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Liberty
Feb. 19, 1938, pp 26-30

Men Must Fight

by Howard Fast

CARSON waited for me, with Jimmy Murphy. I guess if it had been only Carson alone I could have licked him. I was good and beaten, and they told what would happen if I came up a Yank street again. I told Carson where all the Yanks could go.
It wasn't very nice to live in Maryland then - and not be a Yank.
I was coming home when the tall man stopped me. He was so tall and ugly, I just stood and looked at him. He was leaning up against the end of our picket fence, and he wanted to know what street it was.
"Franklin Street," I told him, "and you sound to me like a damned Yank."
"You're kind of small to swear," he said. He smiled, and that made me want to like him; only when he didn't smile his face wasn't much to look at.
"I don't swear but for Yanks."
"I'm a Yank, I guess," he said, drawling, and bending as if he didn't want to speak to me from a distance. It was getting toward night now, a little cold. He didn't have but an old coat, and he looked like he didn't ever get enough to eat.
"You hungry?" I asked him.
"Kind of hungry," he nodded, as if he was just remembering about eating.
"All right," I said. I took him around to the back door, and then called for mother. Meanwhile, the man was asking me all kinds of questions about why I wasn't a Yank.
"A Yank wouldn't feed you," I said. Then mother came to the door, and she looked a little disappointed, the way she always does when I bring tramps around.
Mother's beautiful. Maybe it was the way the man looked at her that made her come back with cold chicken and bread.
"He's just a Yank," I told mother.
"You were fighting again," she said.
The man was eating now, watching us.
"You don't ever have to fight," mother said.
I said, looking sidewise at the Yank: "Men got to fight. My pa ain't no fool."
Then mother went inside, and I waited. When the tall man gave me his plate, he held out his hand.
"I don't - with a Yank," I said.
His hand just seemed to hang there, a big bony hand and then he dropped it, and something in his face made me feel worse than I had felt all day, even with being beaten. He stood up and walked away, slowly.
I went inside, hating, and I knew it was the tall man made me hate. I knew he was just a tramp and I shouldn't care, but I felt that way just the same. I went into the parlor, and I sat there thinking about different things; about how I would like to be with pa, not hanging around here. I didn't want to think too much about pa, so when I heard people speaking in the kitchen I went in there.
Mother was there, with Lieutenant Curry, the two of them leaning up against the old iron sink and talking. They didn't see me at first.
He was a Yankee, Lieutenant Curry, stationed out in North Meadow for weeks now. I never knew where he had met mother, but I guess he liked her a whole lot, he was at our house so often. I didn't speak to her a great deal about that, except once; then I said, if pa came back, he'd kill Curry.
Now the lieutenant was holding her hand, whispering. I just stood there. I didn't like Curry; but that wasn't easy, because he was the kind of man you want to like.
Curry said: "We're moving on. So can't I tell you now?"
"I can't listen," mother said.
"Because of him - because he turned you against everything that's good and decent. Why'd he go down there to them - and leave you with a kid? Why are they making this whole rotten war?"
Mother was shaking her head. Right then I thought I would kill Curry; I thought it was the only thing to do.
"You can't answer me. Three years - and no word, nothing. I love you, at least." "Please," mother begged him.
I was watching mother, knowing how a man could love her, with all her light hair and blue eyes. But I was thinking that I would kill Curry.
Then he took her hand, swung her around, and I saw that he was going to kiss her. I walked into the room with my hands in my pockets, whistling. Curry started.
"You here?" I said.
"Hello, Ronny," he nodded, trying to make out that everything was all right. He bent over, patted my head.
Mother was just staring at me, and I think she knew I had heard more than I let on. I remember the way she was then, in the kitchen, wearing a blue dress that was all puffed out at the skirt, her face full of lovely lights from the lamp over the stove. But she was frightened, and I guess it was something in my face that frightened her; I guess that all at once I was a lot older.
"Ronny," she whispered- "you gave me a start."
"I guess I'll be going," Lieutenant Curry said.
I told him: "When you come back, if you come back, I'll kill you."
He tried to laugh that off and pat me on the head; but I pulled away from him. "Get out!" I said.
"Ronny-".
But he walked out of the room, mother after him, and then I heard him saying, "Tonight," and mother said, "No - please-"
I stood there, waiting for mother to come back. Inside I was all weak, but I tried not to show it.

