Read CHAPTER XXI - WE CAPTURE THE HOUSE of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

If she was startled and frightened before, she was doubly so now at this sudden revolt on my part. But I had no time then for explanation, only for the stern exercising of authority. If I was right, if deep down in the girl’s heart there was love for me, she would forgive this action as soon as she realized its purpose aye! she would respect me the more for daring the deed.

“Don’t attempt to interfere now, my girl; go over to the big chair and sit down.”

My revolver was in my hand, and she saw it, her eyes wide open.

“You you are not going to hurt them?”

“No, not if they use any sense, but this is not going to be boys’ play. Will you do as I say?”

She sat down, gripping the arms of the chair, and leaning forward, half inclined to scream, yet afraid to utter a sound. Without taking my eyes from her, I slipped across the room to where I would be partially concealed as the door opened. I knew what I was going to do, or, at least, attempt to do, and realized fully the risk I ran, and the chance of failure. It would require daring and coolness to capture those in the house, without raising any alarm, and likewise the prompt cooperation of my men. If they had seen my signal, and if I could disarm these first two, the rest should be comparatively easy. There were steps in the hall, and the jingle of spurs. Hardy entered first, his head turned backward as though he spoke to Le Gaire. I saw the girl rise to her feet, but my whole attention was concentrated upon the two men. The instant the space was sufficient, I forced the door shut, and stood with my back against it, the black muzzle of my Colt staring them in the eyes.

“Hands up, gentlemen!” I said sternly, “a movement means death.”

They presented two astounded faces, Hardy’s absolutely blank, so complete his surprise, but Le Gaire recognized me instantly, his mouth flying open, his eyes glaring.

“Good God! you!”

“Yes; hands up, Le Gaire! Don’t be a fool.”

His dark complexion was yellow with pallor, and I knew him for a coward at heart, yet his very hatred of me made him dangerous. Hardy was different, realizing his helplessness, but eying me coolly, his hands held over his head.

“What does all this mean?” he asked quietly. “Who the devil are you?”

“He’s that damned Yank Billie’s been so interested in,” broke out the captain, “the same fellow who knocked me off my horse at Jonesboro.”

Major Hardy glanced toward his daughter inquiringly, but before she could utter a word in explanation I cut in:

“This has nothing to do with Miss Hardy. She is as much a prisoner as you are. Now, Captain, hand me your revolver butt first, please. Major Hardy, I will also trouble you. Now both of you back up slowly against the wall.”

Their faces were a study, Hardy rather seeming to enjoy the experience, his thin lips smiling grimly, but Le Gaire was mad, his jaw set, his eyes glaring at me.

“I should rather like to know what all this means, young man,” said the former. “Do you expect to capture the house single-handed?”

“Hardly, but I’ve made a good start,” now fully at ease, with a revolver in each hand, the third thrust in my belt. “However I’ve no time now to explain.”

Without turning my face from them I sidled over to the window, speaking quietly into the darkness without:

“Come in, men, one at a time.”

Almost to my surprise they came over the rail like so many monkeys, scarcely a sound revealing the movements. I saw the smile fade from off the major’s lips, and my eyes caught Billie’s wide open in astonishment. The fellows hustled in behind me, not knowing what was expected of them, but ready enough for anything. I glanced at them, beckoning to Miles.

“All here, Sergeant? Then draw down the shade. Wilson, you and Carney come over here, and keep an eye on these two men. Miles, let me speak to you a moment.”

I led him into one corner, outlining the situation in a dozen words.

“There may be half a dozen in the dining-room yes, just across the hall including a preacher armed, of course, but they don’t suspect there is a Blue-coat within ten miles. They’re out for a good time, and have been having it. If you can get the bunch covered first, there need be no fight. Don’t fire a shot; just lay the iron down on them. Take all the men along, except the two I need here. You know your business.”

“Sure,” grinning, “and what then?”

“Scout around the house. I don’t believe there are any guards set, but it will be safer to make sure.”

“There’s some cavalrymen at the stable, sir; we heard ’em singin’ out there.”

“A few officers’ servants; you can attend to them easily enough after you are certain about the house. By the way, who is the best man to send back?”

“Into our lines, sir? Young Ross would be all right.”

There was a desk in one corner, with writing materials on it, but I was most anxious just then to be assured we controlled the situation. Some of those fellows across the hall might become restless, and stroll in here at any moment, to discover the cause for delay.

“Very well, Miles; leave Ross here, and carry out your orders; that should give you seven men why, no, it doesn’t! Where is the negro?”

“He said you told him he didn’t need go beyond the head of the ravine, sir,” explained the sergeant, “and as one of the men heard you say so, I didn’t feel like making him come along. He started back for camp.”

“I believe I did promise something like that,” I admitted, “and he wouldn’t have been much assistance anyway. Well, six men and yourself ought to do the business. Watch the windows, so none get away.”

Perhaps I should have gone myself, but I was disinclined to leave the room, desirous of getting off my despatch without delay, and possessed implicit confidence in the promptness and discretion of the sergeant. He drew his revolver, the men silently following his example, and the little party slipped quietly out into the hall, the last man closing the door behind him. Evidently they encountered no one in the passageway. Listening intently I heard the dining-room door thrown back violently, a confused noise of feet, of chairs hurriedly pushed aside, a voice uttering a stern order, the sound of a brief struggle, ended by a blow and the thud of a body striking the floor, then numerous voices speaking excitedly, followed by silence. Convinced the work had been accomplished, and that the house was now entirely in our possession, I walked across the room to the desk. Miss Hardy still sat where I had ordered, and I was compelled to pass her chair. Her eyes met mine coldly.

