The bugler's call to reveille broke the stillness of the early morning tranquility that engulfed Fort Grant. It was 0445 and already it was hot, a legacy left by the preceding day's intense July sun, which at this point, was only a distant orange glow. The bugle's shrill notes had produced the desired effect on all of the fort's occupants except one, Private Agustus O'Grady or Gus as he was known to his fellow troopers.
It had been a rough night for Gus. He'd had a nasty rendezvous with a bottle of rot gut whiskey that he'd purchased at the sutler's store. The store, which was just off post, made it far too easy for Gus to get himself in trouble as he had done a number of times over the past ten years that he'd been in the Army.
Gus was oblivious to what was going on around him. The other troopers, with varying degrees of reluctance, were getting up and dressed. There was considerable complaining about the heat, the hour of the day, the Army in general and what probable nonsense that Lieutenant Welch would have them doing that day under the scorching Arizona sun.
It was a vague, distant voice that Gus was hearing. He struggled to fight his way through the nausea and pounding pain that was gripping his head. Unlike the earlier voices of his fellow troopers, Gus sensed an urgency to respond to this one. Unfortunately for Gus, at about the time he found his way back to consciousness he felt his bed being lifted on one side and then pushed violently over. As he was being catapulted from his bed, Gus' eyes popped open to a kaleidoscope of the wall, window, First Sergeant Beechum, the ceiling, some blue trousers, and finally as his face smacked the floor, a pair of highly polished boots which he knew all too well were probably those of Lieutenant Welch.
"Good morning, Mr. O'Grady," said Welch in a sarcastic tone of voice. "We missed you out on the parade ground this morning. I was concerned that you might have taken sick."
Gus was fully aware of what was happening now and he was fighting desperately to overcome the dizziness and nausea so that he might get to his feet when he felt the swift boot of the lieutenant hit him in the stomach. Instantly, Gus was gasping for air and at the same time retching. Fortunately for him, he'd already thrown up everything in his stomach during the night behind the barracks. Small bits of vomit still clung to his bushy red mustache.
"Get your drunken carcass up, O'Grady. You're a poor excuse for a soldier. Do you hear me? Come to attention, private. That's an order."
Although barely audible, Gus managed to whisper, "Yes sir."
Gus laid face down, flat on the floor. The wood smelled worn and dirty. Slowly, he pulled his arms under himself and got to his knees. A wave of nausea hit him and he paused.
"C'mon, O'Grady you miserable drunk. Get to your feet. I haven't got all day."
Gus brought one knee up and then paused when he began feeling sick again. Sergeant Beechum moved to Gus' side to help him.
"Let him alone, Sergeant. He'll do this on his own, and soon, or he'll have a long time in the stockade to think about the wisdom of drinking."
After what seemed like a monumental struggle with the forces of gravity Gus found himself standing, as best he could, at the position of attention before Lieutenant Welch. Gus was a pitiful sight. His red hair, which hadn't been washed in days, was severely tangled and he was in need of a shave. Gus
wasn't a big man. He was of medium build and stood maybe five feet eight inches which put his eye level at about the chin of Lieutenant Welch.
"Don't you ever get tired of this, Private?" asked Welch in an unfriendly voice. "Do you find pleasure in being a drunkard and a disgrace to the United States Cavalry?"
Here we go again, thought Gus. I'm going to have to dance this jig one more time.
Welch turned at an angle and looked back across his body at Gus as he slowly moved to Gus' left. And then he stopped and sighed. "You know, Private O'Grady, men like you puzzle me. You had a good service record during the war but since then you've fallen in the gutter and can't seem to find your way out."
No one knew better, than Gus himself, the harsh reality of what Lieutenant Welch had just said. But Gus' problem was more complex than what the Lieutenant saw it as. It was much more than simply a situation of cause and effect where Gus could just decide that he wasn't going to drink anymore so he could avoid the unpleasant aftermath. It was more complicated than that and up to this point in his life he hadn't been able to find a solution.
"You're a hard case, O'Grady," said Welch. Nothing I do gets through to you. You know in biblical times you could be stoned for being a drunkard."
