Book 4–Bozeman Paymaster, Chapter 3

©2022 Robert Lee Murphy

I walked with Major Bonnet to the sutler’s store, where a half-dozen scruffy Indian males loitered in the shade of the building. Two old squaws stood gesticulating to the tailgate of the farm wagon Maguire had escorted there earlier.

A female, probably one of the two I’d seen earlier sitting on the rear of the wagon, stood there holding an outstretched blanket to block the Indians’ view into the wagon’s bed. Wisps of blonde hair escaped the edges of a blue bonnet, but with her back to me, her face was hidden.

When the major and I drew abreast of the tailgate, I saw what she tried to shield. A young woman sat on a rocking chair inside the wagon nursing a baby.

The major stopped beside the tailgate. He made hand signs and spoke a couple of phrases in Sioux to the two old squaws. They sidled over to join their male companions.

“Ladies,” the major said to the two white women, “you are creating quite a stir here with these old squaws.”

“How?” the female holding the blanket asked without turning around. “What could interest them about a mother nursing her baby?”

“These squaws want to buy the baby,” the major said.

“What?” The blanket holder exclaimed without moving. “Oh, goodness.”

“I suggest,” the major said, “you go inside the store.”

“Lyndon is cutting teeth, sir,” the one nursing the baby said. “I’m afraid his crying will disturb the patrons.”

“Ma’am,” the major replied, “you can’t disturb these patrons. They’re so loud, they’ll never notice.”

“All right.” She eased the baby off her breast and closed the front of her dress. “We’ll go inside.”

The major touched the brim of his hat with a finger and took a step toward the store’s front door. When he realized I hadn’t moved, he grabbed my arm and pushed me through the door ahead of him.

Inside, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the bright outdoor sunlight. An assortment of people crowded against the counter that extended around the opposite three walls. Soldiers wearing faded, blue blouses rubbed elbows with civilian teamsters in multicolored wool shirts. Indian men, bare to the waist, stood silently behind buckskin-dressed squaws. The Indian women, with papooses snuggled into backboard cradles, gestured energetically to desired items on the shelves. Brown-skinned toddlers crawled naked on the dirt floor gathering up crumbs of hardtack dropped by their elders. English served as the predominant bartering language, but smatterings of Sioux could be heard.

“Morning, Mr. Bullock,” the major said.

The slender, middle-aged sutler, with a neatly trimmed, white beard, replied, “Good morning to you, Major Bonnet. Did the pay chests arrive?”

“No. They did not.”

“When are you going to pay the past-due bills the army owes us?” Bullock asked. “Not to mention the soldiers who are piling up IOUs you wouldn’t believe.”

“It’s been four months since the troops have been paid. They’re in worse shape, I imagine, than you or Mr. Ward.” The major pointed to the diamond stickpin in Bullock’s cravat. “They don’t have your wherewithal to fall back on.”

“You’ll be following after Colonel Carrington to pay his men?”

“Yes,” the major said. “Hopefully, nobody will have to wait much longer. Fort Sedgwick telegraphed the pay chests will be with the next train. Adding that train to the one that came in this morning, we’ll have enough wagons and men to comply with regulations so we can head north.”

“Well,” the sutler said, “I assume you didn’t come in here to discuss pay problems.”

“I need pipe tobacco.”

Bullock reached to a shelf behind him and slapped a paper packet of Minne-Ha-Ha! Cavendish tobacco on the counter.

Major Bonnet paid for the tobacco with a twenty-five-cent paper note—coins being rare on the frontier. He shoved the packet into his coat pocket and headed toward an adjacent room where soldiers were engaged in beer drinking and card playing.

I remained standing inside the doorway. Mr. Bullock cocked an eyebrow at me. “You buying something, son?”

“No, sir. Just waiting for the major.”

“Well, wait over there out of the way of paying customers.” Bullock pointed at two old Indian men occupying a bench against the wall, smacking their lips around peppermint candy canes. He shouted at them in Sioux, and they vacated the seat.

No sooner had I sat down than the door opened, and the two young ladies and the baby came in.

“Ladies?” Bullock reached over the counter to shove an Indian aside. “Can I help you?” He motioned them forward.

They occupied the place he’d cleared. “Thank you, sir,” the young mother said.

