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CHAPTER 1

Somebodyís Mistake

 

Five thousand pounds of proverbial dynamite on sixteen iron-shod hooves raised a stream of gritty Wyoming dust, leaving the eyes of Captain Ross Jackson smarting. The reins of the running mustang-drafters slapped against the ground. With ears pinned back and foam flying from their coats, the four stampeding drafters plunged ahead in trained unison.

From his perch on top of the stage, Captain Jackson of the US Twenty-Fourth Cavalry division saw the sprawled forms of a guard and driver on the road. The bodies were fast becoming distant specks. The frightened horses sped onward. Nowhere in sight were the murdering bandits who had caused Jacksonís current dilemma.

Jackson sheathed his colt and gritted his teeth. Only on his day off could this happen. Next time, he was riding his own horse to town.

From inside the stage women screamed. The soldier swallowed life and faced death. Eyeing the reins bouncing between the hooves of the racing team his six-three frame gathered itself with the lithe action of a cat about to spring on the back of a mouse. Using one of his nine lives, Jackson leaped ungracefully aboard the back of the off rear horse.

The big mustang faltered under his weight. Swearing a solid stream of curses the handsome young Captain gathered its reins, steadying it. When the animal failed to slow Jackson became disgusted. There was nothing for it. Growling, he used another of his proverbial nine lives to step onto the wooden tongue between the racing team.

The tongue bounced. Jackson worked hard to keep his footing. Finding a haphazard rhythm he made for the lead horses. Though his two-hundred-forty pound frame could topple a yearling calf, it did nothing to stop the frightened animals. It was not until he physically grabbed the bits of the leaders the animals paid heed. The slowing leaders were pushed ahead by the rear set of animals. For a wild second Jackson thought the whole shebang would topple. The team halted in a cloud of dust; swallowing Jackson. Inside the coach the women stopped screaming.

The three young women were Brigadier General Pollickís nieces. In a heroic fanfare they swept Jackson into their Uncle's office. Of course, the excited girls exaggerated the scene. Being the hero, Jackson saw no harm in their enthusiasm. The number of bandits went from six to twenty. The number he shot went from one to a dozen.

The women were beautiful. Because of them, Jackson had vetoed the idea of riding his own horse in exchange for their admiring company. It also, so happened, a prominent silver mine had stashed its payroll on board. If Jackson had known this, he would have waited for the state to finish the railroad and taken the train!

Within forty-eight hours Jackson wore the stripes of an official Major; although he could not reason as to why the government wanted him at all.

During his five years at Fort Standing Still, Jackson had proven himself the fort prankster. There was not many a day he failed to liven. A mysterious cannon firing, shoe laces tied to table legs, laundry with parts sewn shut or an occasional burr under a saddle was a sampling of what the fort endured at Jackson's mischievous hands. Now, he sat in the Brigadier Generalís office awaiting orders. It was rumored he was to be given command of a distant outpost. At last he might see some action! It was an excitement he kept contained. In Pollickís presence he allowed himself to appear dull-witted. The trick seemed to boost his rank.

The room, which contained the Brigadier Generalís office, was lavish for a Wyoming outpost. It was decked in the finest money could procure. From the elegant cherry Queen Anneís furniture to the dewdrop glass sconces and stained-glass lamps, it was a real sight. Displayed on the walls were pictures of prominent men of the time.

Pollick was an avid horse fan. It was said he gained most of his fortune from three Indian ponies he had bred then raced the colts. Pictures of these three, their get, and many other race horses abounded. Trophies littered the mantle.

Above a large black safe, hung the Brigadier Generalís most admired possession; a stunning life-sized portrait of a beautiful woman sitting sideways. Her auburn tresses flowed in ringlets over her shoulder. A long, crushed-blue-velvet dress flowed down her slender waist. A splash of lace at the bottom of the dress revealed a hint of ankle flowing into a tiny black shoe. The lips of this lovely goddess were painted red. Her fiery blue eyes showed such spirit it was as though she was alive, staring out a window. This stunning woman had once been the wife of the fat, round-faced Brigadier General. How she had died, ten years ago, no one knew. Taking his eyes from the picture to the pompous form of Pollick, Jackson shook his head. There were things not even he understood.

On the other side of the room was a generous liquor stash any good soldier could appreciate. Opening the doors of a tall cherry cabinet the round, pompous general proceeded to remove a bottle of vintage wine and two goblets. Strutting over a plush oriental rug with heavy steps he set the crystal on the polished surface of his extravagantly large desk. A shaft of light filtered through the long rose colored drapes of the picture window and caught in the blood color of the wine as it gurgled from the bottle's mouth.

Pollick stepped close to the seated Jackson. He smiled; rolling the fat of his cheeks and letting loose the robust chin. ďMy boy,Ē he slapped his stubby, uncalloused palm against Jacksonís back, ďI want you to know what an honor it was to pin those stripes on you. It almost makes me forget last night.Ē

Jackson met the generalís eye in mock innocence. He sat feeling out the mood of Pollick, which ran deceivingly deep. Many things about the balding old man were deceiving behind those innocent rolls of fat. It was something he felt in his gut. Hiding his scrutiny, he yawned, stretching his six-three frame.

Pollick chuckled with a tilt of his bare head. He was almost bald, save a ring of gray from ear to ear. "Just something I've been saving from the good ole days." Giving a heavy sigh, Pollick replaced the cork, "You know, itís a shame, Jackson, there should be more men like you. We could use more young people with your eagerness and stamina in this glorious U.S. Cavalry. Do you really know what brought you flying up those great steps to where you stand now?"

Before Jackson could answer, Pollick blurted, "Loyalty, Boy, loyalty!" The overweight man chuckled; his stubby fingers digging into the oxford arms of his chair. It creaked under the stress. Reaching forward Pollick removed a manila envelope from a drawer and started his speech with zeal. "Two hundred miles south of here, as a crow flies, is a beautiful fort waiting for a new Major. Now, I realize your inexperience in handling an entire fort may make it rough on you, but, I am confident you will get the swing of it. If you can keep the men in line I donít see why you wonít make Colonel by this time next year. Ah-h when I was a young man of your age..."

Pollick began unwinding some important tale Jackson vaguely remembered. It was yet another long, monotone session of the manís bragging. Jackson fell asleep behind his open eyes, allowing his mind to wander in review of the excitement of last night.

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