Note: An extract from a novel
There’s a measure of forgetfulness in every glass but if you need a whole bottle then there ain’t never enough. I had plenty of reasons not to sleep at night. Sand Creek was just one, but it didn’t touch me then. I gave no more thought to shooting a Graycoat from a quarter mile than cutting down a squaw from a few feet. All those crimes I committed in uniform and there is absolution of a kind in that.
No, it was not on their account that, on the 3rd of January, 1867, the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, drunker than I’d ever been on Hog Ranch whiskey, I deserted from Camp Cooke and headed out into the wilderness. I didn’t imagine the army searching for a ruined soldier and I had no intention of returning. It was my last effort to purge the memory of one Little Long Thigh, for that was how she was called to mock the red branch of her family tree, although her real name was Mary.
Before Camp Cooke but years after I lost Mary, I was part of Governor Evans’s regiment under Colonel Chivington. We were formed for the sole purpose of killing Indians but I had no real feelings about it either way. Cheyenne, Arapahos, Sioux or Crow meant as much to me as Yankee or Dixie, Protestant or Catholic. To me, an Indian woman was just a squaw, even though, when the world was still new (eighteen years young to be exact), I knew one who spoke pidgin English and dressed like French girls in magazines. When we danced, my heart raced and, when I held her close, she smelled so good. Whenever she looked at me sideways, my stomach crunched like a tin can left on a fire.
This Mary was the wife of a Mexican three times her age. Together they ran the ranch where we went to play cards and get drunk. I never knew what forced her into such a union but, whatever it was, it didn’t sit right with me.
I’d joined the army not long before on a romantic misconception. I was looking for adventure and found boredom and hard labor. It is not in the nature of frontier soldiers to inquire into each other’s origins. Instead, they find community in dice, whiskey and each other’s dollars. I spent years with some of these men and learned no more about them than the day we met, except which amongst them was the most rotten. If they’d have died, who would I have told? Then again, who would they find to grieve for me?
I was out of place amongst those rough men and they made ill use of a green horn. My ignorance made me feel foolish and girls were amongst the things I was most ignorant about. Being an orphan, not fitting weighs hard on me.
One thing I could do, turned out, was hold my liquor. Better than my fellows and better than that Mexican. I’d watch everyone drop around me. Only Mary outdid me on it. I still had manners in those days, and I was shy, so she took to me. That’s when we started dancing – to no music at all but the snores of everyone around us and the wind outside.
We held back so we could have that time alone, and never spoke on it but exchanged looks which was our kind of code. I felt sick in anticipation of those nights, thinking only of them and hardly sleeping. Ain’t that something like love? When you can’t hardly eat? It never went any further than dancing because I didn’t know how to set the thing in motion. She took my holding back for being gentlemanly and it made her like me all the more.
One day, a brute by the name of Parker dropped something so Mary had to bend down to pick it up – all so he could say something against her honor. I threw myself at him and earned a beating for my trouble. Anyway, the Mexican got wind of the cause of the argument and it made him suspicious.
After that, he must’ve noticed our looking at each other. One night, he stayed sober and only pretended to sleep. All we did was dance but he saw it all. Next night, Mary was nowhere to be seen. So it went for a few days. I was too much a coward to do anything about it.
Then one evening, I drank hard in search of courage. I found it near dawn and snuck away from the barracks. Sun-up over the plains was red as rust and I’m thinking maybe it’s calling for blood. I crept up to the window and saw the two of them asleep. Her face was swollen and covered in bruises, her eyes black as tar.
I don’t know how long I stood there, or if I made a noise, but she woke and saw me. She smiled. That smile seemed to invite me in and call me to a new life. It had sobriety in it and maybe the sound of children playing. It was the sound of someone next to you in old age who’d care enough to make sure you were still breathing each morning. I should’ve smashed through that window. We could have been nothing but a dust cloud before that Mexican could reach for his rifle. But I stood there frozen, lingering dumb-eyed like a steer waiting for a bullet. She must’ve seen right through me because, just before I turned away, the smile fell from her face.
After that, something inside of me turned over. I stayed away and the rest of the boys burned me for it, calling me Drinkswater because they thought I was abstaining. One of them, one I considered a friend, played me like a winning hand. When he got from me what was really wrong, he laughed so hard he nearly choked. Others have gotten on Little Long Thigh’s soft side, he said bent double, but he was sure I was the only one that got down to much dancing. I was too foolish, too proud and just too damned young to remember that there wasn’t one man amongst this crew that weren’t a liar.
