Love Under Fire
AUTHOR OF MY LADY OF THE SOUTH;
KEITH OF THE BORDER ETC.
ILLUSTRATIONS IN FULL COLOR
I BETWEEN THE LINES. II AFTER THE DESPATCH-BEARER. III A FRIEND RATHER THAN AN ENEMY. IV THE COMING OF DAWN. V ACQUAINTANCES, NOT FRIENDS. VI A BOLD FRONT. VII A WOMAN'S PRISONER. VIII THE COMING OF THE ENEMY. IX IMPORTANT NEWS. X MISS WILLIFRED INTERVENES. XI THE RETURN OF LE GAIRE. XII AN ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE. XIII I MEET LE GAIRE. XIV ACROSS THE RIVER. XV I MEET AN EX-SLAVE. XVI A CALL TO DUTY. XVII BEGINNING THE NIGHT ADVENTURE. XVIII OVERHEARD CONVERSATION. XIX LE GAIRE FORCES A DECISION. XX WE ARRIVE AT A CRISIS. XXI WE CAPTURE THE HOUSE. XXII MISS WILLIFRED DECLARES HERSELF. XXIII THE CHALLENGE. XXIV I BECOME A FAMOUS SWORDSMAN. XXV THE END OF THE DUEL. XXVI MISS WILLIFRED SURPRISES US. XXVII THE BODY OF LE GAIRE. XXVIII I FORCE BILLIE TO LISTEN. XXIX THE MYSTERY DEEPENS. XXX UNDER NEW ORDERS. XXXI THE DISAPPEARANCE OF BILLIE. XXXII WE REPULSE THE ENEMY. XXXIII MISS BILLIE REAPPEARS. XXXIV HER STORY. XXXV THE DEAD MAN. XXXVI THE LAST STAND. XXXVII THE MYSTERY SOLVED. XXXVIII THE COMING OF THE NIGHT.
She paused in the doorway, an exceedingly pretty picture.
"I won't stand this! You're hiding something. Is this Yank anything to you?"
I forced the door shut, and stood with my back against it, the black muzzle of my Colt staring them in the eyes.
"I—I will listen," she said falteringly, "to all you have to say".
We worked like fiends, firing as rapidly as we could lay hands to weapons.
LOVE UNDER FIRE
BETWEEN THE LINES
I had drifted slowly across the river, clinging with one arm thrown over a log, expecting each moment the musket of some startled picket would spit red through the dark, and scarcely daring to guide my unwieldy support by the slightest movement of hand in the water. The splash of motion might mean death in an instant, for keen eyes, sharpened by long night vigils, were on the stream, and those who had ventured the deed before me had failed utterly. Yet the southern bank remained silent, so black I could scarcely discern its vaguest outlines, while, by good fortune, the sweep of the current served me almost as well as a pair of oars. Thus, trusting to luck, and without exerting a muscle, I finally came to a full stop on a narrow spit of sand, so far out in the stream I could scarcely touch bottom, until the sweep of the current drifted my log inward, and thus left me flat on the wet sand facing the bank, the wood-covered crest, as revealed dimly against the slightly lighter sky, appearing almost to overhang the water.
This shadow served me well, yet did not invite to recklessness. There were surely pickets posted along here, because the gleam of camp-fires had been plainly visible during the early evening from the bluffs opposite, but there was nothing observable from where I lay, my head cautiously uplifted, peering across the log. It was several minutes before I even ventured to creep up the sand-spit into the denser blackness of the over-hanging bank, but, once there safely, I discovered the drift had landed me at the mouth of a narrow gully, apparently a mere crevice in the rocky shore-line. It was the occasional downpour of water after rain which had caused the accumulation of debris on which my log had grounded. At times the dry gulch would hold a roaring torrent, although now it was no more than a gash in the bank.
I was not altogether certain within half a mile of where I was, but this made small difference, so far as my present purpose was concerned. The lines of the enemy were extended from the upper ford east as far as Sailor Springs, and I was certainly well within those limits, probably somewhat to the right of the centre. However, that was a minor detail, as it made little difference where I succeeded in penetrating the cordon of pickets, so long as I returned with the information sought. If I had, through mere chance, discovered a weak spot, then God was good.
My heart beat rapidly as I stared blindly up into the black recess of that narrow defile, listening intently for the slightest unusual sound which would indicate the near presence of anything human. It was caution, not fear, however, which caused me to breathe quickly—my sole, overpowering dread being that I might have to return, and face Sheridan with a report of failure. I preferred anything rather than that. I thought of his stern eyes as he looked me over in the late sunlight of the evening before; the sharp rasp in his voice, as he said, "Geer, this is no boy's work," and the quiet, confident reply of my captain, "Galesworth will do it for you, General, if any one can." The memory of that scene seemed to stiffen my nerves; I had to make good here in the dark, alone, and so, on hands and knees, I began creeping slowly up underneath the tangle of bushes. The path was steep and stony, so densely overhung with branches as to appear like a tunnel. There were loose stones which I had to guard against dislodging, and the drier leaves rustled as I pressed them, aside. This endeavor to avoid noise made progress slow.
I must have been fully ten minutes, thus endeavoring to break through, seeing and hearing nothing alarming, yet constantly feeling an odd premonition of danger, when I finally attained the top of the bank, perhaps twenty feet back from the river, and looked out through a slight fringe of bushes. The first thing noticeable was the dull red glow of a fire, nearly extinguished, some few yards in advance. The little gleam of light thrown out as the wind stirred the smouldering embers served to reveal the dirty flap of a tent set up at the edge of a grove of saplings, and a horse, standing with lowered head, sharply outlined against the canvas. I could even perceive the deep-seated cavalry saddle, and catch the shine of accoutrements. All these details came to me in a sudden flash of observation, for, almost simultaneously with my rising above the edge of the bank, my ears distinguished voices conversing, and so closely at hand as to almost unnerve me. I gripped a root between my fingers to keep from falling, and held on motionless, striving to locate the speakers. They were to my left, scarcely four yards distant, yet so dimly revealed against the background of leaves I could tell nothing of their rank—merely that one was short, and heavily built, while the other, a much taller, and seemingly more nervous man, was wrapped in a long cavalry cape. It was his voice speaking, a rather peculiar voice, as though he possessed some slight impediment of speech.
"Do not look at it in that way, General," he protested earnestly. "I am not opposing your plan, but merely urging the extreme peril of the undertaking—"
"Human life cannot be considered at such a time, Hardy," broke in the other warmly. "The cause for which we battle, the duty confronting us, outweighs all else. A life may be sacrificed, but that single life may save thousands."
"True; very true. I am sufficiently a soldier to realize that. Yet what you propose seems an impossibility. Two aides have endeavored this service already, and failed, their lives forfeited. Others stand ready to go the moment the word is spoken, but what possibility is there of success, that any volunteer could get through alive?"
"Practically none," admitted the other, his deep voice more grave. "There is only one in whom I feel the slightest hope, Hardy; that is why I have sent for you. I naturally hesitate to say so, but I believe the moment has now come which demands this sacrifice. You recall the offer of service made us last night, Major?"
The man addressed took a single step backward, one hand flung up, as though warding off a blow.
"You—" he stammered, "can you mean Billie?"
"Yes; the South can have no more urgent need than now. These despatches must reach Beauregard, and I must have the report from Carroll. If the latter is not already in Beauregard's possession, then it must be sought even in the enemy's camp. Every hour of delay adds to our danger. If Carroll is dead I must know it; if he has gained the information he was sent after, then I must have it. I can stand this waiting no longer—there is too much at stake. As you say two men have already fallen endeavoring to pierce the lines, and I doubt if there is a soldier in my command who could succeed. Billie might have a chance, and I know no one else who would—do you? I sent for you to gain your consent, and I ask it, Major, in the name of the South."
The taller man remained silent, his hands clasped, and head sunk on his breast. Finally he glanced up into the face of the other, with shoulders thrown back.
"No Hardy ever yet failed in duty," he said sternly, "nor will one now. Where are the papers?"
"In my tent, but the bearer will be safer not to come here for them. Even my orderly may be a spy. An aide shall deliver them at Three Corners in an hour—will that be too early?"
"No; which aide? There should be no mistake."
"There will be none. I will send Lieutenant West, and he shall act as escort as far as the outer pickets; beyond that—"
"Wit and good luck, of course. What is the word?"
"'Cumberland'; now listen, and repeat exactly what I say to Billie." His voice fell into lower, more confidential tones, and, listen as I would, I could catch only now and then a word, or detached sentence. "The upper road"; "yes, the wide detour"; "coming in by the rear will be safer"; "that isn't a bad story"; "he's a tartar to lie too"; "just the thing, Major, just the thing"; then, "But that's enough for the outlines; details must take care of themselves. Let's waste no more time; there are only four more hours of darkness."
