Saturday, November 23, 2013

WIP: Chapter 1 of Buffalo Soldier: Yosemite

English: A photograph of Yosemite National Par...
English: A photograph of Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson in the uniform of a "Buffalo Soldier" as part of a living history re-enactment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An Afro-American Corporal, in the 9th Cavalry....
An Afro-American Corporal, in the 9th Cavalry. Snow covers the ground 1890. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a special holiday treat for fans of the Buffalo Soldier series, I’m offering a sneak peek at chapter one of the latest work in progress; Buffalo Soldier: Yosemite, a fictional account of the role played by the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Ninth Cavalry in the development of the National Parks system, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.
 
 
1.
 
     They came riding through a sharp cut in the mountains, where the trail started to dip down toward the broad, flat plains below. After more than two months, most of it spent in the saddle, they were weary and looking forward to getting home.
     The lower they got on the trail the higher the temperature rose. The great coats they’d had to wear at the higher altitudes to protect from the bitter January cold were starting to feel heavy.
     “Detachment, halt,” Sergeant Ben Carter said, loudly enough so that Corporal Tom Holman, who was riding point, could hear. Ben noticed that his breath fogged less than it had when they started riding earlier that morning, and he was starting to feel sweat forming under his armpits. “Let’s take off the coats, and tie ‘em to the back of the saddles.”
     The nine cavalrymen riding behind him wasted no time shucking the heavy coats.
     “Dang, I didn’t think you was ever gone let us take them things off,” Sergeant George Toussaint, Ben’s second in command, said. “I was sweatin’ like a blue tick dog in a Louisiana swamp in that thing.”
     Toussaint rode up alongside Ben. The wide smile on his broad, brown face belied his words. Ben noted that the normally phlegmatic trooper had been smiling and happy for almost the entire mission. In fact, everyone in the unit had been considerably happier since they’d been moved from their job of escorting work details and sent off to scout a route from Fort Union to Yosemite. Despite the long days in the saddle, the rugged terrain ranging from high mountain to scorching desert, and weather that was freezing cold in the mountains and hot enough to fry bacon in the desert, Ben and his men had been in fairly good spirits for the entire time.
     “Yeah,” he said. “I was starting to feel a bit hot myself. I don’t reckon we’ll need ‘em for the rest of the trip.”
     As they came down out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, north and northeast of Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico Territory, they could see the plains off to the east that seemed to go on forever. Ben knew that Fort Union, home to two troops of the Ninth United States Cavalry, was just over the horizon - about thirty miles more, and they would be home.
     Up ahead, he saw that Holman had tied his coat behind him and was waiting for his signal to move out again. He waved.
     When Holman’s horse was turned, Ben signaled the rest of the detachment to move out. In a clatter of hooves, ten riders and five pack horses resumed their trek down off the mountain.
     Over two months on the trail had been taxing, but Ben was satisfied that they had accomplished their assigned mission of mapping out a route from Fort Union to Yosemite that could be traveled by a wagon carrying surveying equipment and driven by civilians with little experience on the frontier. He had also, he felt, accomplished the mission he set for himself.
     After an extended period of garrison duty, the men of the detachment had lost their edge. During the mapping mission, Ben had them perform tactical drills at every opportunity. From setting up camp at night, and breaking camp each morning, mounting sentries at every stop, and on a few occasions in isolated areas away from settlements, doing rifle, pistol, and saber drills until they could do them with their eyes closed. There had been complaining the first few times, and they were clearly rusty, but as the old skills came back, and their performance smoother and by reflex, they began to enjoy it. Being outside in the open air, with starry skies over their head at night, was what they needed to feel like soldiers again. He could see it in the way they rode. Their heads held high, shoulders squared, and backs straight. These were once again the men he felt confident going into battle with.
     They hadn’t even minded that their mission caused them to be in the field over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. They’d shot several quail and a small deer and cooked them over an open fire to supplement the rations they carried. The fresh meat, along with several jugs of apple cider they’d bought at a settlement in California they’d passed through, made the meals around their campfire every bit as festive as it would have been had they been at Fort Union. Even George Toussaint, taciturn by nature, joined in the singing around the fire, surprising everyone with his beautiful baritone voice.
     He breathed deeply of the air, fresh and crisp. He enjoyed the feeling of the sun bathing his face and hands, and the sight of the animals coming out to take advantage of the warming air as the sun burned off the night chill.
     As Ben looked ahead, something about what he saw bothered him, but it took a few seconds for his brain to process what he was seeing.
     Off in the distance, he could see Holman’s horse idly grazing. But, there was no sign of the trooper. Ben senses’ went on alert. He raised his hand, halting the column.  Toussaint quickly rode up beside him.
     “What’s the matter?” he asked.
     Ben pointed. “I see Tom’s horse, but I don’t see him,” he said tensely.
