Read CHAPTER XXX - UNDER NEW ORDERS of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on

Her eyes were an invitation, a plea, yet with the major at her side, his face full of wonderment, and Bell close behind us in the hall, I could only bow low over the white hands, and murmur some commonplace. There was neither opportunity nor time for more, although I felt my own deep disappointment was mirrored in the girl’s face. The continuous roar of guns without, already making conversation difficult, and the hurried tramp of feet in the hall below, told the danger of delay. It was a moment when the soldier had to conquer the lover, and stern duty became supreme. I hurried to the front window, and gazed out; then to others, thus making a thorough survey of our surroundings, quickly making up my mind to a definite plan of action. So swiftly had occurrences pressed upon me I had scarcely found time before to realize the rapid approach of this new danger. Now it burst upon me in all its impending horror. Already the results of battle were visible.

An hour before the pike road leading past the plantation gates had been white and deserted, not even a spiral of dust breaking its loneliness. Through openings in a grove I had looked northward as far as the log church and observed no moving figure. But now this was all changed; as though by some mysterious alchemy, war had succeeded peace, the very landscape appearing grimly desolate, yet alive with moving figures. And these told the story, the story of defeat. It was not a new scene to me, but nevertheless pitiful. They came trudging from out the smoke clouds, and across the untilled fields, alone, or in little groups, some armed, more weaponless, here and there a bloody bandage showing, or a limp bespeaking a wound; dirty, unshaven men, in uniforms begrimed and tattered, disorganized, swearing at each other, casting frightened glances backward with no other thought or desire save to escape the pursuing terror behind. They were the riff-raff of the battle, the skulkers, the cowards, the slightly wounded, making pin pricks an excuse for escape. Wagons toiled along in the midst of them, the gaunt mules urged on by whip and voice, while occasionally an ambulance forced its way through. Here and there some worn-out straggler or wounded man had crawled into shade, and lay heedless of the turmoil. Shouts, oaths, the cracking of whips, the rumble of wheels mingled with the ceaseless roar of musketry, and the more distant reverberation of cannon, while clouds of powder smoke drifted back on the wind to mingle with the dust, giving to all a spectral look. Back from the front on various missions galloped couriers and aides, spurring their horses unmercifully, and driving straight through the mob in utter recklessness. One, a black-bearded brute, drew his sabre, and slashed right and left as he raced madly by.

Toward the ravine all remained quiet, although here and there in the orchard some of the gray-clad stragglers had found opportunity to lie down out of the ruck. But the smoke and musketry gave me a conception of the Confederate line of battle, its left thrown across the pike with centre and right doubling back into the form of a horse-shoe, all centring on the Hardy house. Within twenty minutes we would be caught as in a trap. I sprang back to the stairs, and as I did so a sudden yell rose from the surging mob without, a shout in which seemed to mingle fear and exultation. Bell, from a side window joined in, and a single glance told the reason: up from the south rode cavalry, sweeping the pike clean of its riff-raff, and behind, barely visible through the dust, tramped a compact mass of infantry, breaking into double time. The black-bearded aide dashed to their front, waving sabre and pointing; the clear note of a bugle cleaved the air; the horsemen spread out like a fan, and with the wild yell of the South rising above the din, the files of infantry broke into a run, and came sweeping forward in a gray torrent. Chambers had come up at last, come to hurl his fresh troops into the gap, and change the tide of battle. Even the stragglers paused, hastening to escape the rush, and facing again to the front. I saw some among them grasp their guns and leap into the ranks, the speeding cavalrymen driving others with remorseless sabres.

All this was but a glimpse, and with the tumult ringing in my ears, I was down stairs facing my own men.

“Where are the prisoners, Sergeant?”

“Here, sir, under guard.”

“Open the front door, and pass them out. We’ll be away before they can do us any harm. Step lively now.”

I scarcely looked at them, moving on a run at the threats of the men, but wheeled on Hardy, who was half way down the stairs.

“Major, what do you mean to do? How will you protect your daughter?”

