Friday, May 04, 2007

Chapter VII: Sheriff Charley Brown







Disaster
Strikes:
Prairie
Fire


On the return trip toward Pembina the troops were cheerful and in high spirits, their tensions eased by their successful confrontation with the natives. Charley enjoyed visiting with the career soldiers who were along on the detail. Both he and Sergeant Hoffman had been involved in the battle of Antietam in '62, near Charles Town and Martinsburg, in West Virginia. It had been some months after this bloodiest fight of the year that Charley had been captured. By coincidence, he and Hoffman met up again when Charley joined the 20th Infantry Regiment in Louisiana.

Nudging his horse near Hoffman, he asked, "Pete, didn't you live near Martinsburg, Virginia, originally?"

Belle Boyd"Sure. I was raised on a farm just a few miles away. In fact I used to squire Belle Boyd before the war. You must remember her. She became a spy for the Confederacy. She shot a Union soldier on the 4th of July, in '61, said he tried to rape her." He smiled, "She got away with killing him, was acquitted by the court. 'Course Martinsburg was predominantly southern then. Our Secret Service eventually found out about her spying and caught her at Front Royal a year later. She spent some months in Old Capitol Prison in Washington, but I heard they let her out, shipped her to Richmond and told her not to come back. It's said she went to England and married a Union Naval officer, even convinced him to switch to the Confederate cause." He shook his head dolefully, "She was always a bit wild, only about sixteen at the time, but full of hell!"

"Did you know the Thomas Harris family when you lived near Martinsburg?"

"Not well, but they had two boys and two girls -- just kids at the time."

"They're grown up now, and I'm trying to convince the boys to move to Dakota. I told them this is the land of the future."

"You may be right. Say! Weren't you captured during the war? As well as we know one another; you've never mentioned it. Someone let it slip that you got loose."

Charley smiled, "Yup, captured near Antietam, caught stealing a horse, a Southern horse, that is."

"Where did they lock you up after your capture?"

"I was cooped up in Libby Prison, at Richmond, together with a bunch of brass. All were officers except for a few orderlies that were captured with their officers. Our prison was badly overcrowded, filthy, loaded with rats. I was lucky though; the majority of prisoners, even many officers, were sent to Andersonville, in Sumpter County, Georgia. It must have been a hellhole, for I've heard over 13,000 prisoners died there of starvation and disease. Sure, they hung Wirz, the [Andersonville] camp commander, but they missed hundreds of guards who should have been hung with him. A lot of the Confederate guards were just kids, 12 to 14 years of age. I've heard they were the worst, cruelest of the lot. They baited new prisoners who came in, offering ears of corn and chunks of pork. When a prisoner stepped across the marked deadline inside the wall to take the food, he was shot instantly, without warning. Those kid guards were like animals, thought it a good sport."

Charley laughed, "When I got back to the Union lines I weighed only 138 pounds; I weighed l80 before I was captured." His face turned grim, "A major named [Thomas P.] Turner ran the prison. He was a son-of-a-bitch, but even worse was another man named ["Dick"] Turner. He was a Captain, a real cruel bastard. I hoped to face him after the war, but he disappeared, probably skipped off to Mexico to hide with the other butchers." A pensive look came to his face, "Hopefully, someone will get to him."

"You mean they finally turned you loose?" Hoffman asked incredulously.

"Heck no! We put up with lice, scurvy, cheating suttlers, and the cold, for the prison windows had no glass. If you peered outside to look, the guards in the street shot at you. A bunch of us tunneled under a wall. We worked for weeks on that tunnel and hid most of the dirt under trash in an old basement room. Some of the soil we carried upstairs in our pockets, dumping it in slop buckets and other hiding places. When we busted out; about 100 of us crawled through the hole, coming up across the street from Libby. Luckily, there was a board fence where we came up; they couldn’t see us from the street. After the war I heard about 50 of us got away, the rest were recaptured. That was back in February of '64. During the night of the escape two of us snuck several miles west, staying well away from the river, hiding at daylight. Then we cut straight north at next dark and swam the James River. The man with me didn't make it; I didn't miss him until I reached the north bank. After the war I worked in a store until I became fed up. Then I traveled awhile with my savings, finally re-enlisting in the 20th after meeting you in that bar in Baton Rouge. At the time there were few jobs and I was broke."

