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THE prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass bending lazily into waves. One might have gone on startled only by the falling of scarlet swamp-lily seeds, by sudden goldfinches, or the scratching of young prairie chickens in the shorter grasses. For years now not even a baby buffalo had called to its mother in those stretches, or an old squaw broken ripening wild grapes from the creek thicket. Fifteen years ago one might have gone west for months without hearing a human voice. Even that day a traveler might easily have missed the house where little David and the fatter little Sarah sat playing, for it was less in the vastnesses about it than one short bubble in a wave’s crest. Ten years ago the children’s father had halted his ox team there, finishing his journey from Ayrshire, and his eight boys and girls alighting
upon the summer’s crop of wild strawberries, had harvested it with shrieks of delight which broke forever the immediate part of the centuries’ silence. A solitary man would have left the last source of human noise sixty miles behind him, where the railroad ended. But this farsighted pioneer had brought with him a strong defense against the hush that maddens. He had a real house now. The log cabin in which he and his nine, his brother and his ten, his two sisters and their sixteen had all lived that first summer, was now but a mere woodshed adjoining the kitchen. The house was a fine affair, built from lumber hauled but forty miles—so steadily the railroad crept westward—and finished, the one half in wild cherry cut from the creek, and the other half in walnut from the same one source of wood. Since the day of the first McLaughlin alighting there had arrived, altogether, to settle more or less near him, on land bought from the government, his three brothers and four sisters, his wife’s two brothers and one sister, bringing with them the promising sum of sixty-nine children, all valiant enemies of quietness and the fleeing rattlesnakes. Some of the little homes they had built for themselves could be seen that afternoon, like distant specks on the ocean. But Sarah and David had no eyes just then for distant specks.
They had grown tired of watching the red calf sleep, and Davie was trying to make it get up. Finally in self-defense, it rose, and having found
itself refreshed, began gamboling about, trying its length of rope, its tail satisfactorily erect. The two had to retreat suddenly to the doorstep where Hughie sat, so impetuous it grew. Hughie was not, like the others, at home because he was too small to go to school. Indeed, no! Hughie was ten, and at home to-day because he had been chilling, the day before, with the fever that rose from the newly-broken prairie. The three of them sat quiet only a moment.
“Why does he frisk his tail so?” Davie asked.
“He’s praising the Lord,” replied Hughie, wise and wan.
“Is he now!” exclaimed Davie, impressed. “Does God like it?”
“Fine,” said Hughie. That was an easy one. “It’s in the Psalm. Creeping things and all ye cattle.”
Davie sat for some time sharing his Maker’s pleasure in the antics of happy calves. Then bored—perhaps like his Maker—he turned to other things. He rose, and went down the path towards the road, and stood looking down it, in the direction from which the older children must come, surely soon now, from school. Only here and there along that path where they would appear was the grass not higher than the children’s heads; in some places it was higher than a man on horseback. There seemed no children in sight.
But wasn’t that someone coming down there on the other road?
“I see somebody coming on the road, Hughie!” he called.
“You do not!” answered Hughie. It wasn’t at all likely anybody was coming. Yet in case anything so unusual was happening, he would just have a look. Sarah waddled after him.
Was that really something moving down there in the further slough? The three stood still, peering across the prairie, hands sheltering eyes, barefooted, the boys in the most primitive of homemade overalls, Sarah in an apron unadorned, the golden autumn sunshine blowing around them. They stood looking....
Then the home-coming children emerged from the tall grass into which the younger ones were strongly forbidden to go, because children sometimes got fatally lost in it, and at this signal the three ran to meet them, crying out the news. Gaining the little rise of ground again, upon which the house stood, they all paused together to look at whatever it was that drew near, Mary, the oldest of them, the teacher, Jessie and Flora, James and Peter.
Yes! There was no doubt about it now!
“’Tis a team!” cried Peter.
“’Tis a pair of grays!” he added in a moment. They were all perfectly motionless from curiosity now. Who had grays in that neighborhood?
“There’s two men in it,” Mary affirms.
