The moon shone brightly over the forest as he stumbled along. His fingers clenched a rifle and sweat dripped from his forehead as he tried to find his way. Looking back over his shoulder he could see the eerie, flickering light of a fire burning. Wrenching his eyes from the scene he stared ahead, his vision blurred with the tears that ran down his face. As the scenes of the past few hours replayed in his mind, he sank down exhausted to the ground. How could they have done something so brutal? Suddenly, he saw something, someone, ahead of him. He froze, not daring to breathe. Slowly he pulled his musket in front of him and sighted down the barrel. These men would destroy his family, would they? He would make sure that this one never fired another gun. Slowly he wrapped his finger around the trigger. He must not miss. He must not! This man deserved what was coming to him. For just an instant he hesitated. Then, a steely look came into his eyes and, squaring his shoulders, he pulled the trigger.
2 years later…
“Everyone up! On the double!” The command was given in a harsh, stern voice. Garth Miller groaned and opened his eyes, squinting in the bright morning sun. Sitting up he began buttoning his threadbare uniform. Where had he put his boots? He fumbled around his pallet. There they were. Not much to put one’s feet into; he would almost rather go barefoot. Slowly he filed into the long line of grey-clad men. They were in not much better shape than him. The war had taken its toll on everyone.
Garth felt a weight fall on his chest, cold and hard. He closed his eyes trying to block out the memories; but, they reappeared even more vividly. Shaking himself he brushed the feeling aside and tried to focus on the view in front of him. “Just forget it,” Garth tried to reason. “It happened two years ago. There’s nothing you can do about it now anyway.” He riveted his gaze to the front of the column of men listening for the orders. And then, marching marching marching. The hours seemed to blur together as the day wore on. His blistered feet ached and his back was drenched in sweat.
“Halt!” came the sharp command. Garth’s legs quivered and he felt nauseous. He could see the blue coats of the enemy in front of him. The orders flew fast and hard. Smoke and dust swirled around as the cannons roared and the bullets whistled by. Blood. So much blood! His hands moved mechanically up and down ramming in the shot. Any moment he expected a bullet to enter his body and end his meaningless life once and for all. What was the point of living? He was a murderer, wasn’t he? Time and again he had tried to push the words aside. Yet, deep in his heart he knew that it was true. The sun rose in the sky and beat down mercilessly on the two armies as they struggled on, North and South, brothers and relatives, all doing their best to end the others’ lives. And then the retreat was sounded. The smoke cleared and Garth stumbled back to camp. Another battle had ended.
Sitting down by the fire, he began trying to break up some pieces of hard biscuit into edible-sized bits.
“Evening, Garth. Fighting with the hardtack again? Ain’t ya had enough with one battle today?” Garth looked up and a small smile came on his face.
“What’s the matter with you anyhow? You’ve been a bit glum these past few days.”
Garth winced unintentionally. “What makes you say that? I’m no different than usual.”
“Now, don’t you lie to your friend. I can see there’s something eatin’ away at you. Fess up now, what is it?” Jerry smiled and gave his friend a little shove.
“Have you ever done something wrong to another human being?” Garth began quietly, “Something that, no matter how much ya wanted to, you could never take back?” He looked away. “If there is a God in heaven, I know for sure that He won’t want me anywhere near Him when the trumpet sounds. I’ve had a guilty conscience for too long.”
“Oh, so that’s it. Well, I’ll tell ya what I think. I’m not much good with religion, but here’s mine. When I die, there’s only one place I’m goin’. And that’s in the ground. ‘Course we should all try and do our best; but, when we mess up some, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it. So what did you do anyway? Rob the cook? Sure didn’t get much for your troubles did ya,” Jerry chuckled
Garth managed a weak grin. “Think I’ll turn in now. Night, Jerry” He walked away, his heart heavy. “Maybe Jerry is right, maybe there is no real meaning to life after all.”
