WE GET OUR DISCHARGES

“Well, men, what will we do?” said Jack Flanagan. “We can re-enlist
or go back to the States and each hunt his job, or we can try to get
something to do where we can all three stick together.”

“Let’s stick together if we can,” said I.

“Now, hold on, men,” advised Tom Vance, “until you hear what I have got
to say. I have been thinking a lot about what we’d best do, and last
night I think it come to me.”

“Tell us what it is, Tom,” said Jack eagerly. “‘Tis yourself has the
wise head on his shoulders, and I’d like to hear your plan.”

We were three soldiers of Company K, First Cavalry, whose terms of
service were about to expire, and we looked forward with much eagerness
to the time when we should again be our own masters instead of being
subject to military discipline. Of course, we could re-enlist for
another five years, and the government offered inducements to do this.
A soldier who re-enlisted within three months before the expiration
of his term received a discharge three months in advance of its
expiration, with furlough for that length of time and three months’
extra pay. At the expiration of that time he was expected to report to
his company or, if unable to do that, at the nearest military post.
Failing to report for duty on time, he was regarded as a deserter. Tom
Vance had served for three enlistments and Jack Flanagan for two. I was
at the end of my first five years.

We were at Fort Wise,[A] Colorado Territory, and it was the summer of
1861. The Civil War was just beginning.

“What is your plan, Tom?” Jack repeated.

“Well, men,” said Tom, “as I say, I thought of it last night, and I
believe that we can spend the winter somewhere out here in the buffalo
range hunting wolves and can make a good stake doing that. We all know
something about the plains and something about wolf hunting, and if
we can raise the money needed for the outfit, I believe we can make a
go of it. The Indians are pretty quiet now, but, of course, we know
something about Indians and know that they’ve got to be looked out for
all the time, but I guess we’ll be safe enough. What do you think of
it?”

“It’s sure a fine plan,” said Jack, “if we can carry it through; but
how much money is it going to take?”

“It’s a great scheme, Tom,” I added, “and it seems to me there ought to
be money in it; but have we the capital?”

“We’ll have some money,” said Tom, “but, of course, we’ve got to sail
pretty close to the wind and to cut our coat according to our cloth.
When we get our ‘final statements’ cashed we ought to have about two
hundred dollars apiece. This ought to buy us a good team of ponies and
camp outfit, with supplies for the winter. At outfitting towns like
Saint Joe, Leavenworth, Kansas City, or Independence there are chances
to buy a good team and camp outfit in the fall from people who are
coming in from buffalo hunting, and get them cheap, too.

“We ought to go to one of those towns, look out for such hunting
parties, and, if we can find what we want cheap, take it in; then
we can strike out for the plains by the old Santa Fé road, select
a location in about the thickest of the herds, build us a cabin or
dugout, and get ready for winter.”

Jack and I agreed that the plan was sound, and Tom then asked us for
any ideas or suggestions that we might have. We both felt, however,
that his fifteen years’ service had given him so much experience that
he was much more likely to think of the necessary points than we, and
we had far more faith in his judgment than in our own. We asked him to
go ahead and give us the further details of his plan so far as he had
thought them out.

“First,” Tom said, “we must get what we absolutely need, and if we have
any money left after that we can buy luxuries. For grub we’d better
take about the same as government rations–flour, bacon, beans, coffee,
sugar, rice, and salt. A Sharp’s rifle and a Colt’s navy apiece, with
plenty of cartridges, will be all the arms we’ll want, and, besides
the clothing we already have, each man ought to have a good suit of
buckskins. These are better than any cloth for wear and to keep off
the wind. We can make overcoats, caps, and mittens out of furs as soon
as we take a few pelts and dress them. Most of these things we can
get here before we are discharged. The first sergeants of the cavalry
companies often have some of these things over and will sell them to us
for very little money.”

“How about tobacco and pipes?” asked Jack.

