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I had in my regiment a little bugler named Willie Holt. He was too weak for his job, but he was born in the regiment, and we had to make the best of it. His father had been killed in action, and his mother had died six months later.
Several acts of insubordination had been brought to my notice, and I determined to make an example of the very next offense by having the culprit whipped.
One morning it was reported that during the night the targets had been thrown down and mutilated. On investigation the deed was traced to a man or men in the very tent where Willie Holt was billeted. All of them were instantly put under arrest, to be tried by court-martial. In vain I appealed to the men to produce the culprit.
At last I said, “If any of you who slept in tent 4 last night will come forward and take his punishment like a man, the rest will get off free. But if not, there remains no alternative but to punish you all—each man in turn to receive ten strokes of the cat.”
For a couple of minutes dead silence followed. Then from the middle of the prisoners, where his small form had been completely hidden, Willie Holt came forward.
He came to within a couple of yards of where I sat. His face was very pale, a fixed intensity of purpose stamped on every line of it.
“Colonel,” he said, “you have given your word that if anyone of those who slept in tent 4 last night comes forward to take his punishment, the rest will get off scot-free. I am ready, sir; please may I take it now?”
For a moment I was speechless, completely taken by surprise. Then in fury and disgust I turned on the other men.
“Is there no man among you worthy of the name? Are you all cowards enough to let this boy suffer for your sins?” But they stood waiting, sullenly and silently.
Never in all my life have I found myself in so painful a situation. I knew my word must stand, and the boy knew it too. Sick at heart, I gave the order, and he was led away for punishment.
Bravely he stood, with back bared, as one— two—three—strokes descended. At the fourth a faint moan escaped his white lips, and before the fifth fell, a cry burst from the group of prisoners who had been forced to witness the scene. With one bound, Jim Sykes, the black sheep of the regiment, seized the cat and with choking, gasping utterances he shouted, “Stop it, Colonel, stop it and tie me up instead. He didn’t do it; I did,” and with convulsed and anguished face he flung his arms around the boy.
Fainting and almost speechless, Willie lifted his eyes to the man’s face and smiled—such a smile.
“No, Jim,” he whispered, “you are safe now; the Colonel’s word will stand.” His head fell forward—he had fainted.
The next day, as I was making for the hospital tent where the boy lay, I met the doctor.
“How is the boy?” I asked.
“Sinking, Colonel,” he said quietly.
“What!” I exclaimed, horrified beyond words.
“Yes, the shock of yesterday was too much for him.”
The dying boy lay propped up on the pillows, and half-kneeling, half-crouching at his side was Jim Sykes. The change in Willie’s face startled me; it was deathly white, but his big eyes were shining with a wonderful light. He was talking earnestly, but neither of them saw me.
At that moment the kneeling man lifted his head, and I saw drops of sweat on his forehead as he muttered brokenly, “Why did ye do it, lad? Why did ye do it?”
“Because I wanted to take it for you, Jim,” Willie’s weak voice answered quietly. “I thought that if I did, it might help you to understand a little bit why Christ died for you.”
“Christ has naught to do with such as me, lad. I’m one of the bad ’uns.”
“But He died to save bad ones—just them. He says, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17), and, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’ (Isaiah 1:18). Dear Jim,” the earnest voice pleaded patiently, “shall the Lord have died in vain? He has poured out His precious lifeblood for you. He is knocking at the door of your heart; won’t you let Him in?”
The boy’s voice was failing him, but he laid his hand gently on the man’s bowed head, as he sang:
Just as I am without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me;
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God—I come.
His singing thrilled the heart of every man who heard it. Then gradually the weak arm dropped, the light faded from the shining eyes, and Willie was with Christ.
“God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The Lord Jesus died for you. Have you accepted Him as your Saviour?