Usual caveats, comments/recommendations appreciated as always!!!
Danny’s first few days in the camp were a whirlwind of learning, meeting the remaining men in the squad, and standing the last watch. Allen had been a great help, gregarious to a fault. He had stories about everyone and everything. At nineteen, he was a year older than Danny, but less experienced, having been raised south of Waco on the family ranch and this was his first time away from the ranch.
Ramirez was partnered with Danny the most, and Danny enjoyed working with him. Short, slim, and wiry, Ramirez was a wizard with the riata he liked to use, riding a little chestnut mare that seemed to read his mind. One oddity with Ramirez was that he hated to walk anywhere, and Danny could always tell when he was approaching Ramirez during their watches.
The third night, as Danny approached the picket line, he heard the horses stamping and eased through the trees carefully. The moon was almost full and he could see fairly well as he stopped at the far end of the line. Their standing order was to have their horses saddled in case they had to ride, so he’d saddled Blue earlier, but left him on the hackamore and the saddle loosely fastened over the saddle blanket. He saw movement among the horse and eased his pistol out as he ducked and stepped lightly down the line. Hearing Ramirez cursing, he smiled, knowing that he had backup if he needed it.
Whoever it was heard Ramirez coming and swiftly ducked between horses, disappearing into the woods. Danny called out, “Ramirez, somebody was messing with the horses, he ran into the woods to the south! I’m at the east end of the picket.”
Suddenly Ramirez was beside him. “Did you see who it was?”
“No, somebody fairly big though. He was head and shoulders over the horses’ backs.”
Ramirez spit. “Waller.”
“Waller? What would he…”
“No likes me. Tries to cause me trouble with sergeant and officers.”
Danny shook his head. “What do we do now?”
“Check horses. ‘Specially your saddle and girth. I go wake up sergeant.” Ramirez trotted toward the camp as Danny ran his hands over Blue, then checked his saddle and blanket.
Blue flinched as he readjusted the blanket and Danny stopped. “What’s the matter, boy?” He ran his hands under the blanket and felt a sting in his finger. Putting on a glove, he pulled something out from under the blanket and dropped it into his other hand. Pulling off the glove with his teeth, he dropped it on the ground and dug a lucifer out of his vest pocket. Striking it on his holster, he saw that he was holding a stem of goat’s head stickers. “How the hell, that…” he mumbled.
He saw a lantern bobbing his way from the camp and waited as Ramirez, Sergeant Logan, and Lieutenant Donovan came into the clearing. “Did you find something, Boyle,” Donovan asked.
Danny nodded and held up the stem. “These were under Blue’s blanket; I know they weren’t there earlier.”
Ramirez started cussing volubly in Spanish, interrupting him, and Danny picked up something about the girth. Logan lowered the lantern and exclaimed, “Lieutenant, Ramirez girth is cut halfway through!”
Donovan cursed. “Looks like we’ve got a problem with somebody.” He looked over at Danny. “You said you saw somebody?”
“Yes, sir.” He pointed toward the tree line. “Somebody pretty big. He heard Ramirez coming and took off for the trees. I was at the far end of the picket line, so I couldn’t make out who it was…and I’m not sure I could recognize him.”
Ramirez spat. “It was Waller. He no like me. You know this, Sergeant!”
Logan lowered the lantern to the ground. “I know what you’ve said, Ramirez, but I ain’t got anything I can act on.” He moved around the two horses. “Can’t see any tracks. Ground’s too tore up.” Straightening back up, he asked, “What do you want to do, Lieutenant?”
Donovan threw up his hands. “Not much we can do…now. I’m taking a patrol out…as soon as the sun’s up. I think I’ll take your squad instead of second squad.”
“Do you want me to go?” Logan asked.
Donovan bit his lip. “No. I think…I need to see what is happening without you around, just in case we need to…go to the captain.”
Logan hung his head. “Yes, sir.”
“I want you to take second squad out and drill the hell out of them. They’ve been sloppy. Not good on the trail, or in camp. Maybe a two or three-day run over toward the east fork of the Trinity. We haven’t been that-a-way in a while.”
Donovan looked at Danny and Ramirez, “You did the right thing just now. If we were on patrol, you would have been allowed to shoot anyone who snuck around like that. I know this isn’t a satisfactory answer,” he looked pointedly at Ramirez. “But we are all supposed to be on the same side. Get with Sergeant Lewin as soon as he’s up. If you can’t fix the saddle, draw a new one from him.”
Ramirez jerked his head down. “Yes, sir. Soon as the sun comes up.”
“Come on, Sergeant. Let’s get back to camp.” Donovan and Logan walked toward the main camp, deep in conversation as Danny and Ramirez watched.
Danny shrugged. “Guess we get to walk the rest of the watch and ride all day. Gonna be a long day.”
