Read CHAPTER XXIII - THE CHALLENGE of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

I went slowly down stairs, swayed by a conflict of emotions. Had I indeed gone too far, been too stern and abrupt? Still it was surely better to err in this direction than to exhibit weakness, and it was only between these two that I had any choice remaining. What lay between us and our own lines was uncertain possibly Confederate pickets, surely bands of stragglers, renegades from both armies. Now that we had waited so long, it would be a desperate chance to attempt to traverse that ravine in daylight. We were far safer here, hidden away, but must guard well that no knowledge of our presence be scattered abroad. Billie had defied me, threatened, and refused to accept parole; nothing remained but to hold her prisoner. Besides her words had stung and angered me. Even while I doubted their entire truth they still hurt, serving to increase my bitterness toward Le Gaire.

I was in this mood as I paused a moment to glance out at the gray dawn. The smooth pike was at least a hundred yards away, barely visible here and there through the intervening trees. Everything about was quiet and deserted war seemed a long way off. Standing there alone, hearing the birds singing in the branches, and gazing out across the green, closely trimmed grass, I could scarcely realize our perilous position, or the exciting events of the past night. I felt more like a guest than an invader, and was compelled to bring myself back to realities with an effort. I was helped by the sudden appearance of Miles in the hallway.

“Thought I better take another look down stairs, sir,” he explained, as I turned, facing him. “They are quiet enough in there.”

“I was just going in,” I said. “We will have to put those two with the others at present. Our people should be up here before night, and meanwhile we must remain quiet. Anything happened in there?”

“Nothing important. The old major fell asleep after the girl left, but the other fellow is pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, and cursing. He’s asked me some leadin’ questions ‘bout you, an’ where Miss Hardy’s gone. Were you goin’ in, sir?”

“Yes; you better wait.”

I opened the door, and stepped into the parlor, the sergeant following, evidently anticipating a scene. The room showed some signs of disorder, the furniture disarranged, and one chair overturned. Wilson sat in front of the window, the shade of which had been drawn down, and the other guard was near the door. Both men had their revolvers drawn, and, from their positions, and Le Gaire’s attitude, apparently trouble was anticipated. He was in the middle of the room, with hands clinched and eyes blazing, and wheeled to face me as I entered.

“Oh, it’s you, is it!” he exclaimed, sudden anger sweeping away every vestige of control. “I may be a prisoner, but I’ll be damned if I’ll keep still. This whole affair is an outrage. What have you done with Miss Hardy?”

“The lady has gone to her own room up stairs, Captain Le Gaire,” I replied courteously enough.

“But not until after seeing you, you sneaking Yankee hound,” he burst forth, striding forward. “What does this all mean? What influence have you got over the girl?”

The major sat up suddenly.

“See here, Le Gaire, you leave my daughter’s name out of this.”

The enraged captain favored him with a glance.

“I know more about this affair than you do, Hardy. This blue-bellied puppy was with Billie before, and I knew there was some infernal scheme on the moment I saw him here to-night. The girl helped him to get away once before, and there’s some trick being worked off now.”

The older man was upon his feet instantly.

“Hold on there; not another word; whatever my girl has done she is not going to be condemned in my presence without a hearing.”

“Major Hardy,” I broke in, and stepped between them. “This is my quarrel, and not yours. Your daughter has done nothing for which she can be criticised. All her connection with me has been accidental, and during our last interview she merely begged for your release. When I refused to grant the request, she repudiated her parole, and I locked her in her own room as a prisoner. I did not even know this was your home, or that Miss Willifred was here, when I came. When Captain Le Gaire insinuates that there was any arrangement between us he lies.”

“Were you not on the balcony alone, talking together?”

“Yes, she caught me there, by coming out suddenly.”

“And protected you, you coward drew us into the trap.”

“Miss Hardy had no knowledge of what I proposed doing, nor that I had any men with me. Indeed, I myself acted merely on the spur of the moment.”

“What were you sneaking about there in the dark for then?” he sneered. “You are nothing but a contemptible spy.”

I was holding my temper fairly well, yet my patience was near the breaking point.

“I may as well tell you,” I answered at last, “and my men will corroborate all I say. We came here under special orders hoping to capture General Johnston, who, we were informed, was quartered here for the night. We had no other object ”

“Until you saw Billie.”

I wheeled upon him so fiercely that the fellow took a step backward.

“Captain Le Gaire, you have said enough all I shall permit you to say. Miss Hardy had no connection whatever with this affair. If it is true that you are engaged to the lady, then you should be defending instead of attacking her.”

“I should hardly come to you for instructions.”

“Then take them from Major Hardy.”

“Oh, hell, Hardy don’t understand. He’s as blind as a bat, but you cannot pull the wool over my eyes, Mr. Yankee spy. I’ve seen some of your fine work before. If I wasn’t a prisoner under guard I’d give you a lesson you’d remember as long as you lived.”