Then Peter yells,
“One is wearing blue!” They can scarcely breathe now.
Blue! Can it be blue! This is too much for Mary.
“Run, Peter!” she cries. “Tell mother! Get father! It has the looks of a soldier!” It is three weeks now since the last battle, since word has come from Wully. The little girls are jumping about in excitement.
The children’s shouts had not at all disturbed the mother in the kitchen, where she sat sewing, until—could she believe her ears?—they were shouting, “’Tis Wully, mother! ’Tis Wully!” She ran out of the house, down the path.
“It never is!” she says, unsteadily. But she can see someone in blue, someone standing up, waving a cap now. She can see his white face. The children bolt down the road. She can see him, her black-bearded first-born. The driver is whipping up the horses. Home from battles, pale to the lips, he is in her arms. But she is paler.
“Run for your father!” she cries, to whoever will heed her. The children are pulling at him boisterously. The strange driver is patting his horses, his back to the family reunited. Hugged, and kissed, and patted and loved, the bearded Wully turns to the stranger.
“This is Mr. Knight, of Tyler, mother. He brought me all the way.”
“’Tis a kind thing you have done!” she exclaims, shaking his hand devoutly.
“Oh, he was a soldier. And he didn’t look able to walk so far.”
“You’re not sick!” she cries to Wully, scanning his face. Certainly he was not sick, now. He could have walked it, but he was glad he didn’t have to, he adds, smiling engagingly at the stranger. They stand together awkwardly, joy-smitten, looking at one another, excited beyond words. Then the mother leads the way to the unpainted house, the children hanging to Wully, dancing about.
The fifteen-year-old Andrew was working in the farther part of the field just below the house that afternoon, when he saw, from a distance, his father, called by Peter, suddenly leave his plow, and run towards the house surely faster than an old man ever runs. His own team was fly-bitten and restless, and he left it just long enough to see that in front of the house there was a team and a light wagon. He unhitched his half-broken young steers, urged them impatiently to the nearest tying place, and hurried to the house.
What he saw there made so great an impression on him, that fifty-seven years later, when that stranger’s grandson was one of the disheartened veterans of the World War who came to his office looking for work, the whole scene rose before him in such poignancy that he had to turn his head away abruptly, remembering....
There in the kitchen, in his mother’s chair sat the stranger in the fine clothes, with a drink of
whisky in his hand which his father had just poured out. There on the bed sat his great gaunt brother in blue, one trouser leg rolled up to his hairy knee. There on a strip of carpet in front of the bed knelt his mother with a strange white face, soaking bloody rags away from evil-looking sores on that precious foot. There by the cupboard stood Mary, tearing something white into bandages, with the children huddled around her, awed by the sight of their mother.
Andy saw all that the moment that Wully, taking up one of the children’s old jokes, cried out to him, in a voice that belied his foot, a greeting that the young ones had loved deriding.
“Lang may your lum reek, Andy!” There wasn’t really anything wrong with Wully, it seemed. That wasn’t a wound, he affirmed. It was only a scratch. He really couldn’t say just how it had happened. It wasn’t anything! It might not be anything to a soldier, but to his mother it was the mark of imminent death for her dearest son. She began rubbing it gently with lambs’ fat. Wully, bethinking himself, pulled from a pocket a paper-wrapped bundle of sweeties for the children, who saw such things but seldom. They were intent upon the contents of that, and the stranger was talking to his father, when Andy, still standing awkwardly in the door, saw a thing happen which was a landmark in his understanding. He saw his mother, who had made fast the last bandage, and was carefully pulling down the trouser leg, suddenly
bend over and kiss that leg! Such passion he saw in that gesture that he realized vaguely then some great fierce hidden thing in life, escaping secrecy only at times, a terrible thing called love ... which breaks forth upon occasions ... even in old women like his mother. He turned his face away suddenly as from some forbidden nakedness, and fixed his eyes upon Wully.
