THE RETURN OF A PRIVATE
On the road leading "back to God's country" and wife and babies.
The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of "vets" became. On the long way from New Orleans they had beguiled tedium with jokes and friendly chaff; or with planning with elaborate detail what they were going to do now, after the war. A long journey, slowly, irregularly, yet persistently pushing northward. when they entered on Wisconsin Territory they gave a cheer, and another when they reached Madison, but after that they sank into a dumb expectancy. Comrades dropped off at one or two points beyond, until there were only four or five left who were bound for La Crosse County
Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple; one limped; and they all had unnaturally large bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gaily dressed ladies waving hand-kerchiefs and shouting "Bravo!" as they came in on the caboose of a freight tram into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war. As they looked out or stepped upon the platform for a moment, as the train stood at the station, the loafers looked at them indifferenfly. Their blue coats, dusty and grimy, were too familiar now to excite notice, much less a friendly word. They were the last of the army to return, and the loafers were surfeited with such sights.
The train jogged forward so slowly that it seemed likely to be midnight before they should reach La Crosse. The little squad of " vets" grumbled and swore, but it was no use, the train would not hurry; and as a matter of fact, rt was nearly two o'clock when the engine whistled "down brakes."
Most of the group were farmers, living in districts several miles out of the town, and all were poor.
"Now, boys," said Private Smith, he of the fever and ague, "we are landed in La Crosse in the night. We've got to stay somewhere till mornin'. Now, I ain't got no two dollars to waste on a hotel. I've got a wife and children, so I'm goin' to roost on a bench and take the cost of a bed out of my hide."
"Same here," put in one of the other men. "Hide'll grow on again, dollars come hard. It's goin' to be mighty hot skirmishin' to find a dollar these days."
"Don't think they'll be a deputation of citizens waitin' to 'scort us to a hotel, eh?" said another. His sarcasm was too obvious to require an answer.
Smith went on: "Then at daybreak we'll start f'r home; at least I will."
"Well, I'll be dummed if I'll take two dollars out o' my hide," one of the younger men said. "I'm goin' to a hotel, ef I don't never lay up a cent."
"That'll do f'r you," said Smith; "but if you had a wife an' three young 'uns dependin' on yeh--"
"Which I ain't, thank the Lord! and don't intend havin' while the court knows itself."
The station was deserted, chill, and dark, as they came into it at exactly a quarter to two in the morning. Lit by the oil lamps that flared a dull red light over the dingy benches, the waiting room was not an inviting place. The younger man went off to look up a hotel, while the rest remained and prepared to camp down on the floor and benches. Smith was attended to tenderly by the other men, who spread their blankets on the bench for him, and by robbing themselves made quite a comfortable bed, though the narrowness of the bench made his sleeping precarious.
It was chill, though August, and the two men sitting with bowed heads grew stiff with cold and weariness, and were forced to rise now and again, and walk about to warm their stiffened limbs It didn't occur to them, probably, to contrast their coming home with their going forth, or with the coming home of the generals, colonels, or even captains--but to Private Smith, at any rate, there came a sickness at heart almost deadly, as he lay there on his hard bed and went over his situation.
In the deep of the night, lying on a board in the town where he had enlisted three years ago, all elation and enthusiasm gone out of him, he faced the fact that with the joy of homecoming was mingled the bitter juice of care. He saw himself sick, worn out, taking up the work on his half-cleared farm, the inevitable mortgage standing ready with open jaw to swallow half his earnings. He had given three years of his life for a mere pittance of pay, and now--
Morning dawned at last, slowly, with a pale yellow dome of light rising silently above the bluffs which stand like some huge battlemented castle, just east of the city. Out to the left the great river swept on its massive yet silent way to the south. Jays called across the river from hillside to hillside, through the clear, beautiful air, and hawks began to skim the tops of the hills. The two vets were astir early, but Private Smith had fallen at last into a sleep, and they went out without waking him. He lay on his knapsack, his gaunt face turned toward the ceiling, his hands clasped on his breast, with a curious pathetic effect of weakness and appeal.