Welch paused as if he expected these words to affect some degree of shock in Gus and that shortly he would see this fear reflected in Gus' expression. But it did not happen. It wasn't that Gus didn't believe that Lieutenant Welch, with the full approval of the Army, was capable of inflicting some devious punishment upon him. No, that was not the case. It was more that Gus was nearing the point where he didn't care what the Army did to him. He felt as helpless against some of the tyrants in the Army, like Welch, as he did in resisting the lure of a bottle of whiskey. Although annoyed by his indifference, Welch was not deterred in his moral chastisement of Gus. "Deuteronomy, Chapter 22 I believe. This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice." Welch paused and glared at Gus before continuing. " . . . he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die." And then posturing for maximum effect, Welch stepped to within inches of Gus' face. Gus could feel Welch's breath as he exhaled and he could smell the stale odor of coffee. Welch continued in an emphatic, hateful tone of voice, "so shalt thou put evil away from among you."
It was not uncommon for Lieutenant Welch, being a God-fearing man of considerable proportion, to conduct himself as a fire and brimstone preacher rather than a United States Army officer. His behavior during these times seemed irrational to First Sergeant Beechum and it generated contempt from the enlisted men who had heard tell that some years back Welch caroused with the worst of them.
Sergeant Beechum cleared his throat. "Sir, beggin' your pardon but we did leave the men out on the parade ground. They're probably getting' a mite restless."
Lieutenant Welch shifted his focus from Gus to Sergeant Beechum and back again as if to acknowledge the Sergeant's concern but to convey to him also that he wasn't through with the private.
"O'Grady, I'm going to break you of this curse that the Devil has put upon you. I'm going to free you of old Lucifer's hold. It won't be easy but if you want to gain your place in the hereafter, and not to mention some respectability in this man's army, it will be a small price to pay. Therefore, I hereby fine you two month's pay and sentence you to work on the firewood detail for the next month."
Gus' pulse quickened as the significance of the Lieutenant's words sunk in. He was flat broke now. At thirteen dollars a month he had just been relieved of twenty-six dollars. He wanted desperately to punch Welch in the face but he thought better of that impulse when he considered the penalty for striking an officer could be a lot worse than what he was already looking at. Gus knew that he was powerless to change things. This realization, however, only added to his anger and frustration.
"Well, Private, do you understand your sentence?" asked Welch somewhat indifferently.
"Yes sir," replied Gus.
"Good," said Welch. "You'll be a better man for it. Your time on the firewood detail begins this morning right after breakfast. Don't be late."
Welch paused, waiting Gus knew for him to respond in a military manner. Gus had been at the position of attention since getting off of the floor. His head was throbbing from the hangover, his stomach hurt from being kicked by Welch and he was angry. But more than anything he felt a need to get away from Welch and so he squared his shoulders a little more, saluted crisply and said, "yes sir."
Lieutenant Welch returned the salute and then walked out of the barracks with Sergeant Beechum following.
Gus turned his bed right side up, re-made it, and then sat down on the edge of it to take stock of the morning's events. He couldn't believe that he'd ever find himself in this kind of a fix when he first joined the Army, but he was a stronger person back then. He had become an example in human behavior of what not to be. He had been busted from sergeant to private, and seemingly now, an attempt to relieve him of what little dignity that he still possessed was being made. Deep down he knew that he had more self-pride and respect than to allow this to happen, but for some reason, he just couldn't resist the temptation to drink. Maybe he was taking after his father. As a boy growing up in the slums of New York City he had observed first hand in his father the consequences of being a drunk. There were fights, most were for no apparent good reason and nearly all involved liquor. Regardless of the outcome, the violence often didn't end at the pub or on the docks where his father worked loading ships. Many times he had cried and pleaded with his father not to hit his mother or older brother but it generally only resulted in him being backhanded. Gus' older brother left home first, at the age of fourteen. By the time he was fifteen he had lied about his age and joined the Union Army. He was killed shortly before his sixteenth birthday at the Battle of Bull Run. Gus was devastated by the loss of his brother and blamed his father for having caused it.