That night Garth’s dreams were once again filled with memories… Fragments of things long ago flitted in disorder through his mind. His mother dying of typhoid. He and his father attempting to make it on their own. A drunken party. Fire, smoke, a gunshot. Where was his rifle? The forest was so cold! The darkness seemed to surround him in a swirling cloud of blackness. There was someone in front of him. His hands shook “… would make sure this one never shot another gun…” Cold steel. His finger closed around the trigger. There was a puff of smoke…
With a start, Garth sat up. He was pouring in sweat. How could he rid himself of this horrible guilt? Would it continue to haunt him forever?
Another day of fighting wore on. There seemed to be no end to the continual routine of marching, fighting, setting up camp, and fighting again. The smoke and the shouting filled his ears until it seemed that he would never hear anything else.
BOOM! A shell exploded beside him. Garth felt himself being thrown high in the air. There was a searing pain in his leg, then everything went black.
When Garth regained consciousness he found himself lying on the ground, his right leg covered in blood if his leg was even still there. All around him, men lay dead and dying on the battlefield. “So this is how it’s going to end,” he thought, “a slow, painful death alone on the battlefront. No one caring whether I live or not.
Garth looked up to see the muzzle of a Union pistol pointed at his head. He stared into the other man’s eyes for a moment, then sank to the ground with a groan. “I can’t die now, I’m not ready.” He felt something touch his leg. Opening his eyes, he saw that the man had dropped his pistol and was making a tourniquet for him from his own shirt.
“Why are ya doing this?” Garth asked the other man in amazement.
With a weary smile he replied, “I’ve killed enough people today in battle without killing another in cold blood.”
“Cold blood.” Garth shuddered.
“I am a Christian, you see,” he continued, “my Lord gave His own life to forgive my sins; how could I not forgive others?”
Garth took a deep breath, the weight of his sin pressing in on him. He needed to tell someone.
“Look here, what’s your name?”
“Look, Joe, I don’t know how long I’ve got to live. There’s not a soul out there to morn my death. I’ve got something on my chest that I don’t want to carry to the grave.”
Garth looked away. “About two years ago, my mother died of typhoid. My father was devastated. He did his best to take care of me, but little by little, he fell into bad company. One night, he was out at a drunken party with some friends. He started talking about the war and I guess he called the Union some filthy names. My father was not what you’d call a bad man. He’d just fallen on hard times. Later that night, some men from the tavern came to our house. They were also pretty drunk, I guess. I had been out hunting, but I saw them shouting something about a dirty rebel and come bursting into our house. There was a scuffle and my dad was shot. They set fire to the house and watched it burn to the ground. I couldn’t even think anymore I was so torn with grief. As I ran for my life through the woods, I saw a man running towards the fire holding a rifle. Out of suspicion and revenge, I got down on my knees, and… I shot him. This experience has haunted me for two years. I tried to do the right thing afterward by joining the army. I did my best, but still, this guilt hangs over me like a great weight. I bet even God hates me now.”
Joe was silent. He looked at Garth for a long time, his face pale and drawn. Finally, he heaved a ragged sigh.
“You can’t do the right thing, no matter how much you try. Only One can save you. He died for you; gave His life so that you could gain yours. It’s a free gift. You can’t do a thing to earn it. The price was already paid. All you need to do is admit your sins and ask forgiveness.
Tears misted Garth’s eyes. “Guess I never heard it like that before. God would forgive my sin?”
“Yes, he would. And I forgive you too.”
“You?” Garth was confused.
Joe swallowed and looked down.
“The night your father was killed, my brother and I were walking by that same tavern and overheard those men talking. We tried to get there in time to stop them, but it was too late. I started asking the men questions to see if anyone was still alive. Then I heard a gunshot. When I looked back, my brother was dead. I was devastated. But, I knew I had to forgive. Come on, we’d better be going.”
“To the doctor,” Joe said. “We have a lot to talk about.”
In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.