“Tobacco don’t come under the head of general supplies, and, as Peck
don’t use it, every man will have to buy his own tobacco.”

“How about whiskey?” asked Jack, for he had a weakness for liquor.

Tom answered him quickly: “There’ll be no whiskey taken along if I am
to have any say in the plans for the expedition. When we leave the
settlements you’ll have to swear off until we get back again; and that
reminds me that when we get our ‘final statements’ cashed it will be a
good idea for you to turn over your money to Peck, all except a small
allowance for a spree, if you must have one.”

Jack was forced to yield to the decision of the majority that whiskey
should form no part of our supplies.

“Seems to me,” I began, to change the subject, “that we’ve got to
decide on where we’ll go. Where do you think we’d better locate our
winter camp, Tom?”

“As to that, I haven’t quite made up my mind,” said he, “but it must
be somewhere near the centre of the buffalo range and not too far from
the Santa Fé road. Fort Larned is about the middle of the range this
season, and I’ve thought some of pitching our camp on Walnut Creek,
about twenty miles north of the fort.”

“It’s now toward the last of August,” continued Tom, “and our time will
be out in September. We can call for our discharges now any time that
we see a chance to get transportation into the States. It’ll take us
about a month to reach the Missouri River if we go by bull train, and
that’ll be about the first of October. Allowing about ten days to fit
out for the return, it’ll take us the rest of October to go back to the
neighborhood of Fort Larned. We won’t want to do much wolf skinning
before the middle of November, when the winter coat begins to get good,
but there’ll be plenty of work to keep us busy, building, fitting up
camp, and getting ready for the cold weather. It won’t do for us to
have our camp too close to Fort Larned or the Santa Fé road, for around
there buffalo and wolves will be scarce, but we want to be near enough
to call for our mail occasionally. Besides that, if Indians should be
troublesome it’s a good thing to be nigh to Uncle Sam’s soldiers.”

“They say,” put in Jack, “that there’s plenty of otter and beaver in
Walnut Creek.”

“Yes,” replied Tom, “we’ll be apt to find some of them, but they’re
nothing like as plenty as they used to be. All those timbered creeks
used to have lots of beaver and otter in them, and we’ll find some
of them, but our best hold will be wolfskins. They are plentiest and
easiest to get. We’ll take a few steel traps along to try for otter and
beaver. We’ll take anything we can in the way of fur.”

The next day Tom came to me looking rather serious, and I saw that he
had something on his mind, and when he had gotten me alone he explained
what this was.

“I’ve been thinking it over, Peck,” he said, “and I’ve pretty near made
up my mind that we’d better drop Jack and either pick up another man
or else you and me go it without a third man. I am afraid that Jack’s
fondness for liquor will get him into trouble and so make trouble for
us. I hate to go back on him, for he’s a rattlin’ good fellow when he
is out of the reach of whiskey, but, when he can get it, he’s a regular
drunkard.”

“That’s so, Tom,” I answered; “but when we get started back to the
plains we’ll soon have him where he can’t get whiskey, and then he’ll
be all right. I think we can manage him by making him turn over all his
money except a few dollars to you or to me, and when his money is gone
we’ll see that he gets no more. If we can get him to promise that after
he gets through he will let liquor alone, he will do it. Jack prides
himself on being a man of his word.”

“Well,” said Tom with some hesitation, “we’ll take him then, but we
must have a fair and square understanding with him and fire him if he
don’t come to time and behave like a man. We can’t fool away time with
a drunken man.”

Besides being an all-around good fellow, Jack had a fiddle and could
play it and could also sing. On these musical accomplishments I counted
for much enlivening of our lonely winter’s work.

When spoken to about binding himself to let whiskey alone, Jack readily
promised that after one little spree when we got our pay he would
swear off entirely till the wolf hunting trip was over. He was willing
to turn over his money to Tom or to me when we should be paid off,
reserving only a few dollars for the “good time” that he had promised
himself.