With the start of the war, Gus felt an even stronger compulsion to leave home. He was desperate to get away from his father's tyranny but for a long time hadn't for his mother's sake. But now he hated his father even more and that made life at home hardly bearable. Besides, he reasoned, he had to avenge his brother's death. And so, much to his mother's dismay, Gus joined the Union Army when he was only sixteen. His first real action came at the Battle of Antietam where he was shot in the left thigh. The wound healed nicely within a few months and Gus went on to fight with distinction at the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. For his valor and coolness under fire Gus was promoted to Sergeant.
It was at the Battle of the Wilderness that things began to change for the worse. It was a costly battle in terms of lives lost on both sides and Gus was wounded again, this time he received a shrapnel wound in the stomach. The wound became infected and was slow to heal. Gus spent nearly six months in a Washington hospital. Following this, he was granted three months convalescent leave at home. Little had changed other than Gus' father was having trouble finding enough work because of his affinity for drinking and fighting. It was a trying time for Gus. Painful memories of friends lost in battle and the overall horror of the war coupled with the lingering discomfort of his wounds caused him to seek solace in drinking. Ironically, one of Gus' primary drinking buddies was his father. Liquor seemed to be a bonding agent between them, a fact that saddened Gus' mother a great deal and in sober moments shamed Gus.
In the spring of 1865, shortly before the surrender of the Confederacy, Gus returned to the army. His wounds were mostly healed but his physical state was not up to par, due in part to his not having taken proper care of himself while on leave. With the war nearly over, the Army decided to send Gus by train out West to fight the Apaches and that had been almost seven years ago.
The firewood detail departed Fort Grant each morning at 0600 in two big lumber wagons. The wagons were drawn by four mule teams driven by civilian teamsters who worked for the post sutler. It was easier for the mules in the coolness of the early morning to make the two hour pull up into the pinyon and juniper covered hills to the east of the fort. But, by mid-morning, the sun showed little mercy to either man or beast.
Gus had been befriended by one of the teamsters who was also a Civil War veteran. His name was Hank Chambers. The long wagon ride to and from the woods each day gave Gus and Hank plenty of opportunity to probe one another's character through conversation about their past and present. It was no secret to anybody why Gus had been assigned to the firewood detail. A lot of people just assumed that he was a drunk and a poor soldier. They didn't want to bother themselves with asking why Gus drank. Hank, on the other hand, did; he had been there.
Gus was beginning his tenth day on the firewood detail and his tenth day without having taken a drink. This was due partly to his being flat broke and partly to his fear of ending up in the stockade. The end result was that Gus had stayed sober and was even somewhat proud of that accomplishment.
It was a cooler than usual morning which suited Gus, Hank and the mules just fine. Gus, however, had been a little fidgety as the big wagon rolled slowly along. Having been an alcoholic himself, Hank sensed the reason why.
"Are you ah cravin' it today, Agustus?" asked Hank casually.
Gus shook his head slightly and laughed in a disgusted manner. "Is it that obvious?"
"Fellars like you and me Agustus, don't ever get entirely shed of the whiskey habit. Even when we manage to keep ourselves clear of it for a long spell it's still just right there in the shadows like some big ole mountain cat that's been a stalkin' you."
"I suspect you're right my friend but that's a scary thought. Being in the army out here in the middle of all these Apaches who'd like nothing better than to lift your hair and this miserable life sapping heat everyday can make a man look for comfort sometimes in the bottom of a bottle."
"Well, Agustus. I'm gonna tell you straight up how it is. If a fellar can look in the bottom of that bottle you talk about, just sometimes, he probably will find a little comfort every now and again. But, if he goes lookin' for it on a regular basis he'll find nothing but sorrow and heartache. Take it from me Agustus, I know. I was on a first name basis with them two for longer than I care to admit."
"So, how did you shake the habit?" asked Gus. "That's what causes me to worry, the thought that I'll always have to be relyin' on the bottle. Ever since I joined the end of the war it's been like a magnet for me and, with all the fighting and killing and some of these high and mighty officers that a man has to put up with, it's been a right powerful force."
