Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Chapter One

Chapter One
4350 Words
25 September 2013



     The young soldier trudged through the dry shifting sand, and he wasn't happy about it.  Who could be happy about that?  He was heading east, toward the foot bridge at Tampa, Florida.  His steps were large, but they did not account for much, really.  There was no traction in the fine sand.   It gave way beneath his leather military boots as he walked, and it made him feel out of sorts, even ornery.  It was a striding, or perhaps even a slogging.   Yes, a slogging, that about described it, he thought.  Like some sort of dray animal set about its work in blind and dumb repitition, slogging through the sand.  He felt uncomfortable at this thought, so he made a conscious effort to think different things.   It worked for awhile.

     This soldiers full name was Rifleman John Daniel Prestwick.  He was Johnny to his friends, and he was 21 years old.  His build was a thin medium, height around six feet, Welsh heritage evident in black curly hair, blue eyes, and an introspective manner, almost shy.  His beard was full and trimmed short.  Johnny was stationed with a fair number of his kind, which is to say Soldier kind, at the military station in Tampa Florida.   Fort Brooke had been his home for over a year.   He had volunteered in Providence, Rhode Island, and after training near Pensacola came orders for Tampa.  He was now a Rifle Specialist and soldier in the American Army.  There were 3 full companies from the 4th Infantry here at Fort Brooke now, and various specialty units including the survey crews.  It was the height of The Second Seminole Indian War.  The year was 1838, and Fort Brooke was one of Americas largest forts.

     The Fort at Tampa was named after its founder, George Mercer Brooke, a General who was still in the Army up north somewhere.  He had begun to construct the Cantonment which bore his name in 1824, as a Colonel, achieving Generals rank before leaving in 1829.  After General Brooke had come other Commanding Officers, all good men who did as they were ordered.  The latest Officer in charge of Fort Brooke was Major William Goldsmith Belknap, a career Officer who would one day reach the rank of General if he lived long enough, but had not yet.   Johnny was slogging through the sand on orders from the office of the Major right now in fact.  A delivery of important documents to Guard Post West had been accomplished.  Errand complete, Johnny was on his way back to the Fort proper, which was still a couple miles away.

      It was Tuesday, the last Tuesday in February, a good time of year around Tampa.  The best.  After Florida summer, the coolness of winter is enjoyed by all, and even though it is called Winter, its very mild and nearly indiscernible when compared to the winters up north.  It never snows and hardly ever freezes in this part of Florida.   On most winter days one can go swimming -- the water is many times warmer than the outside air, and not unpleasurable. 

     The sun was setting on this particular day, this Tuesday of the sand slogging, and a stiff breeze off the bay made things quite chilly, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit is what it felt like.   Johnny's winter coat was heavy dark blue felt, and it had large brass buttons embossed with eagles.   The color of his coat matched his tri-cornered hat.  He halted for a moment, took his hat off, wiped his brow.  That felt good.  He pushed his hat back onto his head, then began to button the front of his coat against the chill breeze, because the wind cut right through the rough-spun hemp cloth which were his long drawers, trousers and shirt.  He noticed that one of his coat buttons was missing.  Again.  Curse it to the nether region, which is probably where it was by now anyway.  Yes straight off to button hell with it, where all lost buttons eventually end up, Johnny was sure. 

     There must be a massive pile of them, too, he thought.  He would stop by clothing supply later and get a replacement, sew it on, a future donation to button hell.  The real problem was this: technically he was out of uniform with the button missing, as his Commanding Officer,  Lieutenant Walter Reich,  had made abundantly clear more than once in the past.  Johnny thought it would be fine if Lieutenant Reich one day  found his righteous little self set before that awesome pile of lost buttons down where they were, yuh. 

     As spastic as the Lieutenant became over things having to do with missing buttons, one might assume correctly that buttons already represented some sort of extreme, even unhealthy attraction and angst to him.  Johnny did not wish hell on anyone, but he thought the Lieutenant an exceptionally well qualified candidate for the hot place, buttons or not.  You see, Johnny was in the sad predicament of knowing much more than he cared to know concerning the Lieutenants private life.   This knowledge had been gained accidentally, and no one else knew he possessed it.   The Lieutenant and his secret business associates would not suffer him to live if they became aware of his knowledge, he was sure of that.   The information had remained within, and always  would.   The best thing Johnny could do was avoid the Lieutenant whenever possible.    Avoid the Lieutenant like a sickness, yes sir, and a stunning day to you too.

