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They called her Chug. Ross wondered why, but he didn't ask. You kept your mouth shut in this man's army. You followed your orders and you didn't bother anybody with questions. When your sergeant said, "Private, you'll ride Ol' Chug today," you saddled Ol' Chug and awaited your order to mount.
She was the smoothest-riding horse Ross Caldwell had straddled since taking the Union oath. The other troopers bounced all around him on swaybacked nags, but he rode at a glide on Chug. He had covered hundreds of miles on stiff-legged cavalry cobs rough enough to split you in two from the crotch up, but this big gray mare could waltz.
You and your rump ought to be grateful, he thought. But he was not. Good fortune in the cavalry service tended to rouse Ross's suspicions. There was something wrong with all this. The other troopers should be grousing more. They should be coveting this mare. Ross hardly knew this Sergeant Parkhill, or any of the other men in this detachment. Why had he been given the privilege of riding Chug today?
And why "Chug"? It wasn't unusual that a horse like this should have a name. She stood out--a hand taller than any other mount in the string, sleek, well muscled, alert. He had heard that she came from the regimental band at Fort Laramie. But why "Ol' Chug"?
He pulled the brim of his campaign hat down low over his brow and squinted through the dust and the glare of summer sun on the dry plains. The valley of the North Platte fell away to his right, but his eyes kept drifting away to the left, where the Laramie Mountains rose. There were trees up on that near ridge. He could see rows of them sticking up like hackles on a dog's back. Trees meant shade. No shade down here.
Damn, these blue coats were hot. The grays had never seemed this stifling. Not even in Georgia. No cause to complain, though. This was still freedom, after all. Open territory as far as a man could see. A chance to start over in a young country. A chance to be with Julia. Sure, it was dusty. Hot, too. Cold last winter. Hard under the hailstones and lightning and sheets of pounding rain. But any common hell beat that prisoner of war camp in Chicago.
The telegraph wire stretched ahead of the riders, sagging between crooked posts as if it would melt in the sunshine. They had strung this section tight last winter, Ross recalled, after the blizzard winds had flattened four miles of it, snapping posts like toothpicks. Now the line drooped like strings of taffy in the heat.
It was broken somewhere west, and Ross had been riding with Sergeant Parkhill's detachment since dawn, looking for the break, wondering what had caused it this time. Probably Indians again. Ross fully expected to fight Indians today. If there were fewer than fifty, the detachment could hold them off. If there were more, he hoped Ol' Chug could run. Up to now, he hadn't let her go faster than a trot.
"The missus could ride her," a voice said to his right.
Ross looked, recognized the face, but couldn't place a name with it. "Pardon?" he said. The plains had murmured with Southern drawls since they rode out this morning, but this was the first to speak to him.
"Ain't she your wife? The laundry gal?"
The corporal grinned. "Shore is nice to have a lady to talk to now and then. She's a fine lady. Your name's Caldwell, ain't it?"
Ross nodded. He saw Sergeant Parkhill look back at him, the dark pupil hard against the corner of the eye, the stubbled cheek bulging with tobacco.
"My name's Gene Dillon." The corporal thrust a tattered leather glove over the fork of his McClellan saddle.
Ross shook it. "Pleasure," he said. This Corporal Dillon had about six teeth missing from his smile. He had seen that gapped smile a time or two at Fort Laramie. Several times at Camp Douglas, Chicago. And even that day in Ohio. The day of the battle at Buffington Island. Two years ago. The day he threw down his weapons and became a prisoner of war.
"How'd you end up in this outfit?" Dillon said.
"Been down with the grippe. My squad rode to Platte Bridge without me and I got reassigned."
"Lucky for us you got sick," said a high-pitched voice. A blond-haired private reined his horse closer.
"What do you mean?" Ross said.
"I reckon your wife would have gone to Platte Bridge with you."
Ross nodded. "I reckon you're right."
"That would have left us shy of women around camp."
Ross smirked down at the private. The first sergeant at Camp Marshall kept a Cheyenne wife. One of the civilian scouts lived with a Sioux woman whose sister also stayed with them. A couple of privates and the camp sutler had also taken Indian wives. "There's half a dozen women there yet," he said.
Dillon and the yellow-haired private laughed at Ross from both sides.
"I ain't talkin' about no half-assed squaw brevet-wife," the girlish voice said. "I mean the genuine thing--a Southern white gal. We ain't got but one of them."
Ross didn't like the way he said "we," but he let it go. In a way, Julia did belong to everybody in K Company, 11th Ohio Cavalry. She was its inspiration. A heroine to every man in uniform. In that way, Ross knew he had to share her. "Maybe when the new captain gets to camp, he'll bring a wife with him," Ross suggested.
