The Red Badge of Courage
Part 3 out of 3
He had taken up a first position behind the little tree, with a
direct determination to hold it against the world. He had not
deemed it possible that his army could that day succeed, and
from this he felt the ability to fight harder. But the throng
had surged in all ways, until he lost directions and locations,
save that he knew where lay the enemy.
The flames bit him, and the hot smoke broiled his skin. His rifle
barrel grew so hot that ordinarily he could not have borne
it upon his palms; but he kept on stuffing cartridges into it,
and pounding them with his clanking, bending ramrod. If he aimed
at some changing form through the smoke, he pulled the trigger
with a fierce grunt, as if he were dealing a blow of the fist
with all his strength.
When the enemy seemed falling back before him and his fellows, he
went instantly forward, like a dog who, seeing his foes lagging,
turns and insists upon being pursued. And when he was compelled
to retire again, he did it slowly, sullenly, taking steps of
Once he, in his intent hate, was almost alone, and was firing,
when all those near him had ceased. He was so engrossed in his
occupation that he was not aware of a lull.
He was recalled by a hoarse laugh and a sentence that came to his
ears in a voice of contempt and amazement. "Yeh infernal fool,
don't yeh know enough t' quit when there ain't anything t' shoot at?
He turned then and, pausing with his rifle thrown half into
position, looked at the blue line of his comrades. During this
moment of leisure they seemed all to be engaged in staring with
astonishment at him. They had become spectators. Turning to the
front again he saw, under the lifted smoke, a deserted ground.
He looked bewildered for a moment. Then there appeared upon the
glazed vacancy of his eyes a diamond point of intelligence.
"Oh," he said, comprehending.
He returned to his comrades and threw himself upon the ground.
He sprawled like a man who had been thrashed. His flesh seemed
strangely on fire, and the sounds of the battle continued in his ears.
He groped blindly for his canteen.
The lieutenant was crowing. He seemed drunk with fighting. He called
out to the youth: "By heavens, if I had ten thousand wild cats
like you I could tear th' stomach outa this war in less'n a week!"
He puffed out his chest with large dignity as he said it.
Some of the men muttered and looked at the youth in awestruck ways.
It was plain that as he had gone on loading and firing and cursing
without proper intermission, they had found time to regard him.
And they now looked upon him as a war devil.
The friend came staggering to him. There was some fright and dismay
in his voice. "Are yeh all right, Fleming? Do yeh feel all right?
There ain't nothin' th' matter with yeh, Henry, is there?"
"No," said the youth with difficulty. His throat seemed full of
knobs and burrs.
These incidents made the youth ponder. It was revealed to him
that he had been a barbarian, a beast. He had fought like a
pagan who defends his religion. Regarding it, he saw that it was
fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy. He had been a tremendous
figure, no doubt. By this struggle he had overcome obstacles
which he had admitted to be mountains. They had fallen like
paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero. And he had
not been aware of the process. He had slept, and, awakening,
found himself a knight.
He lay and basked in the occasional stares of his comrades.
Their faces were varied in degrees of blackness from the
burned powder. Some were utterly smudged. They were reeking
with perspiration, and their breaths came hard and wheezing.
And from these soiled expanses they peered at him.
"Hot work! Hot work!" cried the lieutenant deliriously.
He walked up and down, restless and eager. Sometimes his
voice could be heard in a wild, incomprehensible laugh.
When he had a particularly profound thought upon the science of
war he always unconsciously addressed himself to the youth.
There was some grim rejoicing by the men. "By thunder,
I bet this army'll never see another new reg'ment like us!"
"A dog, a woman, an' a walnut tree
Th' more yeh beat 'em, th' better they be!
That's like us."
"Lost a piler men, they did. If an ol' woman swep' up th' woods
she'd git a dustpanful."
"Yes, an' if she'll come around ag'in in 'bout an hour she'll get
a pile more."
The forest still bore its burden of clamor. From off under the
trees came the rolling clatter of the musketry. Each distant
thicket seemed a strange porcupine with quills of flame. A cloud
of dark smoke, as from smoldering ruins, went up toward the sun
now bright and gay in the blue, enameled sky.
The ragged line had respite for some minutes, but during its
pause the struggle in the forest became magnified until the
trees seemed to quiver from the firing and the ground to shake
from the rushing of men. The voices of the cannon were mingled
in a long and interminable row. It seemed difficult to live in
such an atmosphere. The chests of the men strained for a bit
of freshness, and their throats craved water.
There was one shot through the body, who raised a cry of bitter
lamentation when came this lull. Perhaps he had been calling out
during the fighting also, but at that time no one had heard him.
But now the men turned at the woeful complaints of him upon the ground.
"Who is it? Who is it?"
"Its Jimmie Rogers. Jimmie Rogers."
When their eyes first encountered him there was a sudden halt,
as if they feared to go near. He was thrashing about in the grass,
twisting his shuddering body into many strange postures. He was
screaming loudly. This instant's hesitation seemed to fill him
with a tremendous, fantastic contempt, and he damned them in
The youth's friend had a geographical illusion concerning a stream,
and he obtained permission to go for some water. Immediately canteens
were showered upon him. "Fill mine, will yeh?" "Bring me some, too."
"And me, too." He departed, ladened. The youth went with his friend,
feeling a desire to throw his heated body into the stream and,
soaking there, drink quarts.
They made a hurried search for the supposed stream, but did not find it.
"No water here," said the youth. They turned without delay and began
to retrace their steps.
From their position as they again faced toward the place of the fighting,
they could of comprehend a greater amount of the battle than when their
visions had been blurred by the hurling smoke of the line. They could see
dark stretches winding along the land, and on one cleared space there was
a row of guns making gray clouds, which were filled with large flashes of
orange-colored flame. Over some foliage they could see the roof of a house.
One window, glowing a deep murder red, shone squarely through the leaves.
From the edifice a tall leaning tower of smoke went far into the sky.
Looking over their own troops, they saw mixed masses slowly getting
into regular form. The sunlight made twinkling points of the
bright steel. To the rear there was a glimpse of a distant
roadway as it curved over a slope. It was crowded with
retreating infantry. From all the interwoven forest arose the smoke
and bluster of the battle. The air was always occupied by a blaring.
Near where they stood shells were flip-flapping and hooting.
Occasional bullets buzzed in the air and spanged into tree trunks.
Wounded men and other stragglers were slinking through the woods.
Looking down an aisle of the grove, the youth and his companion
saw a jangling general and his staff almost ride upon a wounded man,
who was crawling on his hands and knees. The general reined
strongly at his charger's opened and foamy mouth and guided it
with dexterous horsemanship past the man. The latter scrambled
in wild and torturing haste. His strength evidently failed him
as he reached a place of safety. One of his arms suddenly
weakened, and he fell, sliding over upon his back. He lay
stretched out, breathing gently.
A moment later the small, creaking cavalcade was directly in
front of the two soldiers. Another officer, riding with the
skillful abandon of a cowboy, galloped his horse to a position
directly before the general. The two unnoticed foot soldiers
made a little show of going on, but they lingered near in the
desire to overhear the conversation. Perhaps, they thought,
some great inner historical things would be said.
The general, whom the boys knew as the commander of their division,
looked at the other officer and spoke coolly, as if he were
criticising his clothes. "Th' enemy's formin' over there
for another charge," he said. "It'll be directed against
Whiterside, an' I fear they'll break through unless we work
like thunder t' stop them."
The other swore at his restive horse, and then cleared his throat.
He made a gesture toward his cap. "It'll be hell t' pay stoppin' them,"
he said shortly.
