I recall one such story -- which I think could perhaps, with the proper padding, serve as the basis for a TV Western series, and to which I shall, to save time and effort, give the quite colorless title of
SOME EARLY DAYS IN THE ARMY
This story concerns a tall, lank, raw boned, silent, Tennessee mountaineer whose name I have long forgotten but which I shall now assume to have been James Wilson. He had just enough education to be able to teach a small country school in a small town in eastern Tennessee.
One day in the late 70's he received in the mail a formal looking envelope addressed to him, which, upon opening, was found to contain a letter from someone who signed it as the Adjutant General of the Army, advising him that he had been commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant of Cavalry and directing him to take the oath of office and to proceed to Fort Sam Houston, Texas and report to the Commanding Officer for duty.
James Wilson knew nothing about the army. He knew no one of sufficient influence or importance to have been able to help him in such an undertaking, and the thought of securing a commission in the army had never occurred to him. He had no idea whatever as to why he had been sent such a letter, but as it showed correctly his name and address he decided that he would comply with it and see what it was all about. (As a matter of fact, it developed some months later that the letter had been intended for a young man of the same name as himself, who lived in another town of a name very similar to that in which Wilson lived.)
In due course of time he reached San Antonio and reported to the Commanding Officer, Fort Sam Houston, as ordered. He was assigned quarters in the Bachelor Building. He kept very much to himself, never told anyone how he had happened to get his commission, and was assigned as understudy for several weeks to one of the Lieutenants. At the end of this period he was deemed to be sufficiently instructed to let him go on as Officer of the Day.
In the afternoon, while he was in the Guard House, the Sergeant of the Guard came to him and informed him that word had just been received that several soldiers were raising a disturbance in one of the cheap bar rooms which, from that time until today have surrounded the Post.
Wilson had received no specific instruction as to what he was supposed to do in a case of this kind, and he didn't care to ask anybody. He buckled on his six shooter and said to the Sergeant: "Come on with me and we'll arrest these men and bring them back to the Post."
When the two of them entered the bar room, the soldiers were talking in a loud and drunken manner and were ordering more drinks. Lieutenant Wilson looked the situation over for a minute or two and then told the soldiers to quiet down and come with him back to the Post. At this point the bar tender, who was a rough customer, took one look at the new Lieutenant, and then told him, in no uncertain terms, to get out of there and to let the soldiers alone. Lieutenant Wilson replied that he was the Officer of the Day and that he was going to take the soldiers back to the Post. The bar tender, in a rage, pulled a revolver from under the counter and started to point it at the officer. Before he could aim his weapon, however, Lt. Wilson had drawn his own gun and had killed the bar tender. With the soldiers in tow he then returned to the Post and reported to the C. O. what had occurred. In the subsequent investigation he was found to have acted in self defense.
Several months elapsed after this incident and Lieutenant Wilson was again on duty as Officer of the Day. The C. O. sent for him and said: "Lieutenant, I have just received word that two noted desperadoes (giving their names and descriptions) are on such and such a road, approaching San Antonio, about 12 miles from town. I have received orders from the Department Commander to arrest these men and to bring them to Ft. Sam Houston dead or alive. I shall turn this job over to you as Officer of the Day, and I shall provide you with any assistance that you may require. Let me know as soon as you can what detail you desire to accompany you."
Lieut. Wilson replied: "I don't want any detail, Sir."
After some discussion, the Colonel, in dismissing him, said: "Well, Lieutenant, you don;t have to take a detail unless you want to. But understand clearly that the responsibility of bringing them in is yours and that I shall hold you responsible for any failure to do so."
A few minutes later Lt. Wilson was observed to come out of his quarters, dressed in cowboy clothes, and to mount his horse, equipped with a cowboy saddle, and ride away.
While the Colonel was at dinner that evening, the maid announced that Lieutenant Wilson was outside and wished to speak to the Colonel. The Colonel was much annoyed at being interrupted at dinner but he went out. Lieutenant Wilson saluted and said: "Sir, I have these two men outside and I would like to know what to do with them." The C. O., still more annoyed, said: "Take them down to the Guard House and lock them up" and started back to his dinner. Lieutenant Wilson caused him to defer his departure somewhat, however, when he said: "I don't think that would be a very good idea, Sir. You see, Sir, they are both dead."
Word as to what had happened was not slow in passing around the garrison but Lieut.. Wilson declined to discuss the matter with any of his messmates. It was some months later before he told one of the Lieutenants just what had happened.
He had ridden out on the road to a point where he could observe from cover any riders approaching San Antonio. When the two riders came up and passed him he observed them carefully and satisfied himself as to their identities. He let them get about a quarter of a mile ahead of him, when he started following them. They turned around several times to look at him, but he did not gain distance on them, and they gradually ceased bothering about him as he slowly gained on them. Finally he approached to within a short distance from them, and he rode along, without gaining further, until the two men approached a large mud hole in the road. At this instant Wilson spurred his horse in between the two men. They were taken by surprise, but they both reached for their guns. Before either could draw Wilson had a gun in each hand and had shot them both dead. He then tied the bodies onto their horses and led them back to the Post.
