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Love Under Fire by Randall Parrish

Part 5 out of 5

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I should have run, not from fright but to escape the horror.

They were moving forward past the front of the house, the men still on
foot, gripping the leather at their horses' bits, the restive animals
plunging so wildly as to make it seem more the advance of a mob than a
disciplined body. A shell exploded in the road to their left, tearing a
hole in the white pike, and showering them with stones. I could see
bleeding faces where the flying gravel cut. Another shrieked above, and
came to earth just in front of the house, shattering the front steps
into fragments, and leaving one of the wooden pillars hanging,
unsupported. Yet with no halt or hesitancy, the gray mass moved slowly
across the lawn, and then deliberately formed in line beneath the trees
of the orchard. Their horses were led to the rear, and the men fell into
rank at the sharp command of officers. Facing as they did I was left in
doubt as to their purpose. Just inside the gate a battalion of infantry
stood at parade rest, some of Johnston's men, I judged from their
appearance, who had held together. Beyond them a little group of
horsemen had reined up on a knoll, and seemed to be studying the
surrounding country through field glasses. I could see the glitter of
them in the sun.

Straight across the grass from the line of dismounted cavalry an officer
rode, galloping through the dust of the pike, and trotting up the
incline until he reached this distant group. I watched curiously as he
pointed toward the house, and the others turned and looked. I could
dimly distinguish features, and realized the meaning of some of their
gestures. Then the cavalry-man turned his horse, and came trotting back.
But now he rode directly up the gravelled driveway to the front of the
house, a white rag flapping from the point of his uplifted sword. Thirty
feet away he pulled up his horse, his eyes searching the house, and I
stepped out on the porch roof. The broken pillar made me afraid to
venture to the edge, but we were plainly in view of each other.

"Are you the Yank in command?" he asked brusquely, staring up at me.

"Yes."

He removed the rag from his sword, and thrust the weapon into its
scabbard.

"What force have you?"

I smiled, amused at his display of nerve.

"You will have to come in to discover that, my friend."

His naturally florid face reddened with anger.

"I'm not here to joke," he retorted. "General Chambers wishes me to
offer you a last opportunity to surrender without bloodshed."

"And if I refuse?"

"We shall attack at once, sir," haughtily. "A glance about will show you
the helplessness of your position."

I waited long enough to glance again over the scene. I was convinced
they possessed no artillery which could be spared from the front for
this small affair, and believed we were capable of making a strong
defence against musketry. With the exception of that battalion of
infantry near the gate, and the cavalry regiment in the orchard, every
organized body of troops was being hurried forward to strengthen their
line of battle. Even General Chambers and his staff had disappeared over
the hill, and every sound that reached us evidenced a warm engagement.
The stream of wounded soldiers flowing back across the pike was
thickening, and Federal shells were already doing damage at
this distance.

"I thank you for your information," I said civilly, "but we shall
endeavor to hold the house."

"You mean to fight!"

"Yes--if you wish this place you will have to come and take it."

He drew back his horse, yet with head turned, hopeful I might say more.
But I stepped back through the window, and as I disappeared he clapped
in his spurs, and rode out into the orchard. A moment later the
dismounted troopers spread out into a thin line, covering the front and
left of the house, unslung their carbines and began to load. Something
about the way they went at it convinced me they expected no very serious
resistance. A word to my men on that floor brought them to the point
threatened by this first attack, and I gave them swift, concise
orders--no firing until they heard a signal shot from the front hall;
then keep it up while there was a man standing in range; carbines first,
after that revolvers, and keep down out of sight from below. I looked
into their faces, confident of obedience, and then ran down stairs.

Here the two sergeants--veterans both--had anticipated everything, and
massed their men at the windows facing front and left. They lay flat,
protected in every possible way, and each man had an extra gun beside
him, and a pile of cartridges. Mahoney was in the parlor, and Miles in
the hall, watchful of each movement without. I gave them the
instructions about withholding their fire, and, grasping a carbine
myself, pushed forward to where I could see outside. The troopers were
already moving, advancing slowly in open order, but came to a halt just
within carbine range. At sharp command their guns came up, and they
poured a volley into the house. Beyond a shattering of glass no damage
was done, but under the cover of the smoke, the gray line leaped
forward. I waited until they reached the gravel, and then pulled
trigger. Almost to the instant the whole front and side of the house
blazed into their very faces, not once only, but twice, three times, the
men grabbing gun after gun. It was not in flesh and blood to stand it;
the line crumbled up as though seared by fire, men fell prone, others
staggered back blinded, and, almost before we realized, there remained
nothing out there but a fleeing crowd, leaving behind their dead and
wounded. Only three men had placed foot on the porch, and they lay there
motionless; one had grasped the sill of a window, and had fallen back
with a crushed skull. It was all over with so quickly that through the
smoke we looked at each other dazed, and then stared out at the flying
figures. I groped my way from room to room, ordering a reloading of the
guns, and asking if there were any injured. The walls were scarred by
bullets much of the piled up furniture splintered, but only two men had
been hit, and their, wounds were slight.

"They'll try it again, lads," I said. "Get ready." There was no doubt of
that, for they were old soldiers out yonder, and would never rest under
the stigma of defeat. But they were bound to be more cautious a second
time, and would give us a harder tussle.

The fleeing men were rallied just beyond the negro cabins, cursed by
their officers and driven back into line; then moved slowly forward
again to their former position in the orchard. The sudden terror which
had smitten them when the silent house burst into death flames, had
somewhat worn off, and a desire for revenge succeeded. I could see the
officers passing back and forth talking and gesticulating. A dozen
troopers under a flag of truce came forward to pick up the wounded, and
without even challenging we permitted them to do their work. The house
remained quiet, sombre, silent, nothing showing but the dark barrels of
our carbines. The infantry battalion at the gate moved against the left
of the cavalry, and couriers were despatched to hurry up more. Out by
the negro quarters a dozen officers held council, pointing at the
house, and by gestures designating a plan of attack. I think they sent
for artillery, but none came, and when one of the couriers returned and
reported, bringing only another infantry battalion, it was decided to
delay the attempt no longer. They formed this time in double line,
sufficiently extended so as to cover the front and two sides of the
house, with a squad concealed back of the stable, prepared to rush the
kitchen and take us in the rear. It was not a bad plan had we misjudged
it, but the ground was so open nothing could be concealed. A wagon came
up with ammunition, and the men filled their belts. They moved forward
to within long firing distance, the cavalry covering the north side, one
battalion of infantry the south, and the other prepared to assail the
front. These latter began firing at once, their muskets easily covering
the distance, although our lighter weapons were useless.

Yet, beyond keeping us down close to the floor and out of view, this
preliminary firing was but a waste of ammunition, the heavy balls merely
breaking what glass remained, and chugging harmlessly into the walls. We
were ready and waiting, extra loaded guns beside each man, our nerves
throbbing with the excitement of battle, every trooper posted at some
point of vantage for defence. For a few moments the formation of our
assailants was almost completely concealed behind the black musketry
smoke. All else was forgotten except our own part in the tragedy, even
the thunder of artillery deadened by the continuous roll of small arms.
Under the powder cloud the charging line sprang forward, determined to
close in upon us with one fierce dash, almost encircling the house. The
reserves elevated their guns, firing at the upper windows, while those
chosen for the assault leaped forward, yelling as they came. I scarcely
had time to cry a warning, and to hear the echoing shouts of Miles and
Mahoney, before the gray line was on the gravel. It was then we struck
them, every window and door bursting into flame simultaneously, the
deadly lead poured into their very faces. We worked like fiends, the
smoke suffocating, firing as rapidly as we could lay hands to weapons,
seeing nothing but the dim outline of gray-clad men, surging madly
toward us, or hurled back by the flame of our guns. It was hell,
pandemonium, a memory blurred and indistinct; men, stricken to death,
whirled and fell, others ran screaming; they stumbled over prostrate
bodies, and cursed wildly in an effort to advance. Now it was the sharp
spit of revolvers, cracking in deadly chorus. All I knew occurred
directly before me. A dozen or fifteen leaped to the porch floor,
swinging a huge log against the barricaded door. I heard the crash of
it as it fell inward, the cry of men underneath. There was a rush of
feet behind; the flame of revolvers seemed to sear my face, and the log
lay on the porch floor, dead men clinging to it, and not a living
gray-jacket showing under the smoke.

