HONOR AND DUTY
By John Thomas Tuft
“Sometimes the more we look the less we see,” the soldier’s father used to tell him. Nathan’s papa used to sit in front of the fire at night, telling tales and quoting Shakespeare, “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.” Nathan thought of those times now as he sat around the campfire with his fellow soldiers, men and boys, preparing to take to the field in the morning outside the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In the distance, fires twinkled and bobbed in the night air, where other men and boys sat around swapping stories of home, each the enemy of the other. “Some take to war, to battle, as though they came out of their mothers’ wombs spoiling for a fight,” Papa would muse. “For others, it is a test of courage, a chance at glory. Yet for still others, it is about honor and duty.” He would stir at the embers, sending sparks dancing up the chimney. “That don’t change what happens though once the battle begins.”
Nathan wondered which of those was he. Each side wanted the other to quit fighting. Each side believed the only way to do that was to keep fighting. The northern armies went into the southern states to show them that it was useless to rebel. The southern armies were now in the north to show them that they would never stop. Nathan felt homesick. And afraid. His brother, Jacob, had fallen in the Battle of Shiloh, a ‘pitiless field of carnage’ as the papers back home put it. It near broke Papa’s heart. For days on end, he would not say a word. Months later, when Nathan turned seventeen and told him he was signing on to go and fight, Papa did not try to talk him out of it. He went to the dresser beside his bed, opened the drawer where Mama kept her special mementos and took out a chain with a simple cross hanging from it.
“I debated whether to bury her with this,” Papa said, fingering the chain, a faraway look in his eyes. “But somehow, I just couldn’t do it. Know why you’re fighting, son.” As he hung it around Nathan’s neck, he added, “Just remember, them boys on the other side are fighting for their homes, too. Honor and duty: what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. Lose those about yourself and what good is any country?” Nathan, sitting there now in the warm evening air, hearing the drummer boys practicing for the coming dawn’s summoning many to their deaths, took that chain from his neck. He could still feel the wonder he’d felt as Papa held him close, kissed him on the forehead and then let him go. The eastern sky turned pink, and the roosters began to crow. He got to his feet and picked up his rifle and set off toward the lines forming on the horizon.
A week later, Papa toiled under the hot July sun, trying not to think about the reports coming in about the three days of fighting at Gettysburg. Something made him look up. There, in the distance, a speck of a figure appeared. His heart skipped a beat. He did not want to believe, yet he could not help but believe. He watched as the figure turned in at the lane, paused then continued coming closer. Papa dropped his tools and started toward him. First a walk, then a fast walk, then trotting, finally a full out run. “My boy!” he called. “My boy, you’re home!” When he noticed that the figure was limping, hesitant in his approach, he forced himself to run faster. He came around the house, breathless, his heart bursting with answered prayers, and skidded to a stop.
It was not Nathan. Before him stood a boy of about eleven years, at the most. Blood showed through a bandage around his leg. His face was covered with dust and his eyes had a vacant stare to them. Papa fell to his knees, speechless. “Sir?” said the boy. “Sir, are you Nathan’s papa?” Feeling like the ground was shaking beneath him, all Papa could do was nod. “I’m Able Jordan, sir, from Canaan, Georgia. I come from Gettysburg to find you.” Papa raised his eyes up to look at the boy. “Why?” he whispered. Able stepped closer. “I’m a drummer for the Georgia 44th. I got hit in my leg and your boy carried me from the field to safety, sir. He got hit bad, but he kept going. When he got me under the trees, he told me you’all were out of boys.” Able shrugged. “Before he passed, sir, he gave me this. Said you’d understand.”
Able dug in his pocket and pulled out the chain with the cross. “Can I stay with you, sir? I don’t want to go back.” Papa looked him in the eye. “It would be my honor, Able. And my duty.” With that Able stepped close and placed the chain around Papa’s neck. “He also said to give you this.” The boy leaned in and kissed Papa on the cheek, who whispered into his hair, “What you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be…welcome home, son.”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.