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      FROM HIS lookout position on the hill, one of the men saw the patrol coming.

      He ran down the slope toward where the others could see him. Their leader looked up inquiringly, and the sentinel flicked his ten fingers twice — twenty men were coming. Miming weariness, his body slumped, and he staggered. Tired men. Then, grinning, he touched the dirty bandanna around his neck. It was blue. Twenty tired Bluecoats coming right to them.

      At once, Cassale, who had been resting against a tree beside the little creek, drew himself to attention, looking as much like a Confederate officer as if he had really been one. He signaled the others to take cover, and they faded into the trees.

      For a moment, the only sound was the flutter of a startled bird. Then, as the Union soldiers came over the hill, the renegades could hear them talking and make out the sound of their boots sliding on the rocks and pine needles.

      When the newcomers entered the clearing, their faces were flushed and sweaty, and they threw themselves on the ground at the creek and drank thirstily without bothering to post guards. No Rebs were within miles, or if they were, they'd be unlikely to start a fight now. Grant was closing fast on Lee. The Union Cavalry and Infantry had just taken a thousand prisoners and a wagon train at Sayler's Creek, and in a few days the two forces would converge near Appomattox Court House. It couldn't last much longer, and the North would be the victor.

      Thus, when Cassale yelled at them to throw up their hands, they were caught by surprise. Wherever they looked, gray-uniformed men were pointing rifles at them.

      The Union lieutenant was young, but his voice was steady as he addressed Cassale. "I'd advise against this action, sir. The war is almost over and we will be the victors. If you surrender to us, you could be home quicker than if we give up to you."

      He stood waiting for an answer. And Cassale appeared to be thinking it over, then he smiled and shook his head. "I admire your pluck, sir, but I notice that we have captured you, and not the other way around. Have your men lay down their guns and give me your weapons."

      The lieutenant hesitated, then said somberly, "We have little choice." He nodded to his men and they laid their rifles on the ground while he unbuckled his saber and pistol.

      When the Northerners were disarmed, Cassale he stepped forward smartly and took the lieutenant's weapons. Then he stepped to one side and said calmly, "Now, Boys!"

      The clearing filled with thunder and the smoke of gunfire. The Union soldiers fell like leaves.

      In a few seconds most of the screaming had stopped, and the smoke that hung in the wet heat of the morning began to drift away. The biggest of the men in gray, a deserter from the Union side, walked among the fallen soldiers, shooting each one in the head to make sure they were dead. Cassale and the others searched the dead men, taking everything of value.

      "Not bad, considering there were twenty of them and only eight of us," said one.

      Another searched through a wallet and threw it on the ground. "That lieutenant had gall, offerin' to let us surrender to them." He shook his head and laughed.

      "But he was right," Cassale said thoughtfully. "The war here's almost over, and we should think about our future. I believe it's time for us to turn bluecoats again, boys. There are prices on all our heads, so we could use some new names . . . and these dead men won't be needing theirs anymore."

      "Better to be on the winning side," agreed another, after looking around at the others and finding approval of the idea.

      "All in favor?" asked Cassale.

      There was a chorus of "Ayes," and Cassale nodded. "Motion approved in a democratic fashion, as is our way."

      Cassale walked among the dead, looking for a man whose clothes would fit him. He came to the body of the young lieutenant, paused, then methodically began stripping the clothes from the dead man. He he transferred the contents of the lieutenant's pockets to his own.

      The other's followed his example, stripping the bodies of their bloody clothing, to be washed in the creek's rushing water.

      Sorting through the content's of the lieutenant's pockets, Cassale found identification papers. "My new name is going to be Frank Nugent," he said, rolling it around on his tongue. "Choose your names, my friends."

      "I like Alexander Weitnaur," said the heavy-set man who had shot the fallen soldiers in the head. "Sounds like a big name — and I'm a big man."

      "Euclid Hopper," another said, who had been reading a letter from a dead man's pocket. "He's a man who had someone who loved him."

      Another searched through several wallets and pockets before he found a name he liked. "I'm going to be Thomas Amhearst. Now that's a nice name, I think."

      "My old self has flown," said one who was already growing bald. "I'll be Homer Gaines, henceforth and forever. Unless, of course I decide to change again." He laughed.

      "I'm going to be Josh Bervan," said the youngest.

      The man who had seen the Union soldiers coming held up a letter and grinned snaggle-toothed. "Elmer Watson, that's me!"

      Grett, whom the others despised because of his bad way with women, said, "I'll take a couple of names became I might need 'em."

      After they all rinsed the blood out of the blue uniforms, they draped them on bushes to dry.

      "This war's been good to us," Cassale/Nugent said, resting on a fallen tree. "We have a wagon full of loot and an easy life. In a way, I will hate to give it up, but the string is runnin' out. Learn your new names, boys, and don't use the old ones again. We are starting new lives."

      "Where to, then? We can't go home," said the newly named Homer Gaines. "Not that I'd want to."

      Waiting for the Union uniforms to dry, they talked among themselves, learning their own and the others' names.

      Then Gaines, who worried about things, said, "But where shall we go, uh . . . Nugent? We get along together, but so far as the outside world's concerned we're no better'n sidewinder rattlesnakes."

      "A sidewinder is a tough fellow in a fight and he knows his way around," said Amhearst. "Maybe we should keep our little society of sidewinders together."

      There was a thoughtful silence for a long time. At last Nugent said, "I'm heading West. To the land of opportunity."

      Weitnaur said, "If we go together and our association does well, I'd like to open up a little bank someplace. I would take good care of our money and make it grow."

      They knew he spoke the truth; the man they now called Weitnaur knew about banks. He had shown them a tintype of his father's bank, a handsome building with a fat man and a young boy standing stiffly in front. Weitnaur was the boy, and had worked in the bank right up until the war.

