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Soldier’s Return

April 2024
9min read

Sandy’s homecoming to Vermont didn’t work out quite the way they planned

Sandy Welsh was hired man on my great-uncle’s farm, just below our house—the Brick Farm House farm. But to put it this way will give you quite the wrong idea of what he was to Uncle Xiram and Uncle Niram to him. For “hired man” in Vermont, particularly in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, does not mean at all what it means in some places and in some times. Sandy was an Irish boy, lovable, steady, hard-working, competent, and my Uncle Niram was a childless farmer with a very warm heart. To him, Sandy brought to the farm a breath of youth and warm vitality, which was very comforting to an old farmer who had no children of his own. And Sandy felt for “Mr. Niram” the love a nephew might feel for his uncle. Here in the country, you see, an affection can exist like that felt in a family, even when there is no blood kinship. We think it’s rather nice to have older and younger people feel that way about each other. And when I say “rather nice,” I am using Vermont understatement.

Uncle Niram’s farm is a big one, and in his day he had, as part of the farm’s working equipment, a sawmill run by the lively brook. Here logs were sawed into boards and a plain kind of woodwork was manufactured for the inside of houses. So of course one helper could not begin to do the work needed, in the mill and on the farm. Although Uncle Niram had no children and was a widower, his working family, if you can put it that way, had six or seven people in it more or less, off and on. Sandy was at that time much the youngest one, and a favorite with all of them.

You can see that when he decided to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army, very young indeed, it was a blow to everybody. Nobody expected to see the lad come back again alive. Indeed he was wounded twice, but not severely. And he did come back.

He was mustered out at the end of the war. Somehow lie did not have to wait as long as many of the soldiers did to get through the red tape which ties up a discharge from any army. Soon after the end of the shooting, at the ending of the Civil War, his papers came through unexpectedly, in time for him to leap aboard a northbound train. But not so unexpectedly that some conscientious bureaucrat in an office didn’t know about his discharge and sent a telegram up to Uncle Niram that Alexander Welsh was coming home on such and such a day.

Hence it happened that Sandy had no idea that people on the farm knew that he was returning, or which day he was coming. As the train left New York and came north along the Hudson, he thought he was going to surprise them all. At that time, naturally, everything was mixed up in railroad schedules, and he missed connections at Albany so that it was not the afternoon express but the slow evening train which brought him up into our valley.

I’ve heard the rest of the story from Sandy, whom I knew when I was a little girl. He was then a strongly built, vigorous, elderly man. It was also a favorite story of Uncle Niram’s. So I know that as the hour drew near for the arrival of the evening train at Sunderland (the little way station north of Arlington and nearest to the farm), Uncle Nirara had the whole farm family ready in decent clothes to make a sort of celebration of meeting their returned soldier boy. They climbed into the big farm wagon and started on the two-mile slow drive over the narrow dirt road to the Sunderland station.

In the meantime Sandy was leaning from the platform of the northbound train, watching his own valley come into view. You’d belter believe there were no vestibule connections between cars in those days, and to stand on the platform meant that you were out of doors, in the home wind. The train did not rush north—trains were slower in those days, many of the locomotives in Vermont still burning wood. The dusk gathered as Sandy ga/ed with all his eyes. He used to say, “It didn’t seem possible—it didn’t seem possible !—that there I was, alive, all in one piece, coming up our own valley.”

Of course, he knew, as we all know, every line and dip of the mountains’ silhouette against the sky, every slight bend of the railway line which brought a new field into view; he knew every house, every turn in the dirt road which runs beside the railroad for much of the way.

He continued to stand out on the platform because he couldn’t bear to sit indoors where he saw less. At the Arlington station, where the train halted briefly, he saw some people he knew and eagerly waved his hand to them. They had no idea who he was—the soldier in the worn blue uniform. He had grown taller during his absence and was very thin. As the train moved on from Arlington, every tree and bush and rock was like an old lriend to him.

The train inched its way north until it approached the turn, well known to us who go back and forth over the road. We call it “the crossing.” Here a side road crosses and runs side by side with the track for a short distance. Here the engine always gives two loud whistles. Sandy was nineteen years old, reckless with much experience of danger, his heart beating fast to see Red Mountain looming up there just where it always had been. When the whistle gave its two familiar shrieks at the crossing, a crazy notion took the boy that he would just drop off the train and walk the short distance to the farmhouse.

So he did, swinging off with the resilience and exact timing of powerful, hardened, nineteen-year-old muscles. He stumbled a little as he struck the earth but caught himself before he fell.

There he was, standing on the sound, hard Vermont gravel, instead of the southern mud where, it seemed to him, he had been slogging ever since he had left home. The train rumbled on. The twilight was deepening. Through it he caught, for the first time, the home smells, the resinous fragrance from the Wyman pines across the tracks, the hemlock odors from the lot to his left as he walked forward, carrying his little bag. On his right was the swamp. Springtime had wakened the frogs—the peepers were out, shrilling in their high, sweet treble as he went by.

When speaking of this, he never told me that he shed some tears there, but I always did at that point when I heard the story.

Just beyond the swamp, the Brick Farm House comes into view. To his surprise, it was all dark. Not a candle lighted in it. Wondering a little, but thinking that perhaps they were at the back of the house, he stepped forward faster and faster. On the old bridge over the Battenkill, he stopped a moment and leaned on the railing to look down at the black water below and to listen to the faint stealthy rustle the river makes where the water is deep. This hail been one of his favorite swimming holes. He lifted his head and looked around him, divining the darkness of the mountains against the darkening sky. He used to say, “Not a light was to be seen. Not a sound. How black, and grand, and lonely it looked.”

