Read CHAPTER XXXVII - THE MYSTERY SOLVED of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

It was impossible for me to speak. Twice I endeavored, but no sound came from my parched lips, and I think my eyes must have filled with tears, her dear face was so blurred and indistinct. She must have understood, for she drew my head down upon her shoulder, pressing back the matted hair with one hand.

“My poor boy!” she whispered sobbingly. “My poor boy!”

“And you you are injured?” I managed to ask with supreme effort.

“No, not physically but the horror of it; the thought of you in midst of that awful fighting! Oh, I never knew before what fiends men can become. This has taught me to hate war,” and she hid her face against my cheek. “I was in that dark corner against the wall; I saw nothing, yet could not stop my ears. But this sight sickens me. I I stood there holding onto the rail staring at all those dead bodies, believing you to be among them. I thought I should go mad, and then then I saw you.”

Her words wild, almost incoherent aroused me to new strength of purpose. To remain idle there, amid such surroundings, would wreck the girl’s reason.

“It was a desperate struggle, lass,” I said, “but there are living men here as well as dead, and they need help. Draw this man off me, so I can sit up against the wall. Don’t be afraid, dear; that is Miles, and he is yet alive. I felt his pulse a moment ago, and it was still beating.”

She shrank from the grewsome task, her hands trembling, her face white, yet she drew the heavy body back, resting the head upon the pile of plaster. The next moment her arms were about me, and I sat up supported by her shoulder. Even this slight movement caused me to clinch my teeth in agony, and she cried out,

“You are hurt? Tell me the truth!”

“My shoulder and side pain me,” I admitted, “but they are nothing to worry over. Can you find water?”

“Yes,” eager now for action. She was gone not to exceed a minute, returning with a pail and cloth, and dropping again on her knees, began bathing my face.

“It is a charnel house, with dead lying everywhere. I had to step across their bodies to get to the kitchen, and stopped to give one poor wounded lad a drink. Oh, I never can blot this scene out; it will haunt me in my dreams.” Tears were in her eyes, and stealing down her cheeks, but there was no faltering. Softly she bathed the wound on my head, and bound it up. Then she kissed me. “Will they never come to help us?” she cried, lifting her eyes from mine. “Hear that man yonder groan. What can I do, Robert? I cannot sit still here!”

“Try to revive Miles,” I suggested, pointing to him. “You heard what he replied when I called him just before the charge. He had caught the murderer, and, if he dies, we may never know the man’s identity. Here, Billie, take this cloth and sprinkle water on his face. Don’t mind me any more; I am all right now.”

She started to do as I requested but had scarcely dampened the rag when a man came in through the wrecked door, picked his way forward a couple of steps, and stopped, staring about at the scene. Behind him were other figures blocking the entrance. Apparently we were indistinguishable from where he stood, for he called out,

“Is there any one alive here?”

I heard a weak response or two, and then answered, “A few, yes back here behind the stairs.”

He moved to one side, shading his eyes with one hand so as to see better. I could tell now he wore the uniform of a Federal officer, but was unable to distinguish his rank. The sight of the girl, standing in the midst of all that horror, her loosened hair falling below her waist, evidently startled him. An instant he stared toward us incredulously; then removed his hat.

“Who are you?”

“I am Lieutenant Galesworth,” I answered, although his question was directed to her. “And this lady is Miss Hardy, the daughter of Major Hardy of the Confederate army.”

“This, I believe, was the Hardy plantation?”

“Yes she was present throughout the fight.”

“I understand. By all the gods, I thought I had gone crazy when I first saw her. A woman in such a scene as this seemed impossible. Here, men, quick now,” and he turned to his following, pointing. “There were several voices answered among those lying there. Place the dead against the wall, and,” glancing through the doorway beside him, “carry the wounded into the parlor. Corporal, you and one man come with me.”

He stepped across carefully, picking a way between the bodies.

“Galesworth, did you say? Then you were in command here?”

I bowed, feeling as I did so that Billie had slipped her hand into mine.

“Great fight you made,” he went on warmly. “Perfect shambles, outside the house as well as in. Nothing like it in my experience. I am Doctor McFarlan, Surgeon Medical Corps. Much hurt yourself?”

“Nothing serious, I think, Doctor. Shoulder and side pain some, but I want you to look at this fellow. He was my sergeant, and seems to be alive.”

The shrewd gray eyes surveyed us quizzically.

“Exactly, I see,” he replied. “Love and war the old story. Ah! that brought a little red into your cheeks, my girl. Well, it’s good for you. Which is the man? this one? Here, Corporal, lift his head, and you, Jones, bring me the water; easy now.”

I drew her closer to me, our eyes on the surgeon and Miles. The former worked with swift professionalism, forgetful of all else in his task, yet commenting audibly.

“Ah, a bad blow, a bad blow; however, skull intact; concussion merely. Bullet wound right chest must probe for it later; right arm broken; not likely to see any more of this war. Live? Of course he’ll live, so far as I can see. Tough as a knot country stock, and that’s the best kind; constitution pull him through. More water, Jones; that’s it, my lad yes, you’re all right now, and among friends. Lift him up higher, Corporal. Do you begin to see things? know that man over there?”

Miles looked at me dully, but slowly the light of returning intelligence came into his eyes.

