His backside rested comfortably in the deep seat of the McClellan saddle. Sergeant Jonathan Masters swayed with the rhythm of his mount, Zachary, cantering along the trail. Ahead, Captain Stanwell halted his horse and stood in the stirrups searching the horizon. A courier was riding headlong fast toward the column.
Lean and tall, Sergeant Masters turned in the saddle and with a wave signaled the men of D Troop to a halt. A reprieve was welcome. In summer's heat D Troop of the Sixth Cavalry had been riding south from Fort Dodge for eight days. The mission into Indian Territory was uncertain, only every man in the ranks sensed a fight brewing. At assembly under the flag at Fort Dodge, troopers heard from the colonel in command. "Indians have jumped the reservation at Fort Sill. They are breaking the law," he said, and added morbidly, "Good hunting."
On the march south, the rumor mill suggested the escape differed in scale from the past. An Army scout, a renegade Kiowa, explained: "Young and restless not alone in breakout. Whole families vanish into darkness."
The courier halted his mount next to the captain, stirring a dustbowl. The gray stallion radiated heat; white sweat streaked its neck. The steed stamped its hooves, contented the hard ride was over.
"Message from Fort Sill," the courier said and handed over a leather case.
"At ease," Captain Stanwell ordered. He dismounted and opened the dispatch case while walking to the shade of a flowering redbud tree amid a cluster on the prairie. The lieutenants, the cadre and ninety troopers alighted and tended to their horses. They uncorked canteens and talked about what the message might augur.
After a few minutes, the captain called for officers and Sgt. Masters. The youthful sergeant stood tall among the cavalrymen.
"This is a message from General Grierson, commanding officer. We're ordered to stop at Fort Sill. Wagons and a string of pack mules await us, and we're to add supplies for an extended forage. Hostiles are scattered throughout the territory. Most are heading west toward the Texas Panhandle."
"It looks like things are coming to a head," a lieutenant said.
"Definitely," Stanwell said. "First, we deprive the savages of food, buffalo for the most part, and force them into reservations. If they escape, we round'em up. Then we attack, attack, attack, and kill as many as we can. Sergeant, tell the men where we are going, and that's all for now."
Masters saluted and led his steed toward the column. The captain's menacing comment disturbed him. 'Kill as many as you can' was not written Army policy. As he approached the column, he consoled himself with the thought, 'Saying is not doing.'
Jonathan Masters assumed the title of first sergeant only a week earlier. The previous Top Kick had fallen ill and was confined to the hospital at Fort Dodge. At twenty-six years old, Masters was likely the youngest first sergeant in the Cavalry. When the commandant at Dodge named him to the post, two older non-coms in D Troop grumbled. Masters was not intimidated. He looked the veteran sergeants straight in the eye and carried on with his duties.
Masters had no time to sew the four-point diamond on his sleeve to mark his new rank amid the three V-shaped stripes. The promotion swung his mind to the early days of the Civil War. Local militia had selected his father, Major Wycliffe Masters, to command a regiment of Ohio Volunteers. He remembered the sad day of his father's burial, a casualty of the Wilderness Campaign of 1864. To the then eighteen-year-old Jonathan, a private in the Volunteers, his father's death bequeathed a longing to carry on in the service of his country even in the reduced post-war Army. His assignment to D Troop was his first west of the Mississippi River.
On his husky-voiced command, D troop came alive. Soldiers mounted their horses, and the column resumed its way south over the shortgrass prairie. Hard riding over two days on the dusty plain brought the weathered troopers to the outskirts of Fort Sill. The Wichita Mountains loomed off to the west.
Entering the environs of the post, the horsemen rode past a line of brick barracks, their wood porches and window frames painted stark white. A unit of Buffalo Soldiers, veterans of the 1868 winter campaign and a dozen skirmishes, occupied chairs and steps while smoking pipes and cigars. They quietly watched the White soldiers pass by.
Once troopers erected tents and Jonathan arranged for mess privileges, he visited the commissary to acquire rations, ammunition, and for the animals, bales of hay and grain. Soldiers from other units lined up at the supply sergeant's counter. The Top Kick from the Tenth Cavalry, a curly bearded man, brown as a berry, was next in line. Jonathan recognized him.
"Well, look at you. Jonathan, a sergeant."
