Monday, February 15, 2010

A Deadwood story -- counting coup, conclusion


Lieutenant Wilcox desperately wanted this mission over and done with. It was bad enough that the Indian scouts clearly thought of him as little better than an inept child, but the expedition itself had been truly punishing. The trip up to the Black Hills had involved a lot of hard riding, little sleep--and then only with a blanket on hard ground--and living off cold rations. Then when he finally got to go into that Deadwood place and have a seat indoors and some coffee--and was beginning to feel like a civilized human again--Sergeant Bogart's fiance had torn into him like one of the gut-shredding harpies of ancient legend.

He had never before known a woman who could demolish a fellow's self-esteem in such colorful and extended fashion. It was in actuality probably accomplished with only a few sentences, but it felt like an eternity of verbal abuse.

The worst part was, he knew she was right. He had developed great respect for the Indian scouts, and hoped he was learning some things from them...but it had been an egregious lapse in judgement and responsibility to have allowed Corporal Red Knife to look for the woman on his own, and run the risk of being shot as a hostile by one of the townspeople.

Still, it had turned out alright. Once Mrs. Kuhr had finished giving him instruction in the art and craft of applied profanity, she had given both him and Red Knife a darn good feed of coffee, pie and venison stew. She then gave them some useful information in terms of things she had heard about signs suggesting hostiles were in the area, and was able to pinpoint exactly where these reported signs had appeared. Furthermore, she agreed to alert the populace of the town about the need for caution when hunting or working in the hills, and promised to do so in a manner that she hoped would cause the least possible amount of panic and overreaction. Wilcox had in fact improved his standing in the woman's eyes by suggesting that she embellish the truth about the size and nature of the force that the army had sent to pursue the raiding party, in order to give the locals some reassurance that the hostiles would be dealt with swiftly and effectively.

But now he was back in the hills, crouching in some bushes in a thin rain, waiting for the signal from Clouds on Big Mountain to attack the Lakotas' hidden camp. They had already confronted the raiding party once--an encounter in which Clouds on Big Mountain and Young Hawk had tried to convince the Sioux to return peacefully to the Agency. The scouts had no real wish to kill Lakotas unless they had to, not just because that was an aspect of their orders, but also because if they killed these fellows, that might stir up more unrest and new problems among Red Cloud's people.

The hostiles, however, had chosen to resist, and a short, sharp dust-up had erupted. The raiding party managed to break through the encircling scouts and escape, but in doing so at least one of them had been wounded. The one positive note in the course of events was that in the fight, Red Knife had struck one of the Sioux men with a native form of riding crop, thereby "counting coup" and gaining accolades from his colleagues. Young Hawk was quite proud of his nephew, and the other scouts all seemed to take it as a good sign that the raiding party would not slip away next time.

Well, this was that "next time." The Lakota were hiding in a cluster of some rocks and fir trees, while the scouts--and Lt. Wilcox--were arranged in a circle around them, ready for a fresh attempt to make them return to the Agency.

Wilcox peered through the misting rain and branches of the bushes where he was concealed, but he really couldn't see anything. He was frustrated, he was wet and miserable, and he was painfully aware of something having worked its way into his boot where it rubbed uncomfortably against his ankle. But this was, of course, not the time to be pulling off his boots and trying to look after a minor irritant like that.

Oddly enough, what Lieutenant Wilcox was not, was scared. The firefight the other day had been his first occasion of actually being under hostile fire, and he had found it to be an experience that was strangely exhilarating--as well as sobering. He had felt almost disconnected from himself when the shooting an observer, watching a training exercise. If you had pressed him to explain his feelings, he would have found it hard to put it into words. Now, waiting for his second encounter with the enemy to commence, he was aware of his physical discomfort, he longed to get this business concluded, but he also was remarkably calm and in the moment. Many years later, he did make a comment to the effect that on this occasion, he had felt he was where he was supposed to be...

And then a shot rang out from the rocks...then more. They had been detected by the Lakota. Almost immediately, the scouts were returning fire, and the crackle of gunshots was rising to a brief crescendo. Suddenly, Wilcox realized there was a hostile warrior on the move: advancing rapidly, bent over and taking advantage of all cover he could find, and heading directly towards the lieutenant.

