Under the stars and bars.., p.12

Under the Stars and Bars (A Dusty Fog Civil War Western Book 4), page 12

 

Under the Stars and Bars (A Dusty Fog Civil War Western Book 4)
 


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  ‘You and the Company’ll be headed over to Captain Streeton’s cannon battery,’ Dusty replied. ‘I want you to know all about handling them by the time I get back.’

  ‘Back?’

  ‘I’ve got to collect a Yankee prisoner from Mursfreesboro and take him for exchange on the Snake Ford of the Caddo.’

  ‘I didn’t reckon Yankee prisoners was worth anything in trading,’ Billy Jack sniffed and nodded towards Prince and the stocky, blond-haired Svenson. ‘Will you be wanting somebody beside them?’

  ‘Sure,’ Dusty replied. ‘I’ll take Kiowa and Graveling; and I’d best have Surtees along. Rations for a week, fifty rounds a man for their revolvers, twenty for their saddle-guns.’

  ‘Does Surtees need his bugle?’

  ‘He’s paid for blowing it, so have him bring it along. I don’t want to have to ask the Arkansas Rifles for the loan of a bugler, they might think we don’t have any in the Texas Light.’

  Fully aware of the rivalry which existed between the Arkansas Rifles, an infantry regiment, and his outfit, Billy Jack understood Dusty’s point.

  ‘They’d likely put it around we use smoke-signals if you did,’ the lanky sergeant major admitted. ‘I’ll warn Kiowa and the fellers.’

  ‘Bueno!’ Dusty answered. ‘We’ll be pulling out an hour after reveille in the morning.’

  ‘They’ll be ready,’ Billy Jack assured him.

  ‘Huh!’ snorted Prince, after Dusty had walked away. ‘I didn’t join the Army to be nursemaid to a Yankee prisoner.’

  ‘Happen you don’t like it, go tell Cap’n Dusty you ain’t going,’ Billy Jack advised coldly. ‘Only don’t do it while I’m around. I hates to see the sight of privates’ blood getting spilled’

  ‘You sure it’d be the private’s blood?’ Prince asked.

  ‘So sure that, happen you’re loco enough to do it, I’ll go start writing to tell your folks how you died,’ the sergeant major replied. ‘Go put up your gear. Feller’s tough as you’ll be a great help to the cooks.’

  ‘Huh?’ grunted Prince.

  ‘You got so much brio Escondido xxii that you can work some of it off peeling potatoes for ’em,’ Billy Jack explained. ‘Get moving.’

  For all his mournful, hang-dog aspect and fake-miserable temperament, the sergeant major was a shrewd judge of character. Unless he missed his guess, young Tracey Prince would either change his ways in the near future or received a well-deserved lesson in manners. If Prince clashed wills with Dusty Fog, Billy jack had no doubts as to what the result would be.

  ~*~

  Always a realist, Ole Devil Hardin had grown increasingly doubtful that the South could win the War. His decision to support the Confederate States had not been motivated by a desire for the right to possess slaves; for he owned none and had no wish to do so. In fact, despite its use by Northern propagandists as a means of justifying and ennobling their cause, the Slavery issue had not been the sole reason for the secession.

  Far more important, to most Texans’ way of thinking, had been an infringement of the right of each, or any State—as a sovereign government—to secede from the Union if its affairs and interests became incompatible with those of the Federal Congress.

  Since becoming a part of the Union, Texas had been shabbily treated. Having disbanded its efficient Ranger battalions, the State had repeatedly been refused the military protection promised by the Federal government. So the majority of Texans had become disenchanted with the Northern States. On top of that, many Texans had close family ties in the other seceding States. So the Lone Star State had voted by a two-thirds majority to join the Confederate States and Ole Devil had offered his clan’s services.

  Slowly but surely, the North’s industrial and economic superiority was crushing the South. Courage and prowess on the battlefield could not avail in the long run. Even without his own humanitarian feelings and sense of chivalry, that factor had made Ole Devil determined that his prisoner-of-war camps would not follow the lead of Andersonville and other Confederate establishments.

  To be fair to the staffs of the other Southern camps, much of the terrible conditions, the shortages of food, clothing and medical supplies, could be blamed upon the Yankees themselves. The United States Navy’s blockade of Southern ports had restricted the import of many vital commodities and, not unnaturally, the Confederate authorities had given priority to their own people rather than to their captured enemies.

