Authors: J. T. Edson
UNDER THE STARS
UNDER THE STARS AND BARS
‘Cursed be all traitors!’ Parson Wightman bellowed, reaching for his gun; an example followed by his three companions.
Starting at the same instant, Dusty and the scout commenced their draw. Flashing across, Dusty’s hands curled around the bone handles of his Army Colts. Turning palms outwards, the scout wrapped his fingers about the ivory grips of his matched Navies. The .44 calibre revolvers cleared Dusty’s holsters slightly ahead of the .36 handguns leaving the long-haired scout’s silk sash. Swinging into alignment at waist level, Dusty’s weapons made a single crash; to be echoed by the lighter, more ragged twin bark of his companion’s armament.
Hit twice in the head, Wightman fell with his Navy Colt still not clear of leather. Caught in the withering blast of gunfire, the man to his right and left sides joined him in crashing to the ground.
UNDER THE STARS AND BARS
A CORG1 BOOK 552 08589 8
First publication in Great Britain
Corgi edition published 1970
Corgi edition reprinted 1974
Corgi edition reprinted 1979
Copyright © 1970 by J. T. Edson
This book is set in Pilgrim 10/10½ pt.
Corgi Books are published by Transworld Publishers, Ltd.,
Century House, 65—63 Uxbridge Road, Ealing, London, W5 5SA
Made and printed in Great Britain by
Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press), Ltd., Bungay, Suffolk.
The sudden drumming of hooves mingling with the crackle of revolvers’ shots, accompanied by a ringing shout of ‘Yeeah! Texas Light!’. Following them, smoke and flames might rise from a Quartermasters’ Corps depot; a supply train would be found, its wagons wrecked, their loads carried off and teams driven away; a cursing Artillery officer could find the guns in his battery spiked and his magazine exploded.
That was how the men who rode under the Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate States fought against the Yankees in Arkansas. One name ranked high when such incidents were mentioned. That of an eighteen year old captain, the commanding officer of the Texas Light Cavalry’s Company ‘C’.
His name was Dusty Fog.
For William R. Hicks of Portsmouth, Hants,
Who lets his dad read my books.
UNDER THE STARS
‘Here they come now, Captain Fog,’ whispered Logan Huntspill, head of the Confederate States’ spy-ring which operated out of Pine Bluff and maintained a watch over the activities of the Union’s Army of Arkansas along the Arkansas River south of that town. ‘What do you reckon to them?’
Keeping his field-glasses to his eyes, Captain Dustine Edward Marsden Fog turned his attention from the original objects of his scrutiny. Big, piggish of face, his almost bloated fat body straining the gold-lace-trimmed blue uniform’s seams, General Buller stood with several of his senior officers on top of a small knoll about half a mile from the two Rebels’ position. The Yankees were looking or pointing across the Akansas River to where a small, derelict steamboat bobbed at its moorings by the eastern bank. Beyond the old side-wheeler sat a cluster of dilapidated log cabins. Neither the boat nor the buildings seemed to merit the attention lavished on them by Buller’s party.
A sense of expectancy bit into Dusty as he turned his glasses in the direction indicated by his companion. At least he was going to see the reason for his being given orders at Prescott to ride as fast as possible to Pine Bluff and contact Huntspill.
Focussing the glasses on the new subject, Dusty felt both puzzled and a sense of anti-climax. The tall, thickset, bearded man sharing the concealment of the large clump of buffalo-berry bushes with him had hinted that something of great importance was due to happen. According to Huntspill’s message, brought by a courier to General Jackson Baines Hardin’s headquarters at Prescott, the Yankees were shortly to receive some new form of weapon that might once again put them on the offensive in the Toothpick State.
According to Ole Devil Hardin, Huntspill had always been accurate with his news and was no alarmist. The spy had stressed the extreme urgency of the matter and requested that an officer be sent to help him assess the extent of the danger. That had been sufficient to cause the commanding general of the Confederate States’ Army of Arkansas and North Texas to respond immediately. So Dusty was expecting to be confronted by a sight of more apparent importance than met his gaze. Especially after crossing the Ouachita River—the boundary separating the two opposing armies—and riding nearly sixty miles through enemy-held territory in just over twenty-four hours.
Going by his tone and expression, Huntspill felt doubts as to whether the officer sent by Ole Devil would have an opinion worth hearing. Of course, he remembered how Dusty Fog had been promoted to captain in the field after his superior officer had been killed and he had led Company ‘C’ of the Texas Light Cavalry in the charge that had turned the course of the battle at Mark’s Mill to the South’s favour. In meetings with other members of that regiment, Huntspill had heard his companion’s name mentioned several times; but he had formed an entirely different impression of what Captain Fog would be like.
