SUNSET CAST a fiery glow across the parade ground. The last note of a bugle faded as the flag was lowered from a wind-whipped flagpole. A moment later the color guard marched off toward regimental headquarters.
Clint Brannock watched from the porch of the sutler’s store. As chief scout for the 6th Cavalry, he was a familiar figure around Fort Dodge. His buckskin jacket and widebrimmed hat set him apart from the spit-and-polish of a military post. At day’s end, though he wasn’t required to stand formation, he always observed the flag-lowering ceremony. It reminded him of a time past, when he’d served under another flag. He saw nothing ironic in the fact that he now served the Union army.
The troops were dismissed in a flurry of commands. A chill February wind whistled across the parade ground as the men broke formation and hurried toward the warmth of their barracks. Shortly, the bugler would sound chow call and there would be a rush on the battalion mess halls. Until then, no one cared to stand around in the bitter cold.
Dusk settled quickly over the post. Situated in the southwestern quadrant of Kansas, Fort Dodge was some fifty miles from Indian Territory. Nearby was the Santa Fe Trail, which snaked westward along the Arkansas River. Spring and summer, wagon caravans loaded with trade goods rumbled past, bound for New Mexico. Detachments of the 6th Cavalry patrolled constantly to protect the traders from hostile war parties.
Winter brought a different mission. Only yesterday, the 2nd Battalion had returned from a sweep along the headwaters of the Canadian. Their objective had been to locate a band of Southern Cheyenne who had jumped the reservation. A brief engagement, fought in a blinding snow squall, had proved inconclusive. By the time the weather cleared, the Cheyenne village had vanished.
Clint stepped off the sutler’s porch. He walked to the hitch rack and mounted his roan gelding. As he reined about, his thoughts drifted once more to the aborted patrol. While he’d done his job, locating the village meant nothing in itself. A combination of harsh weather and half-frozen troopers had allowed the Cheyenne to escape. It grated on him that the army seldom displayed the grit and endurance of the hostiles. At least half the time he spent in the field seemed to him little more than wasted motion. He suddenly felt the need of a drink.
Dodge City was five miles west of the garrison. A sprawling hodgepodge of buildings, it was inhabited principally by traders, teamsters, and buffalo-hunters. Last year, during the fall of ’72, the arrival of the railroad had transformed buffalo-killing into big business. These days, the western plains swarmed with hunters, all busily engaged in the slaughter. Alongside the tracks, thousands upon thousands of flint hides awaited shipment to eastern markets.
The permanent population of the town was something less than five hundred people. At one end of Front Street was the Dodge House, Zimmerman’s Hardware, and the Long Branch, flanked by a mercantile outfit and a couple of greasy spoons. Up the other way was a scattering of saloons, two trading companies, another mercantile, and a whorehouse. Apart from buffalo hides, the town’s economy was fueled by troopers of the 6th Cavalry and free-spending hunters. Whiskey and whores were a profitable enterprise on the edge of nowhere.
Outside the Long Branch, Clint dismounted and loosened the gelding’s cinch. The hitch racks were crowded, and upstreet he saw a group of soldiers emerge from the whorehouse. Their noisy laughter echoed in the night as he moved across the boardwalk. A blast of warm, fetid air struck him as he pushed through the saloon door. The smell was a mixture of sweat, stale tobacco smoke, and cheap whiskey. The rainbow of odors was further enhanced by several buffalo hunters. They stank of blood and dried offal.
At the bar, Clint ordered a shot of rye. He downed it neat and waited while the barkeep refilled his glass. Then he hauled out the makings, creased a rolling paper and sprinkled tobacco into it. He licked, sealed the paper, and twisted the ends. After popping a match on his thumbnail, he lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. Exhaling smoke, he leaned into the bar and sipped at his rye. He ignored the buffalo hunters as well as a scattering of men seated at the tables. His gaze seemed inward, somehow faraway.
