ON PICKET DUTY AND OTHER TALES
ON PICKET DUTY AND OTHER TALES
LOUISA MAY ALCOTT
ON PICKET DUTY AND OTHER TALES.
BY L. M. ALCOTT.
ON PICKET DUTY.
_WHAT_ air you thinkin' of Phil?
"My wife Dick."
"So was I! Aint it odd how fellers fall to thinkin' of thar little
women when they get a quiet spell like this?"
"Fortunate for us that we do get it and have such gentle bosom
guests to keep us brave and honest through the trials and
temptations of a life like ours."
October moonlight shone clearly on the solitary tree draped with
gray moss scarred by lightning and warped by wind looking like a
venerable warrior whose long campaign was nearly done; and
underneath was posted the guard of four. Behind them twinkled many
camp-fires on a distant plain before them wound a road ploughed by
the passage of an army strewn with the relics of a rout. On the
right a sluggish river glided like a serpent stealthy sinuous
and dark into a seemingly impervious jungle; on the left a
Southern swamp filled the air with malarial damps swarms of noisome
life and discordant sounds that robbed the hour of its repose. The
men were friends as well as comrades for though gathered from the
four quarters of the Union and dissimilar in education character
and tastes the same spirit animated all; the routine of camp life
threw them much together and mutual esteem soon grew into a bond of
mutual good fellowship.
Thorn was a Massachusetts volunteer; a man who seemed too early old
too early embittered by some cross for though grim of countenance
rough of speech cold of manner a keen observer would have soon
discovered traces of a deeper warmer nature hidden behind the
repellent front he turned upon the world. A true New Englander
thoughtful acute reticent and opinionated; yet earnest withal
intensely patriotic and often humorous despite a touch of Puritan
Phil the "romantic chap" as he was called looked his character to
the life. Slender swarthy melancholy eyed and darkly bearded;
with feminine features mellow voice and alternately languid or
vivacious manners. A child of the South in nature as in aspect
ardent impressible and proud; fitfully aspiring and despairing;
without the native energy which moulds character and ennobles life.
Months of discipline and devotion had done much for him and some
deep experience was fast ripening the youth into a man.
Flint the long-limbed lumberman from the wilds of Maine was a
conscript who when government demanded his money or his life
calculated the cost and decided that the cash would be a dead loss
and the claim might be repeated whereas the conscript would get
both pay and plunder out of government while taking excellent care
that government got precious little out of him. A shrewd
slow-spoken self-reliant specimen was Flint; yet something of the
fresh flavor of the backwoods lingered in him still as if Nature
were loath to give him up and left the mark of her motherly hand
upon him as she leaves it in a dry pale lichen on the bosom of
the roughest stone.
Dick "hailed" from Illinois and was a comely young fellow full of
dash and daring; rough and rowdy generous and jolly overflowing
with spirits and ready for a free fight with all the world.
Silence followed the last words while the friendly moon climbed up
the sky. Each man's eye followed it and each man's heart was busy
with remembrances of other eyes and hearts that might be watching
and wishing as theirs watched and wished. In the silence each
shaped for himself that vision of home that brightens so many
camp-fires haunts so many dreamers under canvas roofs and keeps so
many turbulent natures tender by memories which often are both
solace and salvation.
Thorn paced to and fro his rifle on his shoulder vigilant and
soldierly however soft his heart might be. Phil leaned against the
tree one hand in the breast of his blue jacket on the painted
presentment of the face his fancy was picturing in the golden circle
of the moon. Flint lounged on the sward whistling softly as he
whittled at a fallen bough. Dick was flat on his back heels in air
cigar in mouth and some hilarious notion in his mind for suddenly
he broke into a laugh.
"What is it lad?" asked Thorn pausing in his tramp as if willing
to be drawn from the disturbing thought that made his black brows
lower and his mouth look grim.
"Thinkin' of my wife and wishin' she was here bless her heart! set
me rememberin' how I see her fust and so I roared as I always do
when it comes into my head."
"How was it? Come reel off a yarn and let's hear houw yeou hitched
teams" said Flint always glad to get information concerning his
neighbors if it could be cheaply done.
"Tellin' how we found our wives wouldn't be a bad game would it
"I'm agreeable; but let us have your romance first."
"Devilish little of that about me or any of my doin's. I hate
sentimental bosh as much as you hate slang and should have been a
bachelor to this day if I hadn't seen Kitty jest as I did. You see
I'd been too busy larkin' round to get time for marryin' till a
couple of years ago when I did up the job double-quick as I'd like
to do this thunderin' slow one hang it all!"
"Halt a minute till I give a look for this picket isn't going to be
driven in or taken while I'm on guard."
