CUSTER UNDER THE BAOBAB
William Sanders is a Cherokee; maybe that has something to do with the sardonic irony in the eye he trains on history. Maybe not; how could anyone doubt all is for the best in the train of events that produced we our glorious selves?
Will has produced science fiction and fantasy stories—many of them alternate history—highly regarded by the critics and by his peers. His novels Journey to Fusang, The Wild Blue and the Gray, and latest The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan have shown a wild inventiveness worthy of Jonathan Swift, plus an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and a combination of high literary skill and crazed, gonzo abandon that could only have been born on this continent.
Herein we have a George Armstrong Custer who escapes the arrows of the Sioux, only to find that even in another history and on another continent, some things never change . . .
The baobab tree is one of the world’s most remarkable vegetable productions. Its soft, swollen-looking trunk may be as much as twenty or thirty feet in diameter; its grotesquely spindly limbs may reach up to two hundred feet toward the African sky.
Anywhere it grows, the baobab is an impressive sight. On the great dead-flat plain of the Kalahari Desert, where the land stretches empty to the horizon and even a cluster of stunted acacia trees is a major visual event, a lone baobab can dominate the entire landscape.
This particular baobab is of no more than average size, but it is still the biggest thing in view in any direction. Beneath its spreading branches, just now, are four men. Three are dead.
The fourth man sits on the ground, his back against the sagging folds of the baobab’s thin bark. A lean, long-limbed, long-faced white man, dressed in dusty brown near-rags barely recognizable as having once been a smart military uniform; thinning yellow hair straggles from beneath the broad-brimmed hat that shades his face. His right hand lies on his lap, next to a heavy revolver.
Centurion George Armstrong Custer, of the Kalahari Mounted Police (former Brevet Major General, United States Cavalry), licks his dry cracked lips. “Libbie,” he says, barely aloud, his words no more than a whisper lost in the whine of the wind through the baobab’s branches, “Libbie, is this what it all comes to?”
* * *
“I don’t know, Custer,” the Commandant said, ten days ago. (Wasn’t it? Custer realizes he is not sure.) “A man of your rank and experience, leading a minor patrol like this? Pretty silly, isn’t it?”
“Possibly, sir.” Custer stood at attention before the Commandant’s desk, face expressionless, classic West Point from crown to boot soles. Not that these Drakians demanded much in the way of military formality—and the Mounted Police weren’t even a military organization, even if they did like to put on airs and give themselves fancy titles of rank—but it was, Custer had found, a subtle but effective way to bully Cohortarch Heimbach.
“I need you here,” Heimbach continued. “Things to be done, paperwork piled up. Don’t stand like that, Centurion,” he added peevishly. “This isn’t your American army.”
“No, sir,” Custer said tonelessly, not shifting a hair, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead above the Commandant’s balding head, exchanging stares with the portrait of Queen Victoria that hung on the mud-brick wall. Cohortarch Heimbach was one of the handful of conservatives who still insisted on the fiction of Drakia’s membership in the British Empire.
“Things to be done right here,” Heimbach repeated. “Instead you want to ride off chasing Bushmen. Tetrarch Leblanc could use the experience, and he’s eager to go.”
Custer didn’t reply. After a moment Heimbach blew out his breath in a long loud sigh. “Oh, all right—”
He fumbled in his desk drawer and got out a short-stemmed pipe and a pouch of tobacco. “Actually,” he said, thumbing tobacco into the bowl, “this is a bit more than a normal patrol. Seems our little friends, out there, have gone very much too far this time.”
Custer waited silently as he lit up. “Two days ago,” Heimbach went on after a moment, blowing clouds of foul-smelling blue smoke, “a bunch of Bushmen raided a cattle ranch in the Ghanzi area. Usual sort of thing—cut a cow out from the herd, killed it and butchered it on the spot, you know.”
Custer knew. The Bushmen were constantly bringing trouble on themselves with their addiction to cattle-rustling. Of course, living as they did on the edge of bare subsistence, they must find the scrawny Kaffir cattle irresistible targets.
“This time,” the Commandant said grimly, “things got out of hand. The rancher happened to show up as they were cutting up the kill. He shot one of them. The others scattered into the bush—but when the damned fool dismounted, one of them put a poisoned arrow into his back.”
“Good God,” Custer said involuntarily. “They killed a white man?” That was unheard-of; Bushmen were a nuisance but seldom actively dangerous.
Heimbach was nodding. “And so they have to be taught a lesson. Orders from the top, on this morning’s wire.”
He pointed the pipe stem at Custer, like a pistol. “Which is why I’m not altogether unhappy to let you take this one, Centurion. Some important people want this done right.”
