Excerpt from Book Two of the Americans Series, The Scout of Wounded Knee
January 25, 1929
Wyatt Earp is dead.
I read it in the newspaper this morning, though it’s been more than a week. I met the man once, in Tombstone, Arizona. I can’t say I cared for him much. The newspaper said he was eighty-years-old, which is a few years younger than I am. I suppose I’ll be sharing space with him in Hell before too awfully long. If there is such a place, it’s where we both belong.
When it first occurred to me to write this, it was only to tell the story of Wounded Kneel; to set the record straight and possibly alleviate some of my nightmares in the process. I’ve had them nearly every night for thirty-nine years. I used to be able to stave them off by getting drunk, but I don’t tolerate liquor too well these days. Most nights now I lie awake listening to the rafters creaking until well after midnight. Most mornings I’m up long before the sun. A guilty conscience is a heartless companion.
After giving it some thought I decided to start from the beginning—my beginning—because telling it that way may help bring some context to the rest of it. Also, there are some people who merit mention; some people who will never be written about in any history book, though they should be. Wachiwi, Dancing Girl of the Sioux, who once saved my life, and my friend, Henry. Henry was the best man I ever knew, and I knew some good ones. But I’ll get to them soon enough.
A lot led up to the atrocity at the Pine Ridge Agency that day, what the army and the government and the historians are all so contented to call The Battle of Wounded Knee. I’ve been in battles, more than I care to count, and this wasn’t one. This was an execution. As for my involvement in it, I seek no absolution. I know there is none for one such as me.
I’m not a writer, but I’ve read a thousand books if I’ve read one and I still have a decent enough memory. I ordered some good quality paper and a pair of fountain pens from the Sears, Roebuck and it all arrived just yesterday. The paper is nice. This one here is the first sheet.
My name is Everett Ward. I was born in Missouri on Dec 1, 1845, on a little scrap of a farm near Osceola. My mother and father were both from Virginia. I don’t know what would have made them want to relocate to the ramshackle house on that flood-prone twenty acres, and I never thought to ask them while they were alive. Looking back on it, I realize how little I knew of them. I know that my father used his small inheritance to buy the farm not long after my older brother Clyde was born in 1842. I also know they were both educated, a fact that makes the purchase of the spread even more curious.
My father was a poor farmer, and I mean that in both senses of the word. His corn never grew worth a damn and his hogs were always sick. My mother tutored local children sometimes and took in mending when she could. Around Christmas time she’d sew quilts for extra money. Clyde and I never went to a school but our mother and father took turns teaching us. They had a fair collection of books they’d brought from back east and in the evenings after supper all four of us would read to each other out of them. We never had a lot of money and sometimes in the winter we only ate one meal a day, but there was happiness. It was a good life.
My brother and I joined the Confederacy in 1861; not because of politics or slavery, but for the twenty-five dollars each we were given to sign on. My father was sorry to lose the labor—he didn’t believe in keeping slaves—but he was grateful for the fifty dollars. Truth is, we would have joined the Union just as readily if we would have been offered a cash bounty from the boys in blue first. We just wanted to help our mother and father.
Clyde and I were issued our ill-fitting grays along with a couple of worn-out looking Springfield rifles and sent marching south. Two weeks later we were standing at the bottom of a hill with only three balls apiece for the old muzzleloaders, waiting for the order to charge the Union line on the south slope of the hill. Clyde made less than a dozen steps before he went down. It turned out there were union sharpshooters lying in the grass at the top of the hill. The ball took him in the knee. It shattered his kneecap along with some of his femur and tibia. The army sawbones attempted to take off his leg halfway between his hip and his knee that same night. Clyde died screaming while I stood listening less than ten feet away. He was three days from being nineteen-years-old. Six weeks later my mother and father were dead too. They were dragged from the house in their bedclothes in the middle of the night by Unionist Jayhawkers and shot dead in the dooryard where Clyde and I used to play jacks. The house and barn were burned to the ground. It was cold comfort they didn’t have to grieve Clyde for long.
As for me, I spent the next four years fighting and never took a scratch.
One morning about month before things ended, I leaned my rifle up against a tree where we were camped in the woods southeast of Kansas City and I walked away. I wasn’t the first. In the early months of 1865 men were deserting in droves, at least in Missouri they were. I wasn’t a deserter, though. My commitment to the Confederate Army had ended six months prior. I stayed on because I had nowhere else to go. You would have been hard-pressed to find and officer who’d have given a tinker’s damn if I was deserting like the rest of them anyway. The command in our regiment had long since crumbled and officers were deserting as well. By that time most of us were nothing but a bunch of sick and half-starved wraiths wielding empty rifles.
When I struck off through the woods toward home, I had the pistol I’d taken from a dead Union officer at Lone Jack in ’62, the jackknife my father gave me for my tenth birthday, a speck of flint, a canteen that belonged to the Confederate Army, and one hardboiled egg. I didn’t have anything else to my name. Not even my own clothes.
I made my way south, staying off the roads to avoid contact with troops of either side. It was early March and it was cold and there was still some snow. I didn’t curse the snow because it was never very deep and I could melt it for water. It took me a week to make the journey and that hardboiled egg was all I ate the entire week.
