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Virginia, September, 1862
‘What you did today was brave but foolhardy, soldier,’ General Rufus K Slocum growled from behind his trestle war-table. To one side of the lantern-lit tent hung his sword in its scabbard and a daguerreotype of President Lincoln; on the other side was the furled Union flag.
Reluctant to make eye contact, Corporal Charley Compton stood to attention at the closed entrance flap and studied the superior officer’s slightly ginger sideburns, which seemed to bristle. ‘Yes, sir.’ Charley’s eyes lowered, staring at the cane on top of the outspread map. A wicked-looking cane.
Slocum’s Union jacket was unbuttoned, revealing an opened sweat-stained shirt and curling chest hair. Shadows flitted across his handsome features, the light from the lantern flickering. He was rumoured to be in his thirties, but seemed older. Running a hand through his long unruly brown hair, Slocum barked, ‘Look at me when I’m speaking!’
‘Yes, sir,’ Charley responded tremulously and their eyes met. The general had captivating periwinkle blue eyes, which, contrary to his tone, did not appear to contain any anger.
Getting to his feet, the general wrapped both hands round the cane. ‘You defied my direct order, Corporal,’ he said.
Charley blinked and quailed as if the general had used the cane. ‘Yes, sir. I’ll accept your punishment, sir.’
‘Damned right you will!’
Charley’s legs trembled. ‘But I had to save Jimmy, my brother.’
‘Aye, and you did. I’ve never seen anything like it! Your intemperate action was the catalyst, Corporal. If you hadn’t risked your life by rushing forward to rescue your brother, the rest wouldn’t have followed. Those damnable rebels didn’t expect a charge, by God, but that’s what they got – thanks to you disobeying my order!’
Charley’s palms felt damp, clammy. ‘I’m sorry, sir – for disobeying …’
Slocum let out a mixture of a bark and a laugh then walked round the table and stood in front of Charley, one hand slapping the cane against his boot. The general was a good ten inches taller and smelled of cigar smoke, an avuncular aroma. ‘How is your brother?’
‘Thank you for asking, sir,’ Charley replied, surprised at the change in the general’s tone. ‘Surgeon says he was lucky – if it had been an inch either way, the bullet would have – er – deprived him of his manhood, sir.’
The general grimaced. ‘Aye, that’s what I heard. Lucky fellow – to have such a brave sister.’
Slocum looked askance at Charley, fingers stroking his chin. ‘I was there while the surgeon operated on your brother. He was delirious. Thanked his sister, Charlotte. That’s you, isn’t it?’
Charley swallowed then nodded. Her mouth was too dry to answer.
‘You realise I must punish you, don’t you?’
Annoyed at feeling unsoldierly with tears welling at the corners of her eyes, Charley croaked, ‘Yes, sir. I deserve to be punished – for disobeying your order.’
Gripping the cane, with his hands behind his back, he walked round Charley, and murmured, ‘It’s quite uncanny, quite strange …’
But Charley deemed it prudent not to enquire further. She felt the tip of the cane slide down her straight back, pressing her threadbare shirt against her perspiring shoulder-blades.
‘Drop your britches, soldier,’ the general ordered.
She drew in a breath. This was so humiliating! Perhaps she should turn and leave. He had no right – then she remembered her promise to Ma. ‘I’ll stick with Jimmy,’ she’d said, not appreciating the subterfuges she would have to undergo to preserve her modesty and keep her secret. She was nineteen, older than Jimmy and therefore responsible for him.
‘Corporal, I don’t like to be kept waiting! My orders are to be acted upon immediately!’
Feeling her stomach swirling with unaccustomed sensations, she replied, ‘Yes, sir, sorry, sir, at once.’ Fingers fumbling, she unbuckled her belt and unbuttoned her trousers and pushed them down to knee-height. Even though she was wearing rough and itchy long-johns, she felt naked before him. Her face reddened with shame – and something else. What was it, though? Anticipation, daring, devilment?
The tip of the cane flicked the flap at the rear of her long-johns and sent an odd spasm through her loins. ‘Sir?’ she whispered.
‘I used to chastise my late wife, soldier.’
‘Yes, sir.’ On impulse, she added, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, General.’
‘Aye. Thank you, Corporal. You know, I used to chastise her on her bare ass.’
Inwardly, Charley groaned, knowing and fearing what he was going to demand next.
‘Bare yours, Corporal.’
Without replying, Charley reached behind her and unbuttoned the flap at her bottom; it dropped down and she was surprised to experience a flow of pleasure as she felt a draught of air on her exposed buttocks. It didn’t seem possible, but her face was hotter still at this ignominy.
‘Good. Obedience is very necessary – remember that, soldier.’
‘Yes, sir. I’ll do anything you require, General, just please don’t muster me out,’ she begged. ‘I promised our parents I’d look after our Jimmy.’
‘We’ll see,’ he said, ‘though I don’t make promises I can’t keep. Now, bend yourself across my desk. But gently does it, I don’t want this week’s campaign torn.’
‘Sir,’ she whimpered, suddenly conscious that it would not only be her naked bottom visible to her superior officer. Obediently, Charley carefully leaned over the trestle table, her chest on top of the war map, offering up her white twin globes.