Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
Available Now Site-wide ad space Top right corner, replacing the ad to the right. $25 per month. Click HERE to find out more.
Western Short Story
“Ain’t takin’ no more.”
Judd Rutledge examined his blistered hands. Then wiped grime and sweat from his baked forehead.
An unmerciful sun scorched two other Army Privates grudgingly attacking the hard soil with picks and shovels of what would soon become Wyoming Territory.
The year was 1866. The recently concluded War Between the States still plagued the minds of the three ex-Confederates, now bound by loyalty oaths as Union soldiers. They were among hundreds of captured Rebels freed during the war to fight Indians in the West.
“Soldier’s got the right to bitch,” agreed Billie Ray Higgins, son of a Georgia sharecropper. Blisters also covered his stubby, splinter-scarred hands. Only noncoms had work gloves.
The men were trying to twist new fence posts into the rocky ground.
Rutledge, Higgins, and Buford Plunkett had spent three weeks dragging rocks from the nearby creek. They grunted them into place as the walls of a small building that would house some saddles, tack and grain, and provide protection against possible Sioux Indian attacks. They were now constructing an adjoining corral made from polls hacked and dragged from trees lining the same shallow creek that twisted below remote Fort Challenge.
The sun played a hot tattoo on the trio’s backs and arms. They had toiled since before dawn, digging postholes and wrestling heavy logs into place.
The men were sweating out punishment under the watchful eye of First Sgt. Boyle, a big, square-jawed noncom with a tree-stump body. He cussed at the men, accused them of malingering.
Boyle, a battle-hardened veteran, shouted: “You Rebs are soldiering in the real Army, now.” He hated secessionists, whether they’d later sworn Union allegiance or not.
“Bunch of damn double traitors.” He snarled and spat in the dust.
The weathered Sergeant slouched nearby under a shady cottonwood tree. He produced a tooth-stained grin and shouted at the men laboring in the afternoon heat:
“You boys are livin’ the good life. Got good hardtack, soft bunks, boots, and thirteen dollars a month in real U.S. cash-money, not that worthless Confederate stuff. That paper’s only good for outhouses.”
His cutting laugh was deep and loud.
“I’d like to bash that bastard’s head in,” growled Rutledge. He slammed his heavy pick into the hard ground, beginning another posthole.
Plunkett grabbed his arm. “Quiet! The Sarge’ll hear you.”
“Don’t give a damn!” Rutledge took another angry swing with his pick. A small clod bounced to one side.
Sgt. Boyle laughed and settled his broad rump on a log. He turned his back, and pressed his wide mouth and bad teeth to a small whiskey flask slid from his boot. His puffy face, a mixture of bad times and cheap liquor, had the look of aged beef. Tiny veins mapped his bulbous nose. A cigar usually poked from the corner of his mouth beneath a broad, tobacco-stained mustache.
It was Pvt. Judd Rutledge’s tenth month at the frontier post.
A year before, from military prison, he had written to his family in war-torn Tennessee: “One more day in this northern hellhole and I’ll starve to death. Good men are dying here ever day. The souths loozing the war and I gotta eet.”
He’d lost forty pounds by the time he swore allegiance to the Union and joined Lincoln’s Army; the bad taste in his mouth replaced with food. His family called him a traitor. Tad, his youngest brother had died at Chickamauga.
Rutledge was issued an ill-fitting uniform and shipped west. Six months later the war ended with hundreds of Fort Challenge’s disgruntled ex-Confederates bound to long Union enlistments.
Frontier Army rations were almost as bad as prison, complained Rutledge: rancid bacon, bug-crawling corn meal, gritty beans, hardtack, tasteless coffee, and creek water, no better than a swamp’s, for drinking.
And Fort Challenge’s hard bunks and thin mattresses were infested with bedbugs and fleas.
Hardship and discipline in Army blue was just short of the Union prison Rutledge thought he’d left.
Foot blistering long marches under full packs and rifles came during searing summers and bone-chilling winters.
“Keep up, men!” Sgt. Boyle yelled and screamed at the line of staggering marchers. The barrel-bodied Sergeant frequently rubbed at his stiff left elbow. A Rebel’s mini-ball had guaranteed it would never be straight again.
Most officers and noncoms at the outpost were wounded Union replacements sent west during the war to relieve fit soldiers for combat.
There were also hours troopers spent digging latrines, or working a pitchfork and broom in the hot, airless horse stables, or grinding drills on the rutted parade ground under the wrath of Sgt. Boyle, angry over his war injury. His behind-the-stable night beatings of out- of-line soldiers were common.
Now Judd Rutledge was a “Yankee” with two years remaining on his enlistment.
There was also Fort Challenge’s commander, Col. Clayton Armstrong, a one-eyed peacock nicknamed “Old Cyclops” by his soldiers. He had been a Union Brevet General during the war. The short, overweight officer often mumbled or laughed to himself, whether inspecting troops, or alone at his desk, or dining with his officers.
