The Return Of A Private
From: Main-travelled Roads
On the road leading "back to God's country" and wile 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
Smith went on: "Then at daybreak we'll start f'r home; at least I
"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
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
"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
"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
"You bet. All they c'n raise down there is snakes, niggers, and
"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, girne that gun, any-way."
"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
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
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
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 sid~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
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
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
"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
"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. Every-thing'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 look-in' 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
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 dianer. 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'
hoilder '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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
Teddy crept slowly under the fence, assisted by the overzealous
Tommy, and a moment later was kick-ing 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' laugh-in' 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
"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
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
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 tlie dusk of that far-off valley his figure looms
vast, his personal peculiarities fade away, he rises into a
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.
Next: Under The Lion's Paw
Previous: Among The Corn Rows