      Johnny shook his head, made another attempt to clear his thoughts.

     Riflemen had two large pockets on the front of their military issue winter coats.  Johnny carried a small sheathed knife, razor sharpened, in one of his coat pockets, and in the other pocket were 4 or 5 hefty stones and his sling, made from rawhide.  He could get rabbits with the sling anytime, and fowling was productive too.  He carried a regular issue possibles bag slung over his left shoulder.  There was an eagle stamped on it, wings spread.  Inside the possibles bag was a military issue powder flask, full; some lead shot; extra lead-wrapped rifle flints which were army issue in a small wood case, and wadding.  The powder flask was embossed with an eagle too, very ornate and clear.  Below the eagle it said US.   It was brass but shined like gold.

     Johnny carried his rifle slung across his back.  It had a new leather strap just for that, and he had practiced hours with it.  He could unsling that rifle and have it at shoulder faster than most men could gain the stance.  He considered the leather strap a vast improvement, and it was.  It cost a pretty, but worth it.  4 bits, American silver, the two quarter dollars had been saved aside from his pay for two months.   The silver made Old Liam the Leathersmith happy, and its good to keep the Leathersmith happy.  The coins also had eagles on them.

     Occasionally Johnny saw a real eagle flying overhead.  It always thrilled him.   The sightings left him with a feeling of destiny, and meaning, but he did not know why.   He was impressed with the world.   He also saw many other kinds of birds, including some owls so large he would not have believed it if he had not seen them himself.  They made the scariest sounds at night,  those owls, until you got used to their noises.    There were also a lot of Maker Ben Franklins favorites, the wild turkeys, and though they certainly were wise birds, they were not wise enough to avoid hungry men.  Many of the big wise birds dressed tables regularly around Tampa Fort Brooke, and the feathers were prized for various uses.

     The foot bridge was quite an accomplishment, it consisted of large wooden logs driven into the river bed, and planked across, with a hand rail.  Johnny was approaching it now and could even see it in the distance.  On the other side of the river the wooden sidewalks began.  There was a road there too, well trod clay and oyster shell over sand.  That road worked very well for wagons and horses, except when it was raining.   There were rumors of some streets being bricked in the near future, and Johnny thought about that for a few seconds.  So many bricks, all laid end to end and side by side, forming roads.  Marvelous.   Brick roads were common up north, but still a wonder, all those bricks.  A great uniformity.

     The clay and oyster shell road ran along the river on the east side, the Fort side.   Heading south from the foot bridge would take a traveler to the Fort and the mouth of St. Julians  River where it emptied into the Bay Of The Holy Spirit, Bahia E Spiritu Santos, as the Spanish said.  Good fishing there.   Many small boats plied the waters of the river and the bay.  Newer maps called the river after Lord Hillsborough, the British curator of the territory when it was owned by the Crown, though most of Tampa called it St. Julians, San Julian, which is what the Spanish named it back in the 1500's.

     If a traveler followed the clay and shell road north from the foot bridge it went clear to Palm Corner, inland to where the river turned west sharply.   2 miles or so.  Looking that way he saw a column of smoke rising.  There was always some sort of burning going on somewhere.   Busy men.  Like ants, but better.

     Johnny was hurrying now because the sun was setting fast.  He saw Flambeau lamps being lit on cue of dusk across the river.  The Lieutenant hunting with a few other men had shot two Florida Black Bears out here last month, small, but bears none the less.  There were panthers too, big grey-brown creatures.   He had caught a glimpse of a Florida panther once while he was on guard duty.  He fired his gun into the ground near it, to scare it away, reloading quickly just in case.  The danger permeated even the daylight hours, but was much worse at night.

      The panthers were more frightening, but large cat attacks were unknown, where as bears had been known to wander even into the Fort itself, and became immediately hostile when approached.  The animals were drawn by the smells from the Fort and the small busy town that was growing around it.  Soon there would be no more bears to worry about, he was sure of that.  It was a soldiers job to make safe the land, after all.   Time is a tool.  Constant effort is repaid with constant change, which builds upon itself as time passes, like blocks in a pyramid.   Man would soon overtake this land, and all the surrounding lands.  In the meantime it was still dangerous to be on the west side of the bridge after dark.   Johnny slogged onward. 

