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The Veteran
by [?]

Out of the low window could be seen three hickory trees placed irregularly in a meadow that was resplendent in spring-time green. Farther away, the old, dismal belfry of the village church loomed over the pines. A horse, meditating in the shade of one of the hickories, lazily swished his tail. The warm sunshine made an oblong of vivid yellow on the floor of the grocery.

“Could you see the whites of their eyes?” said the man, who was seated on a soap box.

“Nothing of the kind,” replied old Henry warmly. “Just a lot of flitting figures, and I let go at where they ‘peared to be the thickest. Bang!”

“Mr. Fleming,” said the grocer–his deferential voice expressed somehow the old man’s exact social weight–“Mr. Fleming, you never was frightened much in them battles, was you?”

The veteran looked down and grinned. Observing his manner, the entire group tittered. “Well, I guess I was,” he answered finally. “Pretty well scared, sometimes. Why, in my first battle I thought the sky was falling down. I thought the world was coming to an end. You bet I was scared.”

Every one laughed. Perhaps it seemed strange and rather wonderful to them that a man should admit the thing, and in the tone of their laughter there was probably more admiration than if old Fleming had declared that he had always been a lion. Moreover, they knew that he had ranked as an orderly sergeant, and so their opinion of his heroism was fixed. None, to be sure, knew how an orderly sergeant ranked, but then it was understood to be somewhere just shy of a major-general’s stars. So, when old Henry admitted that he had been frightened, there was a laugh.

“The trouble was,” said the old man, “I thought they were all shooting at me. Yes, sir, I thought every man in the other army was aiming at me in particular, and only me. And it seemed so darned unreasonable, you know. I wanted to explain to ’em what an almighty good fellow I was, because I thought then they might quit all trying to hit me. But I couldn’t explain, and they kept on being unreasonable–blim!–blam! bang! So I run!”

Two little triangles of wrinkles appeared at the corners of his eyes. Evidently he appreciated some comedy in this recital. Down near his feet, however, little Jim, his grandson, was visibly horror-stricken. His hands were clasped nervously, and his eyes were wide with astonishment at this terrible scandal, his most magnificent grandfather telling such a thing.

“That was at Chancellorsville. Of course, afterward I got kind of used to it. A man does. Lots of men, though, seem to feel all right from the start. I did, as soon as I ‘got on to it,’ as they say now; but at first I was pretty well flustered. Now, there was young Jim Conklin, old Si Conklin’s son–that used to keep the tannery–you none of you recollect him–well, he went into it from the start just as if he was born to it. But with me it was different. I had to get used to it.”

When little Jim walked with his grandfather he was in the habit of skipping along on the stone pavement, in front of the three stores and the hotel of the town, and betting that he could avoid the cracks. But upon this day he walked soberly, with his hand gripping two of his grandfather’s fingers. Sometimes he kicked abstractedly at dandelions that curved over the walk. Any one could see that he was much troubled.

“There’s Sickles’s colt over in the medder, Jimmie,” said the old man. “Don’t you wish you owned one like him?”

“Um,” said the boy, with a strange lack of interest. He continued his reflections. Then finally he ventured: “Grandpa–now–was that true what you was telling those men?”

“What?” asked the grandfather. “What was I telling them?”