A morality tale: of Custer, Sitting Bull, the old vision of mother earth meeting the new.
KING OF FOOLS
The plains stretch out in front of him, the tall dry grasses moving as if alive, many hundreds of feet below him. He sees with the eyes of the hawk, and flies with all its speed. The miles melt away beneath him in swirling sheets.
Then, on some unseen signal, he begins his descent, still hurtling silently through space. As the ground approaches, features begin to come into focus, formless terrain sliding into gentle hills and valleys. He approaches a hill, gradual in angle but still dominating the area around it. Soon he can see the one feature atop the knoll: A wooden cross, lying on the grass. Closer, falling. Speed increasing, wind-tearing-at-his-face, straight for the cross...
He is on the cross now. Panic as he realizes he can't move. Arms and legs bound tight. Screams for help only magnify the fear as no sound comes out. He watches in horror as a nail is driven through his left hand, and then his right. Blood is everywhere, running in rivers. The ground everywhere he can see is black. But there is no pain. There should be pain, he thinks numbly, but there isn't.
They stand him up. He watches in mute fascination as the blood drips from his hands and feet to splash one drop at a time on the ground. Slowly at first, then a little quicker. The sound is most fascinating. As the splashes increase, they begin, ever so faintly at first, to sound like applause. The faster the drops rush from his body, the louder it is. The torrent becomes a deafening ovation.
He looks up to see a city sprawled out in front of him! Buildings, carriages, lamps, streets. Bigger and brighter than St. Louis. More bustling than New York. And the streets of this city are filled with people. Men, women and children, all applauding wildly and ... yes, they are chanting his name...
* * *
As he walked the great expanse of field, the first thing the chief saw was the sky. The cloud people were nowhere to be seen this day. His brow furrowed as he wondered if this was good or bad. As he crested the gentle hill he was walking, he stopped and fell silently to his belly. There, in the middle of the hill, stood the Great White Buffalo Grandfather in all his magnificence.
Though the Buffalo had seen and felt his presence, he did not run. He turned to face the chief, puffed out his chest, and pawed at the ground. The chief was awestruck. To have the Great White Buffalo Grandfather acknowledge him was too much to hope for. Perhaps his people were to have better medicine after all. The Buffalo spoke to him: "If you can slay me with one arrow, the earth will drink of my blood and be healed. There is no death, but renewal. The sacred hoop must remain unbroken."
The chief mumbled a brief prayer of thanks and strung his yew bow. In one motion, he drew and fired an eagle shaft. The Great White Buffalo Grandfather fell as a great tree struck by lightning, blood running in rivulets into the earth. There was a great, heavy silence in the world.
Suddenly there was a great shaking. A white man with long yellow hair rose from the blood of Great White Buffalo Grandfather. As the chief watched in horror, the white man pulled out a long knife and cut the heart from the buffalo. The chief moved to intercede, but his feet would not obey. His mouth opened but no sound came out.
* * *
He must have made some great amount of noise as he sat up in bed, because he had barely exhaled twice while trying to recoup reality when a sentry burst into the room, Enfield breech loader cradled in one arm, a lamp in the other. "You alright, Genr'l?" The sentry, barely seventeen, looked more worried than his charge.
"Yes, private, I'm fine. Nothing more than a spot of undigested jerky, I expect. Back to your post." The sentry, with not a little relief, complied, post haste.
General George Armstrong Custer, however, was less relieved. As he lay back in bed, he allowed himself a small shiver that traversed every nerve ending. It was a sign. One he recognized all too well.
Though not a particularly religious man, Custer knew a vision when he had one. The Lord Almighty had finally given him a sign that he was to be the anointed one he always knew it was his destiny to be. He would win the land from the heathen, and in so doing, bring himself and the Seventh their long-deserved place in American history forever. But if history was to remember him properly, it would have to done just right. As he adjusted his pillow, he made a mental note to call a staff meeting right after reveille. The last fragments of fear were already a fleeting memory as his head sank into the pillow.
* * *
The first thing Gall saw after the vision was the Sun. This was a particularly powerful omen, he thought, to be facing the Great Spirit when leaving the waking dream. The torn flesh he had sacrificed to the Sun Dance paled in significance to the insight he had been granted. It must be a message of great importance indeed to been brought to the Sioux by the Great White Buffalo himself. He went to Walks Too Far, the Hunkpapas' medicine man.