     He quickly went through possible scenarios in his mind. He hadn’t heard gunfire, and there wasn’t enough cover in front of them for an Indian with a bow to hide, so it couldn’t be a hostile attack. Holman was a good horseman who wouldn’t just fall off his horse, and it he’d gotten off for some reason, Ben should be able to see him. A standing man was visible for miles on the flat terrain.
     “You want me to go up and check?” Toussaint asked.
     “No, you stay here with the unit. I’ll take Malachi with me.”
     Ben called Private Malachi Davis forward. Davis was the best shot in the unit. If firepower was needed, Ben felt confident with the youngster at his side. He pulled his horse around and kicked it forward toward Holman’s grazing mount. Davis followed close behind.
     As they got closer, Ben saw a dark shape on the ground. At first, he feared it might be a dead body, but then he saw it move. Closer still and they heard the moans. It was Holman, writhing on the ground. They halted their horses and both men vaulted from the saddle.
     “Keep a share lookout, Malachi,” Ben said, kneeling next to Holman. “Tom, what happened?”
     The corporal’s dark face was contorted in pain. “O-o-ow!” he cried. “My horse was spooked by a snake, and throwed me. I think I done broke my leg.” He pointed to his left leg which was at a strange angle from his body.
    Ben felt gingerly along Holman’s leg, staring at his hip. As he reached a point about eight inches above the knee, he felt a sharp bump, and Holman screamed in agony. Ben quickly removed his hand.
     “Yeah, it appears broken all right,” he said. “Malachi, go get the others. We’ll have to make camp here until I can figure out what to do.” He laid a hand on the injured trooper’s shoulder. “You just lay back and rest, Tom. We’re gonna have to set that broken leg somehow.”
     Holman’s brow was covered with beads of sweat. He spoke through clenched jaws. “It hurt somethin’ awful, Ben,” he said. “I don’t think I can ride.”
     “Don’t worry; we’re not too far from the fort. I’ll send somebody to get a wagon.”
     Ben rose and walked over to retrieve Holman’s horse, which he tethered to a small bush next to his own. He began gathering twigs for a fire, glancing constantly at his friend, who still moaned occasionally. He had just finished stacking the wood near Holman, and was about to light it when the rest of the detachment rode up.
     Toussaint rushed over to him. “Malachi told me what happened,” he said. “What we gone do?”
     “We’ll set up camp here. We need to try and set that broken leg, too.” Ben issued rapid fire orders. “Send Hezekiah on to the fort to get a wagon to transport Tom.”
     The big sergeant whirled and began carrying out Ben’s orders. Ben motioned for Corporal Samuel Hightower join him next to Holman.
     “Yeah, Ben,” Hightower said. “What you need?”
     “We need to set this broken leg,” Ben said. His face was creased with worry. “I’m not sure I know how to do it properly. I was hopin’ maybe you’d learned how when you and your ma lived with the Indians.”
     Hightower nodded. “I reckon I might be able to. I need four pieces of wood, as straight as possible, and about the length of his leg from crotch to the ground, and some twine.”
     “I can do that,” Ben said. He hurried off, scanning the surrounding terrain for something matching Hightower’s request.
     He found two pieces of the length Hightower wanted, so the corporal used four shorter pieces to make up for the missing lengths. They cut strips from Holman’s saddle bag to secure the wood to his injured leg. Ben had to hold him down as Hightower affixed the makeshift splint. When they were done, Holman lay back, his face and upper body slick with sweat, his chest heaving. He looked up at his two friends, his eyes clouded with pain.
     “How you feelin’, pardner?” Hightower asked.
     “Like I done been stomped by a Brahma bull, is how,” Holman replied. “Did you have to be so rough puttin’ this here splint on?”
     “I needed to cinch it up tight so them broke bones don’t move around. I done seen a bad splint let the bones move and they cut a vein. That happen, you’d bleed to death.”
     Holman winced. “Oh, in that case, I forgive you.”
     “Hey, Tom, we got some vittles goin’, you feel up to eatin’?” Ben said.
     Holman smiled weakly. “I done broke my leg, not my belly. ‘Course I feel like eatin’.”
     Ben had him lie back and rest, his saddle as a pillow and wool blankets below him and covering him, while the men set about erecting tents and getting their supper of beans, beef, and biscuits done.
     The sun was below the peaks behind them, casting long dark shadows over the plain, by the time Private Hezekiah Layton returned from the fort, accompanied by the post doctor and a wagon driven by a husky corporal.
     The doctor examined Holman’s leg, while the corporal untied the wagon’s two horses and put them in with the detachment’s animals who had been tethered in an area twenty feet downwind of the circle of tents they’d erected.
     When he’d finished his examination, the doctor, a gaunt captain with lank brown hair and watery blue eyes, stood and turned to Ben. “That’s a pretty bad fracture he’s got,” he said. “Can’t do much but try and keep him comfortable, though, ‘till we get back to the fort hospital. You did a pretty good job of settin’ it, sergeant.”
     “Thank you, sir,” Ben said. “But, it was Corporal Hightower that did that.” Ben looked around. “I notice you and the driver didn’t bring tents. You can use mine, and I’ll bunk with one of the others. The driver can do the same.”
     The captain laughed. “Reckon I wasn’t thinkin’ too clearly. I appreciate that, sergeant. Reckon we’ll need to borrow mess kits as well.”
     Ben shrugged. That the officer hadn’t thought to equip himself for an overnight stay didn’t surprise him, but he was a bit disappointed in the corporal. Troopers of the Ninth were supposed to be field ready at all times – his men now were. This one, though, had obviously been in garrison too long.
     “No problem, sir,” he said. “We have extras in the supplies. Brought ‘em along in case we had any lost or damaged.”
     That, Ben thought, was what it really meant to be a cavalry trooper.
 
 

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