Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Deadwood story -- counting coup, part 2

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Traveling First Class, army style.

Lieutenant Wilcox knew that the Army could be frugal, but he didn’t realize how utterly, drop-dead tightfisted it could be, until he discovered that he and his detachment of new recruits would be traveling most of the way to their first duty post in a Union Pacific boxcar. Sergeant Bogart, however, gave no evidence of being surprised at this, and the men just seemed pleased that they would be making a large part of the trip by rail, instead of having to ride their horses the entire way. A good many of them, after all, were somewhat new to the art of horsemanship, and they were probably more comfortable gaining experience on horseback in smaller doses.

The same train included a number of additional freight carriages that were identical to the one that was occupied by the men, but these were laden with supplies and provisions destined for Fort Sidney and Camp Robinson, as well as the Red Cloud Agency. There were also a number of stockcars loaded with horses--a number of re-mounts as well as the animals assigned to the recruit detachment. The Army, in its infinite practicality--and a desire to make sure that the new troops would not have too much time on their hands while en-route--had detailed the recruits to water and feed the horses during the journey. The men were also to have the pleasure of mucking out the cars at rest stops.

Although it was not specifically among the tasks that had been assigned to them, the Sergeant had respectfully suggested that the Lieutenant detail some of the men to stand guard around the train when it made stops, in order to prevent any larcenous-minded miscreants from breaking into the boxcars and making off with government property.

Wilcox took the suggestion. He appreciated that the Sergeant had brought the idea to his attention, as he quickly realized that even though he hadn’t been instructed to post guards, if something did turn up missing, he would very likely be held responsible for not taking any proactive steps to prevent such an occurrence. As a new officer, he also appreciated the way that Bogart had approached the issue. He had quietly brought the matter up with the lieutenant outside earshot of the men, so the impression was that Wilcox had initiated this course of action.

The Lieutenant soon realized that the Sergeant was working in a variety of small and subtle ways to build up and strengthen the new officer’s standing with the men. Suggestions often came in the form of questions:

“Beg pardon, Lieutenant, shall I take a detail and get some fresh straw for the men to bed down on?”

“Lieutenant, shall I have the men air the blankets now and sweep out the car?”

“Excuse me Lieutenant, I believe we will be here at this stop for a while, may I have the men make some fires and cook up some bacon and boil coffee while we have the chance? Oh and sir, the water cask is getting low...request permission to detail Willich and Ericson to get it refilled.”

To his credit, Wilcox immediately knew that the only possible answer to all these questions was “Yes, Sergeant, carry on, please,” expressed with a nonchalant air that implied that he had, in fact, been intending to issue precisely those orders.

Now, considering that--as you will recall--2nd Lieutenant Wilcox had expected army life and his role as an officer to be somewhat more formal and “regulation” when he had first arrived at the Cavalry Depot in St. Louis, you may be feeling a certain degree of astonishment (if not incredulity) that he was so readily adapting to the reality of how things worked in frontier units.

Well, first off, let me explain that, yes, Mr. Wilcox may have been young and enthusiastic, and he may have left West Point with his head full of all kinds of pretensions and grand notions...but he was not a goddam idiot. The time he had spent at the Cavalry Depot waiting for the recruits to be released into his care had been quite a lesson. He had witnessed first-hand what the Sergeant and other non-coms at the depot were accomplishing in training the new men. Furthermore, Wilcox had been given a good "talking to" not just by the commandant, but also a number of other experienced officers as well. Some of these individuals had been rather forceful in making their points: their stories about what had happened to officers who fell prey to their own ignorance and arrogance had been stomach-churningly graphic. Several of these men had been present at the aftermath of the Custer fight, and described in detail the horrible process of trying to find and identify the bodies of their friends.

As I said, the young man was not a fool, and quickly saw the desirability of not ending up as a naked, mutilated corpse rotting on the plains.