An engine switching near woke him at last, and he slowly sat up and stared about. He looked out of the window and saw that the sun was lightening the hills across the river. He rose and brushed his hair as well as he could, folded his blankets up, and went out to find his companions. They stood gazing silently at the river and at the hills.
"Looks nat'cherl, don't it?" they said as he came out.
"That's what it does," he replied. "An' it looks good. D'yeh see that peak?" He pointed at a beautiful symmetrical peak, rising like a slightly truncated cone, so high that it seemed the very highest of them all. It was lighted by the morning sun till it glowed like a beacon, and a light scarf of gray morning fog was rolling up its shadowed side.
"My farm's just beyond that. Now, ef I can only ketch a ride, we'll be home by dinnertime."
"I'm talkin' about breakfast," said one of the others.
"I guess it's one more meal o' hardtack f'r me," said Smith.
They foraged around, and finally found a restaurant with a sleepy old German behind the counter, and procured some coffee, which they drank to wash down their hardtack.
"Time'll come," said Smith, holding up a piece by the corner, " when this'll be a curiosity."
"I hope to God it will! I bet I've chawed hardtack enough to shingle every house in the coulee. I've chawed it when my lampers was down, and when they wasn't. I've took it dry, soaked, and mashed. I've had it wormy, musty, sour, and blue-moldy. I've had it in little bits and big bits; 'fore coffee an' after coffee. I'm ready f'r a change. I'd like t' git hol't jest about now o' some of the hot biscuits my wife c'n make when she lays herself out f'r company."
"Well, if you set there gablin', you'll never see yer wife."
"Come on," said Private Smith. "Wait a moment, boys; less take suthin'. It's on me." He led them to the rusty tin dipper which hung on a nail beside the wooden water pail, and they grinned and drank. (Things were primitive in La Crosse then.) Then, shouldering their blankets and muskets, which they were "taking home to the boys," they struck out on their last march.
"They called that coffee 'Jayvy," grumbled one of them, "but it never went by the road where government Jayvy resides. I reckon I know coffee from peas."
They kept together on the road along the turnpike, and up the winding road by the river, which they followed for some miles. The river was very lovely, curving down along its sandy beds, pausing now and then under broad basswood trees, or running in dark, swift, silent currents under tangles of wild grapevines, and drooping alders, and haw trees. At one of these lovely spots the three vets sat down on the thick green sward to rest, "on Smith's account." The leaves of the trees were as fresh and green as in June, the jays called cheery greetings to them, and kingflshers darted to and fro, with swooping, noiseless flight.
"I tell yeh, boys, this knocks the swamps of Loueesiana into kingdom come."
"You bet. All they c'n raise down there is snakes, niggers, and p'rticler hell."
"An' fightin' men," put in the older man.
"An' fightin' men. If I had a good hook an' line I'd sneak a pick'rel out o' that pond. Say, remember that time I shot that alligator--"
"I guess we'd better be crawlin' along," interrupted Smith, rising and shouldering his knapsack, with considerable effort, which he tried to hide.
"Say, Smith, lemme give you a lift on that."
"I guess I c'n manage," said Smith grimly.
"'Course. But, yeh see, I may not have a chance right off to pay yeh back for the times ye've carried my gun and hull caboodie. Say, now, gimme that gun, anyway."
"All right, if yeh feel like it, Jim," Smith replied, and they trudged along doggedly in the sun, which was getting higher and hotter each half mile.
"Ain't it queer there ain't no teams cornin' along."
"Well, no, seem's it's Sunday."
"By jinks, that's a fact! It is Sunday. I'll git home in time fr dinner, sure. She don't hev dinner usually till-about one on Sundays." And he fell into a muse, in which he smiled.
"Well, I'll git home jest about six o'clock, jest about when the boys are milkin' the cows," said old Jim Cranby. "I'll step into the barn an' then I'll say, 'Heah! why ain't this milkin' done before this time o' day? An' then won't they yell!" he added, slapping his thigh in great glee.
