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And the Code of the West
By Bruce H. Thorstad
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Bruce H. Thorstad
All rights reserved.
Long-legged shadows of working men and animals splayed across the wagon yards, thrown down by the newborn sun. Hostlers of the Short Route Stage and Freight Line were already about, forking hay to the horses and oxen, shaking out skeins of jingling harness. A train of dray wagons rumbled past the barns, bound for the Deadwood Road leading out of Custer City, each canvas-topped vehicle drawn by five teams of plodding oxen.
Coffee found a pump and rough soap in the freight yard. He stripped off his shirt and washed hurriedly, shivering in the weak sunshine. Then he dressed, slapped the dust off his coat and headed toward the rude building that served as an employee dining hall.
As he neared the building and heard the clatter of breakfasting men inside, his footsteps slowed. He was keenly hungry. Whetting that hunger, rich whiffs of coffee and pungent frying bacon reached him even through the closed door. Yet he was wary, for each time he stepped into a roomful of staring white faces he felt like a trapped animal. The massed weight of those pale eyes would press upon him, so that he stood rooted, his breathing tightly governed and his movements truncated. He took a breath and stepped up to the closed door. He was a free man, he reminded himself, with the same right to the company's breakfast as any other worker. Besides that, he was hungrier than a spring bear.
Coffee set his face taut. He reached for the doorknob and his hand closed around it. He pushed.
A hubbub of tinned dinnerware and the conversation of freighters fell off sharply as Coffee stepped over the threshold. He faced a jury of upturned white faces, their expressions frozen, some startled, some blank. The eyes, however, registered more quickly. He read there a span of reactions: surprise, curiosity, amusement, hostility. Without his willing the movement, one hand rose to touch his hat brim. Morning, all, he said in a choked voice, speaking to the room in general, and he turned toward a vacant space at the far end of a nearby bench.
Once he had sat down, and became invisible to most of the breakfasting freighters, the tableau was broken: cooks remembered their tasks, conversations resumed in midsentence and the hubbub rebuilt. Relieved of the room's scrutiny,
Coffee pushed his hat back, puffed his cheeks in relief and surveyed his corner haven. Friendly cracks of sunlight gleamed through the buildings slapdash walls.
The dining hall was a simple box—pine-post uprights at each corner and midway along each wall, with an airy layer of warped boards nailed up for walls. A hint of breeze rippled across the low pyramid of canvas, supported by a center pole with the bark still on it, that served as a roof. Sun lighted the fabric a dirty ivory. The floor was pine shavings strewn over packed earth. Under the fragrance of fresh-cut wood, the dizzying food smells and the bite of cook smoke, there was a heavier odor Coffee could not mistake; the smell of teamsters—equal parts horse sweat and man sweat, tobacco and manure.
The bulk of a figure loomed up in front of him. You had best rise up earlier, a booming voice said, else you wont get your breakfast.
Orson Trickett, the giant of a stagecoach driver, held his plate and cup gingerly to keep from spilling anything and squeezed onto the bench opposite Coffee. He set the tin cup down quickly with a sucking-in of breath, then blew on his fingers. Hot, he said, mimicking pain but grinning. Then he stood again and picked up his end of the bench, angling it back to make room for his stomach, resettling a pair of burly freighters at the benchs far end. They glanced up at Trickett in wonder.
This here is my new shotgun guard, Trickett told the other men. Name of Arbuckle. Calls hisself Coffee. Reckon you can easy tell why.
Coffee Arbuckle, like the can says, Coffee said, half standing and extending his hand to each freighter in turn. The men nodded blankly and stated their names without enthusiasm.
Arbuckle Coffee, huh? Trickett said, humor warming his voice. I expect it is your family what owns the whole Arbuckle's company.
Coffee winced. The assumption that no relative of his could be connected to the familiar brand of Arbuckle's Coffee was, of course, wholly correct; yet, it galled him anyway.
Arbuckle was the family that owned my grandmama, Coffee said stiffly. Its a poor way to get your name, but we tried to make it one we could be proud of giving out.
Hell, I would not of said nothing had I thought you would bristle up about it, Trickett said, protesting seriously. He looked away, uncomfortable. Then he glanced at the nearby freighters, maybe worried about being seen apologizing to a colored man. My own names Orson, Trickett reminded Coffee sternly. Anybodys says it like whore-son and I am obliged to break their ribs. He sounded unhappy about the prospect, looking so long-faced that Coffee, far from feeling rebuked, suppressed an urge to chuckle.
I don't fool with folks' names, Coffee said. I hold it to be poor luck.
Some do, Trickett said distantly, as though remembering times it had happened. Hurt still showed on his face. Orson was my daddy too, he said. It's a fine name. The driver was younger than Coffee had first thought, twenty-eight or so. His face, nested in a light beard, still shone with youth. Tufts of yellow-blond hair showed under his weather- beaten hat.