The two men separated hurriedly with a warm hand-clasp, the stocky general entering the tent, and brusquely addressing some one within, while the major swung into the saddle of the waiting horse, and driving in the spurs rode swiftly away, instantly disappearing.
There was no doubt as to my own duty. By the merest accident I had already become possessed of most important information. What it was all about was still only guess-work, yet it was evidently enough a most serious matter. I could better serve the cause of the Union by intercepting these despatches, and running down this spy, than by carrying out Sheridan's original instructions. And it seemed to me I could do it; that I already knew a way in which this might be accomplished. Our army had held all this ground only a few months before, and I recalled clearly to mind the exact spot where the aide was to meet the despatch-bearer. The "Three Corners"; surely that must be where the roads met at the creek ford, with the log meeting house perched on the hill above. It would be to the west of where I was, and not more than two miles distant.
AFTER THE DESPATCH-BEARER
I was cool-headed, and accustomed to this species of adventure, or I should never have been there. Yet, I confess my nerves tingled as I crept cautiously forward through the fringe of bushes, seeking the exact spot where the major had disappeared down what must have been some species of road. There were sentinels posted about the tent; I saw the silhouette of one, and heard several voices conversing gruffly as I slunk past, yet could not definitely locate these last in the gloom. There was a little row of tents—three or four—back of the larger one occupied by the general; but these were unlighted and silent. I crept past them unobserved, emerging into a more open space, where my groping hands encountered wheel-tracks, and the beaten earth of a road.
This apparently ran nearly east and west, as I recalled direction, and I turned to the right, bending low in the shadows, and advancing at a crouching run. Seemingly there was nothing to obstruct progress. The noise of stomping and restless horses reached me from the left, evidence of a nearby cavalry or artillery camp; yet I saw no one, perceived no light even, until after advancing at least a quarter of a mile. Then a sudden slight turn in the road brought me upon a rude shack, showing a blacksmith's fire glowing within, and the smith himself pounding busily away at an anvil. The gleam of the forge shot out redly across the road. As I crept closer I could perceive the figures of others lounging about inside—soldiers, no doubt, although I could not be certain. There was a ragged Confederate cavalry jacket hanging over a rain-barrel just outside the window, and, getting hold of it, I slipped it on over my woollen shirt. The night air was chill, my clothes still damp from the river, and besides it might help later on. As I did this a rider came flying up the road, bending low over his pommel. He went past at a slashing gallop, his face showing an instant in the red glare of the flame. That, no doubt, would be the aide with the despatches, yet, in spite of his haste, he would have to wait to the end of the hour for Billie. One or two of the men came lazily to the front of the shop to watch him go by, and I crouched down behind the rain-barrel until they went back again. Then I skirted the bar of flame, and ran on down the road, a bit recklessly, fearing the horseman might get too far ahead.
It was intensely dark, one of those dense nights when the blackness appears to press down upon one, and there were noises on either side to make me aware that I was in the midst of a great encampment. Fires shone dimly through the trees, and I could hear voices and hammering. I supposed the road I was travelling ran directly through the main camp, with troops on either side, and, for that reason, was not patrolled by pickets. Anyhow I passed without challenge, although I met a few fellows slinking along about as I was—soldiers out of bounds most likely, as afraid of me as I was of them. At least whenever I bumped into one, he got out of the way fast enough. And I never paused to explain—all I wanted to do was to arrive at those cross-roads in advance of Billie.
However I failed in this ambition, but merely because the road I was following did not keep on directly west, but drifted off toward the river. I only became aware of this change in direction when we intersected a cross-road, and then I ran squarely up against a picket-post, the men having a fire burning to keep them warm. The light of the flames revealed everything within a radius of a hundred feet, and I could distinguish a dozen infantrymen sitting and lying about, while a couple of others marched back and forth across the road. I wanted to get farther south, but had only wriggled through the bushes a few yards in that direction before sinking to my knees in mud and water, and being compelled to crawl back. There was nothing left except to circle the fire in the opposite direction, and come out on the road below. I must have used up a good quarter of an hour getting through. Twice I made missteps, and some racket, but there was no challenge. I emerged at the opening of a small ravine, where I could lie down flat behind a low rock, and look back up the road, which ran down hill. I felt reasonably certain Billie would have to come this way if he intended to cross the river at Carter's Ford, and I knew of no other place he could cross this side the big bridge. The aide would be riding with him, of course, and that would make me certain of my man when he came, although how I was ever going to manage was more than I had as yet figured out.
I must have been there some twenty minutes, maybe more, burrowing down into the mud under the lee of the stone, staring straight up the hill at the fire. The post was relieved while I lay there, the fellows going off duty tramping past so close I could have touched them. I could still hear the tread of their feet when one of the new guard yelled out "Halt!" and I saw two or three men spring up from around the fire, while the corporal in command ran out into the middle of the road. Some sort of a rig was coming down the hill, with a cavalry officer—judging from his cape—riding along close beside it. I was not able to see very plainly the way the light fell, but the contrivance looked to me like one of those old-fashioned, two-wheeled carryalls, with a low top over it, and drawn by a horse not much bigger than a pony. The officer dug in his spurs and got ahead, leaning over to whisper to the corporal, who stepped back saluting. The carryall never stopped at all, the pony trotting along unconcernedly, and it was so dark beneath the top I could not see sign of anybody. It was a queer-looking outfit, but I had no doubt this would be Billie, and the despatches.
The officer was still riding ahead when they passed me, his cape blown up over his hat, and his head bent forward to make out the road, as though his eyes still remained blinded by the firelight. Without definite plan, yet firmly determined not to be left behind, I squirmed across the road, ran up close to the carryall, and caught hold at the rear. The soldiers back in the glare saw nothing, while the mingled noise of hoofs and wheels left me unheard. I discovered my fingers grasping some narrow wooden slats, held up firmly against the back of the vehicle by a chain at each end. For a moment, running and hanging on as I was in total darkness, I was unable to figure out what sort of an arrangement this could possibly be. Then I managed to feel it out with one hand—it was simply a shelf, capable of being lowered the length of the supporting chains, on which packages, or baggage, might be carried, while above was a roll of canvas, to be used as protection from rain. Here was opportunity, and I went at it with eagerness. It proved a hard job, running over that rough road in the dark, while the pony trotted tirelessly, but I got those chains unfastened, one at a time, and then the shelf settled naturally down into position. It was narrow, and I felt some question as to the strength of the supports, but risking all this, managed to work my way up until I half lay, half crouched, along the slats, holding on grimly as the two wheels bounced briskly from side to side, threatening to send me sprawling out into the road. By this time the officer had reined back his horse, but was still out of sight, and I succeeded in unbuckling the straps, and lowering the strip of canvas over me, stuffing the edges beneath my body so as to keep them from flapping. I was tired and sore, but now reasonably safe, with my eyes at an opening through which I could gaze out. I began to feel happy, too, thinking of the surprise which was about to come to Billie.
We clattered on down a long slope, apparently making no effort to avoid noise. It seemed we must be drawing near the river, yet the night was so dark, and our passage so rapid, I could make out no familiar landmarks through my peep-hole. Indeed I had about all I could do to hold on. We were halted twice, but a word from the officer passed us along safely. One picket-post had a fire glowing in close against the rocks, and the sergeant stood within a foot of me. I caught the word "Cumberland," but whatever else of explanation may have been uttered failed to reach my ears, muffled as they were beneath the canvas. A few hundred yards beyond this point, at the end of a deep cut, the officer drew up his horse sharply, leaned over the wheel, and shook hands with the person inside.
"I have attained my limit," he said. "That was our last picket-post back yonder, and my orders were strict. You know the road, of course."
"Perfectly, Lieutenant," responded a low voice, muffled under the hood. "I have travelled it often before. I thank you so much, and think it will all come out right this time."
"I have no doubt of that," he replied, with a little laugh. "Hope I may renew the acquaintance under more pleasant circumstances. Meanwhile, good luck and good-bye."
He sat erect upon his horse, watching as we clattered past, appearing scarcely more than a dim shadow, yet I thought he held his hat in his hand. Billie laid on the gad, however, as if to make up for lost time, and the pony trotted off at such a burst of speed as to keep me busy clinging to my perch. It was an exceedingly rough road, rutty and stony, up hill and down, while the pony condescended to walk on the steepest grades only, and occasionally took the declines at a gallop, the carryall bounding from side to side as though mad. Apparently no fear of possible disaster disturbed Billie, however, for I could hear every few moments the slash of a whip on the animal's flank. I knew that, by this time, we must certainly be well between the lines, but, for the life of me, could not determine where. I thought I knew the surrounding country as I had scouted over it for months, tracing roads and bridle-paths, yet I was puzzled now. If this road continued to run north and south, as it had back yonder, then we should have forded the river long before this, yet we had splashed through no water, nor did I recall our making any turn.
