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Corporal Davy Thomas and Private Sandy McCloud put their shoulders to the rough pine log and shoved together until it slid into the deep hole. Thomas laughed when McCloud shook his head, trying to dislodge the pine bark, tacky with resin, from his blazing red hair.
"A short break, Sandy, while you get the tar outta' your ears." Thomas pushed his hair out of his eyes and turned to look at the other soldiers struggling to improve the small fort's defenses, perched as they were on the banks of the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay. Every man and the few women and children were all nervous about the growing Seminole threat. Thomas had turned back to the palisade when he sensed a sudden quiet. Then he paused with the others, all eyes drawn to her grace as the lieutenant's wife raised her skirts to avoid the mud from the rough board walkway, lacy petticoats floating like butterflies in the early afternoon sun.
"She's got us under her spell, hasn't she, Sandy?" The fragile beauty had charmed the rough men of the command with her shy smile and soft greeting.
Sandy McCloud nodded.
"It's a crying shame, Davy. You know, her wretched lot is the whisper of the enlisted mess. Every man-jack can hear the thumps and her drunken husband cursing all night long. The men gossip like fishmongers, wondering what bruises lay beneath her dark veils. And what kind'a bugger would hurt her."
Like the others, Corporal Thomas was stricken by her delicate charm. So when Mrs. Hayes stumbled on the loose boards, he naturally offered his hand in assistance.
"Don't touch my wife, you cur," her husband roared from across the parade ground. Through the light touch of her fingers Thomas felt the woman tremble as the Lieutenant ran toward them, sword clanging against his stubby legs. Thomas looked down and saw the fright deep in her eyes as the irate husband snatched the woman from Thomas's arm, followed by a slashing back hand across the surprised Corporal's face. Thomas stood ramrod straight as the lieutenant reached up and ripped away his stripes, leaving a dark blue patch on Thomas's faded sleeve and a raw bruise from the lieutenant's heavy gold ring on his cheek. The callused soldier could have laughed off the officer's barehanded slap, but the loss of the two stripes won by years of hard work and good soldiering was a much worse punishment, almost as infuriating as the mischief Thomas expected would fall on Mrs. Hayes after taps.
Minutes later Fort Brooke's commander, Captain Bolton, brow creased with the responsibility of command, accepted Lieutenant Hayes' disciplinary action with an added frown. The exhausted messenger's report on Major Dade's slow progress had sharply focused the senior Captain's attention on the Indian threat, leaving no room in his mind to worry about arguments among the garrison.
The messenger had repeated Dade's request that reinforcements hurry up the trail. And if they could, help Private William Seaforth, left alone with a strained back at the Little Hillsborough bridge. To make matters worse, the supposedly friendly Seminole camp across the river was full of gossip, scouts reporting that Osceola and the others would strike Dade's column for sure.
Unknown to Captain Bolton or now-Private Thomas, Major Dade and a hundred plus of Thomas's comrades already lay dead along Fort King Road. A Seminole ambush had cut them down as they marched through the pines three days after Christmas on their way to reinforce Fort King.
Captain Bolton looked up from his desk to Thomas, still standing at attention, a livid welt blazed across his impassive face. "Davy, you know the countryside better than any man left at the fort. Take a patrol up the Fort King road as far as the first bridge and see if the Indian talk is real. And bring back Seaforth if you find him."
Thomas was relieved. He would rather face the Indians than to remain in garrison with Lieutenant Hayes. And he was worried about his good friend, William Seaforth.
"Who do you need?" asked Captain Bolton.
"I'll take Alfred, Loman and Sandy McCloud, sir. They're three good men and a small party will probably fare better that more."
But that night Thomas swore as he overheard a Major, fresh ashore and new to Florida, insist Lieutenant Hayes should lead the foray. "It's only fitting that an officer lead the men in such dangerous times," he shouted to the men around the rough table of the officers' mess. "Just because an enlisted man is experienced does not mean that he is a leader," the Major expounded with the arrogance of the ignorant. "I say send an officer to lead, one familiar with the lay of the land."
Through the doorway Thomas could see Lieutenant Hayes scowling in the shadows.
At first light the five passed the gate, morning mists swirling about their heads. The sun quickly burned away the morning damp as it passed toward the zenith, rushing to get the last day of this sad year over.
