combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2007

The Seventh Cavalry in Paradise

          My name is John B. Armstrong; private, Company A, Seventh United States Cavalry. I am the first name on the A Company roster of 268 names. And today is my day, again.

          I got here on June 25, 1876, just like everybody else. There might have been a few stragglers who came in later, but basically, we all got here together. We have been here ever since, waiting for our names to come up on the roster, in alphabetical order, every 268 days.

          They say it has to be that way. Things won't be set right otherwise. But, as far as I am concerned, nothing will ever set it right. Nothing.

          But, like I said, my day comes up just as regular as everybody else. But, when your name does come up you have to go through it all again ....

          There was dust kicked up everywhere. Hot dirt floating in the air. We rode to some timber, and then we rode across the river. They called it an orderly retreat; but it was a skedaddle, no matter what anybody calls it. We rode as hard as we could go to get away from those trees and across the river.

          They came through that patch of trees, through the haze and smoke, like ghosts. There was smoke everywhere, dust from the horses running back and forth, and from the shooting. I saw those gray-black ghost things coming towards us and my hearing stopped. I couldn't hear anything. No more horses screaming and men shouting and shooting. And no more of that noise they make. They screech and whoop at the same time. It makes your heart jump in your chest when you hear it. But I couldn't hear any of that anymore, all the sounds just stopped, like my ears were filled with too much and just quit.

          And that's when I saw a stand of cottonwoods cross the river. It wasn't blowing dust down there and the water sparkled in the sun and looked clean and cool. The leaves on the trees were rocking a little, back and forth, with the breeze. All I could see was that shining river and the cool water and those leaves blowing back and forth in the breeze.

          I started to ride toward the little stand of cottonwoods, then I heard a thumping sound. That's the last thing I remember hearing before my ears quit. I turned and looked back to see where the sound came from. It was one of our scouts. I don't remember his name. He's around here somewhere. He gets his day too, just like the rest of us, when his name comes up on the roster, once every 268 days.

          I saw the hole in his head. He had a kind of look on his face; like a "I wonder what that was?" kind of look. Then his head exploded. He was wearing a black and blue kerchief and it flew off his head and fluttered to the ground like a broken-winged bird. Then he fell, with that look, that "What the hell was that?" look still on his face.

          I started shooting. Everywhere. Sometimes at night I still see them. Faces streaked with colors, caked-sweat colors and blood colors. I kept shooting at them, over and over. But it didn't make any difference.

          I saw George Lorenz too. I don't remember what company he was in. Some things you just don't remember after all this time. He was German and the son of a bitch could barely speak good English. They must have practically yanked him off the boat and put him in the army. We called him Georgie, and that made him mad. They shot him in the back of the neck. The bullet came out of his mouth, right through his teeth. He lay on the ground, twisting around, his face grinning like a skull with bloody teeth, until a Sioux came up and hit him over the head and finished him off. I shot the Sioux. I walked over to Georgie; "Georgie," I said, but he was dead.

          When we did get down to the river, it was worse. They weren't just coming towards us anymore; they were in the middle of us and all around us. Look on one side and you saw a trooper. Look the other way and you saw an Indian, half-naked, with paint on his face and streaked with dust, sweat, and blood. They were that close, intermingled with us down at the river.

          By that time, I didn't have a horse anymore. She started to run off; all the shooting and yelling spooked her crazy and she started hell-for-Texas toward the Indian Village. She would have carried me right into the middle of it, so I half fell and half jumped off.

          That happened to Ebert Smith too. His horse rode him straight into the Indian teepees and they pulled him off, tied a rope around his neck, and dragged him behind his own horse by the neck until his head came off. It was the Indian women did that. Now, every time his name comes up on the roster he lights a big cigar afterwards and tells how they pulled his head off.

          But I had enough sense left to roll off my horse before she took me into the village. If it hurt me when I came off that wild-scared horse, I didn't feel it. Lot of good it did me though, I might as well have stayed on her.

          So, after we got to the river I didn't have a horse. And the bank was cut deep, almost the height of a grown man. I ran into the river, turning and shooting in every direction. But I couldn't get up the other side. It was too steep and high and the cutback was slicked to mud by troopers and horses struggling to get up it and out of the river.

          Finally, I lay down on my side against the bank, half propped up and my boots sliding in the mud. Horses and troopers were jumping over me, the eyes of the horses big as silver dollars and their nostrils wide open and gasping. An arrow stuck into the mud next to my head and then came back out of the ground and fell down into the river; the mud was so thick and soft. I turned onto my back, lying on the high sloping bank and looking up at the sun.