One fact alone seemed certain: as I knew neither where we were, nor whither bound, and as we were already assuredly beyond the last Confederate outpost, it behooved me to act as quickly as possible. Billie was headed somewhere, and the sooner I stopped him the better—besides, my position was neither comfortable nor safe. I rolled off from the edge of the canvas, and, gripping the chains tightly, managed to sit up, in spite of the vicious pitching of the vehicle. Billie's evident eagerness to arrive at his unknown destination only added to my own recklessness, and I hung on desperately, swearing a little, I fear, under my breath.
A FRIEND RATHER THAN AN ENEMY
There was only one way in which I could hope to get in—through the back. That was an exceedingly ticklish job, yet I had tackled many a ticklish job before during the two years of my scouting service, and the knowledge of danger was merely the prick of a spur. The rusty buckles holding the flap in place resisted the grip of my fingers, and, opening a knife with my teeth, I cut the leather, severing enough of the straps so the entire flap could be thrown back, yet holding it down closely to its place until I was ready for action. Through a narrow opening I could perceive a dim outline of the driver. He was at the right of the seat, leaning forward, so as to peer out from under the hood, loosened reins in one hand, a whip in the other. The darkness of the night enabled me to perceive little except a vague sense of shape, a head crowned by a soft hat, and an apparently slender figure.
Whatever slight noise I made was lost in the rattle of the wheels, while the driver, utterly thoughtless as to any danger menacing him from behind, concentrated his entire attention upon the road, and his efforts to accelerate the speed of the pony. The present opportunity was as good as I could ever hope for. I grasped the back of the seat with one hand, a revolver in the other, pressed back the flap with my shoulder, and inserted my head within. Not until my voice sounded at his very ear did the fellow realize my presence.
"Pull up!" I said sternly. "Not a movement now; this is a gun at your ear."
There was a sharp catch of the breath, a half turning of the head in the surprise of the shock, but his hands held to reins and whip. Tossed about as I was the fellow's coolness angered me.
"Pull up," I said; "do you think I'm playing with you?"
He drew in on the reins, letting the whip drop between his feet, and the pony slowed down to a walk, and finally stopped. I could catch merely a glimpse of the man's profile beneath the broad brim of the hat, but his coolness and silence aroused my suspicions.
"No tricks now," I threatened. "If you value your life do exactly as I say."
"Who are you?" It was a rich contralto voice, that of a boy rather than a man, the slight blur of the South distinguishable even in those few words.
"Only a Yankee, son," I replied, satisfied I held the upper hand, and clambering in over the back of the seat. He shrank back from contact with me farther into the corner, but there was nothing in the slight movement to cause alarm. I laughed softly.
"Don't exactly admire my color of uniform, do you?" I asked easily. "Well, I can't help that, and you'll not find me such a bad fellow if you act right. Where were you going in such a hurry?"
There was no answer. I could hear his rapid breathing, and catch a glimpse of a beardless cheek.
"Don't you intend to tell me?"
Still silence, the shapeless figure motionless.
"Come, Billie," I urged, "what is the use of keeping up this game?"
He straightened up in surprise, startled into speech.
"You—you call me what? Why do you say 'Billie'?"
"Because I'm on. I haven't been hanging to the back of this outfit for the last eight miles just for fun, or exercise either. I'm after those despatches you're taking to Beauregard."
"That's the state of affairs, and the sooner you hand over those particular papers, Billie, the quicker this revolver play ends. Where are they?"
"I haven't any," the slightly tremulous note had gone out of the voice. It was firm with purpose now, even a bit sarcastic. "You've merely got on the wrong trail, Yank. I reckon you mistook me for Billie Hardy."
"I reckon I did," I returned, mocking him, "and I 'm still satisfied I've got the right party. You don't get out that easy, son; come now, produce."
"Suppose I don't."
"Then there won't be much argument," I returned sharply, beginning to lose patience. "I'll simply take them, if I have to shoot you first. Come now, which shall it be?"
He straightened up, convinced apparently of my intentions.
"Neither, Mr. Yankee," indignantly. "I told you once you were mistaken. Now I'll prove it—see here!" The soft hat was whipped off the head, and the slender figure leaned forward to where the slight gleam of the stars rendered the face visible. "Do you make war on women?"
I was too astounded for reply; dumfounded, dazed by this evidence of my stupidity. This was a woman beyond all doubt—her hair, released by the sudden removal of the hat, swept in a dark wave over her shoulders, and she flung it back with a movement of the hand. The gleam of the stars gave me the contour of her face, and the sparkle of her eyes. A woman, young, pretty—and actually laughing at me, her white teeth clearly visible. Whatever of conceit or audacity may be part of my nature, deserted me in a flash, and I could only stare in helpless amazement.
"My God! I believe you are!" I ejaculated at last, the words bursting forth unconsciously. "How could I have made—who are you anyhow?"
The restrained laughter rippled forth, as though the expression of my face appealed to her sense of humor. Evidently the lady was no longer afraid of me, nor greatly distressed over the situation.
"Isn't it too funny," she exclaimed cheerfully, "and won't Billie laugh about this when I tell him!"
"Maybe he will," I acknowledged rather regretfully, "but it doesn't make me laugh." Then a vague suspicion gripped me. "Why did you think I took you for Billie?"
"Why, that was what you called me, wasn't it? The officer who escorted me past the pickets said Billie Hardy was going to try to run the lines to-night. So it was easy enough to guess who you were after, Mr. Yankee. It was lucky for Billie you got me instead—or for you," she added doubtfully.
"Oh, I guess I would have pulled through."
"Maybe," the tone decidedly provoking, "but I reckon you don't know Billie."
She began to gather up her hair, coiling the strands about her head carelessly, and I watched the simple operation, all the life gone out of me, unable to decide what to do. It was useless to go back; almost equally useless to go forward. I had no information to take into our lines of any value, and had failed utterly in my efforts to intercept the important despatches for Beauregard. The knowledge of my mistake stung me bitterly, yet I could blame no one for the failure except myself. The apparent carelessness of the girl puzzled me—why should she be so completely at her ease in this adventure? Only at the first had she exhibited the slightest excitement. This seemed hardly natural—alone, thus suddenly attacked by a stranger, an enemy, and openly threatened.
"You seem perfectly contented," I said. "Are you not frightened?"
"Frightened!" and she paused in her hair-dressing to bend slightly forward so as to look into my shadowed face. "Why, of course not; why should I be?"
"But I am a stranger to you—a Yank. You are on the other side, are you not?"
"Oh, of course," her lips revealing again the white teeth. "But I don't think all Yankees are demons. I don't believe you are. I like your voice. You see, I was educated in the North, and so am not prejudiced. Please won't you take off your hat, just for a minute?"
I did so, almost mechanically, not even realizing why she asked, until she bent forward, her eyes on my face.
"No, I am not frightened with you. I was just a little, at first, of course, but not now. You look as though you would fight too, but not with a woman." She stopped with an odd little shrug of the shoulders. "What do you expect me to do—sit here all night?"
I looked about into the darkness, suddenly recalled to the absurdity of our situation by this question. The stars were glittering overhead, yielding a dim light, yet nothing around us afforded any guess as to where we were. The pony stood with drooping head, his flanks still heaving from his late run. To the right the ground appeared open and level, a cultivated field, while upon the other side was a sharp rise of land covered with brush. It was a lonely, silent spot, and my eyes turned back inquiringly to my companion.
"Why, no," I replied rather foolishly. "But I confess I am all at sea just now; where are we?"
It seemed very easy for her to laugh, and evidently my confession was amusing.
"You must pardon me," she excused herself, "but I thought you were a scout."
"I am," vexed at her propensity to poke fun. "I have been detailed for that service for more than two years. Moreover, I was a good enough scout to pass within the lines of your army to-night, and to travel the whole length of your camp—"
"And then get lost an hour later," she interrupted archly. "Tell me, do you know the points of the compass?"
"Certainly; that is north, and this road runs west, but I have no recollection of it. What puzzled me was our failure to cross the river."
"Oh," with a quick glance toward me. "That is easily explained; we turned the corner of the bluff instead. This is the old road to Jonesboro, and has been used very little since the new road was opened. I chose it because I thought I would be less likely to meet with any chance travellers."
I began to comprehend more clearly where we were. The extreme right of the position held by our army would be, at least, ten miles east, and the Confederate left scarcely nearer. Beauregard was off in here somewhere,—at Bird's Ferry according to our camp reports the evening previous. This knowledge prompted me to ask,
"Which way is the river?"
