A light knock at the open door of his office lifted Orin Travis's attention from the morning report. "Captain Larabee reporting as ordered, sir."
Travis returned the younger officer's salute. "At ease, Chris. Come in and sit down."
"Thank you, Colonel." Larabee crossed the room with his graceful swinging stride and settled into one of the deep wicker chairs that faced Travis's leather-topped mahogany table-desk. As always, Travis was struck by the air of the man. He was only forty, but the creases grooved into his brow and at the corners of his mouth were those of a man ten years older, and there was something in the eyes that betrayed to a knowledgeable observer the constant dull ache he lived with. Yet the strong solemn face retained the lines of a former smile that now was seldom seen, but that Travis wished he could have met Larabee early enough to have known. He was neatly dressed, as always, in a short field jacket, black belt, saber sling, holster, and diagonal shoulder strap, comfortably tailored breeches and the three-quarter-length jackboots of an officer, golden bars untarnished, blue relieved by the yellow shoulder patches, collar, trousers stripe, and pointed cuffs that proclaimed him a member of the Cavalry, always, though the youngest, considered the most glamorous (if not necessarily prestigious--that honor went to the Engineers, which the highest-ranking graduates of West Point almost invariably selected) branch of the service. His gauntlets were neatly folded and stacked and tucked through his belt, black slouch hat lain across his knee.
"Cigar?" Travis offered, reaching out to turn the silver box on the desktop so Chris could reach it and extract one of the long cheroots he knew his senior captain preferred. He knew better than to offer whiskey, and in any case it was a bit early in the day.
"Thank you, sir." Chris took a match from the pale green china cup, painted with blackberries by the Colonel's wife, that stood beside the box, scratched it on the sole of his boot and fired up his smoke. Travis waited politely until he had it going to his satisfaction.
Orin Travis was sixty-seven--only seven years younger than General Winfield Scott-- and, like Scott, he seemed resolved to die in harness: he could have retired at half pay nearly twenty years ago, but he soldiered on, literally, and age hadn't slowed him down or dulled his mind. He had joined the Army as a boy of nineteen when the War of 1812 broke out, fighting at Chateaugay, Chrysler's Field, French Creek, Lundy's Lane, the River Raisin, and the Thames, finishing up as a captain of volunteers, then transferred to the Regulars. He had served all throughout the West--at Fort Snelling, Osage, Gibson, Hall, Vancouver, Defiance, and Yuma; in South Carolina pacifying the Nullifiers, along the Canadian border during the trouble of 1838, in Iowa against the Sauk and Fox, in Florida against the Seminole, in Texas against the Mexicans and Comanches. He had been on two surveying expeditions, mapping the plains; he had assisted in the removal of the Southeastern tribes to the Indian Territory; he had been on the Militia Board in Washington, in Baton Rouge and at Bay St. Louis, at frigid Sackett's Harbor, New York, at Jefferson Barracks as an instructor in the three-month training course through which recruits and even new young lieutenants passed before going on to their assignments, and at Governors Island sitting on courts-martial and keeping regimental records. He had made a reputation as being a stern disciplinarian, but fair; the Indians knew him as a man whose mind was wily and whose word was good; his courage had been proven in at least a score of battles. He commanded the entire Second now, but its two battalions, as was customary, operated independently, one out of Sedgwick and the other out of Lupton, where a Major served as his proxy.
One reason he and Chris Larabee respected each other and got along smoothly was that neither was a graduate of the Point. Travis had come up through the ranks, and Larabee, after two years of college, had obtained, at nineteen, a vacant first-lieutenancy in a Western regiment by way of contacts of his father, who had served a term in the House from Indiana. He'd been stuck at that rank till the war with Mexico, then been brevetted Captain for gallant and meritorious service, though he'd stubbornly refused to be addressed by the title until he reached it formally, five years ago. Though lacking in formal tactical training, he was keenly intelligent and a sharp observer who had learned volumes from watching the mistakes and successes of his superiors, and while he sometimes seemed to make things up as he went along, he always proved to have had a reason for whatever he did--and usually he accomplished what he'd set out for. His rank was perfect for him: high enough to give him plenty of latitude and responsibility, since it allowed him command of a full company, and low enough so he got to spend his time in the field instead of behind a desk. He was often rather brusque, and didn't seem at all interested in advancing higher, though Travis thought these might stem in part from the tragedy he had suffered three years ago; but his men respected him and would follow him to Hell and back.
