He was an orderly in the hospital and had got the job through a friend in his Grand Army Post. The work was not for a fastidious man, but John was not fastidious.
In his duties he affected the bluff manner of a veteran, and, peering at the internes with a wise squint, would say, “Oh, this ain’t nothin’; an old soldier is used to such things. If y’ want t’ see the real thing, jus’ go to war.” And he would laugh at them and they would laugh at him.
He wore his G. A. R. emblem conspicuously on all occasions. At the slightest chance he became a bore with long tales of fighting, of how he had chased Johnny Reb and how those were the days. The students, still near enough to the classroom to hold a lingering repugnance for the text-books’ overemphasis on the Civil War, would guy him, but John never suspected.
On Decoration Day he marched and attended as many exercises as he could squeeze into the too short hours. He wore a committee ribbon like a decoration for valour. Once he carried a flag in a parade, and for weeks talked about Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, and regimental colours that had changed hands in distant frays.
And he had fought only to save his country, he would assert. He didn’t have no eye on Uncle Sam’s purse, not he; he could take care of himself, and if not, why, there was them as would. When the youths accused him of sinking his pension, he turned hotly to remind them of their lack of beard.
He was ever so ready to defend himself with an ancient vigour that the students and the nurses were sorry when he fell ill. Perhaps his campaigning had taken from his vitality, they surmised. The house surgeon told them he would never get up. After that—and the afterward was not long—John told his tales to more sober auditors.
He had been in bed a week and had begun to suspect the state of affairs when he called to him one evening the youth who of all had shown him the most deference.
“Sit down,” he said, without looking the youngster in the eye; and for a time there were heard only the noises of the day-weary ward. Presently John spoke, in an apprehensive tone of confidences.
“I’ve been a soldier now for forty-five years,” he said, “an’ for once I want to be just myself…. I kind o’ like you, an’ there ain’t nobody else I can talk to, for I ain’t got any one….
“In ’61 I was on my father’s farm in Pennsylvani’. I was on’y a kid then—fifteen—but when the war come I wanted the worst way to go. But my mother, she cried an’ begged me not to, an’ my daddy said he’d lick me, so I tried t’ forget it.
“But I couldn’t. Lots o’ other boys was goin’ away t’ enlist an’ they was all treated like heroes. Ye’d ’a’ thought they’d won the war already by themselves the way folks carried on when they left—the girls cryin’ about ’em an’ the teacher an’ the minister an’ the circuit judge speakin’ to ’em an’ all the stay-at-homes mad because they wasn’t goin’, too.
“It kept gettin’ harder an’ harder to work on the farm, an’ finally I said, ‘Well, I’ll go anyway.’ I knew pa an’ ma wouldn’t change their mind, so I didn’t say nothin’ to them. But I went to all the other boys an’ told them. ‘I’m goin’ away t’ enlist,’ I’d say, an’ when they’d laugh an’ say, ‘Why, y’r ma won’t let ye,’ I’d look wise an’ tell ’em to watch me, an’ I’d strut aroun’ an’ wink sly-like.
“They got to talkin’ about it so much I was scairt my dad would find out, but he didn’t, an’ I held back as long as I could, because all the other boys was lookin’ up to me. I was a man, all right, then. None o’ ’em that went away was the mogul I was. The girls got wind of it, too, an’ I could see ’em out o’ the tail o’ my eye watchin’ me an’ whisperin’ an’ sayin’, girl-like, all the things the boys was tryin’ not to say. That on’y made the boys talk more, too.
“So after a few days I ran away. The first night I hung roun’ near the town an’ after dark sneaked back to hear ’em talkin’. ‘He’ll be back soon,’ one feller said. Another, just to show he knew more, spoke up, ‘No, he won’ come back ’less in blue or in a coffin.’ An’ the others laughed.
“I thought that was fine—in blue or a coffin. ‘You bet I won’t; I’m the man f’r that,’ says I to myself.
“It took me three days to walk to the city. When I told the recruitin’ sergeant I wanted to be high corporal he laughed an’ pounded me an’ put me through my paces. Then he said I couldn’t be a soldier. My eyes wasn’t good enough.
“I cried at that; on’y a kid, y’ know—the’ was lots of ’em younger than me fightin’. But I remembered the feller what said, ‘He won’t come back ’cept in blue or a coffin,’ so I went where the soldiers was an’ bummed an’ hobnobbed with ’em till they let me help at peelin’ vegetables and pot-wrastlin’ an’ such things. Then I got to be a sort o’ water boy. My, I was proud!… But that on’y lasted a month, an’ I had to get out.
“I jus’ couldn’t go home without the blue, an’ it seemed too soon to get a coffin yet, so I went to New York an’ stayed all through the war. Nearly starved, too.
“After it was over I went back home. They didn’t suspicion, o’ course, an’ the first thing I knew I’d told ’em I’d been in the army. Hadn’t planned to, but some way it just popped out.
“Right away it was hail-fellow-well-met with them that had been at the front, an’ we were goin’ roun’ givin’ oursel’s airs an’ the girls seemed to think we was better than all the rest…. Well, sometimes I….
“I was jus’ a young fellow, y’ know, an’ kep’ gettin’ in deeper an’ deeper an’ never thought it’d mean anything. When a man says, ‘John, you remember that clump o’ trees the Fifty-eighth lay under at Antietam?’ why, you say, ‘Yes.’ An’ the next time y’r tellin’ about Antietam you jus’ throw in them trees without thinkin’. That’s the way it was with me. An’ I read books to get my facks straight an’ no one never caught me nappin’. I used t’ correct them…. At last I got to believe it all myself….
“Then the G. A. R. Post was organized in our town…. An’ so it went.
“Well, it’s been a long time. If I’d ’a’ known in the first place maybe it’d ’a’ been different…. But it was my right, anyway, wasn’t it, now? Say, don’t you think it was comin’ to me? It wasn’t my fault. By God, I wanted to fight! Jus’ one chance an’ so help me——
“They cheated me out o’ it an’ I got even. That’s all it was. I never took no pension. I’ve had the glory, like ’em…. I’ve paid for it…. I on’y took my own.
“And the Post will bury me.”