“Stay here with her,” was the prompt reply. There will be disciplined troops here in a few minutes.”

“Yes, and a battle.”

“As soon as Chambers gets up in force I can pass her back to the rear.”

That seemed the safer plan to me, and I had no time to argue.

“All right, you and Bell are free to do as you please. Get your men out the same window you came in, Sergeant; I’ll go last. Keep down behind the fence, and make for the ravine.”

He flung open the door into the parlor, and we crowded after him, but were still jammed in the doorway when he sprang back from the open window with hands flung up.

“By God, sir, here come our men!”

They came like so many monkeys, leaping the balcony rail, plunging headlong through the opening, and crowding into the room. It was like a dream, a delirium, yet I could see the blue uniforms, the new faces. In the very forefront, flung against me by the rush, I distinguished the lad I had sent back into the lines the night before.

“What does all this mean, Ross? Who are these fellows?”

“Our men, sir,” he panted, scarcely able to speak. “Here read this,” and he thrust a paper into my hand. My eyes took the words in a flash, and yet for the instant they were vague, meaningless. It was only as I read them a second time that I understood, and then I gazed helplessly into the faces about me, striving to grasp the full situation.

“HDQTS 9th ill. CAV. “9:10 A.M.

“Lieut. Galesworth:

“We advanced our centre and left at daylight, and have driven the enemy from intrenchments. Our right is under orders to advance up ravine and strike their rear. We move at once. I send this back by Ross, who will take twenty men with him to help you. Hold the Hardy house to the last possible moment. Our whole movement pivots there, and keeping possession until we arrive is of utmost importance. Hold it at any price. These are Grant’s orders.”

“Who gave you this? it is unsigned.”

“The colonel, sir, I saw him write it.”

“And they were ready to leave?”

“They’ll not be more than an hour behind, unless something stops them the whole brigade is coming.”

I comprehended now the plan was clear-cut, easily understood. Taking advantage of the ravine in which to conceal the movement, Grant proposed to throw a brigade, or even a greater force, suddenly upon the enemy’s unprotected rear, thus crushing Johnston between two fires. The word I had sent back, disclosing the complete desertion of that gash in the earth by the Confederates, had made this strategy possible. And the Hardy house was naturally the pivot of the movement, and the retention of it in our possession essential to success. But the one point they had apparently overlooked was Chambers’ advance along this pike. He was supposed to be much farther east, his column blocked by heavy roads. Instead of that he was here already, his vanguard sweeping past the gate, double-quicking to the front, with long lines of infantry hurrying behind. For us to bar the retreat of Johnston’s demoralized men, safely intrenched within the house, might be possible, provided artillery was not resorted to. Even with my small force I might hold them back for an hour, but to attempt such a feat against the veterans of Chambers, was simply a sentence to death. These men, fresh, undefeated, eager for battle, would turn and crush us as though we were some stinging insect. Thirty men pitted against a division! Good God! if he could send these why not more? Yet there was nothing to do except obey, and, feeling to the full the hell of it, I crushed the paper in the palm of my hand, and looked around into the faces about me. I was in command, and we were to stay here until we died. That was all I knew, all I remembered, the words, “hold it at any price,” burning in upon my brain.

“Men,” I said sharply. “My orders are to hold this house until our troops come up. We’ll make a try at it. Who commands this last squad?”

A sergeant, a big fellow, with closely trimmed gray moustache, elbowed his way forward, and saluted.

“From H troop, are you not?”

“Yes, sir; we’re all H; my name’s Mahoney.”

“I remember you; Irish to a man. Well, this is going to beat any Donnybrook Fair you lads ever saw. Get busy, and barricade every door and window on this floor; use the furniture, or whatever you get hands on. Miles, take the south side, and Mahoney, the north. No shooting until I give the word; we won’t stir up this hornets’ nest until we have to.”

