Chapter 1 — Fort Robinson
November 13, 1890
Corporal Matt Davys pressed his ear against the heaving chest of the sick cavalry horse, his eyes closed in concentration. The horse’s breaths sounded like the wind rushing through the sagebrush, whooshing and whistling, changing direction and timbre every second or so. There was another sound, ominous and barely audible: a harsh, dry murmur.
“Yes, sir, I hear it,” Matt said to Lieutenant Harding as he straightened up next to Molly, his regular mount for the past eighteen months. At twenty-five, Matt was young for his rank, having made corporal after only eight years in the peacetime Army. He was tall and slim; his skin was darker than many of the other colored enlisted men in Troop K, so dark that his friend Jim claimed he was a menace when they were together on night guard duty.
Next to him, Molly stood shivering in the clean straw of the horse stall, her eyes closed and her breath swirling around them in the cold of the Nebraska early winter. Lieutenant Harding and the gouty old veteran, Stable Sergeant Johnson, looked on. Like all the officers in the regiment, Harding was white. His small moustache was peppered with gray, and he stooped slightly, the result of an injury acquired at Shiloh, twenty-eight years before.
“She gonna be okay, sir?” Matt asked.
“Hard to say. My guess is lung fever.”
“Lung fever,” Matt repeated carefully. “Yes, sir.” He leaned against Molly’s shoulder, feeling the heat of her fever through his woolen uniform shirt and overcoat. She didn’t respond, but he hoped that she took some comfort from his presence.
“Keep her in,” Lieutenant Harding said to Johnson. “And assign Corporal Davys another mount for today.”
Johnson paused to send a well-aimed stream of tobacco into the corner of the stall and then drawled “Yas, suh.” He glanced at Matt, his calculating eyes almost lost in the fat of his puffy face. Johnson hadn’t been on a horse for years. He was insolent with the younger white officers and got away with it because he ran his stable with ruthless competence. “Corp’l,” he said to Matt, “I reckon Tom Hendricks’ horse suit you jus’ fine.”
“Okay, Sarge,” Matt replied, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat and repeated, “Okay.”
“Hendricks rides that big black gelding, doesn’t he?” Lieutenant Harding asked. “Sammy, right?”
“That’s right, suh. Hendricks, he’s on sick call so Matt here can take him.” Johnson spat again, and Matt thought he saw amusement dancing in the man’s eyes.
Harding glanced at Matt and then at Molly. Matt held his breath.
“I suppose you could stay in today, Corporal,” Harding said.
Matt was tempted. He could take care of Molly. He wouldn’t have to go out in the cold. And he wouldn’t have to deal with that monster of a horse.
“Thank you, sir. But I reckon I should be out with my squad. What with the rumors and all.” And, he added to himself, I’ll never make sergeant sitting back here in the stable.
“Good,” Harding said. “I wish I could join you, but I have reports to write.” Then he pulled himself up straight and said, “Corporal Davys, get Sammy watered and saddled and then report to the Captain. He’s drilling the troop just east of the river.”
Harding stepped closer, touched Matt’s arm and added quietly, “Why don’t you stop by this evening after mess? Mrs. Harding would like to see you.”
Matt brightened. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I do that.”
“Carry on, Sergeant Johnson.” With that, Harding left the stall, heading in the direction of the Troop K barracks.
Johnson waited until Harding was out of earshot. “Davys, you best not mess up with that Sammy,” he said. “Or you be dealing with Tom Hendricks.” Squinting at Matt, he added, “And with me.” He turned and hobbled away, heading toward the far end of the big stable building.
Tom Hendricks was the platoon bully, mean and stupid. Matt stared after Johnson for a moment, his shoulders sagging and then turned back to Molly. He spoke to her quietly and soothingly, but she still didn’t seem to notice him. At fifteen hands, she was small and squat for a cavalry horse and with Matt being so tall, he knew they made an odd looking pair.
Passing his hands over her damp flanks, Matt tried to say things that might calm and comfort her. Not a natural horseman, he was uncomfortable around most horses and afraid of some. Jim found this endlessly amusing, as Matt had spent the past eight years in a cavalry regiment.
After checking that Molly had plenty of hay, Matt stepped out of her stall and paused. Overhead, gaps in the roof ventilators admitted scattered shafts of sunlight that pierced the dusty air. The smell of hay and manure, intolerable in the summer, was now just noticeable in the cold of the Nebraska winter. Matt squinted into the darkness. About halfway down the left side, an enormous dark horse shifted uneasily on one side of a double stall.
Matt cautiously approached the stall and then stopped well back, worried that this monster, this Sammy, might hear him and kick out with his iron-shod rear legs. He stared at the horse’s twitching tail, holding his breath, his heart beginning to drum in his chest.