  So there were mitigating circumstances for the adverse conditions in the majority of Confederate camps. Far more so than in those commanded by the Union’s intellectual General Smethurst. xxiii There, starvation, ill-treatment and cruelty were permitted, encouraged even, by Smethurst and his kind out of vicious malice against men who had refused to give blind acquiescence to their ‘liberal’ beliefs.

  Knowing that men who received reasonable treatment would remember it in later years, Ole Devil had made arrangements and issued strict instructions concerning the prisoners-of-war taken by his command.

  Caution demanded that the Yankee officers and men be kept separate; as did military tradition. So there were two camps, perched on the tops of hills about a mile apart, not far from Murfreesboro, seat of Pike County. Inside the stout log palisades, the enlisted men occupied tents and the officers were quartered in wooden cabins.

  Many of the enlisted men fed better than any other time in their lives, for Texas longhorns were such a cheap and easily obtainable commodity that they received beef at least once a day. Such had been the success of Ole Devil’s system that there had never been an attempt to escape from Murfreesboro. In fact, there had been considerable reluctance to accept on the part of several enlisted men who had been offered their freedom and the chance to return to their respective regiments east of the Ouachita.

  Wanting to get his assignment over as quickly as possible, Dusty had sent Kiowa on ahead of the rest of the escort. Riding a two-horse relay, the Indian-dark sergeant had reached the camp the previous night and informed its commanding officer that the exchange was due to be implemented.

  At ten o’clock on the second day after receiving his orders from Ole Devil, Dusty sat in the office of the camps’ commanding officer and watched Colonel Jex read his authorization to collect Captain Gilbertson. White-haired, elderly, with a pleasant face, Jex had been a cavalry officer all his service before coming to the more sedentary occupation of running the prisoner-of-war camps. Looking at Dusty as he laid down the paper, Jex expressed the amiability and comradeship that stemmed from their mutual membership of the mounted arm of the service.

  ‘If Gilbertson wasn’t the son of the top soft-shell politician in New Hampstead,’ Jex remarked after the conventional greetings had ended, ‘I’d wonder why the hell Buller wanted him back. I’ve got career-officers here who’d be far greater use to the North.’

  ‘What kind of man is he?’ Dusty inquired.

  ‘If he was a horse, I wouldn’t use him to breed mules,’ Jex sniffed, then cocked his head and listened to the footsteps crossing the porch to his office door. ‘This’ll be him now.’

  Turning, Dusty watched the door open and Captain Gilbertson walk in. Clad in an untidy uniform, the man for exchange proved to be tall, thick-set, with heavy, sullen features. Cold, suspicious eyes darted from Jex to Dusty and roamed over the small Texan’s figure with an almost insulting gaze. Slouching across to the colonel’s desk, the Yankee Volunteer threw up a grudging salute.

  ‘Captain Fog, this is Captain Gilbertson, New Hampstead Volunteers,’ Jex introduced, struggling to sound polite. ‘Captain Gilbertson, may I present your escort? This is Captain Fog of the Texas Light Cavalry.’

  Again the cold eyes turned Dusty’s way. There was a hint of condescension in Gilbertson’s attitude. He acknowledged the introduction with only the slightest inclination of his head. Although willing to be friendly, Dusty kept his right hand at his side and made no greater gesture in reply than he had been given.

  ‘If it’s convenient to you
, captain,’ Dusty said evenly, ‘I’d like to leave just after noon.’

  ‘I’m ready to go straight away,’ Gilbertson answered, his voice well-educated, arrogant and anything but polite. ‘How soon can we start?’

  The ungracious response drew an angry intake of breath from Jex. Up to that moment, the colonel had been intending to ask the two young captains to be his guests for lunch. Faced with such blatant bad manners, Jex felt disinclined to offer his hospitality to the Yankee.

  ‘You can leave when you’re ready, Captain Fog,’ the colonel said blandly, without looking at Gilbertson. ‘I hope that you’ll have an uneventful journey and that you will call by to dine with me on your return.’

  ‘It will be my pleasure, sir,’ Dusty replied. ‘With your permission, we’ll make a start.’

  Walking over to the cupboard at the left of his desk, Jex opened it and took out a Union Army weapon belt with a saber on its slings. Bringing them across to Gilbertson, he held them out.