Other men seldom intruded on Clint. He was tall and solidly built, with wind-seamed features and a wide brow. His manner was deliberate, which combined with a square jaw and smoky blue eyes gave him a standoffish appearance. Nor was the impression dispelled by a thatch of sandy hair and a brushy mustache. He generally drank alone, and while he was pleasant enough, most men kept their distance. He allowed them the same courtesy.
Then, too, there were the rumors. Some years ago, in Denver, Clint and his two older brothers were reported to have killed five or six men. Later, while operating as special agent for the Overland Stage Line, he was thought to have killed at least four road agents in gunfights. However true the rumors, no one questioned his reputation against the hostiles. He was known to the warrior bands, and feared.
The door burst open while Clint was still on his second drink. Glancing up, he watched in the back bar mirror as Sergeant Frank Tate and three troopers barged into the saloon. Apparently none of them had pulled duty today, for they were already flush with liquor. Tate slapped the bar with a loud whack and demanded a bottle. The barkeep brought a quart of snake-eye whiskey and four glasses.
Clint avoided looking at them. He’d had trouble with Tate in the past, and on one occasion they had almost exchanged blows. A veteran campaigner, Tate fancied himself an Indian fighter and a barroom scrapper. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, and by all accounts he was daredevil brave in battle. Yet he was a loudmouth and a braggart, and he made no secret of his contempt for civilian scouts. As a sergeant, he earned $18 a month, while a scout was paid more than five times that amount. He took it as a personal insult.
After tossing down a drink, Tate happened to glance along the bar. He hadn’t spotted Clint before, but now his eyes assumed an ugly look. His mouth curled in a brutish smile.
“Lookit here, boys,” he said, motioning to the other men. “It’s the Injun-killer hisself.”
As though deaf, Clint stared straight ahead. He casually swigged rye and returned the glass to the bar. The buffalo-hunters, sensing trouble, stared at him with interest.
“Only one thing wrong,” Tate went on loudly. “He loses the redsticks quick as he finds ‘em! Gawddamn, it’s just plumb pitiful.”
Clint turned, one elbow hooked over the bar. “Let it go, Tate. I’ve got no quarrel with you.”
“Let it go, hell!” Tate blustered. “I heard how you led the 2nd around in circles. We oughta start callin’ you Injun-lover.”
“You heard wrong,” Clint said tightly.
Tate glared at him. “You callin’ me a liar?”
“Not exactly.” Clint fixed him with a hard look. “You’re just a sorry son-of-a-bitch.”
Tate muttered an unintelligible oath. His eyes hooded and he pushed off the bar. What he lacked in height he made up in girth, bullnecked and broad through the shoulders. He lumbered forward, arms swinging loosely, and suddenly uncorked a looping haymaker. The blow snapped Clint’s head back and set his ears buzzing. Shuffling closer, Tate let go a murderous roundhouse right.
Clint collected himself just in the nick of time. He bobbed underneath the blow and exploded two splintering punches on Tate’s jaw. The sergeant sagged at the knees, clutching the bar to hold himself upright. Clint shifted, measuring him, and hit him a clubbing blow upside the head. Tate dropped to the floor, supporting himself on his hands and knees. He was unable to rise.
Stepping back, Clint stared at the three troopers. His voice was quietly menacing. “Anybody else?”
The troopers seemed rooted in place. Clint watched them a moment, then turned and walked toward the door. Outside, he crossed the boardwalk and stepped down, circling the hitch rack. As he reached for the reins, the saloon door banged open behind him. A gunshot split the night and a bullet whistled past his head.
All thought suspended, Clint reverted to instinct. He flung himself to the ground, pulling the Colt .44 holstered at his side. Framed in the light from the doorway, he saw Tate with a pistol extended at arm’s length. Thumbing the hammer, he touched off two quick shots, hardly a heartbeat apart.
The first slug caught Tate in the chest and the second drilled through his forehead. As though warding off evil spirits, he raised both arms, dropping the pistol, and pitched forward on his face. He lay perfectly still, blood and gore puddling around his head.
Clint slowly climbed to his feet. He started forward, then abruptly stopped and holstered the Colt. There was no need to look. Frank Tate was dead.