"I presume so," remarked the general. Then he began to talk
rapidly and in a lower tone. He frequently illustrated his words
with a pointing finger. The two infantrymen could hear nothing
until finally he asked: "What troops can you spare?"
The officer who rode like a cowboy reflected for an instant.
"Well," he said, "I had to order in th' 12th to help th' 76th,
an' I haven't really got any. But there's th' 304th. They fight
like a lot 'a mule drivers. I can spare them best of any."
The youth and his friend exchanged glances of astonishment.
The general spoke sharply. "Get 'em ready, then. I'll watch
developments from here, an' send you word when t' start them.
It'll happen in five minutes."
As the other officer tossed his fingers toward his cap and
wheeling his horse, started away, the general called out to him
in a sober voice: "I don't believe many of your mule drivers
will get back."
The other shouted something in reply. He smiled.
With scared faces, the youth and his companion hurried back to the line.
These happenings had occupied an incredibly short time, yet the
youth felt that in them he had been made aged. New eyes were
given to him. And the most startling thing was to learn suddenly
that he was very insignificant. The officer spoke of the
regiment as if he referred to a broom. Some part of the woods
needed sweeping, perhaps, and he merely indicated a broom in a
tone properly indifferent to its fate. It was war, no doubt,
but it appeared strange.
As the two boys approached the line, the lieutenant perceived
them and swelled with wrath. "Fleming--Wilson--how long does
it take yeh to git water, anyhow--where yeh been to."
But his oration ceased as he saw their eyes, which were large
with great tales. "We're goin' t' charge--we're goin' t' charge!"
cried the youth's friend, hastening with his news.
"Charge?" said the lieutenant. "Charge? Well, b'Gawd! Now, this
is real fightin'." Over his soiled countenance there went a
boastful smile. "Charge? Well, b'Gawd!"
A little group of soldiers surrounded the two youths. "Are we,
sure 'nough? Well, I'll be derned! Charge? What fer? What at?
Wilson, you're lyin'."
"I hope to die," said the youth, pitching his tones to the key of
angry remonstrance. "Sure as shooting, I tell you."
And his friend spoke in re-enforcement. "Not by a blame sight,
he ain't lyin'. We heard 'em talkin'."
They caught sight of two mounted figures a short distance from them.
One was the colonel of the regiment and the other was the officer
who had received orders from the commander of the division.
They were gesticulating at each other. The soldier, pointing at them,
interpreted the scene.
One man had a final objection: "How could yeh hear 'em talkin'?"
But the men, for a large part, nodded, admitting that previously
the two friends had spoken truth.
They settled back into reposeful attitudes with airs of having
accepted the matter. And they mused upon it, with a hundred
varieties of expression. It was an engrossing thing to think about.
Many tightened their belts carefully and hitched at their trousers.
A moment later the officers began to bustle among the men,
pushing them into a more compact mass and into a better
alignment. They chased those that straggled and fumed at a few
men who seemed to show by their attitudes that they had decided
to remain at that spot. They were like critical shepherds,
struggling with sheep.
Presently, the regiment seemed to draw itself up and heave a deep breath.
None of the men's faces were mirrors of large thoughts. The soldiers
were bended and stooped like sprinters before a signal. Many pairs of
glinting eyes peered from the grimy faces toward the curtains of the
deeper woods. They seemed to be engaged in deep calculations of
time and distance.
They were surrounded by the noises of the monstrous altercation between
the two armies. The world was fully interested in other matters.
Apparently, the regiment had its small affair to itself.
The youth, turning, shot a quick, inquiring glance at his friend.
The latter returned to him the same manner of look. They were
the only ones who possessed an inner knowledge. "Mule drivers--
hell t' pay--don't believe many will get back." It was an
ironical secret. Still, they saw no hesitation in each
other's faces, and they nodded a mute and unprotesting assent when a
shaggy man near them said in a meek voice: "We'll git swallowed."
The youth stared at the land in front of him. Its foliages now
seemed to veil powers and horrors. He was unaware of the
machinery of orders that started the charge, although from the
corners of his eyes he saw an officer, who looked like a boy
a-horseback, come galloping, waving his hat. Suddenly he felt
a straining and heaving among the men. The line fell slowly
forward like a toppling wall, and, with a convulsive gasp that
was intended for a cheer, the regiment began its journey.
The youth was pushed and jostled for a moment before he understood
the movement at all, but directly he lunged ahead and began to run.
He fixed his eye upon a distant and prominent clump of trees
where he had concluded the enemy were to be met, and he ran
toward it as toward a goal. He had believe throughout that it
was a mere question of getting over an unpleasant matter as quickly
as possible, and he ran desperately, as if pursued for a murder.
His face was drawn hard and tight with the stress of his endeavor.
His eyes were fixed in a lurid glare. And with his soiled and
disordered dress, his red and inflamed features surmounted by the
dingy rag with its spot of blood, his wildly swinging rifle,
and banging accouterments, he looked to be an insane soldier.
As the regiment swung from its position out into a cleared space the
woods and thickets before it awakened. Yellow flames leaped toward
it from many directions. The forest made a tremendous objection.
The line lurched straight for a moment. Then the right wing
swung forward; it in turn was surpassed by the left. Afterward
the center careered to the front until the regiment was a
wedge-shaped mass, but an instant later the opposition of the
bushes, trees, and uneven places on the ground split the command
and scattered it into detached clusters.
The youth, light-footed, was unconsciously in advance. His eyes
still kept note of the clump of trees. From all places near it
the clannish yell of the enemy could be heard. The little flames
of rifles leaped from it. The song of the bullets was in the air
and shells snarled among the treetops. One tumbled directly into
the middle of a hurrying group and exploded in crimson fury.
There was an instant spectacle of a man, almost over it,
throwing up his hands to shield his eyes.
Other men, punched by bullets, fell in grotesque agonies.
The regiment left a coherent trail of bodies.
They had passed into a clearer atmosphere. There was an
effect like a revelation in the new appearance of the landscape.
Some men working madly at a battery were plain to them, and the
opposing infantry's lines were defined by the gray walls and
fringes of smoke.
It seemed to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of
the green grass was bold and clear. He thought that he was aware
of every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly
in sheets. The brown or gray trunks of the trees showed each
roughness of their surfaces. And the men of the regiment,
with their starting eyes and sweating faces, running madly,
or falling, as if thrown headlong, to queer, heaped-up corpses--
all were comprehended. His mind took a mechanical but firm
impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and
explained to him, save why he himself was there.
But there was a frenzy made from this furious rush. The men,
pitching forward insanely, had burst into cheerings, moblike and
barbaric, but tuned in strange keys that can arouse the dullard
and the stoic. It made a mad enthusiasm that, it seemed, would be
incapable of checking itself before granite and brass. There was
the delirium that encounters despair and death, and is heedless
and blind to the odds. It is a temporary but sublime absence
of selfishness. And because it was of this order was the reason,
perhaps, why the youth wondered, afterward, what reasons he could
have had for being there.
Presently the straining pace ate up the energies of the men.
As if by agreement, the leaders began to slacken their speed.
The volleys directed against them had had a seeming windlike effect.
The regiment snorted and blew. Among some stolid trees it began
to falter and hesitate. The men, staring intently, began to
wait for some of the distant walls fo smoke to move and disclose
to them the scene. Since much of their strength and their breath
had vanished, they returned to caution. They were become men again.
The youth had a vague belief that he had run miles, and he thought,
in a way, that he was now in some new and unknown land.
The moment the regiment ceased its advance the protesting splutter
of musketry became a steadied roar. Long and accurate fringes of
smoke spread out. From the top of a small hill came level belchings
of yellow flame that caused an inhuman whistling in the air.