"To the right about three miles."
"And Bird's Ferry?"
I could not be certain she smiled, yet I thought so.
"Yonder," pointing. "The river curves to the south, and this road comes down to it at Jonesboro; there is a bridge there. The ferry is fifteen miles farther up."
The apparent innocence of her answer completely disarmed me. Indeed these facts were exactly as I remembered them now that I had our present position in mind. The peculiar winding course of the river would leave me nearer our lines at Jonesboro than where we then were. Indeed foraging parties were covering much of the territory between, and it was the nearest point where I could cross the stream otherwise than by swimming.
"Are you going to Jonesboro?" I asked.
She nodded silently.
"Then may I ride that far with you?" I asked, rather doubtful of what she would say to such a request. "Of course you will be aiding the enemy, for I expect to discover some of our troops in that neighborhood."
"How can I help myself?" banteringly. "You are a man, and armed. Practically I am your prisoner."
"Oh, I don't want you to feel that way toward me. I have acted as a gentleman, have I not, ever since I understood?"
"You certainly have, and I am not ungrateful. Then you do not order me to take you; you merely ask if I will?"
"That is all."
"And that sounds so much better, I think. I don't mind your being a Yankee if you continue to act that way. Shall I drive?"
"If you will; you know the road, and the tricks of the pony."
She laughed again, gathering up the reins, and reaching down after the whip. At the first movement the little animal broke into a brisk trot as though he understood his driver.
THE COMING OF DAWN
The road was rough, apparently little travelled, and our lively passage over it not greatly conducive to conversation. Besides I hardly knew what to say. The consciousness of total failure in all my plans, and the knowledge that I would be received at headquarters in anything but honor, weighed heavily upon me, yet this depression did not seal my lips half as much as the personality of the young woman at my side. Pleasant and free as her manner had been, yet I was clearly made to realize there was a distinct limit to any familiarity. I could not define the feeling, but it had taken possession of me, and I knew the slightest overstepping of the boundaries would result in trouble. We were neither enemies nor friends; merely acquaintances under a temporary flag of truce. No doubt, trusting me as an honorable soldier, even though wearing an enemy's uniform, she was almost glad to have my protection along this lonely road, but, when the time came to part, she would be equally relieved to have me go. I was nothing to her; if ever remembered again it would be merely to laugh over my discomfiture in mistaking her for another. It hurt my pride to think this, to thus realize her complete indifference. She was a young woman, and I a young man, and nothing in my nature made surrender easy. I desired, at least, to leave behind me some different impression of my own personality. I was not a fool, nor a failure, and I could not bear to have her conceive me as a mere blundering block-head, a subject for subsequent laughter. The silence in which she drove stirred me to revolt. Apparently she felt no overwhelming curiosity as to whom I was, no special desire to exchange further speech. The flapping of the loosened curtain was annoying, and I leaned over and fastened it down securely into place. She merely glanced aside to observe what I was doing, without even opening her lips.
"This is a miserably gloomy road," I ventured desperately. "I wonder you dared to travel it alone at night."
"Its very loneliness makes it safe," was the response, rather indifferently uttered. "Meeting others was the very thing I was most anxious to avoid."
"Indeed! You are tantalizing; you cannot expect me to be devoid of curiosity."
"Of course not," turning her face toward me, "neither can you expect me to gratify it."
"You mean you could not trust me?"
"Rather that you would not believe me, if I did. The reason for this trip is so simple and commonplace that if I were to confess its purpose to you, you would suppose I were attempting deceit. Oh, yes, you would, so I might just as well remain still. Besides it can make no difference anyway. When we reach Jonesboro this morning you will go back to your army, and I shall meet friends. There is scarcely one chance in a thousand we shall ever see each other again. We are the merest strangers—enemies, indeed, for I am a Rebel clear through. We don't even know each others' names."
"Do you care to know mine?"
She hesitated, and I thought her eyes dropped.
"I—I hardly know," doubtfully. "Yet you have been very kind, and, perhaps, sometime I might serve you. Yes, you may tell me."
"Of what rank?"
"Lieutenant, Ninth Illinois Cavalry, but detailed for special service."
"Thank you. I—I am rather glad you told me."
"And you," I insisted, determined this confidence should be mutual. "May I not, in return, be told your name?"
"I am Willifred Gray," she said quietly. "That is all—just Willifred Gray."
There was something about the manner in which she said this which held me silent. I should have liked to ask more, a second question trembling on my lips, but the words would not come. It was altogether new to me, this fear of offending a woman, so new it almost angered, and yet something about her positively held me as though in bonds. To this day I do not know the secret of it, but I sat there silently staring out into the night.
I could see a little now, becoming aware that dawn was approaching, the sky shading to a dull gray in the east, and casting a weird light over the landscape. It was a gloomy scene of desolation, the road a mere ribbon, overgrown with grass and weeds, a soggy marsh on one side, and a line of sand-hills on the other, sparsely covered by some stunted growth. Far away, across the level, my eyes caught a glimmer of water, locating the river, but in no direction was there any sign of a house, or curl of smoke. The unproductive land—barren and swampy—sufficiently accounted for lack of inhabitants, and told why it had been avoided by the foragers of both armies. Seeking safety the girl had chosen her course wisely—here was desolation so complete as to mock even at the ravages of war. The gray in the east changed to pink, delicately tinting the whole upper sky, objects taking clearer form, a light breeze rustling the long grass. Tirelessly the pony trotted, his head down, the lines lying loose. I turned to gaze at my companion, and our eyes met. Hers were either gray or blue; I could not be certain which, so quickly were they lowered, and so shadowed by long lashes. And they were merry eyes, smiling, and deep with secrets no man could hope to solve. Perhaps she deemed it only fair that I should look at her as she had been observing me; perhaps it was but the coquetry of the "eternal feminine" conscious of her own attraction, but she sat there silent, the lashes shading her eyes, the clear light of the dawn upon her face. I cannot describe what I saw, only it was a young face, the skin clear and glowing with health, the nose beautifully moulded, the throat white and round, the red lips arched like a bow, and a broad forehead shadowed by dark hair. She had a trooper's hat on, worn jauntily on one side, crossed sabres in front, and her shoulders were concealed by a gray cavalry cape. Suddenly she flashed a glance at me, her eyes full of laughter.
"Well, Mr. Lieutenant Galesworth, have you looked long enough?"
The swift question confused me, but I found answer.
"No; but as long as I dare. You were observing me also."
"Naturally—womanly curiosity is my excuse. Would you like to know what conclusion I came to?"
"From your eyes it may not prove altogether flattering."
"Oh, my eyes are not to be trusted. I warn you frankly of that at the very start. All I shall say is you appear better than I had expected—only, really, you need a shave."
"Better how? In what way?"
"Well, younger for one thing; somehow your statement that you were a lieutenant made me suspect your age—or possibly it was your voice."
"I am twenty-four."
"And look to be scarcely twenty. How did you ever gain a commission? Were you in battle?"
The question decidedly hurt my pride, yet I managed to control my tongue.
"I have met colonels in both armies no older than I," I returned swiftly. "Of course I have been in battle, wounded for the matter of that, and three months a prisoner."
"Oh, I did not mean to question your right to the shoulder straps. War makes men fast; I know that for my home has been in the track of both armies."
"You live in this neighborhood?"
"Yes, about twenty miles south of where we are now. Shall I tell you what I am doing here?"
I bowed, eager to learn although I had not been brash enough to inquire.
"You have been wondering all night," carelessly. "If you had asked I should have refused to answer, but will now reward your remarkable patience with a full confession. I am going to take quinine back to our hospitals. I won't tell you where I am going to get it," a bit defiantly, "although I am not afraid you would try to stop me."
"Certainly not; why should I?"
"There are plenty of Yanks who do; the last messenger was shot by your raiders, and the whole consignment lost. He was my cousin; that is why I am trying what I can do—the boys need it so badly. If you are an honorable soldier you will not interfere with a work of mercy."
"An honorable soldier!" I exclaimed, stung by the words. "Do you question that?"
"Not until after daylight came, and I noticed how you were clothed," and her eyes lost all gleam of humor. "I respect a scout, but despise a spy."
My cheeks flamed, as I realized what she meant—the tattered gray jacket, buttoned tightly, and concealing my blue blouse. In swift disgust I wrenched it open, and flung the garment into the road.
"I had entirely forgotten I had the thing on," I explained hastily. "Don't condemn until you hear my story. You will listen, will you not?"
She sat silent, looking intently into my face, with merely the slightest inclination of the head.
"I came into your lines dressed just as I am now, drifting across the river behind a log. It was my third attempt to get through your pickets, and this time I succeeded. I found myself in thick brush near a cluster of tents, and overheard two officers talking. One was a major by the name of Hardy—do you know him?"
