The Veteran

Stephen Crane

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


"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 fellowI was, because I

thought then they might quit all trying to hit me. But Icouldn'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 fell 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 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?"

"Oh, about your running."

"Why, yes, that was true enough, Jimmie. It was my first fight, and there

was an awful lot of noise, you know."

Jimmie seemed dazed that this idol, of its own will, should so totter.

His stout boyish idealism was injured.

Presently the grandfather said: "Sickles's colt is going for a drink.

Don't you wish you owned Sickles's colt, Jimmie?"

The boy merely answered: "He ain't as nice as our'n." He lapsed then into

another moody silence.

One of the hired men, a Swede, desired, to drive to the county-seat for

purposes of his own. The old man loaned a horse and an unwashed buggy. It

appeared later that one of the purposes of the Swede was to get drunk.

After quelling some boisterous frolic of the farm-hands and boys in the

garret, the old man had that night gone peacefully to sleep, when he was

aroused by clamoring at the kitchen door. He grabbed his trousers, and they

waved out behind as he dashed forward. He could hear the voice of the Swede,

screaming and blubbering. He pushed the wooden button, and, as the door flew

open, the Swede, a maniac, stumbled inward, chattering, weeping, still

screaming. "De barn fire! Fire! Fire! De barn fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!"

There was a swift and indescribable change in the old man. His face

ceased instantly to be a face; it became a mask, a gray thing, with horror

written about the mouth and eyes. He hoarsely shouted at the foot of the

little rickety stairs, and immediately, it seemed, there came down an

avalanche of men. No one knew that during this time the old lady had been

standing in her night-clothes at the bed-room door, yelling: "What's th'

matter? What's th' matter? What's th' matter?"

When they dashed toward the barn it presented to their eyes its usual

appearance, solemn, rather mystic in the black night. The Swede's lantern

was overturned at a point some yards in front of the barn doors. It

contained a wild little conflagration of its own, and even in their

excitement some of those who ran felt a gentle secondary vibration of the

thrifty part of their minds at sight of this overturned lantern. Under

ordinary circumstances it would have been a calamity.

But the cattle in the barn were trampling, trampling, trampling, and

above this noise could be heard a humming like the song of innumerable bees.

The old man hurled aside the great doors, and a yellow flame leaped out at

one corner and sped and wavered frantically up the old gray wall. It was

glad, terrible, this single flame, like the wild banner of deadly and

triumphant foes.

The motley crowd from the garret had come with all the pails of the farm.

They flung themselves upon the well. It was a leisurely old machine, long

dwelling in indolence. It was in the habit of giving out water with a sort

of reluctance. The men stormed at it, cursed it; but it continued to allow

the buckets to be filled only after the wheezy windlass had howled many protests at the mad-handed men.

With his opened knife in his hand old Fleming himself had gone headlong

into the barn, where the stifling smoke swirled with the air-currents, and

where could be heard in its fulness the terrible chorus of the flames, laden

with tones of hate and death, a hymn of wonderful ferocity.

He flung a blanket over an old mare's head, cut the halter close to the

manger, led the mare to the door, and fairly kicked her out to safety. He

returned with the same blanket, and rescued one of the work-horses. He took

five horses out, and then came out himself, with his clothes bravely on

fire. He had no whiskers, and very little hair on his head. They soused five

pailfuls of water on him. His eldest son made a clean miss with the sixth

pailful, because the old man had turned and was running down the decline and

around to the basement of the barn, where there were the stanchions of the

cows. Some one noticed at the time that he ran very lamely, as if one of the

frenzied horses had smashed his hip.

The cows, with their heads held in the heavy stanchions, had thrown

themselves, strangled themselves, tangled themselves: done everything which

the ingenuity of their exuberant fear could suggest to them.

Here, as at the well, the same thing happened to every man save one.

Their hands went mad. They became incapable of everything save the power to

rush into dangerous situations.

The old man released the cow nearest the door, and she, blind drunk with

terror, crashed into the Swede. The Swede had been running to and fro

babbling. He carried an empty milk-pail, to which he clung with an

unconscious, fierce enthusiasm. He shrieked like one lost as he went under

the cow's hoofs, and the milk-pail, rolling across the floor, made a flash

of silver in the gloom.

Old Fleming took a fork, beat off the cow, and dragged the paralyzed

Swede to the open air. When they had rescued all the cows save one, which

had so fastened herself that she could not be moved an inch, they returned

to the front of the barn and stood sadly, breathing like men who had reached

the final point of human effort.

Many people had come running. Someone had even gone to the church, and

now, from the distance, rang the tocsin note of the old bell. There was a

long flare of crimson on the sky, which made remote people speculate as to

the whereabouts of the fire.

The long flames sang their drumming chorus in voices of the heaviest

bass. The wind whirled clouds of smoke and cinders into the faces of the

spectators. The form of the old barn was outlined in black amid these masses

of orange-hued flames.

And then came this Swede again, crying as one who is the weapon of the

sinister fates. "De colts! De colts! You have forgot de colts!"

Old Fleming staggered. It was true; they had forgotten the two colts in

the box-stalls at the back of the barn. "Boys," he said, "I must try to get

'em out." They clamored about him then, afraid for him, afraid of what they

should see. Then they talked wildly each to each. "Why, it's sure death!"

"He would never get out!" "Why, it's suicide for a man to go in there!" Old

Fleming stared absent-mindedly at the open doors. "The poor little things,"

he said. He rushed into the barn.

When the roof fell in, a great funnel of smoke swarmed toward the sky, as

if the old man's mighty spirit, released from its body -- a little bottle --

had swelled like the genie of fable. The smoke was tinted rose-hue from the

flames, and perhaps the unutterable midnights of the universe will have no

power to daunt the color of this soul.