Thinking back, Charley remembered the many times his father had pressed religion and a strict moral code upon him, and how disappointed he had been when he caught Charley in the barn loft with the young negro girl. He had insisted that chores were to be fully completed before any lazing about, and courtesy to all was a must, even if it meant forgoing personal wants. It seemed to Charley that he never had a real man-to-man relationship with his father, his father seemingly married to his job. In retrospect, he realized the tension and pressure his sheriff father must have been under at the start of the war, attempting to repress local squabbling. No wonder he had so little time for me! I'm in a like situation, but I have few responsibilities to tie me down.

When the war ended he knew his formal schooling was over. He realized he had to educate himself. He also knew many so-called bookworms who had lost sight of reality and couldn't find their rear end with either hand. No doubt reading is learning, but reality is applying that reading to everyday circumstances.

Before the war he had been lucky, knowing he had been brash and undisciplined. Still, in combat, taking risky chances, he had been tempered by instinct, a strange compelling power that led him to do the right thing at the right time.

His thoughts again turned to Josey and her sudden marriage. They had been together the evening before the wedding; at the time he thought she acted capriciously. She had clung to him fiercely, as if she could not part with him. He grimly remembered the night, how close they had come to a complete release of their feelings. At the time he had reined himself in, not wanting to dishonor their relationship before marriage. He had berated himself many times since, thinking he had been a fool; she had made a mockery of him. He remembered the shock when he had been told of her marriage in Charlestown the next afternoon, and of the sly grins he noted on faces of so-called friends. That ridicule had led to his taking to the road, ending up in Louisiana, dead broke. It was his fortuitous meeting with Sergeant Hoffman in a local saloon that led to his enlistment in the 20th Infantry.

His conversation with Sergeant Santly turned to the sergeant's commissary duties at the fort. He was the man in charge of all food and supplies. Having spent 13 years in the Army, Charley found himself still interested in the newer Army practices. He knew Santly supervised and maintained a large garden at the fort in addition to his regular supply duties. Each summer day a group of enlisted men was assigned garden duty. They planted, hoed and harvested the crops as they matured.

"We've got over six acres in vegetables, Charley. The potatoes yielded over 200 bushels last year and our onions nearly 250. That's not counting the sweet corn, carrots, beets, parsnips and beans we raised. Also we gathered in well over 3000 heads of cabbage last season. I had the men make several barrels of sauerkraut, still, it didn't carry us through the winter. We're forced to buy locally for some items. The only vegetable remaining last spring was a sack of potatoes.”

"Have you completely eradicated scurvy at the fort?"

"Sure, but the Army posts further west have plenty of it. You know how it was when we first got here in '70."

"Yup, sore gums and loose teeth, but we know scurvy is easy to avoid or cure, it just takes fresh vegetables. Even when we first came to the fort most of us did a little gardening on the side, or bought vegetables from the breeds. Trouble was, the lazy and drunks robbed our gardens at night."

"You'll never change men." Santly said soberly. "Especially military men."

"How well I know!" Charley agreed.

On Saturday morning, while still 20 miles west of the fort, they enjoyed a mild warming breeze from the southeast. Then, what every man feared became a reality. With the wind came the strong odor of smoke.

Shawn rode close to Charley, "It's got to be a prairie fire, but it's a long way off. Don't suppose there's much danger do you? Surely if it's a farmer burning his stubble, he has it under control."

Charley showed an immediate concern. "Shawn, it may be a long way off, but we'd better check. Only a damn fool would burn stubble when the prairie is this dry. Best send your ambulance and teamster's wagon directly to the fort. If it's a wildfire they should be safe on this side of the river. The rest of us better find a way across the river and take a look south. We might be able to backfire. It's so dry that if the wind gets up, there could be real trouble. A lot of farmers could be burned out. Let's get across the river as quickly as we can."

Clara Bellamy watched dreamily from the front window as her husband turned the team from their lane to the road leading to town. Saturday was their usual shopping day in Drayton, but she had given up the pleasure, urging George to go alone. It would give him an opportunity to visit cronies and perhaps have a beer or two in the local saloons. She smiled lazily. He wouldn't do that if I went along. He's earned a day in town; he's worked so hard all summer. I'd just be a drag on him.

Turning away from the window she approached the closet to remove her knitting. Holding up the sweater she judged the size. The body was finally done, and she was sure it was large enough. Measuring his work jacket she estimated the proper length of the sleeves. She had been secretly knitting the heavy, dark brown sweater whenever the opportunity arose. It was to be George's Christmas present. She had already completed a red sweater for Fred, her young son. He was her pride and joy, only five years of age, but an inquisitive, aggressive boy. She smiled to herself when she recalled George saying, "He's a rambunctious kid!"

