The first few weeks of training took my mind off of Fawn Eyes, at least during the day. Nights in the bunk house were a whole other matter. If I was lucky, then we'd have done drills all day, and I'd be too exhausted to stay awake and think about her. But it was the days of riding that were my enemy.
I'd come with a beautiful, dark chestnut, Morgan stallion. He was a birthday gift from my father and I called him Molasses. Of course he wasn't slow but his color was just as rich, and he was the sweetest thing on four legs. He was a two year-old and had some decent training before my father bought him, but we were still learning each other. Since the garrison was so far west of regular supply lines, we were encouraged to use our own mounts if we had them. Had I joined further east, I could have been expected to use whatever horse they provided me. I was glad to have the opportunity to train with Molasses.
But days spent in the saddle were too easy, and gave me too much time for my mind to wander. Some of the boys I was training with were not as familiar with riding as I was, and everything was done slower to accommodate them. I was quick to learn the different formations, and I already knew how to cut a horse from the herd, turn in close quarters, ride both uphill and down, and how to control the horse at full gallop. I tried not to laugh at the efforts of some of the others.
"You find something funny, Private Whitlock?" Captain Olander had caught the laugh I'd tried to hide, after one young recruit fell from his saddle when his horse reared up on two legs.
"No sir." The captain had sharp gray eyes, and he always looked as if he could pull the thoughts from my head.
"Don't lie to me! What did you find so funny?" The rest of our group had stopped to watch the exchange, including Private Brandt, who had yet to climb back onto his horse.
"Sorry sir. It's a simple turn, and if you'll excuse my observation, Private Brandt asked the horse to do exactly what she did when he yanked on the reins. I knew he was going to get thrown. I wouldn't have laughed, except he was grumbling that the horse was stupid. It reminded me of a time when I had to pick myself up off the ground and walk home after my horse tossed me on my backside. I too thought the animal was stupid, but you can't change the nature of the horse. You have to learn to work with the horse, like it's a part of you. Private Brandt is lucky his horse didn't run for the barn like mine did." That comment made the others around me laugh.
Captain Olander didn't laugh, but stared me down. I didn't look away—as I should have done. I knew he had the power to make my life miserable, as well as those who trained with me. I just couldn't behave as if I was afraid of him when I wasn't. The others noticed, and they watched to see what would happen next.
"Since this is a simple turn, I want you to take over training Private Brandt, while the rest of us go on maneuvers. When we come back, he should be able to demonstrate the turn perfectly. Use your time wisely, Private Whitlock." I could tell he was amused, as he turned to give orders to the rest of the company. In minutes I was watching his straight back and blond hair disappear over the hill with the rest of the men.
Private Brandt wasn't pleased to be left behind with me, especially when he discovered I was serious about teaching him.
"You don't treat a fine horse like it's a plow mule." I'd climbed down from Molasses so I might talk to Brandt. "You'll find that the more you work with the mare, the better you'll learn the way she responds to the cues. She can feel the way you lean in the saddle, and when you let your legs flop around like a rag doll, you're not guiding her." He stared at me with an open mouth and a slack jaw. "You don't ride much, do you?" He shook his head, and I gathered the reins of his mount.
"What's her name?" He looked blank at my question. "The horse has a name, and you should know it. This is a beautiful quarter horse, and if she doesn't have a name, then you should give her one." I ran my hands up her neck, and smoothed the mane out of her eyes. "Give her a girl's name, something pretty like Mary, or something solid like Helen." I inspected the horse's mouth, checking her teeth and making sure she didn't have any sores.
"Shouldn't we be riding, Jasper? They'll be back before dinner, and I don't want to be in charge of the mess hall.
"Robert, riding isn't the same as climbing into a wagon and being a passenger. You have to know your horse. Take Mary here..." I smoothed the fur of her face, and she flinched when I touched her mouth. "...you've been yanking on the reins so much, her mouth is sore." I removed the bit and bridle, and handed it to him. "You'll need to give her some time to recover before you put that in again. We'll use the halter and lead rope to guide her instead."
"That's crazy! You can't ride a horse with just a halter."
"It's not crazy." I reached out and stuck my bent finger into his mouth. When I yanked his face hard to the right he stumbled, then he looked like he would take a swing at me. "That hurts, doesn't it? You've been doing the same thing to Mary all day. You rein the horse gently; it's only supposed to be a signal, not a pulley. If you tear her mouth, you won't be able to ride her—didn't anyone teach you this?" He went from looking like he would hit me, to looking embarrassed.
