I had intended to post Part Two of Six Days on Peleliu today but I was derailed by two events. One, my daughter left for school last weekend and the time was better spent with her and my wife before launching the young lass off into her senior year at the University of Nevada.
Two, I received in the mail a copy of American by Blood and was instantly sucked into Andrew Huebner’s first novel. My copy came via a friend, now a Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, who may or may not have liberated it from a USO, who may or may not have acquired it from some place called The Sandusky Library, which is stamped all over the book and has, apparently, no relation to the Sandusky of Penn State fame currently rotting in jail for pederasty.
None of which matters, because it is a fine book.
If you’ve not read it, place it somewhere near the top of your stack. In his impressive first effort, Huebner chronicles the life of three U.S. Army scouts during the waning days of the frontier war against Native America. Lt. James Bradley, Private William Gentle, and Private August Huebner — historical figures all — are extremely well drawn, and the first three to find the remains of Custer’s 7thCavalry on the Little Bighorn.
“Coming over a rise they saw the white things on the hills…Maybe it was the smell, or the flies, or the wild dogs. The dogs were everywhere, they darted under the legs of the horses. They yelped wildly at their horses and gnawed brazenly at their boots. The soldiers kicked at them and hollered. The dogs had blood on their yaps. Their eyes rolled back white in their heads.”
From this table-setting opening scene we are dipped in the horrors of mutilation and native ferocity on the greasy grass, and are compelled to travel with the three men from the Little Bighorn to the chase for Crazy Horse to the horrendous closing scenes of the surrender of the Nez Perce in September, 1877.
We are on board the Far West as the miserable survivors of the Little Big Horn come straggling in, invited to live with Crow Indian Scouts, to spend a night drinking with Colonel Gibbon in the blockhouse at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, while Crazy Horse is tortured with a candle – and to ride with William Gentle into uncomfortable places in the mind and spirit. Gentle is a young kid who has swallowed wholesale the horrors of frontier fighting – and we are along for the ride as August Huebner is dragged behind a war pony as a captive of the Nez Perce. The real August Huebner was the author’s great-great-grandfather, and according to family lore showed up one day late for the reckoning met by the 7thCavalry.
It isn’t easy to pull off the feat of a historical novel of any kind, and for students of the American west there is often too precise a requirement for verisimilitude to keep the tale believable. But Huebner writes extremely well — in the strain of Cormac McCarthy — and so offers accurate depictions of terrible violence while leaving the reader free to draw their own conclusions. American by Blood works because it avoids unnecessary and entangling detail, and more importantly understands that there were no winners emerging from the dust and the blood and the bawling and the burials. His depictions are so compelling, and the meat of the story so true, we are willing to overlook some very minor errors — such as Huebner mounting one of the soldiers on a “quarterhorse.”
It’s the kind of detail that would escape most readers, but the quarter horse, as such, was still a work in progress as a distinct breed in those days, and troopers would most likely have been riding Thoroughbreds, Saddlebreds, or Morgan horses. They most likely would not have understood the modern notion of a quarter horse. At any rate, the book is not about horses, it is about the internal psychic struggles of three men on the brutal, unforgiving, and morally grey frontier of North America.
On the raid of a Cheyenne encampment in the winter of ’76:
“By midafternoon MacKenzie’s troops had taken torches to all the teepees and burned them down. Thousands of rounds of bullets, hoarded by the Indians and abandoned during the raid, exploded. In the wreckage of the Indian camp soldiers found a pillowcase made from a Seventh Cavalry guidon flag, command memo books and guard rosters; scalps of a white girl and a Shoshone girl, a necklace made of human fingers, personal clothing and military hardware.
“Anything that didn’t look quite dead yet was shot again. Soldiers dragged babbling, wailing squaws out of their tents, held them down for each other inches from the newly dead young. Blood dripped even from the branches of the trees that had been shredded, split and stripped of bark by stray bullets. The fury of the killing seemed to stop even the fall of the snow.
“When there were no Indians left to kill, MacKenzie gave the order for the ponies of the village to be lined up against the wall-face of the canyon. When the Colonel gave a holler to Huebner, he turned the crank. The gun shot hundreds of rounds per minute…Someone had to shake Huebner to get him to stop. He was shooting only stone by then, with shards of rock splintering off and raising a great hail of red clay dust over the fallen bodies of the ponies…”
On a personal note, I once saw a finger-necklace in a glass case at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. This was on proud display in the 1980’s, but I noted a distinct change in the nature of the displays after the museum was “reconceived” — somewhere around 2012 — and I visited again in 2014. Curating is a distinct art and science, and I’m no one to second-guess the experts, but I think the finger necklace should be on permanent display as a nod to some very harsh realities, and if I were a graphic designer I would have made the finger-necklace the cover art of Huebner’s book.
It’s likely I’m preaching to the choir. Fans of Running Iron maintain a particularly unflappable sensibility about the harsher truths of history, which is a necessary predicate in the pursuit of truth in our understanding.
Which is why you should get your hands on Huebner’s book. It is worth every second of your time, and offers a window into the men who did the fighting — the conditions both physical and mental that they endured — and while the glimpse is brief, what you see there will give you plenty more to think about as you imagine the west.