Hearing a stirring sound in the bedroom she turned to see her daughter in the doorway; she was rubbing her eyes sleepily. Her nightgown was dragging on the floor, too large for her, a castoff of her older brother.

She realized Cara was small for her two and a half years, yet she reasoned; I'm not an average sized woman. Mom was small of stature and my sisters are all light boned. I guess smallness runs in my family. Shaking her head in frustration, she stooped to pick up Cara, hugging her, crooning, "Did you just wake up, honey? Are you hungry?"

Her daughter smiled and nodded drowsily. "Mama has some warm oatmeal for you." Moving to the kitchen table she placed her daughter in the highchair George had made, then turned to the stove to dish up a bowl of porridge. Placing the bowl in front of her daughter she added milk and sugar. Seating herself alongside, she patiently spoon-fed Cara. Her daughter was capable of feeding herself, but mornings when she was still sleepy, it seemed she spilled much.

Fred was playing outside. An early riser, he was anxious to help his father with the milking and chores. She worried about him. George is a good father but he insists upon Fred learning to work while yet a child. He's too young! Why, sometimes he is so tired at night that he nearly goes to sleep while eating supper. She tossed her head indignantly; at least he starts school next year. It's wonderful that the farmers and townsmen finally got together to build a schoolhouse and hire a teacher.

She knitted until her ball of yarn was used up; tonight she would have Fred hold a few skeins of yarn while she rolled new balls. Putting on a bonnet she spent the remainder of the morning in the garden, weeding and digging enough potatoes for a few days use. The children played at rolling the potatoes around as she dug them up.

After making sandwiches for their noon lunch she put Cara to bed for her nap. Fred had long since outgrown afternoon naps, insisting on playing outdoors. Feeling drowsy, she relaxed alongside her daughter, thinking, it's just for a minute, then I'll get things ready for supper.

She awoke when Cara began to move about, her child was sitting up, wanting to get off the bed. Something was puzzling, a whistling sound came from the north side of the house, the wind had apparently switched to the northwest. She remembered it had been a light breeze from the south before she dozed off. Something was making a loud slapping noise out by the barn. Then she detected the strong smell of smoke. Who in his right mind would light an outdoor fire in this dry weather, especially with this wind blowing? The grass on the prairie is a tinderbox! Hastily arising, she went to the back door. The sudden incoming blast of wind almost tore the door from her hands. From the opening she could see smoke far to the northwest. The fire appeared to be on the east side of the stage road, coming directly toward their farm. As she watched anxiously, she realized the conflagration was widespread and moving rapidly. Their newly fenced pasture to the north was no protection since their horses, cows and calves had consumed little of the tall grass. Sensing immediate danger she shouted for her son. "Fred! Fred! Where are you?"

When he failed to answer she ran to the barn in fright, to find him in a horse stall playing with kittens. Grasping his hand, she cried in near hysteria, "A prairie fire is coming toward us. We'll have to get Cara and run to Smith's farm."

Completely forgetting the plowing George had done on the wheatland, she and the children rushed toward what she thought was safety. They were nearly halfway to Smith's when she looked back at the rapidly approaching flames, flames that were nearing with the speed of a racing horse. Heat reached out to her like tentacles; hot, burning embers and dense smoke seemed to surround her. A sudden piercing pain developed in her side. Releasing Fred's hand she clutched at her stomach, attempting to ease the pain. She saw Fred dart far ahead of her, and then he disappeared into the smoke. The fumes were choking her now and her eyes watered to the point of near blindness, yet, in spite of the knife-like pain in her side; she stumbled on, gasping for every breath. Her lungs were burning and she realized she was slowly smothering. Her heart hammered evermore violently in her chest and throat as her strength gradually failed, her legs turning to jelly. Falling to the ground she clutched her crying child close, endeavoring to cover her fully from the approaching flames. At that point she lost consciousness, finally overcome by the smoke.

A half hour was wasted finding a spot to cross the Pembina River due to the high, steep banks. Fortunately the river was shallow and the riverbed of firm clay. While crossing the nearly dry stream, Shawn halted them briefly to water the horses and fill their canteens. Finally assembled on the high bank on the south side of the river, they halted momentarily to assess the situation. Even where they stood the high, dry grass presented perfect fuel for a fire.

