Saturday, October 2, 2010

Young Thomas Smith's Military Career

May 23, 1838
Nashville, Orange

Young Thomas Smith was 29 years old and was about to inspire three brilliant military careers, none of them his own.

Smith joined the army ten years back, because he was proud of his country and wanted to serve it in the best way he knew how. He wanted to be just like his grandfather, Arthur Pledger, who was a Revolutionary War hero, and his uncle, George Pledger, who served with Lewis and Clark, and was now a fine gentleman in Boston. His mother told him all about them and their adventures, their patriotism, and their courage. He actually got to meet Uncle George about twelve years ago, when he and his family traveled down from Boston through Washington, DC on their way to Virginia to visit some relatives there. He told some amazing stories of the lands far to the west.

But the real reason Smith wanted to join the army was something he would never have admitted to anyone, mostly because he barely knew it himself. Smith was just four years old when the British invaded Washington, and he and his father and mother, who was pregnant, and his little sisters, Freedom and Courage, escaped in boats in the darkness, paddling across Eel River, while the light of the burning city reflected in the black water. And he heard the pounding of the great guns, and smelled the powder floating out over the river, and heard the shouts of the English soldiers and the screams of the women and children. And he saw his father's face, red and glistening and scared in the firelight. Thomas Smith, with half-formed four-year-old thoughts and full-formed four-year-old feelings, hated how those soldiers made his father scared.

Dear Mother and Father, and Courage and Freedom and Unity,

I hope you are well. It has been a busy week. We received orders to go down to Yakut lands and help move the Indians out of Orange and Boone and out into the Rio Grande territory. Some people are saying the Yakut agreed to go, and others say they didn't, but I guess President Jackson signed the order, and that's the important thing.

Now all those four-year-old things were buried deep down, jumbled up and compressed into the foundation rock of his character, making him proud to be the kind of man who could defend his father, and proud to be the kind of man who could scare his father. Proud to be a soldier.

But this wasn't soldiering work.

I am not looking forward to it because I don't like desert jobs because so many of my men die. I do not think the Yakut will do well in the desert either, I haven't seen much of them but I think they mostly fish in the upper Savannah River, I do not know what they will live on in the desert.

On this day, which was bright with a hot dry wind blowing out of the west, he dismounted and said to Art and Jim, "You two stay here, I'll holler if there's any trouble," just like he did at the last dozen homes. The Yakuts lived in thatch and wood houses down by the water, and usually didn't have much but handmade clothes, handmade tools, and a few trinkets they got from trading fish.

And books. Most tribes didn't have books, but the Yakut was one of the "civilized" tribes, and one of them copied the secret of writing from the white man, and lots of their homes had handmade books. Won't help them much in the desert, Smith thought. This was nasty work.

Anyway it should be a pretty routine job. Some of them have weapons, but I figure they'll mostly come along quietly.

There was a doorway, but no door, so Smith knocked on the door frame, holding his gun out so it'd be visible. "United States Army," he called out. "Time to move, folks." It really didn't matter what he said; few of the Yakut spoke English.

A woman came to the doorway, blinking in the bright light. She chattered at him, surprised and angry, and disappeared inside again. He heard her talking more inside, children's voices answering.

Who knows, maybe they'll like it better out in the Rio Grande territory. They'll be further from the whites, and closer to the indians of the Moon River Empire, so they'll be better able to order their own affairs.

"Come on," said Smith. "Time to go." He tried to put a note of warning in his voice. He hoped they would come quietly -- he really didn't want to have to go in there. They didn't usually resist, but sometimes...

"There's one out on the water, Cap," he heard Jim say from his horse. "Reckon he's trying to row off. I can get him, though."

There is a new man in my company, Jim Halfred -- sort of a scrawny fellow but strong. He's got a sort of twisted up withered arm, but he's a good shot. Eager and sharp but not good at following orders.

"Jim, no shooting till I give the order. Jim! Jim, you hear me?"

"Don't worry, I got him, Cap."

The clap of the gunshot echoed over the water and came back a second later, bouncing off the mountains. The woman in the shack shrieked and the children started screaming.

Anyway, he just needs a little more discipline, and he'll do fine. He's just got to learn our ways. You know what they say -- there's a right way to do things, and a wrong way, and the Army way.

"Dammit, Jim, I told you not to shoot!"

"Cap, don't worry," said Jim, "I got him no problem!"

Smith turned away from the doorway. "Jim, how am I gonna get these people to come quiet if you just -- "

And then Smith died, because the man out on the water had a son in the shack; and this young man, not yet thirteen, saw his father fall into the river, and grabbed his axe from its place by the door, and buried its blade in the back of Smith's skull. As Smith fell forward, Art put a bullet in the young man's face. The woman fell by the side of her son, sobbing, and the younger children screamed.

The Army is a funny place, but it's honorable and gives a good pension, and you can be proud of what you do. Anyway, my love to all and I will write again soon.


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