Here’s one more snippet, the end of the first chapter. The story has been turned in, so stay tuned for details! Again, this is a Civil War story, sweet on the romance, with a bit of Thunderbird mythology.
On the day of our first battle under Captain Steadman, I performed what I called the “Dawn Ceremony” as I’d done each day of killing in this miserable war. I’d made the whole thing up as a show to keep the men focused on my Indian heritage and not the curves hidden beneath my clothes, but it impressed them enough that I usually had quite a crowd. If I ever pretended to forget, they reminded me in a hurry.
I stood face up to the dawn, arms flung out, and I sang every Comanche song I’d ever heard on the reservation. I couldn’t always remember the words, so I hummed those parts. The men didn’t care, and I don’t think the Great Spirit minded much neither.
I always knew when the battle would go our way. If we were going to be victorious, I heard thunder, even if the skies were cloudless, brilliant summer blue. The thunder rolled in my blood, quickening my heartbeat, and sometimes I even felt the rush of wings fluttering against my face. My father had always claimed to be descended from Thunderbird, but until I heard the thunder and felt the pulse of wings in my heart, I’d never really believed.
This morning, I held my arms outspread until my muscles trembled and the horses pranced and snorted anxiously, but no thunder rolled across the horizon.
“You, there!” Captain Steadman yelled, and I felt his fierce gaze drilling into my back. “Mount up!”
My heart pounded slow and heavy, sweat dripped down my back, and my stomach was a roiling mass of sickness. I didn’t have to say a word to my two friends, Big John and Lying Abe. Grim-faced, they scanned the sky and then checked their weapons.
“What do the gods say, Injun?” Stinker rode by, absently scratching his crotch. “Will we have luck today?”
I shook my head, and his cheeks paled beneath his scraggly beard. Word spread quickly and the troops’ unease communicated to Captain Steadman. Stiff and straight in his saddle, he scanned our line, his mouth tightening at the nervous mounts. He locked his formidable gaze on me, but I remained silent.
I’d learned long ago that it was best to say as little as possible; my voice was distressingly feminine. My nonchalant shrug made his eyes narrow even more.
“I have three rules,” Captain Steadman’s low voice rang with intent. The horses stilled, ears flickering back and forth, as though they, too, were mesmerized by his words. “First, I will never ask you to do something that I myself refuse to do. Second, I’ll never leave a man behind. I’ll do everything in my power to ensure none of you ever end up in a Confederate prison camp. I’ll shoot you myself before I allow you to suffer that fate. And you can be assured of my promise, gentlemen, because rule number three is I never lie.”
“How about slavers?” For once, Lying Abe, the trickster of our company, was dead serious. If President Lincoln was “Honest Abe,” he joked he’d be the Lyin’ one, but the only thing I’d ever seen him actually lie about was cards.
His somberness only worsened the heavy feeling on my chest. Today was a dread day. I could feel it in my bones.
“I shan’t allow slavers to have you either,” Captain Steadman replied, his words ringing up and down the line. “You signed with good intentions to fight in this United States Army and no one shall claim you from this service except God himself.”
“Good, good, Cap’n.” Abe nodded vigorously, his eyes suspiciously wet in the weak dawn light. “Shoot me first.”
I don’t know the name of the place where we battled, nor even the Confederate commander on the other side of the fortifications. I remember that the summer heat beat us mercilessly, our horses’ flanks dark and damp long before the height of fighting; the trees and fields were green; and our orders were impossible. We were to charge the main Confederate line and eliminate the 6-pounder punishing our infantry.
Now our boys were superb at hit and run attacks, but the Rebs had had plenty of time to dig trenches about their precious gun. More, they had sharpened stakes and driven them down into a punishing wall of death for our horses. There weren’t no way, no how, we were getting a horse through that prickly wall of wood. We were going to have to go over.
Captain Steadman studied the fortifications through his glass. Moment by moment, his shoulders stiffened even more, his mouth a flat slash, his brow furrowed. He dropped the glass and stared down the hill as though his naked eyes could compute the likelihoods and distances. Someone started to whisper and the captain’s hand shot up, silencing us all.
Finally, he said in a low whisper, “I need your best jumpers. The horses with the most heart.”
He turned in the saddle and scanned the column. Instinctively, I wanted to draw back and fade into the rear lines. My ghostly gray mare was my only hope for my future. With my bounty and wages, I was going to buy a parcel of land. It would be mine, not the government’s, and once I found a stud for my mare, I was going to raise a herd of the finest horses in the land. I’d rather rip my tunic open and expose my breasts to the entire company than risk her.
But Captain Steadman had a fine eye for horseflesh. He recognized the fire in my mare’s eyes and cast an approving look at her deep chest and powerful haunches. “You, Indian, what’s your name?”
“Thunderer,” I growled out, forcing my tone as low and bass as possible.
“Can she clear a wall as tall as your head?”
I nodded, not daring a long explanation of my mare’s abilities.
“If we clear the branches, we’ll have a pace or two to gather ourselves and launch over their ditch. It’ll take some fancy riding. I fear that ditch is at least six foot wide. One misstep and the horses are dead.”