          That's when I saw the one that got me. He was outlined against the sky. I could see the shapes of feathers sticking out from his head and the outline of the hatchet in his hand. In the glare of the sun, I couldn't see any of his features. He was just a black thing hovering over me – faceless.

          I didn't even try to shoot him with my pistol. Why, I don't know. Except that I had been shooting for what seemed like hours, and it didn't do any good. They were still there, coming at us from every side. What good would it do to shoot one more? So, I didn't even try.

          All I wanted was to go to the cottonwood trees just over the other side of the river, and lie down and sleep in the breeze that made their leaves dance in the air. When the black form lifted the tomahawk above his head, I closed my eyes.

          As I said, today is my day, again. Another 268 days.

          Soon they'll come and take me to that hill over there. From the top of the hill you can see the yellow grass for miles in every direction. It is like a carpet of gold. And the sun is always bright and the sky is always blue over the gold grass, just like it was that day.

          See this? It's my father's old pocket watch. He gave it to me when I joined the army. I'll bet they don't make watches like this anymore, do they? It says that they'll come in about an hour.

          "It's your day?"


          "It will soon be time. Are you ready?"


          "Good. Wait here. The attack will begin soon."

          You'll be able to see it when it starts. He'll be near the top of that hill, just below the crest. He'll be standing up and wearing a buckskin shirt. He won't look afraid; he never does.

          Soon the attack will start and when it's almost over they'll come get me, and they'll take me to that yellow hill where he's standing and all the others are lying down and crouched around him, shooting and dying. It'll start in about another five minutes or so.

          "It's time. Are you ready?"


          "Do you choose to ride or to walk?"

          "I will walk."

          "Then you must hurry, the attack is almost finished."

          Do you see them there swirling around him? Like a river around a stone. Do you see the arrows sticking up out of the ground on the hill, and in the bodies? The bodies look like sacks of feed, don't they. The larger brown sacks are horses. See the one with five arrows sticking out of it? That's where I'm going. Up there, where they're fighting on the yellow-grass hill.

          Most of them are dead now, or dying. There are only a few left, so I have to hurry. That's where they'll take me. To where he is. At the top of the hill.

          Look, he has lost his hat. Watch him shooting, a pistol in each hand. The men around him are shooting too, lying in the tall grass or behind their dead horses, their faces contorted, grimacing. Do you see them?

          He always watches us when we come up the hill. When he sees us near the top of the hill, he'll stop. And they'll all stop, like wind-up toys when the spring runs down. And they'll wait to see which one of us it is, whose day it is this time.

          Even the Sioux will stop riding their ponies around the crest of the hill. They'll stop killing the wounded with clubs and tomahawks, looking them straight in the eyes as they crush their skulls. The horses will stop screaming. The troopers will stop shooting and lay their rifles and pistols down in front of them in the grass. The dust will begin to settle. The powder smoke will drift away. The birds will even begin to come back and the prairie dogs will come out of their holes.

          See – they're waiting for us up near the crest of the hill, where he's standing in his fringed buckskin jacket, with his dirt-caked mustache and his cavalry pistols down by his side.

          It's stopped. They're standing there, holding their weapons, waiting, the Sioux sitting on the backs of their quiet ponies. Only a few of the wounded are still moving.

          When we get near him, you'll see that he's ordinary looking. He has the face of a Michigan farm boy, disguised by long hair and a bushy mustache, his body thin as a razor. He'll watch us as we come up the slope; he'll watch until I'm standing directly in front of him.


          "Armstrong, John B. Private, A Company."

          "Check the roster."

          "It's his day."

          "Your weapon?"



          I always do it the same way. The way they did it to me. With a hatchet, in the face. It's required; we have to do it the way it was done to us. Usually it takes more than once. Once will knock him down. The second or third will kill him. It was the second one that killed me.

          I used to think that, after so many times, I would get better at it. But I never get any better. It always takes two or three times, usually three. But it has to be this way. Otherwise, it won't be set right. But, as far as I'm concerned, nothing will ever set it right. Nothing.

          But, I get my day. Regular as clockwork, once every 268 days.

by Gene Hines
... who is a Vietnam veteran of the 1st Marine Air Wing, and is now a legal aid attorney; he is the author of several books and articles, including fiction previously published in this magazine.

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