"Yes," a swift little catch in her voice.
"The other was a shorter, heavier-set man, out-ranking Hardy."
"Speaking with short, crisp sentences," she interrupted, "and wearing a heavy beard?"
"He spoke that way—yes; but as to the beard I could not say owing to the darkness."
"It must have been General Johnston."
"I thought as much. The two were discussing the getting of despatches through to Beauregard, and decided no one could succeed but a fellow they called Billie, some relative or friend of Hardy's. It was all arranged he should try it, and the major started off to complete arrangements. An aide, with the despatches, was to meet the messenger at the 'Three Corners,' where the little log church is, and then accompany him through the pickets. It was plainly enough my duty to intercept these if I could, but in order to do so I must pass through two miles of the Confederate camp, meeting soldiers almost every step of the way. That was when I stole the jacket, and slipped it on, and never thought of it again until you spoke."
She was leaning forward now, intensely interested, her lips parted, the quick breath revealed by the pulsing of her breast.
"And—and you got to the 'Three Corners'?"
"To a point just below. I ran most of the way, and then had to crawl through the bushes to get around a picket-post, but I believed I was there in plenty of time. Then you came rattling down the hill, with an officer riding along beside you, and, of course, I mistook you for Billie. I jumped your outfit in the hollow."
She flung up her hands in expressive gesture.
"Were you hanging there all that time—even before the lieutenant left?"
"I certainly was; hanging on for dear life too. My limbs are black and blue. I never saw a pony travel like that little devil."
She burst into an unrestrained ripple of laughter, scarcely able to speak, as the full humor of the situation appealed to her. No doubt the expression of my face did its part, but she certainly found it most amusing. In spite of myself I had to smile in sympathy.
"Oh, that was too good; I shall have to tell the general. Well, I helped Billie Hardy out that time, didn't I? I reckon you don't see much fun in it though."
"No, I don't," frankly, "yet I cannot say I am entirely sorry."
"Indeed," sobering instantly because of my earnestness. "I cannot understand that—the despatches have gone through."
"Without doubt. From a military standpoint I surely regret my failure. But if I had intercepted Billie I should never have met you."
"Nor come to know you."
Again the girl laughed, and I noticed the dimple in her cheek, the gray-blue eyes glancing up at me mockingly.
"Don't flatter yourself that you do," she retorted pleasantly, "for you might be mistaken altogether."
ACQUAINTANCES, NOT FRIENDS
The manner in which this was uttered made me feel that she was in earnest. Indeed I was already beginning to realize that this young woman was an enigma, her moods changing so rapidly as to keep me in a state of constant bewilderment—one moment frank, outspoken, friendly; the next hiding her real self behind a barrier of cold reserve which I seemed helpless to penetrate. Yet this very changeableness was attractive, keeping my mind constantly on the alert, and yielding her a peculiar charm. As she spoke these words her eyes encountered mine, almost in challenge, which I met instantly.
"Perhaps not—but I shall."
"Oh, indeed! Is this conceit, or determination?"
"The latter assuredly. Why is it not possible for one to know you?"
"Really I cannot tell," not altogether displeased at my decision, "yet it would border upon a miracle, for I do not even know myself. Besides I doubt your having the opportunity for sufficient study—that is Jonesboro yonder."
The road rounded the crest of a sharp hill, and, from off the summit, we could look directly down into the river valley. Except for little groves of scrub oak it was open country, the broad stream showing clearly between green banks, with few cultivated fields in sight. We had turned toward the north, and the straggling town lay directly in front two miles away, so hidden behind trees the houses were scarcely distinguishable; a quarter of a mile below was the bridge. I stood up, thrusting my head beyond the carriage cover, so as to see better. To the west the woods concealed everything. It was somewhere in that direction Beauregard's troops were encamped, yet, even if they were already advancing to unite with Johnston, they would hardly cross the country so far to the north. Knowing the situation as I did I felt little fear of any encounter with Confederates. Our cavalry were patrolling all the roads across the river, and, as late as the previous day, were guarding the Jonesboro bridge. I could see no signs of any such guard now, however, yet the trees were thick and obscured the view, and that heavy dust cloud to the right was probably caused by the passing of a troop of horse. Convinced that this would prove to be either a cavalry vidette, or a Federal foraging party, it made me more anxious to get quickly down into the town, hopeful they might have a spare horse with them, and I pointed out the dust spirals to my companion.
"If you have friends in Jonesboro," I said, "I've also got some coming."
"Who are they?" her eyes on the distant dust. "Yankees?"
"Certainly; there are none of your people on that side of the river. Beauregard is out yonder in those hills. Let's drive on, the town looks quiet."
She leaned forward, holding to the edge of the carriage cover to keep her balance, her glance turning toward the southwest.
"If those are your people they mustn't see me," she said quietly, a little accent of pleading in her voice. "You promise that first?"
"Of course," although surprised at her asking. "I know it is our orders to intercept everything which can aid the enemy, but I don't feel inclined to prevent your taking quinine to the poor fellows in the hospital. War hasn't made me as inhuman as that. We can easily reach the town ahead of that squad of cavalry, and if you have some safe place there to go, and will only keep indoors, there is no danger of discovery."
"I have," eagerly, "Judge Moran's house; you can see its gable there among the trees. He is so old he has not even been conscripted." She laughed, flashing a look aside at me as she shook the reins and applied the whip. "I wonder what he will think when he sees me driving up alongside a Yankee. It will be like the end of the world. No, don't talk to me any more; I've got to conjure up a nice, respectable story to tell him."
She remained very quiet as we rattled down the hill, her forehead puckered, her gaze straight ahead. Suddenly she asked,
"Do you sometimes tell falsehoods?"
"Are they ever justified?"
"Well, really I don't know; from the standpoint of the strict moralist I presume not; but it is my judgment the strict moralist wouldn't last long in time of war."
I was amused at the earnestness with which she looked at me, apparently weighing my words as soberly as though they had important meaning.
"What's the trouble? If there is any prevaricating to be done, turn it over to me—I have become an expert."
"No doubt," her face brightening, "but I must attend to this case myself. Judge Moran will have to suppose you a Confederate spy. No, not a word of protest will I listen to. If you go along with me, it must be exactly as I say; there is no other way, for otherwise he would never receive you into the house."
"Oh, very well," I replied indifferently, my eyes marking the swift approach of that distant squad of cavalry. "The masquerade will be short, and well worth while if it only earns me a breakfast with you."
The toss of her head was hardly complimentary. We were in the tree-lined streets by this time, and suddenly she wheeled the pony in through an open gate-way. The house was large, painted white, of distinctly Southern architecture, the broad stone steps surmounted by rounded pillars. On the porch a man sat smoking. He arose instantly, hat in hand, and came down to meet us. His was a tall, slender, slightly stooped figure, a finely chiselled face, the hair and beard white. His eyes, apparently as keen as ever, instantly recognized the girl, his stern features relaxing into a smile of welcome.
"I am surprised and pleased to greet you, Miss Willifred," cordially bowing over her extended hand. "'Tis a long while since we have seen you here."
"Not from any doubt of your hospitality, Judge, but the armies have made travelling unsafe."
"True; we live in constant peril. The Yankees have driven off my negroes, and also robbed me of every horse on the place. Your father, the major, is well?"
"In most excellent health, thank you. He was wounded at Chattanooga, but soon recovered. We had him at home with us for a month."
"So I heard. A young Louisiana officer, a Captain Le Gaire, gave me news of your family. He was through Jonesboro with a scouting party two days ago. He seemed very glad to talk about you, my dear."
The girl's face flushed, as she withdrew her hand, attempting a laugh.
"We are excellent friends, yet really it does not require any deep interest to induce Captain Le Gaire to talk. That is one of his specialties."
"I suspected as much, yet I found his conversation highly interesting. He is intelligent, and has travelled widely. But come, my dear, let me help you down. I am such an early bird I have breakfasted already, yet there will be something ready for you, and your companion."
His gaze surveyed me for the first time, and he stepped back, his eyes darkening suspiciously.
"But what have you here—a Yankee?"
"So far as uniform goes, yes," she answered lightly, descending over the wheel, and adroitly dodging a direct reply. "But all things are not as they seem, outwardly. Surely, Judge, you do not suppose I would ever harbor one of the enemy? If I vouch for the gentleman it should be sufficient."
He took my hand cordially enough, yet with a question still in his keen old eyes.
"I am glad to know you, sir. Any friend of Miss Willifred's is a friend of mine, but I'm damned if I like that color."
"The nature of my mission makes it necessary," I explained.