CHAPTER XXXIII

MISS BILLIE REAPPEARS

I was leaning against the side wall, aware I had been wounded yet
scarcely feeling the pain of it, an empty revolver in each hand, blue
smoke curling from the muzzles. For the moment I could not comprehend
what had actually occurred--that, for the second time, we had driven
them; that we still held the house, now fairly encircled by dead bodies.
Then the truth dawned, and I gazed almost blindly about on the ruck, and
into the faces of the men nearest me. I hardly recognized them,
blackened by powder, with here and there a blood stain showing ghastly.
The door was crushed in, splintered by the heavy log, the end of which
still projected through, and beneath it three men lay motionless. I saw
others between where I stood and the stairs, one leaning against the
wall, his blood dyeing the carpet, another outstretched upon the steps.
All this came to me in a glance, my head reeling; I felt no power to
move, no ability to think. Then Miles' voice at my very ear aroused me.

"Are you hurt, Lieutenant? Here, let me see."

I stared at him, and seemed to come back to life again with a start.

"No, nothing serious, Sergeant. The door must have struck me as it
fell--my whole left side and arm are numb. We drove them, didn't we?"

"You can bet we did, sir, but my fellows got here just in time. They
didn't make much of a fight along my side, so when I heard that door
crash we come a-runnin'."

"Oh, it was you then. That's about the last I remember. Where is their
reserve? Didn't they come in?"

"I guess not," peering out through the opening. "There's no signs of
'em, so far as I can see, but there ain't no air, an' the smoke hangs
close to the ground."

As he said, it was useless endeavoring to perceive what was happening
without, the powder smoke clinging to the earth, and hiding everything
from view. Yet I realized what must have occurred; the dead bodies in
sight proved how severely the assaulting column had suffered, and no
doubt the entire force had been disorganized, and sent helter-skelter
for safety. Yet they would come back--either they or others. This muss
must be cleaned up; this opening closed. After that we could attend our
dead and wounded. I gave a dozen swift orders, and Miles instantly took
command. The imprisoned bodies were dragged out from underneath the
door, the heavy log taken into the hall, the door itself torn from its
remaining hinges and forced back into position, the log, one end resting
against the stairs, being utilized as a brace. If anything it was now
stronger than before for purposes of defence. We had barely completed
this work when Mahoney came out into the hall, his head bound up with a
blood-soaked rag.

"A foine, lively shindy, Leftenant," he said, grinning amiably. "Bedad,
but Oi thought they had us that last toime--Oi did that." He glanced
about curiously. "An' ye must hav' had it hot in here too."

"It was hand to hand, Sergeant, and we lost some men--four dead. How did
you fare along your side of the house?"

"Three kilt, an' maybe a dozen wounded. Oi got chipped up myself, but
only the skin av me. Those lads come up fierce, sorr, an' they'd 'a'
made it too, only fer our ravolvers. We must have shot a dozen of 'em
right in the winders."

"And the rest of the house--do you know how they came out?"

"Oi do, sorr; Oi've made the rounds. There's one man shot in the
kitchen, but nobody got hurted up stairs."

"And our men?" I asked eagerly. "From those upper windows did you see
any sign of troops down in the ravine?"

He shook his head.

"Not a domn thing, sorr."

I looked into the faces clustered around us--blackened, savage faces,
still marked by the fierce animalism of battle--feeling to the full the
desperation of our position.

"Well, lads," I said soberly, "there is no use hiding the truth from
you. I know you'll fight to the end, and that won't be long coming,
unless help gets here. We can never repulse another assault; we've got
eight men killed, and more than that wounded now--the next time we'll
all go. What do you say--shall we hold on, hoping?"

"Oi'm fer doin' it, sorr," broke in Mahoney, "an' Oi'm spakin' fer ivery
Irishmon in H troop."

"And you, Miles?"

"I'm not so bloomin' fond of a fight, Lieutenant," he said, scratching
his head, "but I like to stay fighting after I once get started. Ain't
that about the size of it, boys?"

Several heads nodded, and one fellow growled,

"Hell! we kin giv' 'em the same dose a third time."

"I don't expect that, Sims," I returned. "But those other fellows ought
to be up any minute now. Anyway we'll have a breathing spell, for the
Johnnies must have had enough to last them a few minutes. How is the
ammunition?"

"'Bout twenty rounds apiece left."

"Then get to work, men; load up and strengthen every weak spot. We'll
put up the best show we can. What did you want, Foster?"

The man addressed, a slim, awkward fellow, his spindle legs conspicuous
under the short cavalry jacket, jerked off his cap in embarrassment.

"Why nuthin' much, sir," he stammered. "I ain't no objections to goin'
on with the fightin', only if we're so sartain to catch hell it don't
seem exactly right fer us to keep that thar young gal here in the house.
She ain't no combatant, sir, an' dern me if I don't think she ought to
be got outside first."

"Girl! What girl?" I cried, believing I must have misunderstood. "What
is it you are trying to say, man?"

The soldier jerked his thumb back over his shoulder.

"The one in thar behind the stairs," he explained slowly. "Tom Ragan he
made her go thar when the rumpus begun, an' then Tom he got killed.
Ain't that the way of it, Talbot?"

"Sure," chimed in the other. "It is the same one that was in the parlor
last night, sir. She don't seem scared, ner nuthin' like that, only
Ragan told her she'd got to stay thar. I heard 'em talkin', an' she said
she wanted you."

"What did Ragan answer?" now thoroughly aroused to the knowledge this
must be Billie.

"He only told her to git right back in thar, an' keep still. It was just
as that whole caboodle come tearin' up this las' time, sir. It wan't no
safe place fer a girl whar you was. Ragan he promised to tell you, only
he got hit 'fore the fracas was done. That's why Foster chirked up, an'
that's all of it."

The man had made it clear as far as he understood. There were no more
questions to ask him, and I could only hope to uncover the mystery of
her presence through the confession of her own lips. She had not gone
over to the enemy then; had never left the house; instead, was seeking
me. It was all so strange that I stood a moment bewildered, striving to
reason the affair out, before attempting to approach the girl. What
could have occurred? Where could she have hidden? Why, indeed, had she
thus endeavored to conceal herself from both her father and myself? The
troopers had scattered in obedience to orders, a few remaining at the
openings watchful for any hostile movement without, before I ventured
down the hall. It was dark behind the stairs, but she saw me instantly,
greeting me with a little cry of delight and a quick outstretching of
the hands.

"I am so glad you have come! I--I haven't known what to do."

"If I had supposed you still in the house," I explained, "I should have
been with you before."

"But I sent word; I told the soldier it was most important."

"That was Ragan, Miss Billie--a big fellow, with red moustache?--he was
killed."

"Killed! Oh, in the attack; yet--yet you still hold the house, do you
not?"

"Yes, or I certainly should not be here with you. We have repulsed two
assaults, but have lost heavily, and can scarcely hope to come safely
through another. Before it is made I must get you away."

"Out of the house, you mean?"

"Yes, and at once. We have made such a spirited defence that when we are
finally overpowered there will be little mercy shown. Not even your sex
would protect you, even if you were fortunate enough to escape flying
bullets. Your father is with Chambers, and, no doubt, the Confederate
commander out yonder will forward you to his care. I will take you to
him under a flag of truce."

We were out where the light shown upon us dimly, yet sufficiently to
reveal expressions. Her face was colorless, but her eyes exhibited
no fear.

"Wait, Lieutenant Galesworth," she insisted, still clinging to my hand.
"I must understand better, and you must hear first what I have to tell.
Why did father leave the house without me?"

"We both believed you had already gone."

"I? That was a strange supposition."

"Not at all; you had disappeared; we could discover no trace of you
anywhere. Your father reported that you had overheard all that occurred
in the hall below--the arrival of reinforcements, my orders to defend
the house, the Federal plan of attack. Major Hardy told you his parole
prevented him from reporting this discovery, yet no pledge of honor
bound you. What else could I think, but that you had escaped into the
Confederate lines with the news?"