"You stayed in the Army. That is good, Jeremiah," Jonathan said.
"Truth is, I had nowhere else to go."
Jeremiah had been a house boy in Grandfather Masters' tobacco plantation near Lexington, Kentucky. He and Jonathan played together in summers during visits of Jonathan's family from the free state of Ohio.
"Old man's gone now," Jeremiah said.
"He was jus' overwhelmed. Soldiers camped all over the grounds of the big house. There was nobody to cut tobacco. It withered in the fields. Shame. Shame. Course, those soldiers helped me to jine up in sixty-four. I needed a name. I took Nelson, after General William Nelson. You remember him, the Kentucky hero at Shiloh. So, I am Jeremiah Nelson, sergeant. Almost ten years now."
"I had no home to go back to either. Mother moved to Columbus, Ohio, to live with her aunt. My sister is married and lives in New York City. I looked at it this way: The Army gives you a place to sleep and food to eat. Well, most of the time."
"I felt the very same way."
The two sergeants placed orders with the supply sergeant and shook hands.
"See you in the Mess," Jonathan said.
"No doubt about that."
After a supper of fried pork chops, beans, and freshly baked bread, Jonathan and Jeremiah leisurely walked to the Post Quadrangle. Other soldiers observed them.
"Those two Blue Bellies talk together like brothers," a former Confederate, Corporal Tillson Hanks, said to a gathering on the porch steps.
Jeremiah offered Jonathan a cigar. They smoked and reminisced about swimming in cool waters of Elkhorn Creek and riding horses on Blue Grass pastures hell bent for leather.
"Those days seem so long ago," Jonathan said.
Jeremiah agreed. "Yeh, long ago. The years are not many. So much is happenin'. First, the war. Now the fighting here. I was wounded in a skirmish at Wilson Wells, hit by an arrow in my upper arm. The Indians took me, Comanches they was. They let me be while I recovered. And ta beat all, the chief took me as a slave. I carried wood, cleaned weapons, brushed down ponies, for all of six months. I think they kept me for show. One night, thank the Lord, our troops attacked the village, and I was freed. Again."
"How were you treated?"
"Well, I got one bad beating. I stepped on something they said was sacred. It could've been worse. I worked for the Comanches, and they fed me. They called me Soldier Bear."
The two sergeants strolled by General Grierson's office. The general, Captain Stanwell, his sharply contoured face set as if in stone, and a half-dozen other troop commanders lounged in office chairs, smoking.
"Wonder what they're up to?"
"Don't have any idee. General Grierson's a good man. He promotes tolerance and good will, even charity, toward the Indians. I heard him say, 'try to understand. Bend a little. Use violence as a last resort.' But his good nature and tolerance doesn't always work out. He's in trouble with the Texans. I don't know if he's right or wrong. I can tell you this much. He's commanded our regiment since it was formed in '66. To him we are soldiers, and that is that."
"In this Army you can't ask for much more."
"Well," Jeremiah drawled. "I learned if it is worth doing at all, it's worth doing well."
* * *
The dull white glow of the morning sun below the eastern horizon revealed a cloudless sky and promised another hot day. A covered wagon, filled with sacks of salted beef and pork, beans, and hardtack, lined up next to a wagon loaded with boxes of ammunition and medical supplies. Water barrels and bags of grain hung on the outside of each wagon. A twelve-pounder Napoleon artillery piece followed, four artillerymen, two by two, riding on pull horses and the caisson. Muleskinners drove a half dozen mules from a corral.
Masters watched the muleskinners load the animals with packs. He had read reports on the success of pack trains.
"They're the key to defeating the Indians," Masters said to Corporal Moore, a squat, lantern-jawed Irishman. "They can go where wagons can't. Units can split off and pursue bands of any size and track down strays. It's a tactic that is working."
"They don't stand a chance," the corporal said.
At Captain Stanwell's bellowing command to move out, the guidon bearer for D Troop held the pennant high and lowered it to stow the standard's pole in a sleeve on his saddle. To Masters the movement of a cavalry troop had no equivalent in its unique package of sight and sound. Horses neighed and snorted. Hoofbeats provided a deep rhythmic base accompanied by the percussive cadence of metal striking against metal and the sharp outcries of a spirited band of soldiers.
