My Lady of the North
The Love Story of a Gray Jacket
By RANDALL PARRISH
I. A DESPATCH FOR LONGSTREET II. THE NIGHT RIDE III. AN UNWELCOME GUEST IV. A WOMAN WITH A TEMPER V. A DISASTER ON THE ROAD VI. A STRUGGLE IN THE DARK VII. A DISCIPLE OF SIR WALTER VIII. MRS. BUNGAY DEFENDS HER HEARTHSTONE IX. IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY X. A WOMAN'S TENDERNESS XI. IN THE PRESENCE OF SHERIDAN XII. UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH XIII. A STRANGE WAY OUT XIV. I BECOME A COLONEL OF ARTILLERY XV. AT THE STAFF OFFICERS' BALL XVI. THE WOMAN I LOVED XVII. THROUGH THE CAMP OF THE ENEMY XVIII. THE REPUTATION OF A WOMAN XIX. THE CAVALRY OUTPOST XX. A DEMON ON HORSEBACK XXI. REINFORCEMENTS FOR EARLY XXII. THE BATTLE IN THE SHENANDOAH XXIII. FIELD HOSPITAL, SIXTH CORPS XXIV. A NIGHT RIDE OF THE WOUNDED XXV. A LOST REGIMENT XXVI. THE SCOUTING DETAIL XXVII. AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION XXVIII. WE CAPTURE A COURIER XXIX. A MISSION FOR BEELZEBUB XXX. A UNION OF YANK AND REB XXXI. A CONVERSATION IN THE DARK XXXII. HAND TO HAND XXXIII. A BELLIGERENT GERMAN XXXIV. THE WORDS OF LOVE XXXV. A PLAN MISCARRIED XXXVI. THE LAST RESORT OF GENTLEMEN XXXVII. THE LAST GOOD-BYE XXXVIII. THE FURLING OF THE FLAGS XXXIX. MY LADY OF THE NORTH
My Lady of the North
The Love Story of a Gray-Jacket
A DESPATCH FOR LONGSTREET
It was a bare, plain interior,—the low table at which he sat an unplaned board, his seat a box, made softer by a folded blanket. His only companions were two aides, standing silent beside the closed entrance, anxious to anticipate his slightest need.
He will abide in my memory forever as I saw him then,—although we were destined to meet often afterwards,—that old gray hero, whose masterly strategy held at bay for so long those mighty forces hurled on our constantly thinning lines of defence. To me the history of war has never contained his equal, and while I live I shall love and revere him as I can love and revere no other man.
"General Lee," said one of the aides, as I passed the single sentry and drew aside the flap to step within, "this is Captain Wayne."
He deliberately pushed aside the mass of papers which had been engaging him, and for an embarrassing moment fixed upon me a glance that seemed to read me through and through. Then, with simple dignity, far more impressive than I can picture it in words, he arose slowly and extended his hand.
"Captain Wayne," he said gravely, yet retaining his grasp, and with his eyes full upon mine, "you are a much younger man than I expected to see, yet I have selected you upon the special recommendation of your brigade commander for services of the utmost importance. I certainly do not hold your youth to be against your success, but I feel unwilling to order you to the performance of this duty, which, besides being beyond the regular requirements of the service, involves unusual risks."
"Without inquiring its nature," I said hastily, "I freely offer myself a volunteer for any service which may be required either by the army or yourself."
The kindly face brightened instantly, almost into a smile, and a new look of confidence swept into the keen gray eyes.
"I felt, even as I spoke," he said, with a dignified courtesy I have never marked in any one else, "that I must be doing wrong to question the willingness of an officer of your regiment, Captain Wayne, to make personal sacrifice. From our first day of battle until now the South has never once called upon them in vain. You are from the ranks, I believe?"
"I was a corporal at Manassas."
"Ah! then you have won your grade by hard service. You take with you one man?"
"Sergeant Craig of my troop, sir, a good soldier, who knows the country well."
He lowered his eyes to the numerous papers littering the table, and then, leaning over, traced lightly with a colored pencil a line across an outspread map.
"You speak of his knowing the country well; are you aware, then, of your destination?"
"I merely inferred from what Colonel Carter said that it was your desire to re-establish communication with General Longstreet."
"That is true; but do you know where Longstreet is?"
"Only that we of the line suppose him to be somewhere west of the mountains, sir. It is camp gossip that his present base of supplies is at Minersville."
"Your conjecture is partly correct, although I have more reason to believe that the head of his column has reached Bear Fork, or will by to-morrow morning. Kindly step this way, Captain Wayne, and make note of the blue lines I have traced across this map. Here, you will observe, is Minersville, directly beyond the high ridge. You will notice that the Federal lines extend north and south directly between us, with their heavier bodies of infantry along the Wharton pike, and so disposed as to shut off all communication between us and our left wing. Now, the message I must get into Longstreet's hands is imperative; indeed, I will say to you, the very safety of this army depends upon its reaching him before his advance passes Bear Fork. There remains, therefore, no time for any long detour; the messenger who bears it must take his life in his hands and ride straight westward through the very lines of the enemy."
He spoke these words rapidly, earnestly; then suddenly he lifted his eyes to mine, and said firmly: "I am perfectly frank with you. Are you the man?"
I felt the hot blood leap into my face, but I met his stern gaze without flinching.
"If I live, General Lee, I shall meet his advance at Bear Fork by daybreak."
"God guide you; I believe you will."
His words seemed uttered unconsciously. He turned slightly, and glanced toward the door. "Major Holmes, will you kindly hand me the draft of that despatch?"
He took the paper from the outstretched hand of the aide, read it over slowly and with great care, wrote a word of explanation upon the margin, and then extended it to me.
"Commit that, word by word, to your memory; we must run no possible risk of its ever falling into the enemy's hands."
I can see it now, that coarse yellow paper,—the clear, upright penmanship, the words here and there misused and corrected, the sentence scratched out, the heavy underlining of a command, and his own strangely delicate signature at the bottom.
_"Headquarters, Army Northern Virginia, "In the field, near Custer House, "Sept. 22, 2 P.M.
"Lieut.-Gen'l Longstreet, "Commanding Left Wing.
"Sir: You will advance your entire force by the Connelton and Sheffield pikes, so as to reach Castle Rock with your full infantry command by daybreak, September 26th. Let this supersede all other orders. I propose to attack in force in the neighborhood of Sailor's Ford, and shall expect you to advance promptly at the first sound of our artillery. It is absolutely essential that we form prompt connection of forces, and to accomplish this result will require a quick, persistent attack upon your part. You are hereby ordered to throw your troops forward without reserve, permitting them to be halted by no obstacle, until they come into actual touch with my columns. The success or failure of my plans will depend utterly upon your strict observance of these orders. _
"R. E. LEE, "Gen'l Commanding"
I handed back the paper, and lifted my hand in salute.
"You have memorized it?"
"Word for word, sir."
"Repeat it to me."
He held the paper before him as I did so, and at the close lifted his eyes again to my face.
"Very good," he said quietly. "Now let there be no mistake; repeat it over to your companion as you proceed until he also has memorized it, and one of you must live long enough to reach Longstreet. I advise you to take the Langley road,—it is the most protected,—and not try to pass beyond the old Coulter plantation until after dark, or you will run the risk of being observed by the enemy's pickets. Beyond this I must leave all to your own discretion."
He paused, and I still lingered, thinking he might have something more to add.
"Are you one of the Waynes of Charlottesville?" he asked gravely.
"Colonel Richard Wayne was my father, sir."
"Ah, indeed! I remember him well"; and his face lit up with a most tender smile. "We were together in Mexico. A Virginia gentleman of the old school. He is dead, I believe?"
"He was killed, sir, the first year of the war."
"I remember; it was at Antietam. And your mother? If my memory is not at fault she was a Pierpont?"
"She is now in Richmond, sir, and the old plantation is but a ruin."
"War is indeed sad," he said slowly; "and I often feel that our Southern women are compelled to bear the brunt of it. What heroines they have proven! History records no equal to the daily sacrifices I have witnessed in the past three years. God grant it may be soon ended."
Then, as if suddenly moved by the impulse of the moment, he again extended his hand.
"Well, lad," he said kindly, the same grave smile lighting his face, "our country needs us. We must not waste time here in conversation. I am very glad to have been permitted to meet the son of my old friend, and trust you will remember me to your mother. But now good-bye, Captain, and may He in whose hand we all are guide and guard you. I know that a Wayne of Virginia will always do his duty."
Bareheaded and with proudly swelling heart I backed out of the tent as I might have left the throne-room of an emperor, but as I grasped the reins and swung up into saddle, I became conscious that he had followed me. Craig flung up his hand in quick, soldierly salute, and then, with a single rapid stride, the General stood at his horse's head.
"Sergeant," he said,—and I was struck by the incisive military tone of his voice, so different from the gentleness shown within,—"I am informed that you are intimately acquainted with the roads to the westward."
"Every bridle-path, sir, either by night or day."
"Then possibly you can inform me whether the Big Hickory is fordable at Deer Gap."
"Not for infantry at high water, sir; but there is another ford two miles north where it is never over waist deep."
"That would be at Brixton's Mill?"
"No, sir; the other way."
Lee smiled, and rested his hand almost caressingly on the trooper's knee.
"You are a valuable man for us to risk on such a ride," he said kindly. "But I desire you to understand, Sergeant, how deeply I value the service you are about to render, and that I shall never permit it to be forgotten or go unrewarded. And now, good-night, Sergeant; good-night, Captain Wayne."
As we turned into the main road, riding slowly, I glanced backward. The General was yet standing there in front of his tent, gazing after us, the rays of the westering sun gleaming on his gray hair.
THE NIGHT RIDE
By five o'clock we were safe at Colchester, and while our horses rested and refreshed themselves on some confiscated grain, the two of us lay lazily back on a grassy knoll, well within the shadow of a ruined wall, and watched the round, red sun drop slowly down behind those western hills we had to climb.