Rutledge thought he was crazy.
A thick eyelid sagged like a turkey-neck over Col. Armstrong’s milk- white left eye. It stared from a forehead and cheek etched with a deep, ragged scar. Usually the aging soldier hid the ghastly eye behind a black eye-patch.
Blinded by a sniper’s bullet at Chickamauga, Armstrong had fought on, becoming one of the north’s most decorated officers.
But soldiers on both sides of the Civil War denounced him as the “The Bloody General.” They remembered his willingness to sacrifice men in needless open-field charges directed with a saber, aided by a whiskey flask.
Northern newspapers heralded Armstrong in front-page headlines and engravings as the “Hero of Chickamauga,” an opportunity he arrogantly used to openly challenge the Army’s leadership.
With war’s end, most generals retired or left the top-heavy officer corps. As a war hero, Armstrong pulled what few strings he had to remain in service. But his long-running conflict with superiors placed him beyond the reach of Washington’s fawning press.
Returned to his pre-war rank of Colonel, the squat-nosed bantam now commanded Fort Challenge, a backwater outpost, his heroics soon forgotten; his constant requests for eastern transfer ignored.
A young wife, embarrassed by her husband’s disfigurement and mutterings, remained east with her wealthy family, a powerful clan reportedly unwilling to pull political strings for Armstrong’s transfer.
“Rabble!” cursed Armstrong, when Rutledge and a hundred ex- Confederates, under full backpacks, first staggered into Fort Challenge. They were ending a weeklong march to their first assignments as Union soldiers.
“Yes, sir,” agreed Sgt. Boyle, his thick arms folded across his gorilla chest. He stood with Cpl. Hiram Green, a shorter, but equally big-boned version of the Sergeant.
“Traitors!” spat Col. Armstrong. His one eye blazed.
Both noncoms agreed.
The new arrivals sagged at attention.
“Should of hung ‘em all,” quietly growled Armstrong. “Especially that damned General Robert E. Lee.” Lee had been a classmate of Armstrong’s at West Point.
“Col. Armstrong, sir, I hate these Reb cottonmouths as much as you do,” growled Sgt. Boyle. “But they’re Union now, and I go by the book. Yankee or Reb, I treat ‘em all the same. Can’t go wrong goin’ by Army
regulations! No, sir.”
Armstrong surveyed the troop. “Rabble!” he repeated. A smile twisted across his scarred face. “Sergeant, give them some good Union double-time before releasing them to quarters.”
Mumbling, Col. Armstrong wandered off, leaving Sgt. Boyle and Cpl. Green to run the exhausted recruits around the Fort’s sweltering parade ground.
“Too many men died for his damned medals,” Boyle confided to Green. “Ain’t no better than we are. Just another damned officer! Twenty-four months and I’m retired. You can have my stripes. Gonna buy me a
saloon. Drink when I like, and never kiss ass, or say sir to no damned officer, ever again!”
From day one, Sgt. Boyle took a personal dislike to young Pvt. Rutledge, goading and belittling the tall, lanky ex-Confederate at every opportunity.
He made Rutledge work longer and harder in all kinds of weather, from unloading wagons to digging latrines.
One encounter Rutledge never forgot.
He had been cleaning horse stalls since before daylight. It was late afternoon. The dark stables reeked of horse manure and urine, and swarmed with flies. Rutledge’s back hurt. He rested on a barrel, and leaned against the stable wall, his pitchfork at his side.
“On your feet, Pvt. Rutledge!” barked Sgt. Boyle, stepping from behind a musty stall. “This ain’t no southern cotillion! There’s work to be done, soldier!”
Rutledge slowly rose from the barrel. His work uniform soaked with sweat. “Need a break, Sarge,” he pleaded.
“You ain’t getting’ none, Reb,” growled Sgt. Boyle. He blew cigar smoke in the trooper’s dripping face.
Rutledge lifted his pitchfork.
“Use that straw-stabber on me,” snarled Sgt. Boyle, “and I’ll stomp you into the ground. Then I’ll hang ya! Now, get back to work!”
The beefy Sergeant laughed and turned, daring Rutledge to jab the metal shafts into his back.
Rutledge was tempted, but declined, knowing he’d be courts martialed and hanged.
Weeks earlier, on the firing range, Rutledge placed his first rifle ball through the target’s bull’s eye at 200-yards.
Sgt. Boyle spat in the dust near Rutledge’s right boot.
Col. Armstrong stopped muttering and lowered a battered telescope from his eye. He smelled of whiskey. “Good shooting, soldier.” His compliments were rare.
“L-Lucky shot, sir,” replied Rutledge. He was sprawled on his belly, his rifle barrel pointed downrange across a sandbag.
“Where’d you learn to shoot, soldier?”
“H-Hunting in the hills of...of T-Tennessee,” stammered Rutledge. “Helped put...put meat on the table.”
Sgt. Boyle kicked Rutledge’s boot, and growled: “Soldier, you say sir when addressing an officer!”