Ramirez scratched his moustache, saying softly, “I gonna kill Waller afore he kill me.” He stalked off, and Danny finished checking Blue’s blanket, talked softly to him, then resumed walking the perimeter.
By noon the next day, Danny was nodding off in the saddle as the nine men rode southwest toward the Brazos river. Allen rode up beside him and asked, “You alright, Danny?”
Danny yawned and said, “No, but I’ll make it. Couple of hours of sleep last night, and the last watch. I ain’t real sharp, but I’ll make it.”
“Lieutenant says we’re gonna swing across the Brazos, back up to the Clear Fork, check both crossings and maybe we’ll get lucky and scare up some Injuns.”
“Scaring up injuns might not be the best thing we could do, Jeb. There ain’t but eight, well, nine of us with the lieutenant.”
“Ah hell, we got more firearms than they do! ‘Sides, we’re better shots.”
Danny flashed back to the incidents on the Chisholm Trail and his own shootout with them at home. He thinks we do, but…ever time I came across them, they had more and better guns than we did. And they’re damn good shots from the deck of a bronc. He absently rubbed his thigh and replied, “Maybe. You ever fought injuns?”
Jeb spat off to the side and took a drink from his canteen, then recorked it. “Not yet, but Pa was always sayin’ they couldn’t shoot worth a damn.”
Danny was saved from answering when the trail narrowed, and they had to go single file. This could go real bad if Jeb’s attitude is normal with this bunch. I wonder how many of them have actually been in an Indian fight?
The rest of the day passed in a daze, with the lieutenant finally calling a halt a couple of miles short of the ford on the Brazos. “We’ll camp here tonight. Cold camp and hit the ford just after sunrise. Waller, you and Allen are night guard. Get some sleep.”
Waller rode up to Donovan, trying to loom over him. “Why? I ain’t the new man anymore. Ain’t my job. That’s what the Mex and the newbie are for.”
The lieutenant looked at Waller and lay a hand on his holster. “I’m in charge, Waller, not you. I watched you sleep in the saddle most of the day. You weren’t on watch last night, so why couldn’t you pay attention today?”
Waller jerked his horse’s head around and rode off without another word, and the lieutenant shook his head. “Let’s get off the trail. There’s a little clearing a hundred or so yards north of here. We’ll camp there.”
He led off and Danny thought to himself, Well, it appears the lieutenant has been this way before. Maybe I was underestimating him. A few minutes later, they pulled up in the little clearing, barely big enough for the horses and men, but well concealed from the trail. Danny helped set up the picket line, then carried Blue’s saddle and blanket to the edge of the trees, propping it up against a stump to let it air out a bit. He pulled out a curry brush and went to work on Blue, murmuring to him as Blue stamped and occasionally flicked his ears. A few minutes later, he finished and walked back to his saddle. Waller was digging in his saddlebags and Danny ran toward him.
“What the hell are you doing? Get your…get out of my saddlebags!”
Waller jumped up. “I wasn’t in your stuff.”
“The hell you weren’t,” Danny yelled. “I closed those straps when I got the curry brush out!”
Donovan stepped between them, stopping Danny cold. He glanced at Waller. “What were you doing with Boyle’s bags?”
“Nothin’, I was just gonna move them ‘cause I like this spot. It’s in the shade. You tole me to go to sleep.”
Donovan rubbed his forehead and said softly, “Boyle was here first. Find somewhere else. And if I find you going through anyone’s equipment, it is not going to end well for you.”
Waller flexed up, trying to intimidate the lieutenant, and said ominously, “Whatta you mean?”
Donovan smiled, showing his teeth. “Well, I might just have to kill you. You think your size will let you bully people, and you’ve tried that before. This is the third squad you’ve been in, and the only reason you’re here is Captain Carlson needs men. Think about that before you try anything else.” He turned his back on Waller, and Danny noticed that the retainer loop was off the hammer of the lieutenant’s pistol. “Boyle, come with me.” When they walked away, he asked, “Are you missing anything?”
“Not that I could see. I don’t think he had a chance to do anything before I caught him.”
“Well, you made an enemy. He’s a vindictive sort, so be careful.”
“Uh, sir, what is… vin…dictive?”
Donovan looked over at Danny. “Mean. He’ll try to get even. Do what you have to if you have to defend yourself. Logan says you’ve got a good head.” He thought for a second. “You know anything about tracking?”
“Yes, sir. I learned to track down cows that wandered off. I can…also pick out Injun sign. They’re mostly unshod, unless they stole ‘em.” Danny shrugged. “Can’t tell that without catching them. But they mostly carry real light, compared to us.”
“Where did you learn that?”
“On the trail. One of the old men showed me while we were goin’ up through the Territory. Taught me how to recognize the different Injun tribes too.”
Donovan stopped and said, “I want you scouting tomorrow. A hundred yards ahead of us in clear spots, fifty yards where the trail closes down. Think you can do that?”