Cohortarch Heimbach got up from his desk and went over and stood looking out the glassless front window. Out on the parade ground, an eight-man lochos stood in a single uneven rank, while a big red-faced NCO inspected their rifles. He didn’t look happy. Of course sergeants—decurions, Custer corrected himself, damn these people with their classical pretensions—rarely did. Beyond, past the high barbed-wire fence that ringed the little post, the Kalahari shimmered in the midday sun.
“So I’m giving you your wish,” the Commandant said, not looking around. “Take the Second Lochos from Leblanc’s tetrarchy—that’s Decurion Shaw’s lot, he’s a good man—and of course Boss and his trackers. Ride up to the ranch, pick up the trail, and go after the culprits. You know what to do when you find them.”
“Yes, sir.” Custer went wooden-faced again. He did know.
“And, of course,” Heimbach added, “the same for any other renegade Bushmen you find.”
“Yes, sir.” Since no Bushman had any legal status whatever—outside of a few bondservants, mostly raised from captured infants and kept as household novelties by aristocratic Drakia families—they were all in effect “renegades” and subject to out-of-hand disposal on sight. Custer, however, did not point this out.
“After all,” Heimbach said, “you do, I believe, have some experience of pursuing and punishing savages.”
Custer managed not to wince. “Yes, sir,” he said once more, face blank, looking at Queen Victoria, who looked back at him without joy.
* * *
His face is blank now, under its coating of dust; his long bony features register nothing of the voices within:
“Colonel Custer, was it not your mission to pursue and punish the savages?”
“I learned that their forces were overwhelmingly superior to mine. I saw no reason, sir, to lead my men to certain defeat.”
“And on what basis did you make this evaluation?”
“My Crow scouts reconnoitered the Sioux encampment and reported it contained thousands of warriors.”
“So on the word of a few . . . aborigines, you not only abandoned the offensive but ordered a general withdrawal from the area? Colonel, are you aware that expert witnesses have testified that no Indian band has ever been seen in the numbers you allege, in all the history of the frontier?”
“There were enough of them to defeat General Crook six days earlier, on the Rosebud.”
“May I remind you, Colonel, that General Crook is not on trial here—”
And at last the dry sour voice of little Phil Sheridan: “It is the finding of this court that on June 24, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was guilty of dereliction of duty and of cowardice in the face of the enemy, in that he did fail to attack the hostiles as ordered . . . . ”
He hears the voices now without bitterness or chagrin; all the old emotions are gone, leaving only a profound and bottomless fatigue. Too tired for fighting old battles, too tired, he thinks dully, ever to fight again—
“Fight them, Autie.” Tom Custer, arguing, urging. “They’re railroading you. They’ve been out to get you ever since you exposed the way they’re starving the reservation Indians. Now Sheridan’s making you the scapegoat for his botched campaign.”
Libbie: “Yes, Autie you’ve got to fight back, it isn’t right, they can’t do this—”
But of course they could, that was never in doubt, no army ever let a lieutenant colonel fight his own generals, not even a lieutenant colonel who had once been a general himself.
Well, Libbie was gone now, of a fever the doctors said, but then the medical profession did not recognize a broken heart as a cause of death. And Tom, good faithful Tom, resigning his own commission in protest against his brother’s disgrace, only to be gunned down on a Kansas street by a vicious thug named Wyatt Earp, whom he had accurately but unwisely accused of cheating at cards.
* * *
His eyes move, now, his gaze dropping to the revolver in his lap: the same big English .45 he carried on that last campaign against the Sioux, a good reliable weapon, faster to fire and load than the standard-issue Army Colt. True, in the end there was no occasion to use it. . . .
Not, at least, on anyone else; there were, to be sure, plenty of times afterward when he found himself considering the ultimate alternative. He wonders why he never did it. Maybe, he thinks, I am a coward after all.
But he might have taken that route, in the end, but for the letter: “Dear Genl Custer, pardon my fammilierty but I fot the Rebs under you & now I read about your trobles & I say it is a H—l of a thing after all you done for our Countrie. You shoud come to Drakia, a White man has a real show hear. They got more gold than Callifornea & dimons to—”
He never found the man who wrote the letter; his inquiries, around the gold-field settlements of eastern Archona, drew only shrugs. At first he sought the man to thank him. Later he thought more in terms of killing the well-meaning fool.
The Dominion of Drakia did indeed possess a wealth of gold and diamonds; but, as new arrivals quickly learned, Drakia was no California. All the major fields were firmly in the hands of big combines, the mines big elaborate affairs, worked by armies of slaves.
(Bondservants, the Drakia insisted on calling them, claiming that slavery was extinct and even illegal now. But that was sheer sophistry; the poor devils were slaves, whatever the official terminology, as much as any character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s.)
There was little room here for the romantic figure of the lone prospector. A few remained in the remoter areas—such as that awful Namib Desert, over on the southwest coast, that made the Kalahari look like the Garden of Eden—but their day was rapidly coming to an end.
And anyway, despite all that silliness in the Black Hills, the truth was that George Custer knew virtually nothing about gold or mining; soldiering was the only trade he had ever studied.