Smith went on. "I'll jest go up the path. Old Rover'll come down the road to meet me. He won't bark; he'll know me, an' he'll come down waggin' his tail an' shonin' his teeth. That's his way of laughin'. An' so I'll walk up to the kitchen door, an' I'll say 'Dinner f'r a hungry man!' An' then she'll jump up, an'--"
He couldn't go on. His voice choked at the thought of it. Saunders, the third man, hardly uttered a word. He walked silently behind the others. He had lost his wife the first year he was in the army. She died of pneumonia caught in the autumn rains, while working in the fields in his place.
They plodded along till at last they came to a parting of the ways. To the right the road continued up the main valley; to the left it went over the ridge.
"Well, boys," began Smith as they grounded their muskets and looked away up the valley, "here's where we shake hands. We've marched together a good many miles, an' now I s'pose we're done."
"Yes, I don't think we'll do any more of it f'r a while. I don't want to, I know."
"I hope I'll see yeh once in a while, boys, to taik over old times."
"Of course," said Saunders, whose voice trembled a little, too. "It ain't exactly like dyin'."
"But we'd ought'r go home with you," said the younger man. "You never'll climb that ridge with all them things on yer back."
"Oh, I'm all right! Don't worry about me. Every step takes me nearer home, yeh see. Well, goodbye, boys."
They shook hands. "Goodbye. Good luck!"
"Same to you. Lemme know how you find things at home."
He turned once before they passed out of sight and waved his cap, and they did the same, and all yelled. Then all marched away with their long, steady, loping, veteran step. The solitary climber in blue walked on for a time, with his mind filled with the kindness of his comrades, and musing upon the many jolly days they had had together in camp and field.
He thought of his chum, Billy Tripp. Poor Billy! A "mime" ball fell into his breast one day, fell wailing like a cat, and tore a great ragged hole in his heart. He looked forward to a sad scene with Billy's mother and sweet-heart. They would want to know all about it. He tried to recall all that Billy had said, and the particulars of it, but there was little to remember, just that wild wailing sound high in the air, a dull slap, a short, quick, expulsive groan, and the boy lay with his face in the dirt in the plowed field they were marching across.
That was all. But all the scenes he had since been through had not dimmed the horror, the terror of that moment, when his boy comrade fell, with only a breath between a laugh and a death groan. Poor handsome Billy! Worth millions of dollars was his young wife.
These somber recollections gave way at length to more cheerful feelings as he began to approach his home coulee. The fields and houses grew familiar, and in one or two he was greeted by people seated in the doorway. But he was in no mood to talk, and pushed on steadily, though he stopped and accepted a drink of milk once at the well-side of a neighbor.
The sun was getting hot on that slope, and his step grew slower, in spite of his iron resolution. He sat down several times to rest. Slowly he crawled up the rough, reddish-brown road, which wound along the hillside, under great trees, through dense groves of jack oaks, with treetops' far below him on his left hand, and the hills far above him on his right. He crawled along like some minute wingless variety of fly.
He ate some hardtack, sauced with wild berries, when he reached the summit of the ridge, and sat there for some time, looking down into his home coulee.
Somber, pathetic figure! His wide, round, gray eyes gazing down into the beautiful valley, seeing and not seeing, the splendid cloud-shadows sweeping over the western hills and across the green and yellow wheat far below. His head drooped forward on his palm, his shoulders took on a tired stoop, his cheekbones showed painfully. An observer might have said, "He is looking down upon his own grave."
Sunday comes in a Western wheat harvest with such sweet and sudden relaxation to man and beast that it would be holy for that reason, if for no other. And Sundays are usually fair in harvest time. As one goes out into the field in the hot morning sunshine, with no sound abroad save the crickets and the indescribably pleasant, silken rustling of the ripened grain, the reaper and the very sheaves in the stubble seem to be resting, dreaming.
Around the house, in the shade of the trees, the men sit, smoking, dozing, or reading the papers, while the women, never resting, move about at the housework. The men eat on Sundays about the same as on other days; and breakfast is no sooner over and out of the way than dinner begins.