Something over an hour later two uniformed guards marched Clint into post headquarters. Following the shooting, he’d been placed under military arrest and disarmed. His status as a scout made him subject to army law.
In the orderly room, Sergeant Major Jack Baxter gave him a dirty look. Clint had no illusions about the gravity of his situation. The army protected its own, and killing a noncommissioned officer was a capital offense. His only out was to prove self-defense.
Baxter ushered him into the office of Colonel Richard Dodge. Something of a martinet, Dodge was post commander and took pride in the fact that Fort Dodge had been named after him. Seated in a chair beside his desk was General Phil Sheridan. Clint had heard that the general was visiting the post on a routine inspection tour. He took Sheridan’s presence at the hearing as a bad sign.
Sheridan was universally acknowledged as a hard man. A West Pointer, he had served seven years in western outposts prior to 1861. His advancement during the Civil War was attributable to impressive victories throughout the South. Following the Confederate surrender, he commanded occupation forces in Texas and Louisiana. There, because of his harsh rule, he’d become known as a tyrant. In 1869, he’d been promoted to lieutenant general and assigned the Division of the Missouri. His command embraced the western plains and virtually all of the warlike tribes.
Sheridan’s immediate superior, General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman, was equally pragmatic in his methods. Speaking of the Plains tribes, Sherman had once observed: “We must act with vindictive earnestness, even to their extermination . . . men, women, and children.” As the instrument of that policy, Sheridan had devised a strategy to destroy the warrior bands. His solution was to avoid full-scale engagements with the hostiles. Instead, he struck at their base camp, their villages, and their families.
The Plains Indians were essentially nomadic. Spring and summer, they were constantly on the move, following the migration of the buffalo herds. Their raids against white settlements and isolated homesteads were also conducted during good weather. In the fall, the raids stopped and the tribes concentrated on buffalo hunts, stockpiling meat for the hard months ahead. During the winter they made permanent camps along wooded streams. For all practical purposes, the horseback warriors were immobilized while snow blanketed the plains.
General Sheridan spurned such limitations. Brooking no argument, he ordered his cavalry commanders onto the frozen plains. Their instructions were to seek out and destroy the villages. All food and shelter was to be burned, and any survivors were to be driven into the bleak wasteland. No quarter was asked and none was given, for it was war to the death. Hostiles were granted but one option: annihilation or surrender.
By his every act, Sheridan had demonstrated an implacable and unrelenting attitude. Clint had little doubt that the same attitude would extend to killing noncoms. He braced himself for a rough time.
Colonel Dodge motioned him forward. He halted before the desk, aware of Sheridan’s penetrating stare. There was a tense moment of silence.
“Well, Brannock,” Dodge demanded. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“It’s simple enough,” Clint said evenly. “Tate tried to back-shoot me and I killed him.”
“On the contrary,” Dodge said with a querulous squint. “You beat Sergeant Tate senseless and left him on a barroom floor. I’d say he was provoked.”
“Won’t hold water, Colonel. Tate’s the one that picked the fight.”
“Indeed!” Dodge snorted. “According to several eyewitnesses, you called him a son-of-a-bitch. Isn’t that true?”
Clint’s expression was wooden. “Tate started it by callin’ me an Indian-lover. Any son-of-a-bitch that says that deserves to be whipped.”
Phil Sheridan smothered a laugh. Dodge glanced at him, momentarily flustered. Then he looked back at Clint.
“Don’t confuse the issue, Mr. Brannock. The fact remains that you beat and then killed a man in my command.”
“No, sir,” Clint corrected him. “You’ve got your facts wrong. Tate threw the first blow and he fired the first shot. Any court in the land would say I acted in self-defense.”
Dodge stared across the desk with a bulldog scowl. “I daresay a military court-martial would see it differently.”
“Maybe so,” Clint conceded. “But every scout you’ve got on the payroll would quit you cold. You’d play hell hiring new ones, too.”
Dodge took a deep breath, blew it out heavily. “I want you off the post tonight. No one will serve with you now, Brannock. Not after this.”
