Read CHAPTER XXV - THE END OF THE DUEL of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

The sun was slightly above the horizon, still showing round and red through the slight mist of early morning, as the major and I passed down the deserted front steps, and circled the house on our way to the place of meeting. Under his arm was the leather case containing the derringers, and we crossed the intervening turf without exchanging a word. I was myself in no mood for conversation, and Hardy appeared equally inclined to silence. I glanced across at him, noting how straight he stood in his well-worn uniform, how gray his hair was, and the stern manliness of his face. From head to foot he was the gentleman and the soldier. By some chance our eyes met, and, with a quick glance back at the house, he stopped suddenly.

“Galesworth,” he said quietly, his glance searching my face, “I do not wish you to have any misunderstanding about my exact position in this affair. The war is not personal with me. We differ politically, and I am as loyal to the South as any one, and you wear the Blue with just as much honor as I wear the Gray. But when it comes to men I stand with the one I believe to be nearest right. Le Gaire forced this quarrel on you deliberately; he was threatening to do it before you came in. In fact, his manner ever since our capture has disgusted me, and when he finally dared to drag Billie’s name into the controversy, I naturally rebelled. If there is anything I despise in this world, sir, it is a bullying duellist, and, by Gad! that’s what the fellow looks like to me.”

“I comprehend perfectly, Major Hardy,” I said, as he paused. “You are merely doing as you would be done by.”

“Well, yes, that’s a partial explanation. I prefer to see fair play. Yet I am going to confess that isn’t all of it. I rather like you, young man not your damned uniform, understand and the way you’ve acted toward my girl. You’ve been honorable and square, and, by Gad, sir, you’re a gentleman. That’s why I am going to see you through this affair. If all I hear is true, Le Gaire came back to me with a lie, and that is something I have never taken yet from any man.”

He stood straight as an arrow, his shoulders squared, his slender form buttoned tightly in the gray uniform coat. The sun was upon his face, clear-cut, proud, aristocratic, and his eyes were the same gray-blue as his daughter’s. Then he held out his hand and I clasped it gladly.

“I cannot express the gratitude I feel, Major Hardy,” I faltered. “One hardly expects such kindness from an enemy.”

“Not an enemy, my boy merely a foeman. I am a West Pointer, and some of the dearest friends I have are upon the other side. But come, let us not be the last on the field.”

He tried to talk with me pleasantly as we crossed the garden, and approached the stable, and I must have answered, yet my mind was elsewhere. This was all new to me, and my mood was a sober one. My father was an old-time Puritan to whom personal combat was abomination, and even now I could feel his condemnation of my course. I regretted myself the hot headedness which had led me on, but without the faintest inclination to withdraw. Yet that earlier hatred of Le Gaire had left me, and his blow no longer stung. No desire for revenge lingered, only a wish to have the whole matter concluded quickly, and a hope that we both might leave the field without serious injury. It was in this frame of mind that I turned the corner of the stable, and saw the chosen duelling ground. It was a smooth strip of turf running north and south, with the stable to the left, and a grove of trees opposite. The building cast a shadow over most of the space, and altogether it was an ideal spot, well beyond view from the windows of the house. Hardy opened the leather case, placing it upon the grass, and I saw the two derringers lying against the plush lining, deadly looking weapons, with long steel-blue barrels, and strangely carven stocks. Someway they fascinated me, and I watched while he took them up and fondled them.

“Rather pretty playthings, Galesworth,” he said admiringly. “Don’t see such often nowadays, but in my father’s time they were a part of every gentleman’s belongings. He would as soon have travelled without his coat. I’ve seen him practise; apparently he never took aim,” he held the weapon at arm’s length. “Wonderfully accurate, and the long barrel is better than any sight; just lower it this way; there’s almost no recoil.”

The sound of a distant voice caused him to drop the pistol back into its place, and rise to his feet. Then Le Gaire and Bell turned the corner of the stable, stopping as they perceived us standing there. The major removed his hat, his voice coolly polite.

“I believe everything is prepared, gentlemen. Captain Bell, if you will examine the weapons, we will then confer as to the word and the method of firing.”

“I prefer choosing my own pistol,” broke in Le Gaire bluntly, “and loading it as well.”

Hardy’s face flushed, his eyes hardening.

“As you please, sir,” he retorted, “but I might construe those words as a reflection on my integrity.”

“When a Confederate officer takes the side of a Yank,” was the instant angry response, “he can hardly claim much consideration.”

“Captain Le Gaire,” and Hardy’s voice rang, “you have enough on your hands at present without venturing to insult me, I should suppose. But don’t go too far, sir.”

“Gentlemen,” broke in Bell excitedly, “this must not go on. Le Gaire, if you say another word, I shall withdraw entirely.”

The Louisianian smiled grimly, but walked over to the weapon case, and picked up the two derringers, testing their weight, and the length of barrel. Hardy stared at him, his lips compressed.

“Well,” he burst forth at last, “are you satisfied, sir?”

“I’ll choose this,” insolently, and dropping the other back into its place. “Where is the powder and ball?”

The major pointed without daring to speak.

“All right; don’t mind me. I always load my own weapon, and just now I am anxious to shoot straight,” and he looked across at me sneeringly.

If it was his purpose by all this theatrical display to affect my nerves, he failed utterly, as instead, the very expression of his face brought me back to a fighting spirit. Hardy saw this, and smiled grimly.

“Step this way a moment, Bell,” he said quietly, “while we arrange details. I reckon those two game-cocks will wait until we are ready.”