  ‘Your sword, captain.’

  Jerking his eyes from their scrutiny of Dusty, Gilbertson looked at the weapon with an air of mistrust. He seemed puzzled and surprised by Jex’s action, maybe even wondering if its return might be some kind of trick. Without a word of thanks, he accepted and buckled on the belt.

  ‘Have you all your other property, captain?’ Dusty asked.

  ‘All your men le—’ Gilbertson began, then shrugged. ‘I’ve got it all.’

  ‘May we go, sir?’ Dusty went on to Jex.

  ‘You’re dismissed,’ the colonel confirmed.

  With a more sociable prisoner, the colonel would have said more. A glance at Dusty assured Jex that his motives and brusque tone were understood. Saluting, the small Texan and the Volunteer turned and left the office. Curious officer-prisoners watched as the two captains walked from the administration compound and crossed to the main gates. Listening to the ribald comments directed at Gilbertson, Dusty concluded that his unpopularity extended to his companions in the camp. Certainly none of them displayed displeasure, or regret, at seeing him leave.

  Kiowa and the four privates waited outside the palisade. Joining his men and accepting his stallion’s reins from the bugler, Dusty indicated the second of the horses held by Svenson.

  ‘Will you use that one, captain?’ Dusty asked.

  Looking at the horse, Gilbertson gave a sniff. It had the appearance of being easy-going, but did not approach the superb quality of the animals to be used by his escort. While its gentle disposition and sober temperament would make it a pleasant animal to ride, it could not hope to outrun the Texans’ mounts. Despite the way in which the words had been framed, the Volunteer knew that he had no choice but accept.

  ‘It’ll do,’ Gilbertson growled.

  Considering that he was being released from captivity and returned to his own people, Gilbertson showed little change in his sullen attitude. With a surly scowl, he swung astride his borrowed horse. Watching his escort mount, he reached conclusions about them. That third bar on the captain’s collar had not been in place for long. For one so young to have reached such a rank hinted that family connections rather than outstanding achievements had taken him there. Apart from the sergeant, the rest of the escort had the appearance of youth, inexperience even. That sergeant would be a decisive element in the event of trouble. Hard-faced and dangerous, he would not be a man amenable to discipline and might require watching.

  On the move, Dusty told Kiowa to range ahead, then sent Graveling and Surtees out on the flanks. Watching them go, Gilbertson revised his opinion. For all their smart appearance and new-looking uniforms, those two had seen service. The Volunteer did not need to ask why Dusty was taking such precautions.

  After a few attempts had failed during the early days of Ole Devil Hardin assuming defensive positions west of the Ouachita and Caddo Rivers, the Yankee cavalry had shown little tendency to cross and raid. Clearly Captain Fog did not believe in taking chances. There were other factors to be considered besides official Union Army action. Thinking of them, Gilbertson almost approved of his escort’s precautions.

  Guerillas, for the most part little better than marauding bands of thieves, roamed both sides of the rivers. Under the pretence of fighting for the North or the South, they looted, pillaged and committed outrages. They would not hesitate to snatch up a Yankee officer, or a Rebel for that matter, so that he could be ransomed by his friends or brought by his enemies. Misguided Southern patriots formed a smaller, but no less real threat. One of them might decide to shoot a Yankee soldier out of malice and without thought of how his actions might affect his own Army. Gilbertson was pleased that his escort seemed aware of the dangers.

  ~*~

  Despite all Dusty’s precautions, or possibly because of them, the day’s journey went by uneventfully. They had ridden at a steady pace, held down to the limit of the slowest horse. At first Dusty had tried to open a conversation, but Gilbertson displayed such a reluctance to reply that the attempts ended. Yet the Volunteer’s attitude puzzled Dusty. Other Union officers with whom the small Texan had come in contact had talked, joked even. What Dusty failed to take into consideration was that they had been professional soldiers, men who fought as their duty and responded to the friendship of chivalrous enemies who followed the conventions of war.

  Towards sundown, the party crossed the boundary between Pike and Clark Counties and entered the small town of Amity. The arrival of a Union officer, even though accompanied by a Confederate captain and five enlisted men from the Texas Light Cavalry, attracted considerable attention. Women and children came from the houses to follow the riders. Discarding their traditional pastimes of pitching horseshoes at the back of the livery barn, or hard-wintering xxiv on the porch of the general store, elderly and middle-aged men converged on the newcomers. Dusty noticed that Gilbertson looked uneasy, nervous almost, and darted worried glances at the civilians.