The men, halted, had opportunity to see some of their comrades
dropping with moans and shrieks. A few lay under foot, still or
wailing. And now for an instant the men stood, their rifles
slack in their hands, and watched the regiment dwindle.
They appeared dazed and stupid. This spectacle seemed to
paralyze them, overcome them with a fatal fascination. They stared
woodenly at the sights, and, lowering their eyes, looked from
face to face. It was a strange pause, and a strange silence.
Then, above the sounds of the outside commotion, arose the roar
of the lieutenant. He strode suddenly forth, his infantile
features black with rage.
"Come on, yeh fools!" he bellowed. "Come on! Yeh can't stay here.
Yeh must come on." He said more, but much of it could not be understood.
He started rapidly forward, with his head turned toward the men,
"Come on," he was shouting. The men stared with blank and yokel-like
eyes at him. He was obliged to halt and retrace his steps.
He stood then with his back to the enemy and delivered
gigantic curses into the faces of the men. His body vibrated
from the weight and force of his imprecations. And he could
string oaths with the facility of a maiden who strings beads.
The friend of the youth aroused. Lurching suddenly forward and
dropping to his knees, he fired an angry shot at the persistent woods.
This action awakened the men. They huddled no more like sheep.
They seemed suddenly to bethink themselves of their weapons,
and at once commenced firing. Belabored by their officers,
they began to move forward. The regiment, involved like a
cart involved in mud and muddle, started unevenly with many
jolts and jerks. The men stopped now every few paces to fire
and load, and in this manner moved slowly on from trees to trees.
The flaming opposition in their front grew with their advance
until it seemed that all forward ways were barred by the thin
leaping tongues, and off to the right an ominous demonstration
could sometimes be dimly discerned. The smoke lately generated
was in confusing clouds that made it difficult for the regiment
to proceed with intelligence. As he passed through each curling
mass the youth wondered what would confront him on the farther side.
The command went painfully forward until an open space interposed
between them and the lurid lines. Here, crouching and cowering
behind some trees, the men clung with desperation, as if threatened
by a wave. They looked wild-eyed, and as if amazed at this furious
disturbance they had stirred. In the storm there was an ironical
expression of their importance. The faces of the men, too, showed
a lack of a certain feeling of responsibility for being there.
It was as if they had been driven. It was the dominant animal
failing to remember in the supreme moments the forceful causes
of various superficial qualities. The whole affair seemed
incomprehensible to many of them.
As they halted thus the lieutenant again began to bellow profanely.
Regardless of the vindictive threats of the bullets, he went about
coaxing, berating, and bedamning. His lips, that were habitually
in a soft and childlike curve, were now writhed into unholy contortions.
He swore by all possible deities.
Once he grabbed the youth by the arm. "Come on, yeh lunkhead!"
he roared. "Come one! We'll all git killed if we stay here.
We've on'y got t' go across that lot. An' then"--the remainder
of his idea disappeared in a blue haze of curses.
The youth stretched forth his arm. "Cross there?" His mouth was
puckered in doubt and awe.
"Certainly. Jest 'cross th' lot! We can't stay here," screamed
the lieutenant. He poked his face close to the youth and waved
his bandaged hand. "Come on!" Presently he grappled with him as
if for a wrestling bout. It was as if he planned to drag the
youth by the ear on to the assault.
The private felt a sudden unspeakable indignation against his officer.
He wrenched fiercely and shook him off.
"Come on yerself, then," he yelled. There was a bitter challenge
in his voice.
They galloped together down the regimental front. The friend
scrambled after them. In front of the colors the three men
began to bawl: "Come on! come on!" They danced and gyrated
like tortured savages.
The flag, obedient to these appeals, bended its glittering form
and swept toward them. The men wavered in indecision for a moment,
and then with a long, wailful cry the dilapidated regiment surged
forward and began its new journey.
Over the field went the scurrying mass. It was a handful of men
splattered into the faces of the enemy. Toward it instantly
sprang the yellow tongues. A vast quantity of blue smoke hung
before them. A mighty banging made ears valueless.
The youth ran like a madman to reach the woods before a bullet
could discover him. He ducked his head low, like a football player.
In his haste his eyes almost closed, and the scene was a wild blur.
Pulsating saliva stood at the corners of his mouth.
Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a
despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was
a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess,
radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him.
It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called
him with the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to
it he endowed it with power. He kept near, as if it could be a
saver of lives, and an imploring cry went from his mind.
In the mad scramble he was aware that the color sergeant
flinched suddenly, as if struck by a bludgeon. He faltered,
and then became motionless, save for his quivering knees.
He made a spring and a clutch at the pole. At the same instant
his friend grabbed it from the other side. They jerked at it,
stout and furious, but the color sergeant was dead, and the
corpse would not relinquish its trust. For a moment there was
a grim encounter. The dead man, swinging with bended back,
seemed to be obstinately tugging, in ludicrous and awful ways,
for the possession of the flag.
It was past in an instant of time. They wrenched the flag
furiously from the dead man, and, as they turned again,
the corpse swayed forward with bowed head. One arm swung high,
and the curved hand fell with heavy protest on the friend's
When the two youths turned with the flag they saw that much of
the regiment had crumbled away, and the dejected remnant was
coming slowly back. The men, having hurled themselves in
projectile fashion, had presently expended their forces.
They slowly retreated, with their faces still toward the
spluttering woods, and their hot rifles still replying to the din.
Several officers were giving orders, their voices keyed to screams.
"Where in hell yeh goin'?" the lieutenant was asking in a
sarcastic howl. And a red-bearded officer, whose voice of
triple brass could plainly be heard, was commanding: "Shoot into 'em!
Shoot into 'em, Gawd damn their souls!" There was a melee of screeches,
in which the men were ordered to do conflicting and impossible things.
The youth and his friend had a small scuffle over the flag.
"Give it t' me!" "No, let me keep it!" Each felt satisfied with
the other's possession of it, but each felt bound to declare,
by an offer to carry the emblem, his willingness to further
risk himself. The youth roughly pushed his friend away.
The regiment fell back to the stolid trees. There it halted for
a moment to blaze at some dark forms that had begun to steal upon
its track. Presently it resumed its march again, curving among
the tree trunks. By the time the depleted regiment had again
reached the first open space they were receiving a fast and
merciless fire. There seemed to be mobs all about them.
The greater part of the men, discouraged, their spirits worn by
the turmoil, acted as if stunned. They accepted the pelting of
the bullets with bowed and weary heads. It was of no purpose to
strive against walls. It was of no use to batter themselves
against granite. And from this consciousness that they had
attempted to conquer an unconquerable thing there seemed to arise
a feeling that they had been betrayed. They glowered with bent brows,
but dangerously, upon some of the officers, more particularly
upon the red-bearded one with the voice of triple brass.
However, the rear of the regiment was fringed with men, who
continued to shoot irritably at the advancing foes. They seemed
resolved to make every trouble. The youthful lieutenant was
perhaps the last man in the disordered mass. His forgotten back
was toward the enemy. He had been shot in the arm. It hung
straight and rigid. Occasionally he would cease to remember it,
and be about to emphasize an oath with a sweeping gesture.
The multiplied pain caused him to swear with incredible power.
The youth went along with slipping uncertain feet. He kept
watchful eyes rearward. A scowl of mortification and rage was
upon his face. He had thought of a fine revenge upon the officer
who had referred to him and his fellows as mule drivers.
But he saw that it could not come to pass. His dreams had
collapsed when the mule drivers, dwindling rapidly, had wavered
and hesitated on the little clearing, and then had recoiled.