Coffee didn't know how the passengers were faring at the oilcloth-covered tables in the stage depot building next door, but he judged his own rations to be almighty fine. He and Trickett ate corn bread, oatmeal, yellow hominy and fried bacon with applesauce. Trickett complained of the lack of pie, but Coffee could have about married the cook. If he ate this way too often, he would be as stout as Trickett.
I will tell you something, Trickett said, pausing to belch formally. You really oughter consider guarding with us regular. It is a real job of work, not like your scrabbling after gold. And it is about to get right easy.
I thought you was the one didn't haul no coal, Coffee said, feeling humor crinkling his eye corners. Trickett looked startled, then sheepish.
I was hoping you had forgot that remark, he said, looking down at his plate. I suppose I aint had much use for them of your kind, but you seem a right enough feller, he told Coffee. Not like a lot of them.
Coffee saw that the slur against his kind did not make the statement much of a compliment. He chose to skirt around it. What do you mean bout the job getting easy? he asked mildly.
Trickett launched into a recounting of recent Indian troubles, stressing the danger that the Sioux under Crazy Horse still posed to the Black Hills. Coffee listened with one part of his mind still absorbing the news that Trickett now found him a right enough feller.
He was interested to note how much Trickett's attitude had altered toward him. Coffee had spent eighteen days on the trail from Dodge City, crossing half of Kansas and a good part of Nebraska, much of the time leading his lame mule. Clumping footsore and exhausted into the Short Route Stage and Freight depot in Sidney, Nebraska, he had learned that the next stagecoach to Deadwood had a full complement of passengers.
But Coffees luck seesawed, for the regular shotgun guard was down with pneumonia. Coffee volunteered for the post, offering to forgo a salary in return for his ride to Deadwood. To try to clinch the bargain, he showed off his skill with a Winchester rifle, bouncing a bully-beef tin across the company yard with a string of quick shots. While Coffees ears rang and the powder smoke still billowed, the impressed depot agent stood thoughtfully, leaving the stage driver, Orson Trickett, long-faced and muttering.
Any person can do good shooting when the mark is such as that, Trickett said sourly. It is something else when them road agents set upon you. I need my protection up there, Hobson, he told the agent. You oughter know that.
Coffee would not let his chance slip away. Since leaving the army, he'd come to see that in his new life he would have to speak up for himself.
I been shot at afore, Coffee offered. I was in the war. Fifteenth Illinois Colored. He gauged his listeners, letting his voice expand. Through Tennessee to Chickamauga, on with Sherman to Atlanta and Savannah. Pret near the whole shebang. I done saw the elephant.
You were infantry? the agent asked him.
Teamster, Coffee said. Drove munitions wagons and tended animals. But mostly I was—he carefully measured how much he could say in front of white men without seeming to brag—kind of a shotgun guard, you might of said. I been shot at more times than there is bristles on a razorback.
It was enough for the depot agent. Glad to be saving a salary, he had pumped Coffees hand and signed him on, while Trickett only turned his immense back and started sullenly away. Then Trickett stopped in the doorway and made the ugly reference to hauling coal—as though letting a colored man ride the coach would be a lowering of the company's standards. It was an ominous statement, tempering Coffees elation over the fare money he was saving, and it had made him wary.
But in two days of stagecoaching, Trickett had thawed. The coach rolled over the Nebraska prairie, across the stage company's own H. T. Clarke Bridge spanning the North Platte, past Fort Robinson and into Dakota Territory. Soon it threaded into the fragrant pines of the Black Hills. As the hours went by, Trickett tried to sit gruffly silent, but it was against the man's nature. Before long he was talking cheerfully about whores in Deadwood, Indian trouble in Wyoming, the stifling winter he'd spent on his mothers farm in Iowa.
Now, this morning, as they breakfasted amid company employees, here was Trickett introducing him to hostlers and freighters. Coffee was appreciative; if a man had a notion to improve his thinking, Coffee was surely of a mind to let him.
Reckon you have heard the Hills was just made part of Dakota Territory, just like they was Yankton or Bismarck, Trickett was saying. His voice came muffled through a huge bite of corn bread. A new treaty with the Teton Sioux put the gold country under army protection. Them miners and whores in Deadwood is up there legal from now on, Trickett said, chuckling. The army will administrate things right, a far cry from miners courts they air used to up there. The soldier boys will chase out them road agents and make this here a pleasure run. That's why like I say, this job is about to get right easy. A colored feller could do a sight worse than guarding stagecoaches.
It is probably something a body ought to think on, Coffee admitted, but I am only looking for transport to Deadwood. I am set on working for my ownself.
