Short Story: The Past Catching Up


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First Lieutenant Samuel Parker lifted his felt hat, embroidered with the company insignia, from his sweat-soaked head and briefly glanced at the naked sun high above him.  He squinted in pain, swung his hat several times to cool it down, making a feeble attempt at drying it, and returned it to his head. There was about two seconds of reprieve before he started to sweat again.

“Desert gets darn hot; what d’ya say?” Cal commented from the mount beside him.

Parker grimaced and peered at the scout. It was always difficult to look at Cal “Bear Trap” Johnston in the eyes. The Montana frontiersman had a reputation of being more predator than human – uncomfortable in human company. He would stare at people with his steel-grey eyes – more wolf than man – and keep them focused until they had to look away. They never found it easy to concentrate on what they were talking about.

“Never been this cooked in all my life,” Parker replied, “and I’ve been posted in this desert since the beginning of the War.”

Cal seemed suddenly interested in conversation, something Parker hadn’t seen in the five days the company had been riding out from Fort Piute Hill. “War’s been over a year, Lieutenant – that means you’ve been here five or six years. Didya fight in the east, or play shenanigans out here in the west?”

“Neither, Cal.” Parker had been in this conversation before with other people in other places, and had the answer well rehearsed. “I served in the California Volunteers and admit it was long and wearisome. But there were a few skirmishes and we protected the trade routes into western Arizona.”

Cal lifted his hand, smiling – something never witnessed before by Parker or in reputation. “Wasn’t pickin’ a fight, Lieutenant. Just interested. I was around these here parts in some of those years. What ‘skirmishes’ were they?”

Parker started to feel uncomfortable. This was the type of question no rehearsal could fix. “Most… most were too small to be worthy of mention. There was one where rebel sympathisers were harassing our military mail run – I led a company to counter their force. We won, but there was some loss of life on both sides.”

“Was that out near the Springs?”

Parker now felt decidedly uncomfortable. “Yes… very near it.”

“I heard you fought Indians – Navajo, not sympathisers in the normal sense – yeah, I know, they got some help from the Rebs.”

The company leader closed his eyes, as if in pain. “Yes, they were Indians. Navajo, with a few Apache scouts.”

“And women and children, Lieutenant. Women and children.”

“They often brought their women and children with them, in camp.”

Cal’s cold eyes started to drill into Parker’s as he chose his words carefully. “I was at the scene soon after the ‘skirmish’, Lieutenant. It was a massacre. Most of the men, women and children were still in their camp when they were shot and cut down. Many were decapitated, and not by accident. Some, including women, had their heads put on poles. I’ll never forget that day, Lieutenant, not until I meet my Maker.”

Parker didn’t reply; at least not for a few minutes. The company column continued its comfortable trot down the desert trail and the horses’ hoof falls click clacked on the stony terrain. “I couldn’t control my men, Cal. They had the blood-lust and they were angry because two of our men had been killed by the Navajos the day before. We were excited to have found their camp, but I… lost control of them.” Tears started to well in his eyes, smudging the desert dirt that was caked beneath them. “I too will not forget what I saw.”

Cal shook his head, his eyes downcast. “It’s not fer me to pass judgement, Lieutenant, ‘cause I’ve done things that’ll keep the pearly gates shut to me. But fer what its worth, you should’ve held back yer men.”

“I know.” Parker and Cal fell silent again, and in the background they could hear the usual mutterings and jibes of the men in column, thirty yards behind them. They remained quiet for the next few hours, deep in thought, battling the ghosts of their past.

Then, much like a stroke of inspiration, Parker decided that to exorcise his ghosts he had to say more. To tell the plain truth. He began to speak, and inexplicably Cal listened as if he knew this was going to happen. “When I gave the order to attack their camp at dusk, having succeeded in dispatching their sentry, we charged in on foot. At first I was in complete control and I gave orders to the men, making it clear that women were not to be harmed unless they posed a threat; that men were not to be harmed if they surrendered. It started off fine. Then some of the men started to shoot and stab Indians randomly, and it spread among the men so quickly that it was impossible to stop them. Then many of the men started to shout ‘For Jed! For Merle!’ and… I don’t know; I just got caught up with them.

“God forgive me, Cal, I started to shoot them too, and I didn’t care who they were. I lusted for blood, and I wanted more – I wanted each action to be more disgusting and horrid then the next! I then rushed into a tent and to my surprise I found a squaw – but she was white! I heard that some white women were with Indian men, and again I saw red. I aimed my pistol at her and shot her in the chest. She collapsed like a mannequin, and I was going to close in with my sabre to… never mind. What happened next chilled me to the marrow and shook me out of my blood lust.