Captain Stanwell dispatched Kiowa scouts to a handful of trails heading west. He nodded to Corporal Moore, a popular trooper who wore a perpetual smile. In a tenor's voice Moore began singing:
Around her hair she wore a yellow ribbon
She wore it in the spring time
In the merry month of May . . .
Baritones and a few bass voices took up the song subduing Moore's tenor. The Irishman smiled; he had launched the chorus. He called for one of the new privates to accompany him. They galloped away on the main trail to the Point where they would stay miles ahead often within sight.
The clamor of troop movement on the vast plain served as a clarion to Indians for miles around. Smoke signals and scouts relayed the message: the cavalry was on a mission. As the day wore on, southerly winds like an unseen broom brushed dust from the prairie floor and plastered the faces of horses and riders. Five hours in the saddle quieted songsters. The troop halted at the Canadian River. Horses were watered.
On the opposite side of the Canadian, Corporal Moore and the other soldier were about to reenter the river and return to the column. Moore heard a fast-moving, flitting sound. With a thump, an arrow struck his upper back.
"My God," he yelled. "I got a tree stickin' in me."
He slumped over and slipped off his horse.
The private dismounted and knelt next to Moore. The corporal groaned. In the distance an Indian on his pony fled, yipping, and flourishing his bow. The soldier stood and uselessly fired his carbine. The private had no need to call for help. Masters on Zachary was leading a mounted squad and a white-coated surgeon splashing across the river toward him.
Moore lay unconscious. The doctor removed the shaft and the Comanche iron-tipped arrowhead from the muscle.
Four cavalrymen, each bearing a corner of Moore's stretcher, transported the corporal across the river to a table standing next to the medicine wagon. A physician's assistant unfolded a travois. Troopers connected it to Moore's mount Indian style. Semi-conscious and hurting, Moore was placed on the travois. He and two escorts began the trip back to Fort Sill. The travois dragged past the soldiers of Troop D, their faces grim and set. Now blooded, they were even more ready to fight.
* * *
Kiowa scout Morning Bear, a feather in his swept-back black hair and wearing an Army blue blouse and trousers, approached the column on the main trail. He rode his pony at a trot, saving him for a harder ride that he knew would come.
"Fifteen, twenty," he said in broken English to Captain Stanwell, pointing to the trail. "Moving, ten miles, past Medicine Bluffs."
"How many warriors?" Stanwell asked.
"Four, maybe five."
Captain Stanwell called for Sergeant Masters. He wanted the sergeant for the task ahead. The young man had impressed him with his zeal and readiness to obey orders.
"Take a dozen men and some mules, and follow Morning Bear," he said. "He's located a band of twenty with four or five warriors. You should reach them when they are bedding down tonight. Hit them hard after sundown. The fewer prisoners the better. Use your own judgment."
After a moment's thought that came from deep inside, Masters asked for the troop bugler to ride with him.
Stanwell agreed. "Go to it. Good hunting. We will stay to the south of the Wichita range on the main trail. You should find us there. For this band, use your own judgment, sergeant," he said.
"There are women and children," Masters said affirmatively.
"I assume so," the captain said. "Again, use your own judgment."
The captain's eyes looked hard at Sergeant Masters trying to convey to him without words that he wanted no prisoners. It was an awkward moment.
Minutes later, Masters, his bugler, the squad, and the mules, galloped behind Morning Bear on his pony heading west. He mulled over the captain's advisory, "good hunting," and thought it flippant. He figured the captain had no qualms about killing any Indian—man, woman, or child. While the troop was enroute to Fort Sill, he had heard him repeatedly refer to them as "savages."
No matter how the government or any Army officer felt about Indians, Sergeant Masters at this hour was facing the reality of a showdown. With the sun still high in the blue sky, he began mapping a strategy keeping in mind the potential for a massacre. A trooper could fire his weapon accidentally. An Indian might simply want to fight and spark a wider conflict. He devised the outline of a plan he hoped would avoid slaughter. He kept thinking about the ramifications of his plan when, on his command, the troop moved out.