"Move faster, you laggards. At the rate you're slogging we'll still be outside the walls by dark. I don't intend to dawdle and be at the mercy of those painted devils," shouted the lieutenant. He spurred his horse in a wheel, eyes sweeping the encircling swamps. Thomas glanced back at the three infantrymen following in his dust, then at the officer. He didn't need words to read their thoughts as they struggled through the sand through the morning, driven forward by the lieutenant on his slathering mount.
In the lead Thomas took off his leather cap and wiped his brow, never missing a step as he shifted the heavy Springfield to his left hand. He spat the dust from his throat and called out. "Lieutenant Hayes, the river is only a half-mile or so down the trail. No need to break an leg or lame the horse in the ruts. We'll make the Little Hillsborough before noon, time to share some grub with Seaforth and be back in Fort Brooke for a late supper."
The men slowed their fast shuffle, anticipating his answer.
"And you, Private, you just shut up, keep a sharp lookout for Seminoles, and I'll worry about when we return," was Lieutenant Hayes' sharp answer as he fixed Thomas with a hateful stare.
Thomas clenched his jaw and swallowed his irate reply to the lieutenant.
"Better to get this day over with alive and deal with the bloody gentleman later, Davy," Sandy McCloud muttered.
Thomas looked over at McCloud's ruddy face, broken tooth showing in his wry grin, and nodded in agreement. He pushed aside his anger as he topped the low ridge, oaks of the river bed coming into view ahead.
"Look," cried McCloud, pointing across the tree tops, "Indians, riding hard for sure." A rising dust trail marked the road bed on the far side of the oaks, half-hidden under the thick growth.
"Come on, fellows, we've got to reach Will before the Indians find him." Thomas slipped his pack and led the infantrymen in a dead run, bayonets fixed on waving muskets, cartridge pouches flopping.
Lieutenant Hayes reined in his horse, watching as the soldiers dashed down the trail toward the river. He hesitated, then spurred his horse, slowly following the men, then rose to a gallop as he remembered that he was the officer in charge; that he should lead.
The men dove out into the brush along the road, an automatic reaction to the boom of a musket fired from somewhere deep in the trees. A gleam of brown bolted from the palmettos, then a mottled blur flashed between the legs of Lieutenant Hayes' rearing horse as he galloped by the men. Hayes fired his pistol blindly as the horse spun, eyes wild, then plunged toward the trees with the lieutenant sawing at the reins.
"Stupid fool, he shot at a deer. Now we'll have no chance to surprise the savages," cried McCloud as they crashed into the oak stand, thorns tearing at their skin and clothes.
Screaming, a red-painted brave sprang from behind a tree and lunged at Loman. Thomas swung his long musket and fired pointblank into the Indian's chest. In a ragged line by his side the others fired, musket reports mingling with the whoops and screams of warriors charging to meet the soldiers' rush into the trees.
By the bridge an Indian crouched over a mangled body, knife in one hand, a bloody scalp in the other. Thomas ran toward him with a scream of rage, rifle thrust forward. The Indian fell back, knocking aside the steel bayonet as they slid down the muddy river bank. Thomas sprawled into the water and scrabbled like a crab on his hands and knees to face the brave, musket lost in the water.
The Indian sprang upon him, his knife shimmering in a stray sunbeam flickering through the trees, and threw Thomas to his back. Thomas's eyes focused on the sparkling blade, his hand, in an iron grip around the Indian's wrist, was forced downward, closer and closer to his throat. The painted face blurred as the cold river water washed over Thomas's face. His free hand closed on a rock and he swung a heavy rock toward the blurred face above him. The rock smacked the side of the Indian's head and they tumbled together into deeper water. Suddenly the Indian was gone.
Thomas sputtered and shook the cold water from his eyes, sodden wool uniform hanging from his body as he stood, trembling, and looked around. The forest was suddenly quiet; sounds of the battle absorbed by the ancient forest.
"Sandy -- men, where are you?" he called out, searching the shadows of the river bank for attackers or friends. McCloud appeared above, holding one hand to a bloody gash across his face, the other out toward Thomas.
"Davy, I thought you were dead for sure. Get your self up and let's get out of here." McCloud grabbed Thomas's hand and pulled him up the bank. The small gathering of men stood, Alfred and Loman unhurt but for briar scratches and lumps. Painted bodies lay sprawled across the roadway, testament to their volley and bayonets. A faint odor of sulfur floated in the air, stirred by the gathering flies.
Thomas looked around. "Where's the Lieutenant?" he asked as Loman handed him his dripping Springfield.