Wilcox raised his .45/55 service carbine, drew in a breath and let it out part way, took aim, squeezed the trigger...and missed. The Indian heard the roar of the carbine and saw the flash, and began bearing down on the officer. Rather than trying to reload the carbine, Wilcox tossed it aside. He then stood up, clawed open the flap on his pistol holster, and yanked out the big Schofield revolver as quickly as he could.

Now, you may recall something we mentioned some time ago, while the young gentleman was still in St.Louis at the cavalry depot. At this time, the U.S. Army had a mixture of revolvers in service, including the Colt model 1873 (commonly called the single action army), and the large Smith & Wesson No. 3 revolver (later versions of which were known as the "Schofield"). Mr. Wilcox had elected to keep his Smith & Wesson as his personal sidearm of choice, being as it is a break-action style of weapon, in which the frame is hinged so that you when you undo the catch, the barrel drops down and a mechanism automatically extracts the contents of your cylinder. Consequently, you can remove your spent casings and get reloaded much more quickly than you can with the SAA Colt.

Unfortunately, there is a curious thing that occasionally happens with the Smith &Wesson No. 3. In jamming the pistol into the holster or pulling it back out, it is possible to accidentally disengage the catch on the frame. When that occurs, once the pistol is drawn clear of the holster the heavy barrel will be pulled down by its own weight, opening the action of the weapon, and your firearm can unexpectedly and inconveniently unburden itself of your unfired cartridges.

This is one of the reasons why the Army rather preferred the Colt over the Smith & Wesson (as well as other factors like its use of a relatively anemic round, and that it had more parts that could potentially break). But accidentally unloading itself in the heat of combat was a pretty substantial drawback in and of itself.

Mind you, this sort of accident was not common. There was...oh, let's say maybe something like a one-in-a-hundred chance of this occurring. But it did happen now and then. And of course, that is precisely what happened to Lieutenant Wilcox in this instance. The one-in-a-hundred thing that could go wrong chose to go wrong at the worst possible time (as such things usually do). When the young officer yanked out the massive revolver, the catch was in fact undone, the heavy barrel did, in fact, tip forward, and the extractor mechanism functioned as it was supposed to. The Lieutenant was unpleasantly surprised by the sound of his unfired rounds landing on the soft ground.

Plop. Plopplopplop....Plop.

The Indian who was rushing at Wilxcox was apparently surprised as well. He stopped a short distance from the white man, who was looking at his now empty pistol. Then the white man said something in his own tongue (it was in fact, "Oh, what the hell"). Then the bluecoat--rather than running away or cowering--casually tossed his useless weapon over his shoulder and charged at his opponent, shouting like one who had looked upon the Face of the Great Spirit and gone mad.

To complicate the situation, the Lakota warrior also noticed that several of the "White Men's wolves"--Indians who fought alongside the bluecoats--had burst from the nearby undergrowth and were coming to the aid of this crazy white guy. Under these circumstances, the Lakota man elected to execute a tactical withdrawal, and turned to make a dash back to the cover of the rocks. As he did so, he felt a sharp--but certainly not disabling--blow to the back of his head.

Crazy white guy had smacked him from behind with with the open palm of his hand. The Indian could have turned and killed the man with his knife, but he knew the scouts would be on him almost instantly, so he continued back to the rocks.

Wilcox, meanwhile, having just slapped a Sioux warrior on the back of his head, suddenly was overcome with the realization that he had placed himself in a somewhat untenable situation. He was more or less in the open and unarmed. Red Knife and another of the Arikara men had rushed out from cover to stand with him, but at any moment he expected for them all to be cut down by a renewed hail of bullets from the direction of the rocks.

But that wasn't what happened. Instead, all shooting stopped. Some moments passed, and then a voice called out in Sioux from the cluster of rocks and trees. Clouds on Big Mountain replied in the same language, and before long, there was movement from the Lakota as they left their concealed positions. Red Knife explained to the Lieutenant that the raiding party was surrendering itself to return peacefully to the Agency.

In a way, it wasn't surprising. As the half dozen men came down from their position, Wilcox could see that at least two of them were wounded. They only had a couple horses, and to tell the truth, the Lakota looked about as tired, hungry and miserable as he felt...these men had made their attempt to return to the old ways...and they were now ready to go back.

