“But one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive;
and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Northern Virginia, 1862
A piercing blast from a bugle preceded the sound of galloping horses by seconds. Captain Alexander Hunter tore his eyes away from the horse and rider he pursued and focused on a Federal cavalry unit now pursuing him.
Dammit. Tricked again.
This was not the first time the large black steed with its agile rider had been spotted in advance of a Union assault. But Hunter swore today would be the last. Signaling his men to scatter, he spurred his mount toward the forest where his foe had disappeared. His band of warriors took off in every direction, their escape aided by a roiling mass of dark-bellied clouds that launched their own assault. With the storm as an ally, Hunter knew the Federal cavalry would not long sustain the chase. He worried not for the welfare of his men, who were familiar enough with the land to evade the enemy no matter what the weather. He cared only to find the Yank who led him into the trap and see him punished.
Punished severely. Hunter lowered his hand to one of the revolvers at his hip. Damn that scoundrel. The timely arrival of Union reinforcements over the past few months could no longer be considered a mere coincidence. It was time for this cunning adversary to pay for the disruptions he’d caused.
Hunter guided his mare through the underbrush and around fallen trees, but entertained little hope of finding his antagonist. The rider possessed a habit of appearing, only to disappear into thin air. Even today, when he’d thought the elusive character within his grasp, Hunter had instead found himself in another trap.
The distinctive sound of running water replaced the hushed patter of rain and called Hunter from his thoughts. “How about a drink, ol’ girl?” He urged his mare forward, leaning low over the saddle to avoid tree limbs, then jerked on the reins at the sight of a youth crouched on the opposite bank gulping water by the handful.
Hunter’s gaze shifted to the horse hungrily grazing on green shoots at the water’s edge. Enormous and coal black, its chest glistened from being ridden hard, while its sides heaved from not being rested for quite some time.
Hunter reached for his revolver and blinked to make sure the fading daylight was not playing tricks on his vision. The supposed scout was smaller and younger than he expected. He cocked the weapon anyway and shouted across the fast-moving stream, “Don’t move!”
Startled, the youth stood and challenged him. “What do you want?” he asked, holding nothing but dripping water.
Hunter’s confusion intensified as he stared at his opponent. Dressed in an oversized coat, slouch hat pulled low, and baggy trousers, the boy looked harmless enough. Can this really be the Union scout I’ve been chasing?
One more glance at the horse answered his question. Few such horses existed in this part of the country, certainly none of such quality that had not already been confiscated. This was no guiltless youngster. This was a Yankee. And a dangerous one at that. “I think you know what I want. It appears we’ve spent the last week watching each other, and still have not been introduced.”
He urged his mare down the bank to a sandbar, but hesitated before prodding her into the water. The creek was not wide, but the swift-running current and slippery rocks made fording here treacherous. To ride upstream and find a better place to cross would be safer, but Hunter knew his prey would vanish in the meantime. With daylight fading, he must act.
“If I may offer you some advice, sir?”
“Begging your pardon, son, but I don’t think you’re in any position to offer advice.”
“So it appears,” the youth replied, “but this is not a safe place to cross. If you go right down there—” He pointed downstream, but Hunter, blinking in disbelief at his audacity, interrupted.
“Thanks for the advice,” he sneered, urging his horse forward in the ice cold water, “but I’ll not go back without the scoundrel who’s been reporting my movements to the Yanks.”
Hunter attempted to keep his eye on the enemy while guiding his mount through the maze of rocks in the streambed. About half way across, he saw the youth bolt to his grazing horse and gather the reins. Reacting instinctively, he fired a shot, causing his mare to lose her footing and plunge to her knees. The panicked animal struggled a moment before bounding up with a great surge of strength, knocking Hunter off balance. As he tried to regain control, the mare lunged again, this time unseating him and sending him sailing backward. Hunter felt himself falling, seemingly in slow motion, until there came a skull-cracking thud and a blinding flash of light. Then nothing.
Andrea Evans waited breathlessly, fearing a trick, before leaping into the cold water. Slipping on the wet rocks, she fell several times before reaching the Rebel’s limp body. He floated face up, yet the red froth swirling around him told her his injuries were serious. She grabbed him beneath his arms and backed toward the bank, slipping, falling, spitting mouthfuls of water as she fought the current and struggled with the man’s weight. By the time she dragged him onto land, her legs trembled from exhaustion and her lungs screamed for air.
“Dammit, I told you not to cross there,” she groaned between teeth chattering from the cold. Leaning down to get a closer look at his injury, she shook her head. “Now what am I to do with you?”
Without warning, the man’s eyes flew open, and his hands grabbed her arms like a pair of steel vises. “The question is, what am I to do with you?” he snarled, rolling her onto her back. He straddled her, pinning her to the ground with the strength of an angry bull.
Andrea clenched her teeth and studied her dreaded foe. He did not speak, his eyes did the talking. And what they said drove through her like a ramrod. “I should have left you to die,” she spat, regretting her impulsive decision to rescue him.
