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Another bullet penetrated the mud-walled shack neatly grazing the arm of Lieutenant Tom McGinty's Union Soldier uniform, leaving a stinger but drawing no blood. "I'll be damned if I'm staying here letting 'em pierce me through the heart to bleed to death in Lord knows where we are," he bleated out mostly to himself since those of his regiment who stayed were lying either in agony or death around him. Still it brought him comfort to talk to them, knowing they couldn't answer but believing they were still watching him fight. Six men had "volunteered" to hold off the attack while the remaining soldiers took the dead settler's wife and children down the Green River to Fort Cass and safety.
Their father wouldn't be joining them that night or ever again. It was a wild and unforgiving country with as many snares as promises to those brave enough--no, foolish enough to try to tame it. Lieutenant McGinty knew the story; he'd heard it a dozen times before: The family left their home in the East for gold, or land, or cattle and the inherent enticement of money. When they arrived, the Sioux were friendly enough, maybe more amused than curious. Thinking their Christian values would transcend the cultural differences and moral values of the savages, the family took more and more liberties with the natives till they crossed the line.
Lack of envisioned riches breeds greed, and the Natives cannot understand a man claiming more and more land as his own. To the Indians, life was simple: live today; die tomorrow. To many white men life was far more complex: live today and get as much as you can by any means available to you, dying is not in theforeseeable future. Tom hated thinking that these were the kind of people who represented him, knowing far more honest and faithful people than not. He hoped this family was one of the later but feared the father was one of the former. The temptation to take advantage of your neighbor, especially when that neighbor is to your standards uneducated, is too great.
Even with good intentions, eventually the white man encroaches to the point that the native can't live on the land his ancestors had known for generations. Something had to give. "They are not reasonable," we say. "They don't understand what it takes." Maybe it's us. Maybe we've taken too much. Either way, a soldier has his duty and Lieutenant McGinty had never shirked it before; he wasn't about to shirk it now. He'd wait till nightfall, if he could survive till then.
The soldiers came to the homestead after the settler's oldest boy rode to the fort screaming for help. When they arrived, the Indians had apparently abandoned the raid and retreated to their own village. After loading a few things into the family's wagon, the soldiers set out for the fort. Then the Sioux returned. They came in a rush, killing or maiming several soldiers during the ensuing chaos. Six soldiers were ordered to counter the attackers, drawing their fire and providing enough time for the remaining soldiers to evacuate the family under a barrage of gunfire and bugle calls. After retreating again, the Sioux turned back on the soldiers and forced them into the outbuildings of the settlement.
Shortly after the retreat, two soldiers died from their wounds. Two more took arrows within the first few minutes. The fifth soldier died from a lead slug that penetrated the thin walls of the building. Tom's scratch on the arm amounted to little more than a discomfort while he waited for the next three hours, collecting the guns and ammunition from his companions. Tom blindly fired off an occasional shot towards the Indians to let them know he was still alive, hoping to keep them at bay till sundown. He remained on a vigilant guard watching the hillside for movement, firing indiscriminately when he saw any. It was a long three hours, maybe the longest he could remember.
His whole life Tom had wanted adventure. A life on the frontier, settling the land and raising cattle didn't appeal that much to him so he joined the Army. Sometimes he regretted his choice of military service thinking that a life on the sea would have been more adventurous. If not as a Naval Seaman then as a buccaneer, though he doubted he had the malevolence within him to be a scoundrel. Then, with the reassignment to Indian Territory, Tom had plenty of opportunity for adventure; this day had proved that--of course, putting your life into the hands of an enemy was not the only avenue for adventure, to be sure. His commitment to the Army had expired two days earlier, and he was weighing his options to reenlist or move on. At this moment the choice was obvious: get out! He didn't feel he was a brave man, just a soldier doing his duty. Often that duty had put him into situations that tested his commitment--so far so good. Whenever he needed something more, he remembered his father dying in the street, gunned down by bank robbers.