Walks Too Far listened patiently to Gall and paused several moments before speaking. "It is indeed powerful medicine," he nodded slowly, "Sitting Bull, who calls you brother, had a vision as well when he danced the dance but two nights ago. He saw Bluecoats falling out of the sky as grasshoppers, defenseless, to their doom, by the thousands. They are linked, these visions, and bring messages from Wakantanka. Some are good medicine, some are not.
"The Earth Mother needs to be fed, to be nourished. When her body is empty, a mortal man becomes the vessel for the Great Spirit to enter the Mother. The mortal bleeds life-blood into the Mother to feed her, so she in turn can feed her children for many more moons. The time is coming soon for mortal man to pay his blood debt to She-that-allows-him-to-live." Walks Too Far was silent for a time.
Gall was patient for as long as he was able. "Who will pay the debt, and what will the payment bring?" he blurted out.
Walks Too Far stared beyond Gall for several moments. Finally he answered, slowly. "Change is coming to the Land of the People. The world is swarming with the hordes of the Great White Father. Soon we will be driven to the end of the World and perhaps even removed from it forever. The Great Trickster saves the best trick for last: To be supplanted, finally, not by the Mother or Grandfather, but the gun and pony soldier." He shook his head and smiled with a corner of his mouth. "Perhaps it is to teach us humility."
* * *
The Seventh Cavalry was a day out of the Tongue River camp when they began seeing the signs. It was the Crow and Arikara scouts who first saw them. Some Crow made noises about leaving when Custer ordered several burial sites defiled. Though no friend of the Teton Sioux, the Crow still believed that some things were better left alone. Then the Arikara found the abandoned Sun Dance lodge.
As they entered, they saw a strange sight: The dirt in the southern corner was arranged in a sort of map, the drawing made with a stick. The earth was pushed up in a ridge, with a small group of holes poked on one side of it. On the other side was a much larger group, extending around the flank of the smaller. As they peered at this, Custer swept into the lodge with a flourish.
"What's taking you people so long? We're ready to move out!" He looked over the Arikara shoulders at the relief map in the sand. "So they know they're doomed after all, do they? Well, when Crook and Terry close the trap and the Seventh sweeps up, all the knowledge in the world won't save them."
The Arikara looked at Custer as they would a crazy man. They looked at one another and sighed. They knew who would be swept up, and Custer was right: all the knowledge in the world wouldn't save him.
Charlie Reynolds, one of Custer's most trusted scouts, began giving away all his possessions.
* * *
The day of June 25th dawned bright and hazy over the Rosebud valley as Custer, Major Reno, Captain Benteen, several lieutenants, and their various aides met over a breakfast cookfire, the bacon-smoke and coffee-smells mingling with the haze, to hang, suspended, over their heads. The discussion was getting louder.
"With all due respect, General," Benteen was saying, "we have just over 630 men as it stands now..."
"More than enough to put this rabble back in tow, Captain. You WILL take your men west-southwest beyond that ridge to look for and round up any stray hostiles, and join up with us on the other side of the Horn. Do I make myself clear, Captain?"
Benteen clamped his teeth together and paused while his face, already burned by the Great Plains sun, flushed brighter. "Yes sir. Perfectly."
"But General, what about the reports?" This time it was Reno, more diplomatic than Benteen, but just as exasperated.
Custer sighed. "What reports would those be, Major?"
"The scouts' sir. River-runs, you know him, the Crow? He says there are more Indians in the village than the cavalry has bullets. And he has been scouting for us for two years. And the Arikara, they're unbraiding their hair. They've never done that before, General."
"Hogwash, Major! Pure, unadulterated, superstitious, redskin hogwash. There aren't but a few scattered hundred Indians in that village, and even if they were to outnumber us two to one, what is that to us? We are the Seventh Cavalry, dammit! Is there a trooper among us incapable of killing or driving off two or more savages with no discipline or training? Don't be absurd. But it should make you feel better, Major, to know that my plan is to send you and yours to flank the village opposite the end that Benteen is working, and I'll support you both through the middle."
Both Benteen and Reno nearly choked on buffalo bacon simultaneously, but it was Reno who managed to clear his throat enough to speak first.
"But General you can't! After detailing the pack train, you'll be left with only about two hundred men. It's suicide!"
Custer glared at Reno for nearly thirty seconds. If Reno had anything more to say, it died in his throat. No one moved a muscle. Finally Custer spoke, softly, still staring at Reno. "If you ever contradict me again, publicly or privately, Major, I will dispense with formality and shoot you myself. Is that clear?"