And now the retreat of the mule drivers was a march of shame to him.
A dagger-pointed gaze from without his blackened face was held
toward the enemy, but his greater hatred was riveted upon the man,
who, not knowing him, had called him a mule driver.
When he knew that he and his comrades had failed to do anything
in successful ways that might bring the little pangs of a kind
of remorse upon the officer, the youth allowed the rage of the
baffled to possess him. This cold officer upon a monument,
who dropped epithets unconcernedly down, would be finer as a dead man,
he thought. So grievous did he think it that he could never possess
the secret right to taunt truly in answer.
He had pictured red letters of curious revenge. "We ARE mule
drivers, are we?" And now he was compelled to throw them away.
He presently wrapped his heart in the cloak of his pride and kept
the flag erect. He harangued his fellows, pushing against their
chests with his free hand. To those he knew well he made frantic
appeals, beseeching them by name. Between him and the lieutenant,
scolding and near to losing his mind with rage, there was felt a
subtle fellowship and equality. They supported each other in all
manner of hoarse, howling protests.
But the regiment was a machine run down. The two men babbled at
a forceless thing. The soldiers who had heart to go slowly were
continually shaken in their resolves by a knowledge that comrades
were slipping with speed back to the lines. It was difficult
to think of reputation when others were thinking of skins.
Wounded men were left crying on this black journey.
The smoke fringes and flames blustered always. The youth,
peering once through a sudden rift in a cloud, saw a brown
mass of troops, interwoven and magnified until they appeared
to be thousands. A fierce-hued flag flashed before his vision.
Immediately, as if the uplifting of the smoke had been prearranged,
the discovered troops burst into a rasping yell, and a hundred
flames jetted toward the retreating band. A rolling gray
cloud again interposed as the regiment doggedly replied.
The youth had to depend again upon his misused ears, which were
trembling and buzzing from the melee of musketry and yells.
The way seemed eternal. In the clouded haze men became
panic-stricken with the thought that the regiment had lost
its path, and was proceeding in a perilous direction.
Once the men who headed the wild procession turned and came pushing
back against their comrades, screaming that they were being fired upon
from points which they had considered to be toward their own lines.
At this cry a hysterical fear and dismay beset the troops.
A soldier, who heretofore had been ambitious to make the
regiment into a wise little band that would proceed calmly
amid the huge-appearing difficulties, suddenly sank down and
buried his face in his arms with an air of bowing to a doom.
From another a shrill lamentation rang out filled with profane
allusions to a general. Men ran hither and thither, seeking with
their eyes roads of escape. With serene regularity, as if
controlled by a schedule, bullets buffed into men.
The youth walked stolidly into the midst of the mob, and with his
flag in his hands took a stand as if he expected an attempt to
push him to the ground. He unconsciously assumed the attitude
of the color bearer in the fight of the preceding day. He passed
over his brow a hand that trembled. His breath did not come
freely. He was choking during this small wait for the crisis.
His friend came to him. "Well, Henry, I guess this is good-by-John."
"Oh, shut up, you damned fool!" replied the youth, and he would not
look at the other.
The officers labored like politicians to beat the mass into a
proper circle to face the menaces. The ground was uneven and torn.
The men curled into depressions and fitted themselves snugly
behind whatever would frustrate a bullet. The youth noted
with vague surprise that the lieutenant was standing mutely with
his legs far apart and his sword held in the manner of a cane.
The youth wondered what had happened to his vocal organs that he
no more cursed.
There was something curious in this little intent pause of the
lieutenant. He was like a babe which, having wept its fill,
raises its eyes and fixes upon a distant toy. He was engrossed
in this contemplation, and the soft under lip quivered from
Some lazy and ignorant smoke curled slowly. The men, hiding from
the bullets, waited anxiously for it to lift and disclose the
plight of the regiment.
The silent ranks were suddenly thrilled by the eager voice of the
youthful lieutenant bawling out: "Here they come! Right onto us,
b'Gawd!" His further words were lost in a roar of wicked thunder
from the men's rifles.
The youth's eyes had instantly turned in the direction indicated
by the awakened and agitated lieutenant, and he had seen the
haze of treachery disclosing a body of soldiers of the enemy.
They were so near that he could see their features. There was
a recognition as he looked at the types of faces. Also he
perceived with dim amazement that their uniforms were rather
gay in effect, being light gray, accented with a brilliant-hued
facing. Too, the clothes seemed new.
These troops had apparently been going forward with caution,
their rifles held in readiness, when the youthful lieutenant had
discovered them and their movement had been interrupted by the
volley from the blue regiment. From the moment's glimpse, it was
derived that they had been unaware of the proximity of their
dark-suited foes or had mistaken the direction. Almost instantly
they were shut utterly from the youth's sight by the smoke from the
energetic rifles of his companions. He strained his vision to learn
the accomplishment of the volley, but the smoke hung before him.
The two bodies of troops exchanged blows in the manner of a pair
of boxers. The fast angry firings went back and forth. The men
in blue were intent with the despair of their circumstances and
they seized upon the revenge to be had at close range. Their
thunder swelled loud and valiant. Their curving front bristled
with flashes and the place resounded with the clangor of their
ramrods. The youth ducked and dodged for a time and achieved a
few unsatisfactory views of the enemy. There appeared to be many
of them and they were replying swiftly. They seemed moving
toward the blue regiment, step by step. He seated himself
gloomily on the ground with his flag between his knees.
As he noted the vicious, wolflike temper of his comrades he had
a sweet thought that if the enemy was about to swallow the
regimental broom as a large prisoner, it could at least have the
consolation of going down with bristles forward.
But the blows of the antagonist began to grow more weak.
Fewer bullets ripped the air, and finally, when the men slackened
to learn of the fight, they could see only dark, floating smoke.
The regiment lay still and gazed. Presently some chance whim
came to the pestering blur, and it began to coil heavily away.
The men saw a ground vacant of fighters. It would have been an
empty stage if it were not for a few corpses that lay thrown and
twisted into fantastic shapes upon the sward.
At sight of this tableau, many of the men in blue sprang from
behind their covers and made an ungainly dance of joy. Their eyes
burned and a hoarse cheer of elation broke from their dry lips.
It had begun to seem to them that events were trying to prove
that they were impotent. These little battles had evidently
endeavored to demonstrate that the men could not fight well.
When on the verge of submission to these opinions, the small
duel had showed them that the proportions were not impossible,
and by it they had revenged themselves upon their misgivings
and upon the foe.
The impetus of enthusiasm was theirs again. They gazed about
them with looks of uplifted pride, feeling new trust in the grim,
always confident weapons in their hands. And they were men.
Presently they knew that no firing threatened them. All ways
seemed once more opened to them. The dusty blue lines of their
friends were disclosed a short distance away. In the distance
there were many colossal noises, but in all this part of the
field there was a sudden stillness.
They perceived that they were free. The depleted band drew a long
breath of relief and gathered itself into a bunch to complete its trip.
In this last length of journey the men began to show strange
emotions. They hurried with nervous fear. Some who had been
dark and unfaltering in the grimmest moments now could not
conceal an anxiety that made them frantic. It was perhaps that
they dreaded to be killed in insignificant ways after the times
for proper military deaths had passed. Or, perhaps, they thought
it would be too ironical to get killed at the portals of safety.
With backward looks of perturbation, they hastened.
As they approached their own lines there was some sarcasm exhibited
on the part of a gaunt and bronzed regiment that lay resting in the
shade of the trees. Questions were wafted to them.
"Where th' hell yeh been?"
"What yeh comin' back fer?"
