The cadets watched and shielded the assault from officers in the area.
Buck tore at one boy, but was blind-sided by another. He fell to the ground. A cadet’s boot rammed Buck’s forehead. Blood flowed and blinded him for a second until he felt the weight of a cadet lifted from him when a few officers from the first class interfered. “It’s Fred Crenshaw’s little brother,” one of them said, pulling Buck to his feet as blood spurted from behind Buck’s hand. “What the devil is going on here?”
The blood kept coming, messing Buck’s clothes and sickening passing plebes (Streeter among them) just let out of dance class. The officers saw the rough yearlings sneering at Streeter and understood what had turned them against one of their own. “You boys wouldn’t be causing a commotion over Cadet Crenshaw’s admirable treatment of the plebes, would you?”
The yearlings said nothing—they hadn’t been given permission to speak. The officer continued. “A cadet ranked first in his year should be imitated. West Point is not a place for schoolyard bullies. Who would respect a fellow for not fighting fair? I have a mind to give you all demerits. Some of you are awfully close to dismissal already. Now go to your quarters this instant.”
“Yes, sir!” they said.
Buck attempted to leave, but the officer grabbed him. “Buck, you need to go to the infirmary, now. I hope you’ve learned something.”
“Yes, that you can’t trust your friends!” Buck shouted after the others, spitting blood.
“That’s not what I was thinking,” the officer said, pointing Buck towards the infirmary. “Many of us feel compassion for Mr. Streeter, but it does no good to associate with him. It’s your duty to become a fine officer. That’s what the citizens are paying for. If you allow yourself to become distracted in championing the cause of racial equality or any other such thing then you’ll fail in your career here. Leave that sort of work to the politicians.”
“But sir, I haven’t been distracted at all by Streeter. I’ve been, well, boning for promotion and colors. I wish I’d never met Streeter. He’s aloof and ungrateful.”
The officer raised his brow. “And why should Streeter feel grateful to you—if you never helped him in any way, Buck?”
“Well, I did speak to him on occasion,” Buck replied, wiping his face gingerly with a handkerchief sent from his sister, Thankful.
“That was a mistake, Buck. A mistake that Fred never would have made.”
“I don’t hate people the way my brother does,” Buck said. “I let people alone.”
“Buck, you may be right that all men should be treated equal—but that has never been the case here. A plebe is a plebe. It was a trying time for all of us, but it built character.”
“Yes, I know that!” Buck shouted again, his head ringing. “I don’t understand how every move I make is misinterpreted, sir.”
The officer shook his head in sympathy. “Sometimes new yearlings like yourself think they understand things better than they actually do. Maybe you’ve been too proud and aloof.”
“No, I haven’t, sir!” Buck complained, pulling away from the officer’s hold on his shoulder.
“Listen, Crenshaw, get cleaned up and really think long and hard if a friendship with Streeter is worth it.”
“I’m not his friend!”
“Actions speak louder than words.” The officer left Buck outside the infirmary. Buck considered going in for treatment, but realized he’d have to explain himself so decided he’d fix his own face, hurrying back to his tent to avoid notice by any upperclassmen. Most of them were allowed to skip 5 o’clock drills where the plebes and yearlings were now.
Buck entered his tent and noticed his water pail filled and bed tidy. His head throbbed. Unlike his father the surgeon, Buck hated blood. With an unsettled stomach, he held a mirror to his forehead and nearly vomited. A large flap of skin hung from his temple, exposing bone—his skull. Buck held his breath, while reaching for a hidden bottle of applejack.
He took a long, sweet slug before dipping a cotton shirt from his laundry bag into his water pail and sponging up as much wet blood as he could. Buck tried not to think about his exposed skull or how he might make the skin stick back. The blood spread under his nails and in his mouth. Quickly, before losing courage and consciousness, he grabbed the skin and slapped it back in place before passing out.
Streeter came in. “Sakes alive! Sir! Buck Crenshaw, wake up! Are you dead?”