Shawn spoke up, "The fire must be at least 15 miles to the southeast." He suddenly seemed alarmed, "Hey, hasn't the wind switched since we crossed the river? It's coming from the north now. The smoke is clearing up."

Charley said, "You're right, the wind has turned, and mighty suddenly. I have a hunch we're in for trouble. We're obligated to check the fire; the wind seems to be getting stronger by the minute. I hope everyone in that area has been alerted to the danger."

"Let's hope so. It's possible we can be of help although it's a long ride out of our way."

Setting out at a canter they alternated to a gallop, then back to a bone-jolting trot. An hour later they crossed to the east side of the stage road nearly 15 miles south of the fort. By now the wind had turned to a wild gale and they could readily see the glow on the horizon, miles ahead. Within minutes they crossed into a black wasteland, completely burned over with small jets of smoke and fire still smoldering.

As they rode they watched, fascinated, but horrified at the magnitude of the holocaust running ahead of them. Now the flames were plainly visible, staining the sky with voluminous bursts of grey-white smoke, sometimes changing to yellows and blacks. Soot, torn from the ground by the hooves of their horses, followed them, covering their clothes, often getting into their eyes, causing a constant burning.

Badly scorched deer dodged around their mounts causing their horses to react nervously, attempting to turn away from the numerous wisps of smoke that arose here and there. One horse began bucking in panic, having stepped on a burning ember, the trooper barely able to stay in the saddle.

Charley and Shawn both drew up their horses simultaneously. Charley looked glum. "Not a darn thing we can do to stop it. It's headed toward the big loop of the river below Drayton. It'll probably stop at the river but there will be a lot of farmers burned out. Let's hope no lives will be lost."

The lieutenant glanced around at his men. Their faces and uniforms were now a grimy black from the clinging soot.

Turning back to Charley, he said, "About all we can do now is follow the fire and pick up the pieces. We've got a lot of farmers to check on, and I'm not familiar with any of their homesteads."

Charley nodded, "I believe you're right about someone starting this fire to burn off his stubble. There hasn't been any lightning for days."

One of Shawn's men spoke up, he was pointing to the east. "There are some men in the distance!"

They turned in the direction he was pointing and sighted a small group of men gathered together, barely visible to the eye. Approaching the group they observed two of the men lifting what appeared to be a body, placing it across the back of a horse. Quietly they closed with the group and dismounted. Charley recognized the Purdy brothers and Bill Storms of Joliette.

"Who's body is it, Bill?"

Storms was obviously distressed. "It's Mrs. Bellamy and her little girl. She must have left her house hoping to escape the flames. The house is gone." He turned his head, looking to the south. "So is everything for miles -- farm buildings, haystacks and animals."

Another man spoke up. "Wonder how this fire got started. It's been so dry we've all had to be careful." He turned to his companions. "I'm going back north to where it started. There's a question to be answered."

"Want me to take the bodies to the fort?" Charley eyed Storms.

"No, I've already got the lady across my horse. The little tike must have suffocated. Her mother tried to cover her. I've wrapped the body in my saddle blanket. I can ride double with the Purdy boys." He turned to the man who was about to ride north. "Let us know if you find out how the fire started. If it was arson, we should track down and hang the man!"

Shawn turned to his men. "Spread out and work to the south and east, look for survivors. Be back at the fort by dark and report your findings to me. Let's hope no one else has been caught by the fire."

Parting from the men, Shawn and Charley headed directly toward the stage road that led south from the fort. Before they gained the trail they spotted two men standing alongside a horse. A second animal lay on the ground at their feet. At first Charley thought the men were strangers. It was obvious both were badly burned, and nearly naked; their clothes hung on them like charred rages. Both had bare arms, showing red, raw flesh and broken blisters. The eyelashes, eyebrows and hair of each had been totally singed off.

The standing horse was breathing with difficulty. Much of its hair had been burned off; its legs appeared blackened and swollen. The horse lying on the ground was in an even worse condition. It groaned pitifully as it gasped for air.

While the two strangers watched numbly, Charley quickly dismounted, drew his revolver and dispatched the horse on the ground.

One of the men croaked gaspingly, "Water! Have you any water? Mother of God, give us water!"

The man who spoke greedily slobbered at Charley's canteen as soon as he had it in his grasp. The second man was unable to even remove the cork and Shawn was forced to hold it to his lips so he could sip from it.