Yep, well, that sounds fine, Trickett said, peering into the dregs of his coffee, but no matter how you work for yourself, you end up working for somebody bigger than you, one way or tother, whether you be a farmer or miner or whatnot. He pushed back his hat to expose more fluffy yellow hair, which took another year off his apparent age. Even them road agents air working for the stage company in a manner of speaking, Trickett said.
Coffee nodded, seeing the truth of it. A job offer was not something to kick dirt at, but he had made up his mind to work for himself. It was a promise he had made when leaving the frontier army.
And wait till you see Deadwood prices, Trickett said. You will work your fingers off for a dinky scrape of gold dust and consider yourself rich till you go to buy something. That's when you learn you air working for the merchants! He eased his great bulk back and laughed so well that Coffee had to laugh too, just from watching him.
I got me the best of all deals, Trickett said earnestly. Forty-five dollars and found a month, which is fair wages. I buy ary stuff I need down in Sidney, where it goes cheap on account of the railroad. But when I crave a little fun, I got two nights a week to roar in Deadwood! He gave his thigh an open-palmed smack that echoed off the plank walls. Coffee pictured Trickett roaring in Deadwood; it wasn't difficult.
The two men went out into the sunshine and bustle of the wagon yard. The Short Route Stage and Freight Line, out of Sidney, Nebraska, with the Union Pacific its jumping-off point, was a busy route into the Black Hills, both for gold seekers swarming in from the states and for the supplies that sustained them. The company's operation in Custer was one of its busiest, where foodstuffs and equipment fanned out by ox train for the various mining camps.
Three teams of horses were being harnessed to the stagecoach, a showy Concord nine-passenger painted brick red with yellow and black trim. Coffee fetched his rifle, his bundled tent and shovel and gold pan and stowed them in their usual place atop the coach. The boot, a shelflike extension of the coach's tail protected from rain and dust by a leather cover, was reserved for passenger baggage. With the teams harnessed, Trickett and Coffee led the horses and coach to the front of the depot, each man holding a lead horse.
The passengers boarded, five would-be miners, three dark-suited men Coffee assumed to be merchants, and one woman, evidently the wife of one of the businessmen. Coffee climbed to his place on the box and set his hat firmly. Trickett kicked off the brake, whistled sharply and slapped reins across the horses' rumps and they were in motion, the leather-sprung coach pitching like a vessel at sea. They passed the last scattered buildings of Custer City, empty now that most of the population had scurried to bigger strikes to the north, and were drawn by two dozen hooves up the Deadwood Road.
There was a time Coffee had loved the army. That began in Tennessee in 1863. The Emancipation had given free Negroes a reason to fight the Confederacy and Coffee had joined Abe Lincoln's army with an innocent's belief in his cause.
He was a runaway slave, born in South Carolina in 1834. His mother was a deaconess in the African church and knew more slaves in that country than anyone except a preacher. When talk of the underground railroad filtered south, she set her mind that her youngest would do more than chop seventy years worth of cotton and die in slavery. On a moonless night in 1851 she delivered Coffee to the riverbank shack of an old woman, who spirited him off the following night to a relation of hers, who set him upon a bewildering journey. He slept his days in barn lofts and by night walked ridges or ditches. He was rowed by strangers on inky rivers and carted under straw in mule-drawn wagons.
In a month Coffee reached Illinois, was embraced by abolitionists wearing beards the size of hornets nests, and was set to work cutting hay on the farm of a middle-aged white couple. They were Methodists and childless and were sympathetic to him after their fashion. Somber, frugal, rigorous in their piety, they paid him little, churched him much and addressed him as a child all the years he lived and worked there. Then came the war, and soon after, the Emancipation, and despite being believers in the Fifth Commandment they were jubilant when Coffee enlisted.
When he entered the all-volunteer United States Colored Troops in 1863, there were no bands nor flying flags, no crowds waving him off at the depot. Though ostensibly infantry, Coffee and his Negro fellows were issued shovels instead of Springfields. Hardly more than laborers in uniform, they threw up earthworks and emplaced guns. Eventually, Coffee was made a teamster in a supply company.
As in all Negro units, his had white officers. The commander was Major MacDermott, a man with fierce views about the untapped worth of black troops in battle, views little appreciated by his superiors. He was a muscular, gray-maned Scotsman with a finely wrinkled, freckled complexion. The undersides of his forearms were the color of skimmed milk.
Just a month in the field and still untested, Coffees unit was vulnerable to rumors. One was that the veteran cavalry of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, which often harassed Union supply lines, was marauding through the area. Regimental command had warned that Morgan delighted in striking the newly formed Union black units, where the dashing rebel pistoleers were said to take no prisoners. Circulating through the 15th Illinois Colored, such stories were the cause of ragged tempers among officers and men alike, especially when they were halted in exposed country.
Excerpted from Deadwood Dick by Bruce H. Thorstad. Copyright © 1991 Bruce H. Thorstad. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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