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Prologue

It was July 4, 1863 and the South was winning the war. In celebration of both grand events the large, snow white mansion owned by Confederate General Brandon Crete was awash with lanterns, music, and the raucous, high pitched sounds of revelry. Most of Crete's slaves had taken to their quarters hours ago due to the corn liquor he'd magnanimously passed out, but inside the house, Crete, and his southern gentleman friends, on leave from the war for the holiday were being entertained by a troop of dusky skinned ladies imported for the sole purpose of pleasure. The debauchery and drink were at their height when one of the women, Zahra Lafayette silently slipped outside. Under cover of the darkness, she moved swiftly; her destination, one of the General's barns.

Looking around carefully for dogs, loyal slaves or anything else that might foil her plans, Zahra made her way through a small stand of magnolias. After a short brisk walk, she spotted an out building that from the description she'd been given was possibly the barn she was after. She held her position under the cover of the trees for a moment, ever watchful and ever wary because necessity dictated both. Her wishing that the damned moon weren't so bright had no impact on its positioning in the night sky, so she set the useless thought aside and focused her mind on what she'd come to do.

The barn stood forty yards away across an open field. The night's high moon would cast quite a shadow when she came out into the open, but there was no remedy for that either; she just needed to move quickly.

Keeping her body bent low, she hurried across the space as soundlessly as she could. When she reached the barn, she flattened herself against the side wall, and waited before proceeding to make sure she hadn't been seen. Fighting to keep her breathing even, she listened for footsteps or any other sounds that might herald discovery, but when she heard only the night song of the insects she began to slowly move along the wall towards the barn door. Her first step on the uneven ground turned her ankle and she winced at the slight pain. At this moment she would have given two front teeth for some trousers and a pair of stiff brogans. Both items would have made this skulking about easier, but she'd have had difficulty posing as a pricey whore in such inelegant attire. Instead, she was dressed in a garish, low-cut, red dress and wearing a pair of fashionable, high heeled shoes that were useless in this line of work.

As she gained the corner of the barn, she peeked around to see if anyone was on the other side. Blessedly, she saw no one and thanked the ancestors for corn liquor and July 4 th . Hurrying now, she took one last look behind her, then hastened over to the big horizontal slat that barred the door. She lifted it with difficulty and set it back down as soundlessly as she could. She quickly surveyed the dark grounds around her to make certain her presence hadn't drawn any attention. When she was confident, she opened the barn's door, slipped inside and quietly closed it back.

It was dark as pitch inside and the first thing she smelled was urine; stark, pungent, and so strong she placed her hand over her mouth to filter her breathing. General Crete's horse barn needing mucking. She lowered her hand, and called out in a hoarse whisper, “LeVeq? Are you in here?”

For a moment, there was silence, then a strained male voice responded, “Up here.”

Zahra turned her head in an effort to determine his location, then began moving again. “Keep talking so I can find you. It's dark as Hades in here.”

“You're a woman?” He sounded surprised.

“Sure am. Don't let your surprise keep you from talking, though.”

“They sent a woman?”
She didn't like his tone.” If you prefer, I can go back and tell Miss Tubman you'd rather a man rescue you.”

Setting her large handbag down on the straw strewn floor, Zahra blindly reached inside for the small piece of candle and a flint. She lit the stub. The resulting light was just large enough for her to see him. He was above her, hanging by his wrists from a beam high above her head. He had on a ragged shirt, and the muscles in his shoulders and beneath his raised arms were stretched so unnaturally, the sight made her ache inside, even if she didn't care for his attitude. She set the candle on an overturned wooden bucket.

“Who are you?” he rasped again.

“The person getting you out of here, so let's cut you down, and you can thank me later.”

Guided by the small light, Zahra walked farther into the darkened barn to search for a ladder or something to stand on so she could reach him. Suddenly, the barn's front door flew open. She ducked down and very slowly slid her truncheon out of her handbag.

The visitor was her host, General Crete, and he had a lantern in his hand. Had he come to check on his suspended guest, or had he noticed her absence back at the house? He'd been particularly interested in her earlier in the evening, but she thought she'd successfully managed to fob him off on one of the other girls.

“Well, Yankee,” she heard him say to LeVeq. “How's it feel knowing you're going to die in the mornin'?”

Silence.

The general chuckled coldly, “Yeah, we're going to stretch your yella neck like a Christmas goose – What the hell?”

He'd just noticed the tiny candle. Zahra could see him looking around. He swung the lantern back and forth in an attempt to find out who else might be inside. When the movement almost made him lose his balance Zahra realized that he was very drunk. She smiled, and slowly rose to show herself. “Why General – are you looking for me?”

Although he appeared quite inebriated, there was a clarity in his blue eyes that indicated he was still sober enough to know something was amiss. Holding up the light so he could see her better, he asked suspiciously, “What're you doing in here?”