The Scottish burr of the speaker forced Charley to study the man's badly burned face. Shocked, he realized the man was Fawcett, a Scotsman from Drayton. A close examination of the other man brought further recognition. It was Duffy, another Scot, also of Drayton.

After almost draining the canteen, Fawcett attempted to explain their plight. "Mon, we set a backfire, but before it burned enough for safety, the fire was upon us."

It was obvious that both men were in horrible pain and although Duffy had been able to drink from the canteen Shawn held to his lips, he was unable to speak or walk.

"We've got to get them up on our horses," Charley said. "Then we'll have to lead the animals to the fort. It can't be much more than 15 miles. Let's get them astride."
Raising the badly burned men proved more of a problem than either man anticipated. They were reticent about grasping the men's arms due to the raw flesh. Finally Charley bodily lifted Duffy in his arms, seating him on his horse. He was thankful for the deep western style saddle for Duffy was able to grasp the pommel. Aiding Fawcett, Shawn had no trouble putting him astride his horse.

Addressing the two, Charley said, "Hold on the best you can, we've got to get you to the fort hospital. I hate to leave your burned animal here, although it may recover." They judged they were within 10 miles of the fort when three men of Shawn’s detail overtook them. Doubling up on the horses of two, Shawn sent the third man ahead to alert the hospital.

As they rode, Shawn questioned his men. "Angus, what did you find back there?"

"We found Mrs. Bellamy's son and left him with a neighbor. Luckily he made it to the stage road in time. Also, we ran into Hugh Biggerstaff. He said all of his hay was burned, about 100 tons. A farmer named Blake said he lost a cow, also his stable and hay. On our way back we found Don Smith. He lost his team, barn and hay -- says he'll be in to see the fort doctor. His hands looked badly burned -- it happened when he tried to save his team of horses."

"Don't forget Mike Burk," the other soldier added. "He lost his barn and hay. At least he was able to save his livestock -- he drove them west of the stage road. The fire stayed to the east of the road, but it cut nearly a 5-mile wide swath across country, all the way to the river. We never did get to where the fire started, but Hoffman and some of the boys went in that direction."

It was after 5 p.m. when they arrived at the fort. Except for a small group of men waiting in front of the hospital, the fort seemed deserted. Captain Collins appeared from his quarters, hastily joining the group assisting Fawcett and Duffy from their mounts. The men helping the two dismount almost cringed, since in touching the burned men, pieces of flesh adhered to their hands -- flesh that pealed from Fawcett and Duffy's arms. Doctor Flint led the way into the dispensary, the two burned men assisted by a man on either side.

Captain Collins beckoned Shawn and Charley to the side. "I sent an ambulance and two wagons south with all of the men available to help contain the fire. Your ambulance arrived early in the afternoon." Turning to Charley, he added, "The wagon of government goods is stored over at the stable. The teamsters have put the team in the corral with the fort animals. I doubt our troopers will be able to do much about stopping the fire, but it appears the wind is easing up. I hope none of our men will be in danger."

Charley said, "There was little chance of stopping the blaze, but you're quite right, the wind is definitely letting up. When the fire reaches the river it will smolder in the brush. I doubt it will jump the river now."

Shawn added, "Captain, there will be more burn victims coming in. I was told Burk, who lives south of Joliette, has badly burned hands. No doubt there will be others too."

Collins rested his hand on Shawn's shoulder, noting the lieutenant's sooty face and clothes. "Shawn, why don't you take the sheriff to your quarters and clean up. You and Charley are nearly the same size. Surely you have some civilian apparel you can lend Charley. If necessary, draw some clothes from supply. After that, come to my house. I believe a small dollop of cheer is in order."

Shawn smiled wryly, "That's the best offer I've had since that afternoon at Pitman's, after we got the wagon back."

Collins looked puzzled. "You can explain that remark over at my quarters, and relate all the lurid details of your expedition over some cheer." He smiled, "Later you can put it down in your written report."

It was well after 6 p.m. when Dr. Flint knocked at the captain's house and was brought to the kitchen by Mrs. Collins. "I knew you'd want a report on those two men who were burned. Both are in a serious condition. We've made them as comfortable as possible and given them laudanum to reduce the pain. Amazingly, Fawcett is in good spirits, although the other man is now comatose. If they live, both will bear much scaring. Two other men have also been treated, but their burns are not life threatening, although they must be painful."