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Authors: Harold Keith

Rifles for Watie (28 page)

BOOK: Rifles for Watie
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Before leaving Fort Scott, Blunt's command had been notified of the defeat of the rebel General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and of the surrender of the rebel port of Vicksburg to General Ulysses S. Grant. In nearby Arkansas, the Union General Prentiss had inflicted an overwhelming defeat upon Confederate troops led by Generals Holmes and Price. Everything looked much brighter for the Union cause.

That night Jeff went on sentry duty again. This time, his beat was in the timber southeast of the fort, where the newly arrived cavalry had camped. He had supposed that General Blunt would prefer to sleep in a bed in one of the commodious rooms in the officers' barracks, but to his surprise, he discovered the general's large brown Sibley tent, its edges raised from the ground for ventilation, pitched in the timber with his command.

After taps were blown, the general's tent was the only one in camp with a light. As Jeff, followed by his dog, walked back and forth past it, he could hear the scratching of the general's pen as Blunt worked busily into the night on his dispatches.

Shortly after the sentries had called one o'clock in the morning, Blunt emerged from the tent. Walking to the fire, he stooped, lifting a small kettle off it. He poured a steaming dark-colored liquid into a small metal cup. Adding sugar which he took from an envelope in his shirt pocket, he raised the cup to his bearded lips as though to drink from it.

Changing his mind, he set the cup on a rock, probably to let it cool. Sniffing, Jeff could not detect the odor of coffee. He figured the drink was hot tea.

The dog was watching the general too, her plumed tail waving slowly in the reflected firelight. Suddenly she trotted over to the rock, thrust her slender nose into the cup, and began to lap up the tea.

With a bellow of irritation, the general rushed to drive her away. At the same time a wild, savage barking came from inside the tent. Apparently Blunt owned a dog, too. But he kept it tied. Dixie, her ears flattened and her tail down, bolted from the scene.

Gaping, Jeff shrank back into the darkness. He hoped the general hadn't seen him. When he finally got to bed at two, he heard raindrops pattering timidly on his tent and then swelling into a steady deluge.

Next morning Blunt's orderly came to Jeff's company headquarters shortly after reveille. He conferred a moment with Clardy, who barked something at a sergeant. The sergeant sloshed down the muddy company street, bellowing, “Private Bussey!”

Jeff was busily digging trenches to divert the rainwater that flowed everywhere. He looked up, leaning on his shovel. “Here, sir.”

“Report immediately to General Blunt.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jeff's face paled beneath its tan. He knew what that summons was for. The general had made inquiries about the dog that had drunk his tea. Everybody in the regiment knew Dixie and to whom she belonged.

Jeff followed the orderly, buttoning his jacket with fumbling fingers. As they marched up to Blunt's tent, Jeff wondered what his punishment would be this time. He didn't want any more of the ditch crew, or the road crew, or the horse-burying crew.

“Wait here,” said the orderly. Pausing a moment to look about him, he whispered behind his hand to Jeff, “An' when you go in, watch out for his bulldog that he keeps tied up. He's mean. If you get in range of him, he'll bite a chunk out of you so big it'll look like a bear chawed you.”

Jeff thanked him and snorted to himself. He'd take his chances with the bulldog. The general was what he feared most. He took off his cap and tried to part his rumpled hair with his fingers.

The orderly came out and held the tent flap open for him.

“General Blunt will see you now.”

Jeff took a long breath and licked his lips nervously. “Yes, sir,” he said and ducked inside.


The Ride of Noah Babbitt

It was dark inside the tent, save for a candle that flickered brightly from the far end, throwing moving shadows on the brown canvas walls. The air was clean and damp, with a slight, pleasant smell of tobacco and pomade. Despite the night's rain, the bottom canvas had been raised six inches. A bayonet stuck into the earthen floor held the candle on its round, upthrust end.

