Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
“With little evidence towards his innocence, he is to be hanged the Monday from next on charges of military treachery and murder…as for the state and whereabouts of Private Oswald Arthur Crane, they are still unknown.”
– General George Crook (1877)
This is the truth, sir.
Flecks of gunpowder and soot cling to the grease on my jaw. Someone sounds the bugle, and someone fires. It is not me, but my name is called in the roll. I see the paint on their faces that must look uncannily similar to the turbid strokes of ash on my own cheeks, and I smell sulfur in the aching wind. Someone calls for me, throws a heavy bag in my hand before he lets loose another volley from the cannons. Might have been Rudolph, but wrestling with my wavering nerves, I manage to drop the sack when I start fumbling with the cork that had been wedged almost flush with the bag’s lip. Silver dust falls from the pouch when it hits the ground. The stopper rolls off into a shallow puddle and bobs for while like a schooner trying to right itself on a tiny ocean.
What held it there?
What rule of our Good Lord designed such a thing to be: to float? Oswald always said there is no God. Said everything is chemicals, just action and reaction. I’m not so sure if I agree, especially after that night, sir.
Hours before, Oswald and I had been sitting in our tent, smoking tobacco that he said was from his pa’ in Kentucky. He says he ain’t ever been able to find anything worth stuffing his pipe out here in Wyoming. I didn’t know; didn’t like smoking pipe. It always gets in my eyes, and he’d laugh when they would start to smart. Oswald was a good man, though. He has this gumption about him and a strong jaw that lets him get away with things that most people couldn’t, like his refusal to button the collar of his uniform.
“Chokes ya’. Can’t kill a savage if yer shirt done killed you first!”
So he’s blowing these chunky clouds of smoke in my face while I’m trying to eat breakfast, and he’s tellin’ me about the time a snapping turtle bit off his middle finger. He waves around the nub above the steaming bowl I have in my hands, acting like he is stirring up my oats with it. I call him on his tall tale like I always do. I say, “Last week I heard you say it was an opossum,” but he just laughs and keeps going for my bowl. Oswald has this laugh, see, the kind that rides up in his nose and makes him whistle. It’s queer, and you can hear it a mile away. He was always laughing. The Crow don’t like him very much though, and the Shoshone hate him. He stomps around them like General Crook, calling them things like “Sleeps With Ass” and others. Despite all that, me and him manage to make friends with this Crow that calls himself Snowbird, has this big braid of down in his hair and a sharp chin that could cut glass. He’s sitting with us around our fire, smiling every time Oswald starts giving me trouble, but Snowbird hasn’t been himself since we crossed Goose River. He keeps rubbing dirt in his hands and chewing his lip, and every once in awhile he closes his eyes really serious and lets out a deep breath.
“Better eat something, else your ribs will rattle right out of ya’,” Oswald says, finally leaving me to finish my meal.
Snowbird nods at him, “I did once already. Before Rosebud Creek.”
Oswald doesn’t look like he believes him, and tucks his jaeger tighter under his legs, “Not any of my business anyway, but them Crow are gonna eat up all your bird seed if you don’t get to it first.” Oswald laughs and hands me his pipe as he scoops up a handful of water from our pot for a drink. Satisfied, he throws himself onto his back with a wipe of his mustache, and Snowbird and I follow after.
For a while, we just laid there under the fall clouds, watching the last couple leaves break from the oaks. Wyoming is quiet in fall, especially in the later months, see. I had gone to finishing school, but I still liked asking Snowbird stuff about the forest and other things. He was sharper than any teacher I ever knew, and ever since Bighorn, he had taught me and Oswald how to find mushrooms and rhubarb, how to listen to the birds for trouble, how to turn the woods into a place that wasn’t quite so strange. He liked fall too. Snowbird says fall reminds us to be grateful for what we have, before it’s lost, and spring reminds us to be hopeful for the things that come back to us. Snowbird is just a kid, but sometimes he comes off with stuff that’ll make your head spin. He’s a real bright kid.
I can hear Snowbird beside me, rustling around with a pile of leaves. He holds up one, as big as my face, and frowns. It’s rotten, has pocks and black gunk all on it. I’m snug inside my jaeger now too, got my empty bowl resting on my chest, and I check out Snowbird’s little artifact. I spin the leaf in between my fingers like a zoetrope that the city kids have.