We scarcely spoke regarding the work we knew was ahead, except to discuss briefly the better route to be selected for our hard night's ride. We were both old campaigners, inured by years of discipline to danger and obedience. This special duty, however arduous and desperate it might prove to be, was silently accepted as part of the service we owed the State. Reckless and hardened as I know Craig to have been, I have no doubt he reflected upon Lee and his kindly words and was touched and softened by their memory, as he lay there stretched at full length on the grass, his pipe glowing cheerily between his lips. But if so, his thoughts remained unuttered, nor did I feel inclined to dwell upon the theme; and so, in the strength of a simple comradeship which could remain silent, we waited patiently for the night to close us in.
As early as we deemed it safe to venture, we were again in saddle, riding now straight to the westward, along the smooth-beaten pike, until we caught sight of the black shadow of Colton Church in our front; then we swerved to the left, and still moving rapidly but with considerate care for the horses, headed directly across the more broken country toward the foot-hills.
It proved to be a hard, toilsome climb up those long, steep slopes rising before us; for we were extremely careful now to keep well away from every known route of travel, and our horses, although selected from among the best mounts of the cavalry brigade, had already been thoroughly winded by their smart trot up the valley. The short grass under foot, crisp from the hot sun of the long afternoon, caused many a slip of the poorly shod hoofs, while the darkness had grown so close and dense about us that we could barely creep through it, with only faith and a doubtful memory as guides. Every road, we well knew, would be patrolled by Federal pickets; only the broken country between could yield us the faintest prospect of success. But at best it must largely be guesswork,—Providence, luck, what you will,—and the slightest swing of the pendulum could easily frustrate our best laid plans.
An hour of this work passed. Whether or not we were yet within the enemy's lines was largely conjecture, for no human eye could pierce the enveloping gloom, and no sound, either of warning or encouragement, reached us as we strained our ears. The Sergeant rode slightly in advance as we toiled up the higher terrace, for our sole dependence as to direction and distance was upon his memory, and even that could scarcely serve for much on such a night as this. I traced his passage upward as best I might, and pressed close after him, guided not so much by sight as by sound,—the occasional rolling of a loosened stone, the rustling of leaves as he touched a bush in passage, the faint clinking of his sabre, and the heavy breathing of his horse,—until at last his long, slender figure rose sufficiently above the dark hill surface to be faintly silhouetted in deeper shadow against the dim reflection of the upper sky. Almost coincidently with this my horse ranged up beside his, where he had drawn rein in evident perplexity.
"What is it, Dan?" I questioned cautiously; for all I could feel reasonably assured of just then was that behind any rock or tree in our front there might be crouching a Federal picket.
"It's nothing Cap," he answered quietly, turning his face toward me as he spoke. "I'm just tryin' ter 'member some landmark yereabout ter guide from. Blamed if ever I see such a dark night; it's like bein' inside a pocket, sir, an' I reckon as how it must be nigh onter ten year since I run loose in this yere country as a kid. Thet thar cut-off we took a while back has sort o' confused me, that's a fac', and I don't just know whar I am; but I reckon as how the main ridge road we 're a huntin' after oughter run somewhar out yonder." He pointed forward into the night.
"I supposed from the map it would be found farther back and considerably to the right of us," I ventured doubtfully.
"Never saw no map, Cap," he returned, with the easy familiarity of a scout on service. "But if I recollect clear, it sure used ter run mighty close ter the east edge. I reckon it ain't changed none to speak of, an' so it'll have ter be somewhere just along thar."
He spoke with such an air of certainty that I felt any controversy useless.
"Very well; hand me your rein, and see what you can discover out there on foot. Sitting here isn't apt to mend matters, and we surely cannot afford to cripple our horses among those rocks."
The Sergeant, a gaunt, tireless mountaineer, slipped silently from his saddle, swung his light cavalry carbine from his back to the hollow of his arm, and in another moment was lost to sight in the darkness. A snake could not have slipped away more stealthily. I heard a stone rattle under his foot, a half-suppressed oath, and then the night had completely swallowed him.
How utterly alone I seemed; how intensely, painfully still everything was! The silence felt almost like a weight, so greatly it oppressed me. Even the accustomed voices of nature were hushed, as if war, with its unspeakable cruelty, had cast a spell over all things animate and inanimate. It was weird, uncanny. With every nerve strained I leaned forward across the pommel of my saddle, listening for the slightest sound out in that black void. My head burned and throbbed as with fever, and I felt that strange, unnatural stillness as though it had been a physical thing; surely others besides us were upon this hilltop! For I knew well—my every soldier instinct told me—that somewhere out in that impenetrable mystery were blazing the camp-fires of an enemy. Vigilant eyes were peering everywhere in search for such as we. How far away they might lurk I could not even conjecture,—perhaps merely around some near projecting wall of rock,—and we might even now be within the range of their ready rifles. I could hear the quickened throbbing of my heart, and my hand fell heavily on a pistol butt in nervous expectancy.
The soft night wind, heavy with pine odors, began suddenly to play amid the leaves of a low tree beside me, and the pleasant rustling mingled like strains of music with the slow breathing of the horses, but no other sound broke a silence that had become a positive pain. Man at his best is largely a creature of impulse, and I confess to a feeling almost of terror as I sat there in utter loneliness. I glanced behind, hoping that there at least I might discover some object on which my gaze might settle, something that would relieve the intense nerve- strain of the black nothingness. I swept with staring eyes the half circle where I knew must lie the deep wide valley far beneath, but no welcome gleam of light greeted me. Far out yonder, as I well knew, was the cheery glow where our ragged, tired comrades rested around their night fires, but the bend of the land between shut it all off as completely as if I were already in another world, a denizen of those cold and silent stars so far away.
I recall it now as one of the loneliest moments of my life, one of those almost unaccountable conditions of mind and body when it seemed to me that the thin, sinewy fingers of an inexorable fate were closing down with a pressure which no strength of man might resist. I was worn with fatigue in the saddle, but did not dream of sleep; my mind, in a firm endeavor to cast aside the uncanny influences of the hour, recalled in swift panorama those three years of civil strife which had run their course since I, a slender, white-faced lad, had stolen forth into the moonlight from the portals of the old home, to ride away into the northward where the throbbing drums called me. In those days I understood but little of the cause for which I was so eager to fight and suffer. Possibly I cared even less; yet I had ever since blindly followed the faded, tattered flag of my native State with the same passionate devotion that possessed thousands of others, and with no clearer thought than to remain beside it to the bitter end.
What strange, exciting years those had been; how filled with adventure! Like pictures painted on a screen there flashed across my memory in vivid colors the camps and marches, the long night vigils, the swift sweep of the charging squadrons, the deadly shock of battle, the scouting across unknown country, the hours of pain while the soft moon smiled down upon a stricken field, the weary weeks in the low-roofed hospital at Richmond. It seemed hardly possible that I could be that same slender, untried lad who stole forth with quaking heart, fearful of the very shadows of the oaks about the old home. What centuries of experience lay between! The same boy, yet moulded now into a man; into the leader of a troop of fighting men, hardened to steel by service, trusted by one whom the South most revered and loved,—a veteran soldier in the ranks of the hardest fighting legions our world has ever known. Yet such had been the magic touch of war. So deeply had my every thought become merged in these musings that Craig, slipping silently as a ghost from out the engulfing darkness, laid hand upon my bridle-rein before I became aware of his approach.
"I got 'er all right now, Cap," he announced quietly, peering up into my face. "We uns are not more nor a hundred yards ter the right of the road, but I reckon you'll find ther way a bit rough."
He led both horses forward, moving slowly and with that silent caution so characteristic of his class. With scarcely the scraping of a hoof on the flinty rocks we came forth in safety upon the defined, hard-beaten track.
"The south is over yonder ter the left," he whispered, as he swung up into saddle, "an' the trend of the road is mighty nigh due west."
"But in which direction does their main camp lie, Sergeant?"
He shook his head gravely.
"Durn it; thet's just what I can't quite figure out, sir—whether we uns be to ther north or south of ther white church. Then, somehow or other, it seems like to me as if this yere road lay a bit too close ter the edge of ther plateau ter ever be the main pike what the Feds marched over. I reckon from ther direction it runs that maybe it might be a branch like, or a wood-road leadin' inter the other. If thet's the way it is, then them fellers we uns is tryin' ter dodge ought ter be down yonder ter the left somewhar."
I gazed vaguely out into the black vacancy to which he pointed.
"Well, if we should chance to run up against one of their picket posts we shall be soon enlightened," I returned, urging my horse carefully forward. "But we shall have to take the chances, for it would not prove healthy for either of us to be caught here by daylight."
I heard Craig chuckle grimly to himself, as if he found humor in the thought, but without other attempt to give utterance to his feelings he ranged up close to my side.
Not daring to venture on any gait faster than a walk along this unknown and ill-defined mountain trail, we slowly and cautiously worked our way forward for more than an hour, meeting with no human obstacle to our progress, yet feeling that each step forward was surrounded by imminent peril. That we were now well within the guarded lines of the enemy we were both assured, although where or how we had succeeded in penetrating the cordon of picket posts unobserved we could only conjecture. The darkness about us seemed intensified by the high, overhanging bank of rock at our left; on the other side, and but dimly revealed against the sky-line, I could perceive Craig's gaunt figure as he leaned far over the high pommel of his cavalry saddle, his short carbine well advanced, his trained eyes seeking vainly to pierce the mystery in our front.
AN UNWELCOME GUEST
This was the sort of work I had long ago learned to love; it warmed the blood, this constant certainty of imminent peril, this intense probability that any moment might bring a flash of flame into our very faces. Each step we took was now a stern, grim play with Fate, where the stakes were life and death. I felt my pulses throb as I rode steadily forward, fairly thrusting the darkness aside, my teeth hard set, my left hand heavy on a revolver butt.
