“The major’s coming down the road. You’d better not let him catch you cutting another Reb.”
The sergeant cursed and turned back to Carl, grabbing the front of his coat.
“You got no right to wear a uniform, you dirty Rebel pup.” He took a fresh grip on his knife and addressed the soldiers restraining Carl. “Hold him tight while I teach him a lesson.”
Carl felt the tight prickle of fear racing up his spine as the soldiers freshened their hold on his arms. The sergeant looked around at the road, cursed again, turned to Carl, and cut the embossed buttons from his coat. He jerked the coat open, grinning evilly, and cut the buttons from his shirt, as well.
“Now you’re not a soldier.” The man cackled as he pocketed the buttons and sheathed his knife. “Let him loose,” he ordered, motioning to the soldiers. As they dropped his arms, he looked Carl up and down once more, his expression changing to hatred. The sergeant half turned away, then spun back, and with a massive fist knocked Carl flat. “Mount up,” the sergeant barked, and strode toward his horse, weaving a bit.
Lying in the mud, propped on one elbow, Carl wiped blood from his jaw, tasting salt as he tongued his molars to see if they were still tight. He watched the patrol leave, hate burning his belly. He turned over onto his knees and got to his feet, wincing at the pain, then whistled for his horse. Looking around for his hat, he found it on the wall where it had landed when he was attacked. He brushed at the soft, shapeless felt, removing a splash of mud, then he jammed it onto his head.
Sherando came trotting out of the trees, gray coat glistening in the misty rain that had once again begun to fall. The horse jumped the fence to reach Carl and nickered softly. Carl checked to see that the Yankee rifle was secure in the scabbard. “Sure glad them Billy Blues was so drunk they didn’t find you, boy,” he whispered through raw lips.
He swung into the saddle and straightened his back, swiped at his face with both hands to remove as much mud as he could, then ran his fingers through the blond hair at the nape of his neck, tugging loose both tangles and mud. He hoped someone at home had a comb, for he had lost his personal gear in a wild, last-ditch ride for freedom with Colonel John Mosby. Carl’s patrol had ridden into a Yankee camp to surrender after the war’s end. Union officers gave the Confederate cavalrymen parole papers and turned them free instead of holding them as prisoners of war. Carl had stolen the rifle as he left camp, but hadn’t had a chance to replace other gear.
The young man turned his horse onto the Valley Pike, laughing as joy surged through him. “Benjamin will have a comb. It’ll be fine to see him again.” Carl kneed Sherando to a trot, and launched into a tune he’d heard somewhere. “Oh Shenandoah, I’m comin’ to ya. I’m here, you rolling river.”
Carl looked toward the shallow river flowing beside the road and grinned at the cleverness of his new words to an old song. “Hold up that head, horse. We’ll show the folks that a passel of Yankees can’t lick a Virginia boy. We’re goin’ home!”
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