"Dadgummed if I know or care, fool almost got us killed. He's likely hiding behind a tree somewhere." McCloud, still gasping from the dash and violent fight, reloaded his musket with shaking hands.
"Here," said Alfred, giving Thomas a dry cartridge.
Thomas looked around as he swabbed the barrel dry, then pounded the powder and ball down with swift strokes of the ramrod and primed the powder pan. He turned back toward the body sprawled by the bridge. "Alfred, go see if there is anything to be done for poor William. The rest of us spread out and look for Lieutenant Hayes. Hurry, we need to get on the road and out of here before the shots draw another war party."
"There's the Lieutenant's horse."
The men's eyes followed Loman's pointing hand. The horse, head down, was grazing in the sawgrass at the edge of a slough. Loman walked toward the beast, talking softly as he reached around and gripped the hanging reins, reassuring the horse with a calm stroke.
Alfred nodded toward a blue smudge by the stagnant pond. "And there's the Lieutenant."
Thomas walked over and knelt by the officer, felt his still throat. "He's dead as a stone. Looks like the horse threw him and he busted his neck when he hit the ground." He stood and looked around, uncertain for the moment what to do.
"Brave Will is done, too; a club smashed his face, and scalped so bad his own Mum wouldn't know him. But, by Golly, he did his share. One savage shot in the belly, another poked through and through with Will's bayonet." Alfred shook his head in amazement. "He died fighting hard; he was a real hero. Not like that useless coward of a lieutenant."
"Are we going to take 'em back?" asked Loman.
Thomas stared for a moment at Loman, then looked from the lieutenant's still body to the dead private by the bridge, both short and stocky, pale white skin, except the private's face was smashed beyond recognition. As if to seal his decision, the wide-spaced eyes of a black alligator moved toward them, a silent wake rippling across the green pond.
Thomas knelt by the lieutenant, twisted the heavy gold ring from the dead hand and dropped it in his pocket. He stripped off the jacket, pants and boots and, without hesitation, lifted the pallid body up over his head and heaved it into the water with a splash. The other three stood with their mouths agape.
"Davy, what the bloody dickens are you doing? Even if you've got a better reason than the rest of us to hate the man, that just ain't right." A roar came up from the swamp. "Good Lord, looky there." As he pointed, the gator slid up to the body. One splash, then the beast slowly submerged with the remains.
Thomas picked up the officer's clothes and strode back to poor dead William Seaforth. He ripped away the old wool and flung the ragged enlisted uniform into the river, then tugged the lieutenant's uniform over his friend's still body. As a final touch he slipped the gold ring onto a bloody hand and stood, looking at the men gathered around him and the body.
"Now you listen to me close. From now on this here is Lieutenant Hayes. We're gon'a to put him across the back of that horse and take him back for a proper burial."
The five looked at him, puzzled. "Why we doin' all this, Davy?" asked McCloud.
"You all know Will wouldn't get a fit burial, shoveled under in the old graveyard, not even in a box. And if we report Lieutenant Hayes died of stupidity, Mrs. Hayes will never get a pension. This way the poor woman will have a hero for a dead husband and our old comrade will get a decent grave. Everybody will get the best from this sorry day. Now tie the lieutenant down, shoulder your packs, and let's get out of here."
Mrs. Hayes' mourning was diluted by the shock and wave of anguish that swept the fort later that night when Private Ransome Clarke limped through the gate and reported the massacre of Major Dade and his entire command. Little more was thought of the patrol, much less any reason to question the heroics of the dead officer, especially as told by a man everyone knew disliked him. The widow prepared the body for burial with the help of a servant as the rest of the command prepared for battle. The lieutenant was buried the next morning with a brief, but proud hero's eulogy, his grave in a place of honor by the officers' quarters.
That afternoon Mrs. Hayes, pale features hidden behind a black veil, stopped newly re-promoted Corporal Thomas in the middle of the courtyard. "Here." She held out her small black-gloved hand, balled in a fist, "This was on the wrong hand of the brave man we buried this morning. Perhaps it could buy you passage to Key West, if you like." She looked up in his face. "That's my destination; first ship that sails."
Thomas glimpsed a fleeting smile through the veil as she dropped the heavy gold ring into his outstretched palm.
"I hope I see you there," she said, turned and walked away to join the other widows, swirling petticoats floating like butterflies in the growing breeze.