"You're from Boston, then?"
"That's right. Born and raised in Back Bay."
"So how did you finish up here?"
"I earned my living as a bricklayer when I left school; after the war finished, the work dried up and I got sick of being hungry. Then things got better, and then they got worse. One day I just said to myself, fuck it, and got a tram to the armory and signed up. It's not what I thought it would be like, though."
"Whys that then?"
"I dunno, for sure. Maybe I expected it to be more exciting."
"Fucking exciting tomorrow, all goes to plan according to the big boss; that's the rumor going around."
"It bothers you, the way it might turn out?"
"I've never given it too much thought, to be honest. Just try and get through it a day at a time."
The two men sit quietly for a few minutes, their faces lit by the flickering light from the camp fire. The one from Boston is called James McDonald. He's twenty-three years old and been in this job since last September. The other man is called George Adams, and he's seven years older. McDonald pokes at the fire, getting a bit more heat from the logs.
"So, where are you from?'' he asks.
"Where the hell is that?" asks McDonald.
"It's a little place in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania. Maybe a couple of thousand people tops. I worked the coal mines. Nothing else do there really except the coalface. I just got sick of it. The hours, coming home covered in coal dust and soot; shit of a life really. So I upped and went to Philadelphia one day, and here I am. I've come to travel in a strange land and see the elephant."
"You ever wonder how this is gonna end up?" McDonald asks, easing back from the fire, his legs burning with the heat, wondering if his friend would ever get to see it all, as he hoped. Seeing the elephant was an expression that was popular among the travelers crossing the great plains, and many soldiers used it as well when headed off into the unknown.
"Nah, never give it too much thought," says Adams. Unlike the man from Boston, he's tall and quite solid in build, which makes him relatively rare in this outfit. Most of the men are small in build, and weight is always a major consideration when they are picked for the job.
His face and forearms are burnt brown by the sun, and his clothing is showing the wear and tear of the time he has been out working this tour. "The way I see it, we get paid to be here, doing what the government wants us to do. We're little cogs in a big wheel. When it turns, we fall into place, keep the bearings running smooth. That's about all we really contribute to the big picture. The people above us tell us to jump, so we jump. There's not a lot we do that isn't set up or organized by someone else. It's not an outfit looking for initiative, is it, then?"
McDonald nods, knowing exactly what the other man means. He's part of an organization that expects compliance and obedience, the two basic tenets that ensure it functions at maximum efficiency.
"You got family back home?' McDonald asks.
"My ma and pa, and a brother and two sisters. I'm the oldest one. My brother Del, he's five years younger than me, and the girls Kitty, and Marge are three and four years younger than Del. My old man works in the mine like I did; I followed him in after schooling, but Del, he didn't want any part of it. He left home early and went off to New York. Lordy knows what happened to him. Marge was still at home when I left and joined up. Kitty got herself married to a farmer out by Fairmount, she's already got kids. So I guess her time is pretty much mapped out. My life's been about as exciting as being a flea on a dog's back, although that could change in the next twenty-four hours, the talk we hear to-day."
McDonald pulls out a sack of Bull Durham, rolling a couple of cigarettes. He offers one across to the other man and they light up. It's ten o'clock and been dark now for about an hour. They'll be turning in soon, trying to get some sleep. It'll be an early start in the morning
"So," Adams says, drawing deep on his smoke and then swatting a large mosquito lighting on his bare arm," fuckin’ gallnipper. So what's the story on you boy. How come you're here with the rest of us misfits?"
James McDonald leans back, looking up at the heavens above. The Big Sky they call it out here and my it's all of that. One huge, endless tract of blackness pricked with thousands of speckling lights, stars that died millions of years before this planet Earth was even formed. Something this huge and endless reduces a mere man to the size and substance of an insect's itch, he thinks, sucking in the smoke.
"My parents, they died when I was young, an' I was brought up my ma's sister and her man. But they was pretty mean folk. Poor as Job's turkey; treated me like I was some kind of guttersnipe rather than a nephew. I didn't stick with them for long once I got out of school. I found work in the building trade, applied myself real hard, became a bricklayer, and then, one day I met this pretty girl and before I knew it, I fell in love and like magic, one day I became a father. Her name was Mary Kelly, and she was Irish. Imagine that. An Irish woman named Kelly." He laughed at his own joke. George Adams smiles along with him, waiting for the rest of it.