“Sir!” corrected Rutledge.
The Colonel frowned. “I fought Tennessee infantry at Chickamauga. Were you there?”
Rutledge stared downrange, his face pale under the shadow of his field cap. He hesitated. “Y-Yes...yes, sir...me and my kid brother.”
Armstrong rubbed under his eye patch. His good eye expanded and glared. “Were you a sharpshooter on the lines?” he asked.
“No...No, sir. Had...had d-duties behind the lines, sir.”
Col. Armstrong grunted, returned to muttering and walked away.
Rutledge’s second and third shots splintered the target’s wooden frame.
“Ain’t always so lucky, is you Reb?” snarled Sgt. Boyle. He side- kicked Rutledge’s boot and walked toward the next man sprawled on the firing line.
Another time Rutledge suffered a beating by the swaggering Sergeant.
“What happened to you?” asked Pvt. Rufus Blaine. He and Rutledge had soldiered together, and been recruited from the same Yankee prison.
“Nothin’.” Rutledge checked a loose tooth. “Boyle’s still fighting the damned war. Hates us Rebs whether we’re wearing Union blue or not. Caught me sneakin’ a smoke on duty.”
Staying out of the Sergeant’s way was impossible in the small Fort.
“Pvt. Rutledge!” yelled Boyle. “You’ve got picket duty tonight. Midnight to four. Mulvane’s sick.”
Rutledge pulled guard duty three consecutive nights. “Ain’t nobody to complain to,” he yawned, trying to stay awake the next morning. He was spit-polishing his boots for inspection.
Later the Sergeant found the off-duty Rutledge resting on his bunk, eyeing a tiny picture of a young woman. A small package and several letters had arrived that morning from Rutledge’s forgiving family.
Boyle grabbed the framed picture:
“This one of them ‘hog ranch’ whores outside the Fort?” he asked.
“Gimme that.” Rutledge leaped up, scattering mail. “That’s my kid sister, Clara.”
“Tramp meat!” Boyle laughed and circled inside the crowded barracks, waving the photograph.
No one else laughed.
Rutledge dived for the picture as Boyle lifted his right leg, kicking the air out of the younger man’s stomach. With his right hand he lifted Rutledge from the dirt floor, and slammed him against the barrack’s wall.
“Ain’t throwin’ your lazy ass in the stockade this time, copperhead,” he growled. “Got somethin’ better.”
That’s why Rutledge and two other troopers were beginning their fourth week laboring in the sun, building an off-post corral.
Rutledge had long wanted to flee Fort Challenge, but the fear of death, or another military prison held him. Now he was determined to escape, or die in the attempt.
He had hoped to eventually earn Corporal or Sergeant stripes by fighting Indians. But months of living under Sgt. Boyle were enough. He could take the mealy bread, boredom, and simmering summers and cold winters, but not Boyle’s cruelty, or watching more soldiers die from disease than battle. There had also been desertions and suicides.
Rutledge’s first winter had been hard, pursuing hostile Indians. But he had survived the snow, forced marches and battles, despite bad food and medical care.
Rutledge had planned to escape alone until Pvts. Buford Plunkett and Billie Ray Higgins discovered his supplies and crude map hidden outside the Fort.
“Take us along,” pleaded Higgins. The three were pounding another post into the hardpan at the corral.
“Quiet!” whispered Rutledge.
Sgt. Boyle napped nearby in the lengthening shade, an empty flask in his hand.
“We’re as sick of these Yanks as you are, Rutledge,” said Plunkett. “Ya gotta take us.”
If caught, they knew their fate, because deserters had been hanged at Fort Challenge.
* * *
A week later, hours before dawn, three shadowy figures quietly left their hard bunks inside the Fort, and climbed onto the nearby stable.
“Careful,” whispered Rutledge, crawling across the sagging roof. “It’s rotten along here.”
The roof creaked. Inside, a horse whinnied.
Toting canteens and food they slowly scaled the Fort’s inside wall and dropped outside. Ten dollars and a bottle of cheap whiskey guaranteed the night guard wasn’t looking.
Rutledge had a pistol he’d stolen from the armory that day. Plunkett and Higgins would retrieve an old muzzleloader they’d bought from a trapper and hidden outside the Fort.
The escapees hurried past the unfinished corral to the creek. Then squirmed through thick willows and deep underbrush until they found three horses tied to a tree.
“He’s sold us old nags,” cursed Plunkett. “Mine’s as skinny as a rail.”
The swayback horses came from the bribed owner of the nearby small settlement’s only livery stable.
“Daggummit!” complained Higgins. “Mine’s an old plow puller. Look at these bony ribs and horse-collar scars.”
“Where’s the saddles?” cried Plunkett. “We paid good money for--”
“Stop bellyachin’ and get movin’,” ordered Rutledge. “We can’t take ‘em back.”
By noon they rested miles south in a shallow ravine on the plains, marred only by low hills and isolated buttes.