“Yes, sir. What about Ramirez? We’re usually paired together.”
“I’ll put him up with you.” Donovan walked off, and Danny headed back toward his saddle and blankets.
He could see Waller back among the trees, apparently trying to sleep, as his hat was down over his face. Ramirez walked up, idly flipping his riata. “What did the lieutenant want?’
Danny smiled. “You and I will be scouting tomorrow.”
“Ahead of the squad?” Ramirez frowned. “I don’t like turning my back on Waller.”
“What else could I do. The lieutenant—”
“Si, he is in charge.”
Danny woke as the sun rose, walked into the trees and relieved himself. I could really use some coffee, but that don’t work in a cold camp. He crouched and rubbed his leg, then stood and managed not to groan. Dammit. I really want my leg to stop hurtin’. He walked around for a few minutes and finally felt like he could function normally. He quickly saddled Blue, making sure the blanket was smooth under the saddle before he cinched the girth down. Once that was done, he dug through his saddlebag and found a piece of pemmican, and gnawed on that as he led Blue over to where the lieutenant was standing.
Donovan looked around, saw that everyone was there and said, “Mount up. Boyle and Ramirez scouts.” He followed up with the rest of the squad assignments and swung up on his horse. “Lead out, Boyle.”
Danny nodded and eased out of the clearing and back toward the trail. It seemed like only a minute later, and they were at the Brazos crossing. Quickly looking both north and south, he crossed the river, pulled off the trail and looked for tracks as he slid his rifle out of the sheath. Donovan nodded when he crossed as he saw the rifle. “Smart thinking. We want to swing northwest from here. The trail branches in a half mile or so. Take the right fork.”
“Yes, sir.” Danny and Ramirez led out again, and he took the right fork, glancing at the sun to make sure he was going the right direction. The only thing he smelled were a few pines off to the west, and his own stale sweat and Blue. Same damn winds down here. Either out of the northwest, or out of the southwest. He felt the wind in his face as he cleared the cottonwoods. Long as I keep into the wind, I’m goin’ the right way. A mile or so up the trail, he pulled Blue up suddenly. What the…tracks. Unshod horses. “Ramirez! Over here!”
Ramirez reined up and came back to where Danny was dismounting. “What?”
Danny pointed to the tracks. “Unshod horses joined the trail right here. Go let the lieutenant know.” Ramirez turned without a word and trotted back toward the rest of the squad as Danny walked around looking at the tracks.
By the time the lieutenant came riding up, Danny had remounted. “What have you got, Boyle?”
“I think five unshod horses came out of the brush here and turned northwest on the track.”
“Any idea how old?”
Danny shrugged. “In the last day or so. I rained, what, two days ago? These tracks have been made since then.”
Donovan scratched his chin. “Well, maybe we can catch up to them. But I want y’all closer than a hundred yards. Don’t get further than maybe fifty yards in front of us, unless I say different. And ride with your rifles out.”
A couple of hours later, they came to the Clear Fork crossing and Danny pulled up. When Ramirez joined him, he said, “Looks like the tracks go straight into the water and come out the other side. I’m going to cross and see if all five of them came out. Can you wait for the lieutenant and tell him?”
Ramirez nodded. “I will.” He looked around carefully. “I think they are gone on up the trail.”
Danny grinned. “I think so, too, and they’ve been moving at a trot most of the day, so they are staying about the same distance in front of us.” Danny gigged Blue and rode him across the Clear Fork, then scrambled up the other bank. He rode another hundred or so yards, until he was clear of the patch of cottonwoods that lined the creek, dismounted, and tied Blue to a convenient bush.
He found all the same tracks, and a fairly fresh set of droppings, just as the rest of the squad rode up. Donovan asked, “Still the same five?”
“As far as I can tell, Sir.” He pointed to the droppings. “Those are fairly fresh, I think, probably today.”
“Alright. We’ll take a short break here.” He turned and said loudly, “Everybody water the horses, get something to eat, and refill your canteens if you need to.”
Four hours later, Danny topped out on a small rise and pulled up suddenly. Off in the distance, he could see a spark of a fire in the gathering dusk, and the faint smell of wood smoke. He quickly reversed down off the rise and rode back to the lieutenant. “Somebody may be camping for the night. Got a fire up ahead of us.”
Donovan replied, “Show me.”
They rode up until just their heads cleared the small rise, and Donovan shook his head. “No, I think we’re too late. I think they’re already gone. Smell that smell? That’s burnt meat. They probably killed something, ate their fill, and threw the remnants in the fire. You and Ramirez stay here. I’ll get the others arranged the way I want them, then we’ll push toward the campfire.”
He turned and rode back down the rise as Ramirez came riding up. “Lieutenant wants us to stay here. Any idea what he’s planning?”