But at the Smith farm there were no men dozing or reading. Mrs. Smith was alone with her three children, Mary, nine, Tommy, six, and littie Ted, just past four. Her farm, rented to a neighbor, lay at the head of a coulee or narrow galley, made at some far-off postglacial period by the vast and angry floods of water which gullied these trememdous furrows in the level prairie--furrows so deep that undisturbed portions of the original level rose like hills on either side--rose to quite considerable mountains.
The chickens wakened her as usual that Sabbath morning from dreams of her absent husband, from whom she had not heard for weeks. The shadows drifted over the hills, down the slopes, across the wheat, and up the opposite wall in leisurely way, as if, being Sunday, they could "take it easy," also. The fowls clustered about the housewife as she went out into the yard. Fuzzy little chickens swarmed out from the coops where their clucking and perpetually disgruntled mothers tramped about, petulantly thrusting their heads through the spaces between the slats.
A cow called in a deep, musical bass, and a call answered from a little pen nearby, and a pig scurried guiltily out of the cabbages. Seeing all this, seeing the pig in the cabbages, the tangle of grass in the garden, the broken fence which she had mended again and again--the little woman, hardly more than a girl, sat down and cried. The bright Sabbath morning was only a mockery without him!
A few years ago they had bought this farm, paying part, mortgaging the rest in the usual way. Edward Smith was a man of terrible energy. He worked "nights and Sundays," as the saying goes, to clear the farm of its brush and of its insatiate mortgage. In the midst of his Herculean struggle came the call for volunteers, and with the grirn and unselfish devotion to his country which made the Eagle Brigade able to "whip its weight in wildcats," he threw down his scythe and his grub ax, turned his cattle loose, and became a blue-coated cog in a vast machine for killing men, and not thistles. While the millionnaire sent his money to England for safekeeping, this man, with his girl-wife and three babies, left them on a mortgaged farm and went away to fight for an idea. It was foolish, but it was sublime for all that.
That was three years before, and the young wife, sitting on the well curb on this bright Sabbath harvest morning, was righteously rebellious. It seemed to her that she had borne her share of the country's sorrow. Two brothers had been killed, the renter in whose hands her husband had left the farm had proved a villain, one year the farm was without crops, and now the overripe grain was waiting the tardy hand of the neighbor who had rented it, and who was cutting his own grain first.
About six weeks before, she had received a letter saying, "We'll be discharged in a little while." But no other word had come from him. She had seen by the papers that his army was being discharged, and from day to day other soldiers slowly percolated in blue streams back into the state and county, but still her private did not return.
Each week she had told the children that he was coming' and she had watched the road so long that it had become unconscious, and as she stood at the well, or by the kitchen door, her eyes were fixed unthinkingly on the road that wound down the coulee. Nothing wears on the human soul like waiting. If the stranded mariner, 'searching the sun-bright seas, could once give up hope of a ship, that horrible grinding on his brain would cease. It was this waiting, hoping, on the edge of despair, that gave Emma Smith no rest.
Neighbors said, with kind intentions, "He's sick, maybe, an' can't start North just yet. He'll come along one o' these days."
"Why don't he write?" was her question, which silenced them all. This Sunday morning it seemed to her as if she couldn't stand it any longer. The house seemed intolerably lonely. So she dressed the little ones in their best calico dresses and homemade jackets, and closing up the house, set off down the coulee to old Mother Gray's.
"Old Widder Gray" lived at the "mouth of the coulee." She was a widow woman with a large family of stalwart boys and laughing girls. She was the visible incarnation of hospitality and optimistic poverty. With Western open-heartedness she fed every mouth that asked food of her, and worked herself to death as cheerfully as her girls danced in the neighborhood harvest dances.
She waddled down the path to meet Mrs. Smith with a smile on her face that would have made the countenance of a convict expand.
"Oh, you little dears! Come right to yer granny. Gimme a kiss! Come right in, Mis' Smith. How are yeh, anyway? Nice mornin', ain't it? Come in an' set down. Everything's in a clutter, but that won't scare you any."
