Western Short Story
In a dark room of his home, in Beverly, Massachusetts in the year of Our Lord 1908, a man died alone. The house, silent and chilly, had wrapped its cool arms about the man breathing slowly and labored, no caretakers immediately at hand, and none frankly wanted. His name was Edgar Charbonneau, retired colonel of the 4th Cavalry of the U. S. Army, last day of duty on the plains of Texas in 1885, after 37 years of service.
He was the saddest man in the world the day of his death, and the happiest that he was about to pay amends for all his bad deeds.
He had said, prayed, depended on a last statement: “Give me one day to make amends, Lord. I’ll take an hour if that’s all You have, or a minute to be spared this soul.” It was as if an echo had been allowed to enter the room of his death.
For all we know at this point, he might have gotten his wish, or his wishes, but Charbonneau was remembered for a long time after his retirement, and quite often beforehand; some people of northwest Texas called him the Mad Dog of Llano Estacado, The Earl of Death at Blanco Canyon, The Red River Rogue. The castigation of names was endless, the meanings intentional and pointblank, extra weight for the hardiest soul, but especially for an old cavalryman from the Indian Wars of the Plains.
Edgar Charbonneau was a major at the Battle of the North Fork of the Red River in September of 1872, a battle between Comanche Indians and a unit of the U.S. Army’s 4th Cavalry. Charbonneau’s opponents were led by chiefs of the Comanche; Mow-way (Hand-shaker or One-Who-Shakes-Hands), along with sub-chiefs Tosawi (Silver Brooch) and Bowahquasuh (Iron Shirt). It was the army’s first big hit at the fearful Comanche in the western panhandle of Texas, in a stretch of land about 40 miles long called Llano Estacado (the staked plain).
That singular campaign still resounds with the death of many women, children and old men, a mark that Charbonneau, to his last days, could not erase, his commiseration long and noteworthy for a decorated officer. Some observers at the time of the campaign voiced the concern that the battle was “only dredged up and carried out to bring a massacre down on the Comanche savages.” The observations, from both military types and non-military types, weighed heavier on Charbonneau’s chest than the cluster of medals and ribbons bestowed on him during his long service. It was reported that he quashed a commendation that he be awarded the Medal of Honor, berating a junior officer who had written a commendation, though two cavalrymen from the ranks were so awarded for actions in the same battle.
The long haunting in him all those years was cemented in place one fateful day when fighting slipped away from the edge of his command, and a mother and child, Comanche of course, were not only shot, but their bloods mixed by the end of a bayonet penetrating both souls as the mother tried to flee the battle scene. A drunken sergeant, nearly falling from his mount throughout the attack, stabbed them with one maddening trust and struggled to free the weapon. In anger, sadness, embarrassment, Charbonneau almost shot the man. The only thing saving him was the idea of losing his commission. Never forgotten was the quick and insidious bearing of the inner turmoil that wracked him then and all through his coming days, all of them.
Years after the battle, and after he retired, he went again with a son to visit the Llano Estacado. The son had refused too long making the visit, until it was obvious his father was bound to go alone, driven by an emotion he had not let go of.
The son had repeatedly denied his father, saying, “They were only savage Indians, Pa, sworn enemies who had killed many of your own comrades. You can’t be sorry for them. Not now. Not ever.”
“Don’t you understand, Eric,” Charbonneau replied, “I’m not sorry for them. I’m sorry for myself.”
Such reasoning had not penetrated the son’s thinking … until that moment. It was July 17, 1900, in Llano Estacado, the temperature was 56 °. Charbonneau felt the chill running through his body because the day before had been much hotter. At least he thought he’d found the reason; so did his son, until they both realized that many of the visitors to memorials in the area were staring at Charbonneau, not that they recognized him, but might have.
Those staring at him were, to a man, Indians of the Comanche nation.
One elderly Indian, in a wheelchair being pushed by a look-alike daughter or a granddaughter, asked him if he had ever been to Llano Estacado before. The Indian, wearing a scar across one cheek that he touched several times, showed no other battle reminders, though an aura, deeply perplexing, sat about him fully known but as hidden as heat from an iron stove.
Charbonneau was hard put to answer at first, until the Indian said to his daughter, calling her Yellow Moon Walking but in the old tongue, “He will answer when he’s ready, Yellow Moon Walking, because he has the old eyes that I have. We have seen the Llano Estacado in the bad times. All strangers who are not strangers to Llano Estacado say so with their eyes.”
His eyes had not moved from Charbonneau and had not even looked at Charbonneau’s son.
The old Indian shifted in his seat, kept a stone face though his body was saying it harbored pain, and said, “I am called Bear Claw, and you are a cavalryman. Is that not so?” He held up an open hand, thumb tucked into his palm, showing the spread of just four fingers and Charbonneau understood him to be saying, and recognizing, the 4th Cavalry, the infamous enemy of the battle near McClellan Creek.
“I came here with the 4th Cavalry,” Charbonneau said, his eyes again saying the words that were difficult to say. In a stiff moment of gathering himself, pulling harsh memory into place, the retired major and plains fighter said, “and I have carried the pain of those days with me as my personal baggage for all these years. I have kept the scenes of that time in my mind, and at night the pain comes back with each image.”