“I’m William Bullock. Welcome to Bullock & Ward’s. My partner, Seth Ward, is waiting on that couple at that other counter.” Bullock pointed to a man with a full-flowing, white beard.

“Oh, he’s helping my father, Reverend Garrick Hollister, and my mother. I’m Mrs. Megan Hollister Sawyer, and this is my son, Lyndon.”

Bullock’s gaze shifted from Megan to the girl standing beside her.

“I’m Miss Kathleen O’Toole,” she said.

Traces of pale blonde hair were visible around the edges of her bonnet, but I still could not see her face.

“Pleased to meet you both. What suits your fancy?” Bullock waved a hand at the shelves loaded with cans and boxes of food stuffs, stacks of clothing, and an assortment of hardware. “Sweets, perhaps?”

“You handle the mail for Fort Laramie, sir?” the girl who’d said her name was Kathleen asked.

“This store houses the post office for Fort Laramie, yes.”

“Would you have any letters from Mister Brandon Hollister? My fiancé would have written from Montana and probably addressed his letter to me in Pennsylvania.”

“I don’t personally handle the mail. The postmaster is Ordnance Sergeant Schnyder. He’s sorting the mail your wagon train brought in. I’ll get him.”

Bullock came around the counter and entered an area set aside for the post office between the store and the adjacent barroom. He returned, followed by a sergeant.

“You have a question, miss?” the sergeant asked.

The blonde repeated her question about looking for a letter from her fiancé.

“Miss, I am holding no letter for you. It would be improper for me to hold mail addressed to Pennsylvania. I would have forwarded it. I’ve been the postmaster here for seven years, I have a good memory, and I do not recall ever seeing a letter addressed to your name.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome.” The ordnance sergeant left.

“How can I help you, ma’am?” Bullock addressed Megan.

“Do you have something for a baby’s toothache?” The baby fidgeted and fussed in his mother’s arms.

“I have clove oil,” Bullock said. “I understand it helps, but you shouldn’t use too much of it. It could harm a young one.”

“How do I use it?” Megan asked.

“The officers’ ladies rub a little on the youngster’s gums with a finger.”

“I’ll try it.”

“Very well. Shall I include it with your parents’ purchases?”

“You can add the item to the family bill, but if you will, give me the oil now.”


Bullock stepped farther down the counter, then returned with a small bottle. “Here you are. You ladies can sit on that bench over there until your folks have finished. I’m sure that young gentleman will make room for you.”

As the two approached, I stood, stepped aside, and removed my hat. When I saw the blonde’s face, my mouth dropped open. I’d gone to school with nice-looking girls and had seen many beauties in New York City, but I’d never encountered one that absolutely mesmerized me.

“Oh, don’t leave, sir,” Megan said. “There’s room for all of us.”

The ladies settled on the bench, with Megan sitting closest to the door. I resumed my seat on the opposite end of the bench, next to the blonde. I crushed my hat in my lap and glanced sideways at the two ladies.

“Can you take out the cork?” Megan handed the small bottle to her companion.

The blonde struggled with the cork stopper. She turned to me. A delicate cleft graced her chin. “Sir, could you . . .?” She extended the bottle with a smile. Dimples indented her cheeks at the corners of her lips and accentuated the slight indentation below her nose. Deep-blue eyes gleamed beneath dark lashes. Arched eyebrows matched the pale-blonde curls framing her face.

“Sir?” she repeated.

“Oh . . . oh, yes.” My hands let go of my hat, and it fell to the floor at my feet.

When she passed me the bottle, the tips of my fingers burned where they touched her cool, slender ones. Her slight shift on the bench brought her hip in contact with mine. I let out an inadvertent grunt as she released the bottle into my hand.

I grasped the cork with the nails of a thumb and two fingers and drew it out. The pleasant fragrance of the spice wafted from the bottle. I passed it back, wishing I’d taken time that morning to scrape the dirt from under my nails with my pocketknife.

Megan placed an index finger over the opening of the bottle, and her friend tipped it. Megan transferred the drop of liquid to her son’s mouth and gently massaged his gums. The baby murmured contentedly.

I still held the cork, which the blonde beauty now took from me—her cool fingers once again searing mine. “Thank you, sir.”

Could she hear my heart thumping? I reached down to retrieve my hat. After I straightened up, I managed to stammer, “You’re . . . you’re welcome.”

