They rode up over a trail to a rise with the three scouts in the lead. As they passed through a patch of juniper trees, the sun turned hot and the very air around them, with the sawing legs of the hoppers and the twits of the birds, seemed to hum with heat. Before them was a valley now with dew burning light on the spots of dying, browned grass. Tall sprigs of Queen Anne's Lace caressed the horses' legs and speckled the soldiers' boots with their sex.
Coming over a rise they saw the white things on the hills. Bradley's horse snorted, hesitating, sniffing the air. He kicked it on ahead.
Hah, he called to it.
No one else spoke.
Not even Shit, what in the hell, or Goddamn.
Maybe it was the smell, or the flies, or the wild dogs. The dogs were everywhere, they darted under the legs of their horses. They yelped wildly at their horses and gnawed brazenly at their boots. The soldiers kicked at them and hollered. The dogs had blood on their yaps. Their eyes rolled back white in their heads.
There were so many flies. A fog of them attacked the Private called Gentle, his eyes, nose, in his mouth when he yelled and cursed, kicked his horse's flank and rode through it.
The smell was like a film that permeated their souls through the pores of their skin. They drew their hankies and bandannas from their saddlebags and tied them around their noses like bandits. Their necks pricked and their backs tingled. From the south a crow cawed, then another. The big, black birds flapped overhead, close enough to Gentle that he could hear their wings. He ducked as they passed. When he looked around, no one was watching.
The Lieutenant's lead point, Private August Huebner, was the first of them to spot the dead. As he rode alongside the river he saw a horse and looked that way.
Its labored breathing sounded raw and strange, head all swelled, an empty eye-hole, leaking pus. Bradley drew his pistol and shot it. His hand shook a bit, and he had to use the other to steady.
Keep your eyes open, he said.
Dried blood had flowed in a path into a pond-like place, had turned the land under them black. Their horses stepped lightly on it, like they were walking now on some new surface.
There was blood in the dirt in sticky dark pools around each of the fallen that gathered in rivulets, recedes and indents of the landscape. There seemed to be blood even in the sky and wind. The scouting party had the hankies over their noses for the smell. They closed their eyes. Some of them retched right off their horses. They could not guard or flush their hearts.
Huebner saw a patch of wildflowers, purple and white wisteria, speckled with blood, bits of bone and brain in a perfect burst of color from the crown of a man's scalped head. He swallowed and kneaded his horse past.
Hands, heads, torsos, feet and legs, eyeballs, fingers and cocks cut off and scattered about, stiffening into grotesque and obscure mockeries of life. Birds hovered overhead, squawking horribly. The bodies were bloodied, swollen and discolored from two days in searing sun, covered by pulsing masses of flies. Three crows raised their heads lazily, like black princes at a castle feast, when Huebner kicked at them. Gentle's bullets buzzed past his shoulder, exploding each of them into a cascade of feathers.
A Bible had been ripped apart, strewn to the wind. They saw odd pages, stuck to bloody scalp-shed faces, floating in the hot breeze. Bradley tried to gather them up, got a pile together then stopped and threw them up in the air. It seemed really important at first, then it wasn't anymore. The bodies were left for rot on an earth tired and scarred by the fury of their dying.
They separated, the five of them in the scout party. They got off their horses and led them by the bridle, petting their noses and whispering in their ears. A man with his face peeled off and hanging: lips, nose cartilage and one eyeball hanging by a strand from his naked jawbone. Ancient, unknown markings were carved in his naked, hairless chest.
They had to fight off the wild dogs. They were feeding, the nasty bastards. They'd laugh, this terrible ear-splitting screech. Gentle, raising his rifle, got off four rounds at them, hitting two before Bradley tapped his shoulder.
That'll be enough of that, soldier, he said.
Private August Huebner pulled a man's teeth open and pushed his tongue back between them, and lay the head on a mound of grass. He felt like he had to do something. Another had died in a crouch, his mouth wide open. The top of his head brown, dried blood. Huebner tried to close at least his eyes, gently stroking the lids shut. He couldn't straighten out the body. The limbs were stiff, blue and hard. From the soldier's tightened fist hung a silver chain broken off as if in a last fight for its possession, or a last prayer. The Private left him just like that.
The sun moved behind a bank of clouds, and for a few minutes the morning became as dark as dusk. The men took their nervous horses to a gathering of trees and tied them there. A soft breeze blew on Bradley's sweat-soaked neck and shoulders. His horse tittered and he rubbed its hot flank with cool dirt taken from under the shade of the trees. When he looked to the distant mountains, purple in the hard light, a thousand fragments of rock shimmered like glass in the brilliant sunlight.
It was noon, the hottest part of the day. Bradley thought they should get back, but the thought of leaving made his stomach tingle. Everyone would wonder where they were, if something had happened. Then he forgot. Thirty minutes later he thought of it again and called over Huebner.
Ride and get the others.
Huebner looked dazed, his eyes far-off.
This ain't what we come for, sir.
The words came from Huebner all at once. From the quiet Private it took Bradley by surprise.
Told us one white man was worth twenty-five Indians out here. Going to be like hunting.
Huebner stopped talking as suddenly as he'd begun. He looked down at his own hands, at the blood on them. He couldn't look Bradley in the face.
Take Brackett and Taylor! Bradley shouted, but he didn't know why. I'll stay here with Gentle, he said. Tell the Colonel what we've found.
For a moment Huebner just stood there nodding. When he finally turned his head, Bradley could tell he'd been crying. Huebner started to speak, but Bradley cut him off.
It's all right, Bradley said. Just go.
When they left, the Indians had burned brown the grass. Huebner and the others rode past the dead, some alone, others in groups, all of them stark white except their hands and faces turned dark by the sun. The three riders' shadows played out long over the sagebrush, dusty earth and the grasshoppers that flitted about by the score with every step their horses took. Huebner rode ahead of the others. Alone for a few moments on the dusty plains, he let his horse guide him back.
They done told us to come out here with y'all and scout for the battle, to back up Custer, Taylor said. He spoke with anger in his voice, a man who'd been lied to.
He don't need no back up, Brackett said. He worked his lips like he wanted to spit, but his mouth was dry.
Huebner reported to Colonel Gibbon and his staff, who, unbelieving of the words from his mouth but not the truth read on his solemn and wild-eyed countenance, set out themselves ordering an escort of fifty volunteers. Word got around. By the end of the day they all came, a straggling, incredulous entourage that stretched across the five miles from camp to the battlefield, pilgrims called to witness the defeat and demise of one of their own beliefs.
At most there were a half-dozen spades and shovels, picks and axes in the company. The soil was dry and porous. Shallow graves for a few, but most they just covered with brush or dirt, left them to the wild dogs and wolves.
The living became something else, stepped out of the lives they'd known and into others. They would never look at anything close to them, their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters or their lovers, their old ragged first toys, the same.
Their lives long they tried to find what they had lost on that hill. Later, drunk, around fires they talked about what they could not, something in all the barrooms and prayer houses of their collective destiny they could never express. Maybe they knew this, but they talked anyway. They wanted to maintain at least the appearance of sanity. They said things like:
It was just a big, open-air slaughterhouse.
It was like riding straight on into hell.
Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Huebner