When I reached the farm I spent some time poking through the nearly four-year-old ashes, but I was too weak to dig very deep and it appeared as if it had been sifted through many times before. Even the stones of the fireplace had been carried off. I was only hoping to find a photograph of my mother. She never consented to Clyde and I joining up. “Fifty dollars be damned,” she said when we broke the news to her and my father. “It isn’t worth your lives.” It was the only occasion in my fifteen-years that I’d ever heard a curse pass my mother’s lips.
I sat down against the big cottonwood which grew between the house and the barn and wept for awhile. I woke up to someone kicking my foot. I opened my eyes; not kicking my foot, but tapping it with a walking stick.
“You’re John Ward’s boy, ain’tcha? Clyde.…No, that’s not right , you’re the other one, Everett.”
I nodded. Yes, ma’am, Missus Bishop.”
“Well, if you ain’t a sight.…” She cocked her head toward the black rubble that was once my family’s home. “You got word of what happened I expect?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Not long afterward.”
“Well, I’m sorry about your folks. It was a terrible thing what those men did.…Most everyone’s gone now, ‘sept me and the Sundersons and old Mac down by Lawson’s Bend. There’s a few up in town but there’s nothing left but cinders so God only knows why they’re still there. You want to come up to the house, get yourself something to eat? I don’t have much but I’ll share what there is. I don’t know if you remember Nathanial—Mister Bishop—but he’s gone now. The consumption finally got the better of him. He passed two summers ago, God rest his soul. It’s just me and a goat and a half-dozen chickens.”
I stood up a little too sudden and staggered on account of the hunger. Missus Bishop grabbed my upper arm and steadied me. I remember how strong her grip felt, even through my wool coat. She was rail-thin and her hair had been as white and wispy as a summer cloud for as long as I could remember. Clyde and I thought both her and Mister Bishop as old as Methuselah, but she didn’t seem old or frail to me that day.
I began to weep again.
“There now,” she said. “You’ll feel better once we get something hot into you. You want to see where they’re buried ‘for we go?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She only looked at me appraisingly for a moment, likely to see if I was going to faint or not. Seeming satisfied, she released my arm and started off toward the fenced area where my mother used to keep her garden.
“There weren’t nobody to make a headstone,” she said apologetically when we reached the gate to the roughly quarter-acre rectangle of split-rail fence my father built to house my mother’s garden. “The Hutchins brothers did all the other work, even said some words over ‘em. Them two left for the east not long after.”
I pulled the wooden bolt and opened the gate. The side-by-side graves of my mother and father were in the far corner. Someone—presumably the Hutchins brothers—had covered them with rock cairns. I walked over and kneeled down between them. I thought about what my mother said about mine and Clyde’s lives being worth more than fifty-dollars. Now she and my father and Clyde were all dead. Clyde called me a damn fool when I first brought up enlisting. He came around, though, once I told him about the money. Sitting there by those graves I wondered if I didn’t sell all three of their lives for fifty-dollars my mother didn’t even want.
Excerpts from Book One of the Americans Series, In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree
“Do not breathe in the smoke. It must rest in your mouth, then you may set it free,” Standing Elk said in Cheyenne.
Henry did as he was told. He drew in the smoke and held it in his mouth for a few moments before opening it and letting the smoke drift slowly out. Standing Elk nodded his approval. Henry passed the pipe, but Standing Elk just held it in his lap.
“The white man only knows desire, Nótaxemâhta’sóoma. He knows nothing of contentment. His heart is dry and withered, and he seeks to revive it with that of which has no medicine. He is careless and wasteful, and places himself above and apart from all other things. The white soldiers murder without regard, but themselves are spiritless and go screaming into their own deaths as they were born into life. The white father would take all of our hunting grounds and leave our children with stomachs full of air and hearts full of hate. There can be no peace with such men. We will kill this murderer of The People, but it will not stop the whites. There will be more. Many more.”
Henry thought about Short Bull. He thought about his father, whom he didn’t even remember. He thought about Picton and the men who followed him. He thought about the man by the river. Henry understood then, that there was something in Standing Elk’s words that belonged to all men.
….This time it was her mother who spoke:“You’re like your father in so many ways, my darling. You’ve his mettle; the very thing that elevated him from a poor, farmer’s son to one of the wealthiest men in New York. It’s a hardness which many men of great worth possess but is uncommon in women. Keep it hidden, it will serve you at times. If you display it openly it will cause you nothing but grief.”
As a boy, Henry was raised for a time by a woman named Harriet. She had wet-nursed him when he was an infant, then saw to the better part of his upbringing—even while his father was still above ground—until he was sold downriver when he was eleven. Henry lived with her and her two daughters in a small, two-room shanty on a tobacco plantation near the Missouri River in Howard County. In addition to the two daughters, Harriet had also birthed five sons: three died in infancy, and the other two were sold off to new owners before their tenth year. The plantation owner, Alexander Fordham, kept mostly female slaves. He claimed them to be easier to handle and harder workers than the men. Fordham was a widower and was known to call on the young women of his plantation in the early hours of the morning. Refusals were met with beatings. Henry could remember Harriet’s eldest daughter, Sally, being sent for by Master Fordham on more than one occasion. He would sometimes lay awake, listening to Harriet sobbing softly in the darkness after Sally left. He’d wished he could comfort her, but didn’t know how. Sally was always back before sunup, and the incidents were never discussed in Henry’s presence.
Henry sat against the tree and looked out across the plain; it’s lush green already showing the faintest signs of fading, foreshadowing the stark grays and browns that would soon dominate its vastness. A colorless mirror into his own emptiness.