How, in such a situation, the nerves tingle and the heart bounds to each strange sight and sound! Halt!—what was that? Pooh! no more than the deeper shadow of a sharply projecting rock, around which we pick careful way, our horses crowding against each other in the narrow space. And that? Nothing but the faint moan of the night wind amid the dead limbs of a tree. Ah! mark that sudden flash of light! The hand that closes iron-like upon the loosened rein opens again, for it was merely a star silently falling from out the black depths of the sky. Then both of us halt at once, and peer anxiously forward. The figure standing directly in the centre of our path, can it be a sentry at last? A cautious step forward, a low laugh from the Sergeant, and we circle the gaunt, blackened stump, as silent ourselves as the night about us, but with fiercely beating, expectant hearts.
But hark! Surely that was no common sound, born of that drear loneliness! No cavalryman can mistake the jingle of accoutrements or the dull thud of horses' hoofs. The road here must have curved sharply, for they were already so close upon us that, almost simultaneously with the sound, we could distinguish the deeper shadow of a small, compact body of horsemen directly in our front. To left of us there rose, sheer and black, the precipitous rock; to right we might not even guess what yawning void. It was either wit or sword-play now.
I know not how it may be with others in such emergencies, but with me it always happens that the sense of fear departs with the presence of actual danger. Before the gruesome fancies of imagination I may quake and burn like any maiden alone upon a city street at night, until each separate nerve becomes a very demon of mental agony; but when the real and known once fairly confronts me, and there is work to do, I grow instantly cool to think, resolute to act, and find a rare joy in it. It was so now, and, revolver in hand but hidden beneath my holster flap, I leaned over and touched Craig's arm.
"Keep quiet," I whispered sternly. "Let them challenge first, and no firing except on my order."
Almost with the words there came the sharp hail:
"Halt! Who comes there?"
I drew the cape of my riding-jacket closer, so as better to muffle the sound of my voice.
"Friends, of course; who would you expect to meet on this road?"
Fortune seemed with me in the chance answer, for he who had hailed exclaimed:
"Oh! is that you, Brennan?"
There was no time now for hesitancy; here was my cue, and I must plunge ahead, accepting the chances. I ventured it.
"No; Brennan couldn't come. I am here in his place."
"Indeed! Who are you?"
There was a moment's painful pause, in which I could hear my heart throb.
"Wilkie," repeated the voice, doubtfully. "There is no officer of that name in the Forty-third."
"Well, there chances to be such an officer on the staff," I retorted, permitting a trace of anger to appear in my tone, "and I am the man."
"What the devil is the difference, Hale, just what his name is?" boomed a deeper voice back in the group. "We are not getting up a directory of the Sixth Corps. Of course he's the man Brennan sent, and that is all we've got to look after."
"Oh, all right, certainly, Major," returned the first speaker, hastily. "But the night is so cussed black I supposed we must be at least a mile this side of where we were to meet. However, we have the lady here for you all right, and she is anxious enough to get on."
The lady! Heavens! What odd turn of fortune's wheel was this? The lady! I heard Craig's smothered chuckle, but before I had sufficiently regained control over my own feelings to venture upon a suitable reply, the entire party had drawn forward, the leader pressing so close to my side that I felt safer with my face well shaded.
"Where is your escort, Major?" he asked, and the gruffness of his tone put me instantly on defence.
"Just behind us," I returned, with affected carelessness, and determined now to play out the game, lady or no lady. I was extremely sorry for her, but the cause outweighed her comfort. "The Sergeant and I rode out ahead when we heard you coming. Where is the lady?"
He glanced around at the group huddled behind him.
"Third on the left."
"All right, then. Nothing else, I believe"; for I was eager to get away. "Sergeant, just ride in there and lead, out her horse. We will have to be moving, gentlemen, for it is a rough road and a dark night."
"Beastly," assented the other, heartily.
I fairly held my breath as Craig rode forward. If one of them should chance to strike a match to light a pipe, or any false movement of Craig's should excite suspicion! If he should even speak, his soft Southern drawl would mean instant betrayal. And how coolly he went at it; with a sharp touch of the spur, causing his jaded horse to exhibit such sudden restlessness as to keep the escort well to one side, while he ranged close up to our unwelcome guest, and laying firm hand upon her horse's bit, led forth to where I waited. It was quickly, nobly done, and I could have hugged the fellow.
"Well, good luck to you, Major, and a pleasant ride. Remember me to Brennan. Deuced queer, though, why he failed to show up on such an occasion as this."
"He was unfortunate enough to be sent out in the other direction with despatches—good-night, gentlemen."
It was sweet music to me to listen to their hoof-beats dying rapidly away behind us as we turned back down the dark road, the Sergeant still riding with his one hand grasping the stranger's rein. I endeavored to scan her figure in the blackness, but found the effort useless, as little more than a shadow was visible. Yet it was impressed upon me that she sat straight and firm in the saddle, so I concluded she must be young. Rapidly I reviewed our predicament, and sought for some avenue of escape. If we were only certain as to where we were, we might plan with better prospect of success. The woman? Doubtless she would know, and possibly I might venture to question her without awakening suspicion. Surely the experiment was well worth trying.
"Madam," I began, seeking to feel my way with caution into her confidence, "I fear you must be quite wearied by your long ride."
She turned slightly at sound of my voice.
"Not at all, sir; I am merely eager to push on. Besides, my ride has not been a long one, as we merely came from General Sigel's headquarters."
The voice was pleasantly modulated and refined.
"Ah, yes, certainly," I stammered, fearful lest I had made a grave mistake. "But really I had supposed General Sigel was at Coultersville."
"He advanced to Bear Creek yesterday," she returned quietly. "So you see we had covered scarcely more than three miles when we met. How much farther is it to where Major Brennan is stationed?"
I fear I was guilty of hesitancy, but it was only for a moment.
"I am unable to tell exactly, for, as it chances, I have never yet been in the camp, but I should judge that two hours' riding will cover the distance."
"Why," in a tone of sudden surprise, "Captain Hale certainly told me it was all of twenty miles!"
"From Bear Creek?" I questioned eagerly, for it was my turn to feel startled now. "The map barely makes it ten."
"It is but ten, and scarcely that, by the direct White Briar road, or, at least, so I heard some of the younger officers say; but it seems the Rebel pickets are posted so close to the White Briar that my friends decided it would be unsafe to proceed that way."
This was news indeed,—news so unexpected and startling that I forgot all caution.
"Then what road do they call this?"
She laughed at my evident ignorance, as well as the eagerness of my tone.
"Really, you are a most peculiar guide," she exclaimed gayly. "You almost convince me that you are lost. Fortunately, sir, out of my vast knowledge of this mysterious region, I am able to enlighten you to some extent. We are now riding due southward along the Allentown pike."
Craig leaned forward so as to look across her horse's neck to where I rode on the opposite side.
"May I speak a word, sir?" he asked cautiously.
"Certainly, Sergeant; do you make anything out of all this?"
"Yes, sir," he answered eagerly. "I know now exactly how we missed it, and where we are. The cut-off to the White Briar I spoke to you about this afternoon cannot be more than a hundred yards below here."
"Ride ahead carefully then, and see if you can locate it. Be cautious; there may be a picket stationed there. We will halt where we are until you return."
He swung forward his carbine where it would be handy for instant service and trotted ahead into the darkness. The woman's horse, being comparatively fresh and restless, danced a little in an effort to follow, but I restrained him with a light hand on the bit, and for a moment we sat waiting in silence. Then her natural curiosity prompted a question.
"Why is it you seem so anxious to discover this cutoff?"
"We merely desire to take advantage of the more direct road," I replied somewhat shortly. "Besides, we are much farther to the east than I had supposed, and therefore too close to the lines of the enemy."
"How strange it is you should not have known!" she exclaimed in a voice of indignant wonder; but as I made no reply she did not venture to speak again.
My thoughts at that moment, indeed, were not with her, although I kept firm hold upon her rein. I was eager to be off, to make up by hard riding the tedious delay of this night's work, and constantly listening in dread for some sounds of struggle down the roadway. But all remained silent until I could dimly distinguish the returning hoof-beats of the Sergeant's horse; and so anxious was I to economize time that I was already urging our mounts forward when his shadow grew black in front, and he wheeled in at my side.
"No picket there, sir."
"Very well, Sergeant; when we come to the turn you are to ride a few rods in advance of us, and will set a good pace, for now we must make up for all this lost time."
I caught the motion of his hand as it was lifted in salute.
"Very well, sir; here is the turn—to your right."
I could dimly distinguish the opening designated, and as we wheeled into it he at once clapped spurs to his horse and forged ahead. In another moment he had totally disappeared, and as I urged our reluctant mounts to more rapid speed all sound of his progress was instantly lost in the pounding of our own hoofs on the hard road.
It was like riding directly against a black wall, and far from comforting to the nerves, for the path was a strange one, and not too well made. Fortunately the horses followed the curves without mishap, save an occasional awkward stumble amid loose stones, while the high walls of rock on either hand made a somewhat denser shadow where they shut off the lower stars, and thus helped me to guide our progress.
But it was no time for conversation, even had the inclination been mine, for every nerve was now strained to intensity as I spurred on my horse and held tightly to the bridle of the other, almost cursing, as I rode, the unlucky chance which brought us such a burden on a night like this.
A WOMAN WITH A TEMPER
I thought the stars grew somewhat brighter as we galloped on, the iron- shod hoofs now and then striking out sudden sparks of yellow flame from the flinty surface of the road; but this may have resulted from the lowering of the rocky barriers on either side, making the arch of sky more clearly visible. The air perceptibly freshened, with a chilly mountain wind beating against our faces and rustling the leaves of the phantom trees that lined the way. The woman rode silently and well. I could make out her figure now, dim and indistinct as the outlines were in that darkness and wrapped in the loose folds of an officer's cloak. She was sitting firm and upright in the saddle; I even marked how, with the ease and grace of a practical horsewoman, she held the reins.
I think we must have been fully an hour at it, riding at no mean pace, and with utter disregard of danger. Although I knew little of where we were, and nothing as to the condition of the path we traversed, yet so complete was my confidence in Craig that I felt no hesitancy in blindly following the pace he set. Then a black shape loomed up before us so suddenly that it was only by a quick effort I prevented a collision. Even as I held my horse poised half in air, I perceived it was Craig who blocked the way.
