The Envy of Nationsby Michael Washburn
The sun was high over the cliffs to the east when the riders appeared. They came on so fast and furious that it was all the Confederate soldiers in Mesilla could do to rouse themselves, grab their weapons, and take up positions around the town in time to meet the attack. Private Robert Claudel’s mind would return often to those moments after the cry came from the wagon at the outskirts of town. Men darted out of houses, ran over to the mules that grunted and milled anxiously in the streets, opened packs at the animals’ sides, took out cylinders and springs and levers, and pieced together small howitzers. As the sound of the oncoming cavalry drove the men deeper into a frenzy, Private Claudel looked in vain through the dust and chaos for his regiment’s commander.
No one had hazarded a guess as to the number of Federals in New Mexico. They were based in the forts along the Rio Grande and at a few points in the mountains, their presence a welcome-thing to people scared of the Apaches. If Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor’s dream of new ports on the West Coast and access to the gold lying in the sun-washed hill was ever to become reality, it would take a shattering rout of the blue hordes, but now the Confederates were wondering if they would survive the next hour. Corporal Scott Martin was trying to direct the aim of two men who had mounted howitzers on the rampart made of crates, while Corporal Thomas Fleming shouted and waved at several troops rushing up from the center of town. They took up positions and aimed at the Federals, close enough now to tell their age or if they had shaved that morning.
Private Claudel ran into the hotel 30 yards north of the main street, leaping up the stairs and into a room on the second floor. As he leaned out the window, there came the hot queasiness no training could have averted. He had never been to an opera, but from his cousin’s account of one, the same grandeur was on display below and around him. Way back behind the cavalry, he could make out the pennants and colors of a group of Federals, that just might have included the hated Lieutenant Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, watching and commenting in their urbane way.
The first horses leapt over the rampart and whirled back to face the defenders, who were stunned at how little their frantic preparations mattered. Private Lionel Foster fired his pistol at one of the mares, which reared back on its hind legs and quickly straightened out, allowing its rider to put a bullet through the defender’s skull. Two other Confederates fell screaming to enemy fire as more steeds jumped the parapet, and a Cajun kid, sixteen or seventeen, his face streaked with blood from a gash in his forehead, staggered backward and tripped over Private Foster’s corpse. The attackers kept coming.
At the window, Private Claudel aimed his Enfield rifle, paused for a moment, and fired. One of the riders’ backs erupted with volcanic force, spraying another horse, and the rider tumbled into the dust as his steed lurched. The Union soldier whose horse and saddle were crimson, turned toward the hotel and fired his pistol. The round snapped past Private Claudel’s ear before he processed the fact that he was no longer invisible, fired his rifle again, and ducked to the windowsill, watching three more horses jump over the rampart as a boom came from the distance. Then it was as if one of the houses north of him met the impact of a god’s hammer, glass and wood spinning outward in a lethal shroud. Now another twenty Confederates rushed up from the other side of town, all training their fire on the Federals. In the same moment, two riders fell from their steeds and a third grasped his neck, screaming hoarsely. A Federal with crisp yellow epaulettes on his sleeves emptied his pistol furiously before five bullets tore into him. Private Claudel did not see the rest because, just as he rose, another boom announced a blow to the base of the hotel, and the private gasped as splinters raked his face and the ground came up to meet him.
A face glimpsed in these parts might be that of an Apache or a Mexican, or a priest administering your last rites, but was always, irredeemably, a face. Visages that came and went over the bed of an injured man might not hasten his return and readjustment to that alien and hated thing: the world. Private Claudel had met men from the cities whose inhabitants swarmed like so many insects, had talked with those for whom one project would never be complete; a process of stripping down the world from one level of social organization and density to another until the deserts, cliffs, and hills were just as the earth after the floods of Genesis, with no traffic, no debts, no selfish women to pursue the men like vengeful specters. But Robert Claudel was no misanthrope. On the contrary, he lived in the hope that the distaste he felt for successive groups of people he had run into would fall away as a new force overtook him, the inspiration of fighting alongside men who displayed traits that the louts and cheaters in the red light district of New Orleans lacked. Serving with bold, decisive warriors, he would feel enervated at the fury with which they rose to meet the blue hordes, and he would imbibe the wisdom of the thinkers who advanced the cause in geopolitical terms. He was hardly one of those sick or suicidal men walking among the professional soldiers of the South.
