A few weeks later Buck accepted an invitation to help test the jittery new guards on duty. Stealthy cadets came at all angles and times. One officer played a stranger refusing to give the countersign; another called down from a tree while another one slid by undetected, much to the embarrassment of the fledgling guard.
Buck in his first summer had impressed his superiors by never becoming rattled except for the one time when Fred shoved a garter snake down his trousers.
The moon sunk away, the exercise ended, and the upperclassmen drifted back to their tents for a little sleep. Buck came upon Streeter. He wasn’t tired, so Buck struck up conversation. “How are you liking guard duty, Mr. Streeter?”
“It’s a challenge, sir, but then I guess we wouldn’t be here if we were afraid of challenges,” Streeter replied. “Sir, is it true that when yearlings take to riding lessons, it’s open to the public?”
“Yes. Why?” Buck asked. “Are you not very good on a horse, Mr. Streeter?”
“I’m quite good, but I think it best I keep a low profile.”
“Hmm, I’m fairly good, too,” Buck said. “I want to join the cavalry. I have no intention of keeping quiet on that score. I intend to be head of my class and beat my brother in all things.”
“Well, sir, a high profile will do you no damage,” Streeter replied, glancing around uneasily. “I was given a few newspapers by my congressman who came to visit.”
“Yes, he seemed very distinguished for a colored—I mean a Southerner.” Buck’s face burned in the dark.
A cough from a tent in the distance and busy crickets covered the silence.
Streeter lowered his voice. “The papers are running stories that I’m badly mistreated so far and that I’m behaving in a cowardly fashion to the insults and threats.”
“Is it true?” Buck asked.
“To be honest, I haven’t been paying any attention,” Buck said.
“Oh,” Streeter said. “Well, no, sir. I’ve had no need to fight or defend myself at all. The other cadets keep to themselves—strictly to themselves, sir. I don’t have any words with them except for in the most official capacity.” Streeter waited for a response, glancing up at the stars. “I believe I’m being cut out. It’s to be expected, but what makes me sore is that some of the fellows I studied with before exams now pretend not to know me. Sakes alive, there’s a light complexioned cadet who I know is at least half colored and he is more turned off to me than any of the others. I’ve heard some cadets call me ignorant things when they think I can’t hear, but mostly everyone is exasperatingly cordial and polite.”
Buck had a sudden horrible thought. Was he being cut from the others, too? When was the last time one of his classmates spoke to him informally? Buck wracked his brain and sighed in relief as he remembered a joke someone told him at breakfast.
Streeter spoke again. “Do you want my copy of The Tribune, sir? I’ve finished it.”
“Oh, yes, thanks. It’s my father’s favorite paper. We teased him that it was the personal ads he liked best—you know they’re guides to prostitutes?”
Streeter rolled his eyes. “I wondered.”
“But of course I would never have any interest in that sort of thing!” Buck joked.
“Me neither, sir,” Streeter said with gravity. “The man my father worked for had syphilis—the final stages.”
“Oh,” Buck said, “what did your father work as?”
“A slave.” Streeter laughed.
“Well, he had it better than a lot of other folks,” Streeter said. “He was good with racehorses and even after the war his services were in demand. In the end, he’s well off by southern standards. Sent us to missionary schools. The teacher was a colored lady from the North and all I wanted was to speak like her.”
“You’ve succeeded then,” Buck said. “I’d hardly know you were from down there.”
“Thank you, sir,” Streeter replied.
Again there was a long pause, but no attempt to end the meeting.
“I guess you like thoroughbreds,” Buck said.
“Oh, they’re okay. My father and his master had a queer fondness for Morgans.”
“Really? My father, too. I love them myself,” Buck replied with enthusiasm. He felt around in his pocket. “Hmm, would you like a smoke?”
“That’d be grand. I’ve tried to quit. My parents, when they first found me chewing tobacco, thought I was a ruined son,” Streeter laughed.
“My parents have had more than one reason to believe I was ruined over the years.” He lit Streeter’s cigar. “My brother and I have been a trial to my parents. But I guess we weren’t taught right.”
“You seem all right, sir,” Streeter said.
Buck puffed away. “Anyway, it’s good to be on the straight and narrow for once. I’m going for color guard soon.”
“Good luck, sir. Those officers are tough.”
“Yes, when I got here first I was some mess,” Buck chuckled. “I always had people to do for me at home and now I was on my own. You’ve got a head start on me, Mr. Streeter. I still can’t believe how well you set your things in order on the very first try. I even caught it for being easy on you.”
“Really, sir? I’m not at all pleased to hear that,” Streeter replied. “I wouldn’t like to think that you treat me any differently.”
“No, I never would, I assure you!” Buck huffed at the temper Streeter showed him. It was out of place for a junior cadet.
Streeter continued. “I must say you would do me the biggest favor if you gave me no preferential treatment at all. Maybe even taking this cigar puts us in a bad light. If I’m to succeed in the men’s eyes I must do everything on my own. I cannot be helped by a yearling everyone thinks is too lenient.”
“Lenient?” Buck’s heart raced.
“It is your reputation, sir.”
“How dare you speak to me this way!” Buck fumed. “I show the cadets respect and you see that as weakness?”
“I didn’t say I thought you were too lenient, but I must watch the impression I make with the others, sir.”
“Get out of my sight!” Buck yelled and stormed off to the tent they shared.
PART ONE HERE
PART TWO HERE
Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw and his misadventures when you buy the book today!
**Image LOC Flirtation Walk, West Point Military Academy