THE YOUTH WENT slowly toward the fire indicated by his departed friend. As he reeled, he bethought him of the welcome his comrades would give him. He had a conviction that he would soon feel in his sore heart the barbed missiles of ridicule. He had no strength to invent a tale; he would be a soft target.
He made vague plans to go off into the deeper darkness and hide, but they were all destroyed by the voices of exhaustion and pain from his body. His ailments, clamoring, forced him to seek the place of food and rest, at whatever cost.
He swung unsteadily toward the fire. He could see the forms of men throwing black shadows in the red light, and as he went nearer it became known to him in some way that the ground was strewn with sleeping men.
Of a sudden he confronted a black and monstrous figure. A rifle barrel caught some glinting beams. “Halt! halt!” He was dismayed for a moment, but he presently thought that he recognized the nervous voice. As he stood tottering before the rifle barrel, he called out: “Why, hello, Wilson, you—you here?”
The rifle was lowered to a position of caution and the loud soldier came slowly forward. He peered into the youth's face. “That you, Henry?”
“Yes it's—it's me.”
“Well, well, ol' boy,” said the other, “by ginger, I'm glad t' see yeh! I give yeh up fer a goner. I thought yeh was dead sure enough.” There was husky emotion in his voice.
The youth found that now he could barely stand upon his feet. There was a sudden sinking of his forces. He thought he must hasten to produce his tale to protect him from the missiles already at the lips of his redoubtable comrades. So, staggering before the loud soldier, he began: “Yes, yes. I've—I've had an awful time. I've been all over. Way over on th' right. Ter'ble fightin' over there. I had an awful time. I got separated from th' reg'ment. Over on th' right, I got shot. In th' head. I never see sech fightin'. Awful time. I don't see how I could a' got separated from th' reg'ment. I got shot, too.”
His friend had stepped forward quickly. “What? Got shot? Why didn't yeh say so first? Poor ol' boy, we must—hol' on a minnit; what am I doin'? I'll call Simpson.”
Another figure at that moment loomed in the gloom. They could see that it was the corporal. “Who yeh talkin' to, Wilson?” he demanded. His voice was anger-toned. “Who yeh talkin' to? Yeh th' derndest sentinel—why—hello, Henry, you here? Why, I thought you was dead four hours ago! Great Jerusalem, they keep turnin' up every ten minutes or so! We thought we'd lost forty-two men by straight count, but if they keep on a-comin' this way, we'll git th' comp'ny all back by mornin' yit. Where was yeh?”
“Over on th' right. I got separated”—began the youth with considerable glibness.
But his friend had interrupted hastily. “Yes, an' he got shot in th' head an' he's in a fix, an' we must see t' him right away.” He rested his rifle in the hollow of his left arm and his right around the youth's shoulder.
“Gee, it must hurt like thunder!” he said.
The youth leaned heavily upon his friend. “Yes, it hurts—hurts a good deal,” he replied. There was a faltering in his voice.
“Oh,” said the corporal. He linked his arm in the youth's and drew him forward. “Come on, Henry. I'll take keer 'a yeh.”
As they went on together the loud private called out after them: “Put 'im t' sleep in my blanket, Simpson. An'—hol' on a minnit—here's my canteen. It's full 'a coffee. Look at his head by th' fire an' see how it looks. Maybe it's a pretty bad un. When I git relieved in a couple 'a minnits, I'll be over an' see t' him.”
The youth's senses were so deadened that his friend's voice sounded from afar and he could scarcely feel the pressure of the corporal's arm. He submitted passively to the latter's directing strength. His head was in the old manner hanging forward upon his breast. His knees wobbled.
The corporal led him into the glare of the fire. “Now, Henry,”...
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