FROM THE FRONT.
TIME THAT TRIED MEN’S AND WOMEN’S HEARTS.
A Story for Decoration Day by I.D. Marshall.
It was a two story frame house, painted white and with green blinds, and it stood a little way back from the road that wound through a narrow valley between low hills of second growth timber. In front of the house was a big, heavily fruited cherry tree. A boy was perched upon a ladder among the branches, filling a tin pail with the ruby fruit, his fingers flying as if he were competing with the birds, who seemed to think they had a mortgage on all the cherries in the neighborhood. But his haste had another cause. His mother had but a moment before told him that when he had filled the pail three times he might go to the postoffice, a mile farther down the valley, and inquire for the mail.
The boy knew his mother to be quite as anxious as he that the trip should be made to the postoffice. For more than a week his daily visit after the mail had been fruitless, and he was certain she was worrying, in spite of her usual air of cheerfulness, for the head of the little family was at the front, wearing a blue uniform, and vague rumors were afloat of a bloody battle in Pennsylvania.
Singularly enough, the mail had lately failed to bring newspapers, as well as letters, and it had not been possible to borrow from the neighbors as usual. The boy and his mother had not talked much on the matter; but, whatever his mother thought, he suspected bad news in the papers — news that would explain why there were no letters. He was impatient to go the postoffice, but he dreaded the visit, too, and this made him climb down the ladder slowly when at last the pail was filled for the third time.
As his feet touched the earth he heard the rattle of wheels, and looking around he saw Deacon Nelson’s big bay horse and decent black democrat wagon, driven by the deacon himself, draw near. The deacon’s countenance, which was generally smiling and jolly, was very solemn now, and the face of the deacon’s wife, who sat on the back seat under a gingham parasol, was tear stained. As the deacon slowly got out of the wagon and tethered the horse he asked, with a fine show of cheerfulness:
“Has your mother heard from the elder in a day or two, John? No? Well, Marthy and me was just driving by, and we thought we’d make a little visit, you see, just to ask how your corn crop was getting on, you know.” Then, to his wife in an undertone, he said: “Now, be careful, Marthy. It’s all right; it’s all right. It must be all right, I tell you.”
The deacon was one of the chief pillars in the church of which the boy’s father, before going to the front, had been pastor, and, like all in that neighborhood and similar neighborhoods, the deacon always spoke of his minister as “the elder.” This minister had been outspoken in his patriotism during the first year of the war. During the second he had induced many of the neighborhood’s ablebodied men to enlist. Early in the third he had himself marched away as their captain, with the young men from his own congregation who had offered themselves to their country. If the boy was doubtful about his father’s safety before the deacon spoke, he was not afterward. It seemed to his young mind as if the deacon has said between his audible words:
“The elder is killed, boy! Do you hear? Killed!”
John hurried into the house with his pail of cherries, kissed his mother and started on a run for the postoffice. It was a hot day, but he did not mind the heat. It is doubtful if he knew it was hot. He thought only of the bare possibility that he might get a letter addressed to his mother or himself in his father’s dear handwriting, and he ran till nature was exhausted and he had to stop and rest under the shadow of a big buttonball tree by the side of the road. When he had regained his breath, he started on again, but this time at a more moderate pace, and as he approached the little general store where the postoffice was kept his footsteps lagged. He was afraid he would receive the same answer that he had for days.
“Nothing today, sonny. Tell your mother the papers missed this week. No, there is no letter. I swan, I wish there was.”
That was just the answer the boy did receive when at last he crept into the store between rows of two tined hayforks and wooden hand rakes, but there was this addition by the kindly old postmaster to the dreaded words that told the story of no mail:
“Tell your mother that we may get another mail today, and if we do we’ll send anything that comes for you right up.”
There was no regular service to the little postoffice, for no railroad ran through the narrow valley, but the mail was brought from the county seat, 11 miles distant, at intervals by any one who went that way.
During the boy’s weary homeward tramp through the dust and under the burning rays of the sun he thought only of how he should tell his mother there was still no mail.
When he reached home, he found a half dozen white haired farmers, all clad in Sunday black, standing about the yard under the shade of the trees. There were no young or middle aged men there, for all such in that neighborhood had gone to the war with their beloved preacher. As the boy entered the yard one of the men hastily stuck a newspaper, from which he had been reading to the others, into his pocket.
In the parlor of the white house there were several women younger than Deacon Nelson’s wife. Their husbands were soldiers, too, and at the front with the preacher. The boy’s mother was sitting in the center of a circle of kneeling women, her eyes set and tearless, but there was a sound of subdued sobbing from some of the others. The deacon was just beginning a prayer.
“Dear Lord, our heavenly Father,” quavered the deacon in tender and reverent tones. Then he stopped. What was that?
The boy’s ear was not the only one that caught the sound of fife and drum, the fife playing merrily, “Rally Round the Flag, Boys, Rally Once Again” — you know how it sounds, reader — while the drumsticks were beating out the time in lively measure.
A moment more, and the rattle of a wagon coming down a stony slope in the road was heard. Then there was a cheer, and the fife and drum changed to “Yankee Doodle.” Presently the wagon, in which sat the postmaster himself, the blacksmith, the cooper and the boys who were playing the fife and drum drove noisily up. The old postmaster almost fell out of the wagon and stumbled up the path to the door. He was quite breathless, but he held aloft in his hand a big yellow envelope.
“It’s from the elder, brethren! It’s from the elder!” he gasped. “I know his handwriting, and the postmark is since the battle. Open it, ma’am,” he said to the boy’s mother, “and read it out.”
Everybody gathered around her as she took the missive, but it wasn’t opened just yet, for she fainted before she could cut the envelope. It was not long. It said:
“DEAR WIFE AND SON JOHN — I have been hurt a little and lay on the field all night, but it is not serious, and I shall not even have to go to the hospital. So do not be worried. We have won a great victory, and our God will keep me safely to the end and bring us all together again.”
“Let us sing the Doxology, ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,’” said Deacon Nelson, while his eyes streamed. Then they all sang with the spirit and the understanding also. When the singing was over, the newspaper that had been hidden from the boy was brought out. It told of the battle of Gettysburg, and the name of the elder was in the list of the missing.
The elder did live to come home again, and on every Decoration day since the establishment of that beautiful holiday he has made a talk over the soldiers’ graves in the little cemetery back of the church in the valley, of which he is still pastor.