His father had been the deputy sheriff and the acting president of the first bank in a new town on the cusp of the new frontier. These towns often started the same, pandering to the pioneers. The populations grew and shrunk with the tides of settlers and prospectors. The names were often the same--Silver City, Sweet Water, Boomtown--relating to the geographic or mineralogical aspects of the area. The names changed over time as new people came and the old timers moved on, passed away, or just dropped out of favor with the political elites.
The McGintys moved to the town shortly after the discovery of silver. Tom's father didn't imagine finding a claim of his own; rather he sought to take advantage of the need for business. "That's where the real money is," he would say. "Even the miners who go bust have to first buy tools and supplies. The proprietors who sell those wares will need commerce. You cannot have a business with out establishing commerce." So his father proposed to the people a business district, setting himself up as the chairman. Tom and his brothers would work the family farm during the day while their father spent his days in town shaping the direction of commerce. He had lost his election as mayor, but was appointed deputy sheriff, accepting more to keep his name on the minds of the townspeople than for a love of the law.
As the third son, Tom was not burdened with the full responsibilities of the farm or the family, so he was able to attend school when the town held it. Tom liked to read and to listen to the older people talk of their journey to the New World, whether it was immigrants crossing the ocean or pioneers crossing the plains. The Mormon handcart trek had gone through this Silver City a few years back and Tom liked listening to those stories. His favorite tales were those of a man named Porter Rockwell, a tough brute who did not fit the part of a religious zealot. Rockwell's loyalty was legendary, and Tom admired that, secretly hoping, but also fearing, to run into him some day.
His father would tell Tom that a man's duty and word were more important than his life. "If we die it's over. If we lie, we have to live with that the rest of our lives," he'd say. "Without his word, a man's no better than a dog. That's why Judas hung himself. Couldn't live with the shame that accompanies a traitorous coward."
His daddy had given his word to the town that he'd protect the money to his last breath--he did, taking two of the five bank robbers with him. One of the fallen bank robbers carried the bags of money. The townspeople recovered the money and honored Mr. McGinty by naming the town after him--Gintiburg-which, Tom knew, over time would also change. Almost immediately after his father's death, Tom joined the Army to scout the West.
Reflecting back on those days, Tom wondered if he had gone to the mountains if he could have struck a claim. He wondered if he could have claimed some land and cleared it to farm. Many of the well-to-do's in the area were cattlemen or large farmers. He had been one of the first to settle in the area; he could have claimed some of the top land. But he tired of the same scenery easily and had to do something different. The Army seemed the best way out, now he wondered if it was the right way out.
He saw movement on the hill and fired a pot shot that easily missed the mobile Indian. He had never killed a man before, only Indians. He was slightly ashamed for thinking that way. He wanted to believe that "All men were created equal," but society, even the Government, didn't agree. The Indians and many others were treated like second-class citizens. Right or wrong, Tom couldn't help but feel the same. Still, it shamed him to dwell on the thought.
Twilight set in on the Dakotas' skyline as the lone soldier made his break from the cabin, sliding down the rain soaked grass to the Green River. As he approached the banks, the call of a mourning dove caught his attention. He'd been in Indian Territory long enough to feel when the sounds of nature were man-made. Instinctively dropping to the ground, he pulled his Army Issue Colt .45 into his line of sight and slithered through the mud, ducking behind a tree stump blackened by a lightning strike just out of the river. If there were Indians who had seen him he didn't stand much of a chance of getting away tonight. All he could do now was float away and pray it was dark enough that he'd go unnoticed or at least unseen.
Somewhere in the distance a coyote howl chased after the last shimmering of daylight. A field mouse paused momentarily to judge its distance from the predator before scurrying into its underground maze of interconnecting tunnels. Tonight it would dine on crickets and sleep in its warm nest made from the settler's old burlap bags. If Tom had seen the creature, he would have envied it for this one night.
