Previously he had never felt obliged to wrestle too seriously with this question. In his life he had taken certain things for granted, never challenging his belief in ultimate success, and bothering little about means and roads. But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.
A sufficient time before he would have allowed the problem to kick its heels at the outer portals of his mind, but now he felt compelled to give serious attention to it.
A little panic-fear grew in his mind. As his imagination went forward to a fight, he saw hideous possibilities. He contemplated the lurking menaces of the future, and failed in an effort to see himself standing stoutly in the midst of them. He recalled his visions of broken-bladed glory, but in the shadow of the impending tumult he suspected them to be impossible pictures.
He sprang from the bunk and began to pace nervously to and fro. "Good Lord, what's th' matter with me?" he said aloud.
He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless. Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as he had in early youth. He must accumulate information of himself, and meanwhile he resolved to remain close upon his guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him. "Good Lord!" he repeated in dismay.
After a time the tall soldier slid dexterously through the hole. The loud private followed. They were wrangling.
"That's all right," said the tall soldier as he entered. He waved his hand expressively. "You can believe me or not, jest as you like. All you got to do is sit down and wait as quiet as you can. Then pretty soon you'll find out I was right."
His comrade grunted stubbornly. For a moment he seemed to be searching for a formidable reply. Finally he said: "Well, you don't know everything in the world, do you?"
"Didn't say I knew everything in the world," retorted the other sharply. He began to stow various articles snugly into his knapsack.
The youth, pausing in his nervous walk, looked down at the busy figure. "Going to be a battle, sure, is there, Jim?" he asked.
"Of course there is," replied the tall soldier. "Of course there is. You jest wait 'til to-morrow, and you'll see one of the biggest battles ever was. You jest wait."
"Thunder!" said the youth.
"Oh, you'll see fighting this time, my boy, what'll be regular out-and-out fighting," added the tall soldier, with the air of a man who is about to exhibit a battle for the benefit of his friends.
"Huh!" said the loud one from a corner.
"Well," remarked the youth, "like as not this story'll turn out jest like them others did."
"Not much it won't," replied the tall soldier, exasperated. "Not much it won't. Didn't the cavalry all start this morning?" He glared about him. No one denied his statement. "The cavalry started this morning," he continued. "They say there ain't hardly any cavalry left in camp. They're going to Richmond, or some place, while we fight all the Johnnies. It's some dodge like that. The regiment's got orders, too. A feller what seen 'em go to headquarters told me a little while ago. And they're raising blazes all over camp — anybody can see that."
"Shucks!" said the loud one.
The youth remained silent for a time. At last he spoke to the tall soldier. "Jim!"
"How do you think the reg'ment 'll do?"
"Oh, they'll fight all right, I guess, after they once get into it," said the other with cold judgment. He made a fine use of the third person. "There's been heaps of fun poked at 'em because they're new, of course, and all that; but they'll fight all right, I guess."
"Think any of the boys 'll run?" persisted the youth.
"Oh, there may be a few of 'em run, but there's them kind in every regiment, 'specially when they first goes under fire," said the other in a tolerant way. "Of course it might happen that the hull kit-and-boodle might start and run, if some big fighting came first-off, and then again they might stay and fight like fun. But you can't bet on nothing. Of course they ain't never been under fire yet, and it ain't likely they'll lick the hull rebel army all-to-oncet the first time; but I think they'll fight better than some, if worse than others. That's the way I figger. They call the reg'ment 'Fresh fish' and everything; but the boys come of good stock, and most of 'em 'll fight like sin after they oncet git shootin'," he added, with a mighty emphasis on the last four words.
"Oh, you think you know — " began the loud soldier with scorn.
The other turned savagely upon him. They had a rapid altercation, in which they fastened upon each other various strange epithets.
The youth at last interrupted them. "Did you ever think you might run yourself, Jim?" he asked. On concluding the sentence he laughed as if he had meant to aim a joke. The loud soldier also giggled.
The tall private waved his hand. "Well," said he profoundly, "I've thought it might get too hot for Jim Conklin in some of them scrimmages, and if a whole lot of boys started and run, why, I s'pose I'd start and run. And if I once started to run, I'd run like the devil, and no mistake. But if everybody was a-standing and a-fighting, why, I'd stand and fight. Be jiminey, I would. I'll bet on it."
"Huh!" said the loud one.
The youth of this tale felt gratitude for these words of his comrade. He had feared that all of the untried men possessed great and correct confidence. He now was in a measure reassured.
private an enlisted man of the two lowest ranks in the U.S. Army.
corporal the lowest-ranking noncommissioned officer, just below a sergeant.
omen a thing or happening supposed to foretell a future event, either good or evil; augury.
returning with his shield or on it a reference to the ancient Greek idea that the only honorable way to return from battle is to be holding your shield or to be carried back on it .
a shirking child a child who neglects an obligation.
pickets soldiers stationed at an outpost to guard the troops from surprise attack.
Yank a Yankee, a Union soldier.
Huns a warlike Asiatic people who, led by Attila and others, invaded eastern and central Europe in the fourth and fifth century A.D.; here, a reference to the rebel forces made by veteran Union soldiers to frighten the new recruits.
haversack a canvas bag for carrying rations, generally worn over one shoulder.
Richmond the capital of Virginia and of the Confederacy.
Johnnies Confederate soldiers.
fresh fish a derogatory term for new soldiers.
Regiment a military unit consisting of two or more battalions and forming a basic element of a division. (U.S. Army A battalion is a tactical unit made up of three or more companies, batteries, or analogous units: it is normally commanded by a lieutenant colonel and is the basic building unit of a division. Mil. A division is an army unit larger than a regiment and smaller than a corps, to which various numbers and types of battalions can be attached as required.)