The little girl listening saw and heard more vividly than ever in her life the raucous, loud, never-silenced, swearing and shouting of men’s voices, and the incessant rumbling of artillery caisson wheels and army wagons—saw the smoky flames from bivouac fires which had always glared around the Vermont farm boy in his war years.

He turned into the patli that led up to the farm house. A dog lay on the porch—yes, just like Ulysses’ dog, only Sandy didn’t think of that, I suppose. And like Ulysses’ dog when he heard the familiar step and the familiar voice, he raised himself up on his lorepaws and thumped his tail on the porch floor. At this point there was a knot in the throat of the listening little girl.

But when Sandy opened the door, for of course that Vermont door was not locked—not a soul there. He was in the kitchen, the heart of the home life, ft smelled of burning birch bark, of soap, of creosote in the chimney, of geraniums on the window sill, of cookies in the pantry.

“No, it is not possible,” he said to himself. “This must be a dream.” He would wake in a moment, he thought, and smell burnt gunpowder and men sweating in heavy wool uniforms. These were dream smells.

Sandy couldn’t imagine where everybody had gone. This was a very different home-coming from what he had imagined. He walked around, calling. No one answered. Then he thought he would go on up the road to the barn. After all, the burn was his particular workshop, for he took care of the cows.

He left his flat little bag in the living room of the farmhouse and walked up the road. The barn was black, of course. Feeling more than ever that he was sleepwalking, he lifted the heavy wooden latch and let himself into the warm blackness, filled with barn odors. The fragrance of hay, the pungent living odor of well-kept cows. But without as much smell of manure as he remembered. He could hear the cows munching in the darkness and moving around a little, so he knew that the barn was still full of life. He wondered if the lantern hung on its usual peg. He felt his way along the barn wall until he came to the peg. Yes, there the lantern was. Of course. Why should it be changed? Nothing was ever changed. He lighted the candle which stood inside it, hung it back on the peg, and looked around him.

How clean the barn was! He did not know that the entire farm family had turned out to clean it and to brush the cows down, as part of his welcome home. But, as he looked, he thought, “I haven’t seen a hospital all during the war as clean as this barn.” The cows munching away on their hay, turning their eyes shining in the light of the candle, looked at him without surprise.

He took off his soldier’s cap with its hard visor, loosened his military tunic, and drew a long, deep breath. He must be dreaming.

The cows stood still in their places but on the other side of the barn a shadow moved. A gray cat came boldly across the floor. A young cat. But Sandy thought, “Must be one of Old Fighter’s kittens. Those black markings are the same.” The cat came up to him, rubbing against his leg and waving his tail. To Sandy he spoke familiar language. “He’s asking for some milk,” he thought, the dream-like feeling deepening. “I’m probably sound asleep back in camp,” he thought.

But he stooped down and stroked the furry back which arched itself under his hand. “All right, kitty,” he said aloud, “we’ll get some milk.” The three-legged stool stood where it always had, a milking pail near it. He drew the stool up to the nearest cow and began to milk.

He dug his head into the cow’s warm, hairy flank, his fingers closed around the yielding, soft, firm tissue of the teats. The streams of milk began to thrum down into the pail. His hands, his big, strong soldier’s hands, hardened by carrying arms, seemed scarcely under his control, seemed to act of themselves as they began masterfully to press the teats with the familiar gesture he was proud of doing well. Now it seemed to him he had not been away at all. It was everything that had passed that was the dream—the nightmare.

During this time, the farm family had arrived at the unlighted Sunderland way station and sat in the wagon waiting for the train to stop. But it did not stop. The train rattled its noisy way past without even slowing down.

Well, the people in the farm wagon thought, Sandy must somehow have missed the train. Or perhaps a mistake had been made by the person who had telegraphed them. Disappointed, and a little anxious for tear something had happened to the boy, they turned the horses’ heads and plodded back to the farm. As they came down the road near the farmhouse, to their surprise, they saw a light in the cow barn. Who in the world could that be? It did not occur to them that it might be Sandy. He could not possibly have come in from the other direction. Uncle Niram said they’d better drive on down to the farm, change from their best clothes to their everyday ones, while he would walk back up to the barn to see who was there.

As he approached, the natural idea came to his mind that a neighbor had been going by, had heard, perhaps, a cow in distress and had gone in to help her. Then in his turn, he lifted the big wooden latch, opened the door and stepped in.

There sat a man in a blue uniform, on the milk stool, leaning his head against the cow’s flank while the streams of milk drummed into the pail, watched by a waiting cat. As Uncle Niram’s old eyes grew used to the dim light of the candle in the lantern, he could see who the man was. It was Sandy. His boy, come back alive from the furnace.

Sandy had heard the door open and felt the breath of fresh air on his cheek. Just as the old dog on the porch had recognized him in the dark, he knew who it was who had come in. But he did not turn his head. Uncle Niram could see, in the dim light, that the tears started from under his downcast lids and ran down his thin, young cheeks in a glistening stream. Uncle Niram’s knees bent a little under him and he leaned back against the barn wall. There was a silence.

It was no dream. The war was over.

“What did you do, Uncle Niram?” asked the little girl.

“Oh, I just cried too,” said Uncle Niram.

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