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Here's to the Ladies
Stories of the Frontier Army
By Carla Kelly
TCU PressCopyright © 2003 Carla Kelly
All rights reserved.
Such Brave Men
"A little paint will make all the difference," Hart Sanders said as he and his wife surveyed the scabby walls in Quarters B.
Emma stood on tiptoe to whisper in her husband's ear. She didn't want to offend the quartermaster sergeant, who was leaning against the door and listening (she was sure). "Hart, what are these walls made of?"
"Adobe," he whispered back.
"Oh." Perhaps she could find out what adobe was later.
Hart turned to the sergeant in the doorway. The man straightened up when the lieutenant spoke to him. "Sergeant, have some men bring our household effects here. And we'll need a bed, table, and chairs from supply."
Emma took off her bonnet and watched the sergeant heading back to the quartermaster storehouse. Then she turned and looked at her first army home again. Two rooms and a lean-to kitchen, the allotment of a second lieutenant.
Hart was watching her. Theirs wasn't a marriage of long standing, but she knew him well enough to know that he wanted to smile but wasn't sure how she would take that. "Not exactly Sandusky, is it?" he ventured finally.
She grinned at him and snapped his suspenders. "It's not even Omaha, Hart, and you know it!"
But I have been prepared for this, she thought to herself later as she blacked the cook stove in the lean-to. Hart had warned her about life at Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory. He had told her about the wind and the heat and the cold and the bugs and the dirt. But sitting in the parlor of her father's house in Sandusky, she hadn't dreamed anything quite like this.
Later that afternoon, as she was tacking down an army blanket for the front room carpet, she noticed that the ceiling was shedding. Every time she hammered in a tack, white flakes drifted down to the floor and settled on her hair, the folding rocking chair, and the whatnot shelf she had carried on her lap from Cheyenne Depot to Fort Laramie. She swept out the flakes after the blanket was secure and reminded herself to step lightly in the front room.
Dinner was brought in by some of the other officers' wives, and they dined on sowbelly, hash browns, and eggless custard. The sowbelly looked definitely lowbrow congealing on her Lowestoft bridal china, and she wished she had thought to bring along tin plates like Hart had suggested.
She was putting the last knickknack on the whatnot when Hart got into bed in the next room. The crackling and rustling startled her, and she nearly dropped the figurine in her hand. She hurried to the door. "Hart? Are you all right?" she asked.
He had blown out the candle, and the bedroom was dark. "Well, sure, Emma. What's the matter?"
"That awful noise!"
She heard the rustling again as he sat up in bed. "Emma, haven't you ever slept on a straw-tick mattress?"
"In my father's house?" She shook her head. "Does it ever quiet down?"
"After you sleep on it awhile," he assured her, and the noise started up again as he lay down and rolled over. He laughed. "Well, my dear, be grateful that we're not in a connecting duplex. This bed's not really discreet, is it?"
She felt her face go red, then laughed, too, and put down the figurine.
She had finished setting the little house in order the next morning when Hart came bursting into the front room. He waved a piece of paper in front of her nose.
"Guess what?" he shouted. "D Company is going on detached duty to Fetterman! We leave tomorrow!"
"Do I get to come?" she asked.
"Oh, no. We'll be gone a couple of months. Isn't it exciting? My first campaign!"
Well, it probably was exciting, she thought, after he left, but that meant she would have to face the house alone. The prospect gleamed less brightly than it had the night before.
D Company left the fort next morning after Guard Mount. She was just fluffing up the pillows on their noisy bed when someone knocked on the front door.
It was the adjutant. He took off his hat and stepped into the front room, looking for all the world like a man with bad news. She wondered what could possibly be worse than seeing your husband of one month ride out toward Fetterman—wherever that was—and having to figure out how to turn that scabrous adobe box into a house, let alone a home.
"I hate to tell you this, Mrs. Sanders," he said at last.
"Tell me what?"
"You've been ranked."
Emma shook her head. Whatever was he talking about? Ranked?
"I don't understand, Lieutenant."
He took a step toward her, but he was careful to stay near the door. "Well, you know, ma'am, ranked. Bumped. Bricks falling?"
She stared at him and wondered why he couldn't make sense. Didn't they teach them English at the academy? "I'm afraid it's still a mystery to me, Lieutenant."
He rubbed his hand over his head and shifted from one foot to the other. "You'll have to move, ma'am."
"But I just did," she protested, at the same time surprised at herself for springing to the defense of such a defenseless house.
"I mean again," the lieutenant persisted. "Another lieutenant just reported on post with his wife, and he outranks your husband. Yours is the only quarters available, so you'll have to move."
It took a minute to sink in. "Who? I can't...."
She was interrupted by the sound of boots on the front porch. The man who stepped inside was familiar to her, but she couldn't quite place him until he greeted her; then she knew she would never forget that squeaky voice. He was Hart's old roommate from the academy, and she had met him once. She remembered that Hart had told her how the man spent all his time studying and never was any fun at all.