"I wasn't raised around animals. Papa owns an apothecary in town."
"Well, you have to learn how to treat a good horse, or you'll never be able to do the simplest things." I continued to stroke and pat the horse. "Name her after a pretty girl, and treat her like a lady..." He burst out laughing at my words. "Something wrong with that?"
"You obviously don't know women, what makes you think you know how to treat one? I bet you ain't even had yer first kiss!" For a moment, I was the one who stood there staring. I remembered her kisses, and I remembered so much more.
"Get up in that saddle!" It wasn't a request, but an order, and he had hold of the pommel of the saddle before he even thought about it. I easily mounted Molasses, and Brandt looked uneasy as he sat astride his horse.
"What am I supposed to do without reins?"
"What's her name?"
"Do we have to go through that again?" His whining was getting on my nerves, and I was beginning to think he was younger than I was. I didn't answer him, and finally he sighed, "Mary."
"You don't need the reins, Mary's well trained already. She's a real professional—like the first woman you ever bedded." I grinned, and his jaw dropped. Quite by accident I'd hit upon a truth I couldn't possibly have known. I didn't let him see my own surprise, but played it up instead. "If you treat Mary right, she'll give you a good ride too."
"Miriam." He was laughing
"Her name's not Mary, it's Miriam. If this horse gives me half the ride she did, I'll be in love by dinnertime." From then on he was my willing pupil. It was a good thing I didn't have to fight with him, since he had so many bad habits I needed to break.
"I still don't see how I'm going to learn anything without reins."
"The Indians don't need reins, and they're some of the best riders you'll ever see. They don't have fancy saddles either. An Apache or Comanche can ride up on you, nock an arrow, and make you cry for your mama, faster than you'll be able to head Miriam in the other direction. I've been riding since I took my first steps, and even I'd be afraid to face one of their braves on horseback. Some say they're born on horseback, but I know that's not true."
"And how's that?"
"Because I wasn't born on the back of a horse, and my mother's an Apache."
"Un uh! You're just funnin with me now."
I looked him in the eye and spoke the language my mother knew best. His eyes went wide and his jaw dropped. What I saw on his face was almost unfamiliar to me. Respect. Maybe it was an accident of birth that gave it to me, but I longed to be worthy of it, and I held my head a little higher.
"What does it mean? What you just said, what was it?"
"I said, you're going to ride so hard your balls are going to hurt for days." It wasn't an exact translation, since when I'd heard it, it was more like, I'm going to whip you so hard your behind is going to hurt for days. But he didn't need to know that. He even laughed, but he soon discovered I wasn't joking.
I had to teach him how to sit in the saddle, how to use his legs to guide the horse, how to lean and use the lead rope for directions, and how to make the horse go from a walk to a canter without the slap of leather against her neck. The cavalry had a standard of training that we'd been learning since we enlisted. Miriam was trained in the cavalry ways, and I did my best to teach Brandt. I also taught him to reward her and praise her when she did well, which was often. I advised how to gently correct her when she got something wrong—which didn't happen during our lesson. I'd seen many fools whip their horses for behavior that wasn't really the horse's fault.
By the end of the day, Brandt could guide Miriam. He used his legs for more than weighing down the stirrups, and I had a switch I used as a reminder any time he forgot. He held her mane in his hands, and he knew how to lean and lightly move the lead rope to get her to turn. We repeated the drill over and over, so he could learn the gentle cues to which she would respond.
When Captain Olander returned with the rest of the company, we were ready for them. Brandt ran through the drills with no problem, even when the captain had two other riders fall in beside him. He executed the move that had gotten him thrown, and lead the horse to where the Captain was watching. I could tell he was proud of himself—then the captain noticed.
"Where the hell are your reins, Private?" He looked angry that part of the equipment was missing.
"Jas—I mean Private Whitlock took them, sir."
"Explain yourself, Private." His gray eyes narrowed at me. "I didn't leave you in charge so you could lose the equipment."
"It's not lost, sir. The mare has a sore mouth, Captain. I took off the bit and bridle so she could start healing."
"You trained this recruit with no reins?"
"How is that possible, he's as green early hay?"
"Jasper's part Apache!" Brandt's excited announcement made everyone turn to look at him—then me. I'm sure it was my blond hair that was responsible for their laughter. Captain Olander didn't look away from me, and he didn't laugh.
"Is that true?"