Hank was silent for a moment. From the expression on his face, Gus sensed that Hank was wrestling with the prospect of telling him something. Finally, Hank began to speak but it was in a manner as careful as a person stepping their way across a stream on water slickened rocks.
"You know Agustus, there's times in a fellar's life when, if he can change his surroundings, he can be a different man. I mean, just plum drag up and skedaddle. Cause if a fellar's got the whiskey curse he needs all the help he can get."
Hank was now looking straight ahead over the backs of the mules and gripping the reins as if he were intent on driving the wagon whereas before, he more or less held the reins and paid little attention to the mules as they plodded along the road that they had been over so many times before.
"Are you saying that I should desert?" asked Gus in a quiet voice so that none of the six man cavalry escort would overhear him.
"I'm just sayin' that some time back I was where you're at right now. I had me some dreams in life that I knew wasn't ever gonna happen unless I changed my circumstances."
"So you're a deserter?" asked Gus in a non-accusing tone of voice.
Hank turned to Gus; his eyes were defiant. "I ain't had a drink in five years. I got me a wife and son, a home and a job. I got dreams too. Right soon, we're gonna head out for Oregon and lay claim to some land. We're gonna have us a farm." Hank paused for a moment and then he said: I shed blood for my country at Gettysburg and again up in the Montana Territory. I figure I'll let some other fellar take a turn now."
Gus could appreciate what Hank was saying and he was somewhat moved by the fact that Hank thought enough of him to reveal his past in an effort to help. What Hank was suggesting, though, carried with it a heavy price. Gus was beginning to realize more than ever that there was no easy solution to his problem.
Gus went to bed early that night. It had been a tiring day not only from having to cut firewood but he now had an on-going internal debate with himself. There seemed to be no end to the various rationales that came to mind both for and against staying in the Army. Gus had known a number of men, besides Hank, that had deserted and only a small percentage of them had ever been caught; however, the ones who had paid dearly. During the war they were shot for desertion, now they received time in the stockade and hard labor. Gus was already doing the hard labor, which wasn't as bad as he originally thought it was going to be, but he had no desire at all to try out the stockade.
It seemed like to Gus that he'd barely gotten to sleep when First Sergeant Beechum entered the barracks and lit a lantern.
"Up and at'em boys. We're going for a little ride," shouted Beechum.
Gus looked up at the old German clock on the wall. It took a moment for his eyes to focus. The clock read 0215. "That can't be right," said Gus to himself. "It must have stopped during the night." But then Gus noted that the brass pendulum was still swinging back and forth.
"What's up Sarge?" asked one of the troopers.
"The Apaches attacked a ranch about ten miles south of here. They killed six people, burned the buildings and stole all of the stock. The Colonel wants a patrol sent out right away to pick up the Apaches trail while it's still fresh."
Gus was hopeful that he wouldn't be required to go along since his sentence on the firewood detail wasn't up yet. Besides, he thought, why should I risk my life if I'm not even on the payroll.
"What about me, Sarge?" asked Gus.
Sergeant Beechum turned towards Gus. The expression on his face was one of indifference. "Yes, Mr. O'Grady, the Lieutenant asked me to especially invite you along. He doesn't want you to miss out on all the fun".
Gus never knew how to take Beechum. There were times when he seemed sensitive to the men's feeling and then there were other times, like now, that he appeared to take great satisfaction in exercising the authority that he possessed.
By 0300 the detachment, which was under Lieutenant Welch's command, was assembled on the parade ground. Each man had been issued a week's worth of rations which consisted of hard tack, salt
pork and coffee as well as 100 rounds of rifle and 30 rounds of pistol ammunition. They would be traveling light and fast, just like the Apaches usually did but whom on this occasion, would hopefully be slowed by the burden of their recently acquired plunder.
After a short pep speech by the Post Commander, Lieutenant Welch, followed by Bravo Company, rode out into the night. It was a pleasant evening, comfortably cool with no wind. A full moon shone overhead which made it easy to see the wagon road that they were riding on. Not a word was spoken in accordance with the orders given by the Lieutenant, as the sixty men of Bravo Company rode along in a column of twos. After a few minutes of walking the horses the order was given to proceed at a gallop.