We now began trading with the Indians for the skins needed for our
buckskin suits, and as we got them we smoked them, using for this
purpose a large dry-goods box, to the bottom of which, on the inside,
we tacked the hides in place. The box was then, turned over a little
smothered fire in a hole in the ground. We found that this way of
smoking skins was an improvement on the Indian method, smoking them
more quickly and evenly and giving them a more uniform color.

In 1861 the agency for the five tribes–Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowas,
Comanches, and Prairie Apaches–was at Fort Wise, and, as the time
approached for the Indian agent to make the annual distribution of
gifts from the government, the tribes would come in to receive their
annuities. Our trading with the Indians had to be done quietly, because
the post sutler had the exclusive privilege of all Indian trade on the
post reservation, and, by order of the commanding officer, no one else
might carry on any traffic with the Indians.

From one of the cavalry first sergeants we each bought a rifle,
revolver, and some cartridges, and such additional soldier clothing as
we needed. These purchases were, of course, illegal. It was a serious
offence for any non-commissioned officer or soldier to sell government
property. On the other hand, it was very frequently done.

A few days later Tom came into the quarters and gleefully exclaimed:
“I’ve struck it. A bull train is corralling about a mile above the
post, and the wagon-master has agreed to haul us into the settlements.
It is one of Majors & Russell’s outfits going back empty, and the
wagon boss agrees to take us and let us work our passage, for he is
shorthanded. The train will lie over here to-morrow to get some work
done, and that will give us time to get our discharges, draw our
rations, and say good-by to the other men.”

“But, Tom,” said Jack, “how can we work our passage in a bull train
when ne’er a one of us knows anything about driving bulls?”

“I told the wagon boss that,” answered Tom, “and he said it made no
difference, that he had other work that any greenhorn could do–night
herding or driving the cavvy-yard. We’re to get our plunder out at the
side of the road as he pulls through the post. Now, as that is settled,
let’s put on our best jackets and go over to the captain’s quarters and
ask for our discharges.”

“Well, Tom,” said Jack, “we’ll let you do the talking for us, for
likely enough the ‘old man’ will give us a lot of taffy and try to
persuade us to re-enlist. You can give him our reasons for not taking
on again better than me and Peck.”

Before long we had marched briskly across the parade-ground and lined
up in front of the captain’s door, with Tom in the post of honor on the
right. The captain opened the door and stepped out, when we all three
saluted, and as he returned it he asked:

“Well, men, what’s wanting?”

Standing rigidly at attention, Jack and I kept silence while Tom spoke,
saying:

“We’ve called, sir, to see if the captain would be so kind as to give
us our discharges so we can take advantage of the chance to go into the
States with the bull train that’s camped in the bottom yonder.”

“Why, yes; certainly,” said the captain slowly; “but I had hoped that
you men would re-enlist in time to get the benefit of the three months’
extra pay with furlough. You are pretty sure to re-enlist sooner or
later, and it would be better for you to take on in your old company.
It looks as if the war would continue for some time yet, and, as we
will probably all be ordered into the States soon, there will be good
opportunities for well-trained soldiers to get commissions in the
volunteers.”

“We’re very grateful to the captain for his good opinion, but we’ve
concluded to go down into the buffalo range and put in the winter
skinning wolves,” said Tom. “Next summer, if we take a notion to
re-enlist, we’ll hunt the old company up.”

“All right, men,” said the captain, apparently not wishing to seem
unduly anxious about the matter; “you may go to the first sergeant and
tell him I order your discharges and final statements made out.”

Thanking him, we saluted and marched off. The documents were made out
in due course and handed to us by the sergeant, with compliments on the
good service we had all performed and the expression of a hope that
when we had “blowed in our money” we would go back to the old company.
For some hours we were busy packing up, happy in the feeling that we
were once more citizens. We spent some time shaking hands and bidding
good-by to every one, and in some cases the partings were rather
moving.

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