"Man alive," McDonald continues, "that baby was just so beautiful. We called him Seth and he had the blondest hair and the bluest eyes you ever did see on a little un'. I found us a place in North End, an apartment on Battery Street, looking out over the wharves and the river. Life was so good in the short time God allowed us. I worked hard and earned enough money to keep us in food and clothing and pay the rent. Mary had inherited some money when her father died and this tied us over nicely along with my weekly pay. When I had time off, we would walk all over the ward, along the waterfront, go visit the parks, stuff like that.
I remember like it was yesterday, one Sunday it was, early springtime, we got ourselves dressed up and we went to the America House on Hanover Street. Six stories high and a block long, I'm lead to believe it's the biggest hotel in the United States, though I can't be sure of that. We went in and had lunch in this dining room, which I swear seemed as big as a football field. Three hundred people all sitting down, chawing away. There were these two huge, gilt-framed mirrors on the wall at each end of the room, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. You sit there, looking at all these people in two places at once. I tell you, it was a powerful place, that's for sure." He pauses here, looking into the fire, lost in a different world, a place he'd never see again.
"What happened then?"
"Mary ketched something. I dunno for sure, neither did the doctor. A bad cold, an infection whatever, and she passed it onto Seth. They both took real sick and were dead in a week. I looked down on these two people that were my whole world and I felt so empty, it seemed I'd turned into a paper bag. We buried them in Copp’s Hill Cemetery on Hull Street; the little coffin on top of the big one. There was a lot more folk came than I imagined. People I knew, and from work, and lot's of Mary's brothers and sisters and cousins and stuff.
It rained that morning and let me tell you, there's nothing more miserable or depressing that a wet funeral. Nothing. I stood in that old graveyard, trees dripping all over me, looking at these folk their clothes steaming, who've come to help me through something no one can help you through. I was an orphan who had lost his second family. Tough to carry that, no matter how broad your shoulders are.
Then, after I started to get over it, the work slowed down, and it became harder and harder to find a job, and the money started to run out. One day I just packed up, went into town and enlisted for five years in the outfit. Where I am to-day." He pauses, staring into the yellow flames. “Fact is, I was too proud to beg and too thick to steal.”
"Life's a bitch, that's for sure," Adams says, leaning back and pulling over his saddle-bag, and sliding out a bottle of Old Forester bourbon. "Here take a glug on this coffin varnish. Won't make the memories go away, but it'll soften them a bit; beat the Dutch out of them."
The other man slides out the cork and takes a deep drink, shuddering as the hot bourbon scalds down his throat, hitting his belly with that magical jolt only the first drink can ever do.
"Man, that's powerful. Reckon there's always gonna be this stuff around, considering how good it tastes."
“You know something?" Adams says. "Half the government's income comes from the taxes on booze. Read that in a newspaper a while back. That's an almighty pile of money. Makes you wonder just how much hooch is drunk in this country. Enough to fill Lake Michigan I'd say. Remember back at the base, when we'd go off duty and hit the bars? Boy we had some fun at times, didn't we?"
The town nearest the base was a real dump. About 2000 people lived there and its economy was largely based on grog shops, bars, whore houses and every kind of gambling activity designed to suck money from the men at the camp.
The man from Boston chuckled.
"You knew Sparky Banister?"
Adams nodded, "Sure the guy from C Troop. He's the one had real bad body odor, stank like a porcupine in heat."
"Well," McDonald goes on, "one day he goes into the Laguna Vista Saloon and orders a beer and some bread and a plate of Munster, you know, that awful smelly cheese he liked to eat. So, he's sitting at the table with his feet up next to the plate when Harry Bowden the barkeep goes by. 'Hi Harry' he calls out, 'the stink from this cheese ain't strong enough.' Harry stops and looks at him. 'Take yer fucking feet off the table then, and give it a chance,' he says."
The two men break into laughter, then fall silent. "Awful what happened to him," says Adams. They go quiet again, lost in the memory of that day when Corporal Banister's body, or what was left of it, was brought back to the garrison. He'd gone out hunting, on his day off, with a bunch of civilians. They'd been attacked by a group of insurgents and after a fierce fight, the men had made their way back, losing Banister who'd become separated in the melee. A large force had gone out looking for him and found his remains tied to a small tree.
He'd been so badly mutilated, even the most hardened man in the rescue party had been physically sick. At his funeral, the boss used his death as a warning to the rest of them, to never be off their guard. They were at war with a fierce and uncompromising enemy, and their very survival lay in constant vigilance.