Lying stoically under a gas lamp, the private watched blurs hover over him and vanish. He had suffered many bruises and a broken wrist but otherwise was not in a bad way.
“Lucky dude,” said the doctor coming into relief against a background of pain and mangled limbs into which he had just discharged morphine. “We only got so much morphine, and you gonna have to take your pain like a man.”
For four days, more blurs came and went, and then the fire withdrew from his body, until Private Claudel was once again able to report to Corporal Fleming. He learned that his side had intelligence indicating that the Federals, having despaired of taking Mesilla or holding out at Fort Fillmore, had set out across the desert toward Fort Stanton, some 250 miles to the northeast. Here was a chance to pounce and cripple the Federal presence between Texas and California.
So the next morning, a train of men and wagons set out for the northeast, Corporal Martin and Corporal Fleming riding in the wagons near the head of the column and the doctor and priest at the rear. The eight mules wore bags full of meat, ammo, and the parts of howitzers. The men’s faces bore the sun like a lash as they moved toward the mountains. On occasion, someone pointed out a buzzard, a coyote, or a patch of cacti twisting into a bizarre shape. No one liked to see a coyote, whose eyes were more intelligent than they had a need or right to be. At least there was pretty terrain as the men trudged on, with the cacti seguing into lilac bushes in many places and the green of the sage and the yellow of the creosote forming a visual call and response throughout the valley.
In the growing shadows, near six o’clock on the second day, the men at the head of the train spotted a few figures kicking up dust 200 kilometers ahead. Privates Claudel, Perry, Gibson, Wheeler, and Sandefur ran up to the three stragglers, who might just have seen a demon emerge from the hills and bite the head off one of their number, so blanched were their looks. When the Confederates caught up with guns raised, the stragglers at first appeared hardly upset at the prospect of swapping their agonies for a new condition. When the one on the left suddenly reached for his holster, Private Claudel jumped behind him and pulled his arms into an X across his back while Private Perry seized the pistol from the Union man’s belt. In a distinct County Limerick accent, the soldier blurted, “If ye’s goin’ to kill me, let me talk to Dan for a minute about my accounts.” The other two Federals gazed ahead stonily.
“Never mind, just give me the pistol so’s I can blow me brains out,” the man muttered.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find plenty of uses for your brains,” said Private Perry. “You look like a freak in one of Claudel’s dad’s circus acts.”
After they got back to the troupe, Corporal Fleming sat the captives in one of the wagons under the ghoulish sheen of a gas lamp, as men organized shifts to gaze with vigilance at the plateau on whose reaches coyotes howled as if speaking an awful prophecy under the circling buzzards.
“Our souls be damned, there’s no way we’ll perform in a circus for you,” said the man from County Limerick.
“Fellow’s delirious,” remarked the corporal.
“I ain’t no lion tamer nor no clown. I couldn’t be sad in a controlled way before all them kids, I’d loose the inner freak and invoke hellfire and damnation, sittin’ up with me whiskey and wonderin’ if the Injun bitch bled the night before and if her man’s gonna come and gut me. I ain’t prayed much...”
The second man was no more coherent, but Corporal Fleming gleaned from the third, a stout 25-year-old from the Sixth Colorado Regiment, that the Federals had gotten 50 miles from Fort Fillmore when the officers decided to stop. Then something drove the horses wild with terror, a sound from the hills like the braying of a wounded demon, and then the attackers came, the fearsome Apaches, cutting men down and making others dash off in ten directions, the three stragglers being one such splinter. Little groups of Federals, some including a captain or a lieutenant, were still wandering out there.