She stared into my face, breathing heavily, yet without speaking. Then
she released the clasp of my hand, and leaned back against the wall,
shading her eyes.

"Do not misunderstand me, Billie," I urged anxiously. "I could never
have blamed you. I sent that word to you through your father. You are a
daughter of the South, and I honored your loyalty. There was no reason
why you should not sacrifice me for the sake of the cause."

"Are you sorry I did not?"

"No, far from it, and--and, Billie, it is not the first time; does it
mean--"

"It means nothing," she broke in, "except a strange combination of
circumstances. I did think of all this; it came to me in a flash. I
realized that it was undoubtedly my duty, and--and, perhaps I should
have found courage to attempt the task. I went to my room tempted, my
purpose swayed by the call of the South, and--and my friendship for you.
I had to be disloyal somewhere, and--and it was so hard to choose. I am
glad you do not blame me, but I believe I should have gone, just as you
thought I did, except for what happened."

A shell exploded near the corner of the house, shaking the whole
structure, the fragments tearing into the wood. She caught me by the
arm, and I held her tightly, with face buried on my shoulder.

"We must be quick," I urged. "Those are Federal shells overshooting
their mark, but one may strike the house at any moment. Tell me what it
was that happened."

"It seems so unreal now," she faltered, her whole form trembling, "that
I hardly know how to tell it--yet every word is true. I--I have captured
the murderer of Captain Le Gaire."

"You have! Who was he?"

"I cannot tell; I--I haven't even seen the man's face, but--but he is
one of your soldiers."

"Impossible! There is not one of our men unaccounted for. I could call
every trooper of our first company here now to confront you, except two
who have been killed. The fellow does not belong to us."

"Well, he wears your uniform," and she drew back indignantly, "even to
having the buttons removed. You must believe me, for I can prove it; I
can take you to where he is."

"Where?"

"Down cellar, in the place where you had the Confederate prisoners
confined. He--he is locked in there; I held the door against him, and
dropped the bar."

I looked at her in speechless wonder, a wonder not untinged by
admiration and love. She was standing now, erect, facing me, her cheeks
reddening under my direct gaze.

"I am going to make you believe," she insisted. "I will tell you how it
happened, and then you shall take some men with you, and go down there,
and bring the man up. No, I want to tell you about it first--- please,
please listen."

"Would you mind if I call Miles, and then you can tell your story to
both of us?" I asked. "The fellow is armed, is he not; and I shall need
to take some one along with me?"

"Yes, the man has a revolver. You mean the sergeant? I do not mind
telling him."

I hurried back to the front of the house, more anxious to be assured as
to what was going on outside than to discover Miles. Yet there was
nothing alarming, even the cavalry regiment having been withdrawn across
the pike. Without a question the sergeant followed me back to where the
girl waited.

CHAPTER XXXIV

HER STORY

She remained exactly as I had left her, leaning against the wall in the
slight recess left by the stairs, and she recognized the sergeant with
an inclination of the head, although her eyes were upon me.

"Your friends outside seem inclined to allow us a few moments in which
to investigate this matter," I said. "But we shall need to hurry. This
is Miles, and I want you to tell the entire story from the beginning."

My tone was incisive, and she responded as though to an order.

"I will be brief," she began. "My father and I were at the head of the
stairs when your reinforcements came. We were merely waiting there to
make sure you had left the house. Yet we could not fail to overhear what
was said, and to at once realize the importance of the information. I
spoke of it to Major Hardy, but he felt himself still under parole,
bound by his word of honor. I was under no such obligation, however,
and, for the moment it seemed as though my whole duty demanded that I
should escape immediately, and bear this news to the nearest Confederate
commander. Nothing else, no other obligation appeared as important as
this. It was not that I wished to harm you, or to betray you to possible
death or imprisonment, but it seemed to me all that was personal should
be forgotten in duty to the cause of the South. It--it did hurt me,
Lieutenant Galesworth," her voice suddenly changing into a plea, "but I
believed it to be right, to be what I should do."

"I understand fully; we both respect your convictions."

Miles nodded gravely, but said nothing, and the girl hurried on, yet
with evident relief.

"I started back to my room with that intention--your men were all at the
front of the house; it would be easy to slip down the back stairs, leave
by the kitchen door, and run for the stable. I knew father would oppose
my plan, and so I said nothing to him about it. Indeed it all came to me
in a flash, and, almost before I knew it I was back in my own room ready
to act. I passed out the side door into the next room, which would bring
me nearer the back stairs, believing I would thus be less exposed to
Major Hardy's observation. I glanced out first, and saw him beside the
front window at the opposite end of the hall. He was intent upon the
battle, the noise of which was deafening. The firing was so continuous
and so near at hand--the very house shaking--that I almost lost my
nerve. Then I turned my head and looked the other way, and there, back
in the shadows of the ell hallway, in almost exactly the same spot where
I had seen him before, stood one of your soldiers. He had his revolver
out in his hand, and was crouching forward in such a way that his hat
brim almost totally concealed his face, but I knew instinctively that he
was the same man I saw last night. And--and he was watching father."

Her voice broke, and she pressed her hands to her eyes, as though to
blot out the memory, yet her hesitancy was but for an instant.

"I didn't know what to do. If I cried out, or made any alarm, I was
afraid he would fire. My father was standing unconsciously, his back
toward him, unarmed. I cannot tell you how frightened I was, for,
somehow, the man did not seem real; I--I felt as I have sometimes in
dreams. But I had to do something, something desperate. There was an old
gun standing back of the door--just a relic, and unloaded. Yet it
occurred to me it might answer, might serve to frighten the fellow. I
slipped back, grasped it, and returned, but--when I looked out again he
was gone."

She took a deep breath, and I heard Miles clinch and unclinch his hands.

"Maybe it was just a ghost, Miss, or a shadow," he interrupted hoarsely,
"for I swear to God there wasn't none of our men up there--you know
that, Lieutenant."

"We called the roll in the front hall not ten minutes before, anyhow," I
replied, still looking at Billie, "and I hardly see how any of them got
away after that."

"I--I almost believed the same thing," she confessed, speaking swiftly.
"As I said, it did not seem exactly real from the first, yet I had to
trust my own eyes, and I saw him almost as plainly as I see you two now.
Then he was gone; gone so quickly I could not conceive the possibility
of it. The whole affair appeared imaginary, a matter of nerves. It was
an hallucination; out of my own brain, it seemed, I had conjured up that
crouching figure. I had overheard your roll-call, and realized no
trooper could have been there. I even convinced myself that it was all a
fantasy. I was so certain of it that I stole out into the hall, and
peered down the back stairs. I was frightened, so frightened I shook
from head to foot, but it was because my nerves were all unstrung. I
was sure by this time there had been no one there, and forced myself to
investigate. I saw nothing, heard nothing, and step by step advanced
clear to the back window, and looked out. Then, without the slightest
warning, something was thrown over my head, and I was utterly helpless
in the vice-like clutch of an arm. I cannot explain how startled, how
helpless I was. It occurred so suddenly I could not even cry out, could
scarcely struggle. I was instantly stifled, and left weak as a child. I
know I did make an effort to break away, but the cloth was clutched
closer about my face, and the assailant's grip hurled me to the floor.
The horror was more intense because he never uttered a sound; because I
was in the dark, my mind still dazed by conjecture, and--and I fainted."

The dramatic intensity with which she told this held us speechless. Her
hands were to her face, and I took them away, holding them tightly.

"Go on, Billie," I urged gently. "It was a man then, after all."

"Yes, it was certainly a man, yet I did not really know it until he had
carried me, unconscious, down the back stairs into the kitchen. I came
to myself then, but remained dazed, and only partially comprehended what
occurred. I could see nothing, as he had knotted the cloth about my
head so tightly I could hardly breathe. But I could judge something from
sounds, and I knew he was a man, because he swore once. I think he
intended to leave me lying there, and himself escape through the back
door. I know he lifted the bar and looked out. It was then he shut the
door again quickly, and became profane. Something he saw outside
compelled a change of plan, for he came back quickly, dragged the table
to one side, and opened the trap leading down into the cellar. Whoever
he was he evidently knew all about the house. Then, he caught me up
again, took me down the steps in his arms, and dropped me at the foot,
while he ran back and shut the trap. I was nearly smothered by this
time, scarcely half conscious, and the man must have realized my
condition, for, when he came back, he loosened the wrap about my face.
This enabled me to breathe again freely, but I was so weak I could not
get up, and he was obliged to drag me across the cellar floor. I
struggled still to escape, and succeeded in getting the cloth lifted so
I could see out a little with one eye, but the light was poor, and the
man kept hidden behind where I couldn't get even a glimpse of his face."