Down his beat went Thorn reconnoitring river road and swamp as
thoroughly as one pair of keen eyes could do it and came back
satisfied but still growling like a faithful mastiff on the watch;
performances which he repeated at intervals till his own turn came.
"I didn't have to go out of my own State for a wife you'd better
believe" began Dick with a boast as usual; "for we raise as fine
a crop of girls thar as any State in or out of the Union and don't
mind raisin' Cain with any man who denies it. I was out on a gunnin'
tramp with Joe Partridge a cousin of mine--poor old chap! he fired
his last shot at Gettysburg and died game in a way he didn't dream
of the day we popped off the birds together. It ain't right to joke
that way; I won't if I can help it; but a feller gets awfully kind
of heathenish these times don't he?"
"Settle up them scores byme-by; fightin' Christians scurse raound
here. Fire away Dick."
"Well we got as hungry as hounds half a dozen mile from home and
when a farm-house hove in sight Joe said he'd ask for a bite and
leave some of the plunder for pay. I was visitin' Joe didn't know
folks round and backed out of the beggin' part of the job; so he
went ahead alone. We'd come up the woods behind the house and while
Joe was foragin' I took are connoissance. The view was fust-rate
for the main part of it was a girl airin' beds on the roof of a
stoop. Now jest about that time havin' a leisure spell I'd begun
to think of marryin' and took a look at all the girls I met with
an eye to business. I s'pose every man has some sort of an idee or
pattern of the wife he wants; pretty and plucky good and gay was
mine but I'd never found it till I see Kitty; and as she didn't see
me I had the advantage and took an extra long stare."
"What was her good pints hey?"
"Oh well she had a wide-awake pair of eyes a bright jolly sort
of a face lots of curly hair tumblin' out of her net a trig little
figger and a pair of the neatest feet and ankles that ever stepped.
'Pretty' thinks I; 'so far so good.' The way she whacked the
pillers shooked the blankets and pitched into the beds was a
caution; specially one blunderin' old featherbed that wouldn't do
nothin' but sag round in a pig-headed sort of way that would have
made most girls get mad and give up. Kitty didn't but just wrastled
with it like a good one till she got it turned banged and spread
to suit her; then she plumped down in the middle of it with a sarcy
little nod and chuckle to herself that tickled me mightily.
'Plucky' thinks I 'better 'n' better.' Jest then an old woman came
flyin' out the back-door callin' 'Kitty! Kitty! Squire Partridge's
son's here 'long with a friend; been gunnin' want luncheon and
I'm all in the suds; do come down and see to 'em.'
"'Where are they ?' says Kitty scrambling up her hair and settlin'
her gown in a jiffy as women have a knack of doin' you know.
"'Mr. Joe's in the front entry; the other man's somewheres round
Billy says waitin' till I send word whether they can stop. I
darsn't till I'd seen you for I can't do nothin' I'm in such a
mess' says the old lady.
"'So am I for I can't get in except by the Error! Hyperlink
reference not valid. entry window and he'll see me' says Kitty
gigglin' at the thoughts of Joe.
"'Come down the ladder there's a dear. I'll pull it round and keep
it stiddy' says her mother.
"'Oh ma don't ask me!' says Kitty with a shiver. 'I'm dreadfully
scared of ladders since I broke my arm off this very one. It's so
high it makes me dizzy jest to think of.'
"'Well then I'll do the best I can; but I wish them boys was to
Jericho!' says the old lady with a groan for she was fat and hot
had her gown pinned up and was in a fluster generally. She was
goin' off rather huffy when Kitty called out--
"'Stop ma! I'll come down and help you only ketch me if I tumble.'
"She looked scared but stiddy and I'll bet it took as much grit for
her to do it as for one of us to face a battery. It don't seem much
to tell of but I wish I may be hit if it wasn't a right down
dutiful and clever thing to see done. When the old lady took her off
at the bottom with a good motherly hug I found myself huggin' my
rifle like a fool but whether I thought it was the ladder or
Kitty I ain't clear about. 'Good' thinks I; 'what more do you
"A snug little property wouldn't a ben bad I reckon. Well she had
it old skin-flint though I didn't know or care about it then. What
a jolly row she'd make if she knew I was tellin' the ladder part of
the story! She always does when I get to it and makes believe cry
with her head in my breast-pocket or any such handy place till I
take it out and swear I'll never do so ag'in. Poor little Kit I
wonder what she's doin' now. Thinkin' of me I'll bet."
Dick paused pitched his cap lower over his eyes and smoked a
minute with more energy than enjoyment for his cigar was out and he
did not perceive it.
