income for all of us to live on, and for Father and Mother to continue their retirement, everyone will be satisfied. You and Lindsay already take care of the office; she can handle that while you manage the production of the cannons and ammunition. You run the company, and Iíll do the spying."
Sarahís eyes were saying "no" even before she shook her head. "You donít know the area half as well as I do. While you were abroad learning the foundry business, I was camping all over those hills and valleys. That knowledge alone makes me the better choice. Besides, with my disguise, no one will know Iím a woman. The newspapers report that other women have secretly enlisted as soldiers. They say the physical examinations are a mere formalityóif you can see, walk, and breathe, youíre accepted. Or I could hire on as an independent scout as some people have done."
Before Scott could form a response, Sarah turned to Theo. "We need to make arrangements for me to report to you. Information I discover could be too sensitive to telegraph, and Iíll have to hand deliver it. Since my password has already been recorded by sentries along the picket lines, perhaps I should continue to use ĎLady Blueí?"
Everyone started talking at once, and there was a long and heated discussion, but Sarah was unbending; she would become a spy and travel with the Confederate Army.
Theo knew Sarah-Bren Coulter well enough to recognize she would go forward with her intentions no matter what anyone said. So she might as well do it with his endorsement; he could be her contact. With a sigh, he gave in. At least that way he could keep in touch with her and perhaps have a chance of ensuring her safety.
1864. Two years later; behind Confederate lines.
Redfire cantered swiftly among the trees as Bren Cordell headed the sorrel stallion toward the battlefield. At times, the rider could hardly remember the softer, sweeter life she led before becoming a scout-courier for the Confederate Army. Days like today pushed thoughts of those times into the realm of nostalgic dreams. How naïve she had been. That other woman, Sarah-Bren Coulter, had no idea of the hardships her alter ego would have to endure and no comprehension of the deadly business of war.
As thickened branches slapped against her arms, she rolled down her upturned sleeves. This simple action reminded her how much her arms had changed. Constant riding while contending with rough terrain had hardened her muscles, and exposure to the elements had tanned her white skin. She acknowledged other changes too. The rigors of war and the constant companionship of death had toughened a headstrong and sometimes impulsive Sarah-Bren Coulter into the focused, disciplined, and self-controlled Bren Cordell. A crooked smile tugged her lips upward. Living in constant jeopardy had a way of sharpening oneís concentration.
Brenís thoughts returned to her current mission, and she sucked in a breath. You chose this way; now walk it, she rebuked herself. Even at this distance, she could hear sporadic fire from the main battle. A Minie ball screeched against a tree trunk, and Redfire nearly shied, but Bren tightened her hands on the reins and steadied the stallion. Wincing, she leaned her body closer to the animalís neck and patted it, affording some comfort to them both. "Neither one of us will ever get used to being fired at, will we, boy?"
When a meadow opened out in front of her, she slowed her mount and guided him cautiously along its edge, keeping to the cover of the woods. Distant crackles and booms confirmed the battle had moved farther away. A short time earlier, this section of earth provided the stage for a deadly conflict as Confederate troops advanced into a well-prepared ambush. Bren had carried false orders to the southerners, delivering them straight into Union arms. Assaulted from both sides by a cannon fusillade, the Rebels surged forward in an effort to outdistance the attack. But as they followed the meadow in its turn to the right, they ran headlong into Union infantry, poised to slaughter the enemy. Sorely crippled even before the blue-clad infantry joined the fray, the Confederate forces nevertheless returned fire. That the battle still continued was a testimony to the courage and tenacity of the betrayed southerners.
Here, well behind the rear of the fight, bodies lay strewn across the field; some in blue uniforms, the majority in gray, and a few in civilian clothes. While an occasional one appeared to be sleeping, most lay at unnatural angles, and Bren grimaced at the sight of torsos and limbs with severed parts. Some of the wounded men raised sporadic moans, and a few women moved among them, tending to their injuries. Even the ground bore scars. Ruts from caisson wheels crisscrossed hoof prints of the animals that had pulled cannon and ammunition carriages into and out of the battle. Hundreds of feet had trampled the grass in which cannon balls had left pits like broad postholes dug in repetitive rows.
