TIME SPIKE – snippet 30:
“Will you look at those crazy savages?” sneered Private Sam Underwood. He’d broken off from re-loading his musket to watch the Cherokees in the clearing, shouting and carrying on like wild men. “I told you they wasn’t no different from animals.”
Sergeant James Kershner decided he’d had enough of Underwood. The Georgian’s prejudices were so deep-rooted the man couldn’t even think. And he was a nasty bastard, to boot.
“Shut up,” he said. “They’re smarter than you are. They‘re trying to make sure those damn lizards learn to stay away from us.”
That didn’t even budge the sneer on Underwood’s face. “You say.”
“One more remark like that, private, and I’ll have you arrested. You’re still under army discipline, and I’m still in command.”
His anger made Kershner’s accent thicker than usual. Although he’d been born in Pennsylvania and his parents had given him what they felt was a proper American first name, he hadn’t learned English until he joined the army. His whole town was populated by Swabian immigrants and still spoke their dialect of German.
Underwood was just about as stupid as he was nasty. For a moment, he gaped at the sergeant. Then the sneer came back.
“Arrest me, how? You ain’t got a brig, Kershner, in case you ain’t noticed.”
By then, Corporal John Pitzel had his own musket reloaded. “Good point.” He cocked the weapon and shoved the barrel into Underwood’s neck, just below the jaw bone. He wasn’t gentle about it, either. Although English was his native language, Pitzel came from German stock also. He had less use for the Georgian than Kershner did. The man was even stupid enough to make wisecracks about Germans.
Which, given that four out of the eight men in his unit were either German immigrants or born into German immigrant families, including the sergeant in command, qualified him as Stupid First Class. Especially since two of the other three men were Irish immigrants, and Underwood made just as many wisecracks about the Irish.
“I think an execution in the field is called for, Sergeant,” said the corporal thinly. “Insubordination during combat.”
It finally registered on the private that he’d crossed a line and was in serious trouble. His eyes widened and the sneer vanished. “Hey! Quit jokin’ around!”
Kershner considered Pitzel’s proposal—which, he knew perfectly well, wasn’t a joke at all.
Normally, of course, he’d have dismissed the idea immediately. But there wasn’t anything normal about their situation. And the fact was, they were heavily outnumbered by the Cherokees. Even if Underwood’s attitudes and habits didn’t get them killed, they were bound to produce an ever-widening schism between the soldiers and the Cherokees. Relations were tense enough, as it was.
But what finally tipped the balance had nothing to do with military issues. James Kershner was twenty-four years and had all the normal desires that a man that age had. By now, he was certain they were stranded in this new world for the rest of their lives, with only the Cherokees for company. And he was pretty sure one of the Cherokee girls was even showing some interest. One of Chief Watkins’ nieces. He thought her name was Ginger Tansey. A pert and lively girl, about nineteen or so, with a nice smile and bright eyes.
“Shoot him,” he commanded.
The bullet damn near took off Underwood’s head. He was dead before he hit the ground.
The sergeant swiveled to bring the rest of the men in the unit under his gaze. “Any of you have a problem with this?”
David McLean grunted. “Not bloody fucking likely. I plan to end my days surrounded by grandkids, like a proper Irishman should. And if their grandma is an Indian, I can’t say I much give a damn.”
The only soldier who looked disturbed was one of the Germans. More confused than disturbed, really. The man was a bit slow-witted.
The one and only native-born American soldier of old English stock in the unit looked downright pleased.
“I couldn’t stand that son-of-a-bitch,” he pronounced. “And I got no problem at all becoming a squaw man. Beats the alternative, hands down.”
“I don’t think they like being called ‘squaws,’” Kershner said mildly.
“Fine. I got no problem at all becoming the swain of an Injun princess. That beats the alternative even better.”
“What’s that all about?” Bradley Scott wondered. The sound of a gunshot had drawn their attention to the woods where the U.S. soldiers had been waiting in ambush.
“I don’t know,” said Watkins. “I guess we’ll know soon enough.”
And, in fact, less than a minute later the soldiers emerged from the woods, dragging the corpse of one of their own with them. They laid him down a few feet into the clearing and several of them took out spades from their knapsacks. Obviously, they planned to dig a grave, right here and now, with no further ado.
“At a guess,” Watkins said, “Sergeant Kershner decided to lance a festering boil before it got any bigger. That’s the one they called Underwood. I had a feeling he’d be a problem, just from the few times I had to deal with him. He must have finally crossed a line.”
Scott rubbed his chin. “It occurs to me, Geoffrey, that we all crossed a line today. Or if we haven’t, we should.”
Watkins thought about it. Once he’d gotten used to Kershner’s accent, he’d come to realize that the young sergeant was very shrewd. Quick-thinking, too. And, it was now obvious, prepared to be decisive and ruthless when he needed to be. All the things a smart old chief looked for in a successor.
And why not? Cherokees had been intermarrying with whites for generations. So had all the southern tribes. Watkins himself was at least a quarter white, in his ancestry. The top chief of the Cherokees, John Ross, was seven-eighths Scottish, if you calculated things the way white people did, by race instead of clan.
They had a lot of years ahead of them. Very dangerous years. But, maybe, their children and their children and their children would have forever. If they started the right way.
“Yes, I think you’re right.”
That evening, before the soldiers started their usual separate campfire, Watkins went over to Sergeant Kershner.
“Why don’t you and your men start eating with us from now on?” he suggested. “We cook better than you do, anyway.”
He gave their tents a glance. “And starting tomorrow, we should build you a real cabin. Who knows? Winter might be coming.”
Kershner’s smile was a lot more serene than you’d expect from such a young man. “Good idea. I was just thinking the same thing myself.”