He was the one putting himself in the most danger by lying to himself...
Nat was always standing on the outside. There was the General then the photographers and the journalists then the other Officers and then him. Not that he ever complained or minded this. Whenever the papers flocked into their camp (more and more people every time – Nat’s surprise would never cease at how many somehow slipped past the rules), he continuously averted his eyes and prayed they didn’t come to him. They didn’t really have a reason to but he was constantly wary of their probing eyes, ready to snatch any hint of difference in the faces of the soldiers they swarmed in on. They reminded Nat of summer locusts – one minute, everything was peaceful and the next, the land was full of them, irritating whoever came into their contact.
Nat wasn’t particularly irritated by them himself but then, he’d never been pierced with their searchlight gazes. And as of yet, he didn’t have anything about him to grab their exaggerated attention...Unless the General had mentioned him...
The journalists and photographers seemed to always congregate around the General with the same looks as children who’d just received the best slice of pie and at every visit, they came up with new and inventive questions to thrust upon him. If Nat hadn’t been so naive, he might have seen through them and their hungry smiles yet their facades constantly had a new polish and their faces another layer, hiding what was underneath. What they muttered amongst themselves were the only words that they hadn’t already rehearsed.
As well as being oblivious to this, Nat had also thought that the General would have shunned them in favour of the battle ahead but when the first photographer waltzed into the camp, he invited them over, a big perfect smile on his face. He’d happily let photographs be taken of him, his blue eyes glinting gleefully in the bright flashes, and had talked to every journalist that had approached him.
At first, Nat had believed that it had been kindness that allowed these people to flock to him yet as time went on, accentuated by the experiences he had staying around the General’s quarters, he began to realise otherwise. He loved and revelled in the attention he got from the visitors and Nat gradually came to the conclusion that they were both using each other: they - to get a good story and pay and he - to flourish himself across the newspapers, all without a curl out of place.
And when Nat saw him talking to these people with his big, dramatic gestures and sculpted words, he wouldn’t have been scolded for thinking that there wasn’t a war waiting for them on the other side of that river. It didn’t appear to matter to the General while the papers were there that this whole operation had been planned down to the last bullet, that his scouts were wondering why he hadn’t listened or believed a word they’d said, not even that the other Generals were relying on him.
But, strangely, it calmed Nat down. He didn’t like to think about what was waiting for him around the corner, lurking in the shadows, hiding in the gaps of the fabrication he had conceived to make everything seem friendlier, warmer. And pretending nothing was different to sitting in his childhood home back in the East, listening to his Father’s reveries of Texas, made him feel better. His Father always used to make him feel better. But then the Indians had stolen him from his and his Mother’s embrace and his image just wrenched at his heart now. Only the memories of his daydreams sought to give him any comfort.
And that, in turn, had been the one reason he held for mounting his horse when morning painted the sky pink and riding into their land, the Cavalry’s trumpeter playing a tune much too merry for the impending events. They took his Father. They took his Father. He wondered if he could kill a man for that. He’d soon find out.
But he didn’t like to think about that either. Compared to his fellow brothers in the Cavalry, he was weak and innocent, barely a man and more a kid, and the only explanation for the General to mention him in front of the journalists was probably very laughable to the rest of the soldiers. He was an Officer on the battlefield, taking McKlintock’s position in his ill absence, and he was frightened by the sudden responsibility. He’d tried not to show it but the General had seen and while in the clutches of war, he was to remain close to him. Couldn’t have a naive soldier – no, Officer, Nat had to keep reminding himself – showing them up. Or being the cause of their death.
Still, even if he hadn’t had this battlefield promotion, he knew he would have been trailing the General anyway. He had barely crossed paths with the man before this campaign yet he was steadily fascinated by him. He may have been a little brash, unconventional, egotistic, maybe even coming across as slightly dizzy, impulsive (Nat – and he was sure many of his fellows – could have continued) but he certainly wasn’t unintelligent. He seemed to know full well about all of his words and he oozed confidence, bubbling from his eccentric exterior.
Sometimes Nat wished he could be more like him – wished he could carry himself like that – and sometimes he would even try and imitate that high American drawl, hoping that the so sure words would flow out of him if he got it perfect, but he was never jealous. He didn’t want the attention or the front pages – just the self belief – and even though the admiration rendered him speechless in front of the General at times, it never turned to envy.
But he sure would have relished a mention. A small one, not so much as to direct the cameras his way, yet enough to make that woozily proud feeling flood his stomach and let him fall asleep with a smile on his face rather than a metaphorical needle and thread, trying to patch up his carefully created invention to keep the crafty worries at bay. However, the holes were gradually ripping wider and wider apart and when the papers retreated, it was back to the war.
Eventually, those holes tore right through and on the morning he woke to the void staring back at him, it felt like he had been waiting for months to ride solemnly over those hills. He tried to deny everything they had told him yet the sun was too bright in his eyes and he couldn’t hold on to anything but the truth. And he was heading right into it, armed but not enough to secure him from his own thoughts and wild imaginings.
All he was left with was himself. No more lies or his Father’s reveries. This was it.
The Little Bighorn River seemed to stretch out to eternity and back. And they were waiting for them on the banks. Not looking at them but waiting for them. Nat knew that. And it was only then that Nat realised he was probably the one putting himself in the most danger by trying to lie to himself.
The holes seemed to rip even further open, this time completely swallowing him.
Part of a longer story named Fool's Circle but I hoped that worked okay on its own :)