Main Contents & Search
Sarah Orne Jewett
I had mounted the corner of a grain-bin in the stable, and sat there swinging one foot and idly watching John, an old soldier and the master-of-horse, who was devoting an hour of leisure to the princess of the stable. She blinked her eyes in the spring sunlight that streamed in across the stable floor, and lifted tenderly a forefoot that had once been lame. This foot was apt to draw attention to itself, as if former comfortable rubbings were still remembered. I could not disguise the truth, as I looked at her, that she was no longer young, but I flattered myself that she might be good for many years yet.
John brushed and smoothed her silky chestnut coat again and again, and carefully picked the few tangles out of her thin mane; flicked at her sharp ears, and then, holding her firmly by the nose, stood looking her full in the face with an abstract air. At last she gently moved and glanced round at an imaginary fly. She was full of feminine subterfuges; none of the other horses appealed as she did to John's gallantry, and she gained many attentions and advantages beyond her rightful currycombing and rubbing down.
"There, there!" said John, as if she could understand, "you know there isn't a live fly in this stable; you wouldn't feel a bee-sting through such a shock of winter hair as you've got on. I never saw them keep their winter hair so late as they do this year," he added, looking over at me, and I nodded assent.
He gave his currycomb a final tap, and leaned against the doorway. There were shining little pools of water on the floor near the stable-bucket, and an adventurous sparrow came hopping in. Sheila looked at him jealously, as she drank, and arched her neck and pointed her ears at him, as if she meant to frown disapproval. Then she thought best to lift a foot slowly, by way of distinct menace, and the sparrow fluttered away. I laughed, and she gave me a reproachful glance.
"Too bad if he drank up all that water, and let you go thirsty," said John to the mare.
"I mean to ride her to-day," I said decisively, "and she can have some brook-water" -- to which proposition John agreed, after a moment's reflection. He still leaned against the doorway, and I still sat on the grain-bin. Beyond, in the garden, there was great activity. I could hear the ring of tools and the click-clack of shears in the shrubbery. Summer had come all at once after much dark weather. There was a young peach tree in full flower at the left of the stable door.
"Those blooms always make me think of war-time," said John. Out in Virginia the country is full of them ... I got to classing them with powder smoke before I came away. The sight of a peach tree will bring those days right up fresh before me. Dear, dear! --"
He did not look at me now, and I made no answer. I hoped for one of those plain stories of army life, which are more touching, or more exactly descriptive, than any studied reminiscences.
"There'd be one day after another like this," he went on; "none of your hindering east winds after spring once got its mind made up. For my part, I always like any other part of the year full as well. We got out there to Washington in the early part of March. I hadn't any business in the army anyway; I was under age, but I was bound to go to war with the rest of the fellows. I owned to a year and a half more than belonged to me when I 'listed!"
I had often heard this statement and did not think it necessary to make any comment, but I thought in the brief silence that followed, how unwittingly the country boy of sixteen had been swept southward by the great wave of excitement, and I thought, too, of a flood of new experience which had gone over him. No wonder that the homesickness and strange surroundings and unlooked for hardships had made him remember clearly that first spring in Virginia.
"There was a little peach tree just the size of this one that I sha'n't forget in a hurry," John said, as if he spoke only to himself. "It had just such a bend in the stem, and we used to be full of jokes about it, saying that we were going to stop right there until the fruit was ripe. There had been some kind of a little old house and garden just where our company was quartered, and some of the old-fashioned garden flowers and gooseberry bushes and things came up, but coming and going we soon trampled 'em out. Most of us was young fellows, green as grass; but you'd have thought 'twas old campaigners that remembered as far back as Waterloo, to hear us scolding over tactics, and what McClellan ought to do. You see we went first to Washington, and then they lugged us over to Arlington Heights, and set us down in the red mud for a week, and then we got orders to go down Fredericksburg way. We used to talk the goodness all out of us before word came to move; you never saw such a bunch of foolishness as those camps. We were hived together so thick that you could see clusters of lights, like towns, all over that low rolling country, and the officers hadn't learned their business extra well, and we knew it, and we dallied along awhile, and so 'twas.
"We got to know each other, and fights came up, and lots of us got to chumming like school child'n. There were plenty of good, stout, knockabout men, dare-devils and high fellows that didn't think of anything but fighting and fooling, and would as soon be there as anywhere, but that camp life came hard on some fellows. I was thinking just now of one poor galoot that was about roughed to death. I don't see how they ever came to 'list him. His father'd died, and he'd got a mother and some little sisters, but he'd come to the front from high notions o' duty and saving his country. Makes me feel bad to think him over, now I've got to be older and know something of the world, but I used to tease him long of the rest then, and be kind o' friendly with him at odd times when I could get him alone out in the shade of one of those crooked, rail fences. He'd set there and tell me about his folks by the hour. You never did see such a girl-faced fellow trying to play soldier as he was, and scary to match.