"Are you taking my house?" she accused the lieutenant.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Sanders," he said, but he didn't sound sorry at all.
"But ... but ... didn't you just graduate with my husband two months ago? How can you outrank him?" she asked, wanting to throw both of the officers out of her home.
He smiled again, and she resisted the urge to scrape her fingernails along his face. Instead, she stamped her foot, and white flakes from the ceiling floated down.
"Yes, ma'am, we graduated together, but Hart was forty-sixth in class standing. I was fifteenth. I still outrank him."
As she slammed the pots and pans into a box and yanked the sheets off the bed, she wished for the first time that Hart had been a little more diligent in his studies.
Two privates moved her into quarters that looked suspiciously like a chicken coop. She sniffed the air in the one-room shack and almost asked one of the privates if the former tenants she ranked out had clucked and laid eggs. But he didn't speak much English, and she didn't feel like wasting her sarcasm.
Emma swept out the room with a vigor that made her cough, and by nightfall when she crawled into the rustling bed, she speculated on the cost of rail fare from Cheyenne to Sandusky.
The situation looked better by morning. The room was small, to be sure, but she was the only one using it, and if she cut up a sheet, curtains would make all the difference. She hung up the Currier and Ives lithograph of sugaring off in Vermont and was ripping up the sheet when someone knocked at the door.
It was the adjutant again. He had to duck to get into the room, and when he straightened up, his head just brushed the ceiling. "Mrs. Sanders," he began, and it was an effort. "I hope you'll understand what I have to tell you."
Emma sensed what was coming and braced herself, but she didn't want to make it easy on him. "What?" she asked, seating herself in the rocking chair and folding her hands in her lap. As she waited for him to speak, she remembered a poem she had read in school called "Horatio at the Bridge."
"You've been ranked out again."
She was silent, looking at him for several moments. She noticed the drops of perspiration gathering on his forehead and that his Adam's apple bobbed up and down when he swallowed.
"And where do I go from here?" she asked at last.
He shuffled his feet and rubbed his head again, gestures she was beginning to recognize. "All we have is a tent, ma'am."
"A tent," she repeated.
At least I didn't get attached to my chicken coop, she thought, as she rolled up her bedding. She felt a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that Hart's roommate and his wife—probably a little snip—had been bumped down to her coop by whoever it was that outranked him. "Serves him right," she said out loud as she carried out the whatnot and closed the door.
The same privates set up the tent at the corner of Officers Row. It wasn't even an officer's tent. Because of the increased activity in the field this summer, only a sergeant's tent could be found. The bedstead wouldn't fit in, so the private dumped the bed sack on the grass and put the frame back in the wagon. She started to protest when they drove away, but remembering the shortage of useful English, she saved her breath. They were was back soon with a cot.
She had crammed in her trunks, spread the army blanket on the grass, and was setting up the rocking chair when someone rapped on the tent pole.
She knew it would be the adjutant even before she turned around. Emma pulled back the flap and stepped outside. "You can't have it, Lieutenant."
He shook his head and smiled this time. "Oh, no, ma'am. I wasn't going to bump you again." He held out a large square of green fabric.
She took it. "What's this for?"
"Ma'am, I used to serve in Arizona Territory, and most folks down there line tent ceilings with green. Easier on the eyes."
He smiled again, and Emma began to see that the lot of an adjutant was not to be envied. She smiled back.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. I appreciate it."
He helped her fasten up the green baize, and it did make a difference inside the tent. Before he left, he pulled her cot away from the tent wall. "So the tent won't leak when it rains," he explained and then laughed. "But it never rains here anyway."
Since she couldn't cook in the tent, she messed with the officers in Old Bedlam that night. There were only three. The adjutant was a bachelor, Captain Endicott was an orphan who had left his family back in the States, and the other lieutenant was casually at post on his way from Fort Robinson to Fort D.A. Russell.
The salt pork looked more at home on a tin plate, and she discovered that plum duff was edible. The coffee burned its way down, but she knew she could get used to it.
She excused herself, ran back to her tent, and returned with the tin of peaches she had bought at the post trader's store for the exorbitant sum of $2.25. The adjutant pried open the lid, and the four of them speared slices out of the can and laughed and talked until Tattoo.
Captain Endicott walked her back to her tent before Last Call. He shook his head when he saw the tent. "Women ought to stay in the States. Good schools there, doctors, sociability. Much better."
"Don't you miss your family?" she asked.
"Oh, God ..." he began and then stopped. "Beg pardon, Mrs. Sanders." He said goodnight to her and walked off alone to his room in Old Bedlam.
Emma undressed, did up her hair, and got into bed. She lay still, listening to the bugler blow Extinguish Lights. She heard horses snuffling in the officers' stables behind Old Bedlam. When the coyotes started tuning up on the slopes rimming the fort, she pulled the blanket over her head and closed her eyes.