The night air felt good on Gus' face as did the rhythmic motion of his big sorrel horse. It had been several weeks since he'd been out on patrol and the sights, sounds, and smells of a military mission were once gain causing the adrenaline to pulsate within his system. It was a feeling of purpose, of bravado like no other sensation Gus had ever experienced prior to joining the Army. But, as Gus knew all too well, it was a feeling of cruel deception as well because ultimately the euphoria that he was feeling now would be replaced by fear and terror during the heat of battle. And, after the battle, there would be sadness over those men lost and frustration with re-creating events in one's mind in a vain attempt to affect the outcome. Following this, there would be a period of trying to suppress the question that every soldier tries to put out of mind: when will it be my turn to die? It was an endless, worrisome process for Gus and many men in the Army.
It was just getting light when Lieutenant Welch and Bravo Company reached the burned out ranch headquarters. The sight of the bodies of the rancher and his family lying in and around the charred structures produced a humbling affect upon the troopers who had been spoiling for a fight. Based upon the location of the bodies, Gus surmised that the Apaches must have attacked at about supper time yesterday evening. The rancher, his wife, and two little girls were inside the burned out cabin whose walls had fallen down and exposed a table with several place settings still on it. The couple's boys, who looked to be in their early teens, were lying near the barn. It appeared that the Apaches had gotten to them first and then moved on to the cabin.
After selecting a four man burial detail to remain behind and attend to the slain family, Lieutenant Welch ordered the column forward at a trot on the trail of the Apaches. The tracks headed east into the mountains and the many wooded canyons there that afforded the Apaches plenty of opportunities to ambush anyone following them. With all of the stolen livestock that the Apaches were driving before them it made for an easy trail to follow. In fact, thought Gus, maybe it was too easy.
The sun was now fully visible above the eastern horizon. Lieutenant Welch's column had been following the Apaches for about an hour without incident. They had moved from the valley floor with its sparse cover to a point several miles into the mountains where the pinyon and ponderosa pines brushed against the troopers and their horses as they pursued their quarry. Fortunately, for him and his men, Lieutenant Welch had adopted a more cautious attitude in his pursuit of the hostiles. He had slowed their pace to a walk and sent two men in advance of the main column and dropped two men about one half mile behind to watch their back trail. It was very dangerous for the men given these assignments as they ran the obvious risk of being easily overwhelmed by the Apaches and killed. Their value of course was to provide an early warning to the main body of troopers of any Apaches lying in wait. Unfortunately, for Gus he was one of the men ordered to guard the column's back trail.
Gus had been paired up with a green trooper named Rudolph Steinmetz. He had been born in Germany but came to America with his parents when he was five years old. He had been in the Army slightly less than three months and had yet to experience his first action.
Gus cringed when he heard Sergeant Beechum order Rudy to go with him. He knew that Rudy was not very proficient with either his rifle or his pistol and Gus also knew that Rudy was not a particularly skilled rider.
The main column was now well ahead of Gus and Rudy. It made for an uneasy feeling within the two men knowing that the commotion hopefully caused in the Apaches killing them would alert their fellow troopers as to the Indian's presence.
Gus reined his horse in while he scanned the basin below him and Rudy. It was about a half mile wide and a mile long. Narrow canyons entered the basin from the east and the west and the entire area was wooded. Gus didn't like the looks of things.
"Let's hold up here a minute, Rudy," said Gus.
"What do you see, Mr. O'Grady? Did you spot some Apaches? asked Rudy nervously.
Gus looked at Rudy. Nobody ever called him mister out of respect. As a private with a drinking problem he was usually addressed as mister in a condescending tone. But Rudy was visibly afraid and he looked to Gus who was a veteran in these situations as a source of security.
"Rudy, you can call me Gus."
"Yes sir, said Rudy without thinking. But what did you see down there?"
"I ain't seen nothin' yet but I got a bad feelin' about this place."
"So, do you think hostiles are going to attack Lieutenant Welch?"
"Well, it looks —" Gus paused abruptly and fixed his eyes on a particular spot. Then, suddenly, he reined his horse around and spurred its sides. "Quick Rudy, let's get off the skyline and into these trees."