Ex-Confederate Corporal Hanks riding a chestnut horse joined Morning Bear and his pony on a reconnoiter, stirring up dust as they galloped ahead. The troopers rode under the blazing sun well into the afternoon hours. Once the column skirted the southern foothills of the Wichita range, Masters ordered troopers to slow from a trot to a walk. The flat prairie had altered to a welcome landscape of rolling hills that hid the troop's movement. The tall grass reminded him of fields of Ohio wheat waving in the wind. At that moment Morning Bear and Hanks came riding over the horizon. They had located the band.
Masters assembled the squad and spoke of his plan to surround the camp. He ordered the men to "be wary. Don't start shooting until you hear a command or unless you run into a bad situation. We 're going to use the bugle. We will let this tribe know we are present. If you meet with resistance, and I mean if a warrior is going for his bow or rifle, stop him. Spare the women and children if it is possible."
At this instruction, Hanks's face grimaced. Other troopers nodded. Morning Bear emitted a loud grunt, agreeing to interpret and relay commands to the band. Masters told the scout to keep repeating the offer of safe conduct.
The sun was above the horizon when the troop remounted and followed Morning Bear. Masters swallowed; his mouth filled with cotton. The cavalrymen moved quickly, deliberately, and each face showed nervous quiet and concern.
Smoke from cooking fires climbed in the fading light to the west, marking the camp. Morning Bear indicated the band had gathered in a small depression. He demonstrated by holding his arms out in a bowl shape and pointing to the middle.
The Army steeds were quartered. Wind picked up as darkness fell. Troopers crept quietly on foot to points around the unguarded camp and lay waiting for the bugle call. Ponies roped together, nickered. Squaws cooked food in pots on several fires. Children played around the flames. Men sat together in front of two wickiups freshly covered with red and yellow blankets.
Masters ordered the bugler to blow reveille. The sound rang around the hills like sharp cracks of thunder. In between bugle calls, Morning Bear let out a yell and shouted, "Camp surrounded. Camp surrounded" in Comanche dialect.
On hearing the bugle, a young warrior jumped up and dashed to a hillside carrying a bow and his quiver of arrows. Reaching the crest of the hill in quick succession, he fired two arrows. One shaft hit Corporal Hanks. He fell, groaning. A volley of carbine shots brought down the Indian, a Comanche. He rolled down the hillside.
The shootout aroused a lively, shocked response in the camp. Indians started running in all directions. Squaws screamed. Ponies stamped hooves and snorted. Old men stood up, stunned. Morning Bear kept issuing pleas to drop weapons and gather around the two fires. After a few chaotic minutes, the Indians moved to the fires. In a sing-song chant, Morning Bear issued the safe conduct message again and again. Masters shouted an order for soldiers to advance from their positions in a show of force.
Troopers searched the camp and wickiups. They found a few Infantry rifles and numerous bows, quivers, and spears. An old, gray-haired man, Mukwooru (Spirit Talker) gave up a Colt .45-caliber revolver. Through Morning Bear, Masters sent assurances that no one would be hurt if they stayed together and returned to Fort Sill. Finally, Morning Bear said, "Sleep, sleep. Go back in morning."
A count of captives numbered twenty, five older and four young men, five children and the remainder women. Troopers buried the bullet-ridden body of the Comanche and marked the site of Corporal Hanks's interment. Masters placed troopers at four corners on hillsides around the camp. Another soldier kept fires going through the night while Indians slept wrapped in blankets or crowded in wickiups.
At dawn, the number of the captured dropped to nineteen. A desperate warrior had eluded the guards and took a long-barrel Army infantry rifle from the ammunition wagon. After breakfast, soldiers watched the clans gather their belongings and start on the Fort Sill trail.
With a solemn face, Mukwooru with resignation, said, "We return to Soldier House at Medicine Bluffs," the Indian name for Fort Sill.
* * *
Captain Stanwell spotted Sergeant Masters' returning column. He ordered Troop D to a halt. Distress showed on the officer's stern face. He repeatedly rapped his mount's reins on his thigh. He did not expect any captives.
Returning troopers and the Indian band approached Stanwell's column and passed by a graveyard of rotting bison carcasses and white bones. Smelling the odor of decomposition and seeing the devastation, Comanche elders waved their arms, pointing fingers at the colossal waste. Squaws whimpered, shuffling along with children. Young men in the band witnessed the wanton destruction, and anger rose in their hearts.