“Would you permit me to go across to my father?” she asked.

“Most certainly; you are in no sense a prisoner, except I shall have to ask you to remain in the room for the present.”

She inclined her head ever so slightly.

“I shall ask no further favor, and thank you for granting this.”

I sank into the chair at the desk, and watched her cross the room. Her words and actions hurt me, and yet it was scarcely to be expected that she would be pleased with the sudden change in affairs. To see me thus in complete control of the situation, her father and Le Gaire prisoners, all their plans frustrated, was maddening, particularly so as she realized that this result came largely through her own indiscretion. I began myself to doubt the complete success of my scheme. Without question I had the power now to prevent her marriage, yet I might have gone too far, and caused a revulsion of feeling. She had been interested in me before for it had been her part to help me in times of danger, and sympathy lies very close to love but now the conditions were changed, and she might feel very different toward my interference. Perhaps I was destined to lose rather than gain, yet it was too late now to draw back I must play the game out to its ending. I wrote rapidly, utterly ignoring her conversation with Hardy, yet someway conscious that Le Gaire sought to join in, and was answered in a single swift sentence, the girl not even turning to glance at him. The simple action caused my heart to leap to my throat could it be the lady played a part, her coldness to me intended to deceive others? It was a hope, at least, and I went to my task with fresh courage. I told it all in a dozen sentences Johnston’s plans for the morrow; the withdrawal of Confederate troops from our left, and their concentration in reserve of the enemy’s centre; our capture of the Hardy house, and my hope to retain possession until the right of our line could be flung forward. Then I called Ross, and he came across the room, looking scarcely more than a boy, but with a serious face.

“Can you find your way back down the ravine to our lines, my lad?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then don’t lose any time. The Confederate troops have been withdrawn, but you must watch out for stragglers. Give this to Colonel Cochran, and tell him it must be forwarded to headquarters at once. Explain to him the situation here. Now be off.”

He saluted, wheeled sharply about, and went out the window. I heard him strike the ground. Then I sat silently looking at the others in the room, wondering how the sergeant was getting along, and slowly realizing that I had a white elephant on my hands. I was endeavoring to play two games at once, love and war, and the various moves were confusing. It might be possible even for my little squad to hold this advance position until reinforcements arrived, but what could be done with the prisoners? Billie might forgive me realizing the motive for all which had occurred thus far, but if I were to turn her father and Le Gaire over to the hardships of a Northern prison, I could expect no mercy. I cared little as to the fate of the others, they had taken the chances of war, but these two must be liberated before our troops came up. I could not catch the girl’s eyes; she sat with averted face, talking earnestly to her father. Uneasy, and puzzled how best to straighten out the tangle, I went out into the hall, and glanced in at the room opposite. A bunch of gray-clad men were against the wall, disarmed and helpless, even their tongues silent, and three watchful troopers guarded them, revolvers in hand. All stared at me as I stepped forward.

“Where is the sergeant?”

“At the stable, sir.”

“Oh, yes; hope he has as good luck there got them all?”

“Every bloomin’ one of ’em, sir. They was quite nice about it.”

An indignant voice spoke from the gray line.

“Blamed if it ain’t Atherton! Say, Major, what does all this mean?”

I laughed, stepping forward so as to see the speaker’s face.

“Captain Bell, isn’t it? Thought I recognized your voice. I’m not Atherton, although I believe I was introduced to you under that name once. I have wanted to thank you ever since for bearing testimony in my favor.”

His jaw fell, his eyes staring.

“Who the devil are you then?”

“A Federal officer; my name is Galesworth.”

“And this is no joke?”

“Well, hardly, Captain. I shouldn’t advise you to take the affair that way. These fellows here might not appreciate the humor of it.”

I turned back, and met Miles in the hall, just as he came in through the front door. He grinned at sight of me, evidently well pleased.

“Got every mother’s son of ’em, sir,” he reported. “Easy job too; never had to fire a shot, and only hit one fellow; he started a shindy in there,” with a glance toward the dining-room. “There were five gray-jacks out in the stable, all asleep, an’ they was like lambs. The blamed fools never had a guard set.”

“They felt safe enough, no doubt, back here,” I returned. “The last thing they thought about was any Yankees getting this far. Do you know what they were gathered here for?”

He shook his head.

“It was intended for a wedding party, until we butted in.”

“Hell! not that pretty girl back in there?”

“Yes,” for somehow I felt I had better tell him enough of the truth to make the situation clear. He was an honest, clear-headed fellow, and I needed help. “And that Confederate Captain Le Gaire was to be the bridegroom. I am going to tell you the whole story, Sergeant, and then you’ll see what sort of a fix I’m in.”

I went over it hastily, yet with sufficient detail so as to make it all clear to his mind. He listened soberly at first, and then his eyes began to twinkle, and he interrupted with numerous questions. Apparently he found the tale most amusing.

“Well, if that ain’t the rummest story ever I heard! It beats a novel by ’bout a mile. I never was married myself, sir, but I’ve got a blamed pretty girl waitin’ for me back in ol’ Illinoy, an’ I reckon I know what she’d want me to do in a case like this. Sure, I’m with you until the cows come home, and so are the rest o’ the boys. Lord, this is the kind o’ sojerin’ I like; somethin’ happenin’ every minute. What’s next, sir?”

“Perhaps I better look over the house first,” I said thoughtfully, “and see where we can stow away these prisoners without needing all our men to guard them. You take charge in there while I am gone, Miles, and let the girl go anywhere she pleases so she promises not to leave the house.”

“All right, sir,” and the sergeant saluted, his eyes shining, as I started for the stairs.