"What is it, Sergeant?"
"A picket, sir, at the end of the road," he said quietly.
"I kinder reckoned they'd hev some sort o' guard thar, so I crept up on the quiet ter be sure. The feller helped me out a bit by strikin' a match ter see what time 't was, or I reckon I'd a walked over him in ther dark."
"Had we better ride him down?" I asked, thinking only how rapidly the night hours were speeding and of the importance of the duty pressing upon us.
"Not with ther woman, sir," he answered in a low, reproachful voice. "Besides, we never could git through without a shot, an' if by any dern luck it should turn out ter be a cavalry outpost,—an' I sorter reckon that's what it is,—why, our horses are in no shape fer a hard run. You uns better wait here, sir, an' let me tend ter that soger man quiet like, an' then p'raps we uns kin all slip by without a stirrin' up ther patrol."
"Well," I said, reluctantly yielding to what I felt was doubtless the wiser course, and mechanically grasping the rein he held out to me, "go ahead. But be careful, and don't waste any time. If we hear the sound of a shot we shall ride forward under spur."
"All right, sir, but there 'll be no fuss, fer I know just whar ther fellar is."
Time seems criminally long when one is compelled to wait in helpless uncertainty, every nerve on strain.
"Hold yourself ready for a sudden start," I said warningly to my companion. "If there is any noise of a struggle yonder I shall drive in the spurs."
As I spoke I swung the Sergeant's horse around to my side, where I could control him more readily.
There was no reply from the woman, but I noticed she endeavored to draw together the flapping cape of her cloak, as though she felt chilled by the wind, and her figure seemed to stiffen in the saddle.
"Are you cold?" I questioned, more perhaps to throttle my own nervousness by speech than from better motive.
She shook her head; then, as if thinking better of it, answered lightly:
"The wind appears to find no obstacle in this cloak, but I am not suffering."
I wrapped the loose rein of Craig's horse about the pommel of my saddle and bent toward her.
"Permit me," I said; "you probably do not comprehend the intricacies of a cavalry cloak. If I fasten these upper frogs I think it will help to keep out the night air."
Without protest she permitted me to draw the flapping cloth together and fasten it closer about her throat; but whatever tantalizing curiosity I may have felt to view her face was effectually blocked by the high collar behind which she immediately took refuge.
"I am sure that will be much better; you are very kind." The words were pleasant enough, yet there was something in both tone and manner that piqued me, and I turned away without speaking.
It came at last—not the sharp flash of a musket cleaving the night in twain, but merely the tall figure of the Sergeant, stealing silently out of the gloom, like a black ghost, and standing at our very horses' heads.
"All clear, sir," he reported in a matter-of-fact tone. "But we shall hev ter move mighty quiet, fer ther main picket post ain't more nor a hundred yards ter the right o' ther crossin'."
He did not remount, but, with reins flung loosely over his arm, led the way slowly forward, and carefully we followed him.
What had become of the sentinel I did not know, respecting Craig's evident desire for silence; but as we drew nearer the White Briar road I sought in vain to pierce the dense gloom and note some sign of a struggle, some darker shadow where a body might be lying. There was nothing visible to tell the story.
The Sergeant walked without the least hesitation across the open space, directly into the deep shadows opposite, where the cross-road continued to hold way. Crouching low in the saddle, we followed him as silently as though we were but spirits of the night. Up the road I caught the red gleam of a fire almost spent, and a black figure crossed between us, casting an odd shadow against the face of the rock where it was lighted by the flickering red blaze. It was all over in a moment, a mere glimpse, but it formed one of those sudden pictures which paint themselves on the brain and can never after be effaced. I recall yet the long shade cast by the man's gun, the grotesque shape of his flapping army overcoat, the quick change in the silhouette as he wheeled to retrace his beat. But there was no noise, not even the sound of his footsteps reaching us. Even as I gazed, lying nearly full length upon my horse, we had crossed the open, and a perfect tangle of low bushes hid us as completely as if we had entered the yawning mouth of a cavern.
A hundred yards or more of sharply curving road densely lined with shrubbery on either hand, and then Craig swung into saddle and again gave spur to his horse.
"We must ride for it now," he said tersely. "When thet patrol makes their round, them fellers will be after us hot."
I urged my tired horse to a gallop, pressing upon Craig's heels as closely as I dared; nor did I glance back, for I knew well that a dead picket was lying somewhere by the cross-roads, and that his comrades would be heard from before the dawn.
We were moving bravely now; for the road under foot grew better as we advanced, and gave back the dull thud of soft earth instead of the rattling clang of the rocks we had been so long accustomed to. I forced the scabbard of my sabre beneath the bend of my knee to keep it from clanging against the iron stirrup, and only the breathing of the horses, and their heavy pounding on the earth, broke the night silence. Craig was riding directly in my front, sitting erect as if on parade, and the woman's horse kept up the pace without apparent effort. Surely we had already covered a good safe mile from where we had left the dead soldier to tell his speechless story, and the way ahead was clear. My spirits rose buoyantly with every stride of the horse, and my faith, never long dormant, already saw my task accomplished, my pledge to Lee fulfilled.
But it is the unexpected which masters us in the end. I had all but completely shut the dark night from my thoughts. I suppose, in truth, I was as keenly observant as ever, but it now seems to me that I was riding that black road with closed eyes, so busy were my thoughts elsewhere. Then, suddenly, my horse was jerked almost to a standstill, the hand upon his bit seemingly as hard as my own, and I wheeled in the saddle, pressing my knees tightly to prevent being thrown, only to perceive the woman tugging desperately at the lines.
"What now?" I asked sharply, and in sudden anger I forced her to release her grasp. "We must ride, and ride hard, madam, to be out of this cordon by daylight."
She faced me stiffly, and there was a slight sting in her voice, I felt.
"Where?" I repeated; then partially gathering my scattered wits: "Why, to the camp we are seeking, of course."
I was conscious that her eyes were striving anxiously to see my face in the darkness,—that her suspicions were now fully aroused; yet her quick retort surprised me.
"You lie!" she said coldly. "That was a Federal picket he killed."
It was no time for argument, and I knew it. Any moment might bring to us the sound of hoof-beats in pursuit; more, I realized that anything I might hope to say would only tend to make matters worse. There was but one course open. She must be compelled to ride, by force if necessary. Why should I hesitate? She had no claim on my consideration, and I hardened my heart to make her comprehend, once and for all, that I was the master. Even as I reached this decision, Craig, noting our pause, had ridden back, and reined in beside us without a word.
"You are right," I said tersely. "In one sense of the word you are prisoner, for the time being at least, but not through any wish of mine. We do not make war on women, and your being in this situation is altogether an accident. However, be that as it may, we must, first of all, protect ourselves. I would very gladly leave you with your friends, if possible, but as things have shaped themselves there remains but one alternative—you must ride as I order."
I could mark her quick breathing while I spoke, and when I concluded one hand went up to her throat as if she choked.
"You—you are not Major Brennan's friend then? You were not sent by Frank to meet me?" The questions burst from her lips so rapidly that I scarcely caught their import.
"I am Captain Philip Wayne, ——th Virginia Cavalry, at your service, madam," I said calmly, "and to the best of my knowledge I have not the pleasure of Major Brennan's acquaintance."
She seemed not to know what to say, and sat there staring at me through the darkness, as she might have gazed in speechless horror at some wild animal she expected would spring upon her.
"A Rebel!" The hated word hissed from her lips as if the utterance burned them.
"Yes, madam," I said, somewhat coldly, for I was not especially fond of the term, "that is what they call us on your side, but also an officer and a gentleman."
I doubt if she even heard me. All I know is she suddenly lifted the heavy riding whip that was clinched in her right hand, struck me with it full across the face, and then, as I quickly flung up my own arm to ward off a second blow, she sent the lash swirling down upon the flank of her horse. With one bound the maddened animal wrenched the reins from out my hands, nearly dragging me from the saddle, and swerved sharply to the left. There was a shock, a smothered oath, a moment's fierce struggle in the darkness, the sharp ping of the whip as it came down once, twice—then silence, broken only by deep breathing.
"I've got her, Captain," chuckled the Sergeant, softly, "but dog-gone if I know what to do with her."
There was small sentiment of mercy in my heart as I drew up toward them, for my cheek burned where the lash had struck as though scorched with fire. For the moment I felt utterly indifferent to all claims of her womanhood. She had unsexed herself, and deserved treatment accordingly. It was thus I felt as I clinched my teeth in pain; but when I saw her leaning helplessly forward on her horse's neck, all bravado gone, her hands pinioned behind her in the iron grip of the Sergeant, my fierce resentment died away within me.
"Let go her hands. Craig." I commanded briefly.
She lifted her body slightly from its cramped, uncomfortable posture, but her head remained bowed.
"Madam,"—I spoke sternly, for moments were of value now,—"listen to what I say. We are Confederate soldiers passing through the Federal lines with despatches. In order to save ourselves from discovery and capture we were compelled to take you in charge. It was the fortune of war. If now we could honorably leave you here we would most gladly do so, for having you with us adds vastly to our own danger; but these mountains are simply overrun with wandering guerillas who would show you neither respect nor mercy. We simply dare not, as honorable men, leave you here unprotected, and consequently you must continue to ride in our company. Now answer me plainly, will you proceed quietly, or shall we be compelled to tie you to your horse?"
I knew she was crying; but with an effort she succeeded in steadying her voice sufficiently to reply.
"I will go," she said.
"Thank you," and I gravely lifted my hat as I spoke. "You have saved me a most unpleasant duty. You may ride on, Sergeant; this lady and I will follow, as before."
She scarcely changed her posture as I spurred forward, riding now so close to her side that I could feel the flap of her saddle rise and fall against my knee. Whatever of evil she may have thought of us, I felt that she was sorry enough now for her hasty action, and I forgave the pain that yet stung me, and longed, without well knowing how, to tell her so.
