Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A troop of Union Mounted Rifles, almost full strength with 73 men, came along a rocky and wooded ridge in Arkansas, the lay of the land about to change again, the War Between the States nearing two years of battle. Captain Franz Ludwig, troop commander, rode at the front with one of his two lieutenants. Ludwig, born in Germany into a military family, immigrated to America in 1847 with his family when he was 12 years old. The move was set in motion with a general revolution about to hit much of Europe because of the rise of grain and potato prices, the rise shocking the common man and his family, while the “rich belly of America,” the heartland plains, promised survival to those who would work for it.
“Emigrate or starve,” might well have been uttered by Captain Ludwig’s family patriarchs.
For all the military influence in the family, he could recall his mother saying, time and time again during that whole year prior to the emigration, “Whatever comes to Franz, he is not going to starve. I will not stand for that. If he is to become a soldier, that’s one thing, but I will not let him starve. Everybody at the markets talk about it, what’s coming at us, with great unrest.”
Her ultimatum sealed it all, when she exclaimed, “My one living child will not starve to death in this country.”
She was a visionary in more than one discipline.
Once in America, and with the family military background in his favor, Ludwig was accepted into West Point where he excelled in his studies and in all matters relating to cavalry operations; he was an excellent horseman, an experienced farrier, and a superb handler of small arms and hand weapons. In addition, he was a man who knew an officer’s appearance should be dictated by good grooming, daily care, and his upbringing. He kept himself trim, neat and alert, his locks and beard and mustache treated often enough to make an orderly presentation to his troops. He was not vain, but carried the old German military sense as a vital element of his career … an officer looked the part as much as he worked the part. Neatness in the ranks and neatness on his own was a good dictum.
His entrance into full-time military service in his new country was, of course, directly into the cavalry, where he rose quickly to the rank of captain because of excellent field accomplishments. All this was in his record as he now sat at the head of his own troop with Mount Barr looming ahead of them.
Ludwig, uncomfortable with the look of their immediate surroundings, how the geography of it did not settle well within him, told Lt. Colm McReady he wanted to talk to the lead Indian scout. “Tell Talking Bear to bring any of his Indians with him who know the region, who might have hunted here or camped in the area before the war.” He did not say what inner sense was working on him, though his father and both grandfathers and others before them would have recognized it, that inner sense hanging on from their combat experiences.
McReady rode out to the flank, signaled an Indian on a red and brown pony and talked with him for a short time. Talking Bear, a Cherokee Indian and chief scout for the troop, disappeared back into the column of cavalry approaching Mount Barr, in the northern edge of Arkansas.
Talking Bear passed down through the ranks of riders that included mounted riflemen, teamsters or wagoners, a saddler, two farriers and two buglers, and with them a group of Indian scouts. 20 men of the troop had been injured or killed in two earlier skirmishes with at least 100 ragged but courageous and organized rebel forces, the guerilla or partisan forces of the Confederacy that raised Hell behind enemy lines. Talking Bear had lost a good friend in one of those battles; Tall Eagle would be honored among men when the time came for proper ceremony. There was a trust between him and the troop commander that would see the ceremony celebrated.
To be fair about the current enemies he was facing, Ludwig would call them bushwhackers and plain murderers. They often were organized haphazardly and operated as a hit-and –run unit rather than as a cavalry outfit. He had seen them operate earlier in the war in Virginia. Names stuck with him, such as Loudon’s and McNeill’s Rangers, White’s Comanches and Rice’s Raiders. They wreaked havoc among military elements with their daring and rapid-hitting exploits, leaving much ruin and devastation behind them, especially in civilian quarters. In his mind, this attribute was not the aim of a true military unit.