Reno swallowed hard and nodded once.
* * *
The air in the council lodge was thick with smoke from the pipe being passed around. The lodge was filled with war chiefs from a dozen tribes in several nations. Speaking for the Hunkpapas tribe of the Teton Sioux, Sitting Bull sat at the place of honor.
"Wakantanka has brought us a new prophesy, through many dreams dreamt by those among us here today. The Mother Earth is tired and hungry, she needs rest and food. The pony soldier covers the Mother like a blight, but does not replenish what he takes. Soon we will help the pony soldier pay this debt. What he takes from the Mother must be paid for in blood. None can say whether the tide of White Eyes may be stemmed, or if we are merely howling at the thunderstorm, hoping to stop it by our will. The only thing that is certain is that we will make sure this debt of blood is paid while any of us still walk free. For while we live, we live with honor."
Kills Eagle, a Blackfoot chief, then jumped up and whooped a war cry. "We paint at last! We will hunt down and kill the White Eyes until he has no stomach left for sacred Sioux lands!"
Sitting Bull cut short the rising agreement with a wave of his hand. "We will not abandon the women and children and leave the sacred Black Hills unprotected to chase a hart that comes to us."
Kills Eagle was stunned. "Surely not even the Long Hair would attack us here in our strength."
"I know only that he comes. Wakantanka brings him. What he does when he gets here, only the Long Hair and Wakantanka know. And Wakantanka will not say."
* * *
Captain Benteen was visibly agitated as he surveyed the 120 men under his command, and had been for two days verbally assaulting any trooper unfortunate enough to cross into his line of sight. Only his chief scout, Charlie Reynolds, escaped unscathed. As the two prepared to move out, Benteen wheeled his mount next to Reynolds', and looked straight into his scout's eyes. "You know they're just north of here, don't you Charlie?"
"And you know there's thousands of 'em, don't you?"
"Then why the hell are we going southwest?"
Despite himself, Benteen laughed out loud. “We're going to reconnoiter territory miles away from the battle site. A battle that's gonna be started a day BEFORE his reinforcements get here, against a force ten or fifteen times his own size."
Benteen laughed again. "Y'know what, Charlie? I don't care what anybody says, you're a pretty funny guy."
By the time Reno's men met Gall's at one end of the village, Custer had already changed course and led the 214 men of his main force around to the other end of the village. He was positive he was right. The Sioux would be pushed back to the valley below this ridge, and be finally at the mercy of General George Armstrong Custer.
Custer was certain he was to be the new conqueror. It was his destiny. A new king for the savages to revere, a statesman for the rest of America! Bennett, the publisher, would have the right horse to back in the next presidential election, just like he promised. He looked at the almost deserted village below him and lusted.
The night before, this same man had had the only crisis of faith he could ever remember. He felt a pressing weight on his chest and a shortness of breath that he had never known. He paced his tent for two hours before rousing the camp doctor from a deep sleep. But it wasn't medication he wanted. He told the doctor to cut his hair. The doctor thought about asking why, but only for a moment. After the hair that had been almost as famous as its owner was gone, Custer felt inexplicably relieved. He changed into buckskins and felt better still.
All the time that Custer sat on that ridge, Reno's men were being swarmed under by Gall's Sioux, hidden by the valley and the rest of the village. Only the sounds of rifles and occasional screams reached Custer's men. Custer took the sounds to mean Reno was mopping up his end of the village. Eyes widening, Custer yelled, "We've got them," and led the charge down the hill and across the river.
As Custer crossed the river, the Seventh Cavalry right behind him, two shots rang out, almost simultaneously. Custer flew backwards from his horse, landing in a heap. The charge came to a skittering halt. The stunned troopers picked up the body and headed back across the river to regroup. They had no sooner crossed back than the entire strength of the encampment, several nations strong, fell upon the Seventh. Half an hour later it was over. It ended as suddenly as it had begun. The war cries and eagle-bone whistles that made enough noise, one Sioux warrior later said, to wake all the dead in the Black Hills, fell silent in a single moment.
As the silence descended upon the valley, Sioux women began to come out of their hiding places in the village to tend to their dead. It was a slow, methodical ritual well known to them. While they did this, Walks Too Far and Sitting Bull walked up to where Custer's body lay on its back, and looked at it silently. Sitting Bull surveyed the carnage around him. "All is as it should be."
Walks Too Far kept his eyes riveted on Custer. "I’m afraid you may be right."