What did surprise Wilcox however, was that the Crow and Arikara scouts crowded around him patting him on the shoulder and smiling broadly. The lieutenant looked at Red Knife with a puzzled expression.

"What's all this about, Red Knife?"

Red Knife laughed. "You too have counted coup! And how you did so! To empty your gun...and throw it away! Crazy you seemed, but crazy-brave! That is why our enemies decided to quit and go back--being chased by us, and a white man who does not fear to die...who would throw away his gun to count coup...they lost their hunger for this fight."

Second Lieutenant Josephus Wilcox thought about this a minute...he briefly considered trying to explain what had actually happened...then he decided it was was not in his own interest to disabuse anyone present of the notion that he had deliberately unloaded his pistol and tossed it aside in order to count coup in the purest sense of the concept: without any deadly weapon for protection, and expressing utter contempt for his enemies.

He turned to Young Hawk and Clouds on Big Mountain, and with Red Knife's help, told them that he wished to return briefly to Deadwood so he could tell the One Eyed Sergeant's Woman what had happened, and that all was well. He would also get them some supplies for the return trip.

The two elder scouts nodded their assent...though Young Hawk asked if some of the scouts should perhaps go with the Lieutenant. With no hint of irony, he told Wilcox that they would be proud to go with him to the white men's big camp if he wished them to do so.

But Wilcox shook his head.

"No thank you, Young Hawk. I will go alone. I do not wish for you or any of your...of our men to be shot by mistake by some fool."

He then looked at Red Knife and grinned. "It's all right, I will do my best to not get lost."

As the scouts watched Wilcox ride off in the direction of the town, Red Knife told the others what the lieutenant had said. The Crow scouts all smiled slightly at this, but the Arikara men laughed out loud. The universe could indeed be a funny place sometimes.


  1. That was a great story Dio. I truly enjoyed it.

  2. At least he had the sense to keep an empty chamber under the hammer.

    Great Story

  3. HA!

    Billy you win the prize!


    You are very observant.

    I love you.

    And thank you, Blackjck and Billy, for the kind words, I am glad you gentlemen enjoyed the story.

  4. Heh! Wonderful stuff! I love the idea of Wilcox (although by no means a fool nor a coward) accidentally doing something so brave as to cause the indians to give up - brilliant stuff! I hope we hear more from Wilcox and Red Knife :)

  5. Hey, HB,

    glad you liked it.

    I thought the key in developing Wilcox was that he not be a fool or a coward or just a stupid kid. I wanted this story to be about learning, and you can't have learning without the learner having the potential to catch on. And doing so takes having a bit of courage as well as a bit of fetchums.

    If he had just been a complete pompous dolt, I don't think the story would have gone anywhere.

    And as for things happening by accident--that's sort of what life is about, as far as I can tell.

  6. My apologies for the lateness of this comment. Among other things, I had promised myself the rest of the story as a reward for finishing some projects at the office...which promptly took a great deal more time than I had planned.

    But the delayed gratification was worth it - a fine tale that mixed the serious and the comic to good effect. (I enjoyed "instruction in the art and craft of applied profanity," in particular.)

    I hadn't noticed the five rounds and empty chamber, but I was wondering as that scene developed whether the young lieutenant was going to have a Plexico moment. I'm glad that the Army trained its men in carrying guns better than the NBA.

    And with a title of "Counting Coup," it was clear the practice would have to make an appearance by the end. It came in an unexpected but pleasing way.

  7. Thanks Rhia,

    I find it gratifying that you considered the conclusion something to look forward to, rather than something to be endured.

    As for the Lieutenant and his handling of weapons, I'm pretty sure he won't make the same mistake again.

    And yes, I looked on the title as something more than just a convenient curiosity--the idea at the heart of the practice of counting coup is certainly to show others what you are made of...but I think it also serves to prove to yourself what kind of a mensch you can be.

    Ultimately, I wanted the theme of the piece to be about status and the two kinds of personal status that we can acquire--that which is is conferred by circumstances of birth, money, education, tradition, etc., and that kind of status which can only be earned.