"Why didn't yeh stay there?"
"Was it warm out there, sonny?"
"Goin' home now, boys?"
One shouted in taunting mimicry: "Oh, mother, come quick an'
look at th' sojers!"
There was no reply from the bruised and battered regiment,
save that one man made broadcast challenges to fist fights and
the red-bearded officer walked rather near and glared in great
swashbuckler style at a tall captain in the other regiment.
But the lieutenant suppressed the man who wished to fist fight,
and the tall captain, flushing at the little fanfare of the
red-bearded one, was obliged to look intently at some trees.
The youth's tender flesh was deeply stung by these remarks.
From under his creased brows he glowered with hate at the mockers.
He meditated upon a few revenges. Still, many in the regiment
hung their heads in criminal fashion, so that it came to pass
that the men trudged with sudden heaviness, as if they
bore upon their bended shoulders the coffin of their honor.
And the youthful lieutenant, recollecting himself, began to
mutter softly in black curses.
They turned when they arrived at their old position to regard
the ground over which they had charged.
The youth in this contemplation was smitten with a large astonishment.
He discovered that the distances, as compared with the brilliant
measurings of his mind, were trivial and ridiculous. The stolid trees,
where much had taken place, seemed incredibly near. The time, too,
now that he reflected, he saw to have been short. He wondered
at the number of emotions and events that had been crowded into
such little spaces. Elfin thoughts must have exaggerated and
enlarged everything, he said.
It seemed, then, that there was bitter justice in the speeches
of the gaunt and bronzed veterans. He veiled a glance of disdain
at his fellows who strewed the ground, choking with dust, red from
perspiration, misty-eyed, disheveled.
They were gulping at their canteens, fierce to wring every mite
of water from them, and they polished at their swollen and
watery features with coat sleeves and bunches of grass.
However, to the youth there was a considerable joy in musing
upon his performances during the charge. He had had very little
time previously in which to appreciate himself, so that there
was now much satisfaction in quietly thinking of his actions.
He recalled bits of color that in the flurry had stamped
themselves unawares upon his engaged senses.
As the regiment lay heaving from its hot exertions the officer
who had named them as mule drivers came galloping along the line.
He had lost his cap. His tousled hair streamed wildly,
and his face was dark with vexation and wrath. His temper
was displayed with more clearness by the way in which he managed
his horse. He jerked and wrenched savagely at his bridle, stopping
the hard-breathing animal with a furious pull near the colonel of
the regiment. He immediately exploded in reproaches which came
unbidden to the ears of the men. They were suddenly alert,
being always curious about black words between officers.
"Oh, thunder, MacChesnay, what an awful bull you made of this thing!"
began the officer. He attempted low tones, but his indignation
caused certain of the men to learn the sense of his words.
"What an awful mess you made! Good Lord, man, you stopped
about a hundred feet this side of a very pretty success! If your
men had gone a hundred feet farther you would have made a great
charge, but as it is--what a lot of mud diggers you've got anyway!"
The men, listening with bated breath, now turned their curious
eyes upon the colonel. They had a had a ragamuffin interest in
The colonel was seen to straighten his form and put one hand
forth in oratorical fashion. He wore an injured air; it was as
if a deacon had been accused of stealing. The men were wiggling
in an ecstasy of excitement.
But of a sudden the colonel's manner changed from that of a
deacon to that of a Frenchman. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, well, general, we went as far as we could," he said calmly.
"As far as you could? Did you, b'Gawd?" snorted the other.
"Well, that wasn't very far, was it?" he added, with a glance
of cold contempt into the other's eyes. "Not very far, I think.
You were intended to make a diversion in favor of Whiterside.
How well you succeeded your own ears can now tell you."
He wheeled his horse and rode stiffly away.
The colonel, bidden to hear the jarring noises of an engagement
in the woods to the left, broke out in vague damnations.
The lieutenant, who had listened with an air of impotent rage
to the interview, spoke suddenly in firm and undaunted tones.
"I don't care what a man is--whether he is a general or what--
if he says th' boys didn't put up a good fight out there he's
a damned fool."
"Lieutenant," began the colonel, severely, "this is my own
affair, and I'll trouble you--"
The lieutenant made an obedient gesture. "All right, colonel,
all right," he said. He sat down with an air of being content
The news that the regiment had been reproached went along the line.
For a time the men were bewildered by it. "Good thunder!"
they ejaculated, staring at the vanishing form of the general.
They conceived it to be a huge mistake.
Presently, however, they began to believe that in truth their
efforts had been called light. The youth could see this
conviction weight upon the entire regiment until the men were
like cuffed and cursed animals, but withal rebellious.
The friend, with a grievance in his eye, went to the youth.
I wonder what he does want," he said. "He must think we went
out there an' played marbles! I never see sech a man!"
The youth developed a tranquil philosophy for these moments of
irritation. "Oh, well," he rejoined, "he probably didn't see
nothing of it at all and god mad as blazes, and concluded we were
a lot of sheep, just because we didn't do what he wanted done.
It's a pity old Grandpa Henderson got killed yestirday--he'd have
known that we did our best and fought good. It's just our
awful luck, that's what."
"I should say so," replied the friend. He seemed to be deeply
wounded at an injustice. "I should say we did have awful luck!
There's no fun in fightin' fer people when everything yeh do--
no matter what--ain't done right. I have a notion t' stay
behind next time an' let 'em take their ol' charge an' go t'
th' devil with it."
The youth spoke soothingly to his comrade. "Well, we both did good.
I'd like to see the fool what'd say we both didn't do as good as
"Of course we did," declared the friend stoutly. "An' I'd break
th' feller's neck if he was as big as a church. But we're all right,
anyhow, for I heard one feller say that we two fit th' best in
th' reg'ment, an' they had a great argument 'bout it. Another feller,
'a course, he had t' up an' say it was a lie--he seen all what was
goin' on an' he never seen us from th' beginnin' t' th' end. An' a
lot more stuck in an' ses it wasn't a lie--we did fight like thunder,
an' they give us quite a sendoff. But this is what I can't stand--
these everlastin' ol' soldiers, titterin' an' laughin', an then
that general, he's crazy."
The youth exclaimed with sudden exasperation: "He's a lunkhead!
He makes me mad. I wish he'd come along next time. We'd show
He ceased because several men had come hurrying up. Their faces
expressed a bringing of great news.
"O Flem, yeh jest oughta heard!" cried one, eagerly.
"Heard what?" said the youth.
"Yeh jest oughta heard!" repeated the other, and he arranged
himself to tell his tidings. The others made an excited circle.
"Well, sir, th' colonel met your lieutenant right by us--it was
damnedest thing I ever heard--an' he ses: 'Ahem! ahem!' he ses.
'Mr. Hasbrouck!' he ses, 'by th' way, who was that lad what carried
th' flag?' he ses. There, Flemin', what d' yeh think 'a that?
'Who was th' lad what carried th' flag?' he ses, an' th'
lieutenant, he speaks up right away: 'That's Flemin', an'
he's a jimhickey,' he ses, right away. What? I say he did.
'A jimhickey,' he ses--those 'r his words. He did, too. I say
he did. If you kin tell this story better than I kin, go ahead an'
tell it. Well, then, keep yer mouth shet. Th' lieutenant, he ses:
'He's a jimhickey,' and th' colonel, he ses: 'Ahem! ahem! he is,
indeed, a very good man t' have, ahem! He kep' th' flag 'way t'
th' front. I saw 'im. He's a good un,' ses th' colonel.