“Oh, nothing. Just looking around.”

“Just looking around, huh?” His tone was skeptical.

“Sure. Why else would I be here?”

Crete swung the lantern LeVeq's way. “Him maybe?”

She sighed dramatically. “Oh, all right. I should have known better than to try and trick a smart southern gentleman like yourself. I did come in here looking for him. In fact, his friends asked that I bring him home.” She smiled even prettier then, “Be a dear and cut him down for me.”

Crete shook himself as if trying to clear away the alcohol haze in order to make sense of what she'd just said, then puffed up. “The hell I will.”

“Then how about a kiss?”

His drunken eyes widened. “A kiss?”

Still smiling, she strolled over to where he stood. Her hands holding the truncheon were placed coyly behind her back. Her positioning gave him a good look at her bosom in the cheap, low cut, red dress.

She stopped a few inches away from him, then purred seductively, “Yes, a kiss. You want one?”

He grinned, and set the lantern at his feet.

“Then, close your eyes . . . “

When he did, she placed her lips gently against his, then brought the lead club down hard on his head. He sank like a stone.

“Now,” she called up to LeVeq, “Where were we?”

“Who are you?” he asked again in a amazed toned.

“We can talk later.” Zahra bet LeVeq was glad she was a woman now. She hastily retrieved her handbag and found a ladder. Bracing the ladder against a vertical beam near where he hung, she climbed up then lifted her dress and slid her pearl handled razor out of the leather sheath hugging her thigh. She quickly sawed the blade across the thick ropes until they were cut through. He landed with a thud and a pain filled moan.

Archer lay on the floor stunned by the both fall and the searing pain in his limbs. He wanted nothing more than to lay on the barn's foul stall for an eternity. It felt so good not to be hanging anymore.

Zahra moved to his side. She felt sorry for him, but there was no time for a long recuperation; someone from the house might be coming along at any moment in search of the missing general. Slipping the pearl handled razon back into its sheath, she looked him in the eyes and said, “We need to leave.”

According to her briefing LeVeq had been sent to steal the plans detailing the movements of Crete's troops, but he'd obviously failed. She shook her head at the folly of sending a pampered New Orleans dandy into a lion's den like this. She helped him to his feet. “Can you walk?”

He nodded.

“Ride?”

“Yes,” Archer replied impatiently. “Let's go.”

“I was just being concerned. Forgive me,” she responded tightly.

With LeVeq's heavy weight leaning against her, Zahra guided him out into the night. She was certain she'd hit Crete hard enough to keep him asleep for a while, but getting away and doing it quickly was imperative. They had to walk quite a distance, but the horses Zahra had been promised were waiting in a stand of trees. After sending a up a silent thank you to the unknown provider, she scrambled up into the saddle and grabbed up the reins.

He had a harder time mounting however. The numbness in his limbs made it next to impossible to grasp the horn and pull his weight up. She imagined it might be days before he regained his strength, but they didn't have days.

Suddenly, barking dogs sounded off in the distance. Crete must have been found. Zahra verbally prodded him. “I hear dogs, my friend.”

“Dammit, so do I. I'm trying.”

He was only half aboard. Impatient, Zahra maneuvered her mount closer. Reaching out, she grabbed the waist of his filthy trousers and hauled him aboard as best she could onto the back of his horse. “Try and keep up!!” she yelled. Digging in her heels, she propelled her animal forward.

Archer cursed but followed suit.

Aided by the full light of the moon, they rode fast and hard across Crete's land. When they put some distance between themselves and their pursuers, she brought her horse to a halt, then dismounted quickly. “This will only take a moment.”

Reaching into her handbag, she extracted a small leather pouch, and explained. “If the dogs come this far, this will make them wish they'd stayed in bed.”

While he looked on, Zahra began to sprinkle the mixture of plant material from the pouch in a wide area around where the horses were standing.

“What is it?”

“Powder red peppers.”

Archer couldn't help his admiring smile. “Where'd you learn that trick?”

“My father.”

“Does he know you spend your nights rescuing men from barns?”

Zahra looked up at him. Back in New Orleans he probably had more money and more women than a Biblical king. He was as handsome as the devil, too, and neither the dark nor the filth could mask that. She didn't answer his question. Instead, she expertly remounted her horse and said, “We need to ride.”

Archer somehow managed to keep up. Through it all he was intrigued by this resourceful and apparently fearless woman. She rode beside him astride. The gaudy dress was hiked up to show legs that shone like polished ebony in the moonlight. This was no prim miss; she'd already proven that, but he knew he'd never unravel the mystery she presented if he didn't find a place to lie down so he could rest.

Once Crete and his dogs were left behind and the sounds of the darkness settled once more, she led them to a spot on the shore of a small cove. With the smell of the water in the air and the lapping waves the only sound in the night silence, they dismounted. “A gunboat is supposed to meet us here in a hour or so,” Zahra explained. How are you faring?”