  Nothing untoward happened and Dusty’s party turned their horses towards the front of the small hotel. Glancing up, Dusty saw an unshaven face at the window of a first floor room. It withdrew on finding itself observed. Then the people attracted the small Texan’s attention.

  ‘Where’d you get him, Cap’n?’ asked an old man sporting the badge of town constable, but not wearing a gun.

  ‘Why’s he still wearing that toad-sticker?’ another of the crowd demanded, indicating Gilbertson’s saber.

  Dusty was saved from answering the questions by the crowd pressing closer. Letting out a snort, his huge black stallion cut loose with both iron-shod rear hooves and caused a rapid movement away from it. Quitting his saddle, he quietened his mount down and looked over his shoulder.

  ‘Keep back please, folks,’ Dusty requested.

  ‘You come crowding in too close behind any of these bosses, and you’re likely to wind up picking shoeing-iron out of your teeth,’ Kiowa elaborated, dropping to the ground and facing the crowd. ‘Hold back there, all of you.’

  ‘Haul back, folks,’ the constable continued, conscious of his official status. ‘Come on, give these Texas gents room to move.’

  ‘Gracias marshal,’ Dusty drawled as the people obeyed.

  ‘Ain’t got no jail-house, ‘cepting for the root-cellar at my place, cap’n,’ the constable said respectfully. ‘You can put him in that, happen you want to.’

  ‘Damn it, F—Captain Fog!’ Gilbertson barked. ‘I’m an officer—’

  ‘It’s all right, marshal,’ Dusty put in, ignoring the outburst. ‘I’ll tend to him. Will you show my men to the livery barn, please?’

  ‘Sure will, cap’n,’ the constable agreed.

  ‘Kiowa, take Prince, Graveling and Svenson with you,’ Dusty ordered. ‘Tend to the horses and leave Prince on guard while you come to bed down and eat.’

  ‘Yo!’ Kiowa replied, taking the reins of Dusty’s stallion. ‘Let’s go.’

  Accompanied by the constable, Kiowa’s party led the horses away. Without satisfying the crowd’s curiosity, Dusty
and Gilbertson entered the hotel, followed by Surtees. The Volunteer studied Surtees again. While a bugle was suspended from the soldier’s left shoulder, the Dance Bros. Army revolver in his open-topped holster had seen much use. There was a tough, capable air about the bugler that warned Gilbertson of his ability in combatant duties.

  So the Yankee shelved until later certain thoughts which had run through his head on seeing the majority of his escort sent away.

  Like most such establishments in small towns, the Amity Hotel did double duty as a saloon. Its front door opened into a large combined dining- and bar-room, the counter also serving as a reception desk. At each end of the bar, a flight of stairs ascended to the first floor.

  Crossing the room, Dusty gave thought to a problem. He looked at Gilbertson for a moment as they stood at the reception desk end of the counter and reached a decision.

  ‘Captain Gilbertson,’ Dusty said formally. ‘We’ll be at the Snake Ford by noon tomorrow—’

  ‘That’s so,’ the Volunteer agreed, acting more amiably than previously.

  ‘Will you give me your word not to escape, or try to, between now and sun-up tomorrow?’ Dusty requested. ‘It’ll make things a heap easier for all of us.’

  ‘Of course I will,’ Gilbertson agreed without hesitation.

  Despite the increasing determination and bitterness that had developed with each succeeding year of the War, the traditional chivalries and conventions were still generally observed. Captured officers in most cases received the privileges of their rank, especially those taken by the Army of Arkansas and North Texas. If an officer gave his parole, he would be allowed a measure of freedom and was expected to keep within the bounds of his agreement.

  ‘Your word of honor, sir?’ Dusty insisted, wanting no misunderstandings.

  ‘My word of honor, Captain Fog,’ Gilbertson confirmed solemnly.

  Something in the Yankee’s manner disturbed Dusty, but he could not put his finger on what it might be. An officer in the Union Army’s word was his bond, as binding as if he had signed the most carefully written legal agreement. Yet Dusty felt vaguely uneasy.

 
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