The Texans had told of Dusty’s lighting fast withdrawal of his two revolvers and superlative accuracy when shooting from either hand. Never modest about the prowess of their State’s favourite sons, the beef-heads had claimed that Dusty Fog was the equal of Turner Ashby or even the Grey Ghost, John Singleton Mosby, as a military raider. A further boast—clearly false, even if the other two be true—was that Dusty possessed the bare-hand fighting knowledge to let him lick any man on the Confederate or Union side of the civil conflict.
Captain Fog had proved to be something of a disappointment to Huntspill. A young eighteen, he had a handsome, though not strikingly so, face with intelligence in its lines and grey eyes that looked at a man steadily. In height he would stand no more than five foot six inches; but with the wide shoulders and lean waist that hinted at considerable strength. A regulation white Jefferson Davis campaign hat was thrust back on his curly, dusty-blond hair. In the front centre of its crown rode a badge formed of a five-pointed star, with the letters TLC on it, in a laurel-wreath decorated circle. Based on the Lone Star State’s coat-of-arms, that was the insignia of the Texas Light Cavalry.
Possibly being Old Devil Hardin’s favourite nephew gave Dusty certain privileges. Certainly he flouted the Confederate States’
Army’s Manual of Dress Regulations
on several points in his uniform.
The boots and tight-legged, yellow-striped riding breeches conformed with
. Although his cadet-grey tunic had two rows of seven buttons on its double-breast, and a stand-up collar bearing the triple three-inch-long, half-inch-wide gold bars—the highest still looking newer than its mates—denoting his rank, it lacked the prescribed ‘
skirt extending halfway between hip and knee
’. True its sleeves carried the decorative double-strand gold-braid Austrian knot ‘chicken guts’, as a further aid to marking him as a captain, above their cavalry-yellow cuffs. However, the required black silk cravat was replaced by a tight-rolled scarlet bandana of the same material, long ends trailing down the front of his tunic.
About his lean waist was suspended a definitely non-issue gunbelt which possessed no means of carrying a sabre. Instead it had two holsters carefully designed so as to permit him to draw the matched bone-handled 1860 Army Colts with the minimum of effort and in the shortest possible time. The long-barrelled revolvers’ butts pointed forwards, but seemed to be angled differently than the conventional Army mode of carriage. Like many of the Texans Huntspill had met, Dusty tied the tips of his holsters down with pigging thongs knotted around his thighs.
While the small captain looked neat, despite the long, hard ride, he did not strike Huntspill as having the experience necessary to judge the potential of the Yankees’ secret weapon—whatever it might be.
Sensing his companion’s feelings, Dusty ignored them. He had long since grown accustomed to strangers’ reactions to his lack of height and had developed skills which more than off-set it. Contrary to Huntspill’s thoughts, he did possess a remarkable talent for unarmed combat. In addition to being able to handle his fists in the conventional manner, he had gained a thorough working knowledge of
—all but unknown at that time in the Western Hemisphere—from his Uncle Devil’s Japanese valet. Having solid, hard-earned achievements behind him already, and backed by a good, practical education, Dusty could shrug off other people’s lack of confidence when it was caused by misgivings on account of his height.
Although Dusty would later come into contact with two very prominent members of the Confederate States’ Secret Service—rescuing Rose Greenhow single-handed from a Yankee prison
and sharing two dangerous missions
with Belle Boyd, the Rebel Spy
—this was his first contact with one of that organisation. He had been impressed by Huntspill’s efficiency, satisfied with the arrangements made for them to be undetected while watching the Yankees, but could not help wondering if the spy had acted hastily in requesting a second opinion on what was, ostensibly, a straightforward matter.
Of course, the presence of General Buller hinted that something extra special might be in the air. The current commanding general of the Union’s Army of Arkansas had never been noted for taking an active participation in the affairs of his soldiers. So Dusty searched the objects of Huntspill’s interest for some hint of their importance.
Riding parallel to and about a quarter of a mile from the west bank of the river came what appeared to be an ordinary troop of Federal Cavalry in columns of four. They wore the peaked fatigue kepi, tunic, riding breeches and boots that were fast becoming the standard uniform for the Union Army’s mounted troops. Each man carried a revolver butt-forward in a close-topped holster on the right of his belt and had a sabre suspended from the slings at its left. Well-mounted, good riders, they might be a better class of soldier than one usually saw in the Yankees’ Army of Arkansas; but they hardly seemed to warrant exceptional concern or urgency. Or did they?
Certain significant factors began to strike Dusty. Directing his glasses at the nearest rider, he studied the insignia on the front of the kepi. It was not the usual flattened ‘X’ made by two sabres, but a pair of crossed cannon above which a silver number ‘14’ was superimposed with the letter ‘A’. Given that much of a clue, Dusty examined the colour of the tunic’s facings and the stripe along the seam of the breeches’ leg. They were scarlet instead of the expected yellow.
‘Well I’ll be—!’ Dusty began, lowering the glasses and turning to Huntspill. ‘They’re artillery, not cavalry.’