She led the way into the "best room," a sunny, square room, carpeted with a faded and patched rag carpet, and papered with a horrible white-and-green-striped wallpaper, where a few ghastly effigies of dead members of the family hung in variously sized oval walnut frames. The house resounded with singing, laughter, whistling, tramping of boots, and scufflings. Half-grown boys came to the door and crooked their fingers at the children, who ran out, and were soon heard in the midst of the fun.
"Don't s'pose you've heard from Ed?" Mrs. Smith shook her head. " He'll turn up some day, when you ain't lookin' for 'm." The good old soul had said that so many times that poor Mrs. Smith derived no comfort from it any longer.
"Liz heard from Al the other day. He's comin' some, day this week. Anyhow, they expect him."
"Did he say anything of--"
"No, he didn't," Mrs. Gray admitted. "But then it was only a short letter, anyhow. Al ain't much for ritin', anyhow. But come out and see my new cheese. I tell yeh, I don't believe I ever had hetter luck in my life. If Ed should come, I want you should take him up a piece of this cheese."
It was beyond human nature to resist the influence of that noisy, hearty, loving household, and in the midst of the singing and laughing the wife forgot her anxiety, for the time at least, and laughed and sang with the rest.
About eleven o'clock a wagonload more drove up to the door, and Bill Gray, the widow's oldest son, and his whole family from Sand Lake Coulee piled out amid a good-natured uproar, as characteristic as it was ludicrous. Everyone talked. at once, except Bill, who sat in the wagon with his wrists on his knees, a straw in his mouth, and an amused twinkle in his blue eyes.
"Ain't heard nothin' o' Ed, I s'pose?" he asked in a kind of bellow. Mrs. Smith shook her head. Bill, with a delicacy very striking in such a great giant, rolled his quid in his mouth and said:
"Didn't know but you had. I hear two or three of the Sand Lake boys are comm'. Left New Orleenes some time this week. Didn't write nothin' about Ed, but no news is good news in such cases, Mother always says."
"Well, go put out yer team," said Mrs. Gray, "an' go'n bring me in some taters, an', Sim, you go see if you c'n find some corn. Sadie, you put on the water to b'ile. Come now, hustle yer boots., all o' yeh. If I feed this yer crowd, we've got to have some raw materials. If y' think I'm goin' to feed yeh on pie--"
The children went off into the fields, the girls put dinner on to " b'ile," and then went to change their dresses and fix their hair. " Somebody might come," they said.
"Land sakes, l hope not! I don't know where in time I'd set 'em, 'less they'd eat at the secont table," Mrs. Gray laughed in pretended dismay.
The two older boys, who had served their time in the army, lay out on the grass before the house, and whittied and talked desultorily about the war and the crops, and planned buying a threshing machine. The older girls and Mrs. Smith helped enlarge the table and put on the dishes, talking all the time in that cheery, incoherent, and meaningful way a group of such women have--a conversation to be taken for its spirit rather than for its letter, though Mrs. Gray at last got the ear of them all and dissertated at length on girls.
"Girls in love ain't no use in the whole blessed week," she said. " Sundays they're a-lookin' down the road, expectin' he'll come. Sunday afternoons they can't think o' nothin' else, 'cause he's here. Monday mornin's they're sleepy and kind o' dreamy and slimpsy, and good fr nothin' on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday they git absent-minded, an' begin to look off toward Sunday agin, an' mope aroun' and let the dishwater git cold, rtght under their noses. Friday they break dishes, and go off in the best room an' snivel, an' look out o' the winder. Saturdays they have queer spurts o' workin' like all p'ssessed, an spurts o' frizzin' their hair. An' Sunday they begin it all over agin."
The girls giggled and blushed all through this tirade from their mother, their broad faces and powerful frames anything but suggestive of lackadaisical sentiment. But Mrs. Smith said:
"Now, Mrs. Gray, I hadn't ought to stay to dinner. You've got--"
"Now you set right down! If any of them girls' beaus comes, they'll have to take what's left, that's all. They ain't s'posed to have much appetite, nohow. No, you're goin' to stay if they starve, an' they ain't no danger o' that."
