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[34]

I walked in rear of the battalion to prevent straggling, and, as the successive flashes illumined the cimmerian darkness, the blanched faces and staring eyes turned backward upon me spoke volumes of nervous demoralization. I felt that a hare might shatter the column.

We halted at daylight at a country cross-road in Chesterfield to allow other bodies of troops to pass, the bulk of my men lying down and falling asleep in a grove; but, seeing others about a well in the yard of a farm house over the way, I deemed it best to go there to see that nothing was unnecessarily disturbed.

I sat in the porch, where were also sitting an old couple evidently the joint head of the establishment, and a young woman dressed in black, apparently their daughter, and, as I soon learned, a soldier's widow. My coat was badly torn, and the young woman kindly offering to mend it, I thanked her, and, taking it off, handed it to her. While we were chatting, and groups of men sitting on the steps and lying about the yard, the door of the house opened and another young woman appeared. She was almost beautiful, was plainly but neatly dressed, and had her hat on. She had evidently been weeping, and her face was deadly pale. Turning to the old lady as she came out, she said, cutting her words off short: ‘Mother, tell him if he passes by here, he is no husband of mine,’ and turned again to leave the porch. I rose, and placing myself directly in front of her, extended my arm to prevent her escape. She drew back with surprise and indignation. The men were alert on the instant, and battle was joined.

“What do you mean, sir?” she cried.

“I mean, madam,” I replied, “that you are sending your husband word to desert, and that I cannot permit you to do this in the presence of my men.”

“Indeed! and who asked your permission, sir? And pray, sir, is he your husband or mine?”

“He is your husband, madam, but these are my soldiers. They and I belong to the same army with your husband, and I cannot suffer you or anyone, unchallenged, to send such a demoralizing message in their hearing.”

“Army! do you call this mob of retreating cowards an army? Soldiers! if you are soldiers, why don't you stand and fight the savage wolves that are coming upon us defenceless women and children?”

“We don't stand and fight, madam, because we are soldiers, and have to obey orders; but, if the enemy should appear on that hill this ”

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