'You bet,' ses th' lieutenant, 'he an' a feller named Wilson was
at th' head 'a th' charge, an' howlin' like Indians all th' time,'
he ses. 'Head 'a th' charge all th' time,' he ses. 'A feller
named Wilson,' he ses. There, Wilson, m'boy, put that in a letter
an' send it hum t' yer mother, hay? 'A feller named Wilson,' he ses.
An' th' colonel, he ses: 'Were they, indeed? Ahem! ahem! My sakes!'
he ses. 'At th' head 'a th' reg'ment?' he ses. 'They were,' ses th'
lieutenant. 'My sakes!' ses th' colonel. He ses: 'Well, well, well,'
he ses. 'They deserve t' be major-generals.'"
The youth and his friend had said: "Huh!" "Yer lyin' Thompson."
"Oh, go t' blazes!" "He never sed it." "Oh, what a lie!" "Huh!"
But despite these youthful scoffings and embarrassments, they knew
that their faces were deeply flushing from thrills of pleasure.
They exchanged a secret glance of joy and congratulation.
They speedily forgot many things. The past held no pictures of error
and disappointment. They were very happy, and their hearts swelled
with grateful affection for the colonel and the youthful lieutenant.
When the woods again began to pour forth the dark-hued masses
of the enemy the youth felt serene self-confidence. He smiled
briefly when he saw men dodge and duck at the long screechings
of shells that were thrown in giant handfuls over them. He
stood, erect and tranquil, watching the attack begin against
apart of the line that made a blue curve along the side of an
adjacent hill. His vision being unmolested by smoke from the
rifles of his companions, he had opportunities to see parts of
the hard fight. It was a relief to perceive at last from whence
came some of these noises which had been roared into his ears.
Off a short way he saw two regiments fighting a little separate
battle with two other regiments. It was in a cleared space,
wearing a set-apart look. They were blazing as if upon a wager,
giving and taking tremendous blows. The firings were incredibly
fierce and rapid. These intent regiments apparently were oblivious
of all larger purposes of war, and were slugging each other as if
at a matched game.
In another direction he saw a magnificent brigade going with the
evident intention of driving the enemy from a wood. They passed
in out of sight and presently there was a most awe-inspiring
racket in the wood. The noise was unspeakable. Having stirred
this prodigious uproar, and, apparently, finding it too prodigious,
the brigade, after a little time, came marching airily out again
with its fine formation in nowise disturbed. There were no traces
of speed in its movements. The brigade was jaunty and seemed to
point a proud thumb at the yelling wood.
On a slope to the left there was a long row of guns, gruff
and maddened, denouncing the enemy, who, down through the woods,
were forming for another attack in the pitiless monotony of conflicts.
The round red discharges from the guns made a crimson flare and a high,
thick smoke. Occasional glimpses could be caught of groups of the
toiling artillerymen. In the rear of this row of guns stood a house,
calm and white, amid bursting shells. A congregation of horses,
tied to a long railing, were tugging frenziedly at their bridles.
Men were running hither and thither.
The detached battle between the four regiments lasted for some time.
There chanced to be no interference, and they settled their dispute
by themselves. They struck savagely and powerfully at each other
for a period of minutes, and then the lighter-hued regiments faltered
and drew back, leaving the dark-blue lines shouting. The youth could
see the two flags shaking with laughter amid the smoke remnants.
Presently there was a stillness, pregnant with meaning. The blue
lines shifted and changed a trifle and stared expectantly at the
silent woods and fields before them. The hush was solemn and
churchlike, save for a distant battery that, evidently unable
to remain quiet, sent a faint rolling thunder over the ground.
It irritated, like the noises of unimpressed boys. The men
imagined that it would prevent their perched ears from hearing
the first words of the new battle.
Of a sudden the guns on the slope roared out a message of
warning. A spluttering sound had begun in the woods. It swelled
with amazing speed to a profound clamor that involved the earth
in noises. The splitting crashes swept along the lines until an
interminable roar was developed. To those in the midst of it it
became a din fitted to the universe. It was the whirring and
thumping of gigantic machinery, complications among the smaller stars.
The youth's ears were filled cups. They were incapable of hearing more.
On an incline over which a road wound he saw wild and desperate
rushes of men perpetually backward and forward in riotous surges.
These parts of the opposing armies were two long waves that
pitched upon each other madly at dictated points. To and fro
they swelled. Sometimes, one side by its yells and cheers
would proclaim decisive blows, but a moment later the other side
would be all yells and cheers. Once the youth saw a spray of
light forms go in houndlike leaps toward the waving blue lines.
There was much howling, and presently it went away with a vast
mouthful of prisoners. Again, he saw a blue wave dash with such
thunderous force against a gray obstruction that it seemed to
clear the earth of it and leave nothing but trampled sod.
And always in their swift and deadly rushes to and fro the
men screamed and yelled like maniacs.
Particular pieces of fence or secure positions behind collections
of trees were wrangled over, as gold thrones or pearl bedsteads.
There were desperate lunges at these chosen spots seemingly
every instant, and most of them were bandied like light toys
between the contending forces. The youth could not tell from the
battle flags flying like crimson foam in many directions which
color of cloth was winning.
His emaciated regiment bustled forth with undiminished fierceness
when its time came. When assaulted again by bullets, the men
burst out in a barbaric cry of rage and pain. They bent their
heads in aims of intent hatred behind the projected hammers of
their guns. Their ramrods clanged loud with fury as their eager
arms pounded the cartridges into the rifle barrels. The front of
the regiment was a smoke-wall penetrated by the flashing points
of yellow and red.
Wallowing in the fight, they were in an astonishingly short time resmudged.
They surpassed in stain and dirt all their previous appearances. Moving
to and fro with strained exertion, jabbering all the while, they were,
with their swaying bodies, black faces, and glowing eyes, like strange
and ugly fiends jigging heavily in the smoke.
The lieutenant, returning from a tour after a bandage, produced
from a hidden receptacle of his mind new and portentous oaths
suited to the emergency. Strings of expletives he swung lashlike
over the backs of his men, and it was evident that his previous
efforts had in nowise impaired his resources.
The youth, still the bearer of the colors, did not feel his idleness.
He was deeply absorbed as a spectator. The crash and swing of the
great drama made him lean forward, intent-eyed, his face working
in small contortions. Sometimes he prattled, words coming
unconsciously from him in grotesque exclamations. He did not
know that he breathed; that the flag hung silently over him,
so absorbed was he.
A formidable line of the enemy came within dangerous range.
They could be seen plainly--tall, gaunt men with excited faces
running with long strides toward a wandering fence.
At sight of this danger the men suddenly ceased their cursing
monotone. There was an instant of strained silence before they
threw up their rifles and fired a plumping volley at the foes.
There had been no order given; the men, upon recognizing the menace,
had immediately let drive their flock of bullets without waiting
for word of command.
But the enemy were quick to gain the protection of the wandering
line of fence. They slid down behind it with remarkable celerity,
and from this position they began briskly to slice up the blue men.
These latter braced their energies for a great struggle.
Often, white clinched teeth shone from the dusky faces.
Many heads surged to and fro, floating upon a pale sea of smoke.
Those behind the fence frequently shouted and yelped in taunts and
gibelike cries, but the regiment maintained a stressed silence.
Perhaps, at this new assault the men recalled the fact that they
had been named mud diggers, and it made their situation thrice bitter.
They were breathlessly intent upon keeping the ground and thrusting
away the rejoicing body of the enemy. They fought swiftly and with
a despairing savageness denoted in their expressions.
The youth had resolved not to budge whatever should happen.