One of the men passed us going back into the kitchen, and she paused a
moment until he had gone by, Miles and I waiting impatiently.

"He didn't seem to know what to do with me. I don't think he intended
any injury, and only seemed anxious to escape himself. I tried to talk,
but he would not answer a word. After the first attempt I was not so
much afraid of him, although he was rough enough when I tried to get
away. You know how the cellar is divided off into compartments. Well, he
discovered the one with the door, where you put your prisoners, and
dragged me in there. I knew he meant to close the door and leave me, but
he thought me so weak and helpless that, after we were once inside, he
walked across to test the iron bars at the windows. I don't know how I
did it; I couldn't have stood alone a moment before, but, all at once,
it seemed as if I must, and I made the effort. I think I crawled out,
for I can scarcely remember now even how it was done, but I slammed the
door shut, and dropped the bar across. I heard him pounding and swearing
inside, but was certain he couldn't get out. I didn't faint, but I lay
down there quite a while, so completely exhausted I could scarcely lift
my hand. I could hear him digging at the wood of the door with a knife,
and the awful firing outside and up stairs. I knew the house was being
attacked, and then when it became quiet again, I was equally sure you
had driven the Confederates back. By that time I was able to get to my
feet once more, and felt my way forward to the front stairs, for I knew
I could never lift the trap. In the hall I met the soldier, and he made
me hide here behind the stairs because the fight had begun again."

"And you never saw the man's face, Miss?" questioned the sergeant.

"No; he seemed to try and keep out of sight, and, in the cellar, it was
too dark for me to distinguish features a few feet away. He acted as
though afraid I might possibly recognize and identify him."

"You can give no description? He reminded you of no one you had ever
seen?"

She was trying to think, to recall every detail to memory, but only
shook her head.

"He was not a large man, rather slenderly built, but strong; young, I
think--the same one I saw before and told you about, Lieutenant
Galesworth, and he wore the same uniform."

My eyes turning from her face encountered Miles; and he burst out,

"I'm jiggered if this don't beat me, sir. Of course the lady is telling
the truth, but where did that buck ever get one o' our uniforms? We
didn't bring no change o' costume along, an' I could tell you now,
within ten feet, where every one o' the lads is posted. They ain't any
of 'em been long 'nough out o' my sight to pull off this kind of a
stunt, an' every mother's son of 'em has got his own clothes on. An'
somehow her description don't just exactly fit any of our boys. Who do
you reckon the sucker is?"

"I have given up guessing, Sergeant," I answered brusquely, "and am
going to find out. If he is down below in the cellar we will be at the
bottom of all this mystery in about three minutes. Come on with me. No,
the two of us are enough. Miss Billie, you had better remain here."

"But," catching me by the sleeve, "he is armed; he has a revolver and a
knife."

"Don't worry about that," and I caught the restraining hand in my own.
"One of us will open the door, and the other have the fellow covered
before he knows what to do. Come on, Miles."

It seemed dark below, descending as we did suddenly from out the glare
of the upper hall, and we had to grope our way forward from the foot of
the stairs. I saw Billie follow us a few steps, and then stop, leaning
over to witness all she could. I was a step or so in advance of Miles,
and had drawn my revolver. The cellar was as quiet as a grave. I felt
my way along the wall toward where I remembered this special door to be,
endeavoring to make no noise. My eyes could discern outlines better by
this time, and, as we approached, I became convinced the door we sought
stood ajar. I stopped, startled at the unexpected discovery, and began
feeling about for the bar; it was not in the socket. What could this
mean? Had Billie told us a false story, or had her prisoner, by some
magical means, escaped? She had said he was hacking at the wood with a
knife; could he have cut a hole through sufficiently large to permit of
his lifting the bar? This seemed scarcely possible, yet no other theory
suggested itself, and I stepped rather recklessly forward to
investigate. My foot struck against a body on the floor, and, but for
Miles, I should have fallen. A moment we stood there breathless, and
then he struck a match. A man lay at our feet, face downward, clad in
Federal cavalry uniform, about him a shallow pool of blood.

CHAPTER XXXV

THE DEAD MAN

The match flared out, burning Miles' fingers so he dropped it still
glowing on the floor. We could yet distinguish dimly the outlines of the
man's form at our feet, and I heard Billie come down the stairs behind
us. There was no other sound, except our breathing.

"Strike another, Sergeant," I commanded, surprised by the sound of my
own voice, "and we'll see who the fellow is."

He experienced difficulty making it light, but at last the tiny blaze
illumined the spot where we stood. I bent over, dreading the task, and
turned the dead man's face up to the flare. He was a man of middle age,
wearing a closely trimmed chin beard. I failed to recognize the
countenance, and glanced up questioningly at Miles just as he uttered an
exclamation of surprise.

"It's one of Mahoney's fellows, sir," he asserted sharply. "Burke's the
name."

"Then he couldn't possibly be the same man Miss Hardy saw up stairs
that first time."

"No, sir, this don't help none to clear that affair up. But it's Burke
all right, an' he's had a knife driven through his heart. What do you
ever suppose he could 'a' been doin' down here?"

"Where was he stationed?"

"He was with me till that last shindy started; then when you called for
more men in the kitchen I sent him an' Flynn out there."

Miles lit a third match, and I looked about striving to piece together
the evidence. I began to think I understood something of what had
occurred. This soldier, Burke, was a victim, not an assailant. He lay
with his hand still clasping the bar which had locked the door. He had
been stabbed without warning, and whoever did the deed had escaped over
the dead body. I stepped back to where I could see the full length of
the cellar; the trap door leading up into the kitchen stood wide open.
Convinced this must be the way Burke had come down, I walked over to the
narrow stairs, and thrust my head up through the opening. There were six
men in the room, and they stared at me in startled surprise, but came
instantly to their feet.

"When did Burke go down cellar?" I asked briefly.

The man nearest turned to his fellows, and then back toward me, feeling
compelled to answer.

"'Bout ten minutes ago, wasn't it, boys?"

"Not mor 'n that, sir."

"What was he after?"

"Well, we got sorter dry after that las' scrimmage, an' Jack here said
he reckoned thar'd be something ter drink down stairs; he contended that
most o' these yer ol' houses had plenty o' good stuff hid away. Finally
Burke volunteered to go down, an' see what he could find. We was waitin'
fer him to com' back. What's happened ter Burke, sir?"

"Knifed."

"Killed! Burke killed! Who did it?"

"That is exactly what I should like to find out. There is some one in
this house masquerading in our uniform who must be insane. He killed a
Confederate captain this morning, crushed in his skull with a revolver
butt, and now he has put a knife into Burke. Has any one come up
these steps?"

"Not a one, sir."

"And I was at the head of the other stairs. Then he is hiding in the
cellar yet."

Suddenly I remembered that Billie was below exposed to danger; in that
semi-darkness the murderous villain might creep upon her unobserved.
The thought sent a cold chill to my heart, and I sprang down again to
the stone floor.

"Three of you come down, and bring up the body," I called back. "Then
we'll hunt the devil."

She had not left the lower step of the front stairs, but caught my hands
as though the darkness, the dread uncertainty, had robbed her of
all reserve.

"What is it?" she asked. "I do not understand what has happened."

"The man you locked up has escaped," I explained, holding her tightly to
me, the very trembling of her figure yielding me courage. "I haven't the
entire story, but this must be the way of it: One of the men on duty in
the kitchen came down here hunting for liquor. Either the prisoner
called to him, and got him to open the door, or else he took down the
bar while searching. Anyway we found the door ajar, and the
soldier dead."

"Then--then the--the other one is down here somewhere still," cowering
closer against me, and staring about through the gloom. "Who--who are
those men?"