"I've got an assignment for you, Chris," the Colonel said when Larabee leaned back in the chair.
Chris's wide mouth quirked. "Buck bet me a dollar you had."
"Did you take him?" Travis inquired.
The younger man snorted. "I know better."
Travis shook his head. "How that man does it is more than I know. He's never once served in my orderly room, but he knows more about what's going on around this post than any three other men."
"I've known him longer than you have and I can't answer that question, sir," Larabee observed. "All I know is he hasn't the first idea when to shut up. Maybe it's just that he's such a good talker himself, he can get others to telling whatever they know. Then he just puts all the bits together and makes a guess. He's seen and done so many things in his life, he's got a good base to work from." He straightened in the chair. "But you didn't call me in here to talk about Buck. What is it you need me to do?"
"I've received a letter from my daughter-in-law," Travis told him, "by the stage last week. She mailed it from Kearny. She and her son are on her way out here on a Denver-bound wagon train, to live with Evie and me. What with the Sioux rumbling the way they've been, I want to be certain they arrive safely. Mary says the wagonmaster's a professional who knows his business, and there are fifty wagons in the outfit, but still it wouldn't hurt to show the flag a bit." Both men knew that while at least one wagon train fifteen years ago had numbered 480 wagons, and another in '51 300, generally even eighty was considered too many, too unwieldy for easy communication or quick corralling in a pinch; twenty to a hundred was the usual figure, with 150 or 200 the rare outside limit, and fifty to sixty was considered a good number for safety's sake, allowing mutual assistance and protection from Indians. "I want you and Buck to take B Troop and meet them halfway, which will be about ninety miles downriver; it should take you just about three days to reach the rendezvous point. Draw your rations and get the men ready today, and you can pull out right after breakfast; no need to stay for Boots and Saddles."
Chris's face revealed nothing about what he thought of the core reason for the assignment, though Travis had his suspicions. Ever since his wife's death, he had been heard to say on more than one occasion that the Army in the West was no place for women and children. He knew that allowing the officers and men to have their families with them was good for morale, but he still disapproved of the principle. It was too dangerous, and it exposed the men to too much prospect of pain in the end.
He reviewed the terrain in his mind. Sedgwick's bailiwick extended, as a general rule, southwest about a hundred miles to meet the boundary of the territory covered by Fort Lupton, sixty-five up the Platte to a point halfway to Fort Laramie, and, as Travis had said, ninety miles down, with patrols and feints outward in all directions as conditions seemed to indicate; his own A Troop, under Lieutenant Mosley, was off on one of the latter at that moment. (It occurred to him, with his typical cynicism, that Travis had named the lieutenant to take that assignment specifically so his most trusted captain would be available for the task of getting the daughter-in-law and grandson to their new home. It was flattering to know he had the Colonel's confidence, but he still didn't think it was a good idea for them to come here. Officers' wives were bad enough; at least they were Army, like their husbands. This one was a civilian and wouldn't have the first notion of how to fit into the life of the post.) The Platte valley offered easy travelling conditions, which was precisely why the wagoneers used it, and at the standard pace of thirty-five miles to the eight-hour day, with an early stop on the first, the journey would fit handily into the timeframe specified. Twenty-two miles the first day, stop at one P. M., that will put our bivouac just under halfway between here and Wells Ranch. We can wait for them fifteen miles below the fork, make camp around half past three. "Did your daughter-in-law happen to mention whether the train seemed to be on schedule, Colonel? I'll need to know so I can decide the amount of rations to take."
"She says she left Topeka on the eleventh of May, and her letter is dated the twenty-sixth, which sounds about right," Travis replied. "And by now the stock and the people should be well broken in to the trail, but not played out the way they're likely to get after Fort Bridger. I doubt you'll wait more than a day or two for them to reach you. Any further questions, Captain?"
