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By J. R. Gregg
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 J. R. Gregg
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* * *
April 30, 1876
Dan Murphy and Sam Streeter of Company A, Seventh Cavalry, were a half mile ahead of their squad that was scouting for two deserters from Fort Abraham Lincoln. Dan didn't know the deserters that well—Hogan and Snively from C Troop. Best guess was they were heading for the Black Hills, gold fever being what it was.
Reaching the crest of a long rise, they saw ten Sioux down below. The Indians were heading northwest at a slow walk, moving like they still owned this part of the country. Hell, they'd given it up back in '68.
Dan was quite aware that stumbling across renegades would complicate the scout. Worse yet, it messed up a peaceful afternoon when a gentle wind bore the new grass smell of spring and the sun warmed a man's bones after a hard winter stretched out by March blizzards. There was no choice now but to determine what the Indians were doing this far north.
Wiping the alkali dust off his face, Dan handed the field glasses to the eagle-eyed rookie from Massachusetts.
"I make out four braves," Dan said. "That right?"
"Three braves and one old man," Sam replied. "Four squaws dragging a travois, two boys."
"And one extra pony with a travois?"
"Yes," Sam said. He turned toward Dan. "We're going to stop them, right?"
"Damn it! You spooked 'em."
Below, the lead brave pulled up and pointed at them, warned when the glasses swung the sun's reflection past him. The others drew abreast and sat their horses facing the two cavalrymen, the uneasy quiet broken by the metallic clicks of cartridges being levered into the Indians' Winchesters. Meanwhile the two Indian boys galloped their ponies up the little hill on the far side of them.
"Go tell Jim and get Charley up here quick!" Dan said.
"We're going to stop them, aren't we?"
"Just get Charley quick."
Studying the renegades, Dan squinted, the old lines deepening above his half-bent nose as he watched the two boys disappear over the ridge. The sun disappeared behind a cloud.
"There's dust over that rise," Charley Smrka said when he came up.
Dan said, "Two boys went over there when they saw us."
"More people too."
"You think so?"
"Five travois. That's two, maybe three lodges."
The two boys reappeared with four mounted braves. One carried a lance with strips of red cloth and eagle feathers tied to it. The other three had Springfields—two carbines and a rifle.
Three minutes later Sergeant Jim Lawton reached the crest with the rest of the squad. Corporal Bull Judd and Jubal Tinker had been with Company A since '72. The other three were rookies who had enlisted six months before: Jake Picard was from Chicago, Ernst Albrecht from Germany, and Elvin Crane from Troy, New York.
At Jim's command the squad formed a line along the crest, nine cavalrymen on coal-black horses, carbines loaded and in hand. The Indians stared back, unmoved by the show of force.
"What're they doing this far north?" Jim asked Charley.
"Don't know," Charley replied.
Sam said, "We've got them outgunned, Sergeant!"
Jim ignored him, watching as the women, the old man, and the boys started northwest again. The seven braves remained still, staring up at the troopers. The one in the middle looked to be forty and well over six feet. He was a strong-looking man with his head cocked back, not so much to look up the hill but to challenge anyone put off by the angry scar running from his left eye to his chin, narrowly missing the proud nose but cutting straight across the lips. He rode a chestnut of fifteen hands—no pony, that.
"They ain't in no hurry," Jim said. "Charley, see what you can find out."
Charley handed his carbine to Dan before starting down the slope. He dismounted a few yards from the leader and began talking in a mix of halting Lakota and English. The Indian replied with a rapid-fire string of words until Charley cut him off with a gesture and said something. Whatever it was, it brought a lopsided smile to the man's face, and he slowed down considerably. The two conversed for a few minutes, and then Charley swung himself up into the saddle and returned up the hill. When he reached the top and turned, the Indian leader raised his rifle over his head and launched into a lengthy harangue. Finally finished, he turned slowly and the seven braves started northwest again. It looked like all of them were chuckling.
"They're Hunkpapa Sioux," Charley said.
"What'd he say?" Jim asked.
"Said there's buffalo three days west of here. After the hunt they'll go back to Standing Rock. "
"You believe him?"
"The buffalo part, not the rest. They'll prob'ly go on to Powder River an' find Sitting Bull."
"Okay. He say anythin' about the boys we're lookin' for?" Jim asked.
"Said they ain't seen 'em, but them two carbines say otherwise," Charley said.
"Yeah. What was he spoutin' at the end?"
"The speech? Somethin' about they're real strong an' we ain't."
"Sure and he was taunting us," Dan said. He removed his hat and ran a hand over his balding pate.
Two more boys came over the rise and remained there, staring at the cavalrymen. They couldn't have been older than twelve. Jim stared back, and then he glanced over at the line of troopers—straight enough for parade. When he turned back, the boys were angling down the slope to fall in behind the braves. Within minutes the party gained enough distance so you couldn't tell one rider from another. Meanwhile, the dust cloud behind the hill moved, paralleling the Indians' course.