A few months later Lt. Wilson's squadron was ordered to Fort Ringold, Texas, to relieve another squadron that had been stationed there for some time. Fort Ringold, on the Rio Grande, was then a very isolated post. The railroad did not extend that far south and access to the post from the north was by way either of a horse drawn vehicle or by horseback.
Once a month the Army Paymaster from Fort Sam Houston brought down the pay for the Fort Ringold troops in an Army buckboard. He was a cocky sort of individual; his knowledge of human nature was not very profound, and his judgement was not infallible. He prided himself on his ability as a hunter, and it was his practice to bring his gun along with him, and to take advantage of the very fine bird shooting on the Fort Ringold reservation, after he had finished paying the troops. He generally arrived the day preceding payday and left the day following payday.
On the particular occasion I have in mind, after supper a number of the post officers (including Lt. Wilson) were gathered in the room of the Canteen, which in that day was the equivalent of the present day Officer's Club, and the Paymaster was reading to them some of the news in the latest San Antonio paper, which he had brought down to them. One of the items in the paper described in some detail the hold up of an Army Paymaster, in California, by a lone highwayman, who had escaped, unharmed, with all the money.
The Paymaster took occasion to comment at some length on this occurrence and concluded by saying that he considered that the other Paymaster was a coward to be held up by one man. There was some discussion on the subject, and Lieut. Wilson told the Paymaster that he did not agree with him. He said: "The highwayman in this case was apparently an old hand at the game. He was probably a murderer. In any case he would probably not have hesitated to shoot the Paymaster if he had thought it necessary or desirable to do so. Under the circumstances, I think the Paymaster would have been a fool to offer resistance when the outlaw had the drop on him." The Paymaster stated that he strongly disagreed with the Lieutenant; that, in his opinion, the Paymaster should be court martialled for cowardice. He added that the man did not live who, single handed, could hold him up and get away with it. This concluded the discussion on this particular item.
The next afternoon the Paymaster put on his fancy hunting clothes, and, taking his gun, he took off on a road leading through the Reservation towards an area where the shooting was reported to be especially good.
When he was several miles from the Post, as he made a sharp turn in the road, a man, wearing a handkerchief as a mask, stepped out in front of him, aimed his Winchester (or its that day equivalent) at him, and said, in a voice that was quite devoid of uncertainty: "Drop your gun," then, in turn, "Take off your pants," "Take off your coat", "Take off your underclothes." The Paymaster complied. Then the man said: "Now you turn around and walk back to the Post. And if you look around once before you get over the hill, I'll put a bullet through your belly." The Paymaster complied.
Upon reaching the edge of the Post he got behind a tree, so that his unusual uniform (or more precisely, his lack of uniform) would not so easily be observed, and called out until some one came out to see what was the matter.
The Paymaster gave a very detailed account of how he had been held up by two highwaymen, who had robbed him of his gun and of his clothes. The C. O. was much concerned that bandits should have staged a holdup on the Reservation and he turned out the command to establish road blocks and to try to capture the outlaws. By the time it became dark, no sign of the bandits had been seen and the troops were recalled.
Most of the officers gathered in the Canteen, and were discussing the events of the day. While the discussion was at its height, the door was opened and a bundle was quickly slid across the floor. It contained all the Paymaster's clothes and his gun.
It was noted afterwards that Lieut. Wilson had not been among the officers assembled in the Canteen. There was no question in the minds of any of the officers present but that Lieut. Wilson had been the one who had held up the Paymaster, and it was generally agreed that if the Paymaster had offered any resistance he would have been shot.
Some time later Lieut. Wilson was transferred to Fort Riley. A few months after his arrival he got into an argument with a man and shot him, killing him. He was tried by Court Martial, convicted of murder and sentenced by the Court to death. Action by the War Department on the record of trial hung fire for six months or more, Lt. Wilson being held in confinement during this time. (It later developed that the Judge Advocate General had had much difficulty in deciding what action to take on the record, in view of some of its defects.
Finally one day the Commanding Officer, Fort Riley, received a telegram from the War Department stating that due to certain serious legal irregularities in the record the finding and sentence had been disapproved, and directing that Lieut. Wilson be restored to duty.
The Colonel had Lt. Wilson brought in, under guard, to his office. He communicated the contents of the telegram to the Lieutenant, and then added a few remarks to the effect that he hoped Lt. Wilson realized how narrowly he had escaped the death penalty and that he hoped he had learned his lesson, etc., etc.
Lieut. Wilson, who had entered the room not knowing whether he was to live or to die, had stood expressionless during the interview. Upon its conclusion he had said only: "Is that all, Sir?" Upon the reply in the affirmative he saluted and withdrew without comment of any kind.
I asked Major Hoyle what had happened to Lieut. Wilson afterwards. He told me that he had resigned from the army about a year later.
Perhaps he decided that the Army life was too dull and uninteresting for him and he sought more congenial work.
If so, I have often wondered just what kind of work it was.