“The white squaw pulled herself up, in agony, and pointed her bloody hand to me. In perfect English she cursed me. ‘Dog! You rape and slay innocents to satisfy your lust! There will come a time when the eyes of blood will stare upon you, and you will pay for what you have done to my people!’

“I would have laughed at her delusional croaking, but suddenly her eyes turned completely red, having filled with blood, and the look upon her face! – it was of complete and utter hatred. It was demonic. Not for want of blood – but to rid myself of that horror, I cut her down with my sabre, over and over again. I was so tired I could barely hold my blade, and then I saw her visage. The eyes were still open, blood red, and I swear they were looking at me! I ran out of the tent and did my best to gather my men.

“As I ran away from the camp, with my men following, I saw the carnage scattered about. Each lifeless face had its eyes open; each was blood red and staring at me.

“You may call me mad, Cal, but I swear that what I described is the truth. Since then I have not seen those bloody eyes again, but I fear that one day I will, and… I believe God will have a reconciliation with me.”

Cal’s face was expressionless throughout Parker’s account, eyes downcast, and it did not change afterwards. He expertly rolled a cigarette and lit it with a match. He sucked in the tobacco smoke and exhaled. “Lieutenant, I believe you. I really do. People who are dyin’ can have the second sight. Those injuns have a way with the second sight too. I believe you’re cursed too.”

Parker didn’t know what to say, as Cal’s matter-of-fact statement was completely unexpected.

Again, they fell into silence.

The sun started to set and the company were still on the trail. Parker broke the long silence with Cal. “Where do you intend us to camp?” he asked.

Again, Cal comfortably slid into the conversation. “Just around that bend there, in a canyon, is a water hole. The only reliable one for three day’s ride. Sacred to the Indians. Ideal for our camp.”

“Good.” Parker felt relieved, as he sensed his men and their horses were in dire need of rest as well as cool, clear water.

As they approached the mountain side, whose prominent rock outcrops hid the life-sustaining spring, Corporal Maddison – ‘Maddy’ to the cavalrymen – came riding in from his forward scouting mission. “Lieutenant Sir, we struck it lucky! They’re camping at the spring!”

Parker couldn’t believe his luck. What was thought to be a pursuit that could take weeks, perhaps even a few months, had turned into a doorstep exercise. “Get the men to stay put to the right of that outcrop, Maddy. We will catch the scum at dusk.”

“Yessir!” the corporal enthusiastically replied, saluting. He galloped to the waiting men.

Parker turned to the east, expecting Cal to be inspecting the trail a hundred yards ahead, but there was no scout to be seen. He felt moderately annoyed, as Cal’s expertise was useful to plan the ambush. He knew Indians. Parker assumed the old man would be back sooner rather than later.

At the outcrop the men were excited about the prospect for a fight. This was more than just a necessary task, it was also personal. Parker followed his usual ritual of dusting off his uniform, using his last canteen water to wash his face, and shaving his two day growth. He peered into his small shaving mirror and saw a serious face, one where the ghosts that he carried weighed heavily on him. He didn’t like what he saw. Suddenly the reflection of his eyes turned blood red, filling like a pair of wine glasses.

He jumped back, dropping his mirror, shaking in fear and shock. Slowly, he approached his mirror and picked it up and peered in it again. His eyes were normal. He sighed, but it was not completely with relief. His past seemed to be rapidly catching up to him. God! Is it my time?

He looked at the setting sun and realised it was now time. Cal hadn’t returned, which deeply worried him, but he decided to attack the camp nevertheless. My eyes – my destiny lies before me.

***

Parker had spent some time giving Cal the account of what really happened, and in some ways it made him feel better… but only to a point. It also vividly replayed the horror of that terrible dusk attack on the camp at the Springs. Cal, riding slowly in the hot sun, kept the poker face he was well known for, eyes downcast.

Parker felt he needed to say one more thing. “You may call me mad, Cal, but I swear that what I described is the truth. Since then I have not seen those bloody eyes again, but I fear that one day I will, and… I believe God will have a reconciliation with me.”

Cal kept his eyes downcast. He always did when they were filled with blood. He had done this many, many times before; and eternity lay before him.  There was no reconciliation.

 

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