The Last Scout
©2007, 2012. All rights reserved by the author. May not be copied or re-printed, in whole or in part, without the author's permission.
This is a work of fiction. None of the characters are based on any actual persons, living or dead.
Heat waves rose up from the dusty plains, obscuring the vision of the guards on duty. Walking the narrow catwalk along the top of the fort's wall, Private Johnstone squinted at something, far out on the prairie. From his perspective, it was only a moving dot.
The lean, dark haired boy was barely out of his teens. He'd enlisted only a month before, as a way to escape the hardships of life on a hardscrabble farm in Maine. If the boy had known how hard life was on a frontier posting, he decided that he'd probably have stayed home, growing potatoes.
"What do you reckon that is, Billy?" Young Johnstone turned and asked his messmate, and best friend on the post.
"Can't hardly tell from here, Luke. Could be an antelope, maybe." Private Schermerhorn answered his friend, shifting his rifle and leaning an elbow on the wall.
Schermerhorn, like Johnson, was new to frontier life. The chubby, blond haired lad was also the son of a farmer. Although, his family's farm in upstate New York, was quite prosperous. Billy had joined up purely for the adventure. Only to find that he was spending all his time, drilling and polishing things. And when he wasn't doing that, he was standing around in the hot sun, looking at nothing all day. He leaned over and spat into the dry dust at the bottom of the wall.
Looking up again at the speck on the distant horizon, Billy nodded towards it and said, "Reckon we'll know what it is, soon enough, Luke. 'Cause whatever it is, it's comin' right at us."
"What'cha two lookin' at, up there?" Came a shout from down below.
The two boys turned. They looked down at the dirt packed square which passed as the fort's parade ground, and spied another of their comrades in arms, Private John Featherly. His uniform was spotless, and the tall, brown haired young man's boots and spurs were polished so you could see yourself in them. He'd joined the army with Billy, traveling with him to the capital of Albany, to meet with a recruiter. John came from the same town, and the two had known each other all their lives. John was leading a lame horse to the post blacksmith, who also acted as the veterinarian.
Curiosity had made him pause, to see what was happening. Like his friends, John was also frequently bored with life as a frontier soldier. His only joy these days, was the horses. Young Featherly loved being around them. In fact, his friends would joke that John liked the post's horses, better than he liked them. Unlike his fellows, the serious young man didn't join up for adventure or escape. John did it, because it was his choice of a career. He took real pleasure in learning the various cavalry maneuvers.
"Hey! You there! What'd 'ya' think you're doin', boy?" Demanded a harsh, grating voice from behind him.
Without warning, John was was cuffed across the side of the head. He was then seized by the collar of the neck, and bodily thrown into the dirt. John's head spun, as his head hit the ground, hard. Spitting grit out of his mouth, private Featherly stared blearily up at a burly, bald-headed, slovenly dressed, unshaven man standing over him. It was Sergeant Striker. The former Confederate soldier, seemed to always have an ax to grind, and John was his favorite grinding stone.
"Sorry, sergeant. I...I was only..." John began to say. But another cuff from the sergeant's big hand across his face, silenced him.
Unfairly, the sergeant roared, "I didn't give you permission to speak, soldier!" drawing his fist back, preparing to hit John again.
"What's going on here?" Demanded a stern, older man's voice.
The sergeant spun around. Suddenly he straightened his body and saluted. "Colonel Drayden, sir! I caught this man shirking his duty."
Although Sergeant Striker was a big man, his commanding officer gave the appearance of being even broader, and taller. He was a distinguished looking gentleman, slightly older than the sergeant. A career officer, Colonel Drayden was originally from Texas. He'd first experienced battle as a youngster, in the war with Mexico. He'd graduated from West Point, and then served with distinction in the War Between the States. Serving in the Indian wars, Dratyden had been posted to various frontier forts, ever since. He found himself winding down his career, in a small, temporary outpost in the Dakotas, called Fort Cole. The fort had been built to protect the gold miners flooding into the newly opened territory.