"My mother is part Apache and part Spanish; my father is English." Everyone listened to my simple answer.
"So, what does that make you, Private Whitlock?" His eyes never left me.
"That makes me a Texan, Sir." He stared for a second, then the corner of his mouth turned up and he grinned.
"I've heard Apache's are cunning, and mean as rattlesnakes, the Spanish are as tough as longhorn bulls, and the English...at least they're prettier than the French—I guess that does make you a Texan!" The rest of the men laughed along with him.
"Pick up that bit, and you two head back to the garrison. Whitlock, you show him how to take care of that horse. For the next month, I want you to use a hackamore instead of the bit and bridle on that one. I want both of you head over to the mess hall, you'll be working with the cooks tonight."
"But sir...!" Brandt obviously felt like he was being punished.
"Did I give you permission to speak, Private?
"Then unless you like calisthenics, don't. Take care of your horses, and eat your meals before the rest of the squad." Brandt thought we'd been assigned the punishment of doing 'women's work,' but I knew we'd been given a pat on the back instead. We got to skip out of the last hour of training, we got to eat first, and working in the mess was one of the easiest assignments. We could have been in charge of splitting wood, cleaning equipment, or even taking care of the latrines.
After a day on horseback, I was often awake hours after the bugle call to extinguish lights was played. I remembered making love to her in the dark, nestled beneath piles of hand woven blankets. I remembered our son, and wondered if he was sleeping through the night. I knew he would forget me—probably already had.
I knew she would try to forget me too. I usually hoped she was able to go on with her life and find some measure of peace. But on nights when I was awake, listening to the snores of the men, I hoped she would always remember me. She'd loved my kindness, and the gentle way I made love to her. I never thought she would have to face her Comanche captor again, and I'd tried to make up for the way he'd treated her. On nights when I couldn't sleep, I'd lie awake wondering again and again, how she could turn her back on me and go back to him. My sleepless mind delighted in tormenting me with these memories.
The day after the lesson with Brandt, we were again in the field for horseback training. I was surprised when Captain Olander split the company and put me in charge of teaching the others some finer points of riding. He took the other half of the men to show them horseback fighting techniques, while I went through the drills we'd already learned. The captain told me to see how uniform I could make them ride, and I took him seriously. After several hours I had them looking like they belonged in the same unit. Then we switched groups and I started all over again.
Captain Olander continued to have me work with half the men while he drilled with the others. Within a month we had our company looking like they'd trained together for much longer. I got my first promotion to Corporal.
It felt good to have the respect of the men. It didn't take me long before I knew them all, nearly as well as I knew my own brothers. Brandt shaped up to be a good rider, and he fought to keep Miriam when they wanted to assign him a different horse. I even caught him sneaking the horse treats—vegetables and fruits from his own meals.
Captain Olander was a patient teacher with me, and I worked hard to prove his faith wasn't misplaced. I learned he was a fair and honest man, which reminded me of my father. But he also had a sense of humor, and as the men under him progressed, we saw more and more of his light-hearted personality emerge.
Once we were trained, we were given assignments. We guarded caravans headed west, and pony express riders headed east. We were often called on to deal with Indian threats from Shoshone and unidentified raiders. My small amount of Apache didn't help, but I did know a bit more about the wandering life of the Indians, so I could better explain to the captain why there was a conflict. Overall, the experience was busy but calm.
In the first year of service, I passed up every opportunity to take leave. The thought of going home and being reminded of everything I'd been trying to forget, didn't appeal to me. I wrote letters to my family, but when I heard back of what was happening on the ranch, I felt like I was in a whole different world. My brother Thomas had met a young woman from back east, and he was talking about leaving the ranch to go and attend school in Richmond, where this girl lived. Father mentioned how he would be missed on the ranch if he left. I felt guilty that I didn't feel drawn to rush back home to help out.
When my birthday came up, Captain Olander wanted to know how it felt to be eighteen. I tried to pretend I didn't know what he meant, but he saw through the attempted deception.
"I knew the first time I laid eyes on you, that you weren't of age. You were clearly running from something, so I kept my mouth shut. You proved yourself to me, so I didn't feel the need to enlighten the Colonel."
"Are you going to tell him now?" I was worried I'd lose my rank and the respect I'd earned from the men.
"I'll keep quiet on one condition..." His lips turned up in a smile. "I want you to use up some of that time off you've been saving. Let's take our leave together and go celebrate your birthday, Sergeant Whitlock." I don't know what surprised me more, the promotion, or the captain's offer to celebrate with me. Either way, he took my stunned silence for agreement that I'd accepted his offer.
