With the Fourth Cavalry in Texas: A Memoir of The Indian War, By Joseph Finley Grant, Reporter and Illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
I was sitting by Col. Theodore (Mac) McKenna’s desk when Privates Wilson and Smith dragged the kid through the door.
They wrestled him to a chair and held him down, trying to tie him up while he fought them, their hands slipping on his greased up skin.
The kid wasn’t wearing clothes to speak of, just a breechclout barely covering his privates and deerskin leggings over his tattered moccasins.
Wood smoke, hot sweat and buffalo robe–which smells like mangy dog–radiated off the boy like heat off a campfire.
Breathing was difficult, even with the window open.
You usually smelled that particular combination of foul odors when parleying in some benighted Comanche lodge.
Finally, Major Sam Brennan and Sergeant-Major Pruitt helped, and the four of them managed to grab the boy by the shoulders and hold him down in the chair.
Even then, the kid thought his name was Eka Papi Tuinupu, or red-headed boy; but he was really August Shiltz, son of kraut-eating immigrants who were farming near Fredericksburg when they were murdered and their son taken.
A neighbor (if you can call someone who lives fifteen miles away a neighbor) took some food to the family, as the Shiltz’s were hard-luck people, and found everyone except August lying in front of the smoking cabin.
Their naked bodies were white in the sun, scalped, mutilated, the woman and girls’ raped–which was what the savages always did.
I never understood how the army spotted August during the raid on the Comanche village, as it was easy to mistake him for a Quahadi (what this band of Comanches call themselves, antelope people).
Sun had darkened his skin and his red braids were black with dirt and grease.
Only a close look revealed the Teutonic face; his long nose and long jaws below sharp cheekbones, the thin lips and narrow, defiant blue eyes.
Also, at sixteen, he was already taller and heavier than most fully-grown Comanche warriors.
On horseback, the Comanches were magnificent, but standing on level ground with the rest of us they usually failed to exceed five feet six inches tall, much like jockeys one sees at Saratoga, and their bowed legs made them appear even shorter.
August was already four or five inches taller than most of his compatriots.
I’ve been to the university at Heidelberg and seen students dueling–their facial scars are marks of honor and proof of their dubious manhood–and August looked just like them; minus the scars.
As soon as the men dragged August into Mac’s office, I snatched my sketching pencils from my pocket and went to work.
I still have that sketch, which came in handy a few years later when I wrote about the war: August, perching on the chair like a bound hawk, his eyes slit in rage and fear.
Colonel McKenna watched the boy, his hands folded on his desk, light from the window shining on his blue cavalry uniform, glinting off the silver eagles sitting on his shoulders.
Army command sent McKenna to Fort Richards eight months previously to command the Fourth Cavalry. He fought in the War of the Rebellion and was a decorated war veteran, wounded six times and brevetted seven times on the field, climbing from second lieutenant to colonel to brevet major general: Not even George Custer was promoted that rapidly.
Brevet means holding a rank without being given that rank’s responsibilities and pay; which was a way to reward good officers without actually doing anything for them.
Mac was a handsome man. He had long, thin jaws, a full, well-curved mouth and a square chin. But he also had a perpetual squint around his blue eyes, as if his head hurt.
Although he looked calm that day, Mac McKenna was probably not calm all the way through.
Sometimes Mac’s hands shook, like he vibrated inside, though he carried himself like an iron rod on parade. He had a pleasant tenor voice, but it was controlled, as if his feelings were in the guardhouse and he had thrown the key away.
His men were in terror of him, and for excellent reasons.
“Are you August Shiltz?” Mac asked.
Mac said to Ben Washington, the black Seminole scout standing by his desk, “Tell August if he stops struggling he will not be restrained.”
Now here’s something odd. When Ben first came in, the kid straightened to attention and said something urgent in Comanche.
I assumed they knew each other.
Ben answered him, and the kid looked confused.
Then Ben mumbled something else to the boy, pushing Comanche words out of his chest like rocks, and August quieted.
You would never mistake Ben for a soldier, or for a regular Seminole, for that matter. The Black-Seminoles were descended from runaway slaves who took refuge with the Seminoles in Florida and sometimes intermarried.