"Soldiers coming for Burke's body--he was the trooper killed. Don't be
afraid, dear--I am here with you now."

"Oh, I know; I would not be frightened, only it is all so horrible. I
am never afraid when I can see and understand what the danger is. You do
not believe me a silly girl?"

"You are the one woman of my heart, Billie," I whispered, bending until
my lips brushed her ear. "Don't draw away, little girl. This is no time
to say such things, I know, but all our life together has been under
fire. It is danger which has brought us to each other."

"Oh, please, please don't."

"Why? Are you not willing to hear me say 'I love you'?"

Her eyes lifted to mine for just an instant, and I felt the soft
pressure of her hand.

"Not now; not here," and she drew away from me slightly. "You cannot
understand, but I feel as though I had no right to love. I bring
misfortune to every one. I cannot help thinking of Captain Le Gaire, and
it seems as if his death was all my fault. I cannot bear to have you say
that now, here," and she shuddered. "When we do not even know how he was
killed, or who killed him. It is not because I do not care, not that I
am indifferent. I hardly know myself."

"Billie," I broke in, "I do understand far better than you suppose. This
affair tests us both. But, dear, I do not know what five minutes may
bring. We shall be attacked again; I expect the alarm every instant, and
I may not come out alive. I must know first that you love me--know it
from your own lips."

She was silent, it seemed to me a long, long while. The three soldiers
went by carrying the dead body, and Miles came to the foot of the
stairs, saw us, and passed along without speaking. Outside was the dull,
continuous roar of musketry, mingled with an occasional yell. Then she
held out both hands, and looked me frankly in the face.

"I am going to be honest," she said softly. "I have loved you ever since
we were at Jonesboro; I--love you now."

I knew this before she spoke; had known it almost from the beginning,
and yet her words, the message of her uplifted eyes, gave me a new
conception of all love meant. A moment I gazed into the blue-gray depths
where her heart was revealed, and then my arms were about her, and our
lips met. Surely no one ever received the gift of love in stranger
situation. On the stairs leading down into that gloomy cellar where a
murderer hid, his victim borne past as we talked; all about us silence
and gloom hiding a mysterious crime; above us the heavy feet of men
treading the echoing floor, and without the ceaseless roar of battle,
volleying musketry, and hoarse shouting. Yet it was all forgotten--the
fierce fighting of the past, the passions of war, the sudden death, the
surrounding peril--and we knew only we were together, alone, the words
of love upon our lips. I felt the pressure of her arms, and crushed her
to me, every nerve throbbing with delight.

"Sweetheart, sweetheart," I whispered, "you have kept me in doubt so
long."

"It has only been because I also doubted," she answered,--"not my love,
but my right to love. To a Hardy honor is everything, and I was bound by
honor. Dear, could you ever think a uniform made any difference?--it is
the man I love." She drew gently back, holding me from her, and yet our
eyes met. "But we must not remain here, thinking only of ourselves, when
there is so much to be done. Remember what is down there, and what
scenes of horror surround us. You have work to do."

The way in which she spoke aroused me as from a dream, yet with a
question upon my lips.

"Yes," I said, "and we are in midst of war--in this are we yet enemies?"

"I am a Southerner," smiling softly, "and I hope the South wins. My
father is out yonder fighting, if he be not already down, and I would do
my best to serve his cause. Do you care for me less because I
confess this?"

"No."

"But now," she went on, more softly still, her words barely audible, "my
heart is with you here; with you, because I love you."

We both glanced up swiftly, startled by the sound of heavy steps in the
upper hall. A man's head was thrust through the half-opened door at the
top of the stairs. Apparently he could not see any distance through the
gloom, and I hailed him, although still retaining my clasp of the
girl's hand.

"What is it, my man?"

"Sergeant Mahoney told me to find the lieutenant."

"Well, you have; I am the one sought. What's happening?"

"They're a-comin', sorr," his voice hoarse with excitement, and waving
one hand toward the front of the house, "an' thar's goin' ter be hell
ter pay this toime"

"You mean the gray-backs? From the front? What force?"

"Domn'd if Oi know; Oi wasn't seein' out thar--the sergeant told me."

I could not leave Billie down there alone, nor the door open. Whoever
the crazed assassin was, he must still remain somewhere in the cellar,
watching for an opportunity to escape. But I was needed above to direct
the defence. It seemed to me I thought of a thousand things in an
instant,--of my desire to clear up the mystery, of my orders to hold the
house, of Willifred Hardy's danger,--and I had but the one instant in
which to decide. The next I made my choice, at least until I could
discover the exact situation for myself.

"Come," I said soberly.

I closed the door, and faced the trooper.

"You remain here with the lady. Don't leave her for a moment except as I
order. Keep your revolver drawn, and your eyes on that door. Do you
understand?"

"Oi do, sorr."

"She will explain what you are to guard against. I'll be back to you in
a moment, Billie."

I caught one glimpse out through the south windows as I passed the door
of the dining-room--moving troops covered the distance, half concealed
under clouds of smoke, but none were facing toward us. On the floor,
behind the barricades, a dozen of my men were peering out along the
brown carbine barrels, eager and expectant, cartridges piled beside
them on the floor. At the front door I encountered Mahoney, so excited
he could hardly talk.

"What is it?" I questioned swiftly. "An attack in front?"

"It's the big guns, sorr; be gorry, they're goin' to shell us out, an'
whar the hell was them reinforcemints, Oi'd loike to know!"

"So would I. If it's artillery we may as well hoist a white flag. Here,
my lad, let me look."

A glance was sufficient. Just within the gate, barely beyond reach of
our weapons, with a clear stretch of lawn between, was a battery of four
guns, already in position, the caissons at the rear, the cannoneers
pointing the muzzles. Back of these grim dogs was a supporting column of
infantry, leaning on their muskets. There was no doubting what was
meant. Angered by loss, Chambers had dragged these commands out of the
battle to wipe us clean. He was taking no more chances--now he would
blow the house into bits, and bury us in the ruins. What should I do?
What ought I to do? The entire burden of decision was mine. Must I
sacrifice these men who had already fought so desperately? Should I
expose Billie to almost certain death? Surely we had done our full duty;
we had held the house for hours, driving back two fierce assaults. The
fault was not ours, but those laggards out yonder. I would tell Mahoney
and Miles I was going to put out a white flag; that further resistance
was useless. Miles! With remembrance of the name I recalled where the
man was--down below searching for the murderer. I sprang back, passing
Billie and her guard, and flung open the door.

"Miles," I cried into the silent darkness, "we need you up here at
once."

There was just a moment of tense waiting, and then a gruff voice
sounding afar off,

"I can't, sir, I've got him."

CHAPTER XXVI

THE LAST STAND

I had no time to answer, no opportunity to even realize what was meant.
There was a fiendish roar, a crash that shook the house to its very
foundations, sending us staggering back against the walls. I remember
gripping Billie closely, and seeing her white face, even as I warded off
with uplifted arm the falling plaster. The soldier was on his knees,
grovelling with face against the floor. A great jagged hole appeared in
the opposite wall, and I could see daylight through it. My ears roared,
my brain reeled.

"Lie down," I cried, forcing her to the floor. "Both of you lie down!"

"And you--you!"

I caught a glimpse of her eyes staring up at me, her arms uplifted.

"I am going to stop this," I answered, "and you must stay here."

I stumbled over the rubbish, with but one thought driving me--the
dining-room table, its white cloth, and the possibility of getting
outside before those deadly guns could be discharged again. I knew the
house was already in ruins, tottering, with huge gaping holes ripped in
its sides; that dead men littered the floor; and the walls threatened to
fall and bury us. Another round would complete the horror, would crush
us into dust. I gripped the cloth, jerking it from the table, stumbling
blindly toward the nearest glare of light. There was a pile of shattered
furniture in the way, and I tore a path through, hurling the fragments
to left and right. I smelt the fumes of powder, the odor of plaster, and
heard groans and cries. The sharp barking of carbines echoed to me, and
a wild yell rose without. There were others living in the room; I was
aware of their voices, of the movement of forms. Yet all was chaos,
bewildering confusion. I had but the single thought, could conceive only
the one thing. I was outside, gripping the white cloth, clinging with
one hand to the shattered casing. Some one called, but the words died
out in the roar of musketry. The flame of carbines seemed in my very
face, the crack of revolvers at my ears. Then a hand jerked me back head
first into the debris. I staggered to my knees, only to hear
Mahoney shout,

"They're coomin', lads, they're coomin'! Howly Mary, we've got 'em now!"