Masters' mind rolled over a few thoughts. Was it a coincidence that Indian captives and the soldiers were coming together at the site of a buffalo slaughterhouse. Or had a mysterious form of fate played a hand. He noticed soldiers shaking their heads over the destruction. A shift of winds spread the stench. Masters smelled the disgusting odor. He was not alone among soldiers who recognized rotting flesh and bones as ample evidence of the government's failure, negligence, and man's inhumanity to man.
Captain Stanwell was not moved by inhumanity. He took notice of the rage burning in the braves' eyes. He welcomed the opportunity to quell trouble and, if necessary, to carry it off with violent effectiveness. He called for three men, two he named, Atkins and Snyder, and a third who happened to be next to them. Their horses trotted over, and they stood by, carbines ready. He spoke to the three. Masters could not hear what he said.
Masters' horse Zachary ambled toward Captain Stanwell. The sergeant saluted. Stanwell barely acknowledged the gesture, consumed by the smoldering eyes of the young warriors. At Stanwell's command and at gunpoint, two of the three troopers dismounted and pulled the braves, one by one, from the band. They resisted. The captain drew his pistol and fired into the air. The soldiers used rifle butts to batter them. Then with ropes flung to them by Stanwell, the soldiers strung the braves together around their necks and hands.
At the beating of the resisters, Masters grew apprehensive. Without warning, the captain and three troopers moved out, dragging the semi-conscious warriors. The remaining soldiers in two columns had dismounted and stood at ease. They watched as the prostrated Indians were dragged over a hill out of sight.
After a few minutes, one after another, shots rang out, then three more. Seconds later, the third trooper galloped over the hill.
"The captain's been shot. And two troopers down."
Sergeant Masters spurred Zachary and called for a squad to follow. On the other side of the hill Captain Stanwell and two soldiers lay crumpled on the ground. Their horses had run loose. The three braves lay stretched out. They each had been shot in the back of the head. A search of the area located a dead Comanche. Morning Bear identified him as one who escaped from camp the previous night.
Masters asked the survivor, Private Wills, "What happened?"
"The captain ordered us to shoot. I didn't want to. We all hesitated. The Indians were not armed. They had fallen to their knees. The captain was furious and went up to each and fired his sidearm at the back of their heads. Then we were fired on. I didn't know who was shooting. The captain was hit first. We couldn't see the attacker. He fired again and again and hit the other two men. Then I saw the shooter in the distance and answered with my carbine. I got him."
Masters sighed deeply. He took mental notes of how the Indians had been bound and shot. He confiscated the carbines and marked each with their owner's name. The Indian's long-barreled rifle, a standard 1871 Army infantry weapon, was tagged.
Over the next few hours, elders and squaws carried out a ceremony filled with cries of mourning and drums. They wrapped the dead in blankets. The elder Comanche Mukwooru approached Lieutenant Wilson, now in command, and asked permission to bury the four in the Wichita range twenty miles to the east. Wilson hesitated. With the captain dead under peculiar circumstances and the fort not many days away, he thought it best to return to Sill immediately.
Masters spoke up.
"Lieutenant, remember General Grierson's advice. Lean up a little. We don't lose anything. We can provide escort for the burial in the mountains and then proceed to Fort Sill."
"But what do we gain?"
"We are more likely to win the peace with these people."
"Alright. You can take them. After the ceremony, return to Fort Sill immediately."
Wilson dispatched an escort to accompany the burial team with Masters in charge. He permitted the use of ponies that belonged to the four dead braves to bear them to the mountains. The squad moved out with the sergeant at the lead. Mukwooru, a few elders and most of the women walked behind the funeral horses carrying the possessions of the deceased toward the Wichita mountains.
* * *
From the campaign's start, Buffalo soldiers played a unique role. The troop split into squads and roamed trails with a mission to assist scouts and Army units searching for escaping Indians. Veterans, they knew the territory and were skilled in combating the renegades' hit-and-run tactics. The pack animals allowed them to stay on the trails for extended periods.
Sergeant Jeremiah Nelson and his squad had halted in the foothills of the Wichita range. Using his binoculars, he observed the two troop columns converging at Buffalo boneyard. He did not hear the exchange of gunfire that killed Stanwell and the two soldiers. He saw the columns merge and move out for the post. He watched as the unit split off and started in his direction.
"They are coming for a burial in the mountains," he said to his corporal.