You’ll think me an animal, and you’d be right. I spent only the bullet in the chamber for her husband but emptied the whole cylinder on Mary and kept pulling the trigger once the ammo was spent. It’s took a long time even to be able to say it. It was many years until I even had a nightmare about it but once the stone was rolled back, the light kept pouring in.
He was an old Mexican, and she half redskin, so no one came looking for me. Perhaps I’d have faced court martial if the times hadn’t been all chaos. For the very next day, we got our marching orders down to Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. There, white men were killing each other.
In ’64, I was hunting Graycoats between Denver and the Arkansas River when Colonel Chivington called for reinforcements for his Colorado Volunteers. I had still not shot a man but from a distance. I joined their Third Regiment as it approached Fort Lyon in mid-November. That was the end of one war for me and the start of another.
Chivington’s eyes were as red as mine, but what bit at him was deeper than a winter’s dose of scurvy. It was under his charms that I first suffered possession by that demon Patriotism, although now I know that it was working on me the moment they put a rifle in my hands. It has taken years to exorcise.
He called us the ‘advance guard of civilization’ and appealed directly to those of us newly with him – ‘once the Confederacy is brought to its knees, a hundred thousand volunteers just like you will push up the Arkansas and the Platte in search of a new future. New mineral wealth is opening up in Montana, Idaho and Arizona and you’ve earned it. The savage must join us or make way for the stockman and the farmer.’
Whiskey couldn’t have made us more drunk than this battle cry of his. The stars were shining in thousands the night we left Fort Lyon on the 29th. We marched all night underneath them until we reached Sand Creek. It was the only real action I ever saw.
The eastern sky was brightening but there was still no sun. We could see the tepees and the lodges where the stream draws a horseshoe in the land. We galloped across the sand flats in the persisting darkness. Later, I spoke to an old brave who survived that day. He said he thought we was shadow people coming up out of the dirt and wondered what we wanted.
Soon, though, the redskins knew well enough what was coming their way. They were running and screaming. I could see Black Kettle holding the pole on which flew Old Glory. They gathered around it, sure it would protect them from us even after we’d opened fire, sure that it must’ve been some mistake.
Suffice to say, there were half-breeds amongst them that looked just like my Mary. When one came running up to me, blood streaming from a gash in her forehead, all fighting left me like a departing spirit. She collapsed in my arms. Seemed like the chaos raged around us without a thought for who we were. Felt like bullets changed their course. Just before she died, I heard her whisper my name. Of course, such a thing can’t be possible.
I felt paralyzed. It was all I could do to blink my eyes. Although I had spilt plenty of blood, all that the officers saw was a choker. After the battle, I was branded a coward. But the army had need of men. With my letters, I might once have made sergeant but not after that. More than soldiers, it needed laborers. And they judge that you needn’t be too brave to wield a shovel.
After the Confederacy surrendered, I was employed to fortify our existing camps. Red Cloud and his warriors were itching to try us. We knew peace couldn’t hold. There was no buffalo to hunt and the redskins wouldn’t settle to farming.
On measly rations and in squalid conditions, we built quarters, bridges and roads. We took leisure in gambling and whoring. The others were struggling against boredom. For me, it was about drinking whiskey until I’d had enough to dull my senses because I kept hearing Mary’s voice everywhere I went, smelt her perfume whenever the evening primrose bloomed and saw her on the horizon every sundown amongst the endless scrub to the east.
I grew more and more useless. So they sent me to Camp Cooke, already made obsolete by the ever-moving frontier. And the camp and I decayed together until, one night, I wandered into the wilderness of the Bear Paw Mountains to seek the peace of a sleep unbroken.
The stars were huge above me. There barely seemed a scratch of black beneath. I closed my eyes without a care for opening them again. The Indians say that the Milky Way is a highroad cluttered with the campfires of their ancestors guiding home the spirits of the dead. I wanted those stars to be the last thing that I saw.
But my eyes did open. And I looked up to see buffalo robes and buckskin leggings. Tall red men, hair braided with strips of painted buckskin and feathers on their heads. I think that I laughed. That the law on earth might really have its model in heaven seemed to me hilarious. I expected to lose my scalp …