Near Winchester, Virginia March 2, 1863
Katie O’Reilly tensed as she stared at the swift-running stream. Trees cast long shadows across the rushing water, and the air held a biting chill. Her stomach emitted a growl, protesting not having had anything to eat since she’d departed earlier that morning. She yanked the empty canteen’s cork to refill it before continuing the journey. As she neared the frigid water, her hands shook. Her mare, hitched to an oak tree, shook its mane and pawed the ground with the left hoof.
“I know, Morna.” Katie glanced at the mare. “Allow me to complete me task, and we’ll be on our way.”
She bit her lip and turned back to the icy water. With heart pounding, she stretched the arm holding the canteen toward the white-foamed breakers.
“There’s nothing to fear,” she recited. Nevertheless, she planted her brogans securely on the bank.
A cracking sound, like a branch snapping, stilled the outstretched arm. “Morna?”
The mare whinnied. Katie whirled. A man stood beside the gray-white dappled horse. She reached for the butt of her sidearm tucked into her belt and pulled the brim of her hat down to conceal her face.
The man stood stock-still and didn’t speak. Apparently, he’d hoped to make off with the pack or her horse.
He wore a greatcoat, so she couldn’t tell if a uniform of either North or South lay beneath. Likely, he was a local civilian. A black wide-brimmed hat covered his head, under which thick chestnut-colored hair touched his collar. A full beard half-concealed his face.
Katie swallowed hard and tried to speak in her most commanding voice. “Are you lost, sir?” She gripped her pistol.
The man relaxed his stance. Perhaps he thought her too small to present a threat. He glanced from Katie to the mare, then downward to the mailbag she’d been carrying to camp.
Katie’s hands clenched. While alone in the forest, she’d been careful to avoid enemy soldiers, thieves or worse, but this man had surprised her. What was he doing here? He looked again at the mailbag, then at her as if speculating on his chances of snatching it.
“Ye’ll not be stealing me things!” She yanked at her belt, fingering the pistol.
The man didn’t move.
A final tug freed the gun. Katie lost her balance on the ice-slicked edge of the bank and slid backward. She spun her arms and tried to stop the momentum but couldn’t halt a fall into the swollen, rushing stream. Sharp needles of frigid water stabbed, sending a jolt through her body. Despite attempts to regain her footing on the rocky stream bed, she slid farther to where she couldn’t reach the bottom.
Icy water closed over her head. Blindly, she lashed at the clear, cold breakers that tossed her from side to side. Forced up against a thick branch lodged between two rocks, she grasped it, trying to pull herself to safety, but her hands slipped.
God help, me! I’m going to die!
Strong arms clamped around her middle and pulled her backward against the current and out of the water. Limp like a rag doll, she allowed herself to be carried and deposited on the bank.
She curled into a ball, lungs heaving, and coughed up water she’d swallowed. She lay shivering on the frozen ground and watched the man who’d rescued her shake water from his clothes and stamp his feet.
He glanced at their surroundings and swore.
Katie’s heart pounded. What possibly could this man want? Whatever it was, she wasn’t giving up anything without a fight. She reached out, grabbed his leg, and threw him off balance. He landed beside her with a thud.
“What do you mean to do?” she croaked.
The man gaped. “Son, I’m only trying to help–”
Self-protective instincts took over. She hauled back her fist and socked him in the jaw–her hand so numb, she didn’t feel the blow.
“See here, boy!” The man tried to rise.
Katie slammed into him head first and sent both of them back into the stream.
“Are you some kinda lunatic?” he yelled. He grasped her waist and pulled her from the water, then straddled her while she gasped for air.
Cornflower blue eyes shaded by dark lashes regarded Katie warily. “Settle down. I don’t intend to hurt you.” His tone held an irritable edge.
Katie convulsed in a fit of coughing. “Let me up,” she gasped.
“Only if you promise not to wallop me again.” He rubbed his jaw. “For a scrawny fella, you pack quite a punch.”
She stared up at the man. If he were a thief, why had he jumped into the stream to save her? He could’ve taken everything she had and allowed her to drown. She studied him. The man had a handsome face, even though his hair was plastered to his head. Water dripped from his beard onto his shirt. He tried to look stern but failed. He spoke with a Southern drawl and seemed amused by the whole situation.
And he hadn’t seen through her disguise.
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