H. Melvin James
"Distant Lantern This Way Comes" A short story by H. Melvin James.
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
This is a fictitious tale based on true events.
During World War I, a homestead couple of the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run had a son, an only child. They were middle aged when they had their only child and unlikely to bear another. When the United States joined the war, their son was at the age to be sacrificed to combat.
Their lonely homestead was isolated at the dead end of a county dirt-road. In evenings they would sit on their porch to rest and gaze. If they saw any wagon, buggy, or motor carriage coming down the road, they knew someone was coming just to see them, sadly a rare event for the lonely couple.
One late evening they saw a lantern flickering far down the road. The light danced and bobbled the way a lantern flickers as it swings on a hook on the side of a wagon, a wagon joggling on a rough road. Their spirits soared. Other soldiers were returning home from the horrible war. They thought their son, their only child, was finally coming home to them. He had written of the horrors of the war, the muddy trenches, the poisonous gas, the whistling bombs and tormenting cannon fire, the hundreds of lives lost every day to gain a few yards from one line of trenches to the next, and then to retreat again.
As they watched their hopes grew to exhilaration. The flickering lamp-glow was slowly growing a little larger as it came ever more near. They imagined they could hear the wagon wheels jolt against the rough road and the horses hooves clop against the hard earth. They were speechless and entranced. Time was not discernable. They feared they were only seeing a distant neighbor's light. But how could it gradually move along the road toward them?
They sat and watched until their old joints grew weary and their eyes blurred and closed, to allow them to slumber in their rocking chairs. In the pitch dark of the night one of them woke and then awakened the other. The light had disappeared. They dismissed the sighting as some ordinary circumstance, about which they might never know.
The next day their seldom seen rural postman brought them a letter from their son. He wrote that he expected to be coming home soon. He did not know why he should be coming home soon but he had a vivid dream about a familiar neighboring farmer giving him a ride home from the train station, late in the evening, along side the farmer on his buckboard wagon, on his way home from buying supplies in town.
The farm couple spent the day planning for Thanksgiving dinner, selecting a turkey to fatten up with extra rations for the next three weeks, taking stock of canned goods, dry goods, and making a list of what they needed to buy in town. It was early November 1918, but not too early to plan a magnificent dinner for giving thanks for their son's return home.
But late that evening the lonely farmstead couple received another visitor. A telegram told them of their son's death on the war front in northern France. Their son was buried in a cemetery for American soldiers in northern France. But he may have come home that night, for one last time, one last look around, and one unheard last goodbye. The neighbor of their son's dream had indeed traveled to town that day and traveled home late in the evening. He said he fell asleep as the horses slowly pulled the wagon home, they knew the route. But when he awoke it was late. The horses had missed the turn at the intersecting road and were headed toward the couple's homestead. Yes, he had a lantern hanging from his wagon. He turned the wagon around and went to his home. But he did not tell the grieving couple, as he slept on the wagon he dreamt. He dreamt their son was at the train station and he was taking him to his home.