Where his number had once been five and twenty, the soldier now awoke to find the spot beside him empty, and his rank now the lowest among his brethren.
As all were in their box when the unipedal soldier first went missing, they initially believed the snuffbox goblin’s story that it must have been the wind that moved him to the windowsill, and onward to further misadventures. Adventures unknown to the soldiers until their wounded comrade returned days later, smelling of the sea and carried by the flustered house cook.
The little boy whose birthday had brought the soldiers to their current station had left them out on the table the night before their compatriot returned, finally giving them a chance to play along with the other toys. The chime of midnight again caused the snuffbox to pop open, and gave the twenty-fourth soldier his first view of the goblin. There was something he didn’t like in the way the goblin stared at the pretty paper castle, or the dainty dancer inside it.
While all the other toys frolicked and enjoyed the wee hours, the twenty-fourth soldier stood silent guard, keeping his eye on the suspicious jack in the box. And when the twenty-fifth member of the platoon returned, and the soldier saw the way his comrade admired the ballerina, he began to suspect that the wind had been a mere excuse.
The goblin’s next move happened too quickly for the soldier to react. The neighbor boy tossed the one-legged figure into the furnace in a fraction of a second, the paper dancer blew in after, and the fire made short work of both. Frozen in place with fear, the soldier could swear he heard manic laughter coming from inside the snuffbox.
None of the other three and twenty had seen the incident, but the soldier knew he would never forget it. When the platoon was put away in its box for the night, he could focus only on the now-permanent empty slot to his left.
Any doubts his fellow troops might have had were erased the following day, when they saw what the maid found in the ashes. Any doubts of his own as to the guilty party fled when he saw the wry smile on the face of the goblin, who pushed up the top of the snuffbox with his head to steal a glance. Nobody else saw it-—they were too busy lamenting the sight of the little tin heart and the seared tinsel rose—but the twenty-fourth soldier noticed.
That night, once he was certain no one would hear, he told the other tin soldiers what he had seen. Their fraternal bond worthy of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, they listened solemnly to the plan he was beginning to hatch…
When the chime struck midnight the next evening, the snuffbox didn’t open. The goblin banged against it as hard as he could, but the jack-in-the-box crank didn’t move, and he found the latch atop the container equally stuck.
Though the goblin tried to command them through the walls of his snuffbox, none of the toys would help him, as the soldiers had spread word of his misdeeds. They simply stood steadfast as the tin platoon avenged its fallen member.
Four and twenty soldiers had carefully wrapped the tinsel ribbon around the crank, over and over, pulling it taut until it secured the gear in place. When done, they lifted the twenty-fourth soldier to the top of the snuffbox, where his two good legs wedged the little tin heart into the gap of the latch.
In the last step of its justice, the platoon pushed the box to a small hiding place in a dark corner of the nursery, where none of the children would find and open it. There it remained until the goblin gave up, and spent the rest of his days in silence, while the tin heart and the tinsel rose stood firm as ever.
Jeff Fleischer’s fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post, So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Deep South Magazine, East Bay Review, and Steam Ticket.