At one o'clock the long table was piled with boiled potatoes, cords of boiled corn on the cob, squash and pumpkin pies, hot biscuit, sweet pickles, bread and butter, and honey. Then one of the girls took down a conch shell from a nail and, going to the door, blew a long, fine, free blast, that showed there was no weakness of lungs in her ample chest.
Then the children came out of the forest of corn, out of the crick, out of the loft of the barn, and out of the garden. The men shut up their jackknives, and surrounded the horse trough to souse their faces in the cold, hard water, and in a few moments the table was filled with a merry crowd, and a row of wistful-eyed youngsters circled the kitchen wail, where they stood first on one leg and then on the other, in impatient hunger.
"They come to their feed f'r all the world jest like the pigs when y' holler 'poo-ee!' See 'em scoot!" laughed Mrs. Gray, every wrinkle on her face shining with delight. "Now pitch in, Mrs. Smith," she said, presiding over the table. "You know these men critters. They'll eat every grain of it, if yeh give 'em a chance. I swan, they're made o' Indian rubber, their stomachs is, I know it."
"Haft to eat to work," said Bill, gnawing a cob with a swift, circular motion that rivaled a corn sheller in results.
"More like workin' to eat," put in one of the girls with a giggle. " More eat 'n' work with you."
"You needn't say anything, Net. Anyone that'll eat seven ears--"
"I didn't, no such thing. You piled your cobs on my plate."
"That'll do to tell Ed Varney. It won't go down here, where we know yeh."
"Good land! Eat all yeh want! They's plenty more in the fiel's, but I can't afford to give you young 'uns tea. The tea is for us womenfolks, and 'specially fr Mis' Smith an' Bill's wife. We're agoin' to tell fortunes by it."
One by one the men filled up and shoved back, and one by one the children slipped into their places, and by two o'clock the women alone remained around the debris-covered table, sipping their tea and telling fortunes.
As they got well down to the grounds in the cup, they shook them with a circular motion in the hand, and then turned them bottom-side-up quickly in the saucer, then twirled them three or four times one way, and three or four times the other, during a breathless pause. Then Mrs. Gray lifted the cup and, gazing into it with profound gravity, pronounced the impending fate.
It must be admitted that, to a critical observer, she had abundant preparation for hitting close to the mark; as when she told the girls that "somebody was coming." "It is a man," she went on gravely. " He is cross-eyed--"
"Oh, you hush!"
"He has red hair, and is death on b'iled corn and hot biscuit."
The others shrieked with delight.
"But he's goin' to get the mitten, that redheaded feller is, for I see a feller comin' up behind him."
"Oh, lemme see, lemme see!" cried Nettle.
"Keep off," said the priestess with a lofty gesture. "His hair is black. He don't eat so much, and he works more."
The girls exploded in a shriek of laughter and pounded their sister on the back.
At last came Mrs. Smith's turn, and she was trembling with excitement as Mrs. Gray again composed her jolly face to what she considered a proper solemnity of expression.
"Somebody is comin' to you," she said after a long pause. "He's got a musket on his back. He's a soldier. He's almost here. See?"
She pointed at two little tea stems, which formed a faint suggestion of a man with a musket on his back. He had climbed nearly to the edge of the cup. Mrs. Smith grew pale with excitement. She trembled so she could hardly hold the cup in her hand as she gazed into it.
"It's Ed," cried the old woman. "He's on the way home. Heavens an' earth! There he is now!" She turned and waved her hand out toward the road. They rushed to the door and looked where she pointed.
A man in a blue coat, with a musket on his back, was toiling slowly up the hill, on the sun-bright, dusty road, toiling slowly, with bent head half-hidden by a heavy knapsack. So tired it seemed that walking was indeed a process of falling. So eager to get home he would not stop, would not look aside, but plodded on, amid the cries of the locusts, the welcome of the crickets, and the rustle of the yellow wheat. Getting back to God's country, and his wife and babies!
