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“I’LL be back.”
Those lips below the shaggy, wheat-straw mustache barely stirred. Yet none of the eight officers strung out on either side of him had trouble hearing the soldier’s determined declaration. The chill November air across the parade ground echoed with clatter: low rumbling voices, the incessant roll of drums, the occasional snort of a horse.
“And when I do get back, I’ll show each and every one of these … men who claim to be soldiers how to fight Indians.”
“On those counts of courts-martial—” Fort Leavenworth’s adjutant sent his voice crackling across the dusty parade, “the first, disobeying the orders of a superior officer, dereliction of duty, and misappropriation of U.S. Army property.”
Across the chilly parade shot an electricity every man sensed. Here in the waning weeks of 1867 stood the darling of the army, the youngest man ever breveted a major general, a soldier never found wanting in courage who had seen eleven horses shot out from under him during the recent war of rebellion. Now they watched that same officer sit ramrod stiff astride his favorite mount, his pale face a mask to the tempest raging within his soul.
I’m just like some old bull, he brooded behind those shocking blue eyes of his. Protecting the herd. Fighting off the wolves that nip and snarl at my hamstrings. Here I sit, guilty of protecting the sanctity of this army of our Grand Republic.
“—Guilty of a second count, that of ordering his subordinate officers to summarily execute deserters escaping from his command without the process of trial.”
Didn’t those bastards throw away that very right as they deserted in broad daylight? Taking their government mounts and weapons with them?
“—Refusing to allow proper medical attention to be given to those same wounded deserters he had ordered summarily shot for their infractions of army code. To this count and this count alone the board attaches no criminality.”
“Bloody good of the bastards,” he mumbled, running the pink tip of his tongue across lips drying in a cold breeze that foretold of a harsh winter soon to grip the southern plains.
“—The court found guilt on the charge stating the lieutenant colonel did in fact order the shooting of one Private Johnson without process of trial as deserter, causing same Private Johnson to suffer mortal wounds inflicted by order of the lieutenant colonel.”
A stiff breeze tugged at the blood-colored plume atop his ceremonial helmet emblazoned with an American eagle. His red-blond curls fell over the glittering gold epaulets that crowned his blue tunic. More gold braid and tassels spilled down his chest while broad gold stripes gleamed at his cuffs. Freckled hands encased in white kid gloves gripped the pommel of his McClellan saddle.
“I’ll be back,” he muttered once more, watching the young adjutant square his shoulders. “By then I’ll be—”
“—Sentenced: to one full year of suspension from rank and command, along with the forfeiture of pay for that rank and its command during the same period of suspension.”
Slowly, his breath whistled past his dry lips. Almost imperceptibly he shuddered with the weight of it finally torn from his shoulders. As the adjutant across the parade finished reading, the drums began their stirring roll once again.
By heavens, he thought, it could have been much worse. What with the weight of all those arrayed against me … their testimony having the ears of—
“—The Court herewith has ordered the reading of its verdict in regard to the case of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Seventh Cavalry …”
I’ll bet the court realized this southern department can’t do without me for all that long. The corner of his lip turned up and he scanned the quiet knot of civilians, locking on Libbie’s eyes once more. She knows too.
The drum rolls sank into a staccato cadence. His march to the far edge of the parade ended among a cluster of friends and supporters. The distasteful ceremony was over at last.
Again his pale blue eyes surveyed the assembled cavalry and infantry that symbolized this expanding New Army of the West.
“I’ll be back,” he said, clear and strong, turning the heads of soldiers ambling back to barracks or officers’ quarters. “This country out here needs a man like me. I’ll be back … to take things in hand.”
So many times since that frosty November day in 1867, Custer had ruminated on his brief, explosive tenure in that new land of the West.
Chasing Sioux and Cheyenne up and down the Platte River Road in Nebraska Territory with General Hancock, sweeping down into the Kansas country, whipping his young soldiers along behind him, wishing they would ride as hard and as fast as the young warriors they chased—an enemy who eluded his plodding cavalry. More often lately Custer turned his gaze of a late afternoon to watch the sun setting low and lonely, like his own private ache, upon that far land.
That’s the arena for a true gladiator, he brooded, tearing his eyes from the west, tramping back across the wide lawn toward the massive house where lived the family of Judge Daniel Stanton Bacon, pillar of Monroe, Michigan, society.
It was here that the judge’s only child, Elizabeth Bacon, had yielded to Custer’s proposal of marriage in the middle of the bloody conflict that had ripped south from north. Only natural following his court-martial that the young couple would return to Michigan, here to hearth and home for both Bacons and Custers alike, to endure that awful year. Still, each night like this at supper time, Custer drew some small measure of satisfaction knowing one more day of private torture had drawn to a close.