A DISASTER ON THE ROAD
To me she was merely a woman whom it had become my duty to protect, and whatever of chivalrous feeling I may have held toward her was based upon nothing deeper than this knowledge. She had come to us undesired and in darkness, her form enveloped in a cavalry cloak, her face shrouded by the night. As to whether she was young or old I had scarce means of knowing, saving only that the tone of her voice and the graceful manner of her riding made me confident that she had not lost the agility of youth. But beyond this vague impression (it was little more), and a fleeting gleam of the starlight in her eyes as she faced me in anger, I was as totally unaware of how she really looked as though we had never met. Her very name was unknown to me. Who was this Major Brennan? Was he father, brother, or husband? and was her name Brennan also? For some reason this last possibility was repugnant to me. Yet I knew not why.
I turned these thoughts over in my mind, speculating idly upon them, not because I felt any interest in their solution, or in the woman riding at my side, but because they seemed to fall into order to the steady music of my horse's feet and the darkness of the night. "No," I said to myself, "there is certainly no leaving her except in a disciplined camp; young or old, Yankee or what not, she is in our care, and we'll keep her out of the hands of those cut-throats between the lines."
I glanced toward her, wondering what the morning light might reveal as to her appearance. She was sitting erect and easy in the saddle, yet seemed to ride with her face averted from me.
"You ride as though born to the saddle," I said pleasantly; and although I spoke low, we were so close together that my voice carried distinctly to her ears. "We have been sufficiently conceited to suppose that to be an accomplishment peculiar to our Southern women."
"I have been accustomed to ride since childhood," she replied rather shortly, and I was conscious of a restraint in her manner far from pleasing. Yet I ventured upon one more effort at conversation.
"Is Major Brennan an officer on Sheridan's staff?"
"I was not aware "—and I could not mistake the accent of vindictiveness in her voice—"that prisoners were obliged to converse against their will."
My lady certainly possessed a temper of her own, and I was obliged to smile there in the dark at her high head and quick retort.
"I ask your pardon, I am sure,"—I returned soberly. "But my question was not altogether an idle one. I have chanced to meet several of General Sheridan's staff, and thought possibly Major Brennan might have been of their number. Seeing that we must associate for a time, I naturally felt it would prove pleasanter for both of us if we might discover some mutual tie."
There was no response. Her eyes were fastened upon the road ahead, and evidently my lady possessed no desire for the discovery of any such tie. Watching her, I pressed my lips together, and held her as a proud and silly fool.
I would perform my full duty toward her, of course, but beyond that I would go no further.
The pace we were travelling had already told severely on the horses, although hers was by far the best and freshest of the three. My own brave sorrel had stumbled several times already in a way that gave me no small uneasiness, yet I durst not venture to draw rein or even slacken speed. Already, beyond a doubt, the patrol in our rear had missed the picket stationed at the crossroads, had searched until they found the lifeless body where Craig had hidden it, and were now hot upon our trail. Hard, continuous riding alone could save us—riding with a thoroughly aroused enemy at our heels, and yet another picket line to pass before we could even hope for a clear sweep into safety.
The road we were following here took a sudden trend downward, and we could tell from the sharper ring of the hoofs, and the spitting of flinty sparks beneath us, that we were among rocks once more. Then our horses suddenly splashed into water, and I held them up long enough to drink. I felt thirst strongly myself, and slipping out of the saddle, filled my canteen.
"Would you care for a drink?" I asked, stemming the stream to reach her side, and holding the vessel within easy grasp of her hand.
I actually believe her first impulse was to refuse haughtily this proffered civility from an enemy of her country, but the deep sense of need conquered foolish pride and caused her to accept the offering.
"I am very thankful to you," she said, handing back the canteen; yet the words were spoken in mockery. I ignored them, and swung into my saddle without response.
Another hill followed, and then another, and finally we swept swiftly down a long slope densely bordered by trees and with irregular piles of rock uprearing ugly heads on either hand. A little edge of the waning moon began to peep over the ridge of the hill, and yielded sufficient light to enable our eyes to discern dimly the faint track we followed. I remember remarking the blacker figure of the Sergeant ahead of us, and already halfway down the long decline. I caught a swift glimpse of a rough log house on the right, so set back among trees that I half doubted its real existence, when—there was a slip, the crunching of a stone, a long stumble forward that fairly wrenched my hand loose from the woman's rein, and then, hopelessly struggling to regain his feet, my horse went down with a crash, head under, and I was hurled heavily forward upon my face.
Severely bruised by the shock, but fortunately without broken bones, I recall half-wheeling even as I fell, wondering if my prisoner would grasp this opportunity for escape. Quite probably the thought never occurred to her; perhaps her woman's heart, in the stress of such accident, held her motionless. But Craig, startled at the sudden crash behind him, spurred back to learn the full extent of my disaster. By this time I had regained my feet.
"I'm all right, I think, Sergeant," I said hastily, "but the sorrel has broken her neck."
He began to swear at our ill luck, but I stopped him with a gesture he knew better than to ignore.
"Enough of that," I commanded sternly. "Bad fortune is seldom bettered by hard words. First of all, help me to drag this dead body out of sight."
On one side of us the bank fell away with such precipitancy that when we once succeeded in dragging our load to the edge, we experienced no difficulty in sending it crashing downward. The body plunged through the thick underbrush at the bottom of the gorge, where I knew it would be completely hidden, even in the glare of daylight, from the prying eyes of any troopers riding hard upon our track. With a branch, hastily wrenched from a near-by tree, I carefully raked over the track, so that, as far as I could determine in the dim light, all outward trace of my accident had been fairly obliterated.
As we rapidly worked on this disagreeable task, I thought and planned: two horses and three riders,—one of these latter a woman in need of protection,—a despatch to be delivered by daylight, at all hazards. It was indeed a difficult proposition, and I saw only a single possible solution. One of our number must press on; two of us must remain behind. Which one? what two? If I rode with the despatch (and how eagerly I longed to do so!), and succeeded in bringing Lee's message safe to Longstreet, it meant much to me—promotion, distinction, honor. On the other hand, if I remained behind, and Craig successfully carried out the duty which had been especially intrusted to me, I should be fortunate indeed to escape with a reprimand instead of more serious consequences. If failure resulted, it meant certain and deserved disgrace. Yet I could absolutely trust him with the despatch; he was a soldier, and would faithfully perform a soldier's duty. More, he would carry the message with even greater certainty than I, for he knew the roads much better, and—I write the words hesitatingly—I could not trust him there alone with the woman.
I glanced aside at him as I thus turned the perplexing situation over in my mind,—a tall, gaunt mountaineer, whose sole discipline of mind and body had been the army; hardened by service until every muscle in his lean, sinewy frame was like steel, a cavalryman who would follow his leader into the very jaws of hell, but whose morals were those of the camp, and whose face revealed audacious deviltry such as no man would care to see in one to whom he intrusted the welfare of sister or wife. Recalling to mind certain idle stories that circulated through the camp from time to time, in which his name had figured, I glanced backward to where the woman sat her horse in silence and loneliness, and made my resolve: I would risk the censure; if there must be sacrifice it should be mine.
"Sergeant," I asked, flinging aside the improvised brush, "how far do you suppose we are from Longstreet's picket line?"
"Ten miles at the very best, sir," he answered promptly, "an' I reckon with another Yankee outpost atween."
"With fair luck and good riding it might be made by daylight?"
"I reckon as how it might, Captain, if we only hed sum fresh hosses," he said glumly; "but it's bin mighty hard on my nag; I've looked fer him to roll over like yer sorrel did fer the las' two mile."
"Well, Craig, you shall have both horses. Ride the woman's, it is the fresher of the two; but you are to get through if you kill them both and then walk."
His face brightened, and he raised his hand in salute.
"And you?" he asked wonderingly.
"I remain with the woman; there is no other way. Wait here a moment while I speak with her."
I left him standing there, and moved back to where she waited. As I came up she faced me, and for the first time (for the night had lightened somewhat) I could see her eyes and discern some faint outline of her face where the night wind flung back the upturned cape. It was a winsome sight to soldier vision, but with a certain semblance of pride and reserve about it that caused a hesitancy in my speech strange enough to me. I felt oddly like a bashful boy, and involuntarily lifted my hat as I approached, to cover my confusion. Some trick of the dancing moon shadows made me imagine that she smiled, and the sight nerved me instantly to speak bluntly the words I came to say.
"Madam"—I rested my hand upon her horse's mane and looked up at her with a glance as proud as her own,—"it might be as well for you to draw the cape closer about your face at present. There are rough men in all armies who would consider your beauty a lawful prize. The life we lead is not conducive to gentleness; virtue is not born in camps, and it would be better not to provoke a danger which may be so easily avoided."
A wave of sudden color swept her cheeks at my plain speech, and her hand sought the collar of the cloak, yet paused there irresolute.
"You claimed, I believe, to be an officer and a gentleman," she said coldly.
I smiled, even as I felt the full chill of her words, and my purpose stiffened within me.
"Even as I yet claim, and trust to be able to prove to your satisfaction,"—my eyes looked unfalteringly into hers,—"but, unfortunately, I have one with me to-night who is neither. I would that he were for my own sake. However, madam, let that pass. The fact is here, and we have no time to argue or quarrel. I have already told you that we ride with despatches for Longstreet. These must go forward at all hazards, for thousands of human lives depend upon them; yet I dare not leave you here alone and unprotected to the mercies of the wolves who haunt these hills."
"You are exceedingly kind."
The tone in which she spoke was most sarcastic, "I thank you for your approbation," and I bowed again; "but I venture to tell you this merely because I have already fully determined to despatch the Sergeant forward with the message, and remain behind myself to render you every protection possible."
"Do you mean that we are to remain here alone?"
"There is no other way."
She made no reply, but her proud unbelieving eyes were no longer upon my face.