"Who's coming?"

"Our own fellars, sorr! They're risin' out o' the groun' yonder loike
so many rats. Here they are, byes! Now ter hell wid 'em!"

His words flashed the whole situation back to my consciousness. The
house still stood, wrecked by cannon, but yet a protection. To the left
our troops were swarming out of the ravine, and forming for a charge,
while in front, under the concealment of the smoke, believing us already
helpless, the Confederate infantry were rushing forward to complete
their work of destruction. We must hold out now, five minutes, ten
minutes, if necessary. I got to my feet, gripping a carbine. I knew not
if I had a dozen men behind me, but the fighting spirit had come again.

"To the openings, men! To the openings!" I shouted. "Beat them back!"

I heard the rush of feet, the shout of hoarse voices, the crash of
furniture flung aside. Bullets from some firing line chugged into the
wall; the room was obscured by smoke, noisy with the sharp report of
guns. I could dimly see the figures of men struggling forward, and I
also made for the nearest light, stumbling over the debris. But we were
too late. Already the gray mass were upon the veranda, battering in the
door, clambering through the windows, dashing recklessly at every hole
cleft by the plunging shells. Rifles flared in our faces; steel
flashed, as blade or bayonet caught the glare; clubbed muskets fell in
sweep of death; and men, maddened by the fierce passion of war, pushed
and hacked their way against our feeble defence, hurling us back,
stumbling, fighting, cursing, until they also gained foothold with us on
the bloody floor. The memory of it is but hellish delirium, a
recollection of fiends battling in a strange glare, amid stifling smoke,
their faces distorted with passion, their muscles strained to the
uttermost, their only desire to kill. Uniform, organization, were alike
blotted out; we scarcely recognized friend or foe; shoulder to shoulder,
back to back we fought with whatever weapon came to hand. I heard the
crack of rifles; saw the leaping flames of discharge, the dazzle of
plunging steel, the downward sweep of musket stocks. There were crash of
blows, the thud of falling bodies, cries of agony, and yells of
exultation. I was hurled back across the table by the rush, yet fell
upon my feet. The room seemed filled with dead men; I stepped upon them
as I struggled for the door. There were others with me--who, or how
many, I knew not. They were but grim, battling demons, striking,
gouging, firing. I saw the gleam of knives, the gripping of fingers, the
mad outshooting of fists. I was a part of it, and yet hardly realized
what I was doing. I had lost all consciousness save the desire to
strike. I know I shouted orders into the din, driving my carbine at
every face fronting me; I know others came through the smoke cloud, and
we hurled them back, fairly cleaving a lane through them to the hall
door. I recall stumbling over dead bodies, of having a wounded man
clutch at my legs, of facing that mob with whirling gun stock until the
last fugitive was safely behind me, and then being hurled back against
the wall by sudden rush.

How I got there I cannot tell, but I was in the hall, my clothing a mass
of rags, my body aching from head to foot, and still struggling. About
me were men, my own men--pressed together back to back, meeting as best
they could the tide pouring against them from two sides. Remorselessly
they hurled us back, those behind pushing the front ranks into us. We
fought with fingers, fists, clubbed revolvers, paving the floor with
bodies, yet inch by inch were compelled to give way, our little circle
narrowing, and wedged tighter against the wall. Mahoney had made the
stairs, and fought there like a demon until some one shot him down. I
saw three men lift the great log which had barricaded the door, and hurl
it crashing against the gray mass. But nothing could stop them. I felt
within me the strength of ten men; the carbine stock shattered, I swung
the iron barrel, striking until it bent in my hands. I was dazed by a
blow in the face, blood trickled into my eyes where a bullet had grazed
my forehead, one shoulder smarted as though burned by fire, yet it never
occurred to me to cease fighting. Again and again the men rallied to my
call, devils incarnate now, only to have their formation shattered by
numbers. We went back, back, inch by inch, slipping in blood, falling
over our own dead, until we were pinned against the wall. How many were
on their feet then I shall never know, but I was in the narrow passage
beside the stairs alone. Out of the clangor and confusion, the yells and
oaths, there came a memory of Billie. My God! I had forgotten! and she
was there, crouching in the blackness, not five feet away. The thought
gave me the reckless strength of insanity. My feet were upon a rubbish
heap of plaster, where a shell had shaken the ceiling to the floor. It
gave me vantage, a height from which to strike. Never again will I fight
as I did then. Twice they came, and I beat them back, the iron club
sweeping a death circle. Somewhere out from the murk two men joined me,
one with barking revolver, the other with gleam of steel; together we
blocked the passage. Some one on the stairs above reached over, striking
with his gun, and the man at my right went down. I caught a glimpse of
the other's face--it was Miles. Then, behind us, about us, rose a cheer;
something sent me reeling over against the wall, striking it with my
head, and I lost consciousness.

I doubt if to exceed a minute elapsed before I was able to lift my head
sufficiently to see about me. Across my body sprang a Federal officer,
and behind him pressed a surging mass of blue-clad men. They trod on me
as though I were dead, sweeping their way forward with plunging steel.
Others poured out of the parlor, and fought their way in through the
shattered front door. It was over so quickly as to seem a dream--just a
blue cloud, a cheer, a dozen shots, those heavy feet crunching me, the
flicker of weapons, a shouted order, and then the hall was swept bare of
the living, and we lay there motionless under the clouds of smoke. The
swift reaction left me weak as a child, yet conscious, able to realize
all within range of my vision. My fingers still gripped the carbine
barrel, and dripping blood half blinded me. Between where I lay and the
foot of the stairs were bodies heaped together, dead and motionless most
of them, but with here and there a wounded man struggling to extricate
himself. They were clad in gray and blue, but with clothing so torn, so
blackened by powder, or reddened by blood, as to be almost
indistinguishable. The walls were jabbed and cut, the stair-rail
broken, the chandelier crushed into fragments. Somehow my heart seemed
to rise up into my throat and choke me--we had accomplished it! We had
held the house! Whether for death or life, we had performed our duty.

I could hear the echoing noises without; above the moans and cries,
nearer at hand, and even drowning the deep roar of the guns, sounded the
sturdy Northern cheers. They were driving them, and after the fight,
those same lads would come back, tender as women, and care for us. It
was not so bad within, now the smoke was drifting away, and nothing
really hurt me except my shoulder. It was the body lying half across me
that held me prone, and I struggled vainly to roll it to one side. But I
had no strength, and the effort was vain. The pain made me writhe and
moan, my face beaded with perspiration. A wounded man lifted his arm
from out a tangled heap of dead, and fired a revolver up into the
ceiling; I saw the bullet tear through the plaster, and the hand sink
back nerveless, the fingers dropping the weapon. The sounds of battle
were dying away to the eastward; I could distinguish the volleys of
musketry from the roar of the big guns. I worked my head about, little
by little, until I was able to see the face of the man lying across me.
It was ghastly white, except where blood discolored his cheek, and I
stared without recognition. Then I knew he must be Miles. Oh, yes, I
remembered; he had come up at the very last, he and another man, and one
had been knocked down when the stair-rail broke. I wondered how they
came to be there; who the other man was. I felt sorry for Miles, sorry
for that girl back in Illinois he had told me about. I reached back and
touched his hand--it felt warm still, and, in some manner, I got my
fingers upon his pulse. It beat feebly. Then he was not dead--not dead!
Perhaps if I could get up, get him turned over, it might save his life.
The thought brought me strength. Here was something worthy the effort
--and I made it, gritting my teeth grimly to the pain, and bracing my
hands against the wall. Once I had to stop, faint and sick, everything
about swimming in mist; then I made the supreme effort, and turned over,
my back against the wall, and Miles' ghastly face in my lap. I sat
staring at it, half demented, utterly helpless to do more, my own body
throbbing with a thousand agonies. Some poor devil shrieked, and I
trembled and shook as though lashed by a whip. Then a hand fell softly
on my forehead, and I looked up dizzily, half believing it a dream, into
Billie's eyes. She was upon her knees beside me, her unbound hair
sweeping to the floor, her face as white as the sergeant's.

