Read CHAPTER XVI - A CALL TO DUTY of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

The family name was an uncommon one, and, coupled as it was with “Louisiana,” and the title “Captain,” could refer only to Gerald Le Gaire. I wanted to question, the lad, but refrained, spurring my horse ahead so as to remove the temptation. Even the little already said plainly revealed that he resented bitterly his position in life, and determined to remain no longer in slavery to his own father. His father! That would be Le Gaire! The thought added fuel to the flame of dislike which I already cherished against the man. Of course legally this former relationship between master and slave meant nothing; it would be considered no bar to legitimate marriage; perhaps to one brought up in the environment of slavery it would possess no moral turpitude even, yet to me it seemed a foul, disgraceful thing. Whether it would so appear to Miss Willifred I could not even conjecture; she was of the South, with, all the prejudice and peculiarity of thought characteristic of her section. Pure-hearted, womanly, as I believed her to be, this earlier alliance still might not seem to her particularly reprehensible. Certainly it was not my part to bring it to her attention, or to utilize my knowledge of the situation to advance my cause, or injure Le Gaire. Nor would I question the ex-slave further; I already knew enough, too much possibly, although curiosity was not dormant, and I wondered what had become of the mother, and from what special cause had arisen the intense hatred in the heart of the son.

We rode steadily forward all day, under fire twice, and once charging a battery. All that opposed our advance however was a thin fringe of troops, intent merely upon causing delay, and making a brief stand, only to fall back promptly as soon as we flung forward any considerable body of men. By night-fall we had attained a position well within the bend of the river, the centre and left wing had achieved a crossing, and our entire line had closed up so as to display a solid front. The Ninth bivouacked in the hills, our rest undisturbed, except for the occasional firing of the pickets. With dawn we were under arms, feeling our way forward, and, an hour later, the two armies were face to face. Nearly evenly mated, fighting across a rough country, neither side could claim victory at the end of the day. While we on the right forced our line forward for nearly five miles, leaving behind us a carpet of dead, the left and centre met with such desperate resistance as to barely retain their earlier position. It required an hour of night fighting to close up the gap, and we slept on our arms, expecting an early morning assault. Instead of attempting this the enemy fell back to their second line of intrenchments, and, after waiting a day to determine their movements and strengthen our own line, we again advanced, feeling our way slowly in, but finally meeting with a resistance which compelled a halt.

The details of this battle belong to history, not to these pages. The Ninth bore no conspicuous part, hovering on the extreme right flank, engaged in continuous skirmishing, and scouting along miles of front. The morning of the third day found the armies fronting each other, defiant yet equally afraid to join battle, both commanders seeking for some point of strategy which would yield advantage we of the North fearful of advancing against intrenchments, and those of the South not daring to come forth into the open. For the moment it was a truce between us the truce of two exhausted bull-dogs, lying face to face with gleaming teeth, ready to spring at the first opening.

We of the Ninth were at the edge of an opening in the woods, with low hills on either hand, our pickets within easy musket-shot of the gray-clad videttes beyond the fringe of trees. Knowing our own success we could not comprehend this inaction, or the desperate fighting which held back the troops to the east, and we were impatient to go in. I was lying on my back in the shelter of a slight hollow, wondering at the surrounding stillness, wishing for anything to occur which would give action, when the major rode up, accompanied by another officer in an artillery uniform. I was on my feet in an instant saluting.

“Lieutenant Galesworth, this is Captain Kent, an aide on General Sheridan’s staff. He desires you to accompany him to headquarters.”

My heart bounding with anticipation, within five minutes I was riding beside him, back to the river road, and along the rear of our extended line. He was a pleasant, genial fellow, but knew nothing of why I had been summoned, his orders being simply to bring me at once. Two hours of hard riding, and we came to a double log cabin, with a squad of horsemen in front, and a considerable infantry guard near by. A sentry paced back and forth in front of the steps, and several officers were sitting on the porch. Dismounting, my companion handed the reins of both horses to a trooper, and led the way in. A word to the sentinel, and we faced the group above. One, a sharp-featured man, with very dark complexion, rose to his feet.

“What is it, Kent?”

“This is Lieutenant Galesworth, of the Ninth Illinois Cavalry. The general will wish to see him at once.”