“Col. Armstrong ain’t ketchin’ us now,” grinned Plunkett, sipping canteen water. It was hot.
“I ain’t stoppin’,” declared Rutledge.
“Aw, come on,” pleaded Higgins. “Even with these old nags we got us a lead a Tennessee racehorse couldn’t ketch.” He yawned and crawled into a patch of shade.
Rutledge remounted. “Ain’t chancin’ bein’ hanged,” he said. “I’m movin’ on.”
Hours later his horse went lame, then collapsed. Rutledge removed the bridle and turned the old mare loose. He began walking, his knapsack and canteen over his shoulder, the stolen pistol holstered at his waist.
“Thievin’ stable owner.” He cursed and kicked dust.
Later he thought he heard a far-off bugle and gunshots. He looked north, but couldn’t see anything. He put his ear to the ground. He lay still, listening.
The sounds—-imagined or real—-didn’t return.
By late afternoon half his water was gone. The heat was worse than expected. The prairie was vacant, except for an occasional bird, a scurrying rabbit, or the wind rustling the sparse grass. Once he saw a
small herd of buffalo in the distance.
His hunting knife and pistol were his only weapons.
In the northeast were the desolate Black Hills and the gateway to the Great Plains. In the west and south were mountains and uncertainty. His map indicated possible frontier settlements and ranches toward the
east where he was headed.
He walked through the desert sunset, hoping to see a light from a town or ranch. Walking at night was cooler.
Hours later, out of the darkness, he heard running horses. Rutledge flattened himself on the ground as a large Indian war party swept north, only yards away, their lances and shields silhouetted by a slice of moon. The sound of pony hooves slowly faded.
Miles later, exhausted, he slept on the ground under a million stars and the night’s warm, windy fingers.
Near dawn he felt hot breath and moisture on the back of his neck. He yelled and lashed out at a snarling shadow. Whatever it was yelped and fled, dragging Rutledge’s knapsack, leaving behind teeth marks on his left hand.
“Dammit!” He fired his pistol twice, but missed whatever scurried away.
Wolf? Coyote? Badger? He couldn’t tell. Angrily, he stumbled on in the dark, hoping to recapture his supplies and map, but never did.
“Whatever it was didn’t get these,” said Rutledge. He patted a shirt pocket of hardtack—-his only remaining food--and shook his half-empty canteen.
By daylight a wind churned the prairie, bringing clouds of dust. Again, he thought he heard faint sounds of gunfire riding the north wind. He squinted, but couldn’t see anything.
“Indians, or that damned Armstrong and Boyle,” he said. “Hope they haven’t caught Plunkett and Higgins.”
There was little concealment, just rare clumps of brush and sage. Rutledge quickened his pace as the sounds came again-—only closer. He recognized the familiar noise of a cavalry column. The hoof beats reached his ears long before a guide-on flag pierced the northern horizon.
“Gotta hide!” The words tumbled from Rutledge’s chapped lips.
He ran forward, boots crunching the ground. A hundred yards ahead was a dry sea of brown grass pocked with scattered buffalo wallows and clumps of sage.
He continued, bent over, eyes darting, seeking some kind of shelter. A mile back he had passed through a dry creek bed, but now none was in sight.
Within minutes a column of mounted horses and blue uniforms broke free from the horizon and slowly advanced, dancing through shimmering heat waves on an endless flat-lake mirage.
Rutledge frantically kicked at the inside edge of the deepest buffalo wallow he could find. He thrust his knife into the hard ground, desperately hacking and scraping a long narrow furrow below its northern rim. Belly down, he squirmed into the shallow depression.
Panic gripped his dry throat.
“Column, halt,” bellowed Sgt. Boyle. He rode with Col. Armstrong at the head of the column.
It stopped less than a hundred yards from Rutledge. Rutledge’s abandoned horse limped at the rear of the column.
Rutledge tried not to breathe as dust choked his nostrils.
Weary troopers slid from their saddles, and stood stiff-legged, relieving themselves. Some sipped at their canteens.
Staggering in tattered, dirty uniforms alongside Rutledge’s abandoned horse were Privates Billie Ray Higgins and Buford Plunkett. Tied on long ropes to the last rider, they dropped to the ground and begged for water.
Rutledge remained motionless, face down, stifling the urge to cough, arms along his sides, his hat crumpled under his chest. His right ear against hard pack, he heard boots and hooves scraping only yards away. His right hand gripped his pistol.
If discovered, he vowed to shoot Sgt. Boyle first; then Col. Armstrong.
A tall, thin trooper walked toward Rutledge’s buffalo wallow. It was Pvt. Rufus Blaine. He rubbed at his bruised chin, evidence of Sgt. Boyle’s recent post-escape interrogation.
He also rubbed at his stiff legs. He sucked at his canteen, then bent and searched the ground. He collected arrowheads. Unknowingly, he moved toward Rutledge’s hiding place. Suddenly he knelt.