"And you live?--you live!" she cried, as though doubting her own eyes.
"O God, I thank you!"

CHAPTER XXXVII

THE MYSTERY SOLVED

It was impossible for me to speak. Twice I endeavored, but no sound came
from my parched lips, and I think my eyes must have filled with tears,
her dear face was so blurred and indistinct. She must have understood,
for she drew my head down upon her shoulder, pressing back the matted
hair with one hand.

"My poor boy!" she whispered sobbingly. "My poor boy!"

"And you--you are injured?" I managed to ask with supreme effort.

"No, not physically--but the horror of it; the thought of you in midst
of that awful fighting! Oh, I never knew before what fiends men can
become. This has taught me to hate war," and she hid her face against my
cheek. "I was in that dark corner against the wall; I saw nothing, yet
could not stop my ears. But this sight sickens me. I--I stood there
holding onto the rail staring at all those dead bodies, believing you
to be among them. I thought I should go mad, and then--then I saw you."

Her words--wild, almost incoherent--aroused me to new strength of
purpose. To remain idle there, amid such surroundings, would wreck the
girl's reason.

"It was a desperate struggle, lass," I said, "but there are living men
here as well as dead, and they need help. Draw this man off me, so I can
sit up against the wall. Don't be afraid, dear; that is Miles, and he is
yet alive. I felt his pulse a moment ago, and it was still beating."

She shrank from the grewsome task, her hands trembling, her face white,
yet she drew the heavy body back, resting the head upon the pile of
plaster. The next moment her arms were about me, and I sat up supported
by her shoulder. Even this slight movement caused me to clinch my teeth
in agony, and she cried out,

"You are hurt? Tell me the truth!"

"My shoulder and side pain me," I admitted, "but they are nothing to
worry over. Can you find water?"

"Yes," eager now for action. She was gone not to exceed a minute,
returning with a pail and cloth, and dropping again on her knees, began
bathing my face.

"It is a charnel house, with dead lying everywhere. I had to step across
their bodies to get to the kitchen, and stopped to give one poor
wounded lad a drink. Oh, I never can blot this scene out; it will haunt
me in my dreams." Tears were in her eyes, and stealing down her cheeks,
but there was no faltering. Softly she bathed the wound on my head, and
bound it up. Then she kissed me. "Will they never come to help us?" she
cried, lifting her eyes from mine. "Hear that man yonder groan. What can
I do, Robert? I cannot sit still here!"

"Try to revive Miles," I suggested, pointing to him. "You heard what he
replied when I called him just before the charge. He had caught the
murderer, and, if he dies, we may never know the man's identity. Here,
Billie, take this cloth and sprinkle water on his face. Don't mind me
any more; I am all right now."

She started to do as I requested but had scarcely dampened the rag when
a man came in through the wrecked door, picked his way forward a couple
of steps, and stopped, staring about at the scene. Behind him were other
figures blocking the entrance. Apparently we were indistinguishable from
where he stood, for he called out,

"Is there any one alive here?"

I heard a weak response or two, and then answered, "A few, yes--back
here behind the stairs."

He moved to one side, shading his eyes with one hand so as to see
better. I could tell now he wore the uniform of a Federal officer, but
was unable to distinguish his rank. The sight of the girl, standing in
the midst of all that horror, her loosened hair falling below her waist,
evidently startled him. An instant he stared toward us incredulously;
then removed his hat.

"Who are you?"

"I am Lieutenant Galesworth," I answered, although his question was
directed to her. "And this lady is Miss Hardy, the daughter of Major
Hardy of the Confederate army."

"This, I believe, was the Hardy plantation?"

"Yes--she was present throughout the fight."

"I understand. By all the gods, I thought I had gone crazy when I first
saw her. A woman in such a scene as this seemed impossible. Here, men,
quick now," and he turned to his following, pointing. "There were
several voices answered among those lying there. Place the dead against
the wall, and," glancing through the doorway beside him, "carry the
wounded into the parlor. Corporal, you and one man come with me."

He stepped across carefully, picking a way between the bodies.

"Galesworth, did you say? Then you were in command here?"

I bowed, feeling as I did so that Billie had slipped her hand into mine.

"Great fight you made," he went on warmly. "Perfect shambles, outside
the house as well as in. Nothing like it in my experience. I am Doctor
McFarlan, Surgeon Medical Corps. Much hurt yourself?"

"Nothing serious, I think, Doctor. Shoulder and side pain some, but I
want you to look at this fellow. He was my sergeant, and seems to
be alive."

The shrewd gray eyes surveyed us quizzically.

"Exactly, I see," he replied. "Love and war--the old story. Ah! that
brought a little red into your cheeks, my girl. Well, it's good for you.
Which is the man?--this one? Here, Corporal, lift his head, and you,
Jones, bring me the water; easy now."

I drew her closer to me, our eyes on the surgeon and Miles. The former
worked with swift professionalism, forgetful of all else in his task,
yet commenting audibly.

"Ah, a bad blow, a bad blow; however, skull intact; concussion merely.
Bullet wound right chest--must probe for it later; right arm broken; not
likely to see any more of this war. Live? Of course he'll live, so far
as I can see. Tough as a knot--country stock, and that's the best kind;
constitution pull him through. More water, Jones; that's it, my
lad--yes, you're all right now, and among friends. Lift him up higher,
Corporal. Do you begin to see things?--know that man over there?"

Miles looked at me dully, but slowly the light of returning intelligence
came into his eyes.

"The lieutenant?" he asked weakly, "the lieutenant?"

"Yes, Sergeant," I replied eagerly, "we're both here, but we're about
all there is left."

"Did they come, sir? Did our boys get here?"

"Did they!" broke in the surgeon, his face glowing. "It was like bees
out of a hive the way they came up from that ravine. The lads had been
held back until they were mad clear through. The moment they saw what
was going on they broke for the house; never waited for orders, or
formation--just made a run for it. I guess they didn't get here any too
soon either. Well, that's all I can do for you now, son. Jones, you stay
here until I come back--you know what to do."

Miles' eyes followed him; then he looked at the dead bodies,
shuddering, his hands to his face. When he took them down again he
seemed to see Billie for the first time.

"You--you here, Miss! Oh, I remember now; it had been knocked plum out
o' me. Did he get away?"

"Who?"

"That feller who knifed Burke. I had him all right, sir, back in the
coal cellar. He'd crawled away there into one corner, an' it was dark as
hell--beg your pardon, Miss." The sergeant sank back against Jones'
shoulder, and the man wet his lips with water. "I couldn't see only the
mere outline of him, and didn't dare crawl in, for I knew he had a
knife. All I could do was cover him with a gun, an' try to make him come
out. That's what I was up to when you called. Damned if I knew what to
do then--there was some racket up stairs, let me tell you, an' I knew
there was a devil of a fight goin' on. I wanted to be in it the worst
way, but I couldn't find it in my heart to let that devil loose again.
Finally I got desperate, an' grabbed him by the leg, an' hauled him out,
spittin' and fightin' like a cat. He cut me once, before I got a grip on
his wrist, an' my gun shoved against him. Then he went weak as a rag.
But I wan't thinkin' much except about the fracas up stairs--the boys
catchin' hell, an' me not with 'em. So I didn't fool long with that
feller. I just naturally yanked him 'long with me up stairs into the
kitchen, an' flung him down against the wall. I got one glance out into
the hall, an' didn't care no more what become o' him. You was facin' the
whole mob of 'em, swingin' a gun barrel, an' I knew where I belonged.
But damned if that feller didn't startle me. He was up like a flash to
his feet, an' I thought he was trying to get me. But he wasn't. When I
run to you, he wasn't two steps behind, an' may I be jiggered, sir, if
he didn't jump in there on your right, an' fight like a wild man. That's
all I saw, just the first glimpse. He sure went into it all right, but I
don't know how he come out."

"Well, I do; I happened to see that myself, though I hardly know how. He
was clubbed with a musket from the stairs. The man who hit him fell when
the railing broke. The two of them must be lying over there now. Who was
he, Miles? Did you know him?"

