ANOTHER REAL INCIDENT

The soldier was only a kid. It wasn’t an unknown phenomenon since overburdened families could use the enlistment fee. Or maybe he was a runaway — just a drifter. He didn’t seem to know much. Knife skills. Knots. But not human relations. He was good with horses but not other men. Maybe grew up in country not yet that settled so men worked alone, couldn’t afford to take a kid to town with them. He kinda hung around the edges of the company. The old cavalryman didn’t pry. He was a big man with a thick neck and he, too, kept to himself. Just liked it that way.
So they had a tendency to hunker together out at the edge of the firelight for no particular reason. It just happened that way. As a cavalry old timer, the big man knew the importance of awareness, not just of the enemy but also of supposed allies who could be far more dangerous since they had access and knowledge. In fact, every time he looked at Custer his guts clenched. The unreal arrogance and conceit of a nearly bald man who grew out his side hair to shoulder-length and then kept his hat on to maintain the illusion was dangerous. Irritability in a leader was dangerous enough, but once this old-timer soldier saw Custer’s wife, he knew the two of them were entwined in a folie a deux of fantasy and ambition.
He didn’t have much use for women, not even the worn and essentially sympathetic whores near any army barracks. His preference was more secret, more condemned: the male Indian accommodators who hung around the fort for more than whisky. They were not likely to talk much to anybody about anything, but he did pick up a few tidbits now and then. They didn’t always realize how well he spoke their language. He could see an apocalypse coming.
He didn’t much care. The frontier was ending but everything ends. He felt very tired. Maybe it would have been different if he’d had children, but his kind didn’t marry nor did he suspect any accidental plantings outside the garden. It was hard to think what he could do outside the company of men. Not that he had any taste for ordinary men with their need to acquire both material goods and imagined status.
The kid felt good with the old soldier near him. The man was generous in teaching little techniques and relaying small stories that might come in useful later. Sometimes they laughed together. At night the man was careful to roll out his bedroll at some distance, which hurt the boy’s feelings. Once he dragged his soogan over to the man’s massive prone bulk, but the man — without a word — gathered up his bedding and moved to the other side of the camp. A few tears that time, but the boy didn’t think anyone saw them. He hoped not. He knew it was a major mistake to show weakness, which is why the big man interested him so much. No one doubted his skill or potency, in battle or out.
Rumors about the Indians began to fly. The man started to advise the boy to transfer out of Custer’s command, maybe to the supply train. The boy was hurt, thinking that this was because the big man thought he was unfit for combat, so he was defiant and said he would not change anything. Inside, the big man sorrowed. He had an idea what might be coming and he loved the boy, wanted him to escape.
Though he was afraid of what trouble night-walking might get him into, in daylight he liked being near the boy, riding beside him when they were on the move, and sitting near him when they took their breaks. They shared tobacco, each in his own pipe. The boy was trying to grow a mustache, but his eyelashes were both longer and thicker than the hair on his upper lip. Sunlight caught in both, making them into bright feathers. No matter how dusty the riding, the boy’s clear eyes and white teeth flashed bright. Daily the bone around his eyes and along his jaw grew thicker, more defined. He tipped his hat at a jaunty angle, though that was discouraged by the officers who despised individuality. Except for Custer’s flauntings, which might have been the source of their displeasure.
Nevertheless, it was late in June. If they got off the trail. the green grass — full of flowers — was up to the bellies of the horses, and the streams still had cold running water. Meadowlarks called and hawks circled the sky. It was easy in all that bliss to forget what their job really was.
When they approached the Greasy Grass, the veteran unbuttoned his jacket, letting it blow around him to make a deceptive target from a distance. He’d heard Indians had picked up some Sharps rifles and were practicing. “Keep a peeled eye,” he advised the kid. “Stick close to me.” He sat high in his saddle, full of tension, trying to remember more scraps of conversation with Indians. This spring’s ceremonies had been intense and well-attended.
When the column rode over a bluff and down a coulee towards the river, a steep descent that threw some horses, the boy thought that’s what his older friend meant, so he was braced and kept his horse under him. Then he smelled the campfires.
The rest was much confused, though the boy did his best until an arrow pierced him and the bright blood sprang out. He fell down to the grass now greasy with his own slipping-away. Then assailants were close around, using hand weapons instead of arrows, and the older man dismounted, letting his horse go. He stood beside the boy’s body for just a moment before he saw a shadow from the corner of his eye and threw himself down over the youngster, even knowing he was nearly gone. The pressure made the boy sigh. Then the shadow, wielding a stone battle hammer, slammed it into the big man’s head.
In the desperate second of death, which he did not regret, he was aware that at last he was holding the warm boy beneath him in his arms, so familiar, though he had never touched him. He could not tell whether the boy knew.
Much later when the Indian women came through the tangle of bodies — stripping and looting, finishing off and mutilating, ululating and singing — they came to the two men, one older on the top of the younger. They stood looking. One said, “Father protected son.” They moved on without touching the men.

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