“Infection,” he says, and I ask him what kind of infection. “Don’t know. Don’t like these woods. Old Cheyenne say evil Baaxpée live here. They are spirit with no home. Old Cheyenne say people get lost in these woods, never come back.” He brings his hand up to the wooden owl he always has bound around his neck: his “Xapáaliia.”
Right then, Oswald shoots up from his sack, throwing out his hand to hush us down. He takes a big sniff with his nostrils flared up, “You smell that?” We don’t say anything, but he has this look on his face. “Somethin’ doesn’t smell right.” Me and Snowbird quietly try to get a whiff of whatever he’s caught onto. Snowbird is on his feet, crouched like a lion. “I know that smell… smells like… like.. a hot steamin’ barrel full of bull shit!” And he throws himself into fit, rolling around and hollering like a banshee. He would have kept going all day if he hadn’t rolled over his pipe and nearly burnt up his sack with him in it. Snowbird doesn’t laugh though, and I don’t know whose lead to follow. Oswald is checking his bag for holes, wiping away patches of soot, and trying to catch his breath before he speaks again, “Now I know a good ghost story when I hear one. The story of the naked widow, down by Red River. The Marie Celeste out east. Even old Rudolph has got one about a hunting dog he useta’ have, and you know what all of them have in common?” Snowbird looks away, “They’re all stories. Now I don’t think a man needs a reason to wear a bird ‘round his neck all day like it’s made of gold, but don’t go slinging that hot mess around us like it’s gospel truth.”
SnowBird doesn’t say anything back. He just gets up, pats some underbrush from the tassels on his pants, and heads towards the camp where the other Crow were staying. I watch him strut away, and I was always amazing at how he never made any sound when he moved. I swear, that kid could run a mile on tack biscuits without cracking a single one. He was a good kid. I remember looking to the place where he had been lying, looking at the body-shaped outline he had made in the dried up leaves. It almost looked like someone was still there, just invisible or something. Ya’ know? Like made of air.
Nothing really happened that day until the Cheyenne showed up. Came on quick, and we weren’t ready. Oswald was still asleep, I suppose, when it all happened, but we didn’t know until Crook tried to do a headcount. When I realize he isn’t there, I just start running. Don’t even bother grabbing more powder, but my musket is on my back, beating against my shoulders with every step. Feels like another heart beating up against mine. The canons are behind me, pounding through the screams and calls for orders, like the Cheyenne’s drums when they start killing. I remember the drums and the cannons. I remember the arrows, seeing the savages tear my friends apart with hatchets and tomahawks while they are still in their tents. I remember seeing my tent all shredded, laying on the ground. McCarty was all tangled up in the mess of poles and fabric; his glossy boots were sticking out, still laced up tight. Yeah,
I remember that. He was a kind man.
I get to the clearing where Oswald had been, and I see three bodies. One on his back. Two on their front. One of the bodies, with their face in the dirt, has a tomahawk sticking out from his scalp; the other has two arrows in his back and is wrapped up in a wool sleeping bag. They looks like saplings growing out of a burlap sack.
I fall to his side. And he’s breathing, but not much. He’s making this sound like he’s hissing every time he tries to suck in some air. I’m scared then. Scared he’s going to be gone. Scared there is nothing I can do. My hands start to shake, and I’m debating pulling out the arrows. Snowbird said something about that. You know, if something like this ever happened, but I can’t find it in my head. Leave them in? Pull them out? I had to do something. I bring my hand around one of the arrows, and I remember how cold it felt. I needed to get it out of him. It would freeze him from the inside out, and he would just freeze and die, and no one would remember him. Except me. I can see in my head his body lying there in the clovers, still in his jaeger, alone. Snow covers his body in the winter, and when spring comes he’s still frozen like ice. The summer doesn’t melt him, but if I do something, if I do anything, I can stop that.
A hand reaches out and grabs mine. I trace the fingers back to an arm, and to a face. It’s the man on his back; it’s Snowbird. He’s got a nasty gash cut into his collar, and his right hand is hanging limp like a doll’s.