The Green River ran very cold even in the summer. Tom knew the quickest way out of there was to use the current to carry him away, but he also knew how cold the river was. He sat behind the stump for several minutes talking himself into plunging into the cold. The site of the Indians moving on the outbuilding finally convinced him. He slipped into the water.
They could not know how many soldiers were holed up in the cabin so they were unable to guess that he'd left. Of course, they'd search for him, for anyone who may have lived. And he was sure they could easily read his footprints; it wouldn't take an Indian tracker to follow those large tracks through the mud. But with the onset of darkness, he hoped, they would find it much more difficult to track him to the river. Plus he tried to walk on the grasses and rocks when he could. Just the same, he was scared and wanted desperately to escape.
On the southwestern hill some forty yards from the river Tom saw the frightening silhouette of two burly Sioux braves searching the water. Despite the bitter cold from the water he completely submerged. He'd never been much of a swimmer, but to save his life a man is capable of incredible things. Afraid to open his eyes, Tom swam directly into a willow snag that entangled his left shoulder and scared the wind from his lungs.
The cold water burned his skin and lungs. His clothes doubled in weight; he worked himself into an all-out panic.
Flailing for the surface, Tom dropped his sidearm into the rushing water. Once again breathing oxygen, some of it in the form of the river, Tom snaked his way into the willows, hoping to remain unseen. He knew he had to drift in the darkness, but it was cold, bitterly cold. He stripped off his boots and let them sink into the water to stay afloat. He envisioned ice forming in his hair and eyelashes. If only he could look at himself in that saloon mirror again. "It wasn't much of a saloon," he murmured to himself, "But it was warm!"
"Especially while it burned." He chuckled with more of a quiver than a laugh. "I'd give real money to be fighting that fire again right now!" It had been less than a year ago when a group of roughens rode in and tied to the hitching post outside the one saloon near Fort Cass. One man picked a fight with an Army private who was negotiating a price with the local madam who sent the entire group of patrons into a brawl.
Somewhere along the way one of the kerosene lamps broke open and spilled onto the long tapestry igniting a fire that engulfed the pine paneled wall. The tempered wood of the building fueled the fire and brought the soldiers from the fort to the rescue. Their attempts were futile. All but the front window glass burned. The Captain of the fort ordered the arrest of the gang and the expulsion of the proprietor. No one had been able to rebuild a saloon within ten miles of the fort since.
Tom was young, twenty-four. He had not been in a saloon for drinks till two years after joining the Army. When he was a kid, he used to sit with his father in the saloons during the days and listen to the talk of the older folks. He knew he could learn from them, from their experiences. Since the town did not hold regular school, he used that opportunity for education. He also heard much of the news of the country and often thought about traveling back East to see where the founding fathers had done their sacred work. Someday, he thought, I'll do just that.
It was not until he was nineteen that he entered a saloon with the intent of getting drunk. The most vivid memories of the night were of puking his guts out. He knew he had had fun, his buddies told him so, but he had a headache that lasted two days, and the other soldiers took no pity on him. He decided then that heavy drinking didn't agree with him, and he stuck to small amounts of beer after that night.
He did, however, enjoy the company of the ladies. Though he spent little money on them and virtually no time upstairs, he liked to befriend them and indulge in innocent flirtations. Sure, the ladies put forth a facade of confidence and control, but their true self-esteem was low simply because of their profession. "It's hard to hold your head up when you're lying on your back," a lady had told him one night. Tom enjoyed making them feel like true ladies again. Once the girls realized that Tom truly respected them, they flocked to him when business was slow.
Scanning the now darkened hillside, Tom felt confident that he was alone. Just as he began drifting from the snag, he stiffened and reached back to the willows in a panic. He'd been looking at the wrong side of the river! Turning to the other bank, he nearly bawled when he saw several braves crest the summit and drop over the hill. He couldn't see anything below the skyline in this light.