Some arrows of scorn that had buried themselves in his heart had
generated strange and unspeakable hatred. It was clear to him
that his final and absolute revenge was to be achieved by his
dead body lying, torn and gluttering, upon the field. This was
to be a poignant retaliation upon the officer who had said
"mule drivers," and later "mud diggers," for in all the wild
graspings of his mind for a unit responsible for his sufferings and
commotions he always seized upon the man who had dubbed him wrongly.
And it was his idea, vaguely formulated, that his corpse would be
for those eyes a great and salt reproach.
The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting bundles of blue began
to drop. The orderly sergeant of the youth's company was shot
through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung
afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass
of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out.
In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he
conceived that one great shriek would make him well.
The youth saw him presently go rearward. His strength seemed in
nowise impaired. He ran swiftly, casting wild glances for succor.
Others fell down about the feet of their companions. Some of the
wounded crawled out and away, but many lay still, their bodies
twisted into impossible shapes.
The youth looked once for his friend. He saw a vehement young man,
powder-smeared and frowzled, whom he knew to be him. The lieutenant,
also, was unscathed in his position at the rear. He had continued
to curse, but it was now with the air of a man who was using his
last box of oaths.
For the fire of the regiment had begun to wane and drip.
The robust voice, that had come strangely from the thin ranks,
was growing rapidly weak.
The colonel came running along the back of the line. There were
other officers following him. "We must charge'm!" they shouted.
"We must charge'm!" they cried with resentful voices, as if
anticipating a rebellion against this plan by the men.
The youth, upon hearing the shouts, began to study the distance
between him and the enemy. He made vague calculations. He saw
that to be firm soldiers they must go forward. It would be death
to stay in the present place, and with all the circumstances to
go backward would exalt too many others. Their hope was to push
the galling foes away from the fence.
He expected that his companions, weary and stiffened, would have
to be driven to this assault, but as he turned toward them he
perceived with a certain surprise that they were giving quick
and unqualified expressions of assent. There was an ominous,
clanging overture to the charge when the shafts of the bayonets
rattled upon the rifle barrels. At the yelled words of command
the soldiers sprang forward in eager leaps. There was new and
unexpected force in the movement of the regiment. A knowledge of
its faded and jaded condition made the charge appear like a paroxysm,
a display of the strength that comes before a final feebleness.
The men scampered in insane fever of haste, racing as if to achieve
a sudden success before an exhilarating fluid should leave them.
It was a blind and despairing rush by the collection of men in
dusty and tattered blue, over a green sward and under a sapphire sky,
toward a fence, dimly outlined in smoke, from behind which sputtered
the fierce rifles of enemies.
The youth kept the bright colors to the front. He was waving his
free arm in furious circles, the while shrieking mad calls and appeals,
urging on those that did not need to be urged, for it seemed that the
mob of blue men hurling themselves on the dangerous group of rifles
were again grown suddenly wild with an enthusiasm of unselfishness.
From the many firings starting toward them, it looked as if they
would merely succeed in making a great sprinkling of corpses
on the grass between their former position and the fence.
But they were in a state of frenzy, perhaps because of forgotten
vanities, and it made an exhibition of sublime recklessness.
There was no obvious questioning, nor figurings, nor diagrams.
There was, apparently, no considered loopholes. It appeared that
the swift wings of their desires would have shattered against
the iron gates of the impossible.
He himself felt the daring spirit of a savage, religion-mad.
He was capable of profound sacrifices, a tremendous death.
He had no time for dissections, but he knew that he thought of
the bullets only as things that could prevent him from reaching the
place of his endeavor. There were subtle flashings of joy within
him that thus should be his mind.
He strained all his strength. His eyesight was shaken and
dazzled by the tension of thought and muscle. He did not see
anything excepting the mist of smoke gashed by the little knives
of fire, but he knew that in it lay the aged fence of a vanished
farmer protecting the snuggled bodies of the gray men.
As he ran a thought of the shock of contact gleamed in his mind.
He expected a great concussion when the two bodies of troops
crashed together. This became a part of his wild battle madness.
He could feel the onward swing of the regiment about him and he
conceived of a thunderous, crushing blow that would prostrate
the resistance and spread consternation and amazement for miles.
The flying regiment was going to have a catapultian effect.
This dream made him run faster among his comrades, who were
giving vent to hoarse and frantic cheers.
But presently he could see that many of the men in gray did not
intend to abide the blow. The smoke, rolling, disclosed men
who ran, their faces still turned. These grew to a crowd, who
retired stubbornly. Individuals wheeled frequently to send a
bullet at the blue wave.
But at one part of the line there was a grim and obdurate group
that made no movement. They were settled firmly down behind
posts and rails. A flag, ruffled and fierce, waved over them
and their rifles dinned fiercely.
The blue whirl of men got very near, until it seemed that in
truth there would be a close and frightful scuffle. There was
an expressed disdain in the opposition of the little group,
that changed the meaning of the cheers of the men in blue.
They became yells of wrath, directed, personal. The cries of the
two parties were now in sound an interchange of scathing insults.
They in blue showed their teeth; their eyes shone all white.
They launched themselves as at the throats of those who stood
resisting. The space between dwindled to an insignificant distance.
The youth had centered the gaze of his soul upon that other flag.
Its possession would be high pride. It would express bloody
minglings, near blows. He had a gigantic hatred for those who
made great difficulties and complications. They caused it to be
as a craved treasure of mythology, hung amid tasks and contrivances
He plunged like a mad horse at it. He was resolved it should
not escape if wild blows and darings of blows could seize it.
His own emblem, quivering and aflare, was winging toward the other.
It seemed there would shortly be an encounter of strange beaks
and claws, as of eagles.
The swirling body of blue men came to a sudden halt at close and
disastrous range and roared a swift volley. The group in gray was
split and broken by this fire, but its riddled body still fought.
The men in blue yelled again and rushed in upon it.
The youth, in his leapings, saw, as through a mist, a picture
of four or five men stretched upon the ground or writhing upon
their knees with bowed heads as if they had been stricken
by bolts from the sky. Tottering among them was the rival
color bearer, whom the youth saw had been bitten vitally by
the bullets of the last formidable volley. He perceived this man
fighting a last struggle, the struggle of one whose legs are
grasped by demons. It was a ghastly battle. Over his face was
the bleach of death, but set upon it was the dark and hard lines
of desperate purpose. With this terrible grin of resolution he
hugged his precious flag to him and was stumbling and staggering
in his design to go the way that led to safety for it.
But his wounds always made it seem that his feet were retarded,
held, and he fought a grim fight, as with invisible ghouls
fastened greedily upon his limbs. Those in advance of the
scampering blue men, howling cheers, leaped at the fence.
The despair of the lost was in his eyes as he glanced back
The youth's friend went over the obstruction in a tumbling heap
and sprang at the flag as a panther at prey. He pulled at it
and, wrenching it free, swung up its red brilliancy with a mad
cry of exultation even as the color bearer, gasping, lurched over
in a final throe and, stiffening convulsively, turned his dead
face to the ground. There was much blood upon the grass blades.
At the place of success there began more wild clamorings of cheers.
The men gesticulated and bellowed in an ecstasy. When they spoke
it was as if they considered their listener to be a mile away.
What hats and caps were left to them they often slung high in the air.
At one part of the line four men had been swooped upon, and they
now sat as prisoners. Some blue men were about them in an eager
and curious circle. The soldiers had trapped strange birds, and
there was an examination. A flurry of fast questions was in the air.
One of the prisoners was nursing a superficial wound in the foot.