      Sand purgatory was nearly ended for another day.  Back to civilization, and gladly.  Overall, Rifleman Prestwick was enjoying his Florida duty, but many times he looked around in search of an industrial skyline, like he remembered from his hometown, and there was none.  Not yet.  The land was almost totally flat, except for a few small hills here and there, and the scenery consisted of large oak trees with grey hanging moss, patches of various types of scrub wood, and wide expanses of open sand, many times dunes, for as far as the eye could see.  The views were different near water, but still of a type.  Wild and overgrown, or sandy.   He wondered how the survey teams could do it, out in the wilderness for months at a time, camping every night, no baths except for swimming in the springs, one must be born to that type of thing, he thought.  They could have it, and all the wild life to go along with it. 

     Then, like a large whirlpool in his mind, he remembered the woman in Jolly Corner, and he firmly pushed those memories away too.  He wished he had better control over what thoughts came into his thinking.  He diverted himself by looking down with purpose at the white sand as he neared the river by the North Bridge to Tampa.  There was still a little daylight left, and he had done well around here before.  His eyes picked out small shards, like flakes, of multi-colored stone laying against the sand.   Then:  yes!   There was another!

     A well made spear point lay on the white sand, having been weathered out of a small gully eroded by rain.  It sat up on a little pedestal where the sand below it had not eroded away.   Deposited by the indians, these incredible artifacts of a time-before were common around Tampa.  An aspiring craftsman himself, Johnny had a hard time believing that the indians he'd seen during his time at Fort Brooke were capable of making such fine, thin, glass-like weapons as he was able to collect in this part of Florida.   He'd found quite a few in his time at the Fort, and he saved them, wrapped in cloth, in a wooden cigar box.
 
     This spearhead had a reddish hue, and appeared to be made of some kind of local agate, which was it exactly.  Johnny could see light through the red stone when he held it up to the sun.  It was perfect.   Two months ago,  on an exploratory trip to a nearby spring,  he'd picked up five perfect spearheads in one day, they weathered out of the sand in places.  The weapon points were almost always accompanied by small fine flakings of glass-like local rock, and other odd worked stones which Johnny thought could be scraping tools, and sling stones.  He had tried some of these sling stones in his sling, and noticed that not too few of them whistled in flight.  That was very interesting.  They were accurate too.

     Many of the local agate spearpoints were sculptures done so meticulously it almost defied description.  Johnny had seen the local indians chipping stone, and the things they made were crude.  He himself had chipped flints for his rifle, and they were difficult enough that only one in three worked.  The beauty and sharpness of the weapon tips deposited around water in the Florida sand caused questioning and consternation among all who saw them.  A number of the artifacts were found in a damaged state,  apparently used and broken during the hunt.  To be sure, there were some crude examples of these weapon points found too, but the better spearheads were fine hand crafted works of art in every sense of the word.

     The agate that the Florida spearheads were made of derived from what would one day be called the Tampa Formation, which are huge solid heads of coral replaced with silica over 30 million years ago.  Or so.  For miles and miles and miles.  Possibly as a result of some sort of cataclysm.  A true large scale petrification resulted.  The spearpoints Johnny collected there by the St. Julians were not, in truth, made by the present day natives of Florida, so his initial conjecture would be proven.  The agate spearpoints of such fine type which are found around Tampa were created and used by the long ago ancestors of the present day natives.  Those ancient people were from a time which ranged back to the end of the last ice age, about10 thousand years or so.  As times changed from the Ice Age forward, the environment became more lush, less harsh.  Most stone weaponry actually devolved in quality as time moved forward, because game became much more plentiful and easier to acquire through less arduous means.  

    Johnny knew none of that, that was information in the future; he may have sensed it, as people do, but not overtly.  Always curious, he had a good eye, and he learned well.  He also liked to trade commercially, knew the value of different kinds of money.   It is an Abundant World.  He was thankful for his body and spirit and the time here.  All a wonderful gift from something greater than him, which he was a part of.