"Which side?" he asked into the night. "Which side did they go down?" He tried to envision the site in his mind and determine where the Indians had gone. "Mexico! That's where I'm going!" Lieutenant McGinty was well aware that even though the Mexican-American war ended ten years ago the Union was still sending troops down there to quail the small uprisings and protect the California settlers from marauding banditos. "At least the water down there is warm." He could think of little else but the cold. He scanned the shoreline and hill crest in vain, shivering uncontrollably. "I wonder how hot Arizona really is?"
He could wait no longer; hell would be warmer than this river. He had to take his chances. Besides, it had to be dark enough now. He timidly released his grip on the branch that held him against the current and the river swept him silently down stream like so much driftwood. Picking a tree in the skyline, he watched it fade out of sight as he floated on his back towards safety. "I wonder if Lewis and Clark traveled this river," he said aloud. "I bet they weren't as cold." His jaw was so stiff from the cold he could hardly form the words. His entire body felt numb.
Overhead two bats chased insects through the air, dipping close enough to the river to feel the light spray of the water on their leathery wings.
Estimating that he had traveled more than a mile, about one third the distance to the fort, Tom spied the light of a fire flickering on the riverbank. The cold was too much, he had to get out and get warm. He guided himself to the shore and dragged himself up on to the bank. Again he nearly broke into tears as he weighed the possibility of hostile company versus the hostile river. If only he hadn't dropped his pistol! Crawling closer to the camp, he heard muffled voices, too quiet to understand. They had to be kinder than the Green River.
Tom lay motionless on his back for several minutes reaching deep inside him to find the nerve to face the camp. A light rain began to fall in his face. A pair of bullfrogs called to each other. Finally, in a moment of either great courage or absolute fear, Tom rose to his feet and walked directly towards the camp.
The unearthly sound of metallic snarls and the screams of human terror stopped Tom in his tracks several yards out of the firelight. He heard horrifying screams and sounds of violence while dust and smoke clouded his vision. His first instinct was to rush in with guns a blazing, rescuing the victims. Then he realized that he had no gun--he didn't even have boots! He squinted, ducked and bobbed his head to get a better look. The macabre scene turned his stomach.
From his vantage he could see three people--two men and a boy--being attacked by some kind of creature standing roughly six feet tall, semi-erect, covered in what appeared to be dark hair. It had an elongated, goat-like face that looked skinless a skull. It had teeth, maybe like a wolf, and huge clubbed paws on the end of overly long arms. Its legs, which never fully straightened resembled tree trunks in their mass and shape. Its ears were short and pointed, setting nearer the sides of the head rather than the top. Fierce, penetrating eyes functioning independently sat further apart than a dogs, giving the creature tremendous peripheral vision. Tom had never seen or even heard of anything like this.
Moving in deliberate, almost mechanical motions, it effortlessly lifted one man, snapped his body in the air with a crack like a bullwhip, breaking his back. Dropping the limp-bodied man to the ground, the creature swung its long arms mercilessly at the other man who was nervously aiming a rifle. The man fired off a single desperate shot that appeared to have no effect on the creature and then buckled under the weight of the blow. The strong arm of the creature eviscerated the man's skull, sending blood, hair and brains exploding into the air in a sunset colored mist against the back light of the fire.
The boy clubbed the creature, trying to free its grip on the older man. No effect. Another blow got the creature's attention. Facing away from the boy, the creature dropped to his hands and knees kicking its thick leg back into the boy's groin, its foot puncturing the young body. Quickly spinning around, the creature crouched down to the motionless corpse as if admiring, maybe sniffing or tasting, its handiwork.
Not five seconds later, an eternity for a man in shock, the creature jerked its head up and looked directly into the eyes of the wet, shivering soldier frozen no longer by the cold but by shear terror. For a moment, Tom could almost sense intelligence in the creature. Then panic.
Tom felt a warm streak down his legs: it was his own urine. Suddenly a blinding blue light came from the camp, thankfully knocking Tom unconscious to the ground. That night he dreamt of quiet evenings at the saloon and the company of beautiful women; for what more could a man hope.