The dark-featured man glanced at me, and turned back into the house, and Kent introduced me to the others, none of whom I recognized. This was not Sheridan’s staff, but before I could question any of them, the messenger returned, and motioned for me to follow. It was a large room, low-ceilinged, with three windows, the walls of bare logs whitewashed, the floor freshly swept, the only furniture a table and a few chairs. But two men were present, although a sentinel stood motionless at the door, a broad-shouldered colonel of engineers, with gray moustache and wearing glasses, sitting at a table littered with papers, and a short stocky man, attired in a simple blue blouse, with no insignia of rank visible, his back toward me, gazing out of a window. I took a single step within, and halted. The short man wheeled about at the slight sound, his eyes on my face; I recognized instantly the closely trimmed beard, the inevitable cigar between the lips, and, with a leap of the heart, my hand rose to the salute.

“Lieutenant Galesworth?”

“Yes, General.”

“Very well; you may retire, Colonel Trout, and, sentry, close the door.”

His keen gray eyes scrutinized my face, betraying no emotion, but he advanced closer, one hand upon the table.

“General Sheridan informs me he has found you a valuable scout, always ready for any service, however dangerous.”

“I have endeavored to carry out my orders, General,” I answered quietly.

“So I am told,” in the same even voice. “The army is full of good men, brave men, but not all possess sufficient intelligence and willingness to carry out an independent enterprise. Just now I require such a man, and Sheridan recommends you. How old are you?”

I answered, and barely waiting the sound of my voice, he went on:

“You have scouted over this country?”

“I have, sir.”

“How far to the south?”

“About five miles beyond the Three Corners.”

“Not far enough, is it, Parker?” turning to the officer at the table.

“The house is below,” was the response, “but perhaps I had better explain the entire matter to Lieutenant Galesworth, and let him decide for himself whether he cares to make the attempt.”

The general nodded approval, and walked back to the window, his hands clasped behind his back. Parker spread out a map.

“Just step over here, Lieutenant. This is our present position, represented by the irregular blue line; those red squares show the enemy’s forces as far as we understand them. The crosses represent batteries, and the important intrenchments are shown by the double lines. Of course this is imperfect, largely drawn from the reports of scouts. Their line is slightly shorter than our own, our right overlapping, but they have a stronger reserve force protecting the centre. Now notice the situation here,” and he traced it with his pencil. “Your regiment is practically to the rear of their main line of defence, but the nature of the ground renders them safe. There is a, deep ravine here, trending to the southeast, and easily defended. Now note, ten miles, almost directly south of Three Corners, on the open pike, the first building on the right-hand side beyond a log church, stands an old plantation house. It is a large building, painted white, in the midst of a grove of trees, and in the rear is a commodious stable and a dozen negro cabins. The map shows this house to be somewhat to the right of the Confederate centre, and about five miles to the rear of their first line.”

I bent over, intent on the map, endeavoring to fix each point clearly in my mind. Parker paused in his speech, and the general turned about, his eyes fastened upon us.

“I understand,” I said finally.

“Very well. Deserters informed us last night that Johnston had taken this house for his headquarters. This morning one of our most reliable scouts confirms the report, and says the place can be easily approached by a small party using the ravine for concealment, coming in past the negro cabins at the rear.”

My eyes brightened, as I straightened up, instantly comprehending the plan.

“What guard have they?”

“A few sentinels at the house, and a squad of cavalry in the stable. Naturally they feel perfectly safe so far to the rear of their own lines. It is the very audacity of such an attempt which makes success possible.”

The general stepped forward.

“Don’t take this as an order, Lieutenant,” he said bluntly. “It will mean a desperate risk, and if you go, you must comprehend thoroughly the peril involved. You were recommended as the best man to lead such a party, but we supposed you already knew that country.”

“I can place my hand on a man who does know every inch of it,” I replied, my mind clear, and my decision reached. “I thank you for the privilege.”

“Good; when?”

“To-night, of course; there is ample time to prepare.”

“How many men will you require?”

I hesitated, but for barely an instant.

“Not to exceed ten, General a small party will accomplish as much as a larger one, and be less liable to attract attention. All I need will volunteer from my own company.”

Apparently his own thought coincided with mine, for he merely looked at me a moment with those searching gray eyes, and then turned to the map, beckoning me to join him.

“Familiarize yourself with every detail of the topography of the region,” he said, his finger on the paper. “Colonel Parker will explain anything you may need to know.” He straightened up, and extended his hand, the cigar still crushed between his teeth. “I believe you are the right stuff, Lieutenant; young enough to be reckless, old enough to know the value of patience. Are you married?”

I shook my head, with a smile, yet conscious my cheeks were flushed.

“Then I am going to say to you go, and do the best you can. Parker will give you any other instructions you desire. Good-bye, my lad, and good luck.”

He turned and left the room, my eyes following him until the door closed.