     He secured the red spearpoint, another gift, in his coat pocket with his knife.  If material things have spirits let them share power then, that can only be good,  he thought.   He began the final slog to the bridge.  It was near.  He walked up the slight incline of the path onto its wooden surface, where foot steps really counted, and faced the bustling town of Tampa across St. Julians River.  There were horse sounds, and music from the shanty pubs.  Raucous laughter.  More torches were being lit in houses here and there as he watched the dusk gather.   Small open fires in a few places.  A harmonica being played.

     He strode home across the bridge, his boots making hard rythm on the wood.  The river flowed dark beneath.   The last red slice of sun dropped below the horizon.
                             
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     Johnny stopped on the east edge of the bridge, facing Tampa.  It was almost dark.  He watched the firelit scene for a few moments, it stretched off into the distance, pinpoints of fire everywhere.  It is said that the name Tampa derives from the Indian word Tanpa, which means Fire Stick or Land of Fire Sticks.   Johnny could certainly believe that just now.  For a second he had the wild feeling he was a King, and below him lay his Kingdom of people and things.  The feeling passed quickly.   A kings life was lonely and full of threat he thought.  Better anonymity within the mass, if that was possible.  He was doing pretty good so far.  Time would ultimately tell how successful he would be in that.   Fame comes with age, so there was no avoiding it if age happened, just like there was no avoiding the one deadly mistake that everyone eventually makes.

     And everyone does make one deadly mistake in their life, of that he was sure, because his Grandpa had told him so, and his Grandpa never lied to him.  The idea, the real trick of living, was to put as much distance and time between yourself, and your deadly mistake, as possible.  It seemed easy in the saying so, but as his Grandpa told him, that was self deception, delusion.  A deadly mistake happens quickly, no one expects it, it catches them unaware, then comes Death, fast or slow, Death comes, and every single one who has succumbed would have avoided their deadly mistake, if they had seen it coming.   Simple, but full of meaning too.

     Johnny looked left, which was north, and a short distance up the road he recognized a familiar gait.  It was Lewis, one of the card players and sharp shooters who accompanied the government surveying crews.  One of the guides.  He was a white man,  of European descent, and a rough one, about 35 or 40 years old, long brown hair and long full beard, a true outdoorsman, and a good story teller.  Humorous.  Johnny waited for him at the bridge.

     "Howdy Lewis, " said Johnny, as the man walked up.

     "How are you Johnny man?" Came the reply.

     A visitor from the future would have heard what sounded like: "Hoo ear yee Johniman?"

     Sounds change, but the meanings stay pretty much the same, down through time.  The popular language around Tampa was like pidgin talk anywhere, and even more convoluted than most.  The area had been steadily inhabited by European people, a lot of Spanish but a variety, really, since the 1500's.  A mix including the indians and slaves, with all kinds of dialects, local and foreign accents, personal histories, nuances of diet, popular sports, gambling, and on and on.  The language of Tampa during the early 1800's happened on its own, it evolved and devolved daily, just like everywhere.  It was mostly employed as communication among its users, but it was also helpful in identifying outsiders.  Just like everywhere. 

     "I'm doing fine Lewis, how are you?"  Johnnys accent was from the northeast.   "Em doon fine Loos, how ahya?"

     Lewis replied in his Tampa Cajun Pidgin that he was doing O.K, except for a skin rash he had picked up in the woods during his last time out.  He thought it might be something he was allergic to.  He had gotten some ointment from the Fort medical  officer, which seemed to be taking care of the problem.  Lewis smoked a clay pipe, it was of the disposable type with a long stem, so that small end pieces could be broken off, creating a clean draw.  He offered it to Johnny, who refused with a slight gesture of the hand and a shake of his head.  Johnny didn't smoke tobacco, and did not plan on starting.  He had seen what it did to his Grandpa, who never lied, and who had stated in no uncertain terms that smoking tobacco had been his one deadly mistake, it just took a while to sink in and kill him, take his breath away.  Caught him unawares.  Slow. Deadly.  There were all kinds of deadly mistakes, not just a few.