Very well, then, he would soldier here. But that idea too came up short against Drakian reality. The Dominion’s legions did indeed contain many former Americans, but almost all were ex-Confederates. A man who had fought on the antislavery side, in what was still regarded here as an Abolitionist war, was regarded with grave suspicion by the Drakian command; and a onetime Yankee officer who had been convicted of cowardice, in a campaign against native savages, simply need not apply.
In the end it was Jeb Stuart, of all people (now Strategos Stuart of the Third Legion; the Drakians had easily recognized at least one genius), who stepped in to help. Still the perfect Southern knight, extending a magnanimous hand to a fallen former adversary:
“I am mortified, sir.” It came out “Ah am mo’tifahd, suh,” it would take more than a decade or so of Drakian residence to obliterate that Virginia drawl. “Even to make such an offer, to a man of your ability—I hope you will not take offense, General Custer, at my temerity.”
“Temerity was always your long suit, General Stuart.”
“Why, I appreciate that, sir, coming from a man whose audacity I once had all too good cause to know.” Smiling, stroking the ends of the long mustache; most of the American immigrants, Custer included, got rid of their whiskers and long hair in the African heat, but count on Stuart to put style above mere comfort. “But as I was saying, the Mounted Police—”
“They’re offering me a job as a policeman?”
“Technically, yes. But then the soldier often has to serve as a policeman. After all, our former duties against the Indians could be considered in the nature of police work, could they not?” Stuart smiled again. “And the Mounted Police are practically a military organization in most respects. True, the men are sometimes a trifle rough, but . . . . ”
* * *
A trifle rough, yes. That was good. That was another voice he had occasion to remember in the time that followed. As for example on the present operation, during the ride north to pick up the trail of the Bushmen who had killed the Drakian rancher.
Riding along beside the little column, looking over his command, he considered that he had never seen a scruffier lot. All wore at least the major components of the KMP’s brown cotton uniform—it was comfortable, after all, and free—but each man had felt free to make his own modifications: shirt sleeves and trouser legs hacked off to taste, shapeless slouch hats substituted for the regulation cap, leather cartridge belts festooned with unauthorized private weaponry. Some wore cowboy-style boots in place of the knee-high issue jackboots; none, whatever their choice of footgear, seemed to have heard of polish.
Well, a man’s appearance was a poor indicator of his worth; Custer had seen at close quarters the magnificent fighting qualities of ragged, shoeless Confederate troops, let alone the near-naked warriors of the Plains. But he knew these men, had dealt with most of them personally at one time or another—usually for disciplinary offenses or dereliction of duty—and he was under no illusions. Hardcases, they would have been called on the American frontier; excellent shots and skilled horsemen, to be sure, tough as rhinoceros hide and physically brave to the point of recklessness, but constitutionally incapable of accepting discipline, of playing by any rules but their own.
None of the eight ordinary troopers was native Drakian; all had come here from elsewhere, some dreaming of gold and diamonds, some at odds with the governments of their homelands—like the army, the KMP included a considerable number of unreconstructable American rebels—and, though the subject was not safe to talk about, more than a few running from criminal warrants. Custer had seen their kind drinking and raising hell in the cowtowns of the west—or staring out from WANTED posters, or dangling from the ends of ropes.
Of course there were exceptions . Up at the head of the troop, Decurion Shaw sat upright and impeccably uniformed astride his beloved bay mare. Custer had often wondered what Shaw was doing in the KMP; Drakia born, well educated from his speech, and absolutely steady and reliable, he was wholly out of place here. A broken love affair, perhaps, or family trouble; Custer had never inquired. The KMP had one iron rule, never written down but never broken: Don’t ask.
Out in front of the column rode another exception: old Luther Boss, onetime elephant hunter (and, some said though not to his face, diamond smuggler.) A civilian on contract to the KMP, Boss didn’t bother even going through the motions of looking military; he wore loose flapping shorts, exposing big bony knees, and a bright-patterned dashiki shirt such as the blacks wore up along the coast. A huge dirt-brown hat shaded his weathered face. Flanking him, dressed in castoff rags of KMP uniform, his two black trackers Ubi and Jonas sat easily on their tough little Cape ponies.
A dozen men, good God, what a pathetic command for a man who had once led regiments . . . but in this case there was no choice; the few small waterholes of the Kalahari would never support a larger mounted force, not at this time of year. As it was they would be pushing their luck.
* * *
The patrol got even smaller next day. As they left the isolated ranch where the cattleman had been killed, Trooper Lange’s horse pulled up lame. Custer thought he didn’t look terribly disappointed at having to drop out. The others called out various derisive remarks as Lange led his horse slowly back toward the ranch.
“What the hell,” one of the troopers remarked as they rode on. “Already lost a man and we ain’t even got started. Bad sign.”