“Jumpin’ turnips,” he whispered, fingering a fresh heel print in a patch of sandy soil. Mouth open, his gray eyes followed the impressions to the lip of the buffalo wallow.
Twenty feet away he saw Rutledge’s head and back.
Sgt. Boyle suddenly yelled and walked from the column toward Blaine. “Find anything, Pvt. Blaine?” he shouted.
The soldier turned and yelled: “Nothin’, Sarge. Thought they was arrowheads. Only rocks.”
Sgt. Boyle returned to the column.
Still squatting, Blaine inched closer to Rutledge. Then stood above the fugitive.
Rutledge twisted his head: “Blaine,” he whispered, “don’t turn me in. We fought together for Tennessee.”
“Don’t move,” breathed Blaine from the side of his mouth, eyes faking his search for arrowheads. “Old Cyclops will have us movin’ soon.”
Blaine knelt again, his back to the cavalry unit. He raised his canteen and faked a swallow. Then, shielding it with his body, he dribbled water into Rutledge’s eager mouth.
“Thanks,” muttered the deserter.
Sgt. Boyle yelled, “Blaine!” and again moved toward the trooper.
“Gotta go,” whispered Blaine. “Hope you make it, Rutledge.” He corked his canteen, twisted on his haunches, and ran back to the column.
“Yo, Sergeant,” he yelled.
“Ration your damned water!”
Equipment rattled as Col. Armstrong cursed, spun his horse, and galloped toward Pvts. Plunkett and Higgins at the rear of the column. Plunkett was gulping from a trooper’s canteen.
“Damned deserters!” bellowed Armstrong. He knocked the canteen from Plunkett’s shaky grasp.
“No one shames my command,” he roared, slashing Plunkett with his riding crop. The Colonel’s eye patch flapped above facial scars that now pulsed with pink freshness. “By God, I’ll teach you rebels discipline!”
Plunkett and Higgins cowered in their dirty uniforms.
Armstrong turned his horse and slashed at the trooper who had shared his canteen. “Soldier, who gave you permission to give these prisoners water?”
“Th-Thought it was...was the Christian th-thing to do, s-sir,” stammered the red-faced soldier.
“Sgt. Boyle!” screamed Armstrong.
Boyle sighed, and rushed to the Colonel. “Sir,” he said.
“This trooper’s on report,” bellowed Armstrong. “No water till Fort Challenge, and thirty days hard labor. That clear, Sergeant?”
Rutledge heard, but didn’t dare look.
“Riders comin’, Colonel, sir,” shouted a trooper from the edge of the column.
A small soldier on a big lathered horse reined up, and saluted. He was pale and sweaty. A leather dispatch case flopped at his side.
“Fort Challenge’s...under...under In-Indian a-attack, sir,” he gasped. He slumped forward in his saddle.
Ignoring the salute, Col. Armstrong ripped open the dispatch case. His single eye quickly scanned an enclosed paper.
“Sgt. Boyle!” he commanded.
Boyle clicked his heels. “Sir!”
“Make an example of the prisoners.”
Unsure of the order, the barrel-chested Sergeant stepped closer to the mounted officer. “Sir?” he repeated, squinting into the sun.
The officer’s eye bulged. He waved the dispatch toward Plunkett and Higgins. “Shoot them, Sergeant! Fort Challenge’s under attack!”
“Sir, these men ain’t been court martialed.”
Armstrong muttered and cursed. “They’ll hold us back.”
“Sergeant,” said Armstrong, “you having trouble understanding an
“No, sir.” Boyle sighed and slowly saluted the pudgy Colonel. He turned to the dismounted soldiers of the column. All had watched and listened.
“Need ten volunteers,” he shouted so every trooper could hear.
“Wasting time, Sergeant,” snapped Col. Armstrong. “Shoot the damned prisoners!”
Boyle hated Confederates. But this was murder.
“My G-God, Higgins,” gasped Pvt. Plunkett, “there g-gonna k-kill us.” He wanted to flee. All moisture left his gaping mouth.
Higgins began babbling. He wanted to run, too. But there was no place for the two deserters to hide.
Big veins suddenly appeared on Sgt. Boyle’s forehead and nose. “But, Colonel, sir?” he pleaded.
Leaning from his horse, Col. Armstrong shoved a stubby finger in Boyle’s face. “Just do it! That’s a direct order, Sgt. Boyle.”
Pvt. Higgins whimpered. A circle of water appeared on the front of his pants and spread down his left leg.
Now muttering like Col. Armstrong, Sgt. Boyle shuffled toward the two prisoners. He removed his pistol and raised it. He looked from Higgins to Plunkett, his back to Armstrong. He stood silently, unmoving.
“Sergeant,” screamed Col. Armstrong, “shoot them! That’s a direct order.”
Sgt. Boyle shook his head, and shoved his weapon back in its holster. He spun, and snapped to attention, facing the senior officer.