The smell of spring returned as the clouds moved on and the sun began warming Dan again, as if nothing had gone on down below. He wondered how many warriors were behind that hill.
Charley admired how the Hunkpapas used the rolling country to half-hide the size of their party, and he was damn sure the two deserters were dead. The carbines clinched that. The only thing in doubt was how many more braves were on the other side of the hill, but the answer wasn't important. Their orders were to find the deserters and get back to Fort Lincoln.
Jim said, "Best thing is to follow them Indians' trail back. Prob'ly we'll find them poor boys south, southeast of here."
With that the squad started down the slope in a column of twos behind Jim. Dan and Sam were first, followed by Bull Judd and Elvin Crane, Jubal Tinker and Ernst Albrecht, and then Charley and Jake Picard.
Jake figured he was lucky to have Charley showing him the ropes. He was an old hand who was in the cavalry during The War, and he knew the ways of the Sioux, which was rare in the company.
"Them carbines, they got 'em off the deserters—you think?" Jake asked.
"Yeah," Charley said.
"How come you so sure?"
Charley pointed to a knoll three miles ahead. Four black specks were circling high above it.
Sam had been watching the birds for five minutes when the sergeant motioned him forward and ordered him to follow at a trot. They dismounted on top of the next rise. Jim handed over the glasses and told him to scan the area under the vultures.
Sam took a quick look, stiffened, and lowered them instantly to wipe the lenses clean. He took his time focusing carefully. A scattering of shapeless scraps and two whitish objects littered the ground. Maybe a couple of Yorkshire hogs stretched out sleeping, he thought, but that didn't make sense out here. He wiped his eyes.
"What do you see?" Sergeant Lawton's question had a bite.
Heart pounding, Sam refocused, hoping they were pigs but knowing they were cavalrymen.
"Two men. White. Stripped." His mind leaped back two years, picturing the bodies they'd found after the Williamsburg flood. Digging debris out of mud-filled cellars, they found corpses underneath it all. Most of them were people he'd known: Old Man Perkins, crushed beneath a floor beam; Sarah Pelky and her two little girls, pulled half-naked from the sucking mud; twelve-year-old John Dickinson, his flaxen curls in a mud-stuck tangle; Althea Jenner, her dead eyes open like she was still staring at that wall of water, knowing she was done for.
"Thought so," Jim said. "No sign of life?"
"Check all around, far as you can see. Anything?"
"Nothing except for a kind of wide trail. Probably from the Sioux we ran into."
"What you think happened?" Jake asked Sam when the squad pulled up a hundred yards from the dead men.
Unable to tear his eyes away from the corpses, Sam couldn't answer. He swallowed, trying to concentrate on his horse. Blaster was tossing his head, snorting, dancing lightly until training overrode instinctual skittishness triggered by the smell of death, a smell not yet sensed by humans yet obvious to the horse. Oddly, Sam's mind had kept on insisting they were hogs that had wandered off from a careless emigrant, but at a hundred yards, he surrendered. They were men—men with sun-browned necks and wrists and skin the color of fine, white ash. They looked pallid, lifeless, stained with blood baked red-brown, like life-size rag dolls cast aside by a feebleminded giant or God himself, a leg bent under the wrong way, a neck strangely twisted too far to the side, the skull caved in. Sam went blind. Without conscious decision, the lids shut everything out, only to spring open again as Blaster settled between Dan and Jake, shuddering the way horses do as he took his solemn place in the shallow arc of mounted men studying the remains of fools who guessed wrong.
"Sure, and there they are," Dan said.
"Yeah, it's them," Jim said. His men sat motionless, their mounts not entirely easy.
Blaster half-heartedly tossed his head once more, and then like the others he let it fall to browse on wisps of grass, while testing Sam's intentions through the tension on the reins.
Jim nodded to Charley, who dismounted and began to survey the stuff scattered on the ground. He covered the area carefully to get a sense of how the men were attacked and killed. Horses and all they held were gone, as were blouses, trousers, and boots, along with saddlebags, blankets, and canteens. The men's begrimed shirts and drawers were tossed aside. A picket pin was half-hidden under a discarded feedbag next to one of the corpses. One spent cartridge lay near the other. Parallel sets of pony tracks bisected the powdery earth. Hogan's body (the shorter of the two), lay directly in their path.
Snively's corpse lay on its back. A shallow groove in the dirt showed where the head dragged when a scavenger pulled the man's boots. The skull showed blood-streaked white where the scalp was ripped off. The right leg crossed the left at the ankle, ludicrously suggesting a carefree attitude. An arm stretched haphazardly toward the slope rising twenty paces away. A thick streak of dried blood extended downward from a puncture wound in the upper chest. The dirt under the right thigh was thoroughly stained with blood. There were two jagged lance wounds, either one fatal—one the heart, the other split the leg's big artery. Snively was not an unhandsome man, but now the chiseled features sagged into flatness under a four-day stubble. An expression of surprise remained in the set of his mouth, thin lips slightly ajar. Unseeing eyes stared into nothingness, the blue in them already flat. The man's genitals rested half-deflated in the hairy crotch, already melding into the whole. Of no more use as carnal appendage, the limp penis lay unmolested.