Custer turned in his saddle. “No,” he said with forced joviality, “it’s a good sign. Thirteen men, everybody knows that’s an unlucky number. Now we’re only twelve.”
The trooper gave Custer a long stare. “Shit,” he said finally. A wiry little man named Pace, he was from Texas and seemed to think that proved something. “How do you add that up? I don’t see but ten of us.”
Then he glanced forward and made a face. “Oh, you counted them two niggers? Hell, ain’t that just like a bluebelly?”
The man riding behind him, a burly North Carolinian named Garvin, laughed out loud. “Jesus Christ, Centuri’n, a nigger ain’t a man. Ain’t you learned that yet?”
His voice was loud enough to carry to the head of the troop, as Pace’s had been, but if Ubi and Jonas understood they gave no sign. Luther Boss, however, looked around and gave both men a glare that would have stripped the hide off a hippo.
“Bluebellies,” Pace said, ignoring the old man, and shook his head. “I’ll never understand ’em.”
* * *
The Kalahari is unusual, as deserts go; nothing like the naked wastes of the Sahara or the nearby Namib, and in fact quite a lively place, considering the almost complete lack of surface water for most of the year. The flat sandy plain wears a patchy covering of tall tough grasses, laced with hidden thorny growths; clumps of thornbush and wind-bent acacias dot the landscape, while along the crests of the occasional rocky hills groves of mongongo trees offer shade and edible fruit. Giraffe and various kinds of antelope manage to live there, and jackals and brown hyenas; even, in the slightly wetter north, lions and elephants.
In the rainy season, from around the end of October through the following March, an uninformed observer might not recognize the Kalahari as a desert at all. Herds of animals come to the pans and waterholes, while the grasses and trees turn cheerfully green.
By April the rains have ended; the pans begin to shrink and go dry. Hunting is good, though, because the animals cluster more densely around the remaining sources of water; and the temperature drops, over the next few months, until by June the days are pleasantly cool and the nights downright cold.
Now it was the end of August, and getting hot again, the grasses turned yellow and the pans long since gone dust-dry. The animals had mostly migrated north, toward the Okavango country; there was always a rise in cattle-rustling incidents, this time of year, when the scarcity of game drove the Bushmen to take desperate risks.
Which, Custer reflected as the troop moved westward, was why this patrol had to deliver results; time was running out. A few more weeks and the central Kalahari would be almost impassible for any humans but Bushmen—and even they would be holed up around the few permanent waterholes, traveling as little as possible in the terrible heat—and would stay that way until the late-October rains. Even now, it was hard to imagine how anyone or anything could live in this parched desolation.
Yet life there was. Trooper Caston found that out on the third day, when he went to relieve his bowels next to a clump of thornbush and surprised a black mamba.
* * *
“I don’t like it,” Custer said as they rode away from the crude grave. “We never left our dead behind on the Plains.”
“We have no choice,” Luther Boss pointed out. “Carry a dead man along, in this heat? Impossible.”
“It’ll be all right,” Decurion Shaw added. “When we get back the Commandant will send out a party to recover the remains.”
That was nonsense and they all knew it. All the rocks they had piled on top of the grave had represented nothing more than extra exercise for the men—and for the brown Kalahari hyenas, who would have the body exhumed before it was dark.
“It was so fast,” Custer said wonderingly.
Luther Boss grinned, big yellow crooked teeth surrounded by bristling white whiskers. “A mamba’s a bad customer,” he said. “Just another reason to be careful in this country. You don’t get but one mistake.”
* * *
Two days later they found the Bushman camp.
There was no question of moving into position and making a textbook attack; no one, certainly not white men with horses, could hope to sneak up on Bushmen in their own country. The only possible tactic was to move in fast and strike before the quarry could escape.
Even so, the Bushmen were already scattering as the riders charged, little yellow-brown forms vanishing into the tall yellow-brown grass. The slower ones, the elders and the women who paused to snatch up children, were less lucky.
It was over in a very short time. The troopers swept in, yipping like wild dogs, firing their pistols—the Drakia T-2 rifle was an excellent infantry weapon, but much too long and clumsy for horseback use—or simply riding the Bushmen down. Custer saw a pregnant woman trip and fall in front of Decurion Shaw’s horse; her mouth opened as the hooves struck her, but her shriek was lost in the racket. Another woman, running fast despite the baby slung on her back, almost made the cover of the grass, but Pace reined his horse to a stop and held his revolver in both hands and took careful aim and knocked her over with a single shot.
Custer’s own sidearm remained unfired, almost forgotten in his hand. He watched the butchery from the shade of a lone acacia tree, paralyzed by unexpected memories, pictures flashing in his mind like a magic-lantern show: the Cheyenne camp on the Washita, the troopers firing and the Indians running out of the teepees and being shot down in the snow while the band played “Garryowen.”<Body text>And the old man, white hair hanging to his shoulders, who had materialized suddenly through the falling snow, eyes full on Custer’s face, pointing a long bony finger, calling out something in Cheyenne just before a .45 slug cut him down. . . .