WHEN mother came back into the kitchen, she just sat down and looked at me, seeming terribly tired. Then she began to prepare supper.
"I don't feel hungry," I said.
She stopped, turned to me. "You don't believe in me any more, do you?"
"I'm no Yank," I said. "When my father comes back-"
"Can't you forget this war? You're only a baby, Ronny, and it's eating into your blood and soul."
"I'm not a baby," I told her. "Men got to fight."
She said: "It's taken everything from me - you too."
"I saw you here - before I came in."
She kept shaking her head. I had to walk out, because I knew that if I stayed there I'd break all over.
Our house was one of the big old ones. It was red brick with a white porch. Now it was quite dark. I sat down on the porch and tried to think about what I would do. I guess I sat there for a long time, just thinking and hating. It was a nice evening, the kind of an evening that's full of autumn smells. Across the fields I could see the Union camp lights. A lot of Yank soldiers came there to train, and then marched on South.
I was sitting there when the man I met on my way home came back up the street. You couldn't miss him, he was so big and tall and skinny - and he had a shambling way of walking. He came on until he was opposite the gate, and then he glanced at me. I nodded at him. Then he turned in and came up to the porch.
"Hello," I said.
He said: "Hello, Johnny Reb."
I couldn't be angry at him; he had a way of talking, and when he grinned, it was all over his face.
"You won't get nothing to eat now," I told him.
He sat down next to me, pulling up his long legs and winding his arms around his knees. Turning his head, he said to me: "Why'd you feed me, sonny? I'm a Yank."
"I guess I'm soft," I said.
"Or tired of war?" he asked softly.
"Hope it lasts till I'm old enough," I said.
He put his arm around me. "Don't hate-"
"You got to."
"You gave me bread," he said, but it didn't seem like he was talking to me, "and meat. Shall we be enemies?"
I didn't answer.
"What's your name, Reb?"
I said: "Mother wouldn't like me talking to tramps."
"I think your mother's kind of grand. Your father?"
"Pa's with Lee. My name's Ronny."
"Mine's Abe," he said. Then he uncoiled himself slowly, stood up, and held out his big bony hand. I took it this time. I stood watching him until he had disappeared down the street. I was hating myself because I had talked that way to a Yank tramp.
I went in, and mother was in the parlor, just sitting. I went to her, and she put her hand on my shoulder.
"Believe me, Ronny," she said, and then she began to cry. "I want your father. Don't you see how I want him?"
"He'll be back," I said.
"No - he won't."
"You got Curry," I said, and then I could have killed myself for saying that. Mother was staring-
I heard some one at the back door.
"I'll go," mother whispered.
I stood there after she went.

THEN I went upstairs. I went up thinking about Curry and the tall man and war - and I was twelve and it would be five years before I could go to war. And if I killed Lieutenant Curry, what would they do to me?
There was an old rifle musket in father's room. I went in and took it down from its rack. It was heavy for me. I knew what I was going to do; I knew it was a terrible thing. But I kept on telling myself that it was war - and men must fight.
I loaded the musket. I was awfully afraid; but I knew I would have to go through with what I'd started. When I went downstairs I didn't make any noise, just hugging the musket. Mother was in the kitchen. I saw from the door that a man was holding her in his arms.
Then he must have heard me, because he stepped away. He wore a Federal uniform, and I was half crazy when I flung the musket up and fired. Then I saw it was father!
I dropped the musket. I remember that mother screamed. And then I just stood there and wondered how I had come to kill my father, and about the smoke coming up from the barrel of the musket.
He was looking at me. He went down on one knee. and then lay out on the floor; but he kept looking from me to mother. Mother was next to him then - holding his head in her arms.
I guess I was crying. I went over to him, and he said: "Hello - Ronny."
I managed: "Hello, pa."
"Why - why?" mother whispered.
"I thought-"
Pa managed to smile. "You thought - a Yank?" He had hold of my hand, squeezing it, the way he used to. "If I was a Yank, Ronny - you'd like to take my head off with that gun-"
"Yeah-"
Then he closed his eyes. Mother was shaking her head, staring at me. And when I turned around and saw Lieutenant Curry at the door, that didn't seem unusual either; and I knew that I didn't hate him, the way I had hated him before. He seemed big, close, a lot like pa.
He came over. "Who is he?" he said.
Mother said: "Can't you see - he's shot?"
"He's my father," I said.

