The First and Last Battle / by Academy Monthly

A short story inspired by Sherman Alexie’s Flight.

Each day, I forget a different part of my old life.  It started with the small things first: which day my family sold eggs at the market, the color of the dress my sister, Paulina, wore to church.  Then the gaps in my memory expanded, until I couldn’t recall the taste of the oatmeal I ate daily on the farm, couldn’t remember the precise color of my mother’s eyes.  Everything’s disappearing under the cry of the bugle and the haze of rifle smoke.

But I don’t have time to think about what I’ve lost right now.  The past ninety-three days of my life have been spent in preparation for this-- the moment when I’ll find justice for my father and brother, for those who have met their deaths at the hands of savages.  Indian savages who slaughter and pillage and drink without restraint, who spill American blood on American soil. Indians who lay claim to what isn’t theirs, and will continue to do so if they aren’t stopped.  

We have every intention of stopping them.  

We stand to attention as the General approaches our ranks.  The men around me still, their snickers and quiet remarks subsiding as they observe the General’s somber expression.  With him is an old man, skin as wrinkled and beaten as the leather of my old mare’s saddle. The General reminds us of the battle to come and introduces us to the old man, Gus, an Indian tracker who will lead us to their village.  The place where they will meet their final judgment. The General reminds us of the settlers who perished, and I think once more about my father, who rode out with the men of our town to settle disputes with the Indians once and for all, who fought nobly to protect his land, home, and family.  I think about my brother, Elijah, who had been wearing the same uniform I am when he died with an Indian arrow buried in his chest. I fight to complete their work. I fight to ensure their deaths were not in vain.

We mount our horses and begin to follow Gus.  The General yells a flurry of instructions, his voice containing a sharp pitch, as if he, a hardened warrior, is experiencing the same strange excitement as us, soldiers entering our first battle.  He herds us into formation, and soon we are weaving between clusters of trees, amid open plains and fields, and the world becomes a murky blur of green and yellow and brown in the blistering heat. As we ride, I try to imagine the weight of a rifle in my hand, the heat it radiates as a bullet flies, the dull crack of bone splintering as that bullet hits its target.  For some reason, I don’t feel triumph as my imaginary bullet hits its nonexistent target-- instead, I feel an inexplicable hollowness. I try to imagine wrapping my hand around the hilt of my sword and driving it between an Indian’s ribs, and this time my stomach roils. I suddenly no longer want to think about the fight to come.

My mind wanders back home.  The dust flying up from beneath our horses’ hooves reminds me of the burnished gold of Paulina’s hair, and the muddied green blades of grass interlock like the fibers of our tablecloth.  The simmering heat transforms into that of those lazy days I spent with Elijah on the lake, catching trout and setting them free, talking about Elijah’s job with the railroad and the house he was going to build once he got married.  I meander down the hazy path of memory, and I wonder which one of these moments will slip from my mind in the next week or month or year.

I almost ride straight into the soldier in front of me, but stop in time.  We have halted. We stand atop a ridge overlooking the village. The General turns to us, and he has a gleam in his eye that I can’t read.  Before he says anything, Gus chokes out a strained cry, and our silent, rigid troops break into an unstoppable avalanche. We advance down the hillside in a cacophony of yells and hoots.

There is no grand ceremony upon entering battle.  There is no warning before the first kill. I barely blink before a bullet hits the first Indian.  Blood seeps through his battle garb, forming a red blossom. And suddenly there is red unfurling from every corner of my vision.  One soldier, a man whom I have shared meals with and who told me stories about his home in Colorado, rides over an old Indian woman with a horse whose hooves leave imprints dotted across her limp body.  Another friend of mine drives a sword into the stomach of an Indian man and wrenches it in a full circle, carving a gruesome arc into his skin. Little sound escapes his lips as he falls.

An old man tries to hobble away from a soldier on horseback, but he is shot in the back.  Another Indian nocks an arrow and shoots it at the soldier who killed his father, his grandfather, his neighbor.  The soldier falls from his horse, crying out as he lands on the shoulder that was hit. The Indian is absorbed back into the tangled mesh of men fighting, of bloodied bodies striking the ground.

I watch as a group of four soldiers-- my brothers in arms-- grasp a screaming woman by the arms and drag her away.  I do not look away when another soldier impales an Indian that has already been shot and repeatedly stabs him, until his whole upper body is a mess of punctured skin and blood.

I am frozen.  My arms are heavy by my sides.  I think of my father, of Elijah, of my mother and sister at home, whom I have sworn to protect.  I lift my saber and secure a target.

A small figure darts through the throng of fighters and I immediately lunge after it, leaping over the corpses of Indians.  After we have cleared the crowd, I gain some ground, and finally the Indian is within reach, within mere inches of the gleaming point of my sword--

My stomach drops.  It is a small boy, no older than Paulina.  He bares his teeth at me and draws back his bow string, but his blooded fingers tremble.  He can’t fight back.

This Indian could become another trespasser, invader, who tries to take what isn’t his.  But all I see is a small boy. The Indians almost took my father’s farm, almost left Paulina and my mother homeless.  I tell myself that completely eliminating evil is the only way for good to survive, that Americans will only be completely safe once the Indian threat has been eradicated.  But I still see a child before me, quaking in the midst of bloodshed.

Before I know what I am doing, I sweep the boy into my arms.  I pray that God doesn’t reserve a special place in Hell for traitors and deserters.  I pray that my father and Elijah can forgive me. I pray that this small boy doesn’t become a murderer.

Then I run towards the hills.  We are moving so quickly that the world is a streak, so quickly that my feet are barely touching the ground, flying.  I cradle the boy close. I do not look back.