Fort Cole's commanding officer had a fit, trim body, a neatly shaved mustache, and hair just turning gray. Intelligent blue eyes saw everything from under his broad brimmed cavalry hat. From his very bearing and presence, there was no mistaking that the big man was in charge. At the moment, Colonel Drayden looked upon his sergeant with evident disgust.
"Sergeant, take this horse over to the blacksmith. I will speak with you, later."
Drayden said this in a tone which brooked no argument. Yet Sergeant Striker, with surly disobedience written on his face, opened his mouth to protest the order.
"Well? Is your hearing defective, Sergeant?" Drayden asked, sarcastically.
"No, sir! It's just that this kid was skylarking, and I thought..." Striker protested.
"Sergeant, I know I'm new to this post, and it can take a while to adjust to a new commander. It seems that my predecessor may have been more tolerant of your behavior. But, in case you haven't noticed, I am not. I didn't wish to discuss this, in front of Private Featherly. However, now it seems you leave me no choice." Dryden said harshly. "I've warned you about your ideas of enforcing discipline. I agree that our new recruits need it. However, I prefer to have troops who will obey orders out of respect for their uniform. And, the officers who lead them. Not out of fear of a beating from their sergeant."
"Colonel Drayden," Sergeant Striker said acrimoniously, "I was only doing my job. I thought..."
"I'm sure you thought you were, sergeant." The colonel cut in, coldly. "Only, you're not getting paid by the army to think. You're getting paid to obey the orders of your commanding officers. I wonder. If you were to get busted down to private, how do you think you'd be received by these boys, after the way you've been treating them? So, I'm warning you now, sergeant. If you don't smarten up and play by my rules, that particular scenario could very well happen." Dryden scowled at the man, and yelled, "Now get the hell out of my sight! And when I see you again, mister, you'd better be cleaned up and shaved. You're a disgrace to that uniform!"
"Sir!" The sergeant saluted resentfully, "Yes, sir!" He begrudgingly snatched up the lead rope of the horse, and lead it away.
"You alright, private?" The colonel asked, genuinely concerned, as he held out his hand, helping the young man up off the ground.
Of the handful of new recruits recently arrived at the post, Featherly was the best of the lot. He seemed to be clever, observant, and had a knack for handling both animals and men. He'd also proved to be extremely proficient in the use of firearms. He'd even out-shot the sergeant at target practice. Which was perhaps why Striker didn't like the boy. Drayden thought the private might be officer material, one day. Though he would never voice that opinion to the young soldier.
Young Featherly, tried to clear his aching head. He did his best to stand to attention, saluting Drayden.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." he said, slightly out of breath.
Colonel Drayden raised an eyebrow, as a look of amusement glinted in his eye. Obviously, the boy, who was swaying on his feet, wasn't alright. He had grit, this young lad.
"Yes, I can see that, private." Drayden said dryly. "What were you doing, to get the sergeant in such a lather?"
"I was speaking to my friends, Privates Schermerhorn and Johnstone, sir."
At that moment, Billy Schermerhorn shouted from the wall, "Rider coming! Open the gates!" Then, he leaned down, calling out to the colonel, "Sir! It's one of our scouts. It's Moses Trey!"
"Trey?" Drayden's forehead creased in puzzlement. He said to himself, "What in the blazes is he doing, coming back here? He's supposed to be with Mason's patrol, escorting the supply train and re-mounts from Fort Bridger."
The colonel wasn't sure he liked the sound of this. Taking off his hat, he ran his hand through his hair, sighing tiredly. A third of his men were out of the fort on duty. If he had to send any more out, it would leave the post with less than half of its normal complement of troops.
"Have the post surgeon take a look at that head. That's an order. I want every man possible, fit and ready for duty."
He nodded a curt dismissal to Featherly, who saluted smartly, and went on his way. The Colonel paid him scant attention. His mind was already working on the possible reasons for Frey's early return. None of them boded well. Replacing his hat on his head, Drayden strode purposefully over to the gates, to wait for the post's top scout to come in.