“This ain’t right, sir,” he said, teeth clenched. “I respectfully decline your direct order, Colonel, sir. I’m a book man, sir. And the book says it’s against military regulations to shoot prisoners—-even these Rebs--without a court martial.”
Armstrong drew his pistol, and thrust its long barrel into the noncom’s defiant face. The Sergeant blinked, but didn’t move.
“Even if it means my pension, Colonel, sir,” said Boyle, “I ain’t shootin’ unarmed men—-not like this.“
Cursing, Col. Armstrong spurred his big roan. Its hind legs kicked at Sgt. Boyle as it slammed into Pvts. Higgins and Plunkett.
“No one deserts my command!” shouted Armstrong. His voice again reached every soldier in the column.
Rutledge, from the buffalo wallow, heard Higgins and Plunkett beg. Then he heard two consecutive shots.
Col. Armstrong wheeled his horse, and waved his smoking pistol in Sgt. Boyle’s sweating face. “Damn you!” he screamed. “I’ll court martial you for disobeying a direct order if it’s the last thing I ever do. Now, mount the troops, Sergeant. On the double.”
Higgins and Plunkett littered the ground like so much dirty laundry.
“That lame horse won’t make it either, Sergeant,” shouted Armstrong,
galloping back to the head of the column. “Think you can handle that?”
Rutledge’s old horse was nibbling dry grass.
Rutledge heard a third shot.
“And button your damned jacket,” shouted Col. Armstrong. “You’re setting a bad example for the men.”
After the pony soldiers galloped away, Rutledge vomited, relieving his stomach of what little food remained. He curled into the fetal position in the wallow and whimpered. His pain turned into sobs that rolled across the land like a trapped animal. Exhausted, he slept a disturbed sleep, yards from his fallen comrades. Later, below a cloud of circling buzzards, he staggered on. The setting sun burned at his back. He wept for his murdered companions, but was glad he’d pushed on.
He walked all night, often falling in the dark, as hunger, thirst and unseen demons gnawed at his stomach and mind.
It was morning when Rutledge saw something moving at the edge of his strained vision. Whatever it was hugged the ground, and limped. The trooper searched the sky, expecting to find the extended wings of a
shadow-making hawk, eagle, or buzzard. But there was none.
His gaze followed the illusive ground object as it darted and turned. Periodically it stopped. Eventually it slowly crawled toward him. It was a large, black animal.
“Maybe it’s the same creature that stole my knapsack,” mumbled Rutledge.
Slowly the gap between the beast and squatting man closed. The creature continued its crawl forward on the prairie, then stopped, sniffed the air, panted, and stared at the lean man.
Its thin ribs pushed against matted and tangled black hair. Its legs were like reeds; muscled, but without substance. There was a long wound above its left shoulder, a wound not yet healed in the thick fur. Its eyes revealed suspicion and fear.
The intruder looked half starved. Its thin sides heaved. It suddenly whined.
“Ain’t coyote, or wolf,” said Rutledge. A short frayed rope dragged the ground. It was attached to a leather collar that sagged from the big animal’s thin neck. “A dog? What’s somebody’s pet dog doing out
The animal stopped. It surveyed the stranger. Its long, swollen tongue probed the dry air.
The man spoke quietly. “You lost, boy?” He released a series of soft, come-here whistles. The dog whined again, and slowly wormed forward.
“Hungry, boy?” Rutledge still had some hardtack. He broke a biscuit, and tossed a small piece to the creature. It crept forward, sniffed, grabbed the morsel, and limped back. Sharp teeth devoured the food in one bite. The dog returned, hungrily accepting more of the stone-hard, flat biscuit. Each time, it came closer.
“You belong to somebody...or did, don’t you boy?” said Rutledge.
Far off to the southeast more buzzards circled. There had been buzzards above Higgins and Plunkett, but these were in the opposite direction from where he was heading.
Rutledge had little water, but knew the dog was thirsty.
He opened his canteen, and dribbled a few drops of water into his cupped hand. He extended his arm. The sad-eyed animal sniffed and again belly-crawled, cautiously dropping its eager tongue in the rough
palm. It quickly lapped the water, licked the hand clean, and begged for more.
Rutledge carefully filled his palm again, and, again, shared his meager supply of water. Little remained in the bottom of his canteen.
That night man and dog slept within yards of each other. Later, side- by-side, the soldier gently ran his fingers through the dog’s course fur, warned by a growl to carefully avoid its shoulder wound.
Rutledge was glad he was no longer alone. He now felt he might survive.
Sometime during the night he heard approaching horses. The dog heard them first, and growled.
“Quiet, boy,” whispered the fugitive. “Don’t give us away.” He sprawled on the ground, gripping the dog’s collar.
It was a large band of Indians moving in the opposite direction from those seen two nights before. Silhouettes of riders, lances, rifles and head feathers slowly moved past. Some riders appeared to be
wearing U.S. Army hats and jackets. Many were also leading saddled horses.
“What the hell?” breathed Rutledge.
