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Moon-eyed Appaloosa Chapter 1
When the last faint notes of retreat had died away and the companies had been dismissed, Major James Prentice suggested to his visitor that they retire to his quarters, make themselves comfortable and have a drink. Colonel Stephen Horn answered gruffly, "Jim, that's the first intelligent remark you've made since I got here."
Though nearing the sunset hour, the August day was still suffocatingly hot, and, as they walked across the broad parade ground, the fine, powdery gray dust rose from under their boots like smoke. Not a drop of rain had fallen on Fort Boise since late June, Major Prentice told the colonel, and for twenty-three straight days the temperature had topped one hundred degrees in the shade."What shade?" Colonel Horn grunted sourly.
In truth, there was none, for the post had been built only a year ago on a sagebrush-covered, treeless rise of land some distance removed from the river and the town itself. The officers' quarters, commissary, and enlisted men's barracks were constructed of buff-colored sandstone blocks; the stables, blacksmith shop, and lesser buildings of rough-sawed, uncured, unpainted pine lumber, which the blistering sun and dry air were already beginning to warp badly. There was a look of cheapness and impermanence to the cluster of buildings sprawled against the background of parched yellow hills; an ugly bleakness. Yet Major Prentice was immodestly proud of the post, for this was his first command.
"We'll be planting some trees in the fall. They grow fast in this country, I'm told. Give me a little time, Steve, and I'll have Fort Boise looking as attractive as your post does."
Colonel Horn shot him a scowling glance. "Have you ever seen Fort Walla Walla?"
"No. But I hear you have a few shade trees over there." "That we do. And damned little else." He sighed heavily. "What sins did we ever commit, Jim, to be sentenced to tours of duty out in this God-forsaken country when there's a civilized war going on back East?" Major Prentice's laugh was without humor. "I wish I knew, Steve." Despite the open windows, it was depressingly hot in the major's quarters, for no breeze stirred in the early evening hush and it would be several hours yet before night air circulating down from the mountain heights to the north brought relief. Impatiently Major Prentice called, "Chang!" Colonel Horn took off his hat, unbuttoned his blouse, sank down in a rawhide-bottomed chair and began tugging at his right boot. Turning red-faced as he failed to budge it, he looked helplessly up at the major. "If you don't mind, Jim.""Sure thing."
Major Prentice helped the colonel remove his boots, pulling the second one off just as the Chinese servant padded into the room carrying a tray laden with glasses, bottles, a tin pitcher of water, and a small wooden bucket covered with a white linen napkin.
"Whisky?" the major inquired.
"Watered or straight?"
"Give me a tall glass of water on the side. And I hope to God it's cool." Setting the tray down on the sideboard, Chang ceremoniously lifted the napkin, thrust the bucket under the chin of the colonel-who had leaned back, closed his eyes and was massaging his temples with his fingers-and chortled, "Plenty cool. Lookee, Colonel! Got lice!"
"Got lice! Lotsa lice!"
"There's no need to rub his nose in it, Chang," Major Prentice said with a smile, judging it superfluous to explain that the stoop-shouldered Oriental sometimes misplaced his '"l's." "I'm sure the colonel has seen ice before." Colonel Horn's eyes jerked open, he sat bolt upright, dug both hands unbelievingly into the bucket, then stared in amazement at the major. "By Heaven, it is ice!"
"Nothing's too good for an old friend, Steve."
"Where in the devil do you find ice in Idaho at this time of year?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Tell me anyway. No, wait! The drink first, then the story." As a matter of fact, Major Prentice admitted wryly after Chang had fixed them both drinks, he really could take little credit for the feat. Like the colonel himself, he had been raised in New England and was quite familiar with the wintertime chore of sawing lake ice into chunks and storing it underground in sawdust or straw so that it would last through the summer. But this part of Idaho Territory was not lake country. Furthermore, the winters hereabouts were seldom severe enough to freeze any appreciable depth of ice, except at high altitudes in the mountains, and such places were inaccessible to wagons. One hot July day, the month before, while on patrol along the old emigrant road down Snake River way, the major had chanced to glance up at the snow-capped peaks of the Owyhee Mountains in the far distance to the south and remark that he would give a dollar for just one pound of that lovely white stuff. That evening, one of the enlisted men-a corporal-sidled up to him and asked him if he really meant what he had said. He had laughed, he told the colonel, and assured the soldier that he most certainly had. "The corporal said if I'd give him two weeks, the use of a wagon and a squad of men, he'd bring me a whole wagonload of ice. I told him to hop to it-and he did."
"How did he manage to get the wagon up into the mountains?"
"He didn't. He got the ice in the desert east of here."
"In July? Oh, hell, Jim! You don't expect me to swallow that!" "No. But that's what he told me. Over in the lava beds, he claims, there are caves full of the stuff. He says it's been there a million years, more or less. At any rate, I got my wagonload."
"At a dollar a pound?"