In the weird half light cast by the candle there was a small table covered with maps and papers. And behind the table sat General Blunt. The general was wearing his blue dress coat, but this time the brass buttons at the top were undone, and his white shirt front showed at his open throat. His strong, mustached face was thrown partially in shadow, accentuating its swarthiness. He raised his dark, quizzical eyes.

Jeff saluted. “Sir, the orderly said you wanted to see me.”

Gesturing slowly with one hairy hand, Blunt indicated a campstool. Jeff sat down. This was it. He was on the general's black list. As fast as he worked off his punishment for one officer, he was back in hot water with another. This time he had outdone all his previous efforts. He had incurred the wrath of a general, the commander-in-chief of the entire Kansas department. He swallowed resignedly. Anything but the stump-digging detail or the horse-burying crew.

Something nudged his leg. A large tan and white bulldog, tied by a leather leash to a tentpole, was sniffing at his trousers. Forgetting the orderly's well-meant warning, Jeff reached down automatically, as he did with all dogs, and began to rub the bulldog's ears.

The general grunted, suddenly, “How would you like to be a scout?”

Jeff was so jarred by the unexpected question that he sat speechless. His first thought was of Lee Washbourne and the execution on the drill grounds. Sometimes scouts didn't get back alive.

“General, I don't know anything about it. I'm afraid I wouldn't be any good at it.”

The general looked annoyed. He threw back his massive shoulders. “That's what your captain thinks, too. In fact, he went further and said some harsh things about you and about your attitude. Your record with him is very bad. But I saw you in action at Prairie Grove. I think you'd do all right. That's why I called you in to talk to you.”

“Thank you, sir. But I'm afraid I hadn't better. I haven't had any training for that kind of work. I'd probably mess things up.” Jeff could still hear the fife squeaking the “Death March” and see the lonely, bitter look on Lee Washbourne's face as he stood by the cheap pine coffin just before they shot him.

Blunt scowled and took a long drink from a small tin cup on his table. His deep bass voice seemed to rumble from way down in his black boots.

“Colonel Phillips tells me that he has trouble getting information about the enemy over the river. He says he sends out spies, but they don't come back. I think all his scouts have sold out to the enemy. So I've decided to organize my own. I've got to have information about the enemy and I've got to have it quick.”

Jeff stopped scratching the bulldog and squirmed on the stool. The general didn't seem to be paying any attention to his lack of enthusiasm. He guessed that a soldier should always do what his commander asked, regardless of the risk. Anyhow, this might be far better than the punishment he was expecting. Maybe he ought to look into it a little further.

“Sir, if I became a scout, how would I go about it? How would I get across the river? What would I be expected to do after I got across?”

“Can you swim? Can you ride a horse?”

“Yes, sir.”

Blunt put his cup down and belched delicately. “We will escort your patrol across the river and post a guard there until you return. You will ride behind the enemy lines and try to capture some of his soldiers and bring them back with you. It is imperative that you do bring back enemy prisoners. Try to take at least two or three so we can question them separately and cross-check their stories. Also, keep your ears open for any other information regarding the enemy you might hear.”

“Like what, sir?” Jeff couldn't help noticing that the general was now speaking in the present tense, as though he had already agreed to accept the dangerous mission.

“Like trying to find out if Cooper has any reinforcements coming up from Texas. I want an estimate of all Cooper's forces south of the river, how much artillery he has, the extent of his earthworks, anything you can find out about their supplies, morale, position, names of their most prominent officers. But the main thing is to bring me back some prisoners.”

Jeff nodded uneasily. He'd be lucky if he got back across the river himself. Still, he had joined up to get the war over with quickly as possible. Maybe this would help speed things up.

“The river's up. Cooper has dug rifle pits and posted heavy picket stations at every ford. But we'll get you across some way.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jeff. His skin began to goose-pimple, half in excitement, half in fear. Then a disquieting thought struck him.