Furthermore, Wilcox simply was fascinated by the trade of soldiering, and he genuinely enjoyed learning about it. He was very glad to have the chance to receive more instruction in how it was actually done. In fact, he desperately wanted to ask Bogart about his fighting Comanches before the war and leading a company of Confederate cavalry. He was also intrigued to find out that one of the recruits, Private Willich, had been a Prussian lancer and had fought at Sedan in 1870. Wilcox ached to hear that man’s story as well. But even in the more relaxed atmosphere of the frontier, it just would not have been appropriate for him to have requested that these men share their personal experiences with him.

Still, when all was said and done, by the time the train finally arrived at Sidney, Nebraska under a gray and sodden sky, 2nd Lieutenant Josephus Wilcox was feeling slightly more confident about how he would acquit himself in this strange and dangerous environment.

At the station yard in Sidney, Wilcox was watching the men as they got their gear out of the boxcar and unloaded their horses when he heard the sound of horsemen cantering up behind him. The Lieutenant turned to see some cavalrymen splattering through the mud towards him, dressed in largely shapeless slouch hats and a mishmash of outerwear that included caped overcoats and canvas jackets among other things. The horseman in the lead, whose hat bore brass crossed sabers and the number “3,” was evidently in charge--the fact of which was confirmed to Wilcox when the man got close enough that captain’s shoulder straps were visible on his stained leather hunting coat.

“Lieutenant Wilcox, I presume?” the captain enquired.

Wilcox, saluted. “Yes sir.”

The man’s weather-worn features broke into a craggy smile and he returned the salute in a manner that was so crisp it seemed curiously incongruent with his rough and ready attire. “Glad to have you here...I’m Captain Welles. We’ll be setting off back for Camp Robinson as soon as we’ve sorted out which of the remounts and supplies are for us, and which will stay here at Fort Sidney....I understand First Sergeant Bogart was to come with you?”

“Yessir, he was,..um..is” replied the young officer. Wilcox turned to call for Bogart to report to him, but was startled to find the man already standing right behind him.

The one-eyed veteran snapped a salute at the captain that was so sharp and strictly regulation it could have struck sparks from steel. The mud bespeckled captain’s response was equally fit for a parade ground...but the grin on his face was the kind of thing reserved for old friends and comrades.

“Hello, Sergeant!” said Welles, his eyes with a bit of a sparkle in them. “Good to see you again.”

The old sergeant smiled too. “Thank you sir. Tis good to see you and the boys as well.” He nodded at the mounted men behind the captain, all of whom were smiling back...a few of them nodded in response and several touched their hat brims in greeting.

The captain turned. “Corporal Brill! Bring up the wagons and have the new men commence loading ‘em up. Mr. Pickens, take your detail and see to the remounts...have them ready to move out as soon as possible.” He turned back to Sergeant Bogart. “How are you finding St. Louis?”

Sepp smiled again. "Well, Captain, it’s a good bit o’ hard work and more than the usual ration of minor frustrations, but I find it tolerable enough. How are things at Robinson, sir? How’s the Major?”

The captain frowned slightly. “Oh, the Major’s fine. I shall give him your regards. But the situation could be better...we’ve just had a small group of Red Cloud’s young men decide they’ve had enough of agency life and they’ve bolted..probably gone to go do some raiding up in the Black Hills.”

Sepp looked thoughtful. “Have you anyone to send after them?”

Captain Welles coughed. “No, not really...not from the Third, anyway. Part of the command is down with fever, part is on a long patrol into Wyoming, and the Major wants the rest to stay at Robinson in case things get dicey on the Agency. He wants us around to keep any more of the young warriors from getting ideas in their heads. But Clouds on Big Mountain and some of his Crow scouts are on their way to the Camp even as we speak, and I have a few Arikara scouts who are available to go with them. Just wish I had a senior non-com or an officer to go with them...could help with the diplomatic side of things...I hate to send Indian scouts into the area of the gold fields on their own--those damned argonauts haven’t the vaguest clue regarding the natives...idiots will probably try to shoot our scouts on sight.”

At this point, the lieutenant found the courage to speak. “Sir?”

“Yes, Mr. Wilcox?”