"I beg you to believe, madam," I pleaded gently, for I confess my interest in her good opinion was growing stronger, "that I do this only because I believe it to be a duty, and not that I desire in any way to distress you with my presence."
She swept my upturned face suddenly with questioning eyes.
"As your prisoner I presume I have no choice in the matter."
"I should prefer that you took a different view, but in a measure you are right."
"Very well, sir; I simply yield to what I am powerless to avoid, and will obey your orders however distasteful they may be. What is your first command?"
"That you dismount. The Sergeant must ride your horse, as he is the more fit of the two."
Greatly to my surprise and relief she placed her gauntleted hand in mine, and, without so much as a word of protest, permitted me to swing her lightly from the saddle to the ground.
"Craig," I called, "come here"; and turning to her, added quietly, "Kindly draw up your cape for a moment."
I noticed her hands fasten the clasps, which had become loosened, and that she turned partially so as to look backward up the road as the Sergeant drew near.
"You know your work," I said to him briefly. "And now the sooner you are at it the better. Ride this horse and lead your own. As soon as you deliver Lee's message at headquarters, hunt up the cavalry brigade commander and report to him my position. Get a detail, insist upon one, and be back here by to-morrow without fail. That is all."
He saluted, wheeled about, swung lightly into saddle, and rode off on a rapid trot, grasping, as he passed down the hill, the rein of his own mount, and leading it, lagging, behind him, until the night swallowed the figures, and even the sound of the hoof-beats could be no longer heard. We were alone.
A STRUGGLE IN THE DARK
I have seldom been more deeply embarrassed than at that moment. I knew not what to say or how best to approach this young woman left so strangely to my protection. The very fact, which I now realized, that she was both young and fair added some indefinite burden and complicated the delicate situation. I saw no safety for us but in careful hiding until Craig could return, a squad of hard-riding troopers at his back. To permit the girl to venture forward alone through the desolate country we were in, overrun as I knew it to be by irregular bands whose sole purpose was plunder, and whose treatment of women had made my blood run cold as I listened to its recital, was not to be so much as thought of. Even if, by rare good fortune, she should succeed in safely reaching the Federal picket post in our front, the men on duty there were just as likely as not to prove of the same desperate stamp, and every indignity might be offered her were she to appear alone. Nor could I venture to accompany her on such a trip, for to do so would but assure my own capture, and involve months of confinement in Northern prisons, even were I fortunate enough to escape with life. Wearing as I did the full field uniform of my rank, it was hardly probable that regular troops would treat me as a spy, even though caught within their lines; but if we fell into the hands of guerillas it would be a short shrift indeed.
There was no help for it, and but one way out, disagreeable as that might prove to my lady. She stood there before me, motionless and silent as a statue, exactly where she had alighted when the Sergeant took her horse, and it seemed to me I could plainly read righteous indignation in the indistinct outline of her figure and the haughty pose of her head. To her at that moment I was evidently a most disagreeable and even hated companion, a "Rebel," the being of all others she had been taught to despise, the enemy of all she held sacred. "Could any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
Well, unpleasant as was the task, it had to be done, so, mustering my courage for the ordeal as I never had to do in time of battle, I advanced toward her, hat in hand. She never so much as glanced about at the sound of my footsteps, nor deigned by the slightest motion to acknowledge my presence. So intense, indeed, was her evident sense of indignity that it awoke within me something akin to anger at her unreasonableness, and for the moment I clinched my teeth to keep back the hot words burning upon my tongue. Then I smiled grimly with the rare humor of it, and became myself once more.
"The time has come when it becomes my duty to look after your comfort and safety," I said, striving to disguise all self-consciousness. "Every moment we delay now merely increases the danger of our remaining here."
"I imagine I might very easily dispense with any further care on your part."
Her reply nettled me, and I answered with an earnestness which she could neither ignore nor check: "Possibly you may think so, but if you do it is merely because of your utter ignorance of the disorganized conditions which prevail in these mountains. Your pride is almost ridiculous under all the circumstances. You have no just cause to feel that I am forcing myself unnecessarily upon you. Our being compelled to take you in charge has proven as disastrous to us as to you. Personally I can say that nothing will relieve me more than to be able to place you uninjured into the care of your own people. I would willingly assume great risks to that end. But while you remain here and in my care, I shall perform my full duty toward you as though you were my own sister. Now please listen to me, and I assure you I shall speak nothing for the mere purpose of alarming you, but simply that you may better comprehend the facts which must influence our present relationship. I have sent forward Sergeant Craig with the message especially intrusted to me for delivery, and thus, if it fail to reach its destination, I have laid myself open to the charge of a grave military crime. In doing this I have not only perilled my own future, but the lives of my comrades and the faith of my commander. Yet I have deliberately chosen to do so because I feel the impossibility of leaving you here unprotected, and because I was unwilling to trust you alone with my companion. I made this choice, remember, without in the least knowing whether you were young or old, worthy of respect or unworthy. I did it because you were a woman, alone and without friends. Whether you spurn my protection or not will make no difference; I shall simply continue to do what I may on your behalf until you are again in the hands of those you trust."
"But why may I not go to them now?"
The question was impetuous, but the voice sounded more gentle. My words had at least pierced her armor.
"Simply because I dare not permit you to traverse these roads alone," I said soberly. "The mountains all about us, deserted as they now appear, are filled with wandering bands of desperate and hunted men whose tenderest mercy is death. Any rock may be the hiding-place of an outlaw, any dark ravine the rendezvous of as wild a gang as ever murdered for plunder. For months past—yes, for years—the two great armies have scouted these hills, have battled for them, and every forward or backward movement of the contesting lines has left its worthless horde of stragglers behind, until with guerilla and bushwhacker, fleeing conscript and deserter, it has become such a meeting-place of rascality and crime as to be a veritable hell on earth."
"But the Sergeant said there was a Federal picket post at the crossing of the White Briar."
Her voice trembled as she spoke.
"He merely supposed there would be; but even if it were true, we have no positive means of knowing that the men stationed there would be of the regular service. Doubtless these thieving, murdering bands—such as that headed by Red Lowrie, of whom you may have heard—are sufficiently organized to keep patrols posted, and may, indeed, be utilized at times by both armies for that purpose. Were you to go to them you might be simply walking into a den of wolves."
"But could you not go with me?"
I smiled at the naive innocence of her query.
"I wish you to feel that I have never thought so much about my own danger as about yours," I returned quietly. "But would it be a pleasure even to you to behold me swinging from the limb of a tree, hung as a spy without trial, merely because I ventured to walk with you into a Federal camp?"
I could see her eyes now resting full upon me, and much of the hardness and doubt seemed to have gone out of them as she scanned my uncovered features in the dim light. I scarcely think I was ever considered a handsome man even by my friends, but I was young then, frank of face, with that about me which easily inspired confidence, and it did me good to note how her eyes softened, and to mark the perceptible tremor in her voice as she cried impulsively:
"Oh, no! Not that!"
"Your words yield me new heart," I replied fervently, determined, now that the ice was partially broken, to permit no excuse for its again forming, "for if you but once fully realize our situation you will certainly feel that I am merely endeavoring to perform my plain duty. I know not how I could do less without forfeiting entirely your respect. Now one thing more—please banish from your thought the idea that you are in any way a prisoner; forget, if possible, the color of my uniform, and think of me simply as an officer of equal rank and standing with those you know in your own army,—one who stands ready, if need arise, to protect you with his life; as glad to serve you as if he wore the blue instead of the gray."
I believed for a moment my words had appealed to her nobler nature; that she would outstretch to me her slightly uplifted hand and surrender utterly. But it was only for the moment; whatever wave of emotion may have moved her to the gesture, it was as suddenly swept aside by a return of the old proud, impetuous spirit.
"I will, of course, bow to the inevitable, sir," she said, "and shall endeavor to adapt myself to the requirements of my unfortunate situation. May I venture to inquire what you now propose to do?"
I confess to experiencing a quick feeling of resentment as I turned to scan the dim surroundings, not knowing at the moment how best to answer her. Who was this girl, that she should continue to bear herself as a disdainful queen might toward the very meanest of her subjects? Was I so far beneath her, even in the social scale, as to warrant such assumption of superiority? No, I felt that this was not the cause of her cold suspicion, her proud, unapproachable bearing. Undoubtedly it arose from the manner in which she had fallen into our hands, the strangeness and delicacy of our situation, the knowledge that I was a "Rebel" in arms against her people. These were the things which had reared such a barrier between us. She but resorted to what was apparently her only available weapon of defence. Well, of one thing, and that the most important, I was now assured—there would occur no further struggle on her part; if not fully resigned to the situation, she at least realized the necessity of obedience to my will. This was much; but now what could I do with her?
To the right of where we stood the ground sloped rapidly downward until the dense darkness at the foot of the steep defile shrouded everything from view. The descent appeared rocky and impracticable, and I could distinguish the sound of rapid water far below. On the opposite side stood a dense wood, the outer fringe of trees overhanging the road, and through the waving leaves the moonlight checkered the ground with silver, while the dense mass beyond seemed to flow back up the steep side of the mountain, thick with underbrush. Just below us, and possibly fifty feet from the highway, I could perceive a small one- story log cabin, as silent, gloomy, and deserted to all outward appearance as were the sombre woods of which it formed a part.
"There seems small choice," I said, speaking as cheerfully as possible. "But I propose to investigate the log hut yonder, and learn if it may not afford some degree of shelter."
She glanced furtively in the direction pointed out, and her eyes mirrored the sudden fear that swept into them.
"Oh, no!" she cried impulsively, "I could never venture into that horrible place."
It did, indeed, look uncanny enough in its black loneliness, a fit abiding place for ghost and goblin damned; but I was not inclined to yield to superstitious dread.
"Certainly not," I answered, "until after I have investigated it. Perhaps it may prove more attractive within than without, although, I confess, from here it appears gloomy enough to discourage any one. However, if you will rest here, in the shadow of these trees, I will soon discover whether it has inmates or not."
