TRUE to my promise, I
went to the colonel, and enlisted for special duty as a scout. I was
attached for the time being to Company K of the 16th Infantry.
Thanks to the
intelligence of Colonel Clayton, I enjoyed far greater liberty than did
the other men. I knew intuitively that he had given the first sergeant
instructions with regard to me.
The sergeant, whom we
familiarly knew as “Old Jock,” was a veteran of the Crimean War—a member
of the Light Brigade which made the famous charge at Balaklava. We never
tired of hearing him tell of this event. He always wound up with what I
then knew as “Old Jock’s piece” and recognised years after, when I had
learned to read, as Tennyson’s poem— “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
We also enjoyed hearing
Old Jock make the barracks ring with his two songs—“When the com is
wavin’; H’annie dear, h’o meet me by the stile” and “H’it’s ’ard to give
the ’and where the ’art can never be.”
Once the men got me to
drink too much “firewater” and I performed a war dance in such realistic
fashion that the men skipped out, missing roll-call in consequence. Old
Jock caught me looking for them with my gun and promptly locked me in
The next morning he
released me and took me to the colonel.
The good old greyhaired
officer gave me such kindly and fatherly advice that for his sake—as
long as I belonged to his command—I did not taste again the
I gave to Colonel Clayton
the love of a son to a father. He understood me through sympathy and was
unfailing in his kindness and consideration. Never through it did I
escape any necessary discipline, but he always befriended me when I
stood most in need of it.
One day a United States
marshal came and arrested me for an offence committed in the Creek
It was many moons past
and had to do with a trick played on Buckskin. Our wild band of the
plains was on the way to Muskogee and had camped overnight near a house
occupied by white men. One of them caught Buckskin drowsing and cut off
what little hair there was on his tail. I caught the man and when I left
him he was in no condition to play any more tricks. It was for this I
The marshal started to
take me to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to answer the charge in court, but
before he got me off of the military reservation, Colonel Clayton sent a
file of soldiers to arrest him. He was locked in the guardhouse and
finally sent away under guard.
As a recruit I was quick
to learn the drill. The old sergeant would order me to stand out in
front of the company and as I was straight as an arrow, he would call
the newly enlisted men’s attention to me and bid them note how a soldier
should stand. Then he would march me up and down, calling to the
“See how a soldier should
carry himself! He walks with his legs, not by swinging his body.”
This fostered my pride
and made me determined to be the best soldier possible.
Within a few months I was
transferred to a troop of the Fourth Cavalry, then at Fort Sill. My
troop commander was Captain Harry Crews—“Handsome Harry,” the men called
him—and he was every inch the soldier. I tried always to imitate his
manners and those of the best men in the troop, and to speak the English
language as those men spoke it
In my spare moments I
learned the bugle, became a bugler of the troop, and chief trumpeter of
the post. Then the men gave me a fine trumpet of special make.
My position was similar
to that of first sergeant of a company and I had in my “command” twenty
I had just dismissed them
one morning. We were all on parade ground, when an officer passed.
One of the men didn’t
“To the guardhouse!” was
the order I looked for.
It wasn’t given. Instead,
the lieutenant let the offence pass, seemingly without the slightest
I couldn’t understand
“Why didn’t you salute?”
I demanded of the offender.
“Why! Me salute a
The reply was emphatic
but not enlightening.
At the post were other
negroes—“buffalo soldiers” we Indians called them. Some of the whites
mingled with them. Some didn’t. Why?
Lieutenant Flipper was a
fine specimen of physical manhood and a good officer. An enlisted man
refused to salute him. Why?
The lieutenant didn’t
punish him. Why?
For the answers I went to
an old soldier. He praised the officer for ignoring the slight, and
introduced to me the race problem.
Always, afterwards, I
took pains to offer the negro the most punctilious salute, for I myself
knew something of how an outsider felt.
Conditions finally grew
unbearable for the lieutenant. He deserted, went to Mexico and became a
general in the Mexican army.
I found that the monotony
of military life was irksome for the soldiers who had seen years of
service, as well as for the recruits. Many of the latter had been used
to such things as the Bowery of New York City afforded, and when the
novelty of frontier experiences wore off, they sighed for the flesh-pots
of their Egypt.
But with me the matter
was different. To leave the wild free life of the plains for the
discipline of a military post was to confine an eagle in an iron cage.
My captain seemed to understand this and gave me frequent furloughs.
Then I would go to my tepee on Cache Creek above the post, where stayed
Nacoomee, my wife, with our baby-boy, and take them for a trip across
The men of the troop were
always complaining about the food. And indeed there was just cause. For
breakfast we had coffee, “skilly”—oatmeal mush with syrup—and bread; for
dinner, a small piece of beef, varied with pork and beans once a week,
and sometimes potatoes; for supper, nothing but bread and coffee.
There were loud rumours
to the effect that the commissary sergeant was industriously engaged in
feathering his nest with proceeds from the sale of the company's
rations. But the rumours didn't help matters any, and if it hadn’t been
so far to civilisation many of the men would have taken “French leave,”
so poor in quality and so small in quantity was the food.
Entertainment was almost
as meagre. We had little to colour the daily routine of barracks life,
so we made the most of old happenings.
There was one that varied
as to time and place but never as to actors or performance. Of actors
there were but two—Captain Davis and Private Rankin. Regularly every
pay-day when Rankin had drunk enough of the sutler's whiskey, he would
have an interview with the captain.
“Davis,” he would begin,
without saluting, “do you remember when you were a private in my
Company?” The captain would nod his head in acknowledgment of the fact.
“And, Davis,” he would
conclude, “do you remember you were such a dirty soldier that I had my
men forcibly scrub you with soap and water?”
At this the captain would
march Rankin past the barracks to the guardhouse, and the next day
release him. ,
We always looked forward
to the “piece,” which seemed never to grow stale.