“General,” he blurted. “Could I have a new horse? The plug I've got now is a good cavalry horse. But he's so poor his ribs look like bed slats. The rebels have got good horses. They outrun ours every day.”

Blunt nodded, soberly. “That's because the grass has already risen in Texas. Their horses are further along than ours. But you'll get the very best stock we've got. Report at once to Lieutenant Orff. He's in charge.”

The general stood. Jeff stood too, saluting. He turned and left the tent. He was now in the Union scouts.

Three hours later the Union patrol of forty men started. The sky was cloudy. At first they traveled in the timber so the rebels couldn't see them from the opposite shore. Despite his lack of horsemanship, Noah was in the patrol, too, his tall body bouncing up and down as he sat his mount awkwardly, one hand tightly gripping the saddle gullet.

After they had ridden for two hours, they turned southward through the trees, searching for the river. Jeff guessed they would avoid the fords, heavily guarded by the rebels, and try to cross at a deep spot. Soon he could hear the Arkansas gurgling noisily ahead and smell the earthy odor of its brown flood waters. They rode up to its north bank and stopped near a gigantic black walnut tree. The sun broke momentarily through the clouds, lighting up the tip of each dirty brown wave. Heavily swollen by the rains, the stream looked a quarter of a mile wide and was running bank-full. Jeff doubted if they'd ever get across.

Orff, a blond Missourian with a big Roman nose, left a dozen men in the tall grass on the Union side of the water, Noah among them. He sat down, pulled off his boats, and tied them on his saddle. Jeff did the same. Orff also took off his trousers and tied them by the legs around his neck. Then his sharp hazel eyes fell on something fastened to his saddle.

It was a rifle scabbard of soft tan leather, and Jeff could tell from the shape of it that there was a gun inside. For a moment the lieutenant hesitated, as though debating whether to risk wetting it in the river water. With a grunt, he disengaged the sheathed weapon from the saddle and handed it to the corporal of the detail staying behind on the shore.

“Don't lose it,” Orff charged seriously. “Let me have your carbine.”

Quickly the trooper made the exchange, unslinging his weapon from his shoulder. Orff looped it around his own neck. Shifting his pistol and ammunition as high as possible, he thrust his bare foot into the stirrup and swung into the saddle.

“Le's go,” he said and urged his black horse into the flooded stream, the others following. They crossed the river without trouble.

Jeff liked the dun that had been issued to him. He was splendidly formed from the loins forward and his legs were flat and clean. He had endurance and he could move. He didn't like to walk, preferring to be ridden at a canter or a lope. Jeff found he could guide him with the outer knee. Twice he felt the cold water rising to his crotch but since he rode naked from the waist down, he kept his clothing and his weapons dry.

On the rebel side of the stream, Orff planted another dozen men in the willows. Then taking Jeff and fourteen others, he spurred southward through the timber.

“They won't be lookin' fer us,” Orff reasoned, his mouth full of fresh chewing tobacco. “They probably figger th' river's too high.” With a striking motion of his chin, he spat an amber stream at an alder bush and wiped off his mouth with the palm of his hand.

Jeff hoped the lieutenant was right. But this was rebel territory and they might meet a rebel patrol at any time. Their guide was an Indian lad from Drew's Union Indian brigade, who had once lived in this area. Orff called him Frank. They rode at a swinging trot, and as the sandy trail, bordered by willow and tamaracks and Indian grass, opened ahead of them, Orff sent out flankers on both sides.

Another hour and they came upon the Fort Smith road, a wide, sandy, wagon-rutted thoroughfare over which Cooper, the rebel Indian commander, kept in constant communication with rebel forces in nearby Arkansas. It was bounded on both sides by pine, hickory, and oak.

Orff raised his right fist and the column halted. There was nothing in sight. All Jeff could hear were the mockingbirds singing their heads off in the oaks. Orff looked shrewdly around him at the thick underbrush, mostly dogwood, strawberry bush and papaw.

BOOK: Rifles for Watie
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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