The newcomers stacked their carbines in the hall, and divided into two parties, going to work with a vim, while I quickly stationed my old men where they could command every approach to the house, seeing to it that their arms were in condition, and that they had ample ammunition. Within ten minutes we were ready for a siege, or prepared to repel any attack other than artillery. The rooms looked as though a cyclone had wrecked them, the heavy furniture barricading doors and windows, yet leaving apertures through which we could see and fire. Mattresses had been dragged from beds up stairs, and thrust into places where they would yield most protection. The front door alone was left so as to be opened, but a heavy table was made ready to brace it if necessary. Satisfied nothing more could be done to increase our security I had the men take their weapons, and the sergeants assign them to places. I passed along from room to room, watchful that no point of defence had been overlooked, and speaking words of encouragement to the fellows. After the fight began there could be little commanding; every man would have to act for himself.

“Draw down the shades, lads, and keep it as dark as possible inside. Lay your ammunition beside you, where you can get it quickly. Mahoney, we shall not need as many men at these windows as we will toward the front of the house two to a window here should be sufficient. Carbines, first, boys, and then revolvers if they get close. What is that, Miles? Yes, detail a man to each window up stairs; two to the front windows. Have them protect themselves all they can, and keep back out of sight. Now, boys, keep your eyes open, but no shooting until you get orders. Sergeant Mahoney will command this side, and Miles the other, while I’ll take the front. There is a corporal here, isn’t there?”

“Yes, sir, Conroy.”

“Well, Conroy, you are in charge up stairs. I’ll be there and look you over in a few minutes; I want to take a glance outside first.”

The brief time these hasty preparations required had witnessed a marked change in conditions without. Where before it had been a scene of disastrous confusion, it was now that of disciplined attack. Chambers’ men had swept aside the stragglers, and spread out into battle lines, the gray regiments massing mostly to the right of the pike, but with heavy fringe of cavalry extending past us as far as the ravine. From my point of vantage it all formed an inspiring picture, dully monotonous in color, but alive with action; the long dust-covered lines, the rifle barrels shining, the constant shifting of columns, the regiments hurrying forward, the swift moving of cavalry, and hard riding of staff officers, sent the hot blood leaping through my veins. And all this was no dress review. Just ahead they were at it in deadly earnest barely beyond those trees, and below the edge of the hill. I could hear the thunder of the guns, continuous, almost deafening, even at this distance; could see the black, drifting smoke, and even the struggling figures. We were almost within the zone of fire already. Men were down in the ranks yonder, and a stricken horse lay just within the gate. Back and forth, riding like mad, aides dashed out of the choking powder fumes, in endeavor to hasten up the reserves. Even as I watched one fell headlong from his saddle, struck dead by a stray bullet. I was soldier enough to understand. Within ten minutes Chambers would be out there, hurling his fresh troops against the exhausted Federal advance, while those fellows, now fighting so desperately yonder, would fall back in reserve. Could Chambers hold them? Could he check that victorious onrush of blue those men who had fought their way five bloody miles since daybreak? I could not tell; it would be a death grapple worthy of the gods, and the Hardy house would be in the very vortex. Whether it was destined also to become a charnel house, a shambles, depended on the early coming of those other, unseen men toiling up that black ravine.

Then suddenly there recurred to my memory that Major Hardy and his daughter still remained within. They had not departed with the others, yet in the stress and excitement their presence had slipped my mind. Nor had I seen them since the new recruits came. What could be done with them now, at this late hour, the house already a fortress, the enemy in evidence everywhere? In some manner they must be gotten away at once, safely placed within the protection of friends. Not only my friendship for the father, and my love for the girl, demanded this, but the fact that they were non-combatants made it imperative. There was no time to consider methods already we were within range of the guns, and at any moment might be directly under fire, obliged to resist assault. I was up the stairs even as the thought occurred, and confronted Hardy in the upper hall. Conroy had him by the arm, suspicious of the uniform.

“That’s all right, Corporal,” I said quickly. “I had forgotten the major was here. Hardy, you must get out of the house you, and Miss Billie at once.”

His eyes glanced back toward the door of her room which stood open.

“I I have no knowledge of where my daughter may be,” he acknowledged soberly.