He cuddled it, baby-wise, but he looked up from it often to
curse with an astonishing utter abandon straight at the noses
of his captors. He consigned them to red regions; he called upon
the pestilential wrath of strange gods. And with it all he was
singularly free from recognition of the finer points of the
conduct of prisoners of war. It was as if a clumsy clod had trod
upon his toe and he conceived it to be his privilege, his duty,
to use deep, resentful oaths.
Another, who was a boy in years, took his plight with great
calmness and apparent good nature. He conversed with the men
in blue, studying their faces with his bright and keen eyes.
They spoke of battles and conditions. There was an acute
interest in all their faces during this exchange of view points.
It seemed a great satisfaction to hear voices from where all had
been darkness and speculation.
The third captive sat with a morose countenance. He preserved a
stoical and cold attitude. To all advances he made one reply
without variation, "Ah, go t' hell!"
The last of the four was always silent and, for the most part,
kept his face turned in unmolested directions. From the views
the youth received he seemed to be in a state of absolute dejection.
Shame was upon him, and with it profound regret that he was, perhaps,
no more to be counted in the ranks of his fellows. The youth could
detect no expression that would allow him to believe that the other
was giving a thought to his narrowed future, the pictured dungeons,
perhaps, and starvations and brutalities, liable to the imagination.
All to be seen was shame for captivity and regret for the right
After the men had celebrated sufficiently they settled down
behind the old rail fence, on the opposite side to the one from
which their foes had been driven. A few shot perfunctorily at
There was some long grass. The youth nestled in it and rested,
making a convenient rail support the flag. His friend, jubilant
and glorified, holding his treasure with vanity, came to him there.
They sat side by side and congratulated each other.
The roarings that had stretched in a long line of sound across
the face of the forest began to grow intermittent and weaker.
The stentorian speeches of the artillery continued in some
distant encounter, but the crashes of the musketry had almost ceased.
The youth and his friend of a sudden looked up, feeling a deadened
form of distress at the waning of these noises, which had become
a part of life. They could see changes going on among the troops.
There were marchings this way and that way. A battery wheeled leisurely.
On the crest of a small hill was the thick gleam of many departing muskets.
The youth arose. "Well, what now, I wonder?" he said. By his
tone he seemed to be preparing to resent some new monstrosity in
the way of dins and smashes. He shaded his eyes with his grimy
hand and gazed over the field.
His friend also arose and stared. "I bet we're goin' t' git
along out of this an' back over th' river," said he.
"Well, I swan!" said the youth.
They waited, watching. Within a little while the regiment
received orders to retrace its way. The men got up grunting
from the grass, regretting the soft repose. They jerked their
stiffened legs, and stretched their arms over their heads.
One man swore as he rubbed his eyes. They all groaned "O Lord!"
They had as many objections to this change as they would have
had to a proposal for a new battle.
They trampled slowly back over the field across which they had
run in a mad scamper.
The regiment marched until it had joined its fellows.
The reformed brigade, in column, aimed through a wood
at the road. Directly they were in a mass of dust-covered troops,
and were trudging along in a way parallel to the enemy's lines
as these had been defined by the previous turmoil.
They passed within view of a stolid white house, and saw in front
of it groups of their comrades lying in wait behind a neat breastwork.
A row of guns were booming at a distant enemy. Shells thrown in
reply were raising clouds of dust and splinters. Horsemen dashed
along the line of intrenchments.
At this point of its march the division curved away from the
field and went winding off in the direction of the river.
When the significance of this movement had impressed itself upon
the youth he turned his head and looked over his shoulder toward the
trampled and debris-strewed ground. He breathed a breath of
new satisfaction. He finally nudged his friend. "Well, it's all
over," he said to him.
His friend gazed backward. "B'Gawd, it is," he assented.
For a time the youth was obliged to reflect in a puzzled and
uncertain way. His mind was undergoing a subtle change. It took
moments for it to cast off its battleful ways and resume its
accustomed course of thought. Gradually his brain emerged from
the clogged clouds, and at last he was enabled to more closely
comprehend himself and circumstance.
He understood then that the existence of shot and countershot
was in the past. He had dwelt in a land of strange, squalling
upheavals and had come forth. He had been where there was red of
blood and black of passion, and he was escaped. His first thoughts
were given to rejoicings at this fact.
Later he began to study his deeds, his failures, and his
achievements. Thus, fresh from scenes where many of his usual
machines of reflection had been idle, from where he had
proceeded sheeplike, he struggled to marshal all his acts.
At last they marched before him clearly. From this present view
point he was enabled to look upon them in spectator fashion and
criticise them with some correctness, for his new condition had
already defeated certain sympathies.
Regarding his procession of memory he felt gleeful and unregretting,
for in it his public deeds were paraded in great and shining prominence.
Those performances which had been witnessed by his fellows marched now
in wide purple and gold, having various deflections. They went gayly
with music. It was pleasure to watch these things. He spent delightful
minutes viewing the gilded images of memory.
He saw that he was good. He recalled with a thrill of joy the
respectful comments of his fellows upon his conduct.
Nevertheless, the ghost of his flight from the first engagement
appeared to him and danced. There were small shoutings in his
brain about these matters. For a moment he blushed, and the
light of his soul flickered with shame.
A specter of reproach came to him. There loomed the dogging
memory of the tattered soldier--he who, gored by bullets and
faint of blood, had fretted concerning an imagined wound in
another; he who had loaned his last of strength and intellect
for the tall soldier; he who, blind with weariness and pain,
had been deserted in the field.
For an instant a wretched chill of sweat was upon him at the
thought that he might be detected in the thing. As he stood
persistently before his vision, he gave vent to a cry of sharp
irritation and agony.
His friend turned. "What's the matter, Henry?" he demanded.
The youth's reply was an outburst of crimson oaths.
As he marched along the little branch-hung roadway among his
prattling companions this vision of cruelty brooded over him.
It clung near him always and darkened his view of these deeds
in purple and gold. Whichever way his thoughts turned they were
followed by the somber phantom of the desertion in the fields.
He looked stealthily at his companions, feeling sure that they
must discern in his face evidences of this pursuit. But they
were plodding in ragged array, discussing with quick tongues the
accomplishments of the late battle.
"Oh, if a man should come up an' ask me, I'd say we got a dum good lickin'."
"Lickin'--in yer eye! We ain't licked, sonny. We're goin' down here aways,
swing aroun', an' come in behint 'em."
"Oh, hush, with your comin' in behint 'em. I've seen all 'a that I wanta.
Don't tell me about comin' in behint--"
"Bill Smithers, he ses he'd rather been in ten hundred battles than been
in that heluva hospital. He ses they got shootin' in th' nighttime,
an' shells dropped plum among 'em in th' hospital. He ses sech hollerin'
he never see."
"Hasbrouck? He's th' best off'cer in this here reg'ment. He's a whale."
"Didn't I tell yeh we'd come aroun' in behint 'em?
Didn't I tell yeh so?
"Oh, shet yeh mouth!"
For a time this pursuing recollection of the tattered man took
all elation from the youth's veins. He saw his vivid error,
and he was afraid that it would stand before him all his life.
He took no share in the chatter of his comrades, nor did he look
at them or know them, save when he felt sudden suspicion that
they were seeing his thoughts and scrutinizing each detail of
the scene with the tattered soldier.
Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance.
And at last his eyes seemed to open to some new ways. He found
that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier
gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered
that he now despised them.
With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet
manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that
he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point.
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all,
it was but the great death. He was a man.
So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and
wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects
of clover tranquilly, and it was as if hot plowshares were not.
Scars faded as flowers.
It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled
train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort
in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky.
Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him,
though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks.
He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry
nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered
and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with
a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows,
cool brooks--an existence of soft and eternal peace.
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of
leaden rain clouds.
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