His son’s hand, in a subtle gesture, touched the shoulder of his father, and Bear Claw, in recognition of something hidden, said, “I have Yellow Moon Walking to help me with the pain as you have your son at this time.” It was a revelation.
Bear Claw, aware of signs emanating from different sources about them, said, “I saw Chief Kai-Wotche and his wife at their dying. I escape with Mow-way, Shaking Hand way you say it, and he die long ago, fighting bear in mountains. His heart carry biggest wound before he meet bear on two legs. How did other cavalry riders manage getting old, those who ride off with you?”
The question was not perceived by Charbonneau to be a rebuking or castigating his old comrades. It was the way Bear Claw came at people, and it must have been the way, he thought, that Bear Claw fought his battles, straight on, heedless of danger and the ultimate that comes to warriors.
Though he saw that Bear Claw wore signs of battle, of age, he also noticed the Indian exhibited an unquestionable sense of awareness for an old man, Charbonneau figuring him to be older than he himself was. They had met again on the battlefield where they had brought arms to bear against the sworn foe, one believing in his war and the other not believing in his war.
Through the long afternoon on July 17, 1900, the new century picking them up and putting them together, a chill in the air that touched each of them in the same degree but not in the same manner, they talked. But after the early conversation, they talked no more of death, of pains that lingered, of the comrades who had long departed them, the battles, this life, until the evening crawled up to the edge of them.
When an owl made announcements, Bear Claw asked that they meet the next day, but earlier. “The owl says we old ones must prepare for night. Can we meet when the owl sleeps tomorrow?”
Colonel Charbonneau and Bear Claw departed with their escorts, the chill coming anew, owls calling around, and the moon standing still on a mountain top.
Eric Charbonneau said, in the comfort of their motel room, “That old Indian, that Bear Claw, does not seem to be a hated enemy. And he seems so bright for an old man, too.”
“He’s not an enemy any longer,” Charbonneau said, “and perhaps he never was. Perhaps I am the only enemy in this affair, and I am trying to let it go.”
Young Eric Charbonneau said, “He is so much aware of things that I do not see, cannot see, and might never see. I can say I am glad I never had to face him in a battle. Is he really that fearsome? Like he is a seer or a shaman or a medicine man from that other time and can pull tricks out of a hat. Does he possess something that we do not have? Can you find that in him, how he sees things we do not see?”
Charbonneau thought about his son’s questions and his observations. “You must be right about him, Eric. I feel those things, though I wonder if my guilt brings them upon me.”
Yellow Moon Walking, talking to her grandfather in a room with friends that evening, said, “The old colonel bears great guilt in his soul, and he exposed it all today. What will he say tomorrow when we meet again. We will meet again, won’t we?”
“Yes, Yellow Moon Walking, we will meet again. The colonel is not relieved of all that he bears. He will meet us whenever he can as long as the guilt hangs upon him.”
“I think you are right again, Grandfather, as always.” The great smile crossed her face the way the moon first touched her. A light bronze beauty rode on her skin and her eyes, pale as a new shrub, a green shrub, also carried a glow.
The old warrior, wondering what the old cavalryman was doing at that very moment, found an inkling of it in his mind and knew it came from late images belonging to Llano Estacado.
The two old warriors, with their personal escorts and ready hands, came again for a few days of Eric Charbonneau’s vacation before the trek by train was again undertaken to cross the whole country, back to the edge of the ocean where Atlantic mist rose each day, the old colonel hoping always it was trying to wash his soul, to cleanse it.
Bear Claw admitted he himself came each day to Llano Estacado memorials, the seen and unseen ones, to appease the spirits of the lost who might wander forever if not thought about, recalled in personal demands by the living, and brought out of the lost world for at least a few minutes of each day. “They are caught up in a strange world, and I am pledged to assist their journeys through time. That is my weight.”
Charbonneau said, “Is it demanded of all your days without peace within, the same as within me?”
“Ah,” Bear Claw replied, “it is said that if one man for one minute can clear worries, sins, guilt, and all the ponderous enemies from his soul, then for that one minute he has an edge on an hour. That is all one needs, an edge on an hour; and think what it promises for that man.”
One old warrior shook his head again. “How do you know everything there is to know? Who taught you? The elders of your tribe?”
Bear Claw was silent for a few moments and then replied, “If I knew everything, I would have a place up beyond and would show you what is coming, for I do know the weight that lies on you. Is not for us to escape, but to endure for all others as long as we can, only then would we know everything there is to know, what comes at us in the end or,” and he paused to look out over the sea of grass before he continued,” in the beginning.”
Charbonneau, with a shrug of his shoulders, said, “But the punishment …?”
“You are right. We are prisoners, but we look for that one minute with an edge.”
And so it was, in the mist of a morning beside the cleansing Atlantic, in a room in a house in Beverly, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1908, the retired colonel of the 4th Cavalry caught again the full words of Bear Claw, dead now for half a dozen years.
Neither old warrior had seen what had been coming around them. Or what was happening right in front of them. But it came now in the one clean minute prayed for and promised, the edge also being made on lifetimes with the unexpected but happy union of Yellow Moon Walking and Eric Charbonneau, both consigned to love, raising their children, paying continual homage to lost souls of Llano Estacado.