In his troop he knew of Scots and Irish and Italians and Frenchmen and many other Germans, the whole toss-up of mixed peoples, along with the natives of the land; and the band of them were good fighters. He had taken men from diverse backgrounds and many countries and molded them into a unit worthy of consideration and worry by any opposition force. And he was further driven by his idea of where America was going when this internal war was over and done with. Much of the country was wide open for expansion and he could see himself moving with it, to the farthest shore if need be, where the Pacific Ocean, according to some of his more-traveled classmates at the academy, was wider and wilder than the Atlantic.
And Ludwig recognized the fact that the desperadoes, under military leadership highly evident in their engagements, used the lay of the land to any advantage they could make of a situation. That likelihood was now upon him, his concern growing with the high ground coming up on his left flank, even though the scouts had found no surprises out there.
That geography of the land on his right promised sheer cliffs that even at the moment threw ominous shadows onto the level ground. On his left the mass of rocky breaks and ground on which horses would be useless. His troop might find cover and protection in amongst the breaks and fallen rocks, but a man, or many men, could be pinned down for interminable periods, perhaps to the death.
His responsibility on this current excursion was to find and destroy a new guerilla unit toyingly called Prancer’s Dancers; he had known Victor Prancer at the academy, and the man’s insatiable search for glory came evident from the first meeting. On that occasion Prancer said, in a voluntary manner, as though he was delivering his own valediction, “War, though it is fiend’s work, awards heroes like nothing else.”
They’d meet once after the academy, in Washington, both men on leave, with the North-South issue a prominent and immediate subject of discussion. Prancer openly stated he would go either way, in the event of war, that promised him a day in the sun. “History is not the side you’re on, because all is forgotten after the combat except the heroes and the cowards that luckily come out of their engagements in Hell. I will not be a coward; I will be a hero. The cursed are the wounded. Some are left by commanders on the field of death, to die their own way, and then some are left to die in their own way in a hospital bed, surrounded by nothing but the promise of death hastening on the road to them.”
When the war came, and Prancer declared for the Confederacy, Ludwig knew he’d meet Prancer again before the war was over; it was inevitable because of the vainglorious search of one man and another man who had come halfway around the world and ended up in his new country’s war unto possible destruction.
Ludwig, during early service, had developed a great respect for the natives of this new country of his, the many Indians he had encountered in his early campaigns and those of them who later served as scouts, whether they were Choctaw or Cherokee, Apache or Crow, Creek or Chickasaw. They were unequaled in many natural traits such as hunting and tracking and reading the signs that others left behind to be read. From his observation he knew they were fierce and proud warriors, often with the most basic weapons that were crude but effective in their hands. The bow and arrow fascinated him, for he had heard from his military relatives about the weapon in their European and Asian campaigns. And stories had come to him from those same veterans of the wars about other warriors who had used the rock-and-sling implement so loudly chorused about David who had felled giant Goliath with it, and the bolas used by the gauchos in South America.
War, he realized, made demands on the availability of resources that Mother Nature provided. “Use whatever you can to advance your cause,” one grandfather had said to him when he had been too young to understand, but understood later when those words kept coming back to him … as they did at this moment. The image of the old man kept returning to him in stark clarity, bent, near broken, but proud of where he had been in life, what he had done as a soldier. Such images braced Ludwig most of his life.
When McReady and Talking Bear came up to his position, they had two other scouts with them, both Cherokee. Ludwig, in his quick studies of their ways, had found out that their tribal name came from Tsálăgĭ, which was the name they called themselves, or at least it sounded like that. It was told to him to have come from the Choctaw chiluk-ki cave people, referring to the cave-dwellers in mountain country. The Iroquois called them “Oyat ‘ ge‘ronoñ,” people of the cave country.
Talking Bear was the oldest scout in the troop and had proved himself on many accounts. He had steel in his eyes that Ludwig often stared into, to show his awareness of the man’s abilities and his own curiosity. It had moved into a deep and mutual respect for each other.