On a similar mission more than a year before, he had escorted a burial team to the Wichita range to a site Comanches regarded as sacred ground.
Nelson scanned the wide expanse for a war party. He had seen signs of a band but lost the trail after dark. He worried the small squad approaching his position might be vulnerable. Then he thought a war party would respect the dead and not attack until after the ceremony. He continued to observe the squad and had a feeling a renegade band or two were watching them.
The burial party came within a mile of his position. He identified his friend Jonathan Masters wearing his white cavalry Stetson hat with the front part of the brim pushed back. He also recognized his Morgan horse, Zachary, leading the party.
Jeremiah was upbeat seeing his old friend. He remembered good times growing up and some bad. Jonathan defended him once against a taunting crowd of farm boys they encountered during a swim in Elkhorn Creek. Together, they fought two of the bigger of the brutish set, emerged victors, and managed to find their horses for a getaway from the crowd. Jeremiah remembered the odd sense of freedom as their horses galloped away from the clutches of farm boys.
The chaos of war ended his close relationship with Jonathan. After the war Jeremiah tried to locate him in the ranks. He didn't know that his White friend had joined a volunteer brigade formed in Cincinnati. The brigade disbanded after the war and its personnel records were lost. When in Lexington to settle the Grandfather Masters' affairs, Jonathan inquired after Jeremiah to no avail.
Together once again, they now had much in common, each a veteran of the Civil War, holding the rank of sergeant, and cavalrymen. More important, that old bond from the time when they rode horses together and dealt with hate, resumed easily when they laid eyes on one another only days before.
When Jonathan's squad reached the foothills, he recognized Jeremiah astride his horse, Bourbon, at the head of a squad of Buffalo soldiers.
"Now we can work together," Jonathan said.
"We can do jus' that," Jeremiah said.
He inspected the deceased and checked for markings.
"They are Comanches of the Kotsoteka band, known as 'Buffalo eaters,'" he said. "I know where the burial will be in the mountains."
Mukwooru pointed to the first hill strewn with irregular rock formations. Jeremiah nodded.
A two-hour uphill ride brought the procession to a plateau where niches and caves scarred the mountainside. Squaws prepared bodies for burial. The elders and squaws interred the dead in a cave. Boulders were shoved and earth shifted to seal the mouth. At sundown women began wailing. Mourning continued into the night. Elders stacked possessions of the dead, handmade wood saddles modeled after the McClellan saddle, blankets, and a few items made of bone and leather, and cast them into a roaring fire.
"The big fire is a signal. Every renegade within twenty miles will know there are burials here," Jeremiah said.
"We can get started early in the morning," Jonathan added.
Jeremiah said, "Better let women do grieving. It shouldn't take long."
Jeremiah sent three of his dismounted soldiers on their own into the night. They used their 'night eyes' to scan for prowlers across upper and lower sections of the rock-strewn hillside.
The fire burned radiantly until the moon rose, illuminating the sky and laying a silvery stratum of light on the stony mountain.
In the morning Jeremiah's scouts reported several campfires in the distance, an indication of two renegade bands.
At daybreak, the two sergeants talked.
"We got some company," Jeremiah whispered.
Squaws restarted a fire and resumed wailing. A companion of Mukroowu beat the drum slowly. Soldiers of the two units shared a fire and brewed coffee. They chewed hardtack and jerky and distributed food to elders and women. Within an hour the soldiers, tribal elders and women took to the trail for the two-day ride to Fort Sill.
The scattered clouds of early morning dissolved by 9 a.m. Under blue sky and light winds, the column proceeded at a rapid pace through grassy scrub. Elders and squaws rode ponies of the dead braves. A pair of soldiers from Jeremiah's squad had pushed on ahead. Jonathan's men welcomed their taking the Point. Another two scouted on the flanks of the column.
Mountains in the Wichita range loomed in the distance.
"Best to take the southern route," Jeremiah said.
"Southern route it is," Jonathan responded. "We might catch up with Wilson."
"Good idee to return to the fort. Captain dead, and we got a sizeable band to bring back."
Troopers followed the main trail. Jeremiah knew it well. His troopers had marked the trail painting dabs of paint on boulders. Soldiers had widened the trail in places to allow wagons to pass.
The two sergeants rode together at the head of the column.