"You ever wonder what it was like, him dying that way?" McDonald asks.
"Dang, it was as savage as a meat ax, what they done to him. I can't even begin to think what it must have been like. Those bastards out there, they ain't human, least not the way we are. You start to think they are, then they'll come at you from offside when you're least expecting it. None of 'em are worth a fart in a whirlwind. Remember that you ever get braced by one. All of them just as dangerous- men, women and even the kids. You know what they say: nits breed lice." George Adams takes another long swig from the bottle of bourbon, smacking his lips in appreciation.
"You ever kilt any of them?" McDonald asks.
"Only from a distance. We sprung a group once, when I was out on patrol, got into a windsucker of a fire-fight. It was hot action while it lasted. I know I dropped two of them. The first fell over like his leg had fallen off. The other one," he smiles here, "man, it was funny. I hit him so hard with that shot he danced like a ducked cat before he went down. These Sharps we use are powerful rifles. Kick like a mule, but boy they sure do the job. After the fight, we went over and checked out the bodies. All cold as a wagon tire. I tell you, up close they stink, worse 'n Sparky ever did. Suppose they just never wash, and man, are they ugly. They're hard-featured as a cross-eyed coon."
The two sit in silence for a while, smoking and drinking from the bottle, Around them, hundreds of men are settling down for the night, trying to sleep, restless, thinking about tomorrow. They will have an early start; assembly will be at fifteen minutes before four. They'll have a quick mess, get organized and be underway by six. That's the way it works on these campaigns. Everything by the book.
Armies around the world work by rules and regulations, these and the standards of discipline instilled in every recruit from day one, is what oils the wheels that run the machinery. Checks and balances, always checks and balances. Without this, an army is simply a rabble, a group of armed men who will react spontaneously, losing the energy, which is their power to overcome the enemy. Their fate tomorrow is in the hands of one man; he will make the right or the wrong decision, and their lives will be irrevocably changed as a result. He's a man filled with energy, charged with a zeal that can be overpowering when in his presence. The youngest Brigadier General in the history of the army, only 23 when he became the leader of 10,000 men. A man so brave and fearless he had eleven horses shot out from under him but went through the biggest war the country has ever known without hardly a scratch. If anyone can get them through tomorrow, it will be him.
As the fire burns down, the men finish off the bottle of bourbon and smoke a final cigarette before turning in. Adams is asleep in minutes, but McDonald finds it hard to relax, twisting and turning, his mind filled with images- his life in Boston, the all too brief happiness of marriage and fatherhood and the crowded nine months since he enlisted.
He remembers, in particular, the afternoon of the first day of the regiment's march, a month ago, as they set off on the campaign that was supposed to end all campaigns in this theater of war. As the twelve hundred men moved along, due to a strange and rare optical atmospheric phenomenon known as a sun dog, it seemed as though the regiment was suddenly reflected in a mirage in the sky as if they had already entered heaven. A lot of the men crossed themselves, cursing softly. McDonald had shivered as though something cold and damp had run down his back. He's been thinking about that illusion a lot these last few days. He looks once more at the night sky before closing his eyes and drifting off.
It's almost six in the morning and the army is waiting to move. Hundreds of men are sitting, anxious, fidgeting, stretching and yawning. They wonder what the day will bring. James McDonald lounges comfortably in his McClellan saddle; unlike the men around him, he's relaxed, although nursing a bit of a hangover from last night's whiskey, his big sorrel mare worrying away at the bit. The sun is rising behind him, bathing everything in a soft, mellow glow, highlighting the trees and underbrush that straggles along the base of the high hill over to the left of the regiment.
Further back, down the column, George Adams is busy, fussing over his job as a teamster, making sure everything is in order, the mules loaded correctly, the baggage train in place. They're ready to go. There's the sound of horses in action, and a group of horsemen comes cantering down the line, laughing and joshing each other. In the lead, on the Kentucky thoroughbred, he calls Vic, sits the top man, their general, their hero, the man who will give them a great victory today, waving his hat in the hair, his buckskin jacket flapping in the breeze behind him.
George Armstrong Custer, leading his beloved 7th Cavalry past the Crow’s Nest hill here in the Wolf Mountains, deep in Montana, and then down into the valley which will bring them the fifteen miles to the hills flanking the Little Big Horn River, on this Sunday morning in June 1876.
From the muster roll list of casualties at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also referred to as the Custer Massacre:
©Thom L. Jones. 2017