Western Short Story
The Bluecoat's Death
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The whole bizarre situation and all its facts have been buried under a ton of hush and red tape of one sort or another since the murder took place not long after the Civil War came to a halt in May of 1865. A cavalry trooper, a Bluecoat on his way to report to a new assignment at Fort X west of the Mississippi River, well west, was shot in his sleep in the haymow of the lone livery stable in a small town in the Arizona Territory. The trooper, Private First-Class Josh Hartley, was two days dead before three boys, playing hide ‘n’ seek, found his body and went screaming to the sheriff’s office.

From the very first moment, a cloud of smoke, disguise, denial, refutation, disclamation and plain all-out lying began their play. The way the heart of shame gets buried, or collusion, with all kinds of false cover, so did the real episode of a murder that took place in an old western town, a long time before I was born. The first revelation of wide-spread collusion, conspiracy and contrivance having taken place leaped up at me as a classic shot of reductio ad absurdum.

Here, in this document, I will try to right a wrong.

Even now, over a century later and a half later, it rankles me no end as I contemplate the facts that were presented or not presented, and the reasons behind such facts, or non-reasons if you’d rather have it that way.

Nobody reported hearing a shot in the night. (Not necessarily unusual, as most men carried a side arm, or two, or a Derringer tucked inside a belt or up a sleeve.)

Hartley’s horse, carrying a cavalry brand on his rump, was unfed and without water in his stall for all of the two days, and nobody treats a good horse that way. I believe that such an act always earned a due punishment for the offender.

Despite feed taken from the mow during both days, by a livery attendant, the death was not reported to the sheriff, which told me that somebody withheld the information, and that was for due cause in their thinking.

Neither the saloon owner or the barkeep admitted they had seen or served the trooper on his entrance into town, for not one person in that town came forward to say that they had seen Hartley come up the trail and enter town. Strangers, Bluecoats hardly being the exception, were always recognized in the Territory so soon after hostilities ceased.

He was in Union Blue garb when he was killed, the only difference and the one difference that also leaped at me like I’d been shot myself. As one might say, “It went with the Territory and the time.”

Somebody was lying, perhaps all the somebodies in the mix.

I had heard whispers in my family, ever since I was a youngster, about a shadowy incident in a town where an ancestor lived, and the mysterious aspects of the incident stuck in my mind. After years of agonizing on my part, the chance discovery of an old journal initiated this report, which I hope is accepted and places blame where it belongs, not that justice can be done at this point … but there is always the threat of finding comeuppance in one place or another.

Thus, it was that into my hands, from a relative in Arizona and found in the back part of a hidden closet in an old prairie house not very far from the original site of Fort X, came a personal journal with a deal of information, and some unanswered questions concerning the sad affair of the trooper’s death.

It was the story of its time though no one yet had told it. But I was on the edge.

After a difficult deciphering of crude handwriting, I determined one page of the journal as saying the following:

Aug 11, 1867: There was a killing of a Federal trooper in our town one day last week. All circumstance was hidden or played low, like the Trooper had no family or none whatsoever to mourn him as deeming to be advised, which must be sinful to be so thought.

“The man’s body was said to be two days hidden or undiscovered in the mow of Tucker’s livery, where he had been sleeping when shot from unmissable range in the back of the head, the way a coward might tend to do. Why the secret of the death was so, evades me, but I am convinced there are in my town some who cannot let go the drastic and final turn of the war, so recent in its closure. Among them are most of the prominent people in this poor excuse for a real town, like the sheriff, the banker, some deputies, Micah Thorne the land agent, Parker the store man, his bitter Virginia wife who swears about the war and its final turn when she thinks she’s alone in the store after waiting on a Yankee whose money she accepts with gladness, and whose curses have come to me first hand.

“Notation: Sept 14, 1867; This part has been appended later, after the initial entry above, after the colonel from the fort got his ax going right in the middle of the town street one day, as best I can remember as I was a witness to his awful punch at some in town, saying as he did, which I wholeheartedly em……; (?). “My name is Colonel Jackwellen Gravit of the Army of the United States, which is your country now and forever, mark my words as to the veracity and promise of that statement.

“The trooper of my command, who did not get to report to me but who was assigned by the office of the army, and who was shot in the back of the head by a local coward, of whom I suppose there are more of similar ilk hiding under rocks here, was Private First-Class Josh Hartley.

“Truth of the matter, he was a man born Joshua Rembert Hartley in Roanoke, Virginia, and had served with great distinction and bravery in the just closed war of the states as a lieutenant in the Army of the Confederacy, Company A, 43rd Georgia Infantry Regiment, Army of Tennessee. His deeds have lit up the records of battles at Richmond, Virginia; Baker’s Creek, Mississippi; and Shiloh and Spring Hill in Tennessee, among others.

“He was an out and out hero, beloved by his men, admired wholly by the officers of both sides in the great confrontation who somehow had heard or read about his exploits as a Confederate officer. Bravery and heroism are always honored by the military when their minds are at ease, when combat ceases for a spell or for good; a soldier is a soldier once and for all time, for he carries great baggage with him the remainder of his life, spoken or silent as is his wish.

“I will repeat here and often, to all who listen and bide my words, that no great and honorable soldier deserves the death he received and I promise you I will do my best to find the killer and all who entered this collusion, for collusion is what it purports to be.