"What's your plan for after the Army?" Jonathan asked.
"Nothing big. I'd like to buy a piece of property and farm, get a wife, and have a bunch of kids." Jeremiah smiled and laughed in such a way that Jonathan knew that he meant what he said.
"Looking at any place special?"
"Maybe Kansas or even farther north, Nebraska maybe. A place with a lot of water. I like a lot of water, a stream that's long, wide and flowing, like the Platte River."
"How 'bout you?"
"My enlistment is up soon. I've got my eye on officer training at the artillery school at Fort Monroe in Virginia. I was a clerk for the commandant. He said he would give me a chance at officer training. First, I had to do a tour in the West."
"As if the war wasn't enough to make you a soldier. Where'd you serve in the war?"
"In Virginia. I was a replacement in the 110th Infantry Brigade, Ohio Volunteers. We were part of the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. That was after the disaster at the Crater. All those Black soldiers wasted."
Jeremiah nodded, remembering. "I jined to be a fighter for what people called freedom. I was thinking 'bout freedom in a way that mos' people look at heaven. Then I got practical. I was hopin' that freedom would jus' let me to git paid for my work, my sweat. Then there was the battle at the Crater. It changed everything for me. I was fightin' for my life. Everybody was. Both sides. After the Crater I realized the war was about something a lot bigger than jus' me. For a while I thought freedom meant that you'd just be left alone. Lately I've been building on that. It's not enough to be left alone. You've got to be recognized and have a sense of dignity. And it applies to everybody. Does that make sense?"
"It's more than sense. It is the heart working rightly," Jonathan said. "Joining up was all personal with me. I wanted to hit back at the people who killed my father. That was the motivation. Revenge. When I saw the Crater and heard about the hand-to-hand fighting, what people were doing to stay alive and have a station in life, man, I knew we were fighting for a cause greater even than preserving the Union."
"True then, true now," Jeremiah said.
The irony of what they were saying while escorting Indians to a reservation as if they were criminals struck the two soldiers like a lightning bolt. Didn't freedom apply to them as well? The soldiers rode on quietly, thinking.
"Sometimes I feel like a slave driver," Jeremiah said.
Jonathan said, "I will get on my high horse. This is the outcome of a failed government policy, dishonest treaties, and gutless politicians. The Army is left to pick up what is left over. General Grierson is carrying on, doing the right and proper thing. Without him as a guide, where would we be?"
Jeremiah agreed with a nod.
The distant sound of gunfire reached the column. Instinctively, the soldiers looked down the trail toward Medicine Bluffs. They could make out a disturbance on the plain. A flock of birds was scattering in front of the thick ascent of dust and smoke. Rifle fire crackled. Muzzles flashed, seen even from their distant position.
Jonathan assigned troopers to guard the Indian band. Jeremiah and his squad galloped toward the scene. Jonathan followed with his squad. They rode hard toward the sound and sight of battle.
Comanches from two bands had attacked Lieutenant Wilson's column as it was treading toward Fort Sill. The sudden lightning charge lasted a few minutes and broke up the column. When the Indians retreated, Lieutenant Wilson organized the troop by shouting and pointing. He set up a line of defense in front of a hillside of boulders. Troopers herded horses to safety behind the hill and lay in a crooked row finding refuge behind large rock formations. The artillerymen positioned the two Napoleons on a level stretch awaiting a second charge.
A song of echoing sounds and sharp pitches filled the air to the vibrating beat of drums. While preparing for another charge, the Comanches dispatched several skilled warriors to snipe at the soldiers. The warriors crept quietly toward the troop's flanks as chilling vocals filtered by a light wind dispersed across the plain.
Ten minutes of chants ended with silence. Comanches launched the attack, riding their ponies with furious abandon. Cannon fire ripped through the center; the line of Indian attackers separated into drives on the troopers' flanks. They fired their weapons and pierced the air with flights of arrows.
Jeremiah's squad reached the battle, firing as they rode. They broke the charge against Wilson's left flank, littering the land with writhing bodies and ponies streaming riderless. In the lead, Jeremiah was struck by an arrow in his right chest that pitched him back on his horse, Bourbon.
On the other flank, riflemen picked off warriors one by one. Only a few managed to escape, chased down and recovered by Jonathan and his squad.