She held the bottle to her nose and sniffed. “Maybe we should sprinkle a little of this in the air.” Her laughter tinkled.

“I doubt it would help,” I said.

I had grown immune to the overpowering odor of animal grease emanating from the half-clothed natives. Mingled with the stench of soldiers’ and teamsters’ sweat-soaked, wool clothing, the atmosphere probably proved repugnant to her delicate sense of smell. Pungent pipe and cigar smoke also permeated the crowded store. The sour smell of beer floated in the air from the far end of the room where the boisterous laughter of card players frequently drowned out the nearby shouted bargaining for supplies and sundries.

“I’m Kathleen O’Toole,” she said. “Most people call me Katy. This is Megan Hollister, my sister-in-law to be.”

“I know,” I said.

“How did you know she is to be my sister-in-law?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that. I meant, I know your names. I overheard you tell the sutler.”

“I see. And you are?”

“Zachary Taylor Wakefield.” I blurted out my full name.

“Named for the president?”

I nodded. “My father served under him in the Mexican War.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Major Bonnet returning from the barroom. That momentarily drew my attention away from Katy.

When the major passed the Hollisters, the reverend stopped him. The minister was a couple inches shorter than Major Bonnet, who stood two inches shorter than my six feet. A beard that would have made Moses proud completely covered the front of the preacher’s frock coat. Had he been standing by himself, he would have appeared taller with his regal bearing.

“Major,” Reverend Hollister said, “did I hear you say a wagon train was heading up the Bozeman to Montana?”

“No, that’s not what I said.”

“Aren’t you the commanding officer?” Hollister asked.

“No, sir. I’m the paymaster.”

“Well, I can’t wait around here forever. I have a mission to fulfill. I’m Reverend Garrick Hollister, an ordained minister of the Methodist Episcopal faith. The Lord has called me to go to Montana to preach the good word to the heathens. I must be on my way . . . now.”

“Reverend, I suggest you take the matter up with the post commander. He determines when travelers can proceed up the Bozeman Trail. You will find Major Van Voast at his headquarters in the adjutant’s office, at the far end of the parade ground.”

The major excused himself with a bow. He had taken only a couple of steps when he abruptly stopped in front of me.

What had I done wrong? It took a moment to realize he wasn’t looking at me.

Just as I had done, the major stared at Kathleen with an open mouth. He reached into an inside coat pocket and extracted his pocket watch. I’d seen the major check his watch frequently, but I’d never paid much attention to the action. He continued to look at Kathleen as he flipped open the cover and faced it toward her. A miniature painting filled the inside of the watch’s lid.

My mouth dropped open again as I looked from the picture to Kathleen. The portrait was of her.

Major Bonnet snapped the lid closed and slipped the watch into his pocket. He removed his hat. “My apologies, ladies.” He nodded to Kathleen and Megan. “I’m Major Armond Bonnet, and I must admit, I was taken aback.”

“I can understand why,” Megan said. “There is a striking resemblance between my friend and the painting.”

“How did you obtain a miniature resembling me?” Katy asked.

“It’s of my wife. God rest her soul. She gave me this watch on our honeymoon. She is no longer of this earth. She and my daughter were murdered by Bloody Bill Anderson’s guerrillas during the last year of the war.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Katy said. “I do understand that in this world there occasionally appears a person who resembles another. I hope my appearance does not offend you.”

“Oh, no, my dear. It pleases me immensely that the good Lord sees fit to continue my wife’s beauty in yours.”

When the major made this last comment, Katy responded with a grin. Her dimples matched those in the watch’s portrait.

The door to the sutler’s store banged open, and Duggan Maguire barged in. He halted and touched the brim of his hat but did not remove it. “Ah, Major Bonnet . . . ladies.” He didn’t address me. “Why the solemn look on everybody’s face?”

“I was telling this young lady . . .” Major Bonnet paused. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name, Miss.”

“Kathleen O’Toole.”

“I was telling Miss O’Toole that she resembles my deceased wife,” Major Bonnet said.

“I see.” Maguire spoke slowly. The wagon train captain stared at the major, who continued to look admiringly at Katy.

Major Bonnet missed the frown on Maguire’s ruddy features. Nor did the major see Maguire extract a small gold shamrock from a pants pocket and caress it with his thumb and fingers.