‘That’s what I figure when I saw them arrive,’ the spy answered. ‘Only they don’t have any guns along. They rode in yesterday just like you’re seeing them now. Had three battery-wagons and a travelling forge, but nary a cannon.’
‘Could’ve had them in the wagons, maybe?’
‘I don’t reckon so. Three wagons wouldn’t carry all their gear and enough cannons for that many men to be needed.’
‘Mountain howitzers aren’t all that big,’ Dusty pointed out. ‘Except that those fellers don’t even have them along. Could be the Yankees’ve run short of cavalrymen and’re using some of the culls from their artillery to make up the numbers. Only those fellers don’t look nor ride like throw-outs from any outfit.’
‘They sure don’t,’ agreed Huntspill, knowing ‘culls’ to be the poorer stock cut out as useless from a cattle-herd. ‘Anyways, if what I’ve picked up is true, these fellers’re mighty special. That’s why I sent word for Ole—’
Then the burly civilian realised that Dusty had swivelled the field-glasses upwards again.
‘Did they have those stove-pipes hanging on their saddles?’ Dusty interrupted, staring at the riders.
‘Huh?’ grunted Huntspill, whipping his own glasses to his eyes.
From his position among the bushes the spy could see some of the fifteen men in the column nearest to the river. Each had what looked like a five-foot length of three-inch stove-pipe dangling from the fork of his McClellan saddle. Not just an ordinary piece of pipe, however. The lower end had been cut in half to form a trough about twelve inches long. A pair of metal bands encircled the tube, the upper having a steel rod fixed to either side of it and arranged so they could be swivelled and locked in any position from horizontal—as at the moment—to vertical. Based on the lower band and pointing upwards along the top of the tube was what looked like an elongated rear leaf-sight for a rifle.
‘No,’ Huntspill admitted. ‘They didn’t have them on their saddles yesterday.’
‘Or them pouches on the backs of their saddles?’ Dusty went on.
‘Can’t say I noticed them either,’ the spy confessed.
Having always earned his living as a riverboat man, a fact shown by his nautical peaked cap and clothing, Huntspill could be excused for failing to see anything out of the ordinary about the horses’ equipment. Born and raised in a land where a horse was an essential part of life, rather than a mere means of transport, Dusty had recognised that the pouches were not usual Federal Army accoutrements. Attached to the rear of the saddle, they consisted of four leather tubes slightly less than two feet long hanging on either flank.
‘Action left!’ bawled the major leading the party, as they came level with the boat and cabins. ‘Five hundred yards. Five degrees elevation. Incendiary, then high explosive. Prepare to fire!’
‘What the hell—?’ Huntspill began, watching the four lines halt at the major’s first words.
Working with the swift, trained orderliness that told of long practice, the men dismounted. Immediately, without waiting for further instructions, the soldiers of the right side column took the reins of the other horses in their own section of four. While the second and third member of each section peeled the saddle-pouches from their mounts, the man nearest to the river unstrapped his tube from its position and cradled it in his arms.
‘So that’s it!’ Dusty breathed, giving his attention to the forward section.
‘What?’ demanded Huntspill, staring at the scene of orderly confusion with an expression of incomprehension.
Letting the question go unanswered, Dusty watched the four Yankee artillerymen. Carrying his tube, the first moved away from the horses. Resting the end of the trough on the ground, he turned downwards the two steel rods and spiked their tips into the soil. After making an adjustment to the angle at which the tube was pointing, he raised and set the leaf sight on the rear band.
Resting his pouches on the ground, the second man opened the lid of a tube. From it he drew a metal cylinder about eighteen inches long, with a short truncated cone at one end and a sharp spike on the other.
‘What the hell is that thing?’ Huntspill hissed.
‘A Hale Spin-Stabilised rocket,’ Dusty explained. ‘And some kind of gun for sending it in the right direction.’
‘Where’s the stick?’ asked the spy. ‘All the rockets I ever saw had one.’
‘Not this kind,’ Dusty replied. ‘I’ve read and heard about them, It’s got three curved metal vanes at the blunt end where the gas that makes it go blows out. Seems they make the rocket spin like a rifle bullet and keep it flying straight.’
While they had been talking, the soldier had placed the rocket on to the trough and inserted the sharp nose up the tube. Stepping aside, he made way for the first man. After connecting a lanyard to the ring of the rocket’s friction-primer, the first Yankee rested his foot on the lower end of the tube.
Turning his glasses, Dusty saw that all fifteen launchers had been set up and were loaded ready for use. No regular form of artillery could have been prepared in so short a time. Then he resumed his watch on the first section.
‘Fire!’ roared the battery commander.
A sharp tug on the lanyard caused the serrated iron ignition-bar to scrape across and set into operation the highly-combustible priming compound. A spark of flame stabbed among the propellant charge. The slow-burning mixture of nitre, sulphur and charcoal, forced under great pressure into the 3¼-inch light iron case, took fire and began to emit its gas.