I ..um..that is..I would like to volunteer to go with the Indian scouts...if I may...unless of course, you were thinking of sending Sergeant Bogart...”

Welles looked at the young officer appraisingly. He then turned to Sepp and slightly arched an eyebrow. Almost imperceptibly, the old sergeant nodded. The captain looked back at Wilcox and folded his arms on his chest.

“Very well, I believe that would be acceptable. In fact, First Sergeant Bogart is not an option for us...his orders are to return to the Cavalry Depot with the next train heading east. And well...to be honest, Lieutenant, being as we are somewhat shy of enlisted men...even with the new lot you’ve done such a good job of shepherding here...we don’t really have a place for you quite as of yet. You are somewhat...ah...extraneous for now.”

Even with being labeled “extraneous,” Wilcox was feeling quite pleased with how this was developing. The fact that Sergeant Bogart had given him the nod...a stamp of approval that he wouldn’t just be a burden to the Indian scouts--and that the Captain had said he had done well with his assignment of delivering the recruits--all in all, he was feeling downright good about himself at the moment.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”

Captain Welles chuckled. “You’re rather excited about the prospect of this aren’t you, Lieutenant? Splendid. Matter of fact, several of the Arikara men are equally enthused about the task. They are rather young themselves...they have yet to count coup and are eager for the chance.”

Wilcox had been following all the conversation to this point but now he looked a tad puzzled. “Count coup, sir? As in killing an enemy?”

“The Captain waved his gauntleted hand dismissively. “Oh no, it's not about killing...they look on it as anyone can kill an enemy--it’s about getting very close and striking your enemy in a contemptuous sort of way, preferably with your hand or something harmless...like a riding crop...very important tradition for these people.”

“Ah...I see,” said Lieutenant Wilcox, even though he didn’t, really.

The Captain was already thinking about other things. “You know, it would probably be helpful if we could have you get in contact with someone up there..perhaps in Deadwood City or Lead..a community leader or responsible individual who isn’t a complete addlepated lackwit. Let them know what is going on, without causing some kind of panic...gather information on what is going on in the vicinity.”

“Yessir, that might be helpful," agreed the Lieutenant.

Welles turned to Sepp again. “Sergeant Bogart, you spent a goodly bit of time up in that neck of the woods...do you know of anyone who isn’t a feckless idiot that you could suggest as a contact person for the Lieutenant and the scouts to meet with?”

Sepp grinned. “Yes, Captain, I believe I do....”
~~~

7 comments:

  1. Hey Blackjack,

    Thanks for the kind words. This storyline seems to be something that's connecting for you in a special way. Has the subject matter got some particular significance for you?

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  2. I enjoy good writing. It is obvious that you have done research into the way the military of the 1800s thought and acted in the western frontier. Your style of writing rings true to the way things actually would have happened.

    Also, I am facinated by military history especially from the Civil War period thru the Indian Wars of the Great Plains.

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  3. Hmm, I wonder if part 3 will reunite us with a certain Deadwood woman who has a way with cussing? Maybe she can teach the young Lieutenant a few phrases.

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  4. Hey Rhia,

    Guess I'm getting pretty predictable, aren't I?

    Truth be told I think this one of the stories where Dio is pretty much a minor character. But that's ok, she needs a break now and then.

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  5. Pshaw! Hardly predictable, Dio - I have no clue where the story is going. But if you're watching a Sherlock Holmes movie, it's not a big leap if Sherlock appears at some point. :)

    Because I'm a big believer that titles aren't random, I expect that "counting coup" will figure into the story at an appropriate time in an unexpected way...but that's not being predictable, either, that's just the way the whole thing works!

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  6. Heh, finally got around to putting aside enough time to read this and wow! Fisrt off colour me pink and call me a trollop, but I didn't realise that Bogart was Sepp was Bogart! I must have missed something in the first part, or my brain wasn't firing fully when I read it (very likely at the moment). I think I had it in my head this was going to be about the new Deadwood, so I went in expecting new characters - gawd I'm glad Dio's back! :-D

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