“The lieutenant?” he asked weakly, “the lieutenant?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I replied eagerly, “we’re both here, but we’re about all there is left.”

“Did they come, sir? Did our boys get here?”

“Did they!” broke in the surgeon, his face glowing. “It was like bees out of a hive the way they came up from that ravine. The lads had been held back until they were mad clear through. The moment they saw what was going on they broke for the house; never waited for orders, or formation just made a run for it. I guess they didn’t get here any too soon either. Well, that’s all I can do for you now, son. Jones, you stay here until I come back you know what to do.”

Miles’ eyes followed him; then he looked at the dead bodies, shuddering, his hands to his face. When he took them down again he seemed to see Billie for the first time.

“You you here, Miss! Oh, I remember now; it had been knocked plum out o’ me. Did he get away?”

“Who?”

“That feller who knifed Burke. I had him all right, sir, back in the coal cellar. He’d crawled away there into one corner, an’ it was dark as hell beg your pardon, Miss.” The sergeant sank back against Jones’ shoulder, and the man wet his lips with water. “I couldn’t see only the mere outline of him, and didn’t dare crawl in, for I knew he had a knife. All I could do was cover him with a gun, an’ try to make him come out. That’s what I was up to when you called. Damned if I knew what to do then there was some racket up stairs, let me tell you, an’ I knew there was a devil of a fight goin’ on. I wanted to be in it the worst way, but I couldn’t find it in my heart to let that devil loose again. Finally I got desperate, an’ grabbed him by the leg, an’ hauled him out, spittin’ and fightin’ like a cat. He cut me once, before I got a grip on his wrist, an’ my gun shoved against him. Then he went weak as a rag. But I wan’t thinkin’ much except about the fracas up stairs the boys catchin’ hell, an’ me not with ’em. So I didn’t fool long with that feller. I just naturally yanked him ’long with me up stairs into the kitchen, an’ flung him down against the wall. I got one glance out into the hall, an’ didn’t care no more what become o’ him. You was facin’ the whole mob of ’em, swingin’ a gun barrel, an’ I knew where I belonged. But damned if that feller didn’t startle me. He was up like a flash to his feet, an’ I thought he was trying to get me. But he wasn’t. When I run to you, he wasn’t two steps behind, an’ may I be jiggered, sir, if he didn’t jump in there on your right, an’ fight like a wild man. That’s all I saw, just the first glimpse. He sure went into it all right, but I don’t know how he come out.”

“Well, I do; I happened to see that myself, though I hardly know how. He was clubbed with a musket from the stairs. The man who hit him fell when the railing broke. The two of them must be lying over there now. Who was he, Miles? Did you know him?”

The sergeant wiped the perspiration from his face with his sleeve, and Jones moistened his lips again. I felt Billie’s grasp tighten, and her hair brush my cheek.

“Well, I thought I did, sir,” he admitted at last, but as though not wholly convinced, “only I don’t like to say till you have a look at the lad. He was dead game anyhow, I’ll say that for him, an’ I don’t feel just sure. I never got eyes on him in daylight, an’ when I yanked him out o’ the coal hole he was mostly black. Maybe that’s him over there, sir.”

The hospital squad had cleared out much of the front hall, but had not reached the plaster pile where we had made our last stand. Those that were left were mostly clad in gray, but over against the stairs, one leg and arm showing, was a blue uniform. The hospital men came back, and I called to them,

“Sergeant, there is one of our men lying in that pile. Will you lift him up so I can see the face?”

This was the work of a moment only, and for an instant no one spoke. Disfigured as the face was, blackened and bloody, there could be no mistake in identity it was that of Charles Le Gaire.

“Why why,” exclaimed Billie, thunderstruck. “I know him, but I cannot remember. Who is the man?”

It was all clear enough to me now; I only wondered at not suspecting the truth before. After guiding us up the ravine he had not returned to camp, but remained, intent on revenge, feeling that this was an opportunity for vengeance which would insure his own safety. Yet she did not know, did not understand, and it must all be explained to her. Miles broke in impatiently.

“Ain’t it the same nigger, sir, what brought us up here?”

“Yes,” I said, but with my eyes on the girl’s face. “Billie, listen, dear. The man was Le Gaire’s servant, his slave, but also his son. He was here with his master, but you never knew of the real relationship between them. The boy was our guide last night, and he told me his story of how justly he hated Le Gaire. Shall I tell it to you now, or wait? The doctor is coming.”

She glanced from my face up into that of the approaching surgeon. The hospital squad, at the nod of command, were bearing the body down the hall.

“Tell me now.”

“It will require but a moment, dear. It was because this Charles Le Gaire had lived here that I asked for him as a guide. He agreed to come as far as the end of the ravine only, as he did not wish to be recognized. Then he disappeared, and, I supposed, returned to camp. Instead, he evidently stole into the house. He was Captain Le Gaire’s son by a slave mother. Bell told me later that the mother was sent back into the fields, and died as a result. That would account for the hate the boy felt against the father.”

“How how old was he?” her trembling lips white.

“Not over eighteen.”

Billie hid her face on my shoulder, sobbing silently. A moment the surgeon stood looking down at us compassionately.

“I am going to have both you and your sergeant taken up stairs,” he said at last. “Come, Miss Hardy, you have no right to break down now.”