Ben was typical of that ilk. Kinky hair fell to his shoulders but his skin was lighter than his slave ancestors. And he had slim lips and Indian cheekbones perching under his eyes like iron bars.
Ben would have been nice-looking, for a half-breed, but a round scar on his face puckered his left cheek and I suspect some teeth were missing. Obviously shot from his mouth.
Mac sat with his hands clasped on his desk, staring at the kid.
That was another thing about Mac, he didn’t exude warmth or empathy. Cross him in any way and you would live to regret it.
“You have been identified as August Shiltz, taken from your father’s farm when you were nine years old,” Mac said, waiting while Ben translated.
August looked coiled to pounce.
“The raiders killed your parents and your sisters. Do you have other family here in Texas?”
“How much English do you remember?”
I pulled out my notebook and writing pencil.
This might make two columns in the newspaper: White Child Rescued From Savages. Years of Brutal Captivity.
I usually wrote about the joyous reunions though the joyous reunions were usually on the relatives’ side.
If captives lived with a tribe more than five years, once we got them back they didn’t remember their own mothers, assuming those mothers escaped being raped to death in the raid.
Assuming anyone survived.
Assuming the captive was adopted into the tribe.
If you were a woman and not adopted, life was a hell of sexual slavery and endless toil.
Sometimes returned captives became good white citizens: A few pined away until they died, longing for God knows who or what.
“Ask the boy if he remembers his white name or his family,” Mac said.
After Ben translated, August sneered and rattled back.
“He says he is Comanche, not white,” Ben said, his expression unchanged.
Mac wasn’t surprised. None of us were. That’s what captive kids usually said.
“Tell him the raiders who killed his family captured him on December 25, 1864.”
August shook his head, his face indifferent.
“Tell him the squaws we took in the raid confirm he was a captive.”
August shook his head.
“Ask him to explain his eye color.”
“Tabernacle my father,” August said, blurting the words in English.
That was startling, as we believed the boy had forgotten his English.
Mac leaned back in his chair, contemplating the kid and snapping his stumps, the three partially amputated fingers on his left hand. Everything was gone below the first joints, thanks to rebel artillery.
The men called the colonel, among other things, “Three-finger Jack.”
They also referred to him as “hard ass,” and they weren’t joking.
While McKenna pondered, the kid jumped from his chair and dove for the open window behind Mac’s desk.
A flash and he was almost gone, but Mac threw himself at the kid and caught his leg, then the troopers grabbed the other leg and they pulled him back inside.
“Tie him to the chair,” Mac told his men, and one of them reached for a lariat and wrapped it around the boy until he couldn’t move.
August’ eyes were wide, his pupils dilated until they looked black.
“Do you remember if your family got mail, letters?” Mac asked, as if nothing had happened.
“Tabernacle my father.”
“I can’t allow you to run back to the Comanches.”
Mac shook his head, glancing at Sam Brennan: “Remind me Major. Where did the Comanche capture this boy?”
Sam glanced at Mac, his eyes brimming with good-humored interest at the situation (as he viewed most situations), and said, “His parents were farming beyond the safe line sir, twenty miles west of Fredericksburg. We believe the Comanche fired the family’s cabin and then killed them when they ran outside.”
“No reported sightings until now?”
“Do you have relatives in Germany,” Mac asked the boy.
Mac turned to Ben and said, “Explain Germany to him, that it’s a country across a big body of water, tell him that’s where his parents came from.”
“I Quahadi,” August said.
“Major, what would you do with August, had you the decision?” Mac asked Sam.
“Send him to the reserve Sir.”
“He’s not a Comanche.”
“Find a foster family.”
“He would run the first day.”
“That would be his decision. He’s a big boy.”
“We don’t need another fighting Comanche.”
You could watch Mac’s eyes and see him thinking, planning, and you would never mistake the colonel for anyone else. Nothing escaped his attention.
McKenna snapped out orders and woe was the trooper who failed to muck out a stall or neglect his weapons.
Woe to the officers who did not turn in reports, or did not properly drill men, or allowed his troopers to sleep in the saddle on a long patrol.
Patrols could last months, and troopers could ride thirty-six hours straight when they were on the hunt. You couldn’t let them sleep or they would fall behind the column.