I stood holding my breath, looking at him, scarcely less angry than he, yet outwardly cool.

“You would give me a lesson?”

“I spoke plainly enough, I hope. This is a personal matter between us, and you know it, and a Southern gentleman settles his own affairs. Only a Yankee coward would hide behind his authority.”

“And you think I do?”

He glanced about, with a wave of the hand at the guards.

“Doesn’t it look like it?” he asked sarcastically.

The sneer cut me to the quick, cut me so sharply I replied before stopping to reflect. If he wished to fight me I would give him a chance; either he must make good his boasting or have his bluff called. And there was but one way. I looked at the two troopers, who were staring at us in deep interest; at Miles’ grinning appreciation of the scene, and at Hardy, puzzled, but still angry at the use of his daughter’s name. Then my eyes met the captain’s.

“I am greatly inclined to accommodate you, Captain Le Gaire,” I said quietly, “and give you any opportunity you may desire on equal terms. Sergeant, take the men into the hall.”

They passed out reluctantly enough, and I stepped over to make certain the door was securely closed. Then I came back, and fronted the fellow. He had not changed his position, although the major had again risen to his feet.

“Well,” I asked, “now what is it you wish to say?”

“Am I no longer a prisoner?”

“Not so far as our personal relations are concerned. My men will prevent your leaving these grounds, or sending out any message before night. Otherwise you are at liberty. Now what do you propose doing?”

My unexpected promptness dazed him, but in no way diminished his anger.

“Will you fight me?”

“I see no occasion for it.”

“Then I will furnish one.”

Before I could recoil, or even realize his purpose, he sprang the single necessary step forward and, with open hand, struck me in the face.

“Even a blue-belly should understand the meaning of that,” he exclaimed hotly.

I did understand, the hot blood surging to my cheeks, yet in some mysterious way I never in my life felt cooler, more completely in control of myself. Every nerve tingled, yet not a muscle moved, and I smiled into his face, truly glad it had come to this.

“Personal combat is not a habit with us, Captain Le Gaire,” I said coldly. “But in this case you will not find me seeking escape. I am very much at your service.”

“Now?” his eyes blazing.

“The quicker the better. Who seconds you?”

“Major Hardy, of course ”

“I’m damned if I will, Le Gaire,” burst in the staff-officer indignantly, thrusting himself forward. “You forced this matter with an insult no gentleman could take, and besides have dragged my daughter’s name into the affair.”

“You refuse to act for me?”

“Emphatically, yes! In the first place I don’t believe in your damned Louisiana code, and in my opinion, you’ve acted like a confounded bully. So far as I can see Galesworth has done his duty, and nothing more. I’d go out with him, under the circumstances, before I would with you.”

“I could not think of asking such a favor,” I blurted out in astonishment.

“You do not need to ask I volunteer, if you can use me.”

I do not believe I shall ever forget the expression on the dark, scowling face of Le Gaire. He had not expected this, that he would be deserted by his own people, yet the fact merely served to increase his bitterness, harden his purpose. The twist of his lips left his teeth exposed in an ugly grin.

“All right, Hardy,” he said, at last, “I’ll not forget this, and I reckon the story won’t help you any in our army. I’ll get the Yank, second or no second, if the fellow doesn’t back out.”

“You need have no fear on that score,” I replied soberly. “I am no believer in the duel, and this will be my first appearance on the field, but you have got to fight now. Moreover you shall have all your rights guarded.” I stepped to the door, and opened it.

“Sergeant, go down to the prisoners and bring Captain Bell here.”

He was back in another moment, grasping the arm of the surprised Confederate, who stared about at us in silent wonderment.

“Captain Bell,” I asked, “I presume you have some acquaintance with the duelling code?”

He bowed gravely, waiting for me to explain.

“Captain Le Gaire has seen fit to strike me in the face with his open hand, and I have agreed to meet him at once. Will you act for the gentleman?”

“Why not Major Hardy?”

“Because he will represent my interests.”

Bell turned his eyes toward the major, puzzled and uncertain.

“This looks rather queer to me, Hardy. Has Le Gaire done something which will prevent my acting in his behalf?”

Hardy stroked his chin, and squared his shoulders.

“Captain Le Gaire made some reflections on my family, sir, which I resent. I refused to act for him on that ground, but I know of no reason why you could not honorably serve. I merely prefer to assist Galesworth.”

Bell hesitated, feeling, no doubt, there was something behind all this he did not comprehend. It was also evident enough that he was no admirer of Le Gaire, the latter gazing at him without a word.

“Am I perfectly free to act?”

“Yes on parole of the grounds.”

“Very well, I accept; I presume my man Is the challenged party?”

Both Hardy and myself bowed.

“Then I will ask Captain Le Gaire to accompany me to the dining-room. I shall return in a few moments.”

We watched them pass out, and then Hardy and I turned, and looked into each others’ faces.