She followed me in silence across the road to the spot designated, but as I turned to leave her seated upon the grass, and well protected from prying eyes, she hurried quickly after me, and in her agitation so far forgot herself as to touch my sleeve with her hand.
"Oh, please do not leave me here alone. I am not naturally timid, yet everything is so gloomy I cannot stand it. Let me go with you, if you must go!"
"Most assuredly you shall if you desire," I returned heartily. "But really there is not a particle of danger in this, for if the house were inhabited its occupants would have been aroused long ago. Follow just behind me, and we shall soon solve the mystery."
There appeared before us a dim, little-used path leading in among the trees, and following its erratic curves we were soon before the cabin, which grew ever more uninviting as we drew near. As I paused a moment before the closed door, in order that I might listen for any possible sound within, I could hear her quick breathing, as though the terror of the moment had driven all else from her mind.
"Do not feel frightened," I said, seeking to reassure her. "There is nothing here more terrifying than a vacant house, doubtless long since deserted. We shall discover nothing more formidable within than a rat or two."
The wooden latch yielded readily enough to my pressure, and pushing wide open the door, which creaked slightly upon its rusty hinges, I stepped across the puncheon threshold onto the hard earthen floor. There was no window visible, and the slight reflection of moonlight which crept in through the doorway scarcely revealed the nature of that dark interior. I could dimly perceive what I believed to be a table directly in front of me, while certain other indistinct and ill defined shadows might be chairs pushed back against the wall. At least this room was without occupants; yet it was with every sense alert that I entered, pressing slowly past the table toward where I felt the fireplace would naturally be, knowing that my companion was yet with me, her hand clutching my arm.
"Oh!" she cried sharply in terror, "what was that?"
It was something certainly,—a deadened, muffled, shuffling sound directly in our front, followed by a strange noise of scraping, as if with a dull knife on wood.
"Wait here." I said sternly. "Probably it is nothing more dangerous than a rat."
I felt my way carefully around the table, a revolver ready in my hand. There was nothing to be found there,—nothing, indeed, in the room; for from my new position I could look backward and distinguish in the moonlight the details of that simple, squalid interior. I ran my hand along the rough logs of the further wall. Ay! here was a break, doubtless a door; and groping along the crack I found the latch.
There was no longer any noise audible, and I drew the door inward, never dreaming of danger. Suddenly, with a fierce, wild spring out of the dark, a huge body hurled itself directly at my throat, striking with such headlong impetus that I went backward as if shot, crashing against the table, then to the floor, dropping my weapon as I fell. There was no noise, no sound, while for an instant, with strength of sheer desperation, I held back the snapping jaws that breathed hot fire into my very face. With a bound backward of its great body the beast jerked free from my grip, and the next instant had sunk its dripping fangs, deep and hard, into the flesh of my shoulder. As the intense pain shot through me, my right hand, driven with all the force I could muster, caught the monster once, twice, full in the throat, but tighter and tighter those clinched jaws locked, until it seemed as if every bone between them must be ground to powder. Even as I grasped the lower jaw, seeking vainly to wrench it loose, I heard the girl scream in sudden afright.
"Quick!" I gasped desperately. "Get my revolver there on the floor, and use it—but for God's sake keep down; don't let the brute see you."
She must have heard, but there was no response, although her crying ceased. Yet my own struggle to rid myself of that crushing weight and those iron jaws drowned all other sounds, drove all other thoughts from me. I doubt if what I now record occupied a minute; but God protect me from ever having to experience such another minute! I continued to struggle in desperate hopelessness with single hand, in vain endeavor to wrench loose that awful grip upon my shoulder. Every movement I made was an agony, an inexpressible torture, but the very intensity of pain kept me from faintness, as the maddened beast tore deeper and deeper into the quivering flesh. With knee bent double beneath me I succeeded in turning partially upon one side, lifting the entire weight of the animal as I did so; but no degree of force I could exert would loosen those set jaws. There was no growling, no savage snarling, no sound of any kind,—just that fierce, desperate, silent struggle for life in the darkness. Every muscle of my body began to weaken from the strain, my eyes blurred, faintness swept over me, I felt my brain reeling, when there burst a vivid flash of flame within a foot of my face, singeing my forehead; then followed a deafening report, and the huge brute sprang backward with a snarl of pain, his teeth clicking together like cogs of steel. Then he stiffened and fell prone across me, a dead, inert weight, pinning me breathless to the floor.
For the moment I could do no more than lie there helpless, gasping for breath, scarce conscious even of my deliverance. Then, as sufficient strength returned for action, I rolled the body of the dead brute off me, and lifting myself by aid of the wall against which my head rested, looked about. Two broken chairs overturned upon the floor, and the shapeless, huddled body of my late assailant, alone spoke of the violence of that deadly struggle; but the cabin was yet full of smoke, and I could perceive the figure of the girl leaning against the frame of the open door, the revolver still grasped in her hand. Her posture was that of a frightened deer, as her terror-filled eyes sought the dark interior.
"It is safely over," I said weakly, for my breath yet came to me in gasps. "The brute is dead."
"And you are not killed!" Shall I ever forget the glad ring in her voice?—"Oh, thank God! thank God!"
The sound of these eager words yielded me a fresh measure of life.
"Believe me, I certainly do," I said as cheerfully as possible, "and I thank you also as His instrument; but if you would keep me from fainting away like a nerveless woman, I beg you come here."
I could mark her coming across the narrow streak of moonlight, moving toward me as a frightened bird might, startled at everything, and passing as far from the lifeless mass on the floor as the small space would allow. As she bent anxiously over me her face was so in shadow that I could distinguish nothing of its features.
"What is it? Are you indeed severely hurt?"
"Not seriously, I think, yet I have lost some blood, and am in great pain. There is brandy in the inner pocket of my jacket, but I am unable to move my arm in order to reach it. Would you endeavor to draw the flask out?"
I felt her bend over me, her soft breath coming almost in sobs upon my face, as with trembling fingers she undid the buttons of my trooper's jacket and extracted the small flat flask I had been thoughtful enough to store away there.
The fiery liquid seemed to put new blood into my veins, and with it there returned all my old-time audacity, with that intense hopefulness in which I had been trained by years of war and self-reliance.
"Ah! now I feel I am myself once more," I exclaimed cheerily. "Things are surely not so bad after all. At least we have a roof over our heads, and another day in which to live."
I felt her shudder.
"Oh, please do not make light of it," she whispered. "It is so like some horrid dream, and I am trembling yet." I put my hand upon hers, and it was not withdrawn.
"I trust you realize," I said, "that I am neither thoughtless nor ungrateful. Years of war service make one careless of life, but I know it was your shot that saved me. You are a brave girl."
Her overtaxed nerves gave way at my words, and I knew she was crying softly. The sobbing was in her voice as she strove to speak.
"Oh, no, I am not; you do not guess how great a coward I am. I scarcely knew what I was doing when I fired. That horrid thing—what was it?"
"A huge mastiff, I imagine; one of the largest of his breed. But whatever it may have been, the beast is dead, and we have nothing more to fear from him."
"Yet I tremble so," she confessed, almost hysterically. "Every shadow frightens me."
I realized that no amount of conversation would quiet her nerves so effectively as some positive action; besides, I felt the hot blood constantly trickling down my arm, and realized that something needed to be done at once to stanch its flow, before weakness should render me equally useless.
"Do you think you could build a fire on the hearth yonder?" I asked. "I am afraid I am hardly capable of helping you as yet; but we must have light in this gloomy old hole, or it is bound to craze us both. Take those broken chairs if you find nothing better."
She instantly did as I bade her, moving here and there about the room until she gathered together the materials necessary, but keeping carefully away from where the dead dog lay, until in a brief space of time the welcome flame leaped up in the wide black chimney, and cast its red glare all over the little room. The activity did her good, the light flooding the gloomy apartment yielded renewed courage, and there was a cheerier sound in her voice as she came back to me.
"The great ugly brute!" she exclaimed, looking at the form in the centre of the floor.
"He was certainly heavy enough to have been a bear," I replied, clinching my teeth in pain, "and sufficiently savage."
I viewed her now for the first time clearly, and the memory will remain with me till I die. How distinctly that entire picture stands forth with the mist of all these years between! The low-ceiled room, devoid of all furniture save of the rudest and most primitive kind; the bare logs forming the walls, unrelieved in their rough ugliness, except as here and there sundry unshapely garments dangled from wooden pegs; the rough deal table, with a few cheap dishes piled upon one end of it; the dead dog lying across the earthen floor; and over all the leap of 'ruddy flame as the newly kindled fire gathered way, leaving weird shadows here and there, yet steadily forcing them back, and flooding the whole interior with a cheery glow.
She had flung aside the blue and yellow cloak which, during the long hours of our night ride had so completely shrouded her, and stood before me dressed in some soft clinging stuff of a delicate brown color, so cut and fashioned as to most become her rounded, graceful form. About her neck a narrow strip of creamy lace was fitted, the full throat rendered whiter by the contrast, while at her wrists a similar ornament alone served to relieve the simple plainness of her attire. The flaming fire lighted up her face, making it seem to flush with the dancing glow, which sparkled like diamonds in her eyes, and touched with ruddy light the dark, dishevelled hair. Hers was a young, fair face,—a face to love and trust forever, yet with a pride in it, and a certain firmness also that somehow was good to see. All this I noted with one quick upward glance, and with a sudden thrill of the heart such as I had never known before.
A DISCIPLE OF SIR WALTER
I have no doubt she wished me to see her thus. Every woman worth the winning is a bit of a coquette, and none can be utterly disdainful of the lesson their mirror tells. But even as I gazed upon her, my admiration deeper than my pain, the arch expression of her face changed; there came a sudden rush of pity, of anxiety into those clear, challenging eyes, and with one quick step she drew nearer and bent above me.
"Oh, Captain Wayne," she cried, her warm, womanly heart conquering all prejudice, "you are badly hurt and bleeding. Why did you not tell me? Please let me aid you."