"Exactly, sir, exactly; I understand perfectly. Alight, and come in, but you wear the first Yankee uniform ever welcomed to my house. Come right along, both of you. I've got one servant left, who will attend the pony."
Twenty minutes later we were breakfasting together in a cool, spacious room the windows of which opened upon the porch. The judge, after satisfying himself that we were being well served, had disappeared, leaving us alone. It was a beautiful morning, the birds singing outside, the sunlight sifting through the branches of the great oaks shading the windows. Not a sound, other than the rustling of leaves, broke the silence. My companion appeared disinclined to talk, her eyes turned away from me. The constraint became so marked I endeavored to start conversation, but with poor result.
"Our meeting has been an odd one," I began, "romantic enough to form a basis for fiction."
Her glance shifted to my face.
"Do you think so? I merely find it extremely embarrassing."
"Then I will withdraw at once," I insisted, hurt by the indifference of her voice. "I had supposed you wished me to remain until now—surely your words implied this."
"Oh, yes! I did, and you are in no way to blame. It was an impulse, and I failed to realize that it would involve deceit to an old friend. Perhaps I am too easily hurt, but I am afraid Judge Moran half suspects the truth. Anyway you must go immediately."
"We shall part as friends?"
She hesitated, as though considering the full intent of my request.
"Hardly that, Lieutenant Galesworth. The word 'friend' should mean much, and we are merely chance acquaintances—politically enemies."
"I had hoped that difference—merely the accident of war—might have been swept aside. It has no personal weight with me, and I supposed you were of broader mind."
"I am," she responded earnestly. "Some of my best friends are Northerners, wearing that uniform, but, as it chances, we have met in war, playing at cross-purposes. You are a Federal scout whom I have unwittingly helped through the Confederate lines. Surely I have done enough already to help you—perhaps to injure the cause I love—without being asked for more. Under other conditions we might continue friends, but not as matters stand."
"Yet later—when the war ends?"
"It is useless to discuss what may occur then. There is little likelihood we shall ever meet after to-day. Indeed, I have no wish that we should."
It was a dismissal so clearly expressed I could only bow, wondering what it was I saw in the depths of her eyes which seemed almost to contradict the utterance of the lips.
"You leave me no choice."
"There is none. I have no desire to be considered an enemy, and there is no possibility for us to become friends. We are but the acquaintances of a chance meeting." She held out her hand across the table, the impulsive movement robbing her words of their sting. "You understand this is not indifference, but necessity."
I clasped closely the white fingers extended toward me, my heart throbbing, but my lips held prisoners by her eyes.
"Yes, I understand perfectly, but I make no promise."
"No promise! What do you mean?"
"Only that to my mind this is no mere chance acquaintance, nor is it destined to end here. Sometime I am going to know you, and we are going to be friends."
"Indeed!" her eyes dropped, the shadow of lashes on her cheeks. "You are very audacious to say that."
"Yet you are not altogether sorry to hear me say it."
"Oh, I do not take your words seriously at all. They are mere Yankee boasting—"
She stopped suddenly, the slight flush fading from her cheeks as she arose to her feet, staring out through the open window. It was the sound of horses' hoofs on the gravel roadway, and I sprang up also, endeavoring to see. A squad of troopers was without, dusty, hard-riding fellows, uniformed in Confederate gray.
A BOLD FRONT
It was but a glimpse through the leaf-draped window of dust-caked horses, the bronzed faces of their riders, and the gray hair of Judge Moran, as he hastened down the steps to greet them. I saw one man swing down from his saddle, and advance toward the house, then a sharp catching of the girl's breath drew my attention toward her, and our eyes met.
"You—you must not suppose I expected this," she faltered, "—that I have betrayed you."
There was no doubting her earnestness, nor her disgust at such treachery.
"Not for a moment. But I must get away. Are you acquainted with the house?"
"Yes; but two of the men rode around to the well. It would be impossible now to slip out the back way without discovery." She ran across the room, and flung open a door. "Go in there and lie down; pretend to be asleep. If the judge does not inform them of your presence here it may never be suspected. If he does I must cling to the old story."
I caught her hands, and in the excitement she seemed scarcely aware of the act.
"You are willing to do this for me?"
"I don't know what I do it for," a little nervous laugh in her voice. "When one once gets started into deceit there seems to be no end—but go quick! the officer is coming now."
The room into which I was thrust was darkened by lowered shades, but the bookcases lining the walls proclaimed it a library. A comfortable leather couch occupied the space between the two windows. The door remained half an inch ajar, and, before I could close it, some one entered the dining-room. The first words uttered held me silent, listening. There was a heavy step on the uncarpeted floor, the jingle of spurs, and a startled exclamation from the girl.
"You! Why, I had no thought of meeting you here."
"Yet I trust you are not sorry," the voice deep, yet so low I lost an occasional word. "Judge Moran says you bear—"
"Hush," she interrupted quickly. "Yes, and they must go on at once. What brings you here, Gerald? A scouting party?"
"We are Beauregard's advance scouts; he is moving eastward."
"Then these papers must reach him at once. Don't stop to ask questions, Gerald, but send some man; have him kill his horse if necessary. Oh, don't stand there looking at me, but go! I'll explain later."
I heard the rustle of papers, the rapid movement of the man as he left the room, the quick breathing of the excited woman. Then she crossed the room to the window, and the next moment a horse galloped past. My head whirled—then it was not quinine for the hospitals which had brought her through the lines; she had deliberately lied to me, and instead, was a bearer of despatches. Sudden anger at the trick banished every other feeling; yet what could I do? My hand gripped the knob of the door, every nerve throbbing, when I heard the officer's voice again in the breakfast room.
"He's off; now let's have the straight of all this, Billie."
Billie! I grasped the full truth of it in an instant. Lord! I had been a fool. The woman had played with me as though I were a mere child; had been laughing at me all night; and doubtless intended now to hand me over prisoner to this squad of gray-jackets. Billie! The very person I was seeking; the only one who could hope to get through after all others had failed. And I had supposed "Billie" was a man, never once thinking of the name as a pet feminine one of the South. The realization of all this confused me so that I missed a part of what was being said, and only aroused as the man spoke more sharply.
"That's all right, of course; I understand what brought you here, but where is that fellow you had with you?"
"Who?" it was an indignant voice.
"Oh, you understand, Miss Innocence," a slight sneer in the utterance. "There was a man in your company when you arrived, dressed as a Yank. Moran told me so. You were breakfasting together—the table proves that."
"Well, what of it? I explained his presence to the judge. Am I obliged to account for all my actions to every one I meet?"
The officer, evidently acquainted with the lady's disposition, and aware that driving would never do, changed his tone, crossing the room toward her, and lowering his voice.
"No, not to every one, Billie, but surely you cannot deny I have some right to this information. Would you wish me to be riding the country at night with a strange woman?"
"If it became part of your duty—yes. I have no remembrance of ever interfering with your freedom, Captain Le Gaire."
I could hear the man's teeth click, as though in an effort to restrain an oath.
"By God, but you are irritating!" he burst forth impetuously. "One would think I were no more to you than a stranger. This is no light affair to be laughed away. Have you forgotten our engagement already?"
"That is scarcely probable. You remind me of it often enough. Don't crush my hand so."
Her provoking coldness was all that was needed to overcome the slight restraint the captain still exercised. Instantly his real nature came to the fore.
"Then I'll make him do the explaining," he threatened fiercely. "I know how to deal with men. Where is the fellow? In that room?"
There was a brief silence. I could distinguish his rapid breathing, and the slight rustle of her skirts as she sank back into a chair.
"Well, are you going to tell me? Or must I hunt for myself?"
"Captain Le Gaire," she began quietly, without even a tremor in the soft voice, "possibly you forget whom I am. The gentlemen of my acquaintance have never been accustomed to question the motives actuating my conduct. You imagine yourself talking to some darky on your Louisiana plantation. Is this the manner in which you propose treating me after marriage?"
He laughed uneasily.
"Why, I meant nothing, Billie. Don't take it in that way. Surely you understand I have a right to be curious as to your companion."
"Yes; but not to carry your curiosity to the point of discourtesy. I have not the slightest objection to answering your questions, if you only ask with some respect."
"You always hold me at arm's length."
"Do I? Well, this is hardly the best time to discuss that. What was it you wished to know?"
"Who is the fellow travelling with you?"
"Didn't the judge tell you?"
"He said he was a Confederate spy dressed in the uniform of a Yankee lieutenant whom you had brought through the lines."
"Well, isn't that information sufficient?"
The gallant captain again smothered an oath, evidently tried to the limit by the girl's cool indifference.
"Of course it isn't. That might answer for Moran, for he has no personal interest in the affair. But it's altogether different with me. It's merely accident that I rode in here this morning, and I immediately discover the woman I am engaged to marry was out all night riding around with a stranger, eating breakfast with him when I arrive. Do you suppose that is pleasant?"