“Suit yourself, Colonel. I think you’re shortchanging your men, though. They’re generally a pretty fair lot.”
Clint turned to leave. Sheridan halted him with a gruff command. “Hold on a minute.”
When he stopped, Sheridan studied him with a judicial gaze. “Your name sounds familiar. Weren’t you with Custer on the Washita?”
“Yessir,” Clint replied. “Big Foot Wallace was chief of scouts then.”
“That was our first winter campaign. I remember it well.”
Clint managed a lopsided smile. “Scared the holy livin’ hell out of the hostiles. They never expected pony soldiers in the middle of a snowstorm.”
“I take it you approve of the tactic?”
“Yessir, I do, General. Figure it’s the only way we’ll force ‘em to stand and fight. Otherwise they scatter like a covey of quail.”
Sheridan gave him a searching stare. “How did you get into scouting, Mr. Brannock?”
“Long story, General.”
“Give me the short version, then.”
Clint tried to keep it brief. In 1865, after serving as marshal of Denver, he’d been appointed special agent for the Overland Stage Line. Shortly afterward, a stage coach on the Bozeman Trail was attacked by Cheyenne warriors. A woman passenger was taken captive and Clint was assigned to bring her back. With members of the Colorado militia, he located the Cheyenne village and attempted a dawn attack. In the ensuing fight, the woman was rescued, but he’d been wounded and taken prisoner. Always unpredictable, the Cheyennes made him a slave rather than torturing him to death. For six months he lived as an Indian, learning their ways, surviving the ordeal. Then, on a dark winter night, he stole a horse and escaped.
A week later he rode into Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory. The post commander, impressed that he’d lived to tell the tale, promptly recruited him as a scout. For the next two years, he took part in campaigns against the Northern Cheyenne and the Sioux. After the treaty of 1868, he signed on with the 7th Cavalry, operating out of Fort Riley, Kansas. There, under George Armstrong Custer, he participated in the Battle of the Washita and several lesser engagements. In 1871, when Custer was transferred to the Department of the South, he decided to stay on at Fort Riley. Over the next year he served as a scout in actions against the Southern Cheyenne and the Kiowa. Late in 1872, he’d been hired as chief of scouts for the 6th Cavalry.
“Guess that’s it,” Clint concluded. “I’ve been at Fort Dodge ever since.”
“An impressive record, Mr. Brannock. What is that, seven years active service?”
Phil Sheridan rose from his chair. He was a stocky man, with a close-cropped beard and ascetic eyes that belied his profession. Striding back and forth, he paced the room, punctuating his speech with vigorous gestures.
“You’re too experienced to lose, Mr. Brannock. But Colonel Dodge is entirely correct. You’ve burned your bridges with the men of the 6th.”
“I’ll take your word for it, General.”
“Tell me . . .” Sheridan paused, staring at him. “Would you consider a transfer to Texas?”
“Whereabouts in Texas?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Nothing special,” Clint said. “Just that I’ve got a brother who lives in Dallas.”
Sheridan wagged his head. “I had another assignment in mind. Colonel Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry.”
“Fort Clark?” Clint frowned. “Hell, General, that’s damn near on the Rio Grande.”
“After tonight,” Sheridan pointed out, “you’re hardly in a position to pick and choose. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Clint hesitated, considering. “Yessir, I expect you’re right.”
“By jingo!” Sheridan laughed out loud. “It’s a marriage made in Hades. You and Ranald Mackenzie.”
“I don’t follow you, General.”
“Why, it’s elemental, Mr. Brannock. Until you’ve met Mackenzie, you’ve never met a true son-of-a-bitch.”
Chuckling to himself, Sheridan took pen and paper off the desk. He sat down, dipping the pen into the inkwell, and began scribbling. He shot Clint an amused look.
“Orders won’t be enough. I’ll give you a personal letter to Mackenzie.”
“Sounds like a tough man.”
“None tougher, Mr. Brannock. He’s just your speed.”
Sheridan went on writing, chortling under his breath. Clint watched him with a growing sense of unease and considerable second thought. He had a feeling he’d just been euchred by a two-star general.