“Fine,” Archer LeVeq lied as he sank to the rocky ground to rest as best he could. In reality, he felt like he'd been dead for a week. The ride had sapped the last of his strength. He'd been hanging in that fetid barn for a day and a half and he doubted he'd be able to move his arms or shoulders ever again. At this point in time he would have gladly exchanged his entire fortune for a feather bed, a hot bath and the soft stroking of his golden skinned mistress Marie; he was injured, exhausted and famished. He was thankful to be alive though, and he owed that to his rescuer. “My thanks for getting me out of there.”

Her back to him, her eyes still on the dark horizon, she responded, “You're welcome. It's good to know you have some manners after all.”

Archer's eyes narrowed.

Zahra turned to face him. “You seemed pretty disappointed to be rescued by a woman, but then, I've never known a gens de coleur to be thankful to anyone but their own kind.”

Archer heard the sneer in her voice. “What do you know about the gens de coleur?”

“You're slave owners.”

“Not all of us.”

Zahra snorted and turned her eyes back to the dark water. She hoped the gunboat hadn't been delayed. With such a bright moon, everyone involved in the rescue was at risk, but apparently her superiors thought LeVeq's liberation worth it.

Archer wanted to challenge her narrow-minded thinking, but he decided he was in no mood to fence with her right now; he was too tired. He looked at her in that flashy red dress and wondered about her true identity. She had enough paint on her face to rouge up a bordello. “Do you have any water? A blanket would be greatly appreciated as well.” He was starting to shiver even though the July night was warm.

“Let me look in the packs.”

Zahra walked to the animals. Her providers had had the foresight to include a couple of canteens and two dry sandwiches. The only blankets available were the ones beneath the saddles, so they would have to do. She returned to find him seated with his back propped up against a tree. She was glad to see he'd had sense enough to move out of the moon's direct light. Kneeling at his side, she placed the canteen and the linen wrapped sandwiches on the ground. “Lean forward so I can drape this around you.”

He complied and then braced himself again. He told her, “You'll have to pour the water down my throat. My arms won't lift.”

Zahra looked into his assessing black eyes and saw the pain behind them. She nodded. Tilting the canteen, she slowly poured the water past his opened lips. He drank a bit, then his eyes strayed to hers. His attention made her so uncharacteristically nervous she lost touch with what she was doing and the water splashed out and drenched his face. He ducked away from the flow and she felt embarrassment burn her cheeks. “I'm sorry.”

Without thought, she wiped away the wetness with her fingers. The beard on his cheeks was rough yet soft. His skin warm. When she realized what she was doing, she hastily withdrew her hand. His answering smile unnerved her even more.

“Thank you,” Archer said softly. He had found it interesting that such an unconventional woman could be moved by something as conventional as a touch. “You didn't answer my question back there. Does your father know what you do?”

Zahra was too flustered to reply with anything other than the truth. “He does.”

“And he approves?”

“Yes.”

Their eyes locked once more, but Zahra found it impossible to maintain the contact. She'd grown up around men of strength and purpose; a man like LeVeq shouldn't affect her at all, but he did. She handed him the sandwich and went back to her position on the shore.

A short while later, a light flashed out of the darkness on the water, it was the signal. They're here,” Zahra quietly called to him. “Can you stand?”

“Yes.” Archer's body protested being set into motion, but he forced himself to his feet. He wobbled a bit due to the weakness in his legs.

Zahra came to his side. “Here. Lean on me. We need to hurry.”

Archer knew that anyone seeing him being aided along by a woman who barely reached his collar bone would find the sight comical. He would have laughed too had he not needed her help. He forced himself to have the strength to walk down the rocks.

Two seamen in a rowboat came ashore. Zahra helped Archer get in, then stepped back. She said to the seamen, “Tell your captain, thank you.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

Archer was surprised. “You aren't coming along?”

“No. I have another engagement.”

Archer masked his disappointment. “Then this is good-bye. My thanks again.”

“Au revoir, monsieur,” Zahra replied.

Archer smiled and politely inclined his head. As the canoe pushed off, he saw her walking back towards the horses and disappear into the darkness. He asked the seamen. “Do you know the lady's name.”

“That's the Butterfly.”

Archer stared back at the shore in shock. The nom de guerre Butterfly was well known in Union intelligence circles. If the rumors were true, the woman behind the name had spent the last few months posing as a house slave in the kitchens of some of the south's most important generals, and feeding Federal forces valuable information on everything from troop movements to how much food the Rebs still had in their stores. The rumors also described the Butterfly as being as beautiful as a sorceress, and twice as deadly. Archer searched the horizon in hopes of a last glimpse of the fascinating female, but saw only the dark landscape. Could she really have been the Butterfly? More importantly, Archer wondered if they would ever meet again.

 

 

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