At the time it had been no more than a neat bit of professional work, tactical surprise against a usually clever enemy; but the satisfaction had given way, with time, to—not guilt, no, a soldier could never feel guilt at carrying out his orders, more a weary disgust.
The recollection sickened him, now, as did the pathetic spectacle before him. He shook his head angrily and looked around as Luther Boss came riding up. The scout’s big double-barreled rifle rested across his saddle-bow, but Custer knew he hadn’t fired it; there would have been no missing the blast of that old cannon.
“Ubi and Jonas went after a couple of the ones who ran,” Luther Boss reported.
Custer made no reply. The scout scratched his beard and added, “They say these aren’t your culprits. The ones who killed the rancher, the ones we’ve been following, were Kung. These are Gwi. Southern tribe, don’t know why they’d be this far north.”
Custer shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” he said tiredly. “You know that.”
Luther Boss nodded heavily. There was no need to spell it out. A white man had been killed, an example had to be made; there had never been any question of selective action. Anyway, Drakian policy—never officially stated, but universally understood—was that the Bushmen were basically a species of pest, to be eradicated as soon as possible. (Though a few old-school aristocrats, who sometimes enjoyed the sport of hunting them with dogs, had been agitating for the establishment of preserves for Bushmen and other challenging game.)
“We’ll bivouac here for the night,” Custer went on, “and then tomorrow we’ll get on the trail of the others again. How far is it to the next waterhole?”
“Long way,” Luther Boss said. “Hell of a ride, in fact—”
Later, no one could figure out where the old man had come from. The grass was too short and thin, all around the acacia tree, to cover even a Bushman’s approach. He was just there, all of a sudden, standing no more than a dozen feet away: an old Bushman, the oldest Custer had ever seen. He couldn’t have stood much over five feet and his nearly naked body was nothing but bones and dried-apricot skin. He was pointing a finger at Custer, calling out a string of tongue-clicking syllables, his voice high and hoarse.
Custer jerked back in his saddle, eyes wide; he almost screamed, but his throat had closed shut.
There was a loud flat bang and a quick twisting shock against his right palm. The old man stood still for a moment and then toppled backward, limp before he hit the ground, like some assemblage of dry sticks. Custer looked down in amazement at the smoking revolver that he had not aimed, had not even been conscious of firing, had in fact forgotten he still held.
Decurion Shaw rode up, holding his service pistol muzzle upward. “Sorry, sir,” he said to Custer. “Can’t think how we let him get past us like that.” He looked down at the tiny body and then back at Custer, smiling. “Good shot, Centurion.”
Custer made a vague gesture with his left hand. For the moment, he had no words. He had a strange mad thought that if he tried to talk, he would find himself speaking some savage tongue.
* * *
They settled in around the waterhole, the troopers tethering and unsaddling the horses, then wandering briefly about the Bushman camp, examining the bodies and commenting on their marksmanship, picking up souvenirs from among the Bushmen’s abandoned possessions. One man was fingering a little bow, like something a child would make to play Indians, and a couple of arrows, being very careful with the latter; the slightest scratch from the poisoned tip could be mortal. Another man found a collection of ostrich-egg shells, the Bushmen’s water container of choice, in one of the tiny grass huts; the other troopers gathered around, drinking and laughing and filling their canteens.
Ubi and Jonas came out of the bush, grinning, and spoke to Luther Boss.
“They caught a couple of women,” the old hunter told Custer. “Had themselves a little entertainment, too, I’d wager.”
The trackers looked at each other and then at Custer, still grinning. They were an odd-looking pair; Ubi was tall and long-limbed and very black—Herero, he claimed, with a dash of Zulu and a touch of Hottentot—but Jonas was almost as small as the bodies on the ground, and close to the same color. His mother had been full-blood River Bushman, taken in childhood from her home in the Okavango marshes by Ba-tswana slave raiders and sold to a brothel in Virconium; he had, he admitted cheerfully, no idea who or what his father had been.
Both men had been with Luther Boss for a very long time. Technically they were his bondservants, as much his property as his horse or his rifle. In reality the relationship was obviously more complex, with an easy familiarity that annoyed some white men.
“They say maybe eight people got away,” the scout continued. “Maybe nine. They think all men.”
Whom, of course, they hadn’t pursued too closely in the high grass; why risk a poisoned arrow when there was safer and, as a bonus, rapeable prey to be had?
Custer said, “Decurion, have the men haul these bodies clear of the area. Take them a good long way out, or the hyenas will be spooking the horses all night.”
The waterhole turned out to be a pretty desperate affair, even for the Kalahari in August. The sandy soil was thin here, and next to the Bushmen’s camp the rock was fully exposed in a low rough outcrop, which some ancient force had cracked right down the middle. The water was deep at the bottom of the cleft, out of sight and very nearly out of reach.
