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The Return of a Private
by [?]


The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of “vets” became. On the long way from New Orleans they had beguiled tedium with jokes and friendly chaff; or with planning with elaborate detail what they were going to do now, after the war. A long journey, slowly, irregularly, yet persistently pushing northward. When they entered on Wisconsin Territory they gave a cheer, and another when they reached Madison, but after that they sank into a dumb expectancy. Comrades dropped off at one or two points beyond, until there were only four or five left who were bound for La Crosse County.

Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple, one limped, and they all had unnaturally large bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gaily dressed ladies waving hand-kerchiefs and shouting “Bravo!” as they came in on the caboose of a freight train into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war. As they looked out or stepped upon the platform for a moment, while the train stood at the station, the loafers looked at them indifferenfly. Their blue coats, dusty and grimy, were too familiar now to excite notice, much less a friendly word. They were the last of the army to return, and the loafers were surfeited with such sights.

The train jogged forward so slowly that it seemed likely to be midnight before they should reach La Crosse. The little squad of “vets” grumbled and swore, but it was no use, the train would not hurry; and, as a matter of fact, it was nearly two o’clock when the engine whistled “down brakes.”

All of the group were farmers, living in districts several miles out of the town, and all were poor.

“Now, boys,” said Private Smith, he of the fever and ague, “we are landed in La Crosse in the night. We’ve got to stay somewhere till mornin’. Now, I ain’t got no two dollars to waste on a hotel. I’ve got a wife and children, so I’m goin’ to roost on a bench and take the cost of a bed out of my hide.”

“Same here,” put in one of the other men.”Hide’ll grow on again, dollars’ll come hard. It’s goin’ to be mighty hot skirmishin’ to find a dollar these days.”

“Don’t think they’ll be a deputation of citizens waitin’ to ‘scort us to a hotel, eh?” said another. His sarcasm was too obvious to require an answer.

Smith went on, “Then at daybreak we’ll start for home—at least, I will.”

“Well, I’ll be dummed if I’ll take two dollars out o’ myhide,” one of the younger men said.”I’m goin’ to a hotel, ef I don’t never lay up a cent.”

“That’ll do f’r you,” said Smith; “but if you had a wife an’ three young ‘uns dependin’ on yeh—”

“Which I ain’t, thank the Lord! and don’t intend havin’ while the court knows itself.”

The station was deserted, chill, and dark, as they came into it at exactly a quarter to two in the morning. Lit by the oil lamps that flared a dull red light over the dingy benches, the waiting room was not an inviting place. The younger man went off to look up a hotel, while the rest remained and prepared to camp down on the floor and benches. Smith was attended to tenderly by the other men, who spread their blankets on the bench for him, and, by robbing themselves, made quite a comfortable bed, though the narrowness of the bench made his sleeping precarious.