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Chapter XXIV My Enlistment—In the Barracks

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 guardhouse.

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 “water-that-makes-foolish.”

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 Nation.

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 was arrested.

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 soldiers,

“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 musicians.

I had just dismissed them one morning. We were all on parade ground, when an officer passed.

One of the men didn’t salute him.

“To the guardhouse!” was the order I looked for.

It wasn’t given. Instead, the lieutenant let the offence pass, seemingly without the slightest notice.

I couldn’t understand this.

“Why didn’t you salute?” I demanded of the offender.

“Why! Me salute a d------d nigger!”

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 prairie.

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.

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