"No, sir. I'll round up Buck and get things moving."
As it turned out, Sergeant Bucklin Wilmington didn't need to be rounded up. He was lounging on a bench just outside the door of Headquarters, flirting with a laundress who'd been passing by and seemingly not the least bit bothered by the fact that her husband, the First Sergeant, outweighed him by thirty pounds. Buck was two years younger and four inches taller than his captain, and their relationship often drew disapproving stares from the West Pointers on post, being more like that which prevailed in the militia, where common soldiers frequently called their officers by their first name, than like the strict social stratification the Pointies had been taught to expect and maintain. He wasn't fool enough to try to maintain a similar informality with them; any other officer he treated strictly by the book, but with Chris he behaved like an old boyhood friend of similar rank and class. He was also, as he cheerfully admitted, a jack of all trades and master of none. He'd begun as a saddlemaker's apprentice in Kansas City, but the surging excitement of a frontier waiting literally on his doorstep had proved too much for him, and he'd contrived to get released from his obligations to go West. At thirteen he'd been driving a mule team and fighting Indians along the Santa Fe Trail. Having learned Spanish in his boyhood, he had passed a season or two working in the Santa Rita copper mines, prospected (somewhat clandestinely, since he was in Mexican territory) for gold, and then drifted to Texas, where he carried mail on the Brazos, hunted wild horses on the great range between the latter's Salt Fork and the Palo Duro, drove stage, smuggled tobacco over the Border (which broke no American tax laws, only the Mexican kind), worked cattle, and served as a Ranger. Still only in his mid-twenties when the war with Mexico broke out, he'd already lived as much as many men ten years his senior. He was with Ben McCulloch when that formidable Ranger offered himself and his force of twenty-eight to General Zachary Taylor as scouts, and was not only a member of the group of sixteen selected to accompany McCulloch to seek out the enemy, with which Taylor had lost contact, and ride across a thirty-five-mile desert and through the Mexican advance guard to do it, but, owing in part to his command of the language, was the last man who clung with McCulloch while he rode through the Mexicans' campfire smoke at daylight, counting Santa Anna's force, before they turned back to carry the final word to the General. He fought at Buena Vista, getting a wound for his trouble, and eventually decided to join up. Sent back to New Orleans for reassignment, he fell in with then- Lieutenant Chris Larabee, who had been with Scott at the battles of Vera Cruz, Contreras, and Churubusco and the assault on Chapultepec. Though Buck was barely a noncom and Chris an officer, they became friends, and Larabee somehow wangled the big man's transfer to his outfit. They had been together ever since.
During his lengthy frontier experience, and especially as a Ranger, Buck had had to learn to think like his enemy (or at least to understand what his enemy feared), to seek out the enemy's weakness and strike at it without mercy, and to consider attack the best defense. As a rider and shot--rifle and pistol alike--he was superior to the general run of Regular enlisted men; he could also rope, track with some facility, and fight with fists or a knife. It took him very little time to rise to Sergeant on the basis of these attributes. He was often in trouble with his superiors, mostly because of women, but he lived, loved, fought, drank, rode, and played poker with gusto, and was about the best friend Chris Larabee had in the world--or had been. He was also a perfect subordinate: obsessively loyal, a fierce fighter, resourceful, intelligent enough to forget orders and follow his own thoughts, even to head up a small detail; sure enough of himself and his experience to question if he thought the C.O. was behaving suicidally; and when sufficiently provoked, coldly dangerous and almost insanely courageous.
A big, lean man with an easy grace and a broad smile under a black mustache, Buck wore his light blue breeches and tight short dark-blue jacket, knee- high boots and jaunty forage cap with an air, and could charm a woman or disarm a man with equal facility. He looked up as Chris came out the door, stood, murmured some dismissal of the laundress which brought a blush to her weathered cheek, and fell in beside Larabee as he started down the steps. "Well?" he demanded without preamble. "Was I right?"
"You were right," Chris told him. "We're to take B Troop down the Platte to the edge of Kearny's district and play escort for an emigrant-wagon outfit."