The two officers moved away a dozen paces and stopped in the shadow of the trees, conversing earnestly. I endeavored to keep my eyes off from Le Gaire, and remain cool. It seemed to me I saw every movement of a leaf, every dropping of a twig, yet could scarcely realize the position I was in. I was about to face that man yonder now carefully loading his weapon to deliberately fire upon him, and receive in return his fire. I felt as though it were a dream, a nightmare, and yet I was conscious of no fear, of no desire to avoid the ordeal. I can recall the scene now, clearly etched on my memory the outlines of the trees silhouetted against the sky, the dark shadow of the stables, the green, level turf, the two figures the one short and stout, the other tall and slender talking earnestly; the deep blue of the sky overhead, the steel gleam of the derringer in the open case, and Le Gaire loading carefully, his eyes now and then glancing across at me. Then the two men wheeled with military precision, and walked back toward us. I saw Hardy take up the second pistol, and load it in silence, while Bell whispered to Le Gaire, the latter with his weapon tightly clasped. A moment later the major thrust the carved stock into my hand, and I looked at it curiously.

“Gentlemen,” he said clearly, stepping to one side, “we will make this as simple as possible. You will take positions here, back to back.”

The sound of his voice, the sharp ring of authority in it, awoke me to the reality as though I had received an electric shock. I felt the fierce beat of my heart, and then every muscle and nerve became steel. Without a tremor, my mind clear and alert, I advanced to the point designated, and stood erect, facing the south; an instant, and Le Gaire’s shoulders were touching mine.

“Now listen closely,” said Hardy, his voice sounding strangely far off, yet each word distinct. “I am to give the first word, and Bell the second. When I say ‘forward’ you will take ten paces go slowly and halt. Then Bell will count ‘one, two, three’; turn at the first word, and fire at the third. If either man discharges his weapon before ‘three’ is spoken, he answers to us. Do you both understand?”

We answered together.

“Very well, gentlemen, are you ready?”

“I am.”

“Go on.”

There was a moment’s pause, so still I could hear my own breathing, and the slight noise Le Gaire made as he gripped his derringer stock more tightly.

“Forward!”

I stepped out almost mechanically, endeavoring not to walk too fast, and regulating each stride as though I were measuring the field. At the end of the tenth I stopped, one foot slightly advanced for the turn, every nerve pulsing from strain. It seemed a long while before Bell’s deep voice broke the silence.

“One!”

I whirled, as on a pivot, my pistol arm flung out.

“Two!”

Le Gaire stood sideways, the muzzle of his derringer covering me, his left hand supporting his elbow. I could see the scowling line between his eyes, the hateful curl of his lip, and my own weapon came up, held steady as a rock; over the blue steel barrel I covered the man’s forehead just below his cap visor, the expression on his face telling me he meant to shoot to kill. I never recall feeling cooler, or more determined in my life. How still, how deathly still it was!

“Th ”

There was a thud of horses’ hoofs behind the stable, Bell’s half-spoken word, and the sharp bark of Le Gaire’s levelled derringer. I felt the impact of the ball, and spun half around, the pressure of my finger discharging my own weapon in the air, yet kept my feet. I was shocked, dazed, but conscious I remained unhurt. Then, with a crash, three horsemen leaped the low fence, riding recklessly toward us. I seemed to see the gray-clad figures through a strange mist, which gradually cleared as they came to a sharp halt. The one in advance was a gaunt, unshaven sergeant, lifting a hand in perfunctory salute, and glancing curiously at my uniform.

“Mornin’, gentlemen,” he said briefly. “Is this the Hardy house Johnston’s headquarters?”

The major answered, and I noticed now he had Le Gaire gripped by the arm.

“This is the Hardy house, and I am Major Hardy, but Johnston is not here. Who are you?”

“Couriers from Chambers’ column, sir. He is advancing up this pike. Where will we find Johnston?”

“Take the first road to your right, and inquire. When will Chambers be up?”

“Within four or five hours. What’s going on here? A little affair?”

Hardy nodded. The sergeant sat still an instant, his eyes on me as though puzzled; then evidently concluded it was none of his business.

“Come on, boys!” he said, and with a dip of the spurs was off, the two others clattering behind. Hardy swung Le Gaire sharply around, his eyes blazing.

“You damned, sneaking coward!” he roared, forgetting everything in sudden outburst. “By Gad, Bell, this fellow is a disgrace to the uniform you know what he did?”

“I know he fired before I got the word out,” indignantly.

“The blamed curb yes; and when those fellows rode up he tried to blurt out the whole situation. Good God, Le Gaire, aren’t you even a soldier?” shaking the fellow savagely. “Haven’t you ever learned what parole means? Damn you, are you totally devoid of all sense of personal honor?”

“I never gave my parole.”

“You lie, you did; you are here on exactly the same terms as Bell and I released on honor. Damned if I believe there’s another man in Confederate uniform who would be guilty of so scurvy a trick. Were you hurt, Galesworth?”

“No, the ball struck my revolver case, and made me sick for a moment.”

“No fault of Le Gaire’s the noise of the horses shattered his aim. Lord! how I despise such a cowardly whelp!”

He flung the man from him so violently he fell to his knees on the ground. The look of amazement on Le Gaire’s face, his utter inability to comprehend the meaning of it all, or why he had thus aroused the enmity of his brother officers, gave me a sudden feeling of compassion. I stepped toward him. Perhaps he mistook my purpose, for he staggered partially erect.

“Damn you!” he yelled. “I’m fighting yet!” and flung the unloaded derringer with all the force of his arm at my face.