“Don’t,” he says in this real weak voice that’s more of a squeak than anything. “It’ll just make it worse. Help me up.”
Snowbird is on his feet now, and he tells me to grab one side of Oswald’s bag so we can get him somewhere safer. I start pulling Oswald, inch by inch, getting him closer to the woods, but Snowbird isn’t taking much of the weight. He groans every time he tries to heave. He keeps letting go to grab his shoulder. It looks bad, and I can’t watch him suffer. So I train my eyes on the body with the tomahawk. It’s got all these shimmering beads of dew on its back, and as a slight drizzle comes on, the coils and splashes of paint on the body start to bleed down into the dirt.
“He’s dead,” Snowbird must have seen me staring, “Hit me in shoulder first, but he’s dead.”
We manage to get to the woods and down into this ditch that looks like an old tributary to Rosebud Creek. Ivy and thistles are climbing up both banks, and dusty, jagged chunks of green shale litter the ground right in the middle. We put Oswald there, and I start scraping dirt out from his mouth and nose. His gums are bleeding pretty bad by then, looks like he cracked a tooth. From down there, we could still hear the fight going on, with the cannons going off and people yelling and all that. But in our fox den, it felt like the sound just flew over us. “Grandmother Nature has given us a moment of sanctuary to help Oswald,” Snowbird said something like that, but I cant remember exactly, sir.
Snowbird shows me how to break the arrows as close to the skin as possible so that we can roll him onto his back, help him breathe right. I managed to get them snapped down, but it takes a while ’cause Oswald starts to jerk around every time we touch him. We roll him over eventually, and he sucks in this painful lung of air that hisses at us like a viper as soon as he starts to draw his breath. I’m looking back and forth from Oswald to , silently begging for some sort of instruction or consolation. Snowbird is returning the same look to me. His respectable brow was unusually slack.
He keeps my gaze, and I see something.
Something on his face. It’s this sort of fluid glimmer just in the corner of his eye. I can hear a language that I do not understand from a voice that I do not recognize, coming from just over the ridge. Snowbird’s lips are chapped and cut up; he’s holding his limp arm tight to his side. His mouth sharpens into something that resembles a smile, and I can see just the tips of his teeth like rows of ivory headstones turned up the wrong way. The voices are getting closer now. He lets go of his sleeve and holds out an open hand, where, in the valleys and lines of his open palm, is nested the wooden the wooden owl totem that he normally has perched around his collarbones. Its round, bulbous eyes peer up at me with a vacant expression like the face of the moon. I held his hand in mine for only a mere moment, when a tear falls and diffuses into the blood on his fingers. He relinquishes the wooden carving to my care, and Snowbird leaves.
He climbs up and over the bank, and there are screeches, a twang, a thud, and then silence once again. I retreat to Oswald and cradle him to my chest with my back against the ridge’s ivy embankment. He was starting to squirm again, making these low, breathy moans. His mouth opens and closes like a carp out of water, like he is going to scream, like we are about to be caught. So I have to do it, for both of us. He would have understood. I slide my hand over his mouth, and I can feel his hot breathe squeeze through my fingers like church mice through rotten floorboards. His teeth are scraping against my palm, as he chomps for even a morsel of fresh air, and he starts to hiss again. I can feel a warm liquid start to seep through his sleeping bag and into my pant leg. He starts to jerk, starts to try to free his hands from his bag and claw at his face, but I can’t let him. The past doesn’t really matter in times like that, even if people would think I had done them a favor.
When he stops moving, I listen for the Cheyenne, and it’s quiet. It’s safe. Oswald is unconscious again at that point, but still alive. The air was cool and crisp against my cheeks when I dared a peek over the ridge and into the meadow. It was clear, no sign of anything, as if the hinterlands had already forgotten. A soft orange was painting the canopy above, as the sun began to set. Night would come soon, and I couldn’t go back to camp. I had my guesses, but in reality, I could have never known what was waiting for us back there. I had no idea the battle was won.
So, I decide to stay in the woods, just until morning.