Ramirez had his riata out, flipping it back and forth nervously. “If he does it like before, he wants a half circle.”
With a snort, Ramirez said, “So nobody shoots anybody else by accident.”
A few minutes later, Donovan rode back up to them. “Start down the trail at a walk. Once we get down on the flat, we will fan out and walk toward the fire. Don’t shoot unless you see an Indian, or they shoot at you.”
Danny gripped his rifle tighter and said softly, “Let’s go, Blue.” The horse shook his head and started forward, walking daintily in the deepening twilight. It seemed like it took forever to get down off the rise, but he watched as the others spread out on either side of he and Ramirez. Where is the lieutenant? Danny looked around quickly, finally spotting him out on the end of the line off to his left, as they continued forward at a walk. He could make out coals, with the occasional flare and pop from a piece of wood as he got within yards of the fire. Just as he started to relax, a rifle fired off to his right, and they heard a high-pitched squeal.
Waller yelled, “Got ‘im!”
Danny blew out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding as he came up to the fire, or what they left of it. There was no sign of any Indians, and he rode around the fire, back to the trail. He could barely see, but the tracks continued to the northeast. He turned back as he heard the lieutenant and Waller yelling at each other. Ramirez and Allen were sitting at the fire, laughing softly as the others came in. “What’s so funny? Danny asked.
Allen said, “Looks like the Injun Waller got had four legs and weighs about sixty pounds.”
Danny cocked his head. “What?”
Buck McKinnon rode up. He said disgustedly, “Damn idiot killed a shoat. It run across in front of me, but I let it go. That…idiot…got skeered and shot it.”
The rest of the squad rode in, with Donovan leading Waller, who was carrying the shoat across his saddle and quietly cursing. “Drop it by the fire.” Waller threw the shoat off his saddle as Donovan added, “Now go clean up.” He glanced around. “Ramirez, you know how to cook a pig?”
“Si, I can cook it. We will need…firewood.”
“Boyle, Allen, go get firewood. We’ll camp here tonight, since I’m pretty sure the Indians we were chasing are long gone by now.”
Danny got up and headed toward the creek, looking for fallen limbs and mesquite that would burn. He came back with an armload to find that Allen had beaten him back and was already building up the fire as Ramirez finished cleaning the shoat. Donovan sent the big German, Gottfried, and McKinnon out as guards. He looked around and said, “Boyle, Allen, you relieve them at midnight.”
Jeb asked, “Who’s gonna cook?”
Donovan chuckled, “Ramirez. He’ll make sure you have some supper left for you.”
Danny came awake to a light tapping on his boot. “Danny, ist your vatch.”
“I’m awake, Viktor. Gimme a minute to take a piss, and I’ll take the watch.”
“Danke. There is food for you at the fire.”
A few minutes later, he sat at the fire, munching a rib off the shoat as Allen came into the light, carrying the coffeepot, and picked up the other plate sitting there. “What’s going to happen tomorrow, Jeb?”
“Prolly head back to camp. The Injuns are long gone if they heard that gunshot. I got a feelin’ Waller’s done for, too. Lieutenant ain’t happy with him, between goin’ through your bags, shootin’ that pig, and the other problems he’s had with the Rangers, I think they’ll let him go.”
“Well, that wouldn’t bother me. Something isn’t right with him.”
Allen chuckled. “He’s always got away with stuff because he’s a big ‘un. Oh, by the time you make another round, the coffee I just put on the coals should be done.”
“Thanks, Jeb! Guess we better get to it, fore the lieutenant gets mad as us.” Allen laughed again and walked into the darkness as Danny headed for the picket line to check the horses. He checked Blue, talking softly to him, and pulled his coffee cup out of the saddlebags, stuffing it in his vest. He figured it took about twenty minutes to walk the perimeter of the camp, and he stopped every three rounds, poured himself a cup of coffee and sipped it as he walked slowly, stopping to listen on a regular basis.
By what he guessed was four in the morning, he was starting to get jumpy, needed to piss, and was pretty sure the last cup of coffee was half grounds and half water. He hit the picket line, rinsed his cup with the water in his canteen, and took a piss. I hope there is something to eat before we ride out. I know better than to drink that much coffee…didn’t the lieutenant say we’d be out seven to ten days? We’ve only been out…what…a little over two days? We keep going north, we might get to Henrietta. I might be able to check on the place.
Six more rounds of the perimeter brought sunrise, and the camp came to life. Ramirez cooked some kind of porridge with the left over shoat in it, and Danny wolfed it down along with another cup of coffee. Donovan came up as he was finished eating. “You think you can stay awake enough to scout this morning?”
Danny nodded and drank the last of the cup of coffee. “I…I’m awake now. I’m probably good for a couple of hours.”
“Finish your breakfast, then mount up. You and Ramirez will scout until noon.”