Western Short Story
First Lieutenant Paul Avery, West Point, 1872, then in 1875 part of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, regularly stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado, heard several men talking outside his tent while their long march from the fort was bivouacked for a night’s rest. The Buffalo Soldiers, as called by Civil War buffs and later historians, had travelled at least 35 miles this day, the 300 men comprising Companies B and C of the regiment’s first battalion, the regimental motto being “Ready and forward.”
One man said, while chewing on a plug of tobacco, and as if he was letting go of a military secret, “I heard that Commander Grierson wanted nothing less than 30 miles a day, and this new lieutenant we got ain’t about to miss that mark. He’s sure-fire hot to trot. Wonder what he would have been like at Sand Creek back in ‘64.”
He kept shaking his head trying to imagine the lieutenant in action, real action, which he was never slow to speak about, always able to insert it into a pause in a conversation, finding a niche when a held breath became like punctuation in a halted delivery. Some folks, in all walks of life, and in ease, manage this bit of social challenge.
That wondering of his was a summation for a man well-tested in mortal combat, as it was in those days with the Indians. He continued, saying, “If I was a redskin, I’d still be crazy mad about what happened back there. Flat out murder, it was, body atop body as far as you could see, and I didn’t know if I should have joined in or not.”
He managed to shake loose another image and went on, “But my old sergeant told me to sit back and dry my tears. It was akin to him stating he didn’t like the job either, but as a sergeant couldn’t have done much about stopping it if he even wanted to.”
He spat some of the tobacco juice in a curving arc onto the base of a tree, a small “Ah,” marking his aim as the stream splattered at the tree base, with his comrade nodding at his dexterity, the grip of night still holding them in place, each of them aware that the full moon was a week away.
A second voice added, “You’re dang right. This new lieutenant we got might have shot you then if he was there. It’s plain like he’s ripe for war of any kind. Me, if I had my way right this minute, I’d be slipping out of here and off to the hills, but know he’d have some of you out after me, bringing me back dead or pending dead.”
The two of them, in a sudden silence, might have found some solace by thinking of being on the loose on a mountain side or in a deep forest, but away from mortal combat with a tribe of Indians lining up scalps.
“Tomorrow,” one of them said, “we’re sure going to have Indian contact. There were lots of signs around here the later part of this day that says they’re here, probably all around us. It’s like if you can’t see them, you can’t hear them, and if you can’t hear them, then you can’t see them.”
“I ain’t heard a sound from injuns in hours. Think the lieutenant knows they’re here?” His nod was at the officer’s tent.
“If he don’t know now, he better catch up quick. Redskins don’t wait for nothing, their minds made up before you can check the arrowhead and see who’s flinging them at you. Just like their names were on them, or their tribe, must be a hundred tribes all over this whole west of the big river.”
Neither of the men on watch heard the arrow’s flight, but heard the thump of it as it hit home on one sentinel’s shoulder, and his “Oh. God, they got me,” as he fell to the ground.
“Medic. Orderly,” the other sentinel yelled, “sound the alarm. We’re under attack.” The second arrow just missed him, as it passed by his head, directly into a tree where it quivered its landing. A few wild arrows slammed into trees, or whispered in flight. Troopers let loose a wild and sporadic barrage into general darkness. Most of the Troopers raced to camp lines, jumped into prepared sites, with angles of coverage to their benefit. A host of them opened fire, a rapid sense of firepower, as if they had thrown up an unbreakable wall, a wall of lead, shot debris and rifle flames, at eye level of an Indian attack force.
Lieutenant Avery was beside a hole where two of his men kept loading and firing their rifles in the same old cumbersome but well-practiced way, their productive way. There were quick manipulations with their hands, life in the balance of their efforts, their full use of faculties.
“Keep pouring it on them, men. You’re doing a great job. A great job! Fire again! Fire again! That’s the answer to a sneaky night attack. Keep pouring it on! Fire again and again!” His voice rang out in the night as though he was driving teams of horses, his pitch leaping higher and higher, his urging like a line of fire on its own, the reign of firepower increasing with every wave of its thunder, its flames.
Several Indians managed to break through the wall, but were dropped in place. One of those Indians was killed by the lieutenant with a single shot from his sidearm, at a pace length, the officer standing his ground as he yelled as loud as he could; “Fire again! Fire again!” He had, in a mortal moment, smelled the enemy at close quarters, knew him as another man, knew him as a different man, the real-life odor of the wild as testament to their distinctions.
In a matter of twenty minutes, the skirmish, the battle, the small war was over. Dead troopers were gathered, dead Indians left to the tribe for what requiems they offered their dead. Space and time were allowed. Nobody spit on the other. Two Buffalo Soldiers, standing in front of the whole command, were awarded medals.
First Lieutenant Paul Avery, as a result of his actions in his first combat in the Indian Wars, was appointed to the rank of Captain in the Buffalo Soldiers, 10th Cavalry Regiment. He eventually retired from active service in July of 1902 as a Brigadier General, still as a Buffalo Soldier.