Buck tilted his head. "That ain't usual. Mostly the Army lets the civs tend their own knittin'."
"This batch of civs," Larabee explained, "includes the Colonel's daughter-in- law and her son. They're coming out here to live."
"Oh," said Buck, sobering, "that'd be the one whose husband got himself murdered in his house last summer in Topeka. Word was he got some Missouri pro-slavers mad at him. Newspaperman, he was."
Chris lifted an eyebrow. "Damn, Buck, I know you hear every bit of gossip there is on this post, but I didn't know your sources reached all the way back to Kansas."
The big man shrugged, good humor returning. "It's a gift, pard," he said, using the informal word he'd picked up in Texas.
"It's a long nose that's gonna get cut off one of these days, or maybe bitten off, is what it is," Larabee muttered. "I swear I wonder sometimes how you find the time to soldier, what with the women and your curiosity."
"Hell," Buck grinned, "them things is all that makes life interestin'. How many days' rations?"
"Better make it two weeks," Chris decided. "We can make the march in three, but coming back with the wagons it'll be slower, probably nine or ten, and that's always supposing they make the rendezvous on time and don't have any breakdowns or anything between there and here."
Buck frowned in thought, already calculating amounts and weights in his mind. Each cavalry company was supposed to include a hundred men but seldom did; even seventy-five, though desireable, wasn't always obtainable, and on average sixty was the figure likeliest to be available, with forty on field duty, the rest being drained off by sick call, men in the guardhouse, and service details. That made each of the two troops a twenty-man affair, two squads of eight men, two corporals, one sergeant, and a lieutenant. Two hundred eighty rations, plus as many fifteen-pound feeds of grain for the horses, which would comprise the biggest part of the bulk. "Better requisition a wagon," he decided, "or we'll have more damn mules than we got men. Figure to have a scout?"
"No, I think we can make do with the one the wagon train will have. You can change off with him if we feel it's necessary, or partner up. See to it, Buck."
Wilmington gave him a lazy salute and peeled off in the direction of the quartermaster's storehouse. He'd been in trouble once or twice about Army supplies sneaked out by friendly Indians and halfbreeds, but the QM and his boys knew that with regard to official assignments the big man was deadly serious; they wouldn't require any kind of paper authorization from him, but would hand over the supplies on his recognizance, knowing that he knew that they could check with the Colonel if they had any doubts.
Chris watched him go. Twelve years together now, and still you could always count on Buck--to know his job and do it, to be there when he was needed, and to do his level best to keep you focused and lend his help when he thought you would benefit from it. Deep and bitter though his own anger remained, the captain knew he'd never have made it through the first dark months after his loss if Buck hadn't been by his side. That whole time was a blur; too much whiskey, too little sleep, lashing out at everyone and everything in his path, and a couple of bouts of depression so black that he'd seriously considered suicide. Maybe if he'd had any hope of finding his family's murderers it would have been different. Sometimes he guiltily wondered if he had ever really let Buck know how grateful he was to him. But then, he still hadn't decided whether life was all it was cracked up to be without Sarah and Adam, so maybe he wasn't that grateful after all. And while he knew that Buck missed them too, there was a part of Chris that resented the memories that came every time he looked at his sergeant. Buck was the last thing he had left to tie him to those times, and that was both good and bad. It was the delicate fulcrum of balance that kept him from suggesting, or demanding, the big man's transfer or resignation.