"That's not all is it?" asked Thorn taking a fatherly interest in
the younger man's love passages.
"Not quite. 'Fore long Joe whistled and as I always take short
cuts everywhar I put in at the back-door jest as Kitty come
trottin' out of the pantry with a big berry-pie in her hand. I
startled her she tripped over the sill and down she come; the dish
flew one way the pie flopped into her lap the juice spatterin' my
boots and her clean gown. I thought she'd cry scold have
hysterics or some confounded thing or other; but she jest sat still
a minute then looked up at me with a great blue splosh on her face
and went off into the good-naturedest gale of laughin' you ever
heard in your life. That finished me. 'Gay' thinks I; 'go in and
win.' So I did; made love hand over hand while I stayed with Joe;
pupposed a fortnight after married her in three months and there
she is a tip-top little woman with a pair of stunnin' boys in her
Out came a well-worn case and Dick proudly displayed the likeness
of a stout much bejewelled young woman with two staring infants on
her knee. In his sight the poor picture was a more perfect work of
art than any of Sir Joshua's baby-beauties or Raphael's Madonnas
and the little story needed no better sequel than the young father's
praises of his twins the covert kiss he gave their mother when he
turned as if to get a clearer light upon the face. Ashamed to show
the tenderness that filled his honest heart he hummed "Kingdom
Coming" while relighting his cigar and presently began to talk
"Now then Flint it's your turn to keep guard and Thorn's to tell
his romance. Come don't try to shirk; it does a man good to talk of
such things and we're all mates here."
"In some cases it don't do any good to talk of such things; better
let 'em alone" muttered Thorn as he reluctantly sat down while
Flint as reluctantly departed.
With a glance and gesture of real affection Phil laid his hand upon
his comrade's knee saying in his persuasive voice "Old fellow it
_will_ do you good because I know you often long to speak of
something that weighs upon you. You've kept us steady many a time
and done us no end of kindnesses; why be too proud to let us give
our sympathy in return if nothing more?"
Thorn's big hand closed over the slender one upon his knee and the
mild expression so rarely seen upon his face passed over it as he
"I think I could tell you almost anything if you asked me that way
my boy. It isn't that I'm too proud--and you're right about my
sometimes wanting to free my mind--but it's because a man of forty
don't just like to open out to young fellows if there is any danger
of their laughing at him though he may deserve it. I guess there
isn't now and I'll tell you how I found my wife."
Dick sat up and Phil drew nearer for the earnestness that was in
the man dignified his plain speech and inspired an interest in his
history even before it was begun. Looking gravely at the river and
never at his hearers as if still a little shy of confidants yet
grateful for the relief of words Thorn began abruptly--
"I never hear the number eighty-four without clapping my hand to my
left breast and missing my badge. You know I was on the police in
New York before the war and that's about all you do know yet. One
bitter cold night I was going my rounds for the last time when as
I turned a corner I saw there was a trifle of work to be done. It
was a bad part of the city full of dirt and deviltry; one of the
streets led to a ferry and at the corner an old woman had an apple-
stall. The poor soul had dropped asleep worn out with the cold and
there were her goods left with no one to watch 'em. Somebody was
watching 'em however; a girl with a ragged shawl over her head
stood at the mouth of an alley close by waiting for a chance to
grab something. I'd seen her there when I went by before and
mistrusted she was up to some mischief; as I turned the corner she
put out her hand and cribbed an apple. She saw me the minute she did
it but neither dropped it nor ran only stood stocks still with the
apple in her hand till came up.
"'This won't do my girl' said I. I never could be harsh with 'em
poor things! She laid it back and looked up at me with a miserable
sort of a smile that made me put my hand in my pocket to fish for a
ninepence before she spoke.
"'I know it won't' she says. 'I didn't want to do it it's so mean
but I'm awful hungry sir.'
"'Better run home and get your supper then.'
"'I've got no home.'
"'Where do you live?'
"'In the street.'
"'Where do you sleep?'
"'Anywhere; last night in the lock-up and I thought I'd get in
there again if I did that when you saw me. I like to go there it's
warm and safe.'
"'If I don't take you there what will you do?'
"'Don't know. I want to go over there and dance again as I used to;
but being sick has made me ugly so they won't have me and no one
else will take me because I have been there once.'
"I looked where she pointed and thanked the Lord that they wouldn't
take her. It was one of those low theatres that do so much damage to
the like of her; there was a gambling den one side of it an eating
saloon the other and at the door of it lounged a scamp I knew very
well looking like a big spider watching for a fly. I longed to
fling my billy at him; but as I couldn't I held on to the girl. I
was new to the thing then but though I'd heard about hunger and
homelessness often enough I'd never had this sort of thing nor
seen that look on a girl's face. A white pinched face hers was
with frighted tired-looking eyes but so innocent; she wasn't more
than sixteen had been pretty once I saw looked sick and starved
now and seemed just the most helpless hopeless little thing that
"'You'd better come to the Station for to-night and we'll see to
you to-morrow' says I.