The sergeant wiped the perspiration from his face with his sleeve, and
Jones moistened his lips again. I felt Billie's grasp tighten, and her
hair brush my cheek.

"Well, I thought I did, sir," he admitted at last, but as though not
wholly convinced, "only I don't like to say till you have a look at the
lad. He was dead game anyhow, I'll say that for him, an' I don't feel
just sure. I never got eyes on him in daylight, an' when I yanked him
out o' the coal hole he was mostly black. Maybe that's him over
there, sir."

The hospital squad had cleared out much of the front hall, but had not
reached the plaster pile where we had made our last stand. Those that
were left were mostly clad in gray, but over against the stairs, one leg
and arm showing, was a blue uniform. The hospital men came back, and I
called to them,

"Sergeant, there is one of our men lying in that pile. Will you lift him
up so I can see the face?"

This was the work of a moment only, and for an instant no one spoke.
Disfigured as the face was, blackened and bloody, there could be no
mistake in identity--it was that of Charles Le Gaire.

"Why--why," exclaimed Billie, thunderstruck. "I know him, but I cannot
remember. Who is the man?"

It was all clear enough to me now; I only wondered at not suspecting the
truth before. After guiding us up the ravine he had not returned to
camp, but remained, intent on revenge, feeling that this was an
opportunity for vengeance which would insure his own safety. Yet she did
not know, did not understand, and it must all be explained to her.
Miles broke in impatiently.

"Ain't it the same nigger, sir, what brought us up here?"

"Yes," I said, but with my eyes on the girl's face. "Billie, listen,
dear. The man was Le Gaire's servant, his slave, but also his son. He
was here with his master, but you never knew of the real relationship
between them. The boy was our guide last night, and he told me his
story--of how justly he hated Le Gaire. Shall I tell it to you now, or
wait? The doctor is coming."

She glanced from my face up into that of the approaching surgeon. The
hospital squad, at the nod of command, were bearing the body down
the hall.

"Tell me now."

"It will require but a moment, dear. It was because this Charles Le
Gaire had lived here that I asked for him as a guide. He agreed to come
as far as the end of the ravine only, as he did not wish to be
recognized. Then he disappeared, and, I supposed, returned to camp.
Instead, he evidently stole into the house. He was Captain Le Gaire's
son by a slave mother. Bell told me later that the mother was sent back
into the fields, and died as a result. That would account for the hate
the boy felt against the father."

"How--how old was he?" her trembling lips white.

"Not over eighteen."

Billie hid her face on my shoulder, sobbing silently. A moment the
surgeon stood looking down at us compassionately.

"I am going to have both you and your sergeant taken up stairs," he said
at last. "Come, Miss Hardy, you have no right to break down now."

CHAPTER XXXVIII

THE COMING OF THE NIGHT

It was sundown, and silent without, except for voices and the constant
movement of men. The din of battle, the roar of guns, had ceased, and
everywhere gleamed the light of fires where the tired commands rested.
The house stood, shattered but stanch, great gaping holes in its side,
the front a mere wreck, the lower rooms in disorder, with windows
smashed, and pools of hardening blood staining the floors. Appearing
from without a ruin, it yet afforded shelter to the wounded.

I had had my own wounds washed and cared for. They were numerous enough
and painful--an ugly slash in the side, a broken rib, the crease of a
bullet across the temple, and a shoulder crushed by a terrific blow,
together with minor bruises from head to heels--and yet none to be
considered serious. They had carried me up the shattered stairs to her
room, and I lay there bolstered up by soft pillows, and between clean
sheets, my eyes, feverish and wide-awake, seeking out the many little
things belonging to her scattered about, ever reminded of what had
occurred, and why I was there, by my own ragged, stained uniform left
lying upon a chair. I could look far away out of the northern window
from where I rested, could see the black specks of moving columns of
troops beyond the orchard, the vista extending as far as the log church,
including a glimpse of the white pike. The faint odor of near-by
camp-fires reached my nostrils, and the murmur of voices was wafted to
me on the slight breeze. Some lad was singing not far away, although the
words could not be distinguished, and from the farther distance sounded
clearly a cavalry bugle. I could hardly realize, hardly comprehend what
it all meant. It hurt me to move, and the fever made me half delirious.
I fingered the soft, white sheets almost with awe, and the pillows
seemed hot and smothering. Every apartment in the house held its quota
of wounded, and down below the busy surgeons had transformed the parlor
into an operating room. In spite of my closed door I could overhear
occasionally a cry of pain.

Yet I was only conscious of wanting one presence--Billie. I could not
understand where she had gone, why she had left me. She had been there,
over in the far corner, her face hidden in her hands, when the surgeon
probed my wounds. She had been beside me when he went out, her soft
hand brushing back my hair. I remembered looking up at her, and seeing
tears in the gray-blue eyes. Then some one had come to the door, and,
after speaking, she came back to me, kissed me, said something softly,
and went out, leaving me alone. I could not recall what it was she said.
That must have been an hour, maybe two hours, ago, for it was already
growing dusk. I do not know whether I thought or dreamed, but I seemed
to live over again all the events of the past few days. Every incident
came before me in vividness of coloring, causing my nerves to throb. I
was riding with Billie through the early morning, and seeing her face
for the first time with the sunlight reflected in her smiling eyes; I
was facing Grant, receiving orders; I was struggling with Le Gaire, his
olive face vindictive and cruel; I was with Billie again, hearing her
voice, tantalized by her coquetry; then I was searching for Le Gaire's
murderer, and in the fight, slashing madly at the faces fronting me. It
must have been delirium, the wild fantasy of fever, for it was all so
real, leaving me staring about half crazed, every nerve throbbing. Then
I sank back dazed and tired, sobbing from the reaction, all life
apparently departed from the brain. I could not realize where I was, or
how I got there, and a memory of mother came gliding in to take
Billie's place. I was in the old room at home, the old room with the oak
tree before the window, and father's picture upon the wall at the foot
of the bed. I thought it was mother when she came in, and it was the
touch of mother's hand that fell so soft and tender upon my temple,
soothing the hot pain. Gradually the mists seemed to drift away, and I
saw the gray-blue eyes, and Billie.

She was kneeling there beside me clasping one of my hands, and she
looked so happy, the old, girlish smile upon her lips.

"You have been away so long," I began petulantly, but she interrupted,

"No, dear, scarcely fifteen minutes, and I have had such good news. I
hurried back just to share it with you. The doctor says you are going to
get well, that all you need is nursing, and--and I have heard
from father."

I looked at her, dimly understanding, and beginning to reflect her own
happiness.

"How did you hear? Is he a prisoner?"

"Oh, no! Could I be happy under those conditions? He is unhurt, and has
sent for me. General Johnston despatched an officer through the lines
with a flag of truce. He was brought here, and that was why I left you.
He had a letter for me, and authority to conduct me back to the
general's headquarters. Was not that thoughtful of them?"

"Yes," I answered wearily, clinging to her hand, "and--and you are going
now? You came to say good-bye?"

"You poor boy, do you really think that? Shall I tell you what message I
sent back?"

My face must have answered, for she lowered her head until her cheek
rested against mine, her eyes hidden.

"I--I said I would stay here with my soldier."

I was still a long while it seemed to me, our hands clasped, our cheeks
pressing. I could feel her soft breath, and the strands of her hair.

"Billie, there is no regret, no doubt any more?" I asked falteringly.
"It is all love for me?"

"All love," she answered, moving just enough so that our eyes met. "You
are my world forever."

"And that uniform yonder--it is no barrier, dear? I am still a Federal
officer."

She glanced at the rags, and then back into my face.

"Sweetheart," she whispered gently, "I can be loyal to the South, and to
you also--you must be content with that."

Content! It was as though everything else had been forgotten, blotted
out. It was almost dark now, and far away the camp-fires blazed red and
yellow among the trees. I lay there, gazing out through the open window,
her rounded arm under my head, her cheek still pressed tightly against
mine. My nerves no longer throbbed, my veins no longer pulsed with
fever. She never moved; just held me there against her, and in the
silence I fell asleep.

THE END

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