They had never talked much about it; Buck had tried once or twice, at first, but Chris's was a brooding nature, and he built high thick walls to keep everyone away. At the same time he knew he needed Buck in his life--needed the experienced, level-headed fighting man who knew his ways and reactions and timing as no one else did, the unwavering faith and loyalty that gave him the idea he might still be worth something, the energy and charming roguishness that were almost the only things that sometimes made his life seem worth the living, the readiness to back any play he made--and even to offer himself as a target for words and blows, without ever reporting either, even though striking an enlisted man was a very serious charge for an officer. He'd even lied for Chris, protecting him and taking the blame for some of his doings. Chris sometimes wondered how he would have survived the last three years without Buck. He had never found it especially easy to make friends--many people seemed to find him inherently intimidating--and, owing to his non-Academy roots (though they were by no means unknown) and the fact that, unlike some others of the same type, he didn't have military in his family background, he had never been one to socialize with the other officers, while his inherently private and somber nature made him reluctant to take part in many of the functions that broke the tedium of garrison life--cotillions and balls, masquerade parties, amateur theatricals, card parties, charades, picnics, literary societies. He kept to himself, reading in his quarters, occasionally joining his fellows for poker or billiards, but deriving most of his life's meaning from field duty and the other responsibilities of his position. The big, loud, life-embracing, fun-loving man with the hidden romantic side was the best indicator he had to the existence of any other kind of personality.
And Buck loved Sarah and Adam too, traitorous conscience murmured. Did you ever give him any opportunity to do his own mourning? He's been stuck taking care of you ever since they died.
He throttled the rebuke. He wasn't going to go there. All it would do was lead him back to memories of the eight good years he'd had. He didn't have time for that, or for what it would do to him. He had a job to do.
B Troop had been encamped at the rendezvous point for just forty hours when Private Grayson spotted the approaching wagon train from the cottonwood tree where he had taken up watch. Chris gave orders for camp to be broken and rode out with Buck to meet it. The wagonmaster quickly established that his was the outfit they had been sent to escort, and directed the two cavalrymen to Mrs. Travis's wagon.
The first thing that struck Buck Wilmington about her was her hair, so blonde as to be almost white, and then her clean-boned features, her cool blue- gray eyes, and the way she sat, straight as a ramrod on the seat with the reins held competently in her hands, which were protected by driving gloves open at the wrist and flaring in the genteel manner. Her mourning dress and bonnet seemed almost peripheral; to Buck, who knew people, and especially women, they said nothing about who she was, only a single aspect of what. Beside her sat a small boy only slightly less blond than she, dressed in fine-striped ankle-length trousers with a railroad-style front flap, which buttoned at the waist onto his drop-shouldered, full-sleeved and - bodied muslin shirt, collarless and with three buttons at the neck unfastened--a style seen throughout the rural districts of the nation on boys of all classes and races. His canvas-topped leather boots buttoned up the outsides and he wore a broad-brimmed hat of coarse straw. Buck guessed him to be around six. The big man got along well with children and was a favorite of all those at Sedgwick, whether their fathers were officers or noncoms; he looked forward to some good times with this one. He caught the boy's eye and grinned, winking broadly. A shy, tentative smile flicked across the child's face in response before its solemn look returned.
Chris had pulled up beside the wagon seat and touched his hat politely. "Mrs. Travis? Captain Chris Larabee, Company D, Second Cavalry. This is Sergeant Buck Wilmington. Your father-in-law, Colonel Travis, sent us out as your escort to the fort."
"It wasn't really necessary for him to do that, Captain," the woman said. "As you can see, we're surrounded by a reasonably extensive company. But I understand that you're under orders and I appreciate the inconvenience you've gone to."
"No inconvenience, ma'am. We'll be bivouacking separately from your camp, but I'll stop by this evening after supper, in case you have any questions. Let's go, Buck."
Wilmington tipped his hat to the woman as Chris's big black gelding spun away from the wagon, then reined his tall gray after--the Army wouldn't buy mares as mounts, but most officers and some common soldiers purchased their own, as both of them had, and Buck had chosen a mare, traded from a Cheyenne brave, whose people considered mares very desireable as war horses. Mary Travis watched them go and wondered at the peculiar constriction she felt in her chest. This man, she thought, could have modelled for Milton's Lucifer. Handsome as an angel, tall and blond and straight, yet seared and battered and cold-eyed with the pain he had endured and the memory of what he had once had.
Oh, be sensible, Mary, she rebuked herself. You don't know anything about him. Why, for all you know he has a wife and four children waiting for him back at Sedgwick. But a traitorous thread of a whisper in her mind kept bringing back the memory of how she hadn't felt this way since the day Steven proposed.
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