The long-dead journalist went on to describe how Colonel Gravit gave hell to the people of the town every time he paid a visit, in a direct manner, practically nailing them to some kind of repentant cross, which bore for each one a full share of guilt. He held open court to question witnesses, though there were few of them, and kept continually at the investigation until he was transferred to another command. I assume that transfer was instigated by one or more of the lackeys in our dismal town.

Gravit’s investigation lasted well over a year until his transfer, often thought, as I said, to be initiated by elements in the town holding deep compassion for the south being raped by carpetbaggers and their like, from the military in anger, and from the government in awful dispute. He did not go quietly, the Colonel. His final appearance, in the saloon of all places, him teetering on the brink of losing his consciousness, from which he suddenly stood straight up and gave the following announcement as if he had woken from a stupor:

“In this room, at this minute, there are a few men who had a hand not only in the death of a Bluecoat Trooper, but of a Confederate hero of no mean order. With that in mind, this I have done and my soul forces me to advise you of my actions; to wit, I have taken the liberty of advising at least a dozen survivors of Lt. Joshua Hartley’s command, who was a Virginian as I have said on occasion, about the method and reported reasons for his dastardly death. He was, as I say, a true Virginian, and accepted the fact that his country was whole again and needed his continual services. In short order, he would have earned back his military commission as an officer in the Army of the United States.

“My I assure you, with deepest sincerity, that you accept these words, not as advice, but as dire warning, that a number of those men are at this moment on their way to this out-of-the-way, one-horse town to get the answers I have not found yet in my soul-searching investigation. Perhaps they hope to exact certain demands from all of you borne with the base responsibility. These men had relentless loyalty to their commanding officer and must carry it with them as surely as a saddle bag on the backs of their horses. Beware of new strangers. They will not come as did Josh Hartley, private, personal, a reasonable patriot at the end of the war, and unseen as he was entering these confines.”

Another page of the discovered journal gave this account of a most personal observation, in which I have understood the threat accompanying every word thus written:

“If this document be read at length some time down the trail, there is one particular path that must be scrutinized concerning this sad and cowardly event; beware of the empire builders who grow amongst us, like a disease, and whose names I dare not utter, for they move their gains flush with theft and thievery, subterfuge and camouflage, and murder and mayhem to reach ultimate goals. Be so advised.

So, with that lead suggestion working on me, I went in search of legal paperwork of the time, those documents that solidified a person’s holding of property, come by whatever measure as long as the ink supported the movement. All thought was now directed to “the elements of acquisition,” which I soon came to term it. Into municipal cellars I went, back rooms, under dim stairways, attic rooms beyond recall, and all those places where memory is held in darkened suspense.

I have to say that not only did the death of Private Hartley hang on me like a living thing, but the energy and dedication of Colonel Gravit kept the momentum upon my backside. Images on top of images roared into my waking hours, spawning days of tireless energies, unburdened hate at times, and a fiery reserve and resolve with lives of their own, like a prisoner bound to reach his promised release. I knew I was, in a fair estimation, possessed.

I found Xs and Os that were, I suppose in many cases, forgeries, signed at the point of a gun or the abduction of a child, or taken (or given) under the curse of drink. Stories rode in on sly ponies, stallions at heavy noise, or secretive, like semaphores far down on the line. Legend and lore came galloping alongside my investigation as others volunteered what they had always known, as the furrow came tipped my way, as shame has a way of shaking loose what lies hidden in the near ground, or deep within the conscience.

The search was dirty, it was laborious, it was time-consuming and now and then, to pair it up, a dirty look was cast my way. It made me wonder what Private Hartley had seen the day he rode into town. If I wore Blue, would I know these answers?

One thing was realized; never did I, in my imagination, hear Private Hartley’s voice, but I swear to you now that Colonel Gravit’s voice came to me as clear as possible, as if he might be sitting in the next room with the door ajar, a voice greater than conscience’s voice. I attributed that to the journal, as I had not the slightest word come from Hartley in any missive or document. There was no trailing out back of him, no footprints, no horse tracks, and no clear path other than his signing on for a long and torturous war.

But circumstance and coincidence are powers often beyond our control, and sometimes leap up to our benefit. For instance, there came, in one casual visit to the home of a collector of old magazines and newspapers, issues I had never seen before and probably would not see again, the following article in the back of an old territorial weekly:

Late Confederate Infantry Officer Speaks His Mind “Late Confederate infantry officer, Col. Barlton Spews, III, laments the turn of events that have savaged the south, reformed innocent plantations into political square meals for hungry carpetbaggers, and ravaged fair southern women in exchange for food and pseudo protection. Col. Spews, a survivor of seven major battles, continues to find fault with foul and deadly northern intrusion even after the war was over.

“There is no need to do what northern or federal officials have allowed to happen and, in some cases, even sponsored by their lack of interest or sense of fair and decent play. They might have to pay for the deeds, not those honest southern sympathizers who only look to survival for themselves and their families. And such payment, in time, ought to go beyond the pale.”

If the right person met Col. Spews personally at a celestial gate somewhere, I hope his way was barred. And if Spews’ arrival is still pending, perhaps Josh Hartley will meet him.

For all my anger, it’s far beyond me.