“The enemy is trying to trick us, Ludwig said to Talking Bear.” He picked up a stick and drew signs on the ground. “Here is the sheer wall coming up on our right, and on the left, here” he said as he drew, “Is the rocky formations. We might be cornered in there.” With that he drew a circle around the section of ground they were approaching. Do you understand what may happen to us in there?”
He placed the stick in the hands of Talking Bear. “Is there a way out of there, so we can come in behind them when they think they have us cornered?”
Talking Bear, quick to grasp what was explained to him, spun about and spoke in his own language to the other Cherokee scouts. Several times Ludwig thought he had heard the word “cavern” but he saw nothing of the sort in front of him, one wall steep and looking unscalable, the other wall a mass of fallen rock and other debris. The discussion last several minutes, and Talking Bear simply said, at the end of his discussion, “We trick them too.”
He explained, in halted language, the thoughts that came to him about the land and how it should be employed.
Ludwig, loving the light in Talking Bear’s eyes, kept nodding during the discussion, then called up his lieutenants and sergeants and gave directions.
As dusk descended and shadows moved quickly from the steep walls on one side of the land they were in, Ludwig ordered his men to set up barricades, using rocks and whatever was at hand. He would yell out at random moments, “We will settle here for the night, so get the best cover you can.” Then he’d send his enlisted officers around to the positions, to check on the results, improve where they could, be adamant in their commands.
At darkness, when all his men were suitably protected, the redans and barricades solid in their positions, Ludwig issued his orders, orders which only few men had known beforehand, and only two of the Indian scouts.
There ensued the usual noise of evening’s encampment and fortification sounds, pots and pans clattering, a fire lit and subsequent odors climbing into the air with a snippet of a wind that a cool cliffside allowed to escape upward. Ludwig strode about the area with great bustle, looking things over, issuing orders, changing some position work, being busy for a commander of troops.
In the pre-dawn of the next day, scout reports read and understood by Captain Prancer of Prancer’s Dancers, issued his orders to a gruff looking sergeant. “Tell them we have the Yankees locked into an impossible position. So pour it on them. Give them all we’ve got in that first volley of shots. Take out as many men as you can. I want that troop commander captured. It’ll be a great day for the Confederacy. A great day, believe me.”
His enthusiasm was contagious and the gruff sergeant carried out the orders with the same emotion. “Pile it on, boys. Pile it on, but make every shot count. Take down as many as you can in the first barrage of rifle fire. The day will be ours. Hurrah for the Confederacy. Hurrah! Hurrah!”
The first barrage of rifle fire went into the Union position, minie balls bouncing and clattering of rocky surfaces, the sounds prominent in the near area.
There was no return fire from the Union force. None at all. Not a single round.
When they charged the position, climbed over the small fortifications and redoubts erected by the enemy, there was nobody there. Every single man of them, every horse, was gone. All they found were the few wagons left behind, each one empty.
One of the Confederate Indian scouts came back to Prancer, yelling out that they had escaped through a huge cavern that had a small opening in the tall cliff hidden from general sight.
Prancer’s men were lying about, wondering what happened to the Union boys, when the attack came from behind them, and Ludwig’s horsemen pounded along the edge of their position and a withering hail of gunfire came from them and from sharpshooters stationed at one end of the area.
Prancer, livid with the turnabout, screamed at Ludwig about being a cheater, in war, at the academy, in the matter of campaign tactics. He was tied onto his horse and led away by two cavalrymen. The rest of his renegade were hastily disarmed, allowed to eat their morning meal under guard, and marched out of the area as prisoners. Their horses were strung together and accompanied by several Union cavalry riders. The repartee between forces was constant and full of invective at first, and finally, after the next meal was postponed for a full day, silence of a sort settled in their ranks.
It was not long before jocular threats were being tossed back and forth, and Ludwig knew the day as well as his mission was nearly complete. He’d only have to write a concise report to the regimental commander. And he’d be sure to cite Talking Bear and Tall Eagle in the report, his admiration for good men never coming up short.