That hero, quite unabashed, was pulling his mother, who had risen, down to a seat beside him on the bed. She sat there, unconscious of the roomful, just looking at him, looking ... as if she could never see his face enough. She watched him devouringly when presently, with the attention of them all, he began light-heartedly telling about his escape. Half of his regiment had been made prisoners, including his major. They had been marched away towards a train, to be sent south, and he had marched among them until he dropped. He told his captors that they could shoot him if they would, but he couldn’t go a step further. They had left him lying helpless there by the roadside, a guard standing over him. And before the wagon came along, which was to pick them up, the guard had slept, and Wully, stronger to run to freedom than to march to prison, had made his escape. Starved and hiding, he had crept night by night towards the Mississippi, and there he had seen a boat which was bringing Northern wounded men home, tie up at the river bank to bury its dead. Its captain had taken pity on him, chilling and nauseated,
and had brought him to Davenport. Then when he had got by train to the nearest Iowa town, this stranger had shown him this kindness.... Oh, his mother needn’t worry about his being shot for a deserter. They knew him too well in his company, if there was any of them left. And hadn’t his chum, Harvey Stow, been home four times to visit, without permission from anyone, and had he ever been punished for it? As soon as he had something to eat, and he could find where to report, he would be going back—yes, certainly—going back, however much his mother caught her breath at the mention of it.
It was so interesting to hear him talk that the men could scarcely leave for their duties. But there were the horses to feed, and the cows to milk, and the kind strange team to reward. Mr. Knight followed the boys to the barn and watched with amusement how reverently they rubbed down and bedded and fed the guests of the stable. And when they came in again, there sat the scrubbed soldier, in a fresh hickory shirt and clean jeans, in his mother’s chair, his swathed foot on a stool—the stool was Hughie’s thought—and the New York Tribune in his hand—the paper was Flora’s contribution. He was talking grinningly to his mother. A white cloth was spread on the table, and the mother, shining, uplifted with joy, was wiping pink-banded cups which Wully remembered to have seen taken from the sacred shelf only when her Scot cousin, who had come to this
country to enlighten the darkness of the Yankees by taking the presidency of one of their colleges, had come west to visit this family. Not since then had the Scottish sheets been out of the chest, and now they were airing on the line. ’Twas an occasion magnificent to consider! When they sat down at the table for supper—and they had not long to wait, for the mother was that woman of whom tradition says she could make a pair of jean pants in twenty minutes—they had fried prairie chicken, and potatoes and scons and egg-butter, and stewed wild plums, sweetened with sugar at forty cents a pound. The father instituted the feast by a long prayer. “Of course!” thought the stranger. “They’re Scotch!” He counted the children. There were ten.
“You’ve a fine family,” he commented.
“Not so bad when they’re all here,” returned the mother complacently. “There’s a boy and a girl away at school.” She paused abruptly.
“Our boy younger than Wully was killed at Fort Donaldson,” explained the father.
“Ah! My son was wounded there. Lost a hand.” There was a moment’s silence. Then Wully said, wanting the subject changed,
“It’s over now, mother. Grant’ll get them now.”
They proceeded to talk of the coming election. Five families of Covenanting Scotch in the neighborhood were deserting the principles of their forefathers and taking out naturalization papers, hoping
to vote for Lincoln. The visitor wondered vaguely what kind of Scotch that might be. He had no chance to ask. The mother seemed to have read every word of the last Tribune. He had hardly time for that himself. She seemed a woman of wide information. Apparently she knew the position of every unit of the army.
Supper was over. Flora handed her father The Book, and moved the candle near him. He found the place, and said,
“The twenty-third Psalm.”
