The cavalry camped out in the steppe grass by the creek. Half of the men disrobed, bathing off the dusty grime of the country we’d ridden through. There were enough soldiers chumming up the brackish water and I decided to wait my turn for a rinse.
Smith hummed to himself by the campfire, taking out some of our precious stores for mess. The smell of fried beans wafted over.
“How much we got?” I eyed our dwindling supplies.
“Enough for the winter!”
I spit out my tobacco and counted the months in my head, calculating that the war might be over by then, when Smith stood and shaded a bony hand over his brow. “Lookout’s coming!”
I turned in my seat, a jutting piece of rock, and followed his sight. Dust kicked up near the horizon: our sentry and another man riding a horse, in our colors. The men around me and the fire went on alert.
“Looks like we got ourselves trouble, boys!” I called down to the bathers.
They floundered out of the water and scrambled for their Enfields. By the time they were presentable, the lookout had arrived with the stranger in tow. The stranger dismounted. He smoothed over his sergeant’s uniform and tugged at his belt. He eyed the men around him.
“Where’s your commander?” The sergeant swiveled and focused on me, the closest to him.
“Who’s in charge now?”
“He is,” Smith said, clasping me on the back.
“Well, I don’t know what you boys are doing,” the sergeant said, peering disdainfully at my dripping friends, “but you’re at least a hundred miles off.” He turned back to me. “I want you to get the men ready to head back to Charleston.”
“Sorry Sarge,” I said quietly, “but no can do.”
The men hoisted their guns.
“You see,” Smith added, “we ain’t elected you, so you got no say.”
Before the sergeant could speak, I pointed. A volley of gunfire rang out. His body thudded against the ground. I watched his head bleed out, twitch once, and stop.
“Get him into the creek,” I told the men.
I grunted as we heaved him onto our shoulders and tumbled the sergeant’s corpse into stream like we did with the first one. That would buy us another month before they sent someone else after us.
“If anyone asks,” I said, keeping my eyes on the water, “the natives got him.”