LIEUTENANT CURRY picked father up. Then I could see how thin and tired-looking father was, hardly any more than skin and bones. Curry walked into the parlor with him, laid him down on the couch. Mother followed him without seeming to understand what was going on. I followed, too.
"He's not dead?" mother whispered.
The lieutenant didn't answer. He was opening father's tunic. It hurt me to look at the wound in his side, but I had to look.
"Get some linen," Curry said.
When mother came back with it, he made a pad over the wound. Then it didn't bleed. There were some papers that had fallen out of father's tunic; now Curry picked them up and looked at them. Mother was kneeling next to father, caressing his face. I was standing there, all afraid inside and not able to speak. I wanted to tell mother what I had meant to do, but I couldn't speak.
"Why don't you get a doctor?" mother said. "Can't you see how hurt he is?"
Lieutenant Curry was reading the papers he had taken from father. His face was funny, all drawn and white. Without looking up, he said:
"I thought he was with Lee - in the South?"
"What does that matter? He's hurt so," mother pleaded. "Can't you see how hurt he is?"
"It might be better - he's a spy. You knew that."
"No-" Mother just shook her head. Then she stood up, straight and facing the lieutenant.
"You knew," Curry said. He was holding out the papers." He's wearing the Federal uniform."
I could see that something was coming over mother. When she spoke, her voice was very even, like nothing had happened at all. She said: "You told me that if you loved a woman-"
"This is war."
"And a man is dying. God, what cowards you are!"
"But all the time you knew-"
"No, I didn't. I never told you I loved you. He's my husband." Mother was beautiful then; I guess I won't ever forget how beautiful she was. Her eyes were burning, and she made me feel small and useless but terribly proud. I think I understood then what men were compared to a woman like her.
"I'll go for a doctor," Lieutenant Curry said.
"And tell them?"
"I have to."
Then he walked out. I followed him. I was beginning to understand what it all meant. If pa was a spy-
"You go back," Lieutenant Curry told me.
I said to him: "You can go to hell sir." I wasn't proud any more, only old all of a sudden. And understanding; just as if for the first time I knew what it meant for a country to be divided and destroying itself. I knew I wouldn't love war.
We were on the veranda then, just facing each other; and if he was a lot bigger than I was, it didn't make so much difference. He stared at me, then dropped his head. We walked in the direction of the soldiers' camp.