"We used to tell him every day or two that we'd got orders to march, or that he was picked out to make a dash over into the enemy's lines, and he'd turn just as white as sand and get all blue around his mouth. 'Twas a kind of nervous fit he'd seem to have, and he'd have to go and lay right down and get over it. The Captain used, to tell us we'd better let him alone, but that only set us on. We used to try and see if we could anyway manage to get him mad, but he was so simple-hearted and pleasant 'twant worth while, and we learned to let him alone pretty much. He'd run and get our pipes, or mend up our clothes, if we came in with 'em torn, as handy as a woman. They'd rigged us out in a lot o' cheap contract stuff to go to war with. Then he had a pretty voice to sing, was real good company, and never seemed to fail us for a joke.
"That little peach tree I was speaking about grew right in front of our 'A' tent, and I saw him crawl out one moonlight night and pick some of the blossoms and wrap them up in a piece o' newspaper. He'd know 'twas just the thing he'd get laughed at for by day. I stepped out after him and put him under arrest, and says I, 'Don't you know word has come that the army has got to pick all the peach trees in the fall, and the peaches are going to be sold up North to help get money to carry on the war?' He looked scared, and told me as solemn as he could be that he wouldn't do it again; he only wanted a little piece o' bloom to send home to show his mother how forward the season was. So I said I wasn't going to report him that time. He was a year older than I was, but some used to say I acted old enough to be his father."
"Whoa! stop gnawing that bucket now!" and the mare looked up reproachfully and gave a longing glance at her stall. I scratched a row of x's on the top of the oat bin with a nail that lay there.
"What became of the poor lad?" I asked at last. "They ought to have sent him home."
"He wouldn't go," answered John with enthusiasm, "an' I always thought that he was scared out of his life. Plenty of big backwoodsmen died of nothing but homesickness, but nothing ailed him but terror. The greatest comfort in life while we were in camp that time was his little peach tree. He was naturally a boy of a farming turn, and he dug round it and used to lug water for it, and he made a little fence out of sapling stuff that he stuck down so we shouldn't fall on it when we were scuffling or anything; or to keep off any mule that might wander by and browse. Afterwards we left that camp and the Rebs were scattered about; we could see their lights by night, and we used to talk across and do trading on picket, and one time they sent word if we would stop fighting an hour or two they would stop; 'twas while we were having a good smart skirmishing all along the lines. They all had plenty of tobacco, and were glad to give us any quantity of that for a little salt or whatever they wanted. After we had been chumming and trading an hour or so, we would set to and go fighting again.
"We weren't quite so ready to go on picket by night as we had been, but we went all the same, and the Captain made no excuse, but Joe was let off easy one way and another, and he got sick with chills and went off to hospital. Everybody thought that was the last of him, sure enough, but back he came. He surely did have pluck enough some ways, and the right kind too, but any sudden sound of firing that went to our heads like drink, and made us hope something was going on, would take all the soldier out of Joe, and he'd drop right down in his tracks. He told me one night that 'twas something that come over him quick, and he couldn't help it to save his life; he'd never been called a scary fellow nor a coward as he knew of, 'till he came out there.
"Seems to me now, whenever I come to think it over, that there was dreadful foolish actions that first summer of the war down in Virginia. We all felt as if something had got to be done right off, but we didn't know just what, and the Rebs hung round, and we hung round, and orders would come for us to march off thirty or forty miles an' then march back again, and we wandered about like stray cattle, but 'twas pleasant weather and we liked it well enough. Somehow you don't think so much about killing folks or any of those things that come to you afterward, but when those old band tunes would begin to rip the air, we'd all catch hold and sing and step right out along the road -- well 'twas like something that got into your head.
"But that poor chap, quick as the word come to move, he'd go all to pieces, kind of frost struck, and the boys would tell him we were going into action and he'd try and step out in line, but he'd lag and lag, and I've seen him tumble right over and lie there on the grass. The Captain would stop, I've seen him myself -- and pin a piece of paper on him with orders to let him pass, so when we'd get through the day's scurry, along would come poor Joe looking in all our faces to see if we meant to twit him.