To the man’s surprise, the mother began the song in a clear, sure voice, and the children all joined, without hesitation, as if this was a part of a familiar routine. The boys and girls were obviously thinking of the guests of honor. The mother’s face was turned to her son. But the father was looking away in a dream to something he seemed to see through the wall before him. When the singing was over, he began reading from The Book words that clearly had some exalted meaning to him, though what it might be the stranger could not imagine. “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” It sounded impressive, read with a subdued ring in the voice. Then he shut the book, in a high silence, and they all moved their chairs back, and knelt down. The stranger knelt, too, somewhat tardily. Not that he objected
to prayers, of course. He was a religious man himself in a way. His wife often went to church. He could see the rapt face of the father praying in great, sonorous phrases which sounded vaguely familiar. Of all the children he could see, not one had an eye open. They were thanking the Lord for the boy’s return. “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.” They proceeded to pray for everyone in the United States, the President and his cabinet, the generals and the colonels and the captains, all the privates, all the sick and homesick, for those destroyed by war, for the mourning and all small children, for slaves in their freedom, and masters in their poverty, and then for the stranger, that he might hear the Judge say unto him, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. For I was sick, and ye ministered unto me”; “that the beauty of the Lord, as now, might be upon him forever.” The stranger had scarcely got over that when they all began saying the Lord’s Prayer together. “Nothing lacking but the collection,” he thought, somewhat resentfully. Not having heard a sermon for some time, he had forgotten that. When they rose from their knees, Sarah and David were found asleep. Andy picked them up and carried them away to bed. And even while Mr. Knight was wondering how many of the children he would have to sleep with, the mother took the sheets from beside the stove, and as she started for the fine parlor,
whose bed was to be got ready for the guest, she said,
“Wully is to have the kitchen bed by himself. You all just go upstairs and leave him alone.”
The stranger had the decency to go soon to his bed. It wasn’t a half-bad bed, either. And he was tired. It had been a sudden impulse, this driving the soldier home, with a new team, over no road at all. But he was glad he had come. He had wanted to see this country. The new horses had jogged along very well. Moreover, he had made friends among the Scotch, and he was a politician. He thought of his son with Sherman’s army. He thought of the soldier’s impressive mother. He smiled over the number of children. He slept.
But long after the house was quiet, Wully lay talking to his father and mother, who sat on his kitchen bed. He told them of marches and battles and fevers and skirmishes, none of which had endangered him at all, of course, of the comradeship among the boys from the Yankee settlement down the creek, and of the hope everywhere, now, that the end was near. Then gradually there fell a silence over them, an understanding silence, wherein each knew the other’s thoughts. They were all thinking of that first terrible home-coming of his, of the things that led up to it. He remembered how “the boys” had been eating breakfast in camp, when the orders came that meant their first battle. He had been in an agony of fear lest he might be afraid. The
one good thing about it was that Allen, his brother, had been sent away on a detail not an hour before. He would go into battle without having his brother to worry about. That trembling, as he advanced, had not been fear, but only ague so severe he might have stayed behind if he had chosen. But he had advanced with the rest of them, and in the darkness when he tried to sleep after it was over, he knew he need not fear cowardice again. They had won the day, and they exulted as fiercely as they had fought. Had not their regiment been one of three which, not getting their orders to retreat, had stood firmly till fresh troops came to save the day! But the next morning’s task had mocked terrifyingly their victory. He could have pleaded fever to escape from that.... Some on the snow-covered hillside were digging great trenches, some were throwing body after body into them, some were shoveling earth in upon them. He had bent down to tug at a stiff thing half hidden by snow, he had turned it over, a head grotesquely twisted backward, a neck mud-plastered, horrible, bloody. Then he had cried out, and fallen down. That thing, with the lower face shot away, was Allen! His comrades, hunting about, found the bodies of the others of the little squad that had been hurriedly recalled.
That night Wully had planned to desert. He had announced his intention to his lieutenant who came to sit beside him. They might drum him out of camp as a deserter if they would. He was
telling them plainly what he intended doing. He would never fight again. But before he was able to walk, his comrades had got him a furlough. They understood only too well his fever and his delirium, and they remembered how he had gone through the battle, vomiting and ague-shaken, firing with a hand too weak to aim, and vomiting again, and shaking and firing. All the way home he had planned how to break the news to his mother. But when he had seen her, his grief which before had had no outlet, suddenly burst forth, so that even as she asked him, he was sobbing it all out to her. He had never told her, of course, how Allen’s sweet singing mouth had been destroyed. For Allen had been a gay lad, playing the fiddle, and singing many songs, sometimes little lovable ones he made as he sang, about pumpkins, or the old red rooster, or anything that might please the little children.