"I fear I must," I replied grimly. "I would gladly spare you, for indeed I do not believe my injury sufficiently serious to cause alarm, but I find I have only one arm I can use at present; the brute got his teeth into the other."
The tender compassion within her eyes was most pleasant to see.
"Oh, believe me, I can do it." She spoke bravely, a sturdy ring of confidence in the voice, although at the thought her face paled. "I have been in the hospitals at Baltimore, and taken care of wounded soldiers. If there was only some water here!"
She glanced about, dreading the possibility of having to go forth into the night alone in search of a spring or well.
"I think you will find a pail on the bench yonder," I said, for from where I leaned against the wall I could see out into the shed. "It was doubtless left for the dog to drink from."
She came back with it, tearing down a cloth from off a peg in the wall as she passed, and then, wearing a resolute air of authority, knelt beside me, and with rapid fingers flung back my jacket, unfastening the rough army shirt, and laid bare, so far as was possible, the lacerated shoulder.
It gave me intense pain, for the shirt had become matted to the wound by drying blood, so that in spite of her soft touch and my own clinched teeth a slight groan broke from my lips.
"Forgive me," she said anxiously, "but I fear I can never dress it in this way. We must remove your jacket and cut away the sleeve of your shirt."
It was an agonizing operation, for it has often seemed to me that the more superficial the wound the greater the pain experienced in dealing with it, and the perspiration stood in beads upon my forehead as she worked quickly and with skill. At last the disagreeable task was accomplished, the wounded shoulder completely bared. Her face was deathly white now, and she shielded her eyes with her hand.
"Oh, what a horrible wound!" she exclaimed, almost sobbing. "How that great brute must have hurt you!"
"The wound is not so serious as it appears," I replied reassuringly, and glad myself to feel that I spoke the truth, "but I confess the pain is intense, and makes me feel somewhat faint. It was not so much the mere bite of the dog, but unfortunately he got his teeth into an old wound and tore it open."
"An old wound?"
"Yes; I received a Mini ball there at Gettysburg, and although the bullet was extracted, the wound never properly healed."
These words served to recall to her instantly the fact that I was not of her own people; there appeared to come again into her manner that marked restraint which had almost totally disappeared during the last few minutes. Not that she failed in any kindness or consideration, but a growing reserve put check upon what was fast becoming the intimacy of friendship. Yet she performed her disagreeable task with all the tenderness of a sympathetic woman, and as she worked swiftly and deftly, made no attempt to conceal the tears clinging to her long lashes. Skilfully the deep, jagged gash was bathed out, and then as carefully bound up with the softest cloths she could find at hand. The relief was great, and I felt, as I moved the shoulder, that saving the soreness it would probably not greatly bother me.
"Now you must lie back and rest," she said command-ingly, as I attempted to thank her. "Here, put your head on this cloak. But first it will do you good to have more of the brandy, for you are as white as death."
"Merely a slight faintness; and I will only consent to indulge provided you partake first, for I know you require the stimulant as much as I," I retorted doggedly, gazing up into her face with an admiration she could scarcely fail to perceive.
She lifted the flask to her lips and did not answer, but when she handed it back to me there was a new flush upon her cheeks.
"And now as your nurse I command absolute quiet," striving to speak gaily. "See, the daylight is already here, and I mean to discover if this lone cabin contains anything which human beings can eat; I confess that I am nearly famished."
"A most excellent symptom, and I imagine your quest will not be wholly vain. To my eye that greatly resembles a slab of bacon hanging beside the chimney."
"It indeed is," she exclaimed, "and I feel as a shipwrecked seaman must on first beholding land."
However my naturally energetic spirit revolted at inactivity, for the time being my faintness precluded any thought of doing other than obeying her orders, and I lay there silent, propped up against the logs, my eager eyes following her rapid, graceful movements with a constantly increasing interest. As she worked, the reflection of the red flames became mingled with the gray dawn, until the bare and cheerless interior grew more and more visible. Her search was far from unsuccessful, while her resourcefulness astonished me, old campaigner as I was; for it was scarcely more than full daylight before she had me at the table, and I was doing full justice to such coarse food as the larder furnished. A Confederate soldier in those days could not well afford to affect delicacy in matters of the cuisine, and indeed our long fast had left us both where any kind of food was most welcome.
The eating helped me greatly; but for some time so busy were we that neither of us spoke. On my own part I experienced a strange hesitancy in addressing her upon terms of equality. Ordinarily not easily embarrassed in feminine society, I felt in this instance a definite barrier between us, which prevented my feeling at ease. Now and then as we sat opposite each other, eating amid a silence most unpleasant, I would catch her eyes glancing across at me, but they were lowered instantly whenever I ventured to meet them. Finally I broke the stillness with a commonplace remark:
"I presume your people will be greatly worried by this time over your mysterious disappearance."
A flush swept her throat and cheeks, but she did not lift her eyes from the plate. "Yes," she answered slowly, "Frank is doubtless searching for me long before this."
"Frank?" I asked, feeling glad of this opportunity to learn more of her relationships. "You forget, possibly, that your friends are strange to me. You refer to the gentleman who expected to meet you on the road?"
"To Major Brennan, yes."
There was nothing about the tone of her reply that invited me to press the inquiry further. One thing, however, was reasonably certain,—the man she called "Frank" could not be her father. I longed to ask if he was a brother, but the restraint of her whole manner repelled the suggestion.
"Did I understand that you have nursed in the Federal hospitals at Baltimore?" I questioned, more to continue the conversation than from any deep interest.
"Merely as a volunteer, and when the regular nurses were especially busy. Major Brennan was stationed there for some time when I first visited him, and I felt it my duty as a loyal woman to aid the poor fellows."
"It was surely far from being an agreeable task to one of your refinement."
"Oh, it was not that that made it so hard," and her eyes were upon me now unflinchingly. "It was the constant sight of so much misery one was unable to relieve. Besides, that was nearly a year ago; I was very young, just from school, and every form of suffering was new and terrible to me."
"I greatly wonder you were permitted to go there at all."
"The Major did object. He insisted it was no fit place for me, and that I ran the risk of contracting disease. But I generally have my own way, even with him, and in this case I felt it a duty to my country, and that I was right in my decision."
I remained silent, striving vainly to frame some innocent question which should solve for me the problem of who and what she was. Suddenly she spoke softly:
"Captain Wayne, I feel I owe you an apology for my unwarranted and unladylike conduct last night. I am very sure now that you are a gentleman, and will appreciate how bitterly I was tried, how deeply I have ever since regretted it."
It hurt her pride to say even this much, as I could tell by her downcast eyes and heaving bosom, and I hastened to relieve her embarrassment.
"You have nothing whatever to ask forgiveness for," I said earnestly. "Rather such a request should come from me. I only trust, Miss Brennan, that you will excuse my part in this extremely unfortunate affair."
She sat looking down upon her plate, her fingers nervously crumbling a bit of corn bread.
"You do not even know who I am," she said slowly. "I am not Miss, but Mrs. Brennan."
I felt as if a dash of cold water had been suddenly thrown in my face.
"Indeed?" I stammered, scarcely knowing what I said. "You appear so young a girl that I never once thought of you as being a married woman."
"I was married very early; indeed, before I was seventeen. My husband—"
What she was about to add I could but conjecture, for a quick change in the expression of her face startled me.
"What is it?" I questioned, half rising to my feet, and glancing over my shoulder toward the wall where her eyes were riveted.
"Something resembling a hand pushed aside the coat hanging yonder," she explained in low trembling tone, "and I thought I saw a face."
With one stride I was across the narrow room, and tore the garment from its wooden hook. The log wall where it hung was blank. I struck it here and there with the steel hilt of my sabre, but it returned a perfectly solid sound, and I glanced about bewildered. The woman was watching me with affrighted eyes.
"This entire house is uncanny," she exclaimed. "The very being in it makes my flesh creep. It may have been a den of murderers. Captain, let us get outside into the sunshine."
Believing it to be merely her overwrought nerves which were at fault, I sought to soothe her. "It was probably no more than a shadow," I said, crossing to her side of the table, to enable her better to feel the influence of my presence. "Let us be content to sit here by the door, for we should be taking too great a risk of discovery if we ventured into the open."
I had barely spoken these words and placed my fingers on her hand to lead her forward when the small door which opened into the shed was thrown back noisily, and two great shaggy dogs, the evident mates of the dead brute at our feet, leaped fiercely in. She shrank toward me with a sob of terror; but even as I drew a revolver from my belt, a man and a woman appeared almost simultaneously in that same opening.
"Down, Douglas! down, Roderick! Ha! 'There lies Red Murdoch, stark and stiff!'—down, you brutes; you'll be dead yourselves sometime."
The man strode forward as he spoke, clubbing the frenzied brutes with the stock of the long rifle he carried.
"'Yelled on the view the opening pack,'" he quoted, as he distributed his blows impartially to right and left; "'rock, glen, and cavern paid them back.' Them thar be Scott's words, stranger, an' I reckon as how ol' Sir Walter knew whut he wus writin' 'bout. Stop thet blame youlin', you Roderick, er I'll take t' other end o' this gun ter ye."
He redoubled his efforts for peace, finally driving the rebellious beasts back into one corner, where they sat upon their haunches and eyed us wistfully.
"'Two dogs of black Saint Hubert's breed, unmatched for courage, breath, and speed,'" he exclaimed, wiping the perspiration from his face with the back of one hand and staring at us, "specially the breath."
He was a fierce-looking little fellow, scarcely more than a half-grown boy in size, with round, red face full of strange wrinkles, and head as oddly peak-shaped as I ever looked upon. It went up exactly like the apex of a pear, while the upper portion was utterly bald. He formed a most remarkable contrast to the tall, raw-boned, angular female who loomed up like a small mountain just behind him.
"I reckon as how you uns hed quite a bit of a scrap afore ye laid thet thar dorg out, stranger," he said, a half-angry tone lurking in his deep voice. "'The fleetest hound in all the North,' an' I'm durned if I jist likes ther way you uns makes yerselves et hum in this yere cabin."