Bren hunched her shoulders to hold off the depression that dragged at her as she tried to ignore her contribution to this bloodbath. Her somber eyes roved across the carnage, looking for familiar insignia. Finally, she reined in, bringing Redfire to a halt behind an oak tree. Hoping that the oakís broad trunk provided some protection, she dismounted and wrapped the sorrelís reins loosely around a branch tattered by earlier gunfire. Her brown wool trousers, ankle-high black boots, and green calico shirt blended into the forest background. After straightening the holster belted at her hips, Bren pulled out the .44-caliber Remington, then replaced it, making sure it hadnít jammed into the holster. Satisfied the revolver could be drawn smoothly, she loosened a cord at her neck and removed her wide-brimmed trail hat. Rummaging within a saddlebag, she traded the trail hat for a gray, Confederate kepi and settled it atop her tied-back hair.
Gray smoke, the remnant of cannon and small arms fire, partially obscured the open area before her and crept through the surrounding thickets. Bren blinked her eyes rapidly, which did little to ease the stinging itch caused by the acrid pall. The smoke and stench of battle so irritated her nose that she longed to willfully interrupt her sense of smell. With her hand resting on the revolverís butt, she peered from behind the oak, examining each of the bodies spread across the nearest part of the meadow.
Heavy artillery pounded in the distance, still close enough that the cannonade reverberated through Brenís booted feet. Continuing up her legs, the vibrations thrummed through broad shoulders and down long arms. Irregular splats of bullets colliding with tree trunks warned that the battle may have moved on for the living, but danger still lingered for those foolhardy enough to travel across this field of the dead and dying.
As Bren searched for the easiest path to her goal, her fingers scratched by habit at her bearded face; the spirit gum mildly irritated her skin. Fortunately, her duties usually took her out of camp, providing the opportunity to remove the false hair often enough to prevent a rash. For safetyís sake, she cleaned it only at night, giving her skin and the hairpiece a thorough scrub with alcohol. The routine gets pretty tiresome, she thought, but at least I donít have to trim the damned thing.
Brenís eyes narrowed as they lit on the object of her search, and her lips turned down in a grim smile. In a stroke of good fortune, her target lay just thirty feet away, sprawled on the churned and reddened grass. From this distance, the officerís bare head looked hauntingly festive. Blood bloomed on it like a scarlet rose, and a matching ribbon draped across his cheek and neck before disappearing into the hair below his ear.
Bren rubbed Redfireís forelock and muttered soothing sounds into the stallionís ear. Then she tugged the Rebel cap tighter, dropped to her belly, and crawled from behind the sheltering tree. Threading her way through the men who had fallen near their commander, she forced herself to ignore the moans and cries of the wounded. She reached the captainís side and looked into his staring face. Her gut wrenched as she acknowledged that this soldieróa boy, reallyólay in deathís arms because of her violation of his trust. Just one more betrayal added to a growing list that burdened her heavily.
Two years ago, when she first demonstrated her knowledge of the area to the Confederate officers in charge, Bren was hired as a scout-courier, just as she had planned. As the southernersí confidence in her grew, they entrusted her with dispatches of increasingly higher security. This allowed her the opportunity to pass important information to the Union forces, enhancing her value. But she hadnít foreseen how she would be affected by the terrible loss of life brought about by her successful missions. As a direct result of her actions, thousands of men on both sides died or were injured; some were maimed for life.
With heavy heart, she lifted her head and once more looked across the field at the destruction for which she felt responsible. She shivered and worked at convincing herself that the war was responsible; she was only trying to help the Union win. And the sooner they won, the sooner the dying would stop. For two years now, she had clutched this reasoning to her like a suit of armor. But during long and lonely nights, its protection failed her, and nightmares often slipped past conscious thought.