Major Prentice motioned for Chang to refill the colonel's whisky glass. "No.
He made me a gift of it. You see, he had a guilty conscience."
"Instead of taking just the one wagon I'd authorized, he took three. He filled them all with ice and sold the two extra loads to saloonkeepers in town for a tidy sum. Of course he didn't intend for me to find that out." "What did you do to him?"
"Oh, I reprimanded him quite severely."
"That's all?" Colonel Horn demanded.
"As a matter of fact," Major Prentice answered, idly tinkling the ice in his glass, "I was going to prefer charges against him for the misuse of government property, men, and time. Then I got to thinking. How would it look to the War Department brass, Steve, if they read a report to the effect that I had court-martialed a soldier for going into the ice business in the Idaho desert in July?"
"They'd think you'd lost your marbles."
"Exactly. So I let it ride. The truth is, I rather admired his initiative."
Colonel Horn chuckled. "And I. Is he a Regular?" "No, a Washington Territory Volunteer. He's lived in this country all his life and knows it like a book. Got some French-Canadian blood in him, plus a healthy portion of good old American brass. Quite a useful man to have around."
"How do you find the volunteers as soldiers?"
"Indifferent to discipline but almost as good as Regulars when it comes to fighting Indians." Major Prentice eyed the colonel curiously. "I understand that a large part of your command are volunteers, too. How do they strike you?"
Colonel Horn made a wry face. "They don't take much to discipline, I'll agree with you there. So far as fighting Indians is concerned, I haven't yet seen them in action."
"Things are that quiet on your side of the Blues?" "Quiet?" the colonel grunted in disgust. "Hell, no! We've got all kinds of trouble over there. But Fort Walla Walla isn't an Army post-it's a goddam police station!"
The major frowned. "What do you mean?"
With a vehemence that surprised Major Prentice-even though he had guessed that his former West Point classmate had not made the two-hundred-and-eighty-mile ride across the Blue Mountains merely to pay him a social call-the colonel told him. Like the newer post of Fort Boise, the chief function of Fort Walla Walla was to protect the Oregon Trail and the white settlers from the depredations of Indians. In the country contiguous to Fort Boise, as the major well knew, the Snake Indians were still openly hostile to the whites, the region was sparsely settled, and when an Army patrol struck an Indian trail its duty was clear-cut: it must follow, engage, and, if possible, wipe the devils out.
But on the Walla Walla side of the Blue Mountains, the Indians were technically, officially, and by government treaty at peace with the whites. A reservation had been laid out just south of the line separating Washington Territory from Oregon, an agent appointed to oversee it, and tribes such as the Cayuse, Umatillas, and Walla Wallas assigned to it. A number of white settlements had sprung up nearby; farming and stock-raising were expanding; prospectors and pack trains bound for the Idaho mines were continually passing close to the reservation; and the Oregon Trail itself was near at hand."There are at least two thousand Indians on that reservation," the colonel continued grimly, "with nothing to do but sit around and think up mischief. Innocent little pranks like stealing some rancher's cattle, scaring the wits out of a party of greenhorn prospectors by shooting up their camp, running off strings of pack mules and the like. Now and then they add spice to the fun by killing somebody."
"Chang," Major Prentice said, "the colonel's glass is empty again. Excuse me, Steve. Go on."
"The noble city of Walla Walla has a newspaper," the colonel went on, anger edging his voice, "published by a man whose wisdom in Indian and military affairs passeth all human understanding. He second-guesses every move I make. When the reservation Indians misbehave, who catches hell in his paper? Not the agent. He's not responsible for what his Indians do when they're off limits, the editor says. Not the county sheriffs-they have no jurisdiction over government wards, says Mr. Editor. All his sound and fury fall on me." "Pay it no mind," Major Prentice said soothingly. "Everybody in the Northwest knows the bastard is a Copperhead." "No doubt he is. But that doesn't prevent the Portland and San Francisco papers from reprinting his stories. Eventually they even get back to the East coast. By then they're accepted as fact and the Copperhead taint is lost."
"Do you really think they're hurting you?"
"Suppose you were sitting with the War Department brass back in Washington City," the colonel said bitterly, "and read in the New York Tribune that a bunch of reservation Indians out West were making fools of the United States Army? Wouldn't you check to see who the post's commanding officer was? Wouldn't you-even in the pressure and turmoil of running a war-make a mental note that a twenty-year career officer who couldn't keep a few tame Indians in line must be grossly incompetent? And if you ever saw his name on a promotion or transfer list-" "I see your point. What are you doing about it?" "Everything I can think of-including coming over here to find out if you've got any answers for me."