     The two men walked south toward the Fort.  Lewis said he heard tell Johnny was up for duty with the 3rd Engineers Survey Crew, next round out.  This was news to Johnny and he felt alarmed by it.  He asked Lewis where he had heard such a thing, and Lewis replied that he'd overheard Lieutenant Reich talking to the head of the 3rd Engineers Survey crew about it.  This sent a jolt of apprehension through Johnny.  The Lieutenant himself would not be along for the tour with the 3rd, said Lewis, which was a glimmer of goodness in an otherwise unsavory situation.  Rather like a diamond in a pig pen, or a gold cufflink in a dung pile.  Johnny did not relish the idea of a trek out with the survey crews, some were gone for many months at a time. 

     As he had learned early in his military career though, it did not matter what a soldier wanted.  It was a soldiers duty to do what he was ordered to do.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Things could always be worse, he supposed, but he could not see how, right now.  With swift resignation he was already cataloging his belongings in his mind, packing them in his locker, getting ready to go.  Preparing.  It would be a good way to avoid the Lieutenant, at least.

     He thanked Lewis for the information before bidding him to fare well.  Johnny had to report to the Majors assistant concerning the delivery of papers to West Post, and then make the excursion to supply stores, next door to the laundry.   The Majors office door was closed and there was no one around.   Johnny made a log entry and left the office.   Now, to clothing stores.  It was about 3 blocks from his location which was out front of the officers quarters.  The night was full dark and moonless.  He walked huddled over, following the slatted wood sidewalks which were becoming covered in windblown sand.

     Clothing stores was a large wooden warehouse directly south of the Fort proper, near the small pier.  There were no big piers, because The Bay Of The Holy Spirit was very shallow in most places.  Tampa would never become a port unless deep channels could be dredged for large boats, and that engineering possibility was in the far future as well, at least 100 years or so.  Johnny saw a lamp on through the front window at stores, and was glad.  He went inside, procured some replacement buttons for his uniforms from the clerk on duty, Pvt. Michael Shannon, signed the receipt, and left.  Shannon had been closing for the day, Johnny felt lucky to have caught him there, or it would have been a wasted trip, with even better chance to be discovered out of uniform, missing buttons.

     The smell of the mess hall mixed with smells from the river and the bay.  It was not unpleasant.  There were soldiers about here and there, walking to and from the latrines, or on other late errands.  Johnny hurried now along the torch lit Fort Road because he was hungry.  He had the evening to sew buttons, and to put his thoughts in order about the probability of duty well outside of the Fort.  Out in the wild.   He would try to figure some ways to feel around, maybe take a walk over by the encampment of the 3rd Engineers a little later.   First, sustenance.

      The dining hall was well lit, shadows were stark, lots of military issue flambeau torches and oil lamps all around. There were wooden tables and chairs in rows.  It would seat over one hundred inside, and as many or more out of doors at the tables under the oaks.  Most of the soldiery had eaten already, Johnnys errand for the Majors office had made him late, and there were only a few other latecomers eating at the tables.   The cook waved lazily and grunted from his seat by the back door.  Johnny helped himself to a full plate of meat and vegetables.  He saw cake as well, and wondered if somehow that might be his one deadly mistake.  He liked it too much, of that he was certain.

     Then he thought about the wilds of Florida awaiting him, and the possibility of not only being without cake, but a lot more, for many months.  In spite of the cooks raised eyebrows,  Johnny had two pieces of cake after supper, and took a third with him, which was gone by time he made it back to his bunk.

     It was warm inside the bunkhouse.  Individual bunks were  partitioned along the sides with wooden walls about head high, allowing some privacy within the enlisted mens barracks.  The building which served as the enlisted mens barracks was an airy single floored structure with a center peaked metal roof.   It was raised off the ground on masonry piers about three feet.    Johnny lit the oil lamp on the dresser at his bedside with a wooden lucifer, and turned the flame up,  all the while ignoring the nightly fracas happening in the rest of the bunk house: yelling, crowd talk, another  harmonica, someone beating out a rythm on wood...the ebb and flow of soldier life.

     He looked to his bunk as he reached for his sewing kit underneath it, and immediately saw the envelope.  That was not a letter from home there.  He knew before he opened it.  Clear orders to join the 3rd Engineering Crew in two days for departure as Survey Support.  So much for preparation.

     Johnny removed his hat and coat.  He sat in the one chair by the bedside table, up close to the lamp, opened his sewing kit, and began to sew buttons where they were needed.

   


















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