After they passed, he continued east.
Near dawn, the dog whimpered, circled, and moved off to the side, guiding the trooper toward something.
“What is it boy?” Rutledge couldn’t tell.
Water? Rutledge doubted it, because the dog would have sniffed it long ago.
But if water, Rutledge would drink his fill, then drop his dirty body into its refreshing depths. Sleeping on the ground had brought countless insects that now considered his body their home. He scratched and poked at himself, but found little relief. He had crossed more creek beds, but they’d all been dry.
Minutes later he saw what appeared to be the ribs of a large dead animal shining in the first rays of morning.
He soon realized what it was. Thin metal hoops arched and glinted above the bed of a small covered wagon, its canvas cover ripped from its exposed ribs. A small piece of torn canvas flapped in a gentle, hot wind that came from the north.
The broken wagon was tipped to one side, its wheels wedged in the bottom of a small, grassy ravine.
The dog barked and ran ahead, then doubled back.
“That your wagon, boy? Your people?” asked Rutledge.
Arrows jutted from its splintered sides. Household belongings and overturned boxes and trunks littered the ground among weeds and sage.
A severed rope dangled from the wagon’s tailgate. It matched what had been the dog’s stubby leash.
A single set of wagon tracks came from the east.
Rutledge looked for more evidence of wagon tracks and horses. There was none. “Lost or stupid!” he exclaimed. “Can’t believe they were out here alone. What in the hell were they thinking...?”
Whining, the dog approached the wagon’s undercarriage, sniffed, whimpered and backed away.
“Something wrong, boy?”
Pistol cocked and raised, Rutledge picked up a long piece of broken sideboard and pushed aside the weeds under the wagon. A skeleton in torn gingham and yellow bonnet looked back. He covered his mouth with his free hand, gagged and turned away.
“Poor woman,” he said.
The dog whimpered again, and pressed its skinny body against the man’s leg. Suddenly it growled and pawed at the earth, its attention still focused under the wagon.
Rutledge heard a hissing noise and rattle. Both sounds were familiar. “Rattlesnakes!” he exclaimed. He quickly backed away, dragging the reluctant dog by its collar. A long rattler crawled from the thick weeds. It coiled and shook its tail once more, then crossed the wagon ruts and slithered north into clumps of sage.
Rutledge thought of crushing the snake with a large rock. But chasing a deadly rattler in underbrush wasn’t the best of ideas. Its bite could mean a slow, painful death! And firing his pistol might bring attention he didn’t want. And although hungry, he wasn’t sure he could eat raw snake.
He tipped his hat toward the departing reptile: “Have a nice trip,” he said.
A million flies buzzed the area and the scattered bones of two horses —-peppered with arrows—-twisted in harness in front of the wagon.
The soldier found a man’s hat in the gully, but not the man, or his
emains. Yards away a torn shirt lay in the weeds.
“Poor bastards,” he said. The dog pushed its dry nose into Rutledge’s hand.
“Well, lookie here,” said the trooper, poking his stick through scattered items. It was a battered canteen. Water sloshed inside. He smiled at the dog. “You’ve brought me luck, boy.”
The water was warm and stale. But he swallowed some. He found a cracked bowl and filled it for the dog. It was gone in a second. The dog’s brown eyes begged for more.
Rutledge exchanged his Army hat and shirt for those found in the weeds. He ripped the yellow cavalry stripes from his pants, and rubbed dirt along the exposed seams. He threw away his Army holster, reversed his belt and buckle, and stuffed his pistol inside his shirt. He smiled.
“Hope I look more like a down-on-his-luck miner or drunk, than a soldier,” he said. His eyes were sunken. He hadn’t washed or shaved since Fort Challenge.
Rutledge retraced the lone wagon trail for two days before it turned north, a direction he didn’t pursue. He continued east.
Hunger gnawed at his belly. His last hardtack biscuit held in reserve. He wanted to stop and make a rabbit snare, but pressed on, fearing a smoky fire would lure Indians, or another Army patrol. He searched the horizon. He was still alone.
The dog was more accepting. At night they continued to sleep together on the ground for both warmth and protection. The animal’s wound slowly healed. Its limp lessened.
Rutledge began seeing quail and more rabbits, and an occasional pronghorn antelope, but never close enough to shoot. There had also been an additional scattering of buffalo.
Toward noon the next day the dog stumbled on a meadowlark nest in the grass. The startled bird flew, leaving behind four small speckled eggs. Rutledge ate two, letting the raw yokes slide down his dry throat. His canine friend enjoyed the others.
Encouraged, the dog searched for more ground nests, and loped after inquisitive prairie dogs, but always returned to walk alongside Rutledge. An hour later, it sniffed the air, barked, and ran, limping toward a long dark line scarring the earth a mile ahead.
“Is that water?” questioned Rutledge, staggering behind the dog.