For Wully, no home-coming could ever again be so terrible as that one. But his father and mother who sat beside him there were trying not to know that just such news might come at any time of this one, who must go back to death’s place. Wully lay telling them little things he could recall of those last days. Had he told them of the time that the captain had stood, unbeknown to Allen, behind a bush, listening to him imitate all the company’s officers? There had never been a day that Allen had not been called upon to make fun for his comrades. Laughter had bubbled up within him and
gushed out even in stark times. There was no detail of his nonsense not precious to the two who listened. It was late before they left him, and he soon slept. Towards morning, his mother slept.
Soon after daylight the stranger came into the kitchen. The mother was standing half hidden by the steam that rose from the milk pails that she was scalding out. The oldest sister at a table where candlelight and dawn struggled together, was packing a school lunch into a basket. A small girl was buttoning fat Sarah into her dress. Two small boys were struggling with their shoes on the floor. Wully presently hobbled in from out of doors, declaring himself recovered, a giant refreshed. The stranger noticed that when they found their places at the table, there was a larger child beside each smaller one, to look after him. There was one little fellow who looked like the soldier, and a half-grown sister with beautiful regular features like his. But the others were all alike, with deeply set dark blue eyes, long upper lips, and lower faces heavy, keen, determined. He could have appreciated what the mother said sometimes simply, to the neighbors, when they remarked how good her children were: “Yes, they’re never any care when they’re well. If we had one or two, we might let them have tantrums. But who could live in a house with thirteen ill bairns?” Since by that she meant, of course, naughty children, her question seemed indeed unanswerable.
Now they sat eating lustily their cornmeal, and
she talked with leisure and understanding. When the meal was finished, Flora handed her father The Book again.
“By Golly!” said the stranger to himself, “they’re going to do it again!” And they did. The mother lifted the Psalm from memory, and then they repeated some part of the Bible. The stranger was the more ill at ease because young Hughie’s eyes were fixed accusingly upon him. Again the father prayed for all the inhabitants of the world, by name or class.
When the boys brought the guest’s wonderful team to the door, all the family gathered to bid him good-by.
“I wish you well, sir, for your kindness,” the father said, and the mother, at a loss to know how to thank him sufficiently, added,
“We’ll never forget this, neither us nor our children!” It was that trembling choked back in her voice that gave the stranger’s grandson his work with the firm of Andrew McLaughlin, in the fall of 1920.
The beautiful grays started impatiently away, the men went to their work, and the children to their school. In the kitchen his mother bandaged Wully’s feet, and put the wee’uns out of door to play while he had a sleep. At half past eleven he woke. His mother was sitting in the doorway, shelling beans. How was he to guess that she was late with her dinner preparations because again and again she had to stop, and look at this child
of hers grown a strange man in the midst of horrors unimaginable? He lay very still looking at her. The kettle was singing on the stove. Through the door, he saw the red calf sleeping in the sunshine. A wave of joy, of ecstasy complete passed over him. Oh, the heaven of home, the peace of it, of a good bed, of a mother calmly getting dinner!
“I’m starved, mother!” he sang out suddenly to her. She hurried to the cellar, and brought him cool milk and two cookies. The children, hearing him, came in to watch him. He sat down in the doorway, and began throwing beans up, and catching them skillfully, to win the friendship of the doubtful little Sarah. David watched him eagerly. Presently Hughie said:
“Mother, why did yon strange man not say the Psalm?”
“You mus’na stare so at visitors, Hughie!”
“But why, mother? Why did he not say it?”
“Maybe he did’na ken it.”
“Did’na ken what?”
“Did’na ken the fifteenth Psalm, and him a man grown!” Hughie had never seen anyone before who couldn’t say the fifteenth Psalm.
“Aw, mother!” he exclaimed remonstratingly. “Even Davie knows that!”
Wully chuckled. He knew the world. He had seen cities. He had marched across states. He had eaten ice cream.