The battle was over in minutes.
* * *
The cavalry's covered wagons bearing Jeremiah and other wounded, five troopers and a dozen Comanches, rolled into Fort Sill. Doctors met the wounded and wheeled them on stretchers into the hospital. Troopers escorted captives to a temporary enclosure in the Wichita Indian Agency.
Before Comanches were moved, old chief Mukroowu saw Jonathan and said, "Young people are no more. This is like death. We live on food from the government. We are like grasshoppers on the prairie, eating and doing nothing else."
Jonathan was speechless.
General Grierson joined Jonathan in the company of the Indian agent. Using Comanche language, the agent spoke to the captives asking for cooperation. General Grierson looked over the assembly. Men and women, pathetic and downcast, stood together, their families their sole bond. His heart moved by the scene, he felt the need to do something kind and merciful. He heard from an officer that Jonathan successfully led the escort of Indians to the sacred burial ground.
"My dear people. I authorize a revisit to the scene of battle. You may take possession of the bodies of your brave warriors. I also offer the assistance of our troops to accompany you on a procession to your sacred ground."
Mukroowu and others responded with murmurs of gratitude.
Anxious about Jeremiah's health, after completing his duties Jonathan walked to the hospital. In the main ward he passed by the wounded in hospital beds under white sheets. Jeremiah was not among them. He asked an orderly about him.
"That Black soldier died this morning. From the loss of blood. We couldn't help him. The arrow hit an artery."
The words stunned Jonathan. "Where is he?"
"In the morgue, a room out back," the orderly said. "I hear he was a good soldier. God knows we need men like him to manage this mess we've got."
On a stretcher lay Jeremiah's body. He had been stripped of his blue uniform and lay under a sheet. When the fatal arrow was removed, his flesh tore and now showed a deep black against his brown skin. Rigor mortis had already begun, pinching his once noble features into a death mask.
"He gave his all," Jonathan said. He viewed the body and fondly remembered him as a boy. He saw him smiling, riding a stallion on a sunny warm day racing through Blue Grass pastures. He thought of him as a man, once a slave, then free, once a boy, then a soldier, a duty-bound cavalryman, brave as a lion charging into battle.
Images of Jeremiah remained with Jonathan. He was proud to have known him. Their reconnecting at Fort Sill seemed a minor miracle. He remembered Jeremiah's favorite saying, "If it is worth doing at all, it's worth doing well."
The next day, First Sergeant Jeremiah Nelson's body, dressed in Army blues and lying inside a flag-draped wood coffin atop a rolling caisson, was borne to the Fort Sill cemetery. A troop of Buffalo soldiers from the Tenth Cavalry led the procession. Jonathan and cavalrymen from the Sixth rode behind.
General Grierson, knowing that Jonathan and Jeremiah were friends, asked Jonathan to join him at the grave to say a few words. After the chaplain ended the blessing, Jonathan dismounted and took a place where he could see the cavalrymen and their horses lined up at attention. The horses nickered. A light wind tumbled mesquite. Quiet fell on the funeral scene. Jonathan spoke:
"We know the greatness of this country and the values that are part of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Those values represent an ideal that we must always pursue. We are pledged to defend the United States and to carry out the commands of our military and civilian authorities even when we sometimes need to grit our teeth. Sergeant Jeremiah Nelson did this, willingly and well.
Jonathan paused to see the response of his fellow soldiers. They appeared serious and listening.
"We can speak of the heroism of the past, in the Revolution and in the recent Civil War, and the struggles many people have endured to preserve and advance freedom. Sergeant Nelson was a product of this nation, divided as it was, divided as it is still in many ways. In his case he was a slave and then he was freed. He told me the Army had become his home. Truly, he had few alternatives. And he made the best of it. He did not shrink from danger, veteran of a dozen skirmishes and wounded once. And now he has died in another, his last, battle. To me, the heroism he displayed is the stuff of what this country is all about. He accepted the responsibility to do his duty, first to himself, then to his fellow soldiers, and to his fellow citizens.
"God bless him and the United States of America."
A rifle team of cavalrymen fired a salute. A bugler blew a sonorous "Taps," and General Grierson dismissed the troop.
Jonathan mounted Zachary and rode toward the stables. All the way, he kept thinking what a privilege it was to know a man who had done his duty.