“It’s your undoing that you did not.”
As the soldier scrutinized her face, Andrea began to kick, push, and squirm beneath him in a violent attempt to escape. Every muscle in her body reacted to the peril she faced, yet her attempts to dislodge him proved futile. Pushing one more time with all her remaining strength, Andrea grimaced at the uselessness of the effort against his powerful arms.
Resigned to her fate, she relaxed and looked up into eyes that now appeared glazed and unfocused. She felt his grip loosen, watched him blink and sway before groaning and collapsing on top of her. His weight knocked the remaining breath from her lungs, but she pushed against him until he fell to one side. Andrea remained on her back, sucking in air and listening to the chaotic pounding of her heart.
She knew this was the notorious Captain Hunter. Yet, no prior description did justice to his true appearance. By reputation alone he could scarcely be categorized a mere man. The North feared him as a calculating guerrilla leader. The South glorified him as a knight. He was a legend for his ability to keep the Federal army on constant alert and in a continuous state of fear. His unorthodox methods of warfare left Union troops wondering when to expect him—and dreading what to expect.
Even unconscious he appeared a formidable image of strength and power, making Andrea fear that the muscular frame beside her would rebound with the force and vitality for which he was so well known. She crawled out of arm’s reach, but not before catching a glimpse of the gash, still seeping blood, from beneath a mass of brown, wavy hair. She closed her eyes to help quell the chill of fear inching its way up her spine. She had never been so terrified in her life—terrified he might awake and terrified he might be dead. Although death had surrounded her for months, she never anticipated actually causing it.
A voice in the woods behind her jolted Andrea from her thoughts. She swore at herself for losing another opportunity to escape.
“The gunshot came from over here,” yelled someone with a distinct Southern drawl.
Lantern light reflected off the leaves, casting shadows on her and her unconscious companion.
“Over here! I found the Cap’n’s horse,” another voice shouted.
Andrea held her breath. With no sign of her horse, she slipped into the darkness, hoping the soldiers were too busy searching for their leader to hear.
“Over here! I found him!”
Light flooded an area not forty yards downstream and a dozen Rebels descended from the tree line. Andrea decided it was time to run, and run she did, cutting away from the bank and into the temporary safety of the trees. More concerned with speed now than caution, she sprinted through the woods, pushing blindly through the profuse underbrush into the awful blackness beyond.
Yet the trees behaved like Rebel sentinels, their branches snagging her clothes and holding her in their gasp. Even harmless bushes seemed reluctant to let her pass. Long, prickly limbs appeared out of nowhere to tear at her cloths and lacerate her skin. She whimpered at their savagery, but the pain only inspired her legs to move faster. She dared not look back, but she imagined footsteps chasing her, could almost feel the hot breath of her pursuers on her back. She ran as she had never run before then, fear giving her the ability to pick up her pace and pure panic giving her wings.
Pain seared through her when her ankle twisted on a fallen limb, and she dropped flat on her face—but only for a moment. She scrambled to her feet, or tried to anyway, half-crawling, half-running a few steps until a tangle of vines stopped her.
Disengaging herself with frenzied urgency, Andrea ran again, but only a short distance more. She could go no farther, certain her lungs would burst from the exertion or the pain in her ankle would cause her to collapse.
Andrea leaned against a tree, clenching the spasm in her side and trying to gulp in air quietly. When a twig snapped, she froze. Just my imagination. She let her breath out slowly. Or maybe a fox or a deer.
Standing still like the trees around her, Andrea grimaced as something warm trickled down her cheek and into her mouth. The metallic taste of blood gave her the urge to spit, but she swallowed instead when another noise came, closer still than the last. She held her breath and clutched a limb with shaking hands. Someone is coming. She listened to them shuffle through the underbrush, then stop.
Andrea crouched and waited, her heart pounding like a locomotive in her ears. She reached into her boot for a derringer, but realized it was useless, soaked from her swim. Dammit. Her only other weapon, a Colt .44, was still on her saddle. The words of Colonel Jonathan Jordan suddenly raced into her mind: War is no game.
Those were the last words he had spoken to her before she left with his dispatch two days earlier with orders not to delay. Those were the words he spoke every time he saw her. She closed her eyes while fighting the hopelessness consuming her. When she opened them, the veil of clouds parted, throwing a sharp beam of light through the dense canopy above. Andrea held her breath and peered around the tree, spotting the outline of her feared predator. Her heart lurched at the sight of the four-legged creature, all but invisible in the darkness.
“Justus,” she whispered.
Mounting her horse without making another sound, she did not take time to contemplate the close bond they shared or the significance of his name: Just us. She urged him forward and prayed they had time to escape the danger surrounding them.
Shades of Gray by Jessica James named to the Top Five for Best Southern Theme in the Virginia Romance Writers 2009 HOLT Medallion Awards.