But Jonas took off all his clothes and wriggled down into the fissure, clutching a gourd dipper taken from a Bushman shelter, while Ubi stood ready to lower the canteens down after him. Custer watched, amazed; it didn’t seem possible a human being could fit himself into such a tight space, let alone move about down there.
“Hewers of wood and drawers of water,” Decurion Shaw said to Custer, “eh, Centurion?”
* * *
The next day’s ride was a very long and hard one, just as Luther Boss had predicted. But at the end there was a good waterhole, more accessible than the last, and as the men made camp Ubi and Jonas found fresh Bushman sign.
“They say we’ll catch them tomorrow, sure,” Boss reported, and Custer let out a grateful sigh. With any luck this business would be over soon; and then back to the post and a sensible settled adjutant’s life, never again to trouble Cohortarch Heimbach with requests for patrol duty . . . .
But in the middle of the night he woke to the shouts of men and the screams of horses and a loud dry crackling roar that he recognized even before his eyes opened and saw the licking red-orange glow against the night. “Fire,” a man yelled, and another, “Brush fire, God damn—” and then Shaw’s bellow: “The horses! See to the horses!”
Too late, though, for that; as Custer fought free of the blanket and got to his feet he could see the horses silhouetted against the wavering wall of flame, rearing and pawing the air and lunging against the picket ropes, shrieking in pain and fear. Black shapes of men moved among them, trying to grab them and lead them away, but the beasts were too far gone in the blind brainless panic of their kind, and the fire was already on top of them. First one horse and then another broke free and charged away into the dark; then here they all came in a rumbling rush, while men sprinted to get out of the way.
A horse went by dragging a man, his arm apparently tangled in the broken tether rope; in the flickering light Custer recognized Decurion Shaw, his mouth open in a high agonized yell that died away as the horse dragged him off into the night.
The fire was coming right through camp now, flames leaping up high as a man’s head, the dry tall grasses blazing up with almost explosive speed. “To the rock,” Custer shouted, but it was an unnecessary command; the men were already scrambling hastily atop the rock outcrop, coughing and cursing and slapping out smoldering patches on their clothes.
Custer hurried after them, grabbing up his gunbelt and his hat and boots. Clambering sockfooted up the steep side of the outcrop, he slipped and almost lost his balance. But then Luther Boss’s voice said, “Here,” and a big hand pulled him upward, and a moment later he was standing on top of the rock, staring disbelievingly out over the blazing desert. All around the rock the thornbush clumps were starting to catch fire, with a crackling sound like an old man’s dry hating laughter.
* * *
Later, when the worst of the fire had passed, Custer did a quick headcount. Three men were missing: Trooper Mizell, who had been on sentry duty, and another man named Butler, and of course Decurion Shaw.
Butler they found first, next morning, though it was not easy to identify him. His clothing had been mostly burned away and his face and body were blackened. His left leg stuck out at an unnatural angle. “Broken leg,” Luther Boss said after a quick examination. “Probably got run over by a horse, couldn’t get clear in time. Like as not the smoke got him before the fire did.”
Mizell had fallen on a relatively bare patch of earth; the fire had hardly touched him, except to smudge his face a little, and to singe the feathers off the tiny arrow that protruded from the small of his back.
“God-damned murdering little sand monkeys,” Pace said. “It was them set the fire, too, wudn’t it?”
“Almost certainly,” Luther Boss agreed.
As the sun climbed into the sky they fanned out across the flat, searching for the horses. It was a hopeless job; even Ubi and Jonas couldn’t find trails across that charred and still-smoking ground. They did find Decurion Shaw, half a mile or so from the waterhole, his right arm almost severed at the wrist. He had, quite literally, no face left; the flock of vultures that rose flapping and squawking from the body, as the other men approached, had finished what the dragging had begun.
At last Custer ordered a halt to the search. The horses were long gone and nothing could be gained by all this wandering about in the sun; they would need all their strength for the walk back.
Most of their equipment had been lost or ruined in the fire; they had the scorched and filthy clothes they wore, and their sidearms, and not much else. They picked through the smoldering site of their camp, finding little. Only four rifles remained in working condition, and not much ammunition for those.
And only nine men left, Custer thought numbly, counting of course their fine leader; a third of the command lost . . . . Even if I had attacked at Little Bighorn, the Indians could not possibly have inflicted such losses.
* * *
Next day they started back.
It had taken all day to make the journey between waterholes on horseback. It was very soon obvious that it would take longer than that to do it on foot. The going was slow and hard, once they were clear of the burned area; tough bushes and vines hid beneath the tall grass, snagging clothes and tearing skin, and here and there broad patches of soft sand dragged at their feet, while a steady hot wind stung their faces and dried their throats and drove dust particles into eyes and nostrils. Their boots had been designed for riding, not walking; everyone had blisters by the middle of the first day. And the water was not really enough, not in that heat; they should have been carrying two or three canteens apiece but there were not that many left intact, most having burst in the fire when their contents boiled.