Hogan's body was on its side, grotesquely skewed. One arm was twisted around along the torso's side, hand wrong way out. Broken just above the elbow, the long bone's shattered end poked through skin torn jagged. The other arm lay outstretched, a sweat-stained bandanna still clutched in its hand. Bone-white occipital shards and flinders peppered the lucent gray of brain behind and below the skull's clotted crown. The left thighbone was shattered, the leg then bent under the torso at an improbable angle.
Two short arrows slanted upward from each cadaver, feather guides trimmed precisely, their markings identical. Jim pictured two ten-year-old boys sending the arrows home after the bodies had been stripped—a deed for boasting next time they saw their cousins.
The vultures circled lazily overhead, waiting for the squad to move on and leave the feast below. Off to the south, a lone, spotted eagle soared two hundred feet further up, intent on some other prey.
Jubal eased himself forward in the saddle to smooth out an irksome fold in his trousers while waiting for orders. He wasn't one to get worked up over dead men, especially these two. Only fools would pull foot and head off through Sioux country, especially when Sitting Bull had his folks all lathered up. Beside him Ernst tilted his head back, eyes following the eagle riding the currents above. A picture of contentment, Jubal thought. No matter what, Jubal felt the oversized German with a boy's face always seemed to find something in life to enjoy.
"What you starin' at?" Jubal asked him.
"I knowed thet much. What're you seein'?" "He soars."
"Uh huh," Jubal sighed. "So what about him?"
"The country he sees entire up high. From here to the Indians we come to before." He paused, his eyes following the raptor's soaring flight. "Up there to soar I wish that. It is good. You wish that also?"
"Not without wings an' a whole lot of 'sperience."
"'Sperience usin' them wings."
Burying the Deserters
* * *
Jim Lawton watched Jake Picard swivel in the saddle, probably wondering if there were more Sioux around. Jake then started to dismount, as if to join Charley, but he stopped, probably recalling being dressed down early in the morning for getting down to pick up a coin he'd spied on the ground. Jim smiled, remembering how he had shouted, "Picard, don't you never dismount 'fore I tell you!"
One thing was for sure, death didn't bother Jake. He'd seen plenty of it in Chicago from sickness, stabbings, gunfire, winter cold, and plain bad luck. He said that after the Chicago fire in '71 its stench persisted for days, so death was part of life for him. Jake shifted in the saddle again but not from nervousness—his ass was sore.
"Jubal, you git up that hill there an' spy it out four ways," Jim ordered. "Here, take the glasses. Dan, see if there's any personals we oughtta take back." Jim turned to Bull Judd, the stocky, flatfaced corporal. "Bull, take Crane and find a ditch or somethin', maybe over where the hill drops off sudden, bottom of the slope. Work some clods an' dirt loose to cover them boys three feet deep or more. Albrecht, you take the horses. Link 'em up an' take 'em up the hill. Set the picket line downwind of that flat spot. Don't want 'em gittin' skitterish, so take 'em around this here field. You understand?"
"Ja, Sergeant," Albrecht said.
"Picard, you and Streeter drag the corpses over to Bull. Use yer gum blankets. Soon's you git done, police the whole area. I don't want no sign of cav'lry left—not a cartridge, not a shod hoof print. Can't have no Injuns findin' the graves, hear?"
Neither man moved.
"Git a move on, fer Chrissake!" Jim shouted.
The two men nodded. Jake dismounted and started to untie his gum blanket from the saddle. Sam sat, still frozen, until Albrecht came over and took Blaster by the bridle. He then dismounted but remained still, without purpose.
Dan stood next to Hogan's corpse.
Jim called over, "Ain't stiffened up, is he?"
The Irishman pushed hard at the dead weight with his boot, finally flopping it onto its back. The head rolled, then settled. Sightless eyes stared at a distant universe. A red scar traversed the left cheekbone.
"Not much yet. This one is Hogan. Got that slash back in January," Dan said.
"Uh huh. Well, let's git 'er done, then," Jim said. He sat absently for a few seconds, his mind pushing aside the image of a mule his pa put down when he was a tyke. It was the first time he'd looked into eyes that couldn't see.
Sam stood like a statue in the town square, immobile, frozen. He wouldn't admit it, but death frightened, angered, and numbed him. His eyes darted from one grotesque corpse to the other and back again, taking in every tiny detail, as if memorizing them, but the images wouldn't stick. Something far back in his mind kept his eyes moving past them.
Excerpted from Surviving Custer by J. R. Gregg. Copyright © 2013 J. R. Gregg. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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