We had a week of leave, and the captain didn't tell me where we were going or what we'd be doing. Of course I knew as I packed up for the trip that it wasn't a requirement of his continued silence. He seemed to be offering me genuine friendship. I wasn't sure how to handle it, since I'd been a bit of a loner but for my family.
I thought we'd be going to Austin, but instead we headed southwest. We left early in the morning, and swung further south than the Whitlock ranch. I felt at home in the dry landscape, and I could easily have kept traveling through midday if he hadn't stopped in a stand of trees near a stream. We tied the horses where they could drink, and we took advantage of the shade provided by the Texas ash, mesquite, and scrub oaks.
"Are you going to tell me where we're going, Captain?"
"We're away from the garrison, you can stop calling me Captain." He was confused by my laughter.
"You've never mentioned your name, sir."
"Sir?" He shook his head in wonder. "Jasper, I'm only four years older than you are, and we're not in formation. I don't want to hear you call me Captain or Sir until the garrison is in sight again, do I make myself clear?"
"Sir, is that an order, Captain?" I tried to stay deadpan serious, but my smile betrayed me at his incredulous look.
"Peter! My name is Peter, and if you call me anything else this week, then it better be because you're too drunk to remember it. Damn it son, I need this break as much as you do. I don't want to be reminded of anything military for the rest of my leave, understand?"
"I understand, S—Peter." He looked as if he'd hit me if I said it. I wondered if I could take him. "I've never been drunk before... Peter."
He eyed me as he gulped from his canteen before refilling it from the stream. "It sounds like you're overdue."
"Is that where we're going? Some place to get drunk?"
"Among other things." The grin that lit his face had me worried. He didn't tell me more, and I wondered about what was in store for me. Father never drank, and we were all taught to say our prayers and read the Bible on Sunday. I knew he wouldn't approve of whatever Peter had in store for me. Still, I was eighteen and a man, and I wanted to find out what men did when no one was watching over them.
The sun was touching the horizon when we spotted the town. It didn't look like much from the hill overlooking it, but Peter seemed to think it was something special. It looked like about forty buildings and houses spread out along either side of a dirt road. I did see a large barn, so I wasn't worried about the horses.
"Casa de Las Rosas—home of roses. It's a little forgotten Spanish town, named for an elaborate rose garden behind the church. They should have named it Casa de Avena Loca—house of wild oats. Officers have been coming here on leave for years to visit Rosa's."
I wanted to ask him questions, but he lead the way down to the town, right to the biggest place along the road. I couldn't tell if it was a saloon or a hotel, but I heard music coming from inside. We took the horses to the barn, and as I started to get out the grooming kit, Peter stopped me.
"Pay the stable boy to take care of that, we've got more important things to do." I roused the boy and gave him specific instructions on how to take care of the horses. I paid him enough to make him smile, and turned to follow Peter. He'd stopped at the well, and was using his handkerchief to wipe of the dirt and sweat of the ride. I did the same, and he reached out to straighten my collar.
"They like the military men and the uniforms. Don't go in there looking like some deserter."
"Who are we meeting?" I still wasn't quite sure what I was walking into.
"Women, Jasper. Fine, young, pretty women, who will love your money, even if they don't fall in love with your face."
"Whores?" I couldn't hide the disdain in my voice. That I'd ridden all day just to pay a woman to bed me, was a big disappointment.
"Jasper Whitlock, I'm surprised at you! How could you possibly malign the lovely senorita's who work at Rosa's?" He grabbed my arm and lead me toward the door. "They're not whores... they're entertainers and serving girls, and just friendly ladies who enjoy the company here." As he opened the door my senses were overloaded.
The piano played loudly, and it was badly out of tune. The place was full of people, and all of them were noisy enough to blunt the jangling piano. A group of men played billiards at one table, and at another table six men played poker while several women watched. The place was heavy with smoke, from cigars, oil lamps and candles. I could smell food, likely coming from behind a door to our right. The food smelled good and drew me in a few steps, in spite of the accompanying odors of sweat, leather, oil smoke and flowery perfume.
"So... what do you want to do first, my man?" Peter grinned as he clapped me on the back. "Billiards? Poker?"
"How about food? It smells delicious." He looked disappointed for a moment, and gazed longingly around the room. Then he shrugged and pushed open the door to the right.