Major Prentice smiled deprecatingly. "I'm flattered that you think so highly of my opinion, Steve. But after all, to give advice to you-" "Oh, the hell with rank, Jim!" Colonel Horn interrupted bluntly. "I'm a green pea in this job. I don't know the country and I don't know Indians. You served two years at Fort Laramie before the war. You've been in command here for a year. You've always had the knack for adapting _yourself to conditions as you found them. If you've got any answers for me, give." Major Prentice got up, freshened his drink, walked over to the window and stood for a time gazing out into the gathering twilight. Then he turned, nodding. "All right, Steve. But first, tell me this-how familiar are your officers with the country where these things are happening?" "They never saw it until they were transferred to Walla Walla. In point of service, nine months is the longest any of them have been there." "What about the noncoms?""They're mostly Regulars from back East."
"Where were the volunteers recruited?"
"California, western Oregon, western Washington Territory. The Walla Walla country has been settled only a few years, Jim. Nobody knows it well but the Indians."
"Do you patrol the reservation boundaries?"
"Regularly. But it's rough terrain and some of it's heavily timbered.
Keeping those Indians penned in is like trying to hold sand in a fish net. In spite of all we can do, they come and go as they please." "And when a piece of mischief is done," Major Prentice said thoughtfully, "it's hours, I suppose-maybe days-before you can get a detachment to the spot where it happened. By then the trail is cold." "Exactly! And if by sheer luck we do manage to trail the rascals back to the reservation, they've scattered and can find a dozen relatives to swear they haven't left their tepees for a month." Colonel Horn eyed the major bleakly. "Did you ever try to worm the truth out of an Indian, Jim?"
Major Prentice crossed to his chair and sat down. He nodded. "Many times."
"Ever have any luck?"
"Not personally. But an experienced scout can do it. Aren't yours any help to you?"
"I haven't got any!" the colonel said in disgust. "Oh, there are a few breed interpreters around the fort and the reservation, but I wouldn't trust a one of them with a skillet of hot grease. And the agent is no good to me at all."
Lost in thought, Major Prentice stared down at his glass. Wearily the colonel took a piece of ice out of the bucket, folded his handkerchief around it and rubbed it slowly back and forth across his forehead. He sighed in sheer pleasure. "You should promote that corporal, Jim. Or cite him for a medal.""He's had his reward."
"What did he do with his ice profits?"
"Frittered them away on horses, women, and cards. Or so he told me. At least when I finally caught up with him he didn't have a dime to his name." Colonel Horn laughed. "Sounds like he's got all the vices of a Regular. Send him over to me, Jim. I'll make a sergeant of him." "You'd break him in a week, Steve. Sure, he's ingenious, but so far as having the makings of a soldier is concerned-" From the darkness outside came the sound of a man singing-enthusiastically, if not well; loudly, if not on key. Major Prentice winced. To a person with a sensitive ear it was sheer agony to listen to that raucous ballad-which he had been forced to do for months now. It had endless verses-all composed by the singer; all abominably bad. Oh, my daddy was a mountain man,
And my mama was a squaw,
And the day I joined the family was the happiest day they ever saw!
Little moon-eyed Appaloosa,
Come away with me!
Little moon-eyed Appaloosa,
We'll be happy as can be!
Oh, I got a girl in Oregon,
And one in Idaho . . .
"Chang!" Major Prentice said wearily. "Will you tell that braying jackass to be still?"
Chang padded over to the window, thrust his head out and directed a torrent of abuse at the singer in an impassioned mixture of Chinese and pidgin English. The singing ceased and a cheerful voice replied, "Aw, go soak your head in a slop bucket, you prune-faced old heathen!"Got a girl in California,
And everywhere I go!
Little moon-eyed Appaloosa,
Come away with me!
Little moon-eyed Appaloosa . . .
Chang's epithets became shrill and purely Oriental, their only effect being to make the man outside jeer back in a choice selection of uncomplimentary phrases in several languages, among which Major Prentice recognized English, French, a spattering of low-grade Spanish, Chinese, and a couple of Indian tongues. Colonel Horn stared at him in astonishment. "Is all that gabbling coming out of one man?"
"It is," Major Prentice said. He got to his feet, strode over to the window and thrust Chang aside. "Corporal Langdon!"
There was a moment of silence, then a voice answered, "Yes sir?"
"Why, sure, Major, if my singing is bothering you. I was just walking along-" "Then keep walking. But quietly, do you hear me?" "Sure."
"Sure, what, Corporal?"
"Sure, I will."
"Sure, you will, what?"
"Sure, I will-sir."
"That's better. Start walking." With a sigh of relief, Major Prentice turned back into the room and said apologetically, "Where were we, Steve? Oh, yes, we were talking about-" Suddenly he broke off, stared for a moment at the colonel, then whirled around, stuck his head out the window and called, "Corporal Langdon!"
"Yes sir?" a voice answered, a little distance away.
"Come in here!"
"But you just told me-"
"Never mind! Come in here-on the double!"
As the major turned away from the window, Colonel Horn regarded him with a puzzled frown. "You're not bringing him in to serenade us, I hope." Major Prentice shook his head. "You asked for answers, Steve. He may have some for you." He smiled. "At any rate, I want you to meet him. He's my iceman."