I heft Oswald over my shoulder, and head deeper into the trees. Even trudging through nets of nettle and underbrush, I can barely feel his weight on my back. The way the last dribbles of sunlight caught the moisture on my boots was mesmerizing, kept me in step like this metronome I used to have as a kid. My ma’ made me piano lessons with this Methodist pastor at our church, and he’d take the ticker out of my hand, put it above the keys, and flick the pendulum to life. How on earth do people concentrate with something like that going? Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Careful this time. More feeling. Remember your scales! Tick. Tick. Tick. Loosen up; you’re as stiff as a board! Tick. Tick. Alright, I’ll see you next time, on Friday. Remember, when you are practicing, that accuracy is more important than speed. Alright? Tick.
Oswald has been dead for hours, but I’m still going.
The forest had already undressed for the evening, when I finally stop marching and place down his body on a bed of moss. It’s still drizzling a bit, but his blood is all dried up, making the bag stick to his open mouth. He’s beautiful, though in a way, like he is in the middle of a yawn. He’s not scared. He’s not hurting anymore. He doesn’t know the guilty night is freezing and desolate. I rub my arms together and stare down at the body, and I’m able to make out the finer features on his face in the darkness, but just barely. Leaves and dead twigs are all caught in the knots in his hair, and his crow’s feet are loose against his eyes. In his sack, the way he is, he reminds me of a baby calf, just loose from the womb. I knew that in the morning Oswald wouldn’t be coming with me. I couldn’t carry him back all that way. Not that he would have wanted that, anyway; he wasn’t real sentimental. Most people know that.
It was hard to bare just leaving him out there, though. Just thinking about the animals that could get to him and such. He didn’t deserve that. I sling my gun off my shoulder and manage to hook up the shoulder strap to my belt. So, I got this thick cable that I can hook to some of the grommets in his sleeping bag. I’m looking around for a good tree, something strong and tall. It was like looking for the right grave plot or headstone, except no one would know he was there. Eventually, there is this maple. Its branches are naked and gangly, but it has a skirt of a thousand orange and red swatches. They crunch beneath my waffle stompers, and I can smell petrichor while I look for a branch that could hold his weight. He starts to slide deeper into the sack, as he gets hoisted into the tree, and I can still see the burn marks from his pipe, while he dangles there like the food bags we used to hang to keep away from bears. Under his weight, the jaeger sinks at the bottom into a lumpy teardrop shape, like a cocoon cradling a moth never meant to fly.
The pendulous mass swings lazily in the night’s breeze as I sit, leaning against the trunk of that old tree. The wind hushes soggy leaves onto my woolen trousers, leaving stains of brown ichor. They cling to me loosely, struggling to avoid being swept away, and the bow above me moans under Oswald’s weight. I pull my arms out my coat sleeves and cradle my chest, feeling the steady rhythm of my beating heart. The thought of a fire doesn’t even cross my mind. Autumn’s breath folds my eyes together tightly, and I fall asleep to the metallic clicking of the belt suspending Oswald right above me. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
I wake before daybreak. The crescent moon is still in the sky, ready to slice the horizon with its edge. I try to yawn, but the corners of my mouth are frozen together. So, I’m trying to work my tongue through this little sliver I have in my lips to get them thawed when I look up at Oswald’s nest, what was left of it anyway. The bag was still tethered to the branch, just where I had left it. The belt was untouched, unscratched. All the buckles and grommets were fine, but the bag had been split by this one, long slice. I would have grabbed my gun, if I had any powder with me, because when a grizzly gets into a meal, it doesn’t drag it. It just finishes what it’s got right there.
There’s no bear in sight though. No tracks. No viscera. Nothing. I stand up to look at the sack and start thinking that, that night, there might not have even been a bear or any other animal at all. Animal’s either chew their way through, or make these long up-and-down slashes when they want to get into something, but the hole in Oswald’s bag is a single horizontal cut: perfectly clean and kind of bulging from the inside out. Frosted, bloody threads dangle on the outside from the freshly carved mouth, like Oswald had just crawled right out of the thing.
I’m standing there under the arms of the grey maple, staring up into the ashen thatchwork above me, looking for any explanation for Oswald’s escape. A dense fog is rolling in about that time, though, and there is there growing ache on my gut. I feel like I ate a handful of shot, like I might throw up if my jaw wasn’t locked shut. I heard it. I swear.
It’s this laugh that sounds like it rides up in the nose.