"And at last we came round to the very spot where we'd camped the longest in the spring -- we'd lost a good many out of the company; we were on our way up to Harper's Ferry. Everybody had been noticing that old Joe looked as slim as a spear o' hay, and we told the captain and some other of the officers that he ought to be discharged or go back to hospital, one of the two. 'Twas no use for him to think he could serve out his time, and if they gave him orders he'd have to go whether or no, don't you see? He couldn't more than crawl about, but he kept his blanket folded tight as any body and was always trying to do a touch of work for some of the rest of us. He was bound he'd do what he could do. Plenty of the boys was sick of army life by that time and were complaining of their health to make excuse to get home to their folks, and the company was all thinned out. I suppose that the officers didn't know what to do, and they had to hold on to everything that looked like a man.
"I was wandering round one night and waiting till my turn came to go on picket. I had spoken for Joe to go with me; the captain and I looked after him the best we could; Joe felt safer with me, I knew, and we were short of men and close to the enemy's lines, too. I saw him leaning up against a tree, and his head was droopin' like a sick bird's, and I went over close to speak to him about picket duty, but he didn't say anything, and he reached out one of his hands tow'ads me.
"'Chirk up, Joe,' said I, 'look how pleasant it is!' and then I mistrusted something was wrong, and I sat down and put back his head to look at him. He was white as a piece of cloth and his eyes were glazing all over.
"'I'm 'shamed,' says he; 'I ought to have stayed right at home. I ain't fit for a soldier-'
"'No more you ain't!' says I. 'Come, cheer up, Peach-tree.'
"'I wan't never called a coward,' says he again. 'I ain't afraid of anything myself, but I can't make my body serve me. I don't blame the boys for laughing. I could lay down an' die of shame when I come out of those scares -- I'm gun-shy like a poor hound dog,'["] says he between laughing and crying.
"'You never had had a fair smell of powder yet.' I'd heard all this before and I didn't know what else to say.
"'I've got to go right home, now,' says he; 'I meant to serve my time, if it killed me, but I'm all played out,' and he let his head drop; but that minute there came the noise of firing, and I heard the old bugle yell out. I started up, and the poor chap was on his feet before I was, his eyes blazing out of his head. 'Come on!' says he, 'come on! I ain't afraid this time!'
"He sung out just as pleased as if something was lifted right off of him and ran forward two or three steps -- then stumbled and fell right over heavy on to his face. I stopped and turned him over, and he was stone dead -- just as if the lightning had struck him. 'Twas some stray shot --"
John turned away, hesitated a minute at the stable doorway as if he was looking for some one in the garden; then he took the mare by the head and went quickly into the stall. I was oppressed by the silence -- somebody must say something.
"They ought to have sent such a poor fellow home," I insisted, stoutly, but John had quite regained his everyday manner.
"We did send him home; our company and some of the other boys helped that knew him. 'Twas done handsome as if he had been the general himself."
The horses were munching in a row. I head footsteps coming toward the stable and alighted from my high seat.
"There was that little peach tree just breaking down with green fruit on account of his tending it so much; 'twas right in front of us as we sat talking. I don't know whether he saw it, he was so far gone," John added, looking at me and lowering his voice. "How soon do you want to go out?" (in a louder and perfectly business-like tone). "I must see to your new saddle girth first, but everything'll be ready when you are."
"Perhaps the rest of you served all the better, and that poor boy helped to save his country after all," I said, lingering.
"Twas this weather made me think of him," John apologized; "he never was cut out for a military man, poor old Peach-tree wa'n't. But he got home, and there he lays now somewhere up country, in one o' those old, bushy burying-grounds."
"Peach-Tree Joe" first appeared in The Californian Illustrated Magazine (4:187-191), July 1893. Collected in Richard Cary, Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1971, on which this text is based.
[ Back ]
Sheila … John: Sheila, pronounced "shy-la" was Jewett's horse; John was a Jewett family employee.
[ Back ]
war-time: The American Civil War, 1861-1865.
[ Back ]
Waterloo: In this battle in Belgium (1815), Napoleon suffered his final military defeat.
[ Back ]
McClellan … Arlington Heights … Fredericksburg: General George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885) was a Major-General for the Union Army in the American Civil War. Arlington Heights in Virginia was a main position from which the Union Army defended Washington D.C. There were several battles there, including a major one in 1862. There was also a major battle at Fredericksburg in 1862, the winner being unclear. (Research: Gabe Heller).
[ Back ]
Harper's Ferry: Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, is remembered for John Brown's (1800-1859) raid (1859). The area was much contested during the Civil War, and there were significant battles there in 1862 and in 1864. (Research: Gabe Heller).
[ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Main Contents & Search