Within seconds the two of them were into the trees but Gus knew it was too late, they had been spotted. Worse yet, Gus realized that Lieutenant Welch and Bravo Company were riding into an ambush. The Apaches had deliberately let the two men on point ride through their carefully devised killing zone.
Gus tied his horse to a pinyon tree and jerked his Spencer repeater from its scabbard and scrambled back up the ridge with a now, very frightened Rudy in close pursuit. As the two of them neared the crest of the ridge they dropped to their bellies and low crawled to the top. Peering through the fescue grass atop the ridge it took Gus less than a minute to see that the Apaches had kept hidden from view several hundred warriors in the two side canyons entering the basin until the cavalry troop had descended the ridge and could not see the Apaches moving in on either side of them. The troopers would be caught in a deadly crossfire.
Within his mind, Gus was frantically considering his options as he watched the deadly drama below him unfold. He knew that he must do something to warn his fellow troopers and soon. Why, thought Gus, couldn't I be on the firewood detail with Hank today? Chances are, I'm going to die today and I'm not even on the payroll 'cause I'm a drunk.
Gus sighed deeply as he empathetically pushed the lever on his repeater down and then brought it up chambering a .50 caliber round.
"What are you doing Mr. O'Grady?" asked Rudy in knowing disbelief.
Gus rested the barrel of his rifle on a rock. Without taking his eyes from the valley below and in the most stoic voice that he could muster, Gus said: "Get your horse, Rudy, and ride as fast as you can for the fort. Bring back help."
"What about you, Mr. O'Grady?"
"There's no time for talk, Rudy. Just go!"
Gus took aim at an Apache on a paint horse who was leading the group of warriors from the west canyon. It was a good six or seven hundred yards. "You best get out of here, Rudy, "Gus said as he began to squeeze the trigger.
Rudy crawled back down the ridge a short ways before he got to his feet and started to run. At the sound of Gus' rifle he dropped to a crouch position and jerked his head around in the direction of the shot. Smoke was drifting up from the barrel of Gus' rifle as he levered another cartridge into the barrel.
The sun was beginning to set by the time the relief column from the fort reached the basin where Lieutenant Welch and Bravo Company had taken up defensive positions. Their union was uneventful as the Apaches had already broken off the siege and melted into the surrounding hills. It was the Apache way to fight only when they held the advantage but on this day Gus had saw to it that they hadn't. Lieutenant Welch's command had suffered some casualties but nothing like they would have had it not been for the actions of Gus. The Apache's element of surprise had been lost and with it, Bravo Company's probable annihilation.
"I understand that Private O'Grady was responsible for firing the warning shot," said the Colonel to Lieutenant Welch. "Was he ever able to rejoin your company?"
"No sir. There was quite a lot of shooting up on the ridge behind us for a while this afternoon. But it didn't last more than a half hour and it's been quiet up there ever since. I assumed that O'Grady and Steinmetz were killed."
"Well, Private Steinmetz made it back to the fort. He told us where you were but was totally spent and unable to return. He also said that when he last saw Private O'Grady he was shooting at the hostiles from a ridgetop above your position."
For some reason, the significance of Private O'Grady's actions had not fully registered with Lieutenant Welch until now. Perhaps it had been because of his lack of respect for Gus as a soldier that he could not appreciate the fact that Gus could have just as easily ridden off and saved his self rather than launch
a one man attack on two hundred Apache warriors. It was apparent to the Lieutenant now that Gus had made a conscious decision to surrender his own life in exchange for the lives of some of his fellow troopers.
The Lieutenant ordered Sergeant Beechum and two men to retrieve Gus' body. They spent over an hour searching the area where Gus had made his stand. They found many empty shell casings from Gus' Spencer rifle and four dead Apaches but no sign of Gus or at least none that Sergeant Beechum reported to the Lieutenant. There was one set of shod horse tracks heading north from where Gus had made his stand against the Apaches. More than likely they were headed for Oregon, but as far as Sergeant Beechum and his two men were concerned, Private Agustus O'Grady had been captured by the Apaches and no doubt suffered an unspeakable death.