Western Short Story
Newt Tewksbury, Bugler
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

When Corporal Newton “Newt” Tewksbury, generated aboard ship while crossing the Atlantic Ocean but Boston-born, and later an army bugler, hurt his hand in 1848 in the War with Mexico, he was discharged from service, and figured he didn’t have to go far to a section of the west where he always had a hankering to be on his own. Further north drew him across the rolling plains of the Texas Panhandle toward Iowa, which had become a state a mere two years earlier, and he took his bugle with him.

His thin sparse hair made him look better in a hat, and the sombrero and prominent high cheekbones brought a keen green and an alert light to his eyes. Even with that gift, his lips were best expressed when pursed on the mouthpiece of the horn, which might well have been born as part of his body, or his personality, take a pick.

On the way northeast north, he played different bugle calls at odd hours, free of the Army’s directives concerning time or occasion. Now and then he’d earn a salute from a passerby or from those he joined en route, surely ex-military in either case, when he let loose with Reveille or To the Colors or Taps, as though the listeners had earned the honors or knew the intentions of the bugle calls.

He knew a soft glee at first, and then an explosive sense of gratitude and pure excitement at being able to deliver his talent to the wide-open outdoors.

Playing the bugle for hundreds or thousands of soldiers had been an articulation.

Now, journey-wise, to him, it was the same for a lone listener, a distant rider at a search, a lone miner seeking a change in lifestyle, a vagabond tossed adrift.

In a range of hills on the horizon in lower Iowa, he spotted three riders, each on a separate hill, who waved in recognition of his sudden Call to Colors, the prior urge to let it loose from his bugle. He was thrilled at the reception from three points at one time, even if accidental in nature, but ecstatic at the messages coming back from obvious veterans in-the-know out in the world, and dearly wished they could all ride up to one campsite, sit around the fire, tell their stories. A kind of deliciousness touched at his ears, at his soul.

Again, in a narrow box canyon the next day, the urge for sending out Taps emanated from his loneliness, images of lost comrades still haunting him, and bare moments later a fusillade of shots replied from an unseen site in the canyon. The former corporal waved his bugle in hopes some lone soul, responsible for the shots, might appear. And marveled that another sincere connection had been accomplished in the mostly barren wilds spread out before him.

No lone soul appeared, but Tewksbury was highly pleased at the reception and pleased no end that he was toting the bugle. Hope came that it would introduce him to some fine folks in Iowa.

He was willing to bet on it.

But gamblers, we know, unless they are cheaters, lose more often than they win, and we can bet on that.

Another feeling began beating in him, that he’d be blessed or cured by certain bugle calls, for each one was recognizable from its first note depending on those who listened and their location at reception. All previous calls in his ken had been in earshot of regular military settings, a post or station, a skirmish line, in the dark of night or in the light of dawn, in the mysterious ways of wind at its universal work, at the rush of sound it carried, at the hope enriched in the rocky glens or the open grass, the places where music might have another name but not another mission … and he somehow believed he had a duty, a cause, in his destiny, but didn’t know what it was or where it went.

The old thought repeated itself, and he had tried so often, but he had no voice to spread a song to any listeners, to or for their hungry ears, where a soul might sit right up and demand a sense of music if not a song in itself, but he had his bugle; it would do his singing for him no matter who or where that audience made an appearance.

These quandaries were part of his haunting, his loneliness, the sense of loss that may ride horseback on a lone soul about in the universe where a canyon or a cave or a cliff face meant as much as the morning sun, a month-old moon, or a new star blinking in the corner of an eye.

Each day, by chance or accident, an opportunity arose which required his intervention with his bugle, and always from some high point in the landscape the way chance comes on us with its deep purpose to test the souls of all man.

From one rise above a stream he spotted a couple, man and woman, washing themselves while enjoying a swim in the river. Newt assumed them to be husband and wife or long lovers, as they hastened into each other’s arms as soon as they were out of the water. This act was also spotted by three more riders who dismounted and started creeping from tree to tree to get near the couple locked in deep embrace. Their intentions appeared obvious to Newt, who had a higher regard for women than they did.

He swung the bugle to his lips and delivered Tattoo as robustly as he could, alarming the couple, both of whom grabbed their weapons and clothes and sought shelter from public view. The three cowards, in the face of weapons, remounted and disappeared from view.

Newt blew a few loose notes to bid adieu as he parted from the sight of those who had been alarmed by his bugle call.

A few days later, from another high rise where he was always alert to the land that lay below him, he spotted a stagecoach coming along its route far below and also saw beyond the next bend a group of riders gathered behind a huge rocky formation, in nothing less than a threatening hold-up waiting to happen. Their threat was odious.

No panic grabbed the former corporal, but the phalanx of calls whistled through his mind for the most proper and obvious one to use as a warning. He pulled the bugle off his saddle mount and broke loose with Retreat, the notes ringing downhill its melody to cease action, come to a stand-still, pay attention hoping an old veteran was at the reins or aboard the stagecoach and understood the directive; he also fired a single shot in the air.

Stock-still in the saddle he sat, as the stagecoach came to a grudging stop a couple of minutes later, and Newt fired a second round from his pistol to a point somewhere ahead of the stagecoach. The round bounced off a rock face, as an added warning to pay attention. When the coach stopped, two passengers climbed to the top rack and waved handguns in the air. Ahead of them, around the bend, four hidden horsemen rode off in the other direction, the surprise robbery attempt aborted from afar.

“Well,” stranger, said one of the top rack passengers, at meeting Newt Tewksbury, “I heard about you down the road, or someone like you, riding around the country with a bugle in his hand. That you or another vet of the war? I’m damned glad to meet you, Newt. What outfit was you?”