Buck opened his eyes.
“I was told you’d be in the infirmary,” Streeter said, his eyes big with worry. “What an awful mess, but, I’ve got to go, sir. My apologies, but I can’t miss drill and risk demerits. Hell . . . I feel awful about leaving you like this and I’ve taken a yearling’s guard duty tonight so I can’t be any use to you, sorry to say. Maybe I should tell someone . . .”
“NO!” Buck ordered. “Just leave me be.”
Streeter looked him over once more. “I saw what they did to your book, sir.”
“Get out, damn you,” Buck moaned.
Streeter paced once across the floor, mumbling to himself, but left when someone on the company street called to him.
Buck edged up on his elbows, cursing the colored cadet. His head spun, but his thoughts kept him awake and sipping Applejack until the bottle emptied. He’d surprise them all by making colors in the morning. Buck must keep up his strength till then. After winning he’d be given time off as reward.
The first grey of daybreak showed Buck to his things. With blurred vision, he dressed and sat listening for reveille but drifted back asleep and had to run to make changing of the guard. He’d slept through roll call and squad drill and now arrived late for parade. Buck caught everyone’s perplexed faces as he stumbled up to the adjutant and tossed his rifle over for inspection, waiting unsteadily.
“Buck,” the adjutant, usually so aloof, began in a paternal way.
“Mr. Crenshaw, your face and your uniform–your gun is very unclean. Is this some sort of joke?”
Two of Buck’s former friends stepped forward. “Come now, Buck. You need to go back to the infirmary.”
Buck shoved them away and turned back to the adjutant, only then noticing Streeter standing nearby.
Was Streeter actually going for colors?
“Streeter?” Buck asked in angry amazement.
“Sir, if I thought you were in any shape . . .” Streeter began. “I’m just so tired, sir. I wanted a night off. I thought I might get colors and some time off.”
“You’re a damned plebe!” Buck cried. He swiped at a trickle of blood on his forehead, upsetting the flap of skin. The cadets gasped as new blood fell.
The adjutant stepped down from the platform. “Buck Crenshaw, were you fighting? You smell like a distillery!”
The officer from the previous day came up. “Here you are, Crenshaw—the doctor said you never came—by Jove! You’re a mess!”
“I’m fine, sir. My gun, it was clean yesterday . . .”
Someone shouted, “He had a plebe clean it! I saw Mr. Streeter at it!”
Buck whirled around, stumbling as he did, to face the cadets. “That’s a lie! I never let anyone!”
Streeter stepped forward. “Cadet Streeter United States Military Academy asks permission to speak, sir.”
“What do you want, mister?” the adjutant shouted.
“Sir, Cadet Crenshaw didn’t know I cleaned his weapon, sir. I wanted to do him a favor,” Streeter explained.
“Sir, why would you do that? It’s against regulations for any cadet to try for colors if he hasn’t done his own cleaning!”
“I knew how much it meant for Cadet Crenshaw and he’d want to do it just right, sir. I just thought I’d do a small favor,” Streeter said.
The adjutant tossed Streeter back his own rifle in exasperated disdain. “Mr. Streeter, your rifle is fairly clean, but I make a point of never selecting my color line from plebes so you may as well wait until next year to try again.”
“Yes, sir. It’s just that I took someone else’s duty last night and I was tired so . . .”
“Do you think I give a damn why you did what you did, Mr. Streeter? I don’t care what a plebe does or why. I suspect Cadet Crenshaw put you up to it, but I can’t understand why.”
“No, sir! Buck had nothing to do with it!” Streeter said as the other cadets booed and hissed.
“Shut up, cadet! And get out of my sight. I don’t even want to know you until next year when maybe you will have grown into a man of better judgment. It takes a real jackass to try for colors as a plebe. Now git!”
PART ONE HERE
PART TWO HERE
PART THREE HERE
PART FOUR HERE
Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw and his misadventures when you buy the book today!