Ubi and Jonas led the way, backtracking the patrol’s trail from the previous day. Their heads were down and they muttered to each other. Luther Boss gave Custer a sardonic grin. “They say this patrol is under a curse.”
“Tell them to be quiet,” Custer said irritably. Thinking: the patrol, or its commander?
* * *
They camped that night in a grove of acacias, nibbling sparingly at what food they had managed to salvage. In the morning Ubi and Jonas were gone.
“Deserted,” Luther Boss said blankly. “I can’t believe they did that. We’ve been together through worse than this.”
Pace laughed, an ugly hoarse cackle. “What’s the matter, old man, did your faithful darkies take off?” He shook his head. “Thought they were your God-damned little brothers, didn’t you?”
One of the other troopers, a thin redheaded boy named Hankins, said, “My pa had all these niggers on the old home place, back in Virginia. Never whupped ’em, fed ’em good, he really thought they loved their ol’ massa. Broke his heart when they all left with the first Yankee column to come through.”
The old hunter seemed not to hear. He stared out over the desert with sad red-rimmed eyes, muttering to himself, too low for the words to be understood; till at last Custer took his arm and said gently, “Come on, Luther. You’ll have to lead us now.”
* * *
The second day’s march was even harder than the first. The sun seemed hotter, the bush denser, the open stretches rockier; that was how it felt, at any rate, and certainly there was no doubt that the water situation was much worse—for Ubi and Jonas, they discovered while breaking camp, had thoughtfully helped themselves to four of the canteens.
Late in the afternoon they reached the Bushman campsite and threw themselves on the ground around the waterhole, only to find that—as Custer had feared—there was no relief here. The cleft in the rock was too narrow, the water too far down; none of them could get within reach. Only Pace and Hankins, the smallest men in the group, even tried; and Pace gave up immediately, after getting dangerously stuck.
Hankins, however, refused to quit. “I can do it,” he cried, wriggling an inch or two downward in the fissure, lacerating his skin against the rough rock but paying no mind. He squirmed himself into a new position, his right arm disappearing into the depths of the crack. “Just a little fu’ther—”
His eyes went suddenly huge; his mouth opened. “Oh, shit,” he said softly, and then he screamed, and kept on screaming as they hauled him free. His right hand had already begun to swell.
The scorpions of the Kalahari are not as instantly lethal as the mamba. It took Hankins the rest of the afternoon to die. They piled rocks atop the body, having neither tools nor energy to dig a grave.
“Cursed,” Luther Boss said, sitting down next to Custer in the evening, resting his back against an acacia’s spindly trunk. He picked up something white from the ground: a fragment of ostrich-egg shell. The troopers had smashed all those they found, the day of the massacre, after draining their contents; you never left anything that might help the survivors go on surviving.
“Africa is cursed,” Boss went on in a strange voice. “The whole world is under a curse. A curse called the white man.”
“I don’t agree.” Custer didn’t feel like talking, but the old man was obviously distraught. “The black Africans used to kill Bushmen, and each other, even when they had the country to themselves. You know that.”
“True.” Boss nodded slowly. “Yes, that’s true. I was wrong. The name of the curse is mankind.”
* * *
Just before sunrise Luther Boss shot himself. The noise was tremendous, waking everyone at once. They gathered around, Custer holding a torch from the fire, and stared. The big double rifle hadn’t left much of Boss’s head.
“Crazy old turd,” Garvin said, “what’d he do that for?”
In the gray light of false dawn the four survivors piled a few token rocks atop the body and moved out. The trail was fairly easy to follow at first, but then they lost it in a big patch of soft sand and it was a long hot time before they found it again. By now the sun was high and the water almost gone.
Trooper Evans was a dark, husky, taciturn Welshman with a record of disciplinary infractions, mostly involving drunkenness; he had soldiered well on this patrol, though, doing his share and never complaining. About midday, as they crossed an open sandy space, he suddenly stopped, turned half around, said, “Christ,” and fell unconscious to the ground, his face very pale.
“Heat stroke,” Pace said, feeling Evans’s wrists and forehead. “Seen it on cattle drives.”
“What do we do?” Garvin asked.
“Not a damn thing we can do,” Pace said, straightening up. “Pour water on him, only we got no water. Get him in the shade, only there ain’t no shade anywhere close. He’s a goner.”
They loosened Evans’s clothing, fanned his face a little with his hat; it made no difference. In less than an hour he was dead.
“We’ll have to bury him here,” Custer said. “Find rocks—”
“Naw,” Pace said flatly. “I ain’t toting no more rocks. It’s too hot and we got too far to go.”