With a slight puff in his chest, Newt said, “Bugler, 1st Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, Colonel Francis Wynkoop our top man. I was separated last year, I think, time jumping quick steps for me.”

A quick laugh was followed by, “My name’s Hugo Brant, Pennsylvania 11th. Glad to meet you and I’m not dumping any crap in your lap about buglers. It’s either another one of you or your story’s beating the bushes. Hell, you might be getting famous around here. I hope everybody pays you mind. We’re heading on now to Cotters Grove in Iowa, up-trail ahead of us, near a days’ ride.” He shook hands again, the shaking as thorough as the first one, a wide smile on his face, his teeth a brilliant white against his darker skin, his gray-green eyes lit up with appreciation.

As Newt studied Brent, he wondered what he looked like to this other veteran because he hadn’t looked into a mirror since he took off his uniform. He’d have to take care of that if he met any more people like Brent, direct, responsive, been around the Horn, so to speak. He had not thought of appearance, he had not thought about meeting people … not for a long while, but both must come to account.

Newt offered his observation even as he awaited the reaction: “There were four of them up ahead. All four took off the other way, northwest, like a trail off the main route, two black horses, two paints, all at a gallop.”

“After all of this, I’m sure there’s some great things in store for you,” Brent said. “You’re a different dude, that’s for sure, different as all get out.” Looking around, he shook Newt’s hand again, and said, “We’re going now, pard, but it’s been a pleasure meeting you.”

Newt kept a thought to himself, that Hugo Brent would have been a great comrade in the war; the old images sat still in his mind. One of his problems, he knew, was he remembered a lot of them from the past, and it was too late to do any good for many of them, if any, if ever. Losing a comrade like Hugo Brent was the saddest part of war, not that death wasn’t far away from you at any time, around any corner, being muzzle-loaded this very instance from a point you could throw a rock at and hit.

A sudden new thought told him that this indeed might also be a farewell, like the last time he’d ever see this new comrade of sorts on the open trail to wherever.

Changes come along, sometimes as quick as breath changes, and he was soon riding into the little town of Cotters Grove and dropping the reins over a saloon rail and with another change of breath was ordering a beer from a smiling barkeep who slyly noted the trail duds and general conditions of a new customer with a thirst to be satisfied.

Newt was at his second sip when an unpleasant and unpleasant attempt at a bugle note came from outside. He bolted from the saloon to find a youngster pressing his army bugle to his lips, clumsy as a bull moose.

“That’s something you shouldn’t do, son, take something off somebody’s saddle like it’s your own. That’s a whole lot of not right, if you can understand me ’cause that bugle belongs to me. It’s my property now and into The Forever, and put your mind to that, son. It’ll do you good.”

He felt like a teacher and he didn’t want to be a teacher, but wanted to be a student, all the time learning like this little shaver was, learning the ropes, the brands, the tricks of a trade all the way to the very end of Time.

“I just wanted to try it, mister,” the boy said. “I heard all about you from the stagecoach guys talking about you. They was real excited, kept telling how you saved them from a hold-up just blowin’ on the horn. I can’t wait ‘til I tell my Pa when he gets back. He’s on a drive.” His stubby finger pointed back over his shoulder to the north.

The boy handed the bugle to Newt and said, “Please, mister, play it for me. I never heard one.”

His sombrero in miniature sat on the back of his head, his face was full of expectant glee as he looked around at the group of people gathering in front of the saloon, some folks coming out of the saloon, some from across the street, even the barber had hung up his strop and him and his customer joined the massing group.

The boy, indeed, had a strange effect on Newt, warm as the sun, honest as the honest injun to be found, glee and joy and expectation gleaming on his face, and all of manhood facing him before he knew it, with a horse, a girl, a job to become good at, friends to be found, trusted, loved; the same places and things Newt Tewksbury had found or had been in his short time here in the New World of the Old World.

Someone in the midst of the crowd said “Amen” and broke up Newt’s small reverie, somebody else started to clap, and life in one big swallow seemed to jump clear down Newt Tewksbury’s throat. The saloon owner said, “Play as long as you want, mister, as short as you want, but your drinks are all on me, all day. Ever last one of ‘em.” He looked around him as the whole lot of customers in the saloon had formed behind him outside the swinging door.

A bunch of “Amens” followed from the crowd, now getting bigger by the very minute, so former Corporal Newt Tewksbury gave the crowd at Cotters Grove, Iowa the full run of his bugle calls repertoire, identifying each one before he played it, and him enjoying a few eyes that began to water right there in front of him, in front of the saloon, in front of the whole town it seemed, without a single bit of embarrassment.

He knew he had a job to do, had a place here in this world whether it was right here in this place or in another place, a job, a duty, a responsibility that weighed its ton or so on top of his little piece of Life in the West, a long way from the wide Atlantic and Boston itself.

After several renditions and explanations, most of the crowd could recognize, from the first notes, First Call, Reveille, Assembly, Mail Call, Mess Call, Retreat, To the Colors, Tattoo, Call to Quarters and Taps, leaving out a bunch of others only real students would ask for down the line.

The boy, Darren Goodwin, was ecstatic and begged to be taught how to play the horn, “just like you, Mister Newt. Just like you.”

Darren, in time, just like Newt Tewksbury, became an exceptional bugler, and earned his own fame all the way to Chicago. Cotters Grove became a central point of bugle dispersion across the west, Newt Tewksbury at the head of it all, until death took him in its arms when he was about to celebrate his 92nd birthday, the army bugle in one hand, his lungs fighting for a final breath, and his last words, “I made do.”