I didn’t say anything but shifted in my thin saddle, searching for a deeper connection with my mare’s sensitive skin. Her ears flickered back and I felt her muscles gathering beneath me. She knew exactly what was coming.
“Don’t bother with the rifle. Use that saber to cut down the guards. I’ll eliminate the gunner. You,” Captain Steadman pointed to Abe, proving his eye for horseflesh once again because no one had a rangier, more nimble horse, “follow us over and immediately begin clearing the abatis. Until we clear the spikes, we’ll be on our own.”
And so it was that I found myself galloping between my captain and a negro pell-mell down the hill straight toward certain death. We had to ride fast and low, hoping to dodge their sharpshooters. Minie balls whizzed about us, but I used the subtle pressure of my knees and weight to guide Mist in a weaving pattern across the ground. Ahead, the wall of spikes loomed, the fresh scent of wood in my nose, the raw, pale flesh bared of bark hungry to impale my own.
I reached up and touched the amulet I wore about my neck. The entire tribe–those few who still lived–had prayed and danced over it before I’d left the reservation. Thunderbird’s symbol with wings outstretched had been worked in beads.
Please, I prayed. Lend us wings. Let us soar.
Mist gathered beneath me and surged up over the spiked branches. I threw my heart and soul over that barrier, casting my will to the other side with no hesitation. The mare answered, powering us up and over. She landed hard but I kept my weight tight and centered against her withers. One pace and then I asked her again to jump for all she was worth in a long stretch across the six-foot-deep ditch.
She stumbled upon landing but quickly righted her footing. I couldn’t spare a glance to see if my companions had made it over because four men had been set to guard the cannon. A shot burned its way across my upper arm. I hissed with pain, but it was just a graze. I whirled Mist and charged the rightmost guard. He tried to duck out of the way but Mist and I had long ago learned the natural instincts of a foot soldier charged by a horse. I cut him down and galloped past the cannon.
Two men stood back to back, bayonets at the ready. I couldn’t risk my mare, so I sheathed the saber and dropped my hands to the weapons on my belt. Tomahawk in one hand, knife in the other, I threw both weapons and wounded the men enough to risk darting in and eliminating one with a saber cut. The other man scrambled out of the way with my knife buried in his shoulder.
A Reb jerked at my reins, trying to use his weight to pull the mare’s head down and throw us to the ground. I plunged my fingers into his eye. Shrieking, he let go and fell beneath Mist’s scrambling hooves.
Shouts warned that more reinforcements were coming. Smoke thickened the air, burning my lungs. Our troops had set the abitas on fire. Billowing dark clouds of ash and sparks choked me. The cannon. Had the captain made it over? Had he eliminated the gunner? In the thick air, I made out the body with my axe buried in his chest. I swung down and jerked it free, but I didn’t hope to ever see my knife again.
Abe limped toward me on foot and disappeared in the billowing smoke. “Thunderer!”
The dirt exploded between us. Mist screamed and reared, nearly unseating me. I muttered a curse at our own boys shooting cannon at us and started toward my friend.
Captain Steadman blocked the way with his horse. “I set the charge on the cannon. We’ve got to ride!”
Abe called out again, his voice close, so I risked disobeying my captain. If the charge went off or another cannonball blasted the area, then I wouldn’t live to suffer his punishment. Ears flat to her head, Mist trembled beneath me but charged through the thickening smoke.
A choked shout drew me toward Abe. I grabbed his forearm and tried to heave him up behind me, but he weighed too much for me to manage alone. Mist danced and snorted, making it more difficult for the wounded man to get his leg up over her rump. Another blast tore through the ground, tossing dirt and shards of rock in a geyser. Blood dripped into my eyes, blinding me. Abe must have been hit, too–his weight dragged at me, nearly pulling me off my horse.
From out of the thick smoke, Captain Steadman galloped toward us. He grabbed Abe’s other arm and together we made a run for it, carrying the wounded man between us. Foam flecked on Mist’s shoulders, but I didn’t dare slow her. When the cannon exploded with an angry roar, she found even more speed, forcing the captain’s mount to catch up or risk tearing Abe in half.
In the melee, we couldn’t tell up from down, let alone North from South. However, we did see Captain Steadman’s ratty old flag carried by someone galloping up the opposite hill. I’d never been so happy to see a flag in all my born days. We slowed enough to let Abe haul up behind Captain Steadman and then we trotted after our company.
My breathing didn’t slow; in fact, I was having a damned hard time catching my breath at all. I slipped a hand beneath my tunic and yanked out a piece of shrapnel. It must have cracked a rib, for every breath grew tighter and more painful.
I didn’t dare say a word. One look beneath my shirt and every man in Company L would know a woman had been sleeping and fighting in their midst for months.
“Thunderer, pick a man and take this soldier to the infirmary,” Captain Steadman ordered. “Your mount is done for the day.”
Big John had already moved over to help our wounded friend off the captain’s horse. There was no one more skilled in medical treatment in the whole regiment, and most of us would argue the entire Army. Not only had he received professional training at Rush Medical College in Chicago, but he also cared. He actually gave a damn whether we kept our legs and arms.
Not trusting my ribs, I stayed in the saddle and followed them to the makeshift tent. I hoped he didn’t need my help holding Abe down.