Garvin nodded, folding his arms. Custer said, “I’m giving you men a direct order,” and knew immediately he’d made a mistake.
Pace snorted. “You don’t pull no more rank on us, bluebelly.” His hand dropped to the butt of his revolver. “You want to try us?”
Garvin unslung his rifle from his back. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Come ahead. Show us what a big hero you are.”
Pace peeled back sun-split lips in a grin. “Like you showed them Injuns, huh? Shit,” he said. “You ain’t gonna do nothing. Just like that bluebelly captain back home, wanted to take me in and hang me for shooting one of his uppity black nigger soldiers. He didn’t have the guts and neither do you. Come on, Roy.”
Contemptuously, ostentationsly, Pace turned his back and began walking away, followed after a moment by Garvin. Neither man looked back; and after a moment, stumbling and staggering, Custer followed them.
* * *
They came to the baobab just as the sun was going down. “Good a place as any,” Pace said. “Let’s get a fire going.”
“What for?” Garvin asked. “It ain’t cold and we sure-God got nothing to cook.”
“Yeah, but it’ll keep the hyenas away.” Pace picked up a fallen branch and broke it over his knee. He had to make three tries; they were all very weak by now. ” ‘Course they’re gonna get us anyway, but I don’t want ’em eating on me till I’m dead.”
Custer sat on the ground, leaning against the baobab, hearing the voices but paying no attention. It didn’t matter now, after all. There was no longer any hope of making it to the next waterhole. Pace was right: they would be lucky if they were dead before the vultures and the hyenas got to them.
They got the fire going just as it got dark. That was when the Bushman appeared.
He came out of the bush, into the circle of firelight, walking steadily and straight toward them: a skinny little man, naked except for a skimpy hide loincloth. His flat childlike face was without expression; his eyes stared straight ahead.
Garvin said, “Son of a bitch,” and reached for his rifle.
“Wait,” Custer said urgently. “Look what he’s got.”
In both hands, held out in front of him like an offering, the Bushman held a large white ostrich-egg shell.
“Water,” Garvin said, and licked his lips. “Lord God.”
Pace got up from the ground and walked forward to meet the Bushman. He took the eggshell very gently from the small hands and hefted it in both of his. “Damn,” he said softly. “It’s full.”
He raised the big eggshell and put his lips to the opening at the top. His whole body seemed to quiver as he took a long, throat-bobbing drink.
“Oh, Jesus, that’s good,” he said, lowering the eggshell, holding it out to Garvin. “Roy?”
Garvin’s hands were shaking. “Careful,” Pace warned as the big man raised the eggshell to drink. “You drop that, we’re dead.”
The Bushman was still standing there, a couple of paces from the fire. He held out one hand, palm upward. Custer said, “He wants to trade. For God’s sake give him something.”
Pace’s face fairly lit up. “Oh, sure—”
Custer had never seen a man draw a gun so fast; Pace’s hand barely appeared to move, yet suddenly the long-barreled revolver was in his hand. Custer cried, “No,” but the sound of the shot drowned out his voice.
“There, sand monkey,” Pace said as the Bushman fell to the ground. “Don’t say I never gave you nothing.”
“You fool,” Custer said tiredly. “You evil murderous little swine. He could have gotten us out of this. He could have gotten us home.”
“Shit.” Pace holstered his pistol. “We’re gonna be okay now. That’s enough water to make the next hole. Hell,” he said, grinning, “you ask us nice, we might even let you have some—”
He stopped. A puzzled look came over his face. “Huh,” he said, and rubbed his chin in an odd motion. “Hey, Roy, I feel kinda—”
He took a couple of aimless little steps. “Uh,” he grunted, and fell face forward into the fire.
“What,” Garvin said, and dropped the eggshell. As it shattered on the rocky ground he made a strangled sound in the back of his throat and collapsed amid the white fragments.
Custer watched, unmoving and without any great interest, as the two men kicked and flopped and writhed and then lay still. On the far side of the fire he could see the dead Bushman’s eyes, still open, staring at him. The small round face seemed to be smiling.
* * *
Now, as the sun breaks clear of the eastern horizon, Custer looks at the bodies and then up at the circling vultures. He wonders how much longer they will wait. Not much longer, he guesses, and puts his hand over the gun in his lap, which is still warm from firing at the hyenas all night. He is almost out of ammunition. Perhaps he should take Pace’s gunbelt, or Garvin’s rifle.
He gets to his feet, very slowly, his movements those of a very old man, or perhaps a sleepwalker. He stands for a moment gazing about him, at the empty grass-covered plain and the enormous sky.
“Oh, Libbie,” he whispers, hearing now the tiny sound behind him, turning, feeling an almost gentle thumping sensation halfway down his right thigh; looking down, now, entirely without surprise, at the ridiculous little arrow sticking barely an inch into his leg. “Libbie—”