Laughing, crying, trying to call him and the children at the same time, the little wife, almost hysterical, snatched her hat and ran out into the yard. But the soldier had disappeared over the hill into the hollowy beyond, and, by the time she had found the children, he was too far away for her voice to reach him. And besides, she was not sure it was her husband, for he had not turned his head at their shouts. This seemed so strange. Why didn't he stop to rest at his old neighbor's house? Tortured by hope and doubt, she hurried up the coulee as fast as she could push the baby wagon, the blue coated figure just ahead pushing steadily, silently forward up the coulee.
When the excited, panting little group came in sight of the gate, they saw the blue-coated figure standing, leaning upon the rough rail fence, his chin on his palms, gazing at the empty house. His knapsack, canteen, blankets, and musket lay upon the dusty grass at his feet.
He was like a man lost in a dream. His wide, hungry eyes devoured the scene. The rough lawn, the little unpainted house, the field of clear yellow wheat behind it, down across which streamed the sun, now almost ready to touch the high hill to the west, the crickets crying merrily, a cat on the fence nearby, dreaming, unmmdful of the stranger in blue.
How peaceful it all was. O God! How far removed from all camps, hospitals, battlelines. A little cabin in a Wisconsin coulee, but it was majestic in its peace. How did he ever leave it for those years of tramping, thirsting, killing?
Trembling, weak with emotion, her eyes on the silent figure, Mrs. Smith hurried up to the fence. Her feet made no noise in the dust and grass, and they were close upon him before he knew of them. The oldest boy ran a little ahead. He will never forget that figure, that face. It will always remain as something epic, that return of the private. He fixed his eyes on the pale face, covered with a ragged beard.
"Who are you, sir?" asked the wife, or, rather, started to ask, for he turned, stood a moment, and then cried:
The children stood in a curious row to see their mother kiss this bearded, strange man, the elder girl sobbing sympathetically with her mother. Illness had left the soldier partly deaf, and this added to the strangeness of his manner.
But the boy of six years stood away, even after the girl had recognized her father and kissed him. The man turned then to the baby and said in a curiously unpaternal tone:
"Come here, my little man; don't you know me?" But the baby backed away under the fence and stood peering at him critically.
"My little man!" What meaning in those words! This baby seemed like some other woman's child, and not the infant he had left in his wife's arms. The war had come between him and his baby--he was only "a strange man, with big eyes, dressed in blue, with Mother hanging to his arm, and talking in a loud voice.
"And this is Tom," he said, drawing the oldest boy to him. "He'll come and see me. He knows his poor old pap when he comes home from the war."
The mother heard the pain and reproach in his voice and hastened to apologize.
"You've changed so, Ed. He can't know yeh. This is Papa, Teddy; come and kiss him--Tom and Mary do, Come, won't you?" But Teddy still peered through the fence with solemn eyes, well out of reach. He resembled a half-wild kitten that hesitates, studying the tones of one's voice.
"I'll fix him," said the soldier, and sat down to undo his knapsack, out of which he drew three enormous and very red apples. After giving one to each of the older children, he said:
"Now I guess he'll come. Eh, my little man? Now come see your pap."
Teddy crept slowly under the fence, assisted by the overzealous Tommy, and a moment later was kicking and squalling in his father's arms. Then they entered the house, into the sitting room, poor, bare, art-forsaken little room, too, with its rag carpet, its square clock, and its two or three chromos and pictures from Harper's Weekly pinned about.
"Emma, I'm all tired out," said Private Smith as he flung himself down on the carpet as he used to do, while his wife brought a pillow to put under his head, and the children stood about, munching their apples.
"Tommy, you run and get me a pan of chips; and Mary, you get the teakettle on, and I'll go and make some biscuit."