“Easy boy. That’s a good boy,” Matt whispered as he stepped into the stall and pressed himself against the half wall on Sammy’s near side. He edged forward. As he reached the horse’s hip, Sammy suddenly stepped to his left, pinning Matt against the wall. Matt gasped for breath and his eyes widened with fear. Sammy settled into place. Hoping desperately that Sergeant Johnson was close by, Matt tried to yell out, but with a sixteen hundred pound horse crushing the air from his lungs, he could not.
Then, to his surprise, a rising sense of amusement began to displace his fear, and it seemed as though he was standing to one side, watching this ridiculous scene. You sure are some fine cavalry trooper, he said to himself, can’t even saddle a damn horse right here in the stable.
Managing to free his arms, Matt placed both hands flat against Sammy’s thigh and pushed. At first, nothing happened. Then as Matt forced a breath into his burning chest, gritted his teeth and pushed harder, Sammy slowly responded to the steady pressure, shuffling over a few inches.
Matt slid forward to Sammy’s head and gasped for breath. Then he turned and grabbed the horse’s halter. “Look you” he said through clenched teeth. “You got no call to do that.” He started to shake the halter, wanting Sammy to understand his anger, but he stopped. That ain’t gonna help, he told himself, and he dropped his hand to his side.
Sammy, his dark eyes flat and unblinking, stared back at him.
It took just a few minutes to clip on the watering bridle and slip the saddle blanket onto Sammy’s back. Matt unhooked the manger line from the halter and coaxed Sammy back out of the stall.
Squinting as he stepped from the gloomy stable into the winter sunlight, Matt led the horse outside. As the wind cut through his heavy uniform and overcoat, and Sammy snorted and shook behind him, Matt broke through the thin layer of ice at the water trough so Sammy could drink. When he had finished, Matt took him over to the picket line and tied him using the reins of the watering bridle. He went back into the stable and returned with Sammy’s saddle, curb bridle and his own Springfield carbine in its scabbard.
Inspecting the split-back McClellan saddle, Matt saw that it was heavily scarred, having been repaired many times. Like much of the Ninth Cavalry’s equipment, it had probably first been used by a white regiment and then discarded. He gently set the saddle on Sammy’s back, three finger widths behind the point of the shoulder blade. Crossing to the off side, he smoothed the blanket and let down the cinch strap. When he returned to the near side and reached under Sammy’s belly and pulled the strap through the cinch ring, the horse took a deep breath and held it.
“You tryin’ that on me?” Matt said.
Sammy wanted him to tighten the cinch while his chest was expanded. This would make the saddle more comfortable for him but leave the girth dangerously loose. Matt, anxious to join the Troop drill and take command of his squad, thought about giving Sammy a quick knee to the ribs. He knew that’s what many troopers would do, but it was against regulations, and it wasn’t good for the horse.
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it, I can wait.”
A full minute passed before Sammy expelled a cloud of steam into the bitter air. Matt jerked the cinch strap tight and said, “Ha.”
Sammy did not turn his head.
Matt replaced the watering bit with the curb bit, secured the rifle scabbard and watering bit to the saddle and was ready to mount up. He stepped back and looked at Sammy. The horse was at least seventeen hands at the shoulder, maybe more. Matt had never ridden a horse this big.
A hundred feet down the picket line, Sergeant Johnson stood watching the farrier fit a new shoe to a gray filly. It would be easy to ask Johnson to hold Sammy’s head while Matt mounted. But I can’t give that bastard the satisfaction, he said to himself, remembering the look Johnson had given him back in Molly’s stall. Instead, he walked around to face Sammy. He grabbed the reins just below Sammy’s chin and shook them to get the horse’s full attention.
“Look,” he said quietly, “I don’ want no trouble from you.”
The horse cocked his head slightly and stared straight at Matt, unblinking.
“Okay,” Matt said, and he led Sammy away from the picket line. He stood at the horse’s near side for a few seconds.
“Prepare to mount,” he said aloud, hoping that the familiar command would steady both Sammy and himself. Gripping the saddle’s pommel, Matt lifted his boot to the stirrup and grabbed a handful of mane.
“Mount!” he said.
Matt bent his right knee and then sprang upward, minimizing the pressure on the stirrup. As he swung his leg over Sammy’s rump, the horse shied to the left and skidded on the frozen ground. Matt felt his momentum carrying him over the top of the saddle and, almost losing his left stirrup, he started to slide down Sammy’s off side. He grabbed desperately at the saddle with his left hand, his fingers slipping into the gap between saddle halves, and he managed to check his fall.
“Shit!” he said, hanging on desperately and feeling like a fool.
Extending his long right leg, Matt touched the ground with the toe of his boot, and he boosted himself back up into the saddle. As he secured his feet in the stirrups and found his seat, Matt felt his heart racing. Hope nobody saw me, he said to himself as he looked around. No one was nearby; even Johnson had disappeared.
Sammy stood motionless and Matt pulled his head around, turning him away from the stable. He gently squeezed his knees, and Sammy slipped into an easy trot.