Saturday, January 21, 2012

Buffalo Soldier: Trial by Fire - First Chapter

Following is chapter one of "Buffalo Soldier:  Trial by Fire," a fictional account of the exploits of the U.S. 9th Cavalry, "Buffalo Soldiers," which will soon be available in paperback at and when I can get the software to work as a NOOK book on Barnes and Noble.

     Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Carter rode hunched in the saddle.

     He’d been on the trail for two days, riding from sunup, stopping when the sun was at its highest to eat a sparse meal of beef jerky, hardtack biscuit, and tepid coffee brewed over a small fire, until the sun was perched on the horizon.  He would then find a bit of relatively soft ground, where he’d lay out his blanket and, using his saddle for a pillow, get a few hours sleep until the first light of the morning sun awakened him.

     It was still getting on to about an hour before noon, and he reckoned he was no more than an hour’s ride from his destination.

     He’d been sent from Fort Davis to take charge of a detachment of soldiers from the 9th Calvary Regiment’s F Troop, who’d been stationed in a valley not far from the Mexican border to guard the scattered ranches in the area from marauding Comanche warriors who occasionally crossed the border to attack.  The former sergeant in charge, Staff Sergeant Willie Jenkins, had been stung by a scorpion and was still laid up in the Fort Davis infirmary, his leg swollen to nearly twice its size.

     Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, the officer commanding C, D, F, G, H, and I Troops, had called Ben into his office after Jenkins had been brought back, and the trooper who’d escorted him back had ridden off to rejoin his comrades.

     Ben walked in, positioned himself three feet from the colonel’s desk, and saluted smartly.  His mahogany face was impassive as he stared at a point an inch above the portly white officer’s head.

     “Sergeant Benjamin Carter reporting as ordered, sir,” he said.

     Merritt returned the salute with a wave of his hand.

     “At ease, sergeant,” he said.

     Ben snapped his feet shoulder width apart and put his hands in the small of his back, his elbows making perfect forty-five degree angles.  He continued to look at the space above the colonel’s head.

     A patient man, especially where his enlisted troopers were concerned, Merritt simply looked at the paper on his desk for a few minutes to let the man standing stiffly in front of his desk relax; as far as he knew this particular soldier could ever relax.  Finally, he looked up at Ben.

     “Sergeant Carter, do you know why I called you here?” he asked.

     “No, sir,” Ben replied.  “The captain just told me to report to you.”

     “I’ve been studying your record, Carter,” the colonel said, tapping the paper on the desk.  “Says here you’ve been a pretty good soldier in the field since you signed up four years ago down in New Orleans, but you’ve been promoted to sergeant three times.  You seem to have a problem with garrison duty.”

     A brief frown creased Ben’s brown face, and then he quickly went back to his normal blank gaze.

     “Colonel, sir,” he said.  “I don’t have no problem with authority. I follow whatever orders my officer gives me, sir.”

     “That’s true, son; as far as it goes.  All the officers you’ve served under give you high marks,” Merritt said. “I guess I should have said, you seem to have problem with civilian authority.”

     “Sir, I don’t have a problem with people who don’t try pushing me around,” Ben said.  “It’s just some of these people seem to forget sometime that us black folk been freed; we ain’t no slaves no more, so they can’t just be ordering us around like we was.”

     “I sympathize with how you feel, sergeant; but, you have to remember that many of the white people here never had to deal with your people as equals before,” the colonel said.  “A lot of these Texans fought for the confederacy, and they’ve yet to come to terms with having lost the war.  Seeing a colored man walking around in a federal uniform just doesn’t set right with them.  You have to take that into account.  Now, you have a right to defend yourself, but this last incident down at Fort Clark was a bit excessive.  You beat a man half to death, and when the sheriff tried to pull you off him, you broke his jaw.”

     Ben winced.  He had to admit that maybe he’d gone too far in that incident.  He was surprised that they hadn’t cashiered him for it.  But, he still felt justified in beating the dumb hick.

     “Yes, sir,” he said. “I know I done wrong hitting that sheriff, and I apologized to him for that.  As for that cowboy; he was kicking on that poor old Indian something fierce, and nobody would do anything to stop him.  I just couldn’t stand by and do nothing.  When I told him to stop, he turned around and took a poke at me.”

     “You know, you could have been court-martialed and kicked out of the army for that, son.  If it wasn’t for you being such a good soldier in the field, and all the officers sticking up for you, you would have been.”

     “I know that, colonel; and, I do surely appreciate it,” Ben said.  “I ain’t had any problems since they sent me up here from Fort Clark, and I ain’t gonna have any, I swear on my mother’s grave.”

     “I hope you’re right about that, Carter,” the colonel said.  “You’re on probation here.  Of course, you’ve only been here a week, and you haven’t left the fort since you arrived, but, you can’t stay cooped up here forever.  One of these days, you’ll want to go into town, and the folk here aren’t much different than the ones down in Fort Clark.”

     “Ain’t got any need to go into town, sir.  I’m happy just staying here and reading.”

     “You haven’t made one friend among the other men since you arrived.  I don’t think that’s a situation that’s good for your morale or the morale of the unit.”

      “Most of them are from Louisiana, down around New Orleans,” Ben said.  “We don’t have much to talk to each other about.”

       “It shouldn’t matter where you come from, son.  Here, we’re all in the same army.  So, Carter, here’s what I’m going to do; you seem to be at your best out in the field, and we have need for a good sergeant with one of F Troop’s detachments over in the Sandy Gulch area.”

     “You mean the guys out there protecting the ranchers from Comanche raids, sir?”

     “The very one,” the colonel said.  “They don’t have much contact with the ranchers, and they get lots of action against the hostiles.  Old Scarred Nose and his warriors have been coming up from Mexico and steeling cattle on a fairly regular basis.”

     Ben smiled.  That was why he’d made his way from the little hard scrabble farm his father had worked hard to eke a living from for the two of them since his mother died, and walked all the way to New Orleans to enlist.

     “When do I leave, sir?”

     “Soon as you can get your horse and gear ready,” the colonel said.  “There’s just one thing more; the lieutenant in charge of the detachment came down with some kind of illness and we had to pull him back here, and Staff Sergeant Jenkins forgot to check his boots before putting them on and stepped on a scorpion.  He’s not going to be fit for duty for several weeks.  So, I’m sending you out to take command of the detachment.”

     Ben’s eyes narrowed.  This wasn’t what he was expecting.

     “But, colonel, I ain’t never been in charge of men before, and I don’t know if these geechies from Louisiana gonna want to take orders from me.”

      “Carter, you’re a sergeant of cavalry, and an experienced field trooper.  I expect you to take charge and fulfill the mission assigned to you.  Are, would you prefer having mess duty for the rest of your time at Fort Davis?”

     Ben snapped to attention and saluted smartly.

     “I’ll be on the trail in an hour, sir.”

     He wheeled around and marched out.  As he closed the door, he could hear Colonel Merritt chuckling.