"'Thank you sir' says she looking as grateful as if I'd asked her
home. I suppose I did speaks kind of fatherly. I ain't ashamed to
say I felt so seeing what a child she was; nor to own that when she
put her little hand in mine it hurt me to feel how thin and cold it
was. We passed the eating-house where the red lights made her face
as rosy as it ought to have been; there was meat and pies in the
window and the poor thing stopped to look. It was too much for her;
off came her shawl and she said in that coaxing way of hers--
"'I wish you'd let me stop at the place close by and sell this;
they'll give a little for it and I'll get some supper. I've had
nothing since yesterday morning and maybe cold is easier to bear
"'Have you nothing better than that to sell?" I says not quite sure
that she wasn't all a humbug like so many of 'em. She seemed to see
that and looked up at me again with such innocent eyes I couldn't
doubt her when she said shivering with something beside the cold--
"'Nothing but myself.' Then the tears came and she laid her head
down on my arm sobbing--'Keep me! oh do keep me safe somewhere!'"
Thorn choked here steadied his voice with a resolute hem! but could
only add one sentence more:
"That's how I found my wife."
"Come don't stop thar? I told the whole o' mine you do the same.
Whar did you take her? how'd it all come round?"
"Please tell us Thorn."
The gentler request was answered presently very steadily very
"I was always a soft-hearted fellow though you wouldn't think it
now and when that little girl asked me to keep her safe I just did
it. I took her to a good woman whom I knew for I hadn't any women
belonging to me nor any place but that to put her in. She stayed
there till spring working for her keep growing brighter prettier
every day and fonder of me I thought. If I believed in witchcraft
I shouldn't think myself such a cursed fool as I do now but I don't
believe in it and to this day I can't understand how I came to do
it. To be sure I was a lonely man without kith or kin had never
had a sweetheart in my life or been much with women since my mother
died. Maybe that's why I was so bewitched with Mary for she had
little ways with her that took your fancy and made you love her
whether you would or no. I found her father was an honest fellow
enough a fiddler in the some theatre that he'd taken good care of
Mary till he died leaving precious little but advice for her to
live on. She'd tried to get work failed spent all she had got
sick and was going to the devil as the poor souls can hardly help
doing with so many ready to give them a shove. It's no use trying to
make a bad job better; so the long and short of it was I thought
she loved me; God knows I loved her and I married her before the
year was out."
"Show us her picture; I know you've got one; all the fellows have
though half of 'em won't own up."
"I've only got part of one. I once saved my little girl and her
picture once saved me."
From an inner pocket Thorn produced a woman's housewife carefully
untied it though all its implements were missing but a little
thimble and from one of its compartments took a flattened bullet and
the remnants of a picture.
"I gave her that the first Christmas after I found her. She wasn't
as tidy about her clothes as I liked to see and I thought if I gave
her a handy thing like this she'd be willing to sew. But she only
made one shirt for me and then got tired so I keep it like an old
fool as I am. Yes that's the bit of lead that would have done for
me if Mary's likeness hadn't been just where it was."
"You'll like to show her this when you go home won't you?" said
Dick as he took up the bullet while Phil examined the marred
picture and Thorn poised the little thimble on his big finger with
"How can I when I don't know where she is and camp is all the home
The words broke from him like a sudden cry when some old wound is
rudely touched. Both of the young men started both laid back the
relics they had taken up and turned their eyes from Thorn's face
across which swept a look of shame and sorrow too significant to be
misunderstood. Their silence assured him of their sympathy and as
if that touch of friendlessness unlocked his heavy heart he eased
it by a full confession. When he spoke again it was with the
calmness of repressed emotion; and calmness more touching to his
mates than the most passionate outbreak the most pathetic
lamentation; for the coarse camp-phrases seemed to drop from his
vocabulary; more than once his softened voice grew tremulous and to
the words "my little girl" there went a tenderness that proved how
dear a place she still retained in that deep heart of his.
"Boys I've gone so far; I may as well finish; and you'll see I'm
not without some cause for my stern looks and ways; you'll pity me
and from you I'll take the comfort of it. It's only the old
story--I married her worked for her lived for her and kept my
little girl like a lady. I should have known that I was too old too
sober for a young thing like that; the life she led before the
pinch came just suited her. She liked to be admired to dress and