      "We can rob banks — we don't need to own one," Grett said.

      "Why risk it?" Nugent asked. "There's fortunes to be made out there in honest business, especially if we have a pile big enough to start one." He paused a moment thoughtfully, then said, "Sure, Weitnaur, we'll give you a chance at our bank, if we get one."

      "I won't disappoint you," Weitnaur said earnestly.

      "Let's conquer the West!" said Gaines, caught up in it all.

      The youngest, who had become Bervan, hesitated. Then he said softly, "Not me, I never have used my real name anyway. I'm going back home."

      "Likewise for me," Grett said. "I'll take my share and say goodbye."

      Nugent frowned. "We like it all for one and one for all." A voracious reader, he'd read 'The Three Musketeers,' and he used the line often. "Besides, if we stay together and watch each other, we can be sure that none of us swings because of another's loose tongue."

      "I'd never tell," said Grett, but the others knew he couldn't control his mouth any more than he could control himself when he was around a defenseless woman.

      Nugent was affable on the surface, but there was a bleakness of spirit about him. Now, despite the balmy April day, he seemed as cold as ice. "If you're not with us, you're against us."

      "Not so!" Grett cried. At Nugent's words, sweat had started on his face, and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'll keep the secret! Just give me my share!"

      "Seven is enough. Share out with eight just waters down what we get," said Gaines.

      "Whoa there!" Nugent said reasonably. "Our society has rules. Now, as I understand it, Mr. Grett here says he wants his share and hopes to leave us. All in favor of letting him go, say 'Aye.'"

      There was not a sound.

      "Why, then, what shall we do with him?"

      "Kill him!" said Amhearst, who was always ready with an answer Nugent liked.

      "What about our democratic principles?" Nugent asked softly. "Do I hear a motion?"

      "I move we kill him," said Watson, raising his hand.

      "All in favor?"

      There was a chorus of "Ayes."

      Grett stared at them with his mouth open, unable to believe what he was hearing.

      Nugent nodded, drawing his pistol. "So be it." Grett's fear was overcome by rage. "You can't do that to me!" he yelled. But when he saw Nugent's eyes and the pistol pointing at him he knew they could. He began running for the shelter of the trees.

      Nugent took his time aiming. Then he fired, and a red dot suddenly appeared on Grett's back.

      Grett ran two more steps, then stopped and turned around and faced them. "Now why'd you go and do that?" he asked querulously.

      "Because we don't like you," Weitnaur said. He aimed and fired, and the others followed. Grett tried to stop the bullets, but they went through his outstretched hands into his chest, and others smashed into his broad stomach, and in his face, and he sighed and shook his head as though despairing of them all, and he fell dead.

      Bervan, who had become still as a mouse transfixed by a snake, mustered up a brave voice. "I've changed my mind, friends. I'm staying with you. I'm in!"

      "Well, I'm all for that," Nugent said agreeably. "Right, boys?"

      The others smiled and nodded and put their guns away.

      Bervan sagged with relief. For a moment, he had thought it was the end of him. But why were they smiling, and staring past him? He turned and saw Amhearst holding the lieutenant's saber in both hands, saw it swinging in a powerful arc. Then Bervan felt something hit his neck, and with a curious bone-crunching sound in his ears the ground revolved around him, as if he were turning cartwheels, and for one instant he actually saw himself standing there without a head, before everything faded to blackness.

      "Good blade," Amhearst said.

      "A better, cleaner death than he ever gave," Hopper said.

      Nugent squinted up at the sun. "It's time we went away, boys. The war's about over for us. Let's get out of this terrible place."

      They gathered the uniforms from the bushes where they were drying and put them on. They took up the Union guns and other gear. Then they followed Nugent, whistling, rested and relaxed across the shallow creek into the trees where the wagon was hidden.

      Their voices faded away and the scene was serene, the bodies so still they seemed a part of the landscape, like rocks. The thick, warm air was silent except for the buzz of flies gathering around the fresh blood. A bird flew in and began chattering, and later a porcupine, his quills rustling, wandered down to the creek to drink.

      Then, in the still air, there was a movement among the bodies, and a man moaned.

      Slowly he pulled himself up until at last he was on his feet, drenched with blood, holding the deep groove that a bullet had plowed in his scalp. Beneath his fingers he could feel the slick hardness of his skull, miraculously intact.

      He had been unconcious, and somehow untouched during the fusillade of bullets. Then he had dimly heard the spaced pistol shots, followed a couple of times by screams and a second shot that brought silence. Through slitted dead-man's eyes he had seen someone towering over him, a big man with black hair whose piercing eyes looking coldly at him over the pistol-sights. Then there was a great roar and he had felt the bullet tear through his scalp. Even then, he had continued to lie still as death, with blood masking his face, even when they had taken his clothes and shoes.

      Now, dazed, and with his teeth chattering despite the heat, he moved among his dead companions to see if there were other survivors.

      There were none. He wrapped his head with cloth-torn from a discarded rebel uniform and stumbled into the stream, letting the quick water wash away the blood.

      It was while he was in the water that he realized it was not a nightmare he was trapped in. He would not wake up, and this terrible dream would never be gone.

      He had listened to them practicing their new names. Now he walked over to the two who had been killed by their own companions and dug out the identifications they had taken and subtracted those names from his list.

      With a stick, he wrote six names in the red clay of the creekside:

      Frank Nugent

      Euclid Hopper

      Alex Weitnaur

      Homer Gaines

      Elmer Watson

      Tom Amhearst

      He studied the names for a few minutes, then obliterated them with his heel. He would remember them. Five were the names of his comrades. The other name was his own.


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