IT was the kind of night that you find in Maryland sometimes, and not often anywhere else - cool, with the smell of flowers and green things in the air. It made me feel we were walking toward something and hoping for something, but I knew there wasn't much to hope for.
Once Lieutenant Curry said: "Why'd he come back, the poor fool?"
I knew, but I didn't answer. I said: "I shot him - but I thought he was you."
Then we went on, silent, until we reached the camp. A sentry challenged us, but Curry said something and we went through. I had been to the camp once or twice, not too often because they were Yanks. Now, at night, it made a strange picture: hundreds of white tents popping out of the earth, fires glowing, and men around them.
We walked on between the fires until we came to an open pavilion tent. A lot of soldiers called after me: "Hey, kid, get to bed." But I didn't pay any attention to them.
We stopped at the big tent, and Lieutenant Curry went ahead to where some bearded men were sitting around a table. There was a lantern hanging over the table, insects beating themselves into the light. And there were papers and maps spread out over the table.
I hung back in the shadow. Curry went up, saluted one of the bearded men, and began to speak in low tones. I couldn't hear much of what he was saying, but I saw him point to me once. Then he opened some of the papers he had taken from father.
I was thinking, He is a coward. And then I understood. How much I understood right then! I was crying softly.
One of the men at the table stood up, unwound himself. He was a good deal taller than the others. First I couldn't believe it; then I saw that he was the same tramp I fed that evening. There was no missing his face, it was so ugly and long. The only reason I hadn't recognized him at first was because he wore spectacles now - and he had an old shawl thrown over his coat. He took off the spectacles and placed them carefully in his breast pocket. Then he walked over to me.
I stood there with my head down; I didn't want him to see that I was crying.
"Your father, Johnny Reb?" he asked gently, bending down to me.
"I shot him-" I managed. I don't know why I told him that; I just had to tell him. I poured the story out. "I didn't know, sir."
"You call me Abe," he said.
"All right."
"You don't call a Yankee 'sir.' Is he hurt bad?"
"I guess he is. He needs a doctor. I guess I was afraid to stay with mother."
He said: "We're not afraid, none of us - just men."
Then he went back to the table, said something I couldn't hear. A short stocky man rose and banged with his fist on the table.
"Gently - gently," the tall man said.
Lieutenant Curry went off then with another man - a doctor, I guess, because he carried a small black bag. I waited there; then the tall man came over to me and took my hand.
"We'll go together," he said.
I said: "You don't understand, because my father's a spy. They'll kill him anyway."
"Sometimes," he said, "you hate all men. You won't-"
Then we walked on, after Lieutenant Curry and the doctor. He didn't say anything more to me, and I didn't feel much like talking. I was just tired, terribly tired, and my head was numb inside. I guess I didn't care, because I didn't put a lot in this man with the old clothes.
We came home and went into the house. The doctor was already looking at father's wound. Lieutenant Curry stood at one side, mother opposite him. I slipped into a chair. The tall man stood next to the door, and I don't think mother noticed him at all.
I didn't want to watch the doctor now, but I had to. I guess I can't make you understand how I had to. I saw that Abe was glancing at me, but I don't think mother noticed me except once. Then she said:
"Go upstairs, Ronny."
"Let him stay." the tall man said, so softly that his voice was like running water.
That was the first time she noticed him. She turned to him, and he smiled. I don't suppose any one else could have smiled like that.
Then we remained there, not saying anything, until the doctor had finished. I won't forget that. There was a lamp burning on the table behind the sofa. It threw the light on father's thin, worn figure, and it made a black silhouette out of the doctor. Lieutenant Curry kept his eyes on mother. I wonder if you know what it is to be sorry for a man; because then I wasn't sorry for mother or pa but for the lieutenant. I think the tall man understood; you could almost tell what he was thinking from his face.
When the doctor finished he said to mother: "You know, it's not so much the wound - he's just worn out, been through hell. He needs rest."
"And he'll live?" mother whispered.
"He'll live," the doctor said. Then he went out. But Lieutenant Curry stayed there, just standing and looking at mother.
"Why don't you go?" she asked him. She was in between tears and something else, but holding herself back.
All I could think was that pa was alive.
"I have to tell you," Lieutenant Curry said. "I have to tell you that I gave him up."
"Yes - I knew."
"You hate me?"
"No - I don't hate you. I don't hate."
"I love you," Lieutenant Curry said. "Do you know how I love you? It's not him I'm killing, but me. Why don't you hate me?"
"I can't," mother whispered.
"But you love him?"
"I love him," mother said.
Curry said: "Some day - men will know about war."
They seemed lost in each other, pitifully lost, and then I knew I was older than either of them. I turned to the tall man, and I think that he knew it too. He had gone over to the side of the room, where there was a desk. He took a piece of paper, wrote a few words on it, and then handed it to me.
We went to the door together, and then he glanced again at Lieutenant Curry and at mother. Then he bent down to me, and something made me think he was crying. He wasn't - but his face was.
"Good-by, Johnny Reb," he said.
I said: "Good-by, Abe."
Then, when he went, I looked at the paper. It had father's name on it, and then: "Pardoned - by order of A. Lincoln."
I went over and gave it to mother. Then I left them alone.

THE END



HOWARD FAST is in his early twenties and has written since he was seventeen. Most of his life has been divided between his native New York City and upstate Greene County. He has studied drawing at the National Academy and has been a shipping clerk, a lumberman, and a librarian.

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