And the soldier talked. Question after question he poured forth about the crops, the cattle, the renter, the neighbors. He slipped his heavy government brogan shoes off his poor, tired, blistered feet, and lay out with utter, sweet relaxation. He was a free man again, no longer a soldier under command. At supper he stopped once, listened, and smiled. "That's old Spot. I know her voice. I s'pose that's her calf out there in the pen. I can't milk her tonight, though, I'm too tired; but I tell you, I'd like a drink o' her milk. What's become of old Rove?"
"He died last winter. Poisoned, I guess." There was a moment of sadness for them all. It was some time before the husband spoke again, in a voice that trembled a little.
"Poor old feller! He'd a known me a half a mile away. I expected him to come down the hill to meet me. It 'ud 'a' been more like comin' home if I could 'a' seen him comm' down the road an' waggin' his tail, an' laughin' that way he has. I tell yeh, it kin' o' took hold o' me to see the blinds down an' the house shut up."
"But, yeh see, we--we expected you'd write again 'fore you started. And then we thought we'd see you if you did come," she hastened to explain.
"Well, I ain't worth a cent on writin'. Besides, it's just as well yeh didn't know when I was comm'. I tell yeh, it sounds good to hear them chickens out there, an' turkeys, an' the crickets. Do you know they don't have just the same kind o' crickets down South. Who's Sam hired t' help cut yer grain?"
"The Ramsey boys."
"Looks like a good crop; but I'm afraid I won't do much gettin' it cut. This cussed fever an' ague has got me down pretty low. I don't know when I'll get red of it. I'll bet I've took twenty-five pounds of quinine, if I've taken a bit. Gimme another biscuit. I tell yeh, they taste good, Emma. I ain't had anything like it! Say, if you'd a heard me braggin' to th' boys about your butter 'n' biscuits, I'll bet your ears 'ud 'a' burnt."
The private's wife colored with pleasure. "Oh, you're always a-braggin' about your things. Everybody makes good butter."
"Yes; old lady Snyder, for instance."
"Oh, well, she ain't to be mentioned. She's Dutch."
"Or old Mis' Snively. One more cup o' tea, Mary. That's my girl! I'm feeling better already. I just b'lieve the matter with me is, I'm starved."
This was a delicious hour, one long to be remembered. They were like lovers again. But their tenderness, like that of a typical American, found utterance in tones, rather than in words. He was praising her when praising her biscuit, and she knew it. They grew soberer when he showed where he had been struck, one ball burning the back of his hand, one cutting away a lock of hair from his temple, and one passing through the calf of his leg. The wife shuddered to think how near she had come to being a soldier's widow. Her waiting no longer seemed hard. This sweet, glorious hour effaced it all.
Then they rose and all went out into the garden and down to the barn. He stood beside her while she milked old Spot. They began to plan fields and crops for next year. Here was the epic figure which Whitman has in mind, and which he calls the "common American soldier." With the livery of war on his limbs, this man was facing his future, his thoughts holding no scent of battle. Clean, clear-headed, in spite of physical weakness, Edward Smith, private, turned future-ward with a sublime courage.
His farm was mortgaged, a rascally renter had run away with his machinery, "departing between two days," his children needed clothing, the years were coming upon him, he was sick and emaciated, but his heroic soul did not quail. With the same courage with which he faced his southern march, be entered upon a still more hazardous future.
Oh, that mystic hour! The pale man with big eyes standing there by the well, with his young wife by his side. The vast moon swinging above the eastern peaks; the cattle winding down the pasture slopes with jangling bells; the crickets singing; the stars blooming out sweet and far and serene; the katydids rhythmically calling; the little turkeys crying querulously as they settled to roost in the poplar tree near the open gate. The voices at the well drop lower, the little ones nestle in their father's arms at last, and Teddy falls asleep there.
The common soldier of the American volunteer army had returned. His war with the South was over, and his fight, his daily running fight, with nature and against the injustice of his fellow men was begun again. In the dusk of that far-off valley his figure looms vast, his personal peculiarities fade away, he rises into a magnificent type.
He is a gray-haired man of sixty now, and on the brown hair of his wife the white is also showing. They are fighting a hopeless battle, and must fight till God gives them furlough.