On Picket Duty and Other Tales
On Picket Duty
WHAT air you thinkin' of, Phil?
"My wife, Dick."
"So was I! Aint it odd how fellers fall to thinkin' of thar little women, when they get a
quiet spell like this?"
"Fortunate for us that we do get it, and have such gentle bosom guests to keep us brave
and honest through the trials and temptations of a life like ours."
October moonlight shone clearly on the solitary tree, draped with gray moss, scarred by
lightning and warped by wind, looking like a venerable warrior, whose long campaign
was nearly done; and underneath was posted the guard of four. Behind them twinkled
many camp-fires on a distant plain, before them wound a road ploughed by the passage of
an army, strewn with the relics of a rout. On the right, a sluggish river glided, like a
serpent, stealthy, sinuous, and dark, into a seemingly impervious jungle; on the left, a
Southern swamp filled the air with malarial damps, swarms of noisome life, and
discordant sounds that robbed the hour of its repose. The men were friends as well as
comrades, for though gathered from the four quarters of the Union, and dissimilar in
education, character, and tastes, the same spirit animated all; the routine of camp life
threw them much together, and mutual esteem soon grew into a bond of mutual good
Thorn was a Massachusetts volunteer; a man who seemed too early old, too early
embittered by some cross, for though grim of countenance, rough of speech, cold of
manner, a keen observer would have soon discovered traces of a deeper, warmer nature
hidden, behind the repellent front he turned upon the world. A true New Englander,
thoughtful, acute, reticent, and opinionated; yet earnest withal, intensely patriotic, and
often humorous, despite a touch of Puritan austerity.
Phil, the "romantic chap," as he was called, looked his character to the life. Slender,
swarthy, melancholy eyed, and darkly bearded; with feminine features, mellow voice
and, alternately languid or vivacious manners. A child of the South in nature as in aspect,
ardent, impressible, and proud; fitfully aspiring and despairing; without the native energy
which moulds character and ennobles life. Months of discipline and devotion had done
much for him, and some deep experience was fast ripening the youth into a man.
Flint, the long-limbed lumberman, from the wilds of Maine, was a conscript who, when
government demanded his money or his life, calculated the cost, and decided that the
cash would be a dead loss and the claim might be repeated, whereas the conscript would
get both pay and plunder out of government, while taking excellent care that government
got precious little out of him. A shrewd, slow-spoken, self-reliant specimen, was Flint;