Makes this whistle you could hear from a mile away.
Then I see him, and I do throw up.
He–it is in the mist, next to a twisted up pine, and I can make out the silhouette as the sun begins to rise through the mist. It’s hunched over; I see thick fluid lurch it’s way from the blackened shape of the head. With a quick twitch, it pulls itself on its toes and bends over deeper at the shoulders, cackling a whistle the whole way. The shadow is moving now, on tiptoes, folding and unfolding in the dark of the tree trunks. It’s nearly impossible to make out it’s direction; just that it’s moving, moving somewhere on stilted legs like I’ve ever seen.
When you hear someone talk about fear, they usually talk about their heart racing or tunnel vision, but they never talk about the smell, General Crook. Fear smells bitter, like the blackest coffee you can imagine. It shoots up your nostrils, right into the brain, and makes the base of your skull tingle. It smells like raw beets or clay. The kinds of things you’d eat when you get the stomach bug. By then, my empty stomach wasn’t aching anymore, but I still smelled that creeping, sour fear, sir.
I don’t move. I have to know for sure.
I’m having a hard time seeing it through the fog, but I know it’s watching me. It probably smells the fear too. The forest wreaked of it.
It’s drawing in now, close enough to where I should hear foot fall, but I don’t. I don’t hear much of anything, noticing the usual sounds of an old wood has died down to little more than scraping of brittle leaves on bark. All the forest had its gaping attention on the theatre of horror. The metronome ticks in the chasm between my ears, off beat to every gushing seizure of my heart. Time loped by slowly, as the figure shifted silently closer. Closer.
I see it clearly now; the leaves do not even crack underneath its boots. Then it stops. I stare into its milky, quivering eye, the other hangs lazily against its dirty cheekbone like a rotting plum. Whispering puffs of burning breathe curl from its open mouth. I want to call for him, but the knot of words have been forced so deeply in my throat that I can feel them sulking into my gut, fattening up my liver like a french goose, gavaged and swollen, ready to be dismembered for the sweet foie gras inside. My blood sizzles in my veins, and there is reflexive tension in my groin, in my thighs that has turned into a spasm that nearly brings me to the ground.
He lunges, and I don’t move. Don’t do anything. For all I knew, everyone back at camp was dead, and by some cruel mistake, I had been left behind to tally the grief, to bear the weight of a thousand dead heroes. I see open hands with claws, nine long, jagged claw (like daggers) come down on me; the tenth seemed to be missing, like a turtle or opossum had gotten to it. I remember that; I swear. They dive into my chest and breach in arching, crimson ribbons. I feel the vibrations of cracking bones wriggle through my spine up to my jaw, but all I hear is that laugh.
He’s happy. So, I don’t scream.
Like a bear trap, his jaws clamp onto my neck. I can feel his mustache on my cheek, his heart beating through his gums, hot ichor spilling into my open wounds, and with the force of a grizzly, he slings me into the air. I am a disk sailing through the trees. In my flight, I see a barn owl with wings outstretched, dim in the amber glow of morning, and when I land, I am resting on bed of fractured stone. I don’t have the strength or the courage to look into his face, but I hear his laughter draw from the woods. He’s coming to finish it, to take me with him, to drag me to hell where I belong. I should have been there. I should have been there for him.
From its perch high above, the bird watches with eyes like saucers. The hungry fog rolls over the slate and into the crags between each stone, swallowing everything it touches until it reaches me. I close my eyes, ready for the other side. The sound of grinding, crunchy feet make their way to my legs, and taught fingers wrap around my ankles. I slide against the frozen shards of broken earth, and I drift from this world to the moaning dirge of a barn owl.
I woke up. Not in hell. Not in heaven, but in a stockade, in a prison that is unable to be any more frigid and any more dank than the confinements of my regret. The men say they found me half dead on the banks of Rosebud. They say I should be grateful, sir, grateful for a formal execution.
Now I don’t know what I believe in anymore, whether it be in God or chemicals. I do know the allegations though, and I know what a lot of people are saying. I may be a coward, but I’m no traitor. I did not kill Oswald Crane, and the truth is probably still out there, on the shattered banks of Rosebud Creek: in the cold wind, on the cold earth.