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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bone Creek

There ain’t no sun today; hell, there ain’t ever much of a sun, not the way my eyes have rotted out their sockets. I sit my bones out on the porch most days, stare into the cold Colorado wind, and wait on the Lord as I have been forty something years. Some days I head into Rawlins to visit Sarah’s grave and catch sight of Colonel Bill Sutler’s grave too, out the corner of my gaze, untended, grown to brown grass and dirt much as his days grew in the end. I glance over, never for too long, and wonder where his soul ended. Hell, most like, and it won’t be long afore I walk through those gates myself, shake his damn hand and join him in the flames.

I dream of the old days sometimes; whisky and blood and smoke and Shenandoah sung by fires of cow shit and torn up fence; the weight of a cap ‘n ball Colt, a bowie knife, a woman, a prairie full of dead Cheyenne and Sutler. Always Sutler, grinning like a damn fool, face spotted with blood, his cavalry officer’s moustache grown out shaggy across a bone-thin face. ‘Henry,’ I hear him say, ‘Henry hold that goddamn squaw!’ ‘Henry, shoot that whore-son!’ sometimes, softer, in the moments ‘fore I wake, ‘I miss her Henry, it burns at me, I miss her so.’ Then I open my eyes, an old man alone if you’ll except the company of a tick-riddled hound. Henry Collins, Indian fighter, war hero, son of a bitch.

The good folk of the town direct the writer fellow up to my shack as though leading a cow to the slaughterhouse. They’re rightly afraid of the ghost that moved these bones a lifetime back. Soon as Sarah passed into the Lord’s care, they shunned me, turned they backs all of a piece. They’d loved her so, that for all those years they tolerated my company, in church, in the store, the street, doffing hats and ‘Morning sir!’  Now they regard me much as I’d regard a snake. The writer sits with me on the porch. He’s a young fat man who rides one of those Ford rattleboxes you hear about. His hands are soft as wet mud when I shake greetings with him. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘you rode with Bloody Bill, back in the day.’

‘I rode with the Colonel, son, yes.’

He smiles at this. A breeze perfumed by the earth passes through dark trees on the skyline and I remember chasing a war band through this country when they weren’t no fences or law, nothing Christian, only the wind, the blood, the long grass and thunder. When the only thing keeping you from the grave was how far you could forget the world you was protecting.

The writer asks a few more nonsense question about Sutler; what breed of man was he; what did the men think of him; was I with him when he rode south on the Army of Texas, and then he asks, ‘Were you at Bone Creek?’

‘I was.’

‘And was it…how they say?’

I close my eyes. ‘We did what we had to, it was a battle.’ The old lie comes so easily, yet still wounds me so. A battle; old men, women, children, the chief even flying old glory over his lodge to indicate peaceful intent; the summer hunting grounds and the hunters waving and Sutler shooting them down, then going wild with his sabre. Yellow Eye, Lean Bear and Spotted Crow, all killed; men, women and children scalped whether they was dead or no, the men dressing out their horses later with scalps and parts of the women, drunken troopers burning what they could, cutting on the dead. And myself, watching, weak as a goddamned child, not able to do a damn thing as Sutler killed everything he could. Nits breed lice, he yelled; kill ’em all, big and little. And that’s just what the men did.

‘The congressional committee didn’t agree.’

‘Damn them, one and all, they don’t know.’ I start to coughing and take a drink of water that tastes like pennies from a chipped mug by my side. The wind is truly blowing now, and there’s snow beneath its nails.

‘Perhaps we should retreat inside,’ the writer fellow suggests, though he doesn’t know it’s colder within. I have let the place fall apart without Sarah to encourage my taking an interest; I want everything I’ve touched in this filthy world to vanish alongside of me when the devil finally comes.

I light a cigar, my last remaining vice, and nod to the hills and trees, black beneath the falling night. ‘I prefer being out here and alone with the dark, sir, and don’t talk committees with me. No court tried any man that was at Bone Creek.’

‘Wasn’t that due, sir, to the murder of the only testifying witness in a Denver side street?’

‘They were wild times, sir. And men were wild with them.’

‘The rumor was Bloody Bill assassinated the young man.’

I puff on the smoke and laugh. That I should have lived so long is punishment enough. ‘I dream,’ I say finally, ‘old men dream, and as I am last man alive that was at Bone Creek, the burden of that day weighs heavily upon my dreams. Sutler is dead, dead and damned. Whether he killed some cowardly Lieutenant in Denver or no, I’m sure he’s getting his desserts.’

The writer leaves not long after. I expect he wanted something sensational about Bill Sutler; maybe wanted to hear how a Cheyenne war band killed his betrothed while he was away fighting Texans. About how her death pushed him into hate and that hatred took the man he was and left a devil in his place; maybe he wanted to hear about the man in Denver. How I stabbed him with a skinning knife before we rode west.  He would most dearly have loved to hear how I broke the neck of that coward Henry Collins, took his papers, draped his body over a horse and rode with it into Rawlins. How I met with the preacher and his daughter Sarah and said, with the rain and the night beating on me like judgement itself, ‘This here’s Colonel Bill Sutler, fallen from his horse and dead.’  Yes and dead he was, dead and damned. I stub out the cigar and peer into the dark. Something screams in the hills, a coyote or wild dog. I listen for a long time, waiting to hear it scream again.