She knew she was not alone when she woke up before Reveille next morning. She sat up and gasped. A snake was curled at the foot of her blanket. She carefully pulled her feet up until she sat in a ball on her pillow. She was afraid to scream because she didn't know what the snake would do, and, besides, she didn't want the sergeant at arms to rush in and catch her with her hair done up in rags.
As she watched and held her breath, the snake unwound itself and moved off the cot. She couldn't see any rattles on its tail, and she slowly let out her breath. The snake undulated across the grass, and she stared at it, fascinated. She hadn't known a reptile could be so graceful. "How do they do that?" she asked herself, as the snake slithered through the grass at the edge of the tent. "I must remember to ask Hart."
She took the rag twists from her hair, pulled on her wrapper, and poked her head out of the tent. The sun was just coming up, and the buildings were tinted with the most delicious shade of pink. She marveled that she could ever have thought the old place ugly.
Her first letter from Hart was handed to her three days later at mail call. She ripped open the envelope and drew out a long, narrow sheet. She read as she walked along the edge of the parade ground.
Pardon this stationery, but 1 forgot to take any along, and this works better for letters than in the sink. Good news. We're going to be garrisoned here permanently, so you'll be moving quite soon, perhaps within the next few days. Or it could be a month. That's the Army. Bad news. Brace yourself. There aren't any quarters available, so we'll have to make do in a tent.
Emma stood still and laughed out loud. A soldier with a large P painted on the back of his shirt stopped spearing trash and looked at her, but she didn't acknowledge him. She read on.
It won't be that bad. The commanding officer swears there will be quarters ready by winter. Am looking forward to seeing you soon. I can't express how much I miss you.
She was almost back to her tent when the adjutant caught up with her.
"Mrs. Sanders," he began. His Adam's apple bobbed, and he put up his hand to rub his head, she was sure.
"It's all right, Lieutenant," she broke in before he could continue. "I've already heard. When am I leaving?"
"In the morning, ma'am."
"I'll be ready."
As she was repacking her trunks that evening, she remembered something her mother had said to her when she left on the train to join Hart in Cheyenne. Mother had dabbed at her eyes and said over and over, "Such brave men, Emma, such brave men!"
Emma smiled.CHAPTER 2
We Shall Meet, but We Shall Miss Him
Lieutenant Mclver stood in front of the window, rocking back and forth on his heels. He looked over his shoulder at the sergeant straightening some papers on his desk. "Better take a look, sergeant. There they go."
Sergeant John Cole put down the papers and walked over to the window. C Company was leading out across the parade ground, Captain Burnett hunched over in his saddle. The wind was blowing as usual, and the men rode with their collars turned up and their caps pulled low. E Company followed, and the string of Dougherty wagons and ambulances brought up the rear.
"Doesn't seem like so much to show for forty years, does it, sir?" Cole asked, his eyes on the troops as they headed south on Cheyenne-Deadwood Road.
The lieutenant didn't answer. He was at his desk again, rummaging through some papers. He found what he was looking for and held it out to the sergeant. "I almost forgot about this. Here, take it, sergeant."
Cole knew it was his discharge before his hand closed over the paper. He glanced at it and smiled at his superior, then handed it back. "Not much to show for almost thirty years, is it, sir?"
The lieutenant grinned. "Well, no matter how you look at it, you'll be a free man as soon as we close up this post. Shouldn't take more than another couple of weeks."
Sergeant Cole worked in the Admin Building until noon, sorting out forty years of endorsements, inspection reports, dispatches, and all the bits and pieces—important and otherwise—that had crossed any commander's desk at Fort Laramie. There wasn't a bugler left to blow Mess Call, but a glance at the clock sent him down to the cavalry barracks, leaning against the Wyoming wind and holding the top of his overcoat tight against his throat.
The Seventh Infantry had left behind a detachment of ten men from Company B to assist in packing up and dismantling all military equipment at the fort that wasn't to be auctioned off to the homesteaders in the area. Since the troopers had vacated their barracks, the infantrymen left behind had spent the morning moving their gear into the newer building. Their own quarters had been leaning at an angle and creaking for almost ten years.
The men were already eating in the cavalry mess hall. There were only a handful of them left, so everyone sat close together by the pot-belly stove. John sat down near them. Ordinarily, he liked to preserve a little dignity as regimental staff sergeant, but he felt it would be pretentious to isolate himself, under the circumstances. The food tasted a little better than usual, maybe because the one remaining cook wasn't dealing in quantities of one hundred any more.
It was slumgullion again. As John ate, he smiled to himself, wondering how many meals just like this he had downed since his enlistment on the Christmas of '61. And I owe it all to Martha Taylor, he thought as he gnawed at a piece of gristle with a scrap of meat clinging to it. He raised his coffee cup and toasted her, then gave up on the stew and went back to the office.
Excerpted from Here's to the Ladies by Carla Kelly. Copyright © 2003 Carla Kelly. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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