Both tumbled into a small creek that broke the prairie from a rolling stretch of shadow-streaked mountains. They flopped in the shallow stream, gulping and lapping its refreshing water. When filled, Rutledge nibbled on roots and tapirs he found along the bank; the dog favored the few green blades of grass.
Refreshed, they moved toward the mountains, and slopes covered with thick forests. The foothills gushed streams and endless tangles of wild berries, eagerly plucked from their thorny vines by Rutledge, who
quickly stuffed his empty stomach.
With darkness, they rested atop a forested ridge where a rutted logging road twisted, and dropped toward scattered lights that blinked far below in a smoky valley.
“There’s food there, boy.” Rutledge stroked the resting animal. “No sense breaking our necks in the dark.” They slept on a grassy slope beside the soft voice of a stream as a gentle wind rustled their canopy of pine trees. They shared a fire, their last hardtack biscuit, and a rabbit Rutledge snared near their campsite.
At first light they followed the steep logging road into a small hillside settlement called Millrace. It wasn’t much: tents, shacks, saloons, stables, freight wagons, and one or two storefronts balanced above a rushing creek. A noisy sawmill was the settlement’s main business.
Rutledge had just enough money for food and a horse.
“Hear about Fort Challenge?” asked a thin-lipped, bald merchant in the settlement’s company store. He elbowed the counter, while reading a small newspaper, and drinking coffee. “Paper came this mornin’.”
The storekeeper curled a lip at the stranger’s dirty clothes and unshaven face. Such men were common around a sawmill. He looked at the man’s blue pants.
“You a soldier?” he asked.
Rutledge waved some money, and pried open a can of peaches with his knife. “Long ago,” he grunted, relishing the thick juice.
“Ya lookin’ for work?”
“Maybe,” replied Rutledge.
It was impolite to question strangers, and the merchant usually didn’t. But he felt important since he was about to dispense bad news. He grunted and returned to his newspaper.
Rutledge speared the sliced peaches with his knife. Eating was more important than listening.
Outside, the hungry dog drank from a horse trough, and patiently waited. It, too, was hungry.
Other men entered the store. The merchant continued reading, dragging a stubby finger down the newsprint. He adjusted thick glasses on a long, twisted nose that looked like it had lost a fight or two.
“Says here, ‘everyone’s dead’ in Fort Challenge. Injuns killed ‘em all, then burned the place and took all the horses.” He paused and shook his head. “But the heathens left one officer alive.”
Rutledge cut open a can of beans and spooned them with his knife. He was feeling better.
The merchant eyed the newcomers: “Ever hear of a general called ‘The Hero of Chickamauga’?”
They shook their heads.
But one man, smelling of sawdust and horses, said: “Bet that’s the same damned glory hound almost got me killed during the war.” He held up his left hand. It was missing two fingers. “We Ohio boys didn’t call him no ‘Hero.’ We called him ‘The Bloody General.’ Usta march us right into cannon fire. He was crazy. Talked to himself.”
Rutledge stacked dried beef, coffee, and tins of food on the counter. He added a shirt, pants, blanket and coffee pot. He’d keep his battered hat.
The hairless merchant bit the new arrival’s gold coins to make sure they were solid, and then stuffed his purchases into an empty flour sack.
“Paper says he was the only survivor,” continued the storekeeper, happy again to be the center of attention. “Rescuers found him babbling and jabbing his finger in the face of a dead Sergeant.”
“Injuns don’t usually kill crazy people,” added the Ohio veteran with the two missing fingers.
The merchant scratched his hairless head. “But this other part don’t make sense,” he said. “The crazy old coot had tied the soldier’s body to a chair...and... and was holding a court martial.”
“Never heard of no one court martialin’ a corpse, before,” said the injured Ohio veteran.
“Paper says the officer kept cursin’ and yellin’: ’I told you I’d court martial you Sgt. Boyle if it was the last thing I ever did. No one disobeys my direct order...because I’m General Clayton Armstrong, ‘The Hero of Chickamauga.’”
The Ohio veteran eyed Rutledge’s blue pants. “Was you a soldier?”
“I was at Chickamauga, too,” said Rutledge, without a trace of southern accent.
Rutledge added some cigars to his pack, and took his time lighting one.
The Ohio man became impatient: “Was you infantry, artillery, or cavalry”?
“Worked behind my own lines,” replied Rutledge.
“Doin’ what?” asked the Ohio man.
“I was a sniper,” said Rutledge.
“You a good shot?”
“Got myself a general, once.”
“Too bad it weren’t Robert E. Lee.”
“Did you kill ‘em?”
“Nope,” replied Rutledge. “But the last time I saw him...he was wearing an eye patch.”
Rutledge smiled and stepped outside, the food sack over his shoulder. He handed the hungry dog several strips of dried beef.
The morning sun filled the valley.
Rutledge patted the dog. Its limp was gone.
“Think I’ll name you ‘Lucky,’” he said. “What say you and me see California? Hear they’re still finding some gold, and nobody cares where you came from...North or South.”