"No; yet my explanation ought to be sufficient."
"Explanation! You have made none."
"Oh, yes; Judge Moran told you the circumstances."
I heard him stomp roughly across the floor, his spurs clanking.
"Explanation, nothing! Who is the fellow?"
"Really I don't know."
"Don't know? Do you mean to say you rode with him alone all night, and took breakfast with him this morning, without even learning his name?"
"He said his name was Galesworth, but I don't know that he told the truth."
"You pretend indifference well," the man sneered.
"It is no pretence; I am indifferent. Why should I be otherwise? I am not interested in spies. I may assist one through the lines to serve the Confederacy, but that is no evidence that I feel any personal interest in the man. Anyhow that is the extent of my knowledge in this case, and I haven't the slightest desire to increase it. When are you going to ride on?"
"Not until I know more than I do now," he retorted savagely. "There is something hidden here. You are pretending all this indifference so as to give that fellow sufficient time to get away. I'm damned if I put up with it."
"Captain Le Gaire," and she was upon her feet, "do you venture to address such language to me? Do you dare—"
"I am no dupe of yours or of any other woman," he broke in, too angry now to restrain his words. "There is something wrong here, and I mean to know what it is. If you won't tell, I'll find out myself." He strode across to the window and called to some one below. "Slade, come in here."
There was a moment of waiting, during which neither stirred, nor spoke. Then the trooper entered, his heels clicking together as he saluted just within the doorway.
"Sergeant," said Le Gaire shortly. "I have reason to suspect there is a man hidden in that room yonder. I'll keep an eye on this young lady, while you find out."
Slade took a step forward, and the girl's dress rustled.
"Wait just a minute, Sergeant," she said briefly. "Am I to understand from this, Captain Le Gaire, that you are not only a bully, but also a coward?"
"Yes, a coward. You order the sergeant to open that door—why do you not open it yourself?"
He laughed rather unpleasantly.
"So that's the trouble? Well, it's merely a way we have in the army, but if it will greatly oblige you I'll do the job."
It was useless waiting longer; the room offered me no possible hiding-place, the two windows looked down on the waiting cavalrymen. Beyond doubt boldness was the best card to play. Before the rather reluctant captain could take a second step I flung open the concealing door, and came forth into the breakfast room.
A WOMAN'S PRISONER
The scene before me, the expression on the three faces, caused me to smile. I came forth with no definite plan of action, trusting, as one must at such times, wholly to luck. There was no means of escape apparent, yet my mind was cool, and I was prepared to take advantage of any opportunity. I saw the flash of the sergeant's revolver, the captain's sudden recoil, his hand tugging at his sword-hilt, and glimpsed something in the depths of Billie's eyes that puzzled me.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," I said easily.
So far as Slade was concerned it was evident that all he saw was the uniform, his revolver instantly covering me, held in a hand steady as rock; he even grinned amiably across the barrel. But the expression on Le Gaire's face changed from startled surprise to relief. He was a tall man, with dark hair and eyes, a black moustache shading his lip, and his hand fell from the hilt of the sword as he took an uncertain step toward me.
"Drop that gun-play, Sergeant," he exclaimed sharply. "This man is all right; I know him."
Too astounded myself for speech, I could only stare back into the captain's face, seeking vainly to recall ever having seen the fellow before. Not the slightest recollection came to me, but Le Gaire blundered on, blinded by his discovery.
"Didn't know you had gone into this sort of thing," he exclaimed cordially, holding out his hand. "Last I heard your regiment was in New Orleans. Don't remember me, do you?"
I shook my head, so completely puzzled by this unexpected turn of affairs that speech became dangerous. Perhaps he would give me some clue to my new identity, which would enable me to carry out the masquerade.
"Your face is familiar," I ventured, "but—"
"Oh, no excuses," he broke in cordially. "I was a guest at your mess one night when we were garrisoning Memphis. I am Le Gaire, of the Third Louisiana. I sang you fellows some French songs, you may remember."
"Oh, yes!" and my face visibly brightened, as I grasped his fingers, wondering who the devil I might be, yet exceedingly overjoyed at this sudden change of fortune. "We had a gay night of it. I wonder you recognize me in these rags."
"Well, I don't suppose I should," he exclaimed, "only you happened to be pointed out to me specially that evening. It was just after your duel with Major Gillette of ours. Between us, I don't mind admitting I was glad you punctured that fellow—it saved me the trouble."
"Perhaps if you gentlemen are through with reminiscences," broke in the girl quietly, "Captain Le Gaire might present me to his new friend."
"But I thought you knew him already!"
She laughed lightly, her eyes aglow with merriment.
"Oh, no, indeed! It is all a most wonderful mix-up."
"Then it will be a pleasure for me to bring order out of confusion—Miss Hardy, Major Atherton of General Pemberton's staff."
"Atherton!" she gasped. "I—I thought your name was Galesworth."
"Hardy!" I retorted, simulating equal surprise, "and I supposed your name to be Gray."
Le Gaire looked at us, vastly amused, all his former jealousy and suspicion instantly dissipated by this evidence of misunderstanding.
"You certainly must have had a merry night of it, you two—trying to outlie each other, and with honors about even. However, the tangle is straightened out now, and we must be on our way. What are you trying to do, Atherton,—get to the rear of the Yanks?"
"Yes," I answered, with some hesitation, and glancing aside at the girl. I could not determine how much of all this she actually believed, or how far I might venture to carry forward the deceit. Her eyes were upon me, but their shaded depths revealed nothing. I determined to take the chance. "Johnston requires more exact information as to the Yankee artillery, and thought I might get in around the right flank. I saw a dust cloud across the river as we came into town."
"A foraging party; they went west; we have the bridge guarded."
"Beauregard's advance may hurry Johnston," I continued, eager to draw out of him some information of value. "How came he to move without orders?"
"He concluded so wide a gap was dangerous, and that Johnston's despatch-carriers must have been unable to get through, so he began feeling his way east. The orders Billie brought will undoubtedly hurry the advance."
"They have gone forward then?"
"Certainly—I sent a man with them at once."
I shot an inquiring glance toward her, but she had found a seat at the table, and was toying idly with a spoon, her eyes cast down.
"And Beauregard is marching along this road, I presume?"
"No; back behind the hills where he runs no risk of being seen by any prowling Yankee scouts. We are in advance on the left flank."
I understood the movement clearly enough now, and realized the importance of getting this news to our headquarters. A swift advance of troops would throw a column between these two forces of Confederates, and hold them apart for separate battle. But there was no time for delay. Le Gaire failed to comprehend my anxious glance out the open window.
"We all better be at it," he said quickly. "By the way, with that cavalry uniform you ought to have a horse. We're leading one with Yankee accoutrements you can use. Come on, Slade. Miss Hardy, I hope to see you at your own home in a few days."
He bowed, hat in hand, the girl rising to her feet, as the sergeant left the room. She did not smile, her eyes flashing from his face to mine.
"I may remain here until the armies leave this section," she replied quietly. "There is too much risk in travelling alone."
"You might ride with us," he suggested gallantly. She shook her head, her lips smiling.
"I think I better not."
"Does that mean you are still angry?"
"I didn't know I had been, Captain. Perhaps I spoke rather hastily, but you must forgive that."
Her hand was extended, and he came a step back from the door to grasp it, and lift the fingers to his lips. With a fierce throbbing of the heart I turned my back to them, staring out the window. There was a low murmur of voices, and then the door clicked. I never moved, watching Le Gaire go down the steps, his men swing into their saddles, at a sharp order, and ride away in column of fours. When they had all disappeared a single horse remained, tied to the railing of the veranda. I turned about, and picked up my hat from the floor. Miss Hardy was seated again at the table, her head resting upon one hand. I could see the round, white arm where the sleeve fell away, and her cheeks were flushed. She did not lift her eyes at my movement, and, half angry at her studied indifference, I advanced straight toward the door. But there I hesitated, unable to part without at least another word. She was looking at me now.
"May I hope ever to meet you again?" I asked.
"I can promise nothing as to the future," she returned soberly. "But I wish to speak to you now, before you go. Sit down here, just a moment."
I hesitated, keen as to the value of time, yet curious as to what she would say, and swayed strongly by her influence.
"You surely must understand how anxious I am to get away—" I began, but she broke in impulsively.
"Of course I do, but you must listen to me first." She had risen, and was leaning forward, speaking earnestly. "It is true we shall probably never meet again, yet I am not willing you should think me altogether a despicable character. I wish you to know whom I am, and why deceit was necessary."
"My dear girl," I exclaimed, hastily crossing the room, "there is nothing to explain. I understand the circumstances."