By the time they were found, they were usually dead.
A trooper went to sleep on patrol a few months previously and fell out of his saddle.
Back at Richards, Mac ordered the man spread-eagled on an artillery cartwheel, and then left that poor trooper on the wheel until the bugle blew retreat.
The kid stared at Mac’s hair, and Mac watched the kid stare at his hair.
Mac had the kind of brown hair that has red glints in it, and those glints shone in the sunlight pouring in the window behind him.
“Pruitt, do you remember those troopers I sent to the guardhouse?” Mac asked the sergeant major, an older man whose stomach stuck out in front of him, though hardly more than mine, I venture to guess.
“They were drunk in the barracks and peed in the wood stove.”
“Yes sir, Privates Johnny O’Donovan and Abner Bullis.”
“What is their sentence?”
“Two weeks, then kitchen duty until discharge.”
“Release and reassign. I want them to guard our young man wherever he goes. And he is forbidden to walk off post. And tell the troopers if August escapes, they will carry a log chained to their shoulders until I say otherwise.”
“Sir, not O’Donovan, I need him for my team. Please, sir.”
Pruitt loved his baseball team.
If McKenna had a favorite besides Sam Brennan, it was Pruitt. Both served under him in the war, and he needed both of them to run the garrison.
“Very well, release O’Donovan, assign Bullis and any other trooper to our young man, and find two Sunday reliefs.”
“Where will we quarter him?” Sam asked.
“Put him in the room next to mine, at my quarters. Put a cot in there. Board up the window and order Bullis to sleep immediately outside the door.”
Sam looked amazed.
The boy understood. He jerked the chair, it toppled over, and his nose slammed against the splintered wood floor.
Sam and the troopers lifted him the chair and blood ran from the kid’s nose to his neck and chest, like the river of blood yet to come.
“Major, wipe his nose,” Mac told Sam.
Sam took off his neckerchief and swiped the kid’s face, but blood trickled down his lips.
The kid sucked the blood into his mouth, leaned as far forward as the lariat permitted and spit blood at Mac.
“I Quahadi,” the kid said, his nose and mouth running with blood.
Mac did not flinch, though blood splattered his desk.
After a moment, Mac said, “And Major, enroll August in the post school. I want him bathed and clothed like a white boy. I want him eating at the enlisted men’s mess.”
The troopers dragged August from the office, and everyone else filed from Mac’s office except me.
Nobody noticed me. They had no idea what an Eastern newspaper could do to them.
I sat looking out the window, wondering what kind of story to write.
It was April, the rainy season had lingered and the prairie was green.
Richards sat on a rise where the wind was always moving, and you could see up to a mile.
Cottonwood trees dotting the creek were leafed out, their heart-shaped leaves shining in the sun, and I could see miles of prairie flowers beyond the thin curve of green water.
Looking for anything else of beauty was futile.
Even the post buildings were crude; frame buildings so frail the wind shook them and sent never-ending dust through cracks in the warped boards; picket huts made from long cottonwood sticks, mud packed between the sticks, with sod roofs sprouting grass each spring; framed-up tents that snapped in the wind, threatening to fly away; adobe storehouses and shops.
One unfortunate second lieutenant and his wife (just transferred from the east, and what must they have thought of Richards) were forced to live in a converted chicken coop until another officer vacated his quarters.
That’s true and not in the least hyperbole.
I assure you, there was nothing decent to live or work in.
Picket buildings crawled with scorpions, spiders and snakes. Scorpions and dirt fell from the ceiling. Nasty places.
The only real building was the two-story stone hospital.
It wasn’t long before Mac appeared outside, playing with his pet buffalo calf.
I turned a new page in my sketchbook and began to draw the colonel and the calf. A few strokes and there he was, a slight man, severely underweight due to his war wounds, taller than the calf but a lot thinner.
At two months, the calf weighed at least two hundred pounds.
At the colonel’s orders, one of the troopers was keeping the orphan alive by feeding it some kind of mash.
The calf butted its woolly head on Mac’s shoulder, and Mac staggered backward.
As far as I could tell, Mac was attached to the beast.
McKenna rubbed the calf’s head and reached in his pocket, pulled something out and fed it to the buffalo, then walked toward his quarters.