Thick brown hair threatened to come loose from its rawhide tie as Bren gave her head a hard shake, forcing her focus back to the task at hand. She turned the captainís body onto its side, grabbed the strap of a leather dispatch pouch from his shoulder, and lifted it over his head and off his body. Half-sitting, she slipped the strap over her own head, pushed her arm through it, and draped the pouch over her hip. A slight noise from behindóa clickósent a chill through her. Slowly, she looked around and gritted her teeth to stifle a gasp. Just a body-length away, the round, black hole of a musket barrel was trained directly on her.
Careful now, Bren, she warned herself. Donít startle him with any quick moves.
Curled on his side, the soldier clutched the musket in his hands with one arm braced against the ground and the other jammed against his body. Blood oozed through holes in the midsection of his jacket, and pain distorted his features. "What are you doing?" His slow drawl faded to a whisper. Small and dark-complected, he was already developing the ashen hue of approaching death. "Are you robbing the dead, you spineless vulture?"
In spite of her danger, Bren admired that this man summoned his last ounce of strength to continue fighting for his cause. "No," she answered in a rush, then tried to project a calm front in spite of her thudding heart. "I was sent to retrieve the captainís battle orders so the bluebellies wouldnít get hold of them." She forced herself to breathe normallyóa difficult task while looking into the death-hole of a musket barrel.
"You could be a bluebelly. Only gray is the cap." He stopped long enough to drag in a ragged breath. "Couldíve stolen it."
"Thatís true." Bren nodded. "But Iím a hired scout, not regulation, so I donít wear a uniform. I have written orders. Iíll show you."
"No." The soldier labored through another intake of air. "Going to . . . shoot you."
Brenís adrenaline surged, and cold sweat oozed as her muscles tensed. Her eyes quickly measured the distance to the musketís barrel. There was no way she could push it aside before he got off a shot. Poised for action, her body jerked when he spoke again. "Draw." Confusion muddled Brenís mind, but self-preservation quickly cut through it, and her mind speeded up. If he was going to give her a fighting chance, by God, she was going to take it. And if he felt a little better killing someone in the act of trying to shoot him, then that was all right too. At least sheíd go down fighting. I can do this, her mind screamed silently.
Brenís every movement registered in excruciating detail as her fingers popped open the holster cover. Her hand hit the revolverís butt with a welcome thud. In one continuous motion, she drew the weapon, thumbed back the hammer, and fired. Flame and smoke spurted more than a foot from the Remingtonís barrel. Bren winced as the recoil jerked painfully at her wrist. The bullet struck the soldierís right eye, thrusting his head backward. Bright red blood gushed from the wound, and his rifle dropped to the ground. As her racing mind slowed to normal speed, Bren realized she was unharmed; the soldier hadnít fired. Only then did she remember glimpsing a ghastly little smile on the manís lips just before she pulled the trigger.
She holstered her weapon and crawled close enough to grab the barrel of the fallen musket. Pulling it close, she examined it. The weapon was empty. Bren laid her head down against quivering arms, and tears squeezed out as she fought a bitter mixture of understanding and anger. He wanted me to kill him. He knew he was dying and didnít want to lie here for hours in agony. But shooting a man eyeball-to-eyeball . . . ending his life with my own hand . . . thatís a heavier burden than carrying messages back and forth and letting others do the killing. Or is it? I bear blame for that too. God, I hate this war!
When her shaking stopped, she placed the empty musket next to its ownerís body, rubbed her eyes against her sleeve, and crawled away. Most of the moans and cries had died out.
I had such lofty dreams of making a difference in the Union winning its cause, she thought. Now all I feel is guilt. I didnít give Death his due. In war, heís the one who makes the difference. Heís the only one who wins.
To be continued in Part Two
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