"No, not entirely," she insisted, "but it is my desire you should. I—I hardly know why, but—but I would rather have you think well of me. Listen, please; I will be very brief. I am Willifred Gray Hardy, and it was my father whom you overheard talking with General Johnston. Our home is south on the pike road, and was used as headquarters until a few days ago. I have known General Johnston ever since I was a little girl, and everybody—all my friends—call me Billie. Of course you thought the courier was a man—it was only natural you should—and it was, therefore, easy for me to keep up the deceit—they trusted me, and I had to get those papers through."
"Of course you did," heartily. "Surely you do not suppose I would think less of you for your loyalty?"
"I hoped not; nor did I mean to let you go away thinking me a fool."
"A fool!" thrown entirely from my guard. "How could I think that?"
"By imagining that I believe you Major Atherton of Pemberton's staff," with a little, nervous laugh, and quick uplifting of the eyes. "I was glad Captain Le Gaire made the mistake, for I had no wish to see you a prisoner, but your quick pretending did not in the least deceive me, Lieutenant Galesworth." She paused, evidently amused at the surprise expressed in my face, yet with the lines of her lips setting firmly. "Your questions regarding the movements of Beauregard were most ingenuous, but I was able to comprehend your purpose."
"That you propose bearing the news direct to Federal headquarters. That is why you are in such a desperate hurry to get away."
I took a step backward, reading the meaning of her eyes.
"And you intend to prevent—"
"Exactly," her voice as quiet as ever. "I am a Confederate still."
She had changed her position, standing now between me and the closed door, the expression upon her face sufficient evidence of her determination. Hers was no idle threat—this daughter of a soldier was ready for the struggle and the sacrifice. I recognized all this at a glance, bewildered by the swift change in attitude, unable to decide my own course of action. Argument was useless, a resort to force repugnant. Above all else the one overpowering feeling was admiration for the girl. She must have read all this in my eyes, yet her own never wavered, nor changed expression.
"Please do not make the mistake, Lieutenant Galesworth, of thinking me not sufficiently in earnest," she said firmly, "or that I am unprepared."
"I do not; if you were only a man I should know exactly what to do."
"Your courtesy is misplaced; at least I do not ask it. This is war, and you are upon one side, I on the other. You will remain in this room until I say you may go."
"What will hold me?—your eyes?—the mere threat of your lips?"
"Something rather more to the purpose than either," she answered coldly. Her right hand, concealed by the folds of her skirt, was uplifted, the fingers grasping the black butt of a Colt. Her lips smiled. "I suppose you know the efficacy of this weapon, Lieutenant, and that it is loaded."
My hand dropped instinctively to my belt—the revolver holster was empty! It was my own weapon the girl held.
THE COMING OF THE ENEMY
No matter how charming she may be, a man can never enjoy being outplayed at his own game by a woman. The piquant face fronting me swam in a mist as a sudden rush of anger swept from me all admiration. I had been played with, outwitted from the start, every movement checkmated—even now she was actually laughing at my helplessness. My first wild impulse was to spring forward, and wrest the revolver from her hand; yet there was that in her attitude, in the expression of her eyes, which made me hesitate. Would she shoot? Would the sense of duty to her cause actually induce her to fire at me? A moment before, I should not have deemed it possible, but now, it seemed to me, she was desperate enough to do even this. And that was a hair-trigger she fingered so recklessly! Instead of leaping forward, I stood motionless, outwardly cool, yet with every nerve throbbing. She read all this in my face, no doubt, for her lips half smiled, her manner exhibited confidence.
"Oh, I can shoot," she said pleasantly enough, "so I wouldn't try that if I were you. Now will you do exactly as I say?"
I remained silent, my hands clinched. So this was the gentle creature I had been riding with, had even been falling in love with! This woman, now threatening me with death, was the same happy-hearted, laughing girl whose hand I had held, and to whom I had talked in words of friendship. I could scarcely realize the change, or comprehend this new development of character.
The unpleasant situation was broken by the sound of steps in the hall. The door opened, and Judge Moran entered. Miss Hardy stepped instantly aside, concealing the revolver within the folds of her skirt, yet with watchful eyes on my face. Moran glanced at us both without suspicion, and approached me with outstretched hand.
"Captain Le Gaire explained to me who you are, Major," he said with new cordiality, "and I am very glad to receive you as my guest. Are you one of the Mobile Athertons?"
"No," I answered, flushing, and avoiding her amused eyes, yet not daring to blurt out the truth, "I come from farther north."
"Exactly; I recall now there are Athertons in Memphis and Nashville, delightful people, the real, old Southern stock. I regret greatly to learn from Le Gaire that duty compels you to leave at once."
"Major Atherton has changed his plans," broke in the girl, before I could respond. "The advance of Beauregard's forces makes it safer for him to remain quiet for a few hours,—until night comes. I was just suggesting that he go up to the red room and lie down—he is nearly dead from fatigue."
"The red room!" in surprise. "Surely you jest, Miss Willifred! That is hardly considered a guest chamber."
"No; but the safest place in the house, if, by any chance, it is searched by a scouting party."
The old gentleman nodded, as if in approval.
"Possibly it would be safer, although I hardly anticipate any such calls from the enemy with our own people so near. You will not be the first Confederate to lie hidden there, sir," with a bow to me, and a quick glance toward the smiling girl. "Would you mind showing him the way, my dear?—it is becoming difficult for me to mount the stairs."
"With pleasure; indeed, I was about to propose doing so. Major, you will go first, please."
However cheerily these words were spoken I understood their quiet threat, and the full meaning of that motionless hand held securely hidden behind the fold of her skirt. She opened the door into the hall, and, with one questioning glance into her eyes, I murmured a word of thanks to the unsuspecting judge, and passed slowly through. Miss Hardy followed, closing the door behind her, the revolver now held in plain view.
"Up the stairs, and turn to the left," she commanded briefly.
The short, stern, business-like tone in which this order was uttered might have been amusing under other conditions, but scarcely so then when I was smarting under defeat. I glanced back, half tempted to endeavor a sudden leap; yet she was fully prepared, and I hesitated. Would she actually shoot me down? Could it be possible the girl would take my life? I could scarcely conceive of such a probability, she seemed so womanly in every way, so light-hearted, and yet there was no laugh now in her eyes, no lack of determination in the firm setting of her lips.
"Suppose I refuse!"
"I sincerely hope you will not, Lieutenant. This is hard enough for me; don't make it any harder."
There could be no doubting what she meant, nor what she had nerved herself to accomplish. Feeling like a whipped cur I went slowly up the broad stairs, my hand on the banister rail, and she followed, keeping even pace with me, the cocked Colt pointing sternly upward at my back.
"The last door—yes, beyond the chimney. Step inside, Lieutenant Galesworth. Now close the door."
I stood, with fingers still grasping the knob, listening. There was a click, as though a heavy key was being turned in the lock, and then withdrawn. Following I heard her quick breath of relief, and a half-suppressed sob. The sound made her seem all woman again.
"Miss Hardy!" I called, my lips at the crack of the door.
"What is it?" the answering voice tremulous.
"I want to tell you that you are a brave girl, and that I do not in the least blame you."
There was a moment's hesitating silence, as though my unexpected words had left her speechless. Her breathing told me her lips were also close to the door.
"I—I am so glad you said that," she returned at last. "This—this has been so difficult to do. But you know I mean to do it, to hold you here; you realize I am terribly in earnest?"
"Yes—but for how long?"
"Until late to-night; then you can do us no deep injury." Her voice became firmer. "I shall remain on guard here."
I heard her move away from the direct neighborhood of the door, her steps sounding distinctly on the polished floor. Then something heavy, probably a chair or bench, was drawn forward, following which all was silence. Although I could see nothing the situation in the hall was clear. Confident escape was impossible in any other direction the determined girl had taken up her position opposite the door, prepared for a long vigil. All feeling of anger, even of irritation, had by this time left me. The slight falter, the womanly softness of her voice, had robbed me of all resentment, and I was conscious merely of admiration for her courage and loyalty. But I desired intently to stand equally high in her memory, and in order to do so must exhibit my own wit, my own resources in emergency. I felt the door—it was of solid oak, with no spot of weakness evident, even the key-hole being concealed by a metal flap on the outside. The room itself was small, the walls tinted red, and contained no furniture except a narrow bed and one straight-backed chair. Light was admitted through a small window, placed so high in the wall I was compelled to stand on the chair to look out, a mere round opening through which it would be impossible to squeeze my rather stalwart body. It was almost a typical prison cell, apparently affording not the slightest opportunity for escape. I had a pipe in my pocket, and matches, so I lit up, and lay back on the bed, reviewing the situation.