The dining room was small, and we sat at rough bench tables and ate roast beef, fresh bread, and sweet potatoes, while a girl who looked like she was about my age served us. Peter tried to get her to talk, complimenting the food before asking her name.
"Felipa." She lowered her eyes and edged around the table toward me. She refilled my water glass, and her eyes met mine. A tiny smile turned her lips.
"Felipa means lover of horses. Do you... love horses?" I remembered the Spanish my mother had taught me. I felt suddenly shy as the girl gazed at me.
"Yes. Sometimes I help my brother in the stable. I make them oatmeal with honey, and they love it!" Her English was good, but I could tell Spanish was her native language. I was going to talk to her about horses, but the way she looked at me made my mouth shut and refuse to open. Peter then asked for a bottle of wine, and she left to go and get it.
"What's wrong with you? That girl likes you—talk to her!" His loud whisper had me turning to make sure no one could hear him, but we were alone in the room. "She flat out ignored me, but she warmed right up to you. Play your cards right and you could be in her bed tonight." I could feel myself blushing when Felipa came back with a bottle of wine and two more glasses.
"Thanks." It was the only word I could squeeze out of my constricted throat. She smiled at me again, and turned to leave.
"Why don't you sit here and share a glass of wine with us?" Peter startled her with his invitation.
"I... I don't think..." She looked almost afraid of the offer.
"Please. It's Sergeant Jasper's birthday today. He really likes you." I kicked him under the table, but his smile didn't waver.
"I suppose I could sit for a minute or two." She sat on the bench beside me, and Peter poured us all a generous glass of wine.
He raised his glass, "To Jasper, may your birthday be joyful and the year bring you new adventures!" We all drank to the toast, not knowing how true his words would be. Felipa merely sipped her wine, Peter swallowed eagerly, and I had my first taste of the fermented stuff. To me it tasted like rotten berries, but Peter praised the flavor and refilled his glass. "Drink up, Jasper!"
Later I wouldn't know whether to give him the credit or the blame. I sipped at the wine, and slowly I was able to open up to Felipa. She got up to clear the dishes from the table, and came back with three servings of apple cobbler. She again sat beside me, as she delicately nibbled the dessert. We talked about horses, and she seemed more comfortable when I switched to Spanish. I found out it was her mother and father who owned the hotel, though they didn't run Rosa's saloon.
Peter poured me another glass of wine when mine was empty, and then he left us to our talk. He tipped his hat as he got up and went through the door to the saloon, letting in a wave of piano music. The wine was starting to grow on me, and I was surprised when I poured the last drops into my glass. Felipa slid her half full glass in front of me, and I drank that too.
For the first time in my life I was drunk—at least a little bit. My head spun when I had to go find the outhouse. When I returned, the table was again cleared, and Felipa came in from the kitchen.
"Will you be staying her tonight, Jasper?" The sound of her saying my name mesmerized me. I nodded. "I can show you to your room if you like." Again with the dumb nod. Just standing in her presence made me feel like laughing. I stared at her pretty face, thinking about kissing her.
"Follow me." She took a candle from one of the tables and lead me up a back stairway. There were about a dozen rooms off the main hallway, and I followed her quietly down the carpeted aisle. The noises coming from one room, made her hurry, but I paused to listen. A woman's cries, a man's guttural grunts, and squeaking bed springs told me what was happening behind the door.
Felipa stopped in front of a door further down and used a key to unlock it. She stepped inside and motioned for me to follow. She used the candle to light the lamp, and then added kindling to the logs in the fireplace. She was able to get the fire going, as I looked around at the small room. It was clean and utilitarian, and the bed looked soft. She set the candle down on the bedside table.
"This is one of the best rooms, since it has a fireplace. Nights here can get cold, especially this time of year." She glanced around nervously, then looked at me with wide eyes. "Is there anything else you'll need?"
"Yes." With fermented grape confidence, I moved over to her, and gazed down at her face. She was so much shorter than I was, and it made me feel powerful and protective at the same time. I reached out and put my hand on her face, cupping her soft cheek. "How about a kiss, for my birthday?"
A/N: The planned weekly update schedule will likely be a bit longer.
I went a bit outside of canon with how he met Peter. I owe this change to Dan, who mentioned he hoped to read a story with Jasper and Peter without their wives, roaming around and getting into mischief.
Thanks also to Sibyl, who clued me in to how long it takes to fully train horses and their riders. I didn't have six years to devote to the process, but this is much better than the day I gave it originally.