"Wouldn't be a Southern gal," the blond-haired private said. "Better not be, anyway. No damned Yankee captain better not marry a Southern gal while I'm still a Rebel."
Sergeant Parkhill tightened his reins and let his mount fall back between Chug and the mount of the blond-haired private. "He ain't married, anyway," Parkhill said.
"Who?" Dillon asked.
"The new company commander we're fixin' to get. Captain Jasper Jones. Now, ain't that a name for a Yankee greenhorn?" He drilled Ross with a squint, craned his neck, spit on his mount's rump, adding to the brown streak that trickled down the horse's leg, collecting dust.
For a bunch of soldiers in Union fatigues, these men sure threw that term "Yankee" around freely enough, Ross thought. Every man in this detachment, though a former Rebel, wore Yankee blue now. Galvanized Yankees, as the newspapers called them, although Ross couldn't figure why. To galvanize meant to coat with zinc--at least that's what it had meant back in his father's hardware store in Georgia. He couldn't see that he had been galvanized. A Georgia Rebel-turned-Yankee coated with zinc? What kind of sense did that make?
"I said, ain't that a name for a Yankee greenhorn?" Sergeant Parkhill growled. He rode a shorter horse, but his own height made up for it, and he looked square at Ross.
"Sounds like it," Ross said. This big sergeant seemed to be testing him for something. Ross didn't really know Parkhill, but remembered him wearing the tattered rags of a prisoner in Camp Douglas, Chicago. It was still strange to see him wearing blue, though he wore it with no great pride--his jacket and shirt both missing buttons, revealing a patch of chest hair under his sweaty civilian bandanna.
"How do you know this Jasper ain't married, Park?" Corporal Dillon asked.
"I've studied up on him. They kicked him out of West Point for sneakin' out to meet girls. Went through some academy for his commission. Only fought one battle before the war ended. Kennesaw Mountain. Got his arm shot off. Don't know a damn thing about Indians. He'll get us all killed if we give him a chance." The dark pupil drilled Ross again. "Of course, we won't give him a chance, will we, Private?"
Ross squirmed in the saddle. He couldn't tell if Parkhill was joking, or what. "I don't guess that would do us much good," he said.
"Riders comin' back!" a voice shouted.
Ross saw the two plumes of dust slanting against the sky, like twin whirlwinds. Behind them, something he hadn't noticed before. A haze in the air, hanging low--a reddish blur under the crisp blue of the big sky.
Parkhill spurred ahead to meet the advance patrol. As the riders reported, the big sergeant sat hunched in his saddle, turning once to splatter tobacco juice on the rump of his horse. He was an intimidating specimen, Ross thought. Shoulders like a bull, legs like whiskey kegs, a trim waist, a jaw like a block of granite and fists to match. Crafty, too. The only Galvanized Yankee Ross knew of who had managed to climb to the rank of sergeant. He hated Yankees, yet could get whatever he wanted from them. The upper echelon considered him a model soldier.
When the detachment caught up to its sergeant and scouts, Parkhill was drawing his Colt revolver from his cavalry holster. "Get ready, boys," he said. "They're over the next divide."
"Who?" Dillon asked.
"The bastards that busted our telegraph wire. Hundreds of 'em."
"Hundreds!" the yellow-haired private said. "Then let's turn tail and git!"
"You do and I'll shoot you in the back, Lloyd. No coward deserves any better than that."
Ross glanced at the other faces, felt the familiar throb of sick fear in his stomach. Time after time he had held it down and charged into ridiculous dangers. He had never taken worse than a scratch from bullet or bayonet, but this looked like the final charge. Hundreds of Indians over the divide and a sergeant crazy for battle.
"Park, there ain't but seventeen of us," Dillon argued. "Why the hell should we go attackin' 'em?"
"They ain't carryin' no guns. Just pointy things to stick you with. We'll stampede 'em before they figure out what the hell hit 'em. Form a skirmish line and draw your weapons!"
Ross groped at the flap of his holster. Were they really going to do this? Outnumbered--what--ten to one? Twenty to one?
As they trotted toward the divide, he began to figure out why he was riding Ol' Chug. His head stuck up higher than any other--a tempting target. And which horse would the Indians want most? He could already feel their arrowheads and spear points. He remembered the bodies of horribly tortured settlers he had come across on the plains. Staked to the ground, burned, slashed, scalped, butchered.
He felt the initials, RWC, that he had carved into his pistol butt, slipped his hand around the wooden grip, and drew the Remington from his holster.
The war was over. Everybody else had gone home. But Ross Caldwell had switched armies, found new enemies. Oh, how could this be happening? Why now? Why here? What would become of Julia?
Copyright © 1994 by Mike Blakely