“What day is it, Autie?” Libbie threaded her arm through his as he stepped into the kitchen. She used the nickname he had given himself as a tiny lad as yet unable to pronounce Armstrong.
“No, dear,” she replied, patting his arm. “What date?”
“The twenty-fourth, I believe. September.”
“There, now. I can’t allow you to wear that droopy face of yours to supper. Thank God it won’t be long until this dreadful year is over.”
“I suppose you’re right after all,” he said, sliding a chair beneath her while the rest of the bustling household noisily sat down to a supper of roast beef, summer corn that snapped in your teeth, crisp pickles, young potatoes bursting fluffy from their skins and biscuits that melted on a man’s tongue.
Custer’s younger brother Boston and nephew Autie Reed both hungrily eyed two fresh-baked apple pies sitting on the sideboard nearby.
With a clearing of throats, everyone’s attention drew as one to Libbie as if she held marionette’s threads in her tiny alabaster hands folded before her. The family bowed their heads.
“Our most gracious and heavenly Father,” Elizabeth prayed, “we gather here before you, beseeching your blessing upon this bounty you provide for us all. Here within your sight, our Father, we again ask your forgiveness … and ask that you help us forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
Custer felt the gentle, insistent pressure of Libbie’s leg against his own beneath the mahogany table. Why, he thought, does she toy with this fire I suffer?
This last year of enforced separation from the army had taken its silent toll upon the Custers in many subtle ways. Worst of all—for him—there was no more intimacy shared between them. Barely controlled beneath the surface, Custer burned with a raging desire for this pale-skinned, auburn-haired beauty. Yet even before the sentencing at Fort Leavenworth, Libbie had begun to refuse him. Gently, lovingly … yes. No longer able to submit to his insatiable hunger. For too long now she had been unable to give him what they both so desperately wanted: a son.
“We ask that all things be made right in your kingdom on earth, as they are made right in heaven above. Amen.”
On cue, male voices around the table echoed “Amen” as they hurriedly stuffed napkins in their collars.
“I’ll get it!” young Autie Reed shouted. He leapt up sending his chair clattering across the hardwood floor, heading to answer an insistent rap at the front door. A moment later the towheaded youngster tore back into the dining room, flagging a telegram addressed to his famous uncle.
“It’s from Sheridan.” Custer gripped the envelope as if afraid it would fly off on its own.
“Open it, dear,” Libbie prodded, her heart already sensing that the envelope would take her beloved Autie from her, a parting she had come to dread more than anything on earth.
Custer ripped at the envelope, sending it fluttering to the rug beneath their feet. Between his trembling fingers Sheridan’s words leapt from the page.
Hd. Qrs., Dept. of the Mo.
In the Field, Ft. Hays, Kans.
Sept. 24th, 1868
GEN’L G. A. CUSTER
Gen’ls Sherman, Sully & myself, and nearly all the Officers of your Regt., have asked for you; and I hope the application will be successful. Can you come at once? 11 Cos. of your Regt, will move about the 1st of Oct. against hostile Indians, from Medicine-Lodge Creek toward the Wichita Mts.
P. H. SHERIDAN
Maj. Gen’l Comdg. Mil. Dept. Mo.
“Ca-can I come at once?” Custer choked on the words with a characteristic lifelong stammer. He rose from his chair as family members pounded the daylights out of his back.
“I must go wire Philip.” He slipped the telegram to Libbie, the mist in his eyes answered by the tears clouding her own.
“Yes, dear Autie,” she said quietly. “Tell Philip you’re coming as quickly as you can.”
“My regiment … my men.”
“I know … we all know how you feel about your men,” she said before turning aside, blinking back the tears. All too well Libbie understood the army came first in his life, first in his heart. Back on that ninth day of February in 1864 she had readily accepted second place in his life. Elizabeth Bacon had become Libbie Custer—till death do they part.
“Go now, Autie,” she said bravely. “We’re all so happy for you.”
Bending to kiss her pale, upturned cheek, Custer then dashed from the room. The ground flew beneath him as he leapt from the porch, tearing down the brick walks to the telegraph office.
Giddy with excitement, he shook hands with everyone he met along the way, breathlessly telling them of the coming campaign and that he had been selected to lead his gallant Seventh into action again. He wildly pumped the arm of the telegraph operator before setting the old gentleman to work pounding out the message to his friend Philip.
Will start to join you by next train.