The detachment that set out in the brilliant morning in pursuit of one of these groups included Corporal Fleming, Privates Claudel, Perry, and several others. A few hours into the venture, Private Claudel was already thirsty, but he had to conserve the water in his flask. As he licked the roof of his bone-dry mouth and rubbed his wrist again, the private’s eyes scanned the jagged contours of the canyon. The sun will back down, he told himself, just like a fighter that’s been goin’ at it all day. After several more hours of marching, the other men looked as beat as he felt. Squinting hard, Private Claudel processed the fact that they were coming to a village, the small houses of brick and adobe shimmering in the haze. Corporal Fleming knocked on the door of the first one which opened after a moment to reveal a haggard middle-aged man in a sombrero. Don Mateo invited the party inside and gave everyone a sip of water from a decanter of faded crystal. The reasons for his mournful look grew clear when he told the story of a raid by the Apaches that had decimated the town’s populace and deprived it of the roosters and mules on which its livelihood, in large part, depended. Since the attack, the survivors had been stealing out to patches of cacti, skewering the prickly pears that grew on them, and peeling the pears to get at what few nutrients lay in their cores. His words seared into Private Claudel’s mind: Look out over the length and breadth of the valley, you will see gutted homes where miserable women breast-feed the infants who survived and wonder about the months to come. When you engage the Federals, you destroy the dikes that have channeled the red fury away from the towns in this valley.
“My Lord, what have we done?” Private Claudel murmured to himself. Then the host’s daughter, Dona Emilia, came in, a lithe young thing with cloths over her breasts and loins and her skin the color of diluted honey, her face a study in controlled despair. Though Private Claudel did not know a word of Spanish, he sensed well enough what that face had witnessed.
“I promise we will not let them get away with it,” said Corporal Fleming. “You and your daughter will reestablish something like the life you had once we’ve thrashed those tribes.”
They thanked the host and filed out of the scene of sadness and hunger. It was not the first time that day that Private Claudel enjoyed the hospitality, of sorts, of a stranger. For after another five miles, the private saw the white house perched way up on the mesa, and being the first to point it out, received the order to go and check it out. Maybe the owner had seen the Federals. He climbed the slope and walked through the dust to the whitewashed front door, which was not locked. Beyond it, smoke drifted to the top of a nicely, but not extravagantly, furnished room. Seated under a moose’s head with a huge pair of antlers, a middle-aged man with thin red hair puffed on a cigar and looked at the private coldly. About 20 pounds overweight, and with an unkempt beard, he had the air of Ulysses Grant about him, though Private Claudel, of course, had no idea of his sympathies. A pistol lay on a stand beside the man’s chair. He gestured for the private to sit down across from him.
“You fired so many cannonballs at Fort Sumter,” the man broke the silence by saying, “and made the Yanks give in quickly indeed. Flushed with that victory, you’re taking a long view of the war, wondering how you can barter with Britain and Switzerland for goods and munitions. Cotton is one thing your planters in the Carolinas have in abundance, and you know the Brits crave it, but you think how much more clout you would have with all the gold of California, the envy of nations, sitting in your treasury. That’s the logic behind this escapade, isn’t it, my boy?”
Declining to answer at first, Private Claudel glanced at the pistol on the stand, the antlers above the man, the musty bookshelves beside him, and the faded globe resting on the mantel between two windows.
“I don’t think—”
“Listen, my boy,” the man cut him off. “If you ask Stephen Lambert, no one needs you here. The Union men kept up a sort of equilibrium in these parts, and you’ve wrecked it. I’ve listened to the arguments of your man George Fitzhugh, and he obviously takes a theoretical rather than an empirical approach to the question of race. God knows, there are so many good and intelligent blacks and so much white scum. I could show you so many of the deviants, the robbers and opium addicts and killers and whores, until you felt sick and cried out and swore you never wanted to see another white face.”
Once again, the private started to raise an objection, and the man cut him off.
“That gold is not yours, boy. California is not a playground for your motley array of criminals and gamblers and drunks. You will not harness it for trade. You will lose this war, I promise, both for your strategic ineptitude and the greed and viciousness with which you conduct this affair. Come with me to the window, boy.”
The window looked out onto a vista where the parched earth receded from the mesa and then grew into other hills several miles off.
“Look out there, look at those hills, you have no idea what’s out there. You don’t know how long it took me just to learn about Fort Sumter. Maybe the spirit of the North is aroused, maybe the tides have already turned. Is Richmond in flames right now? Or how about Charleston, Nashville, Atlanta? You don’t know that your comrades aren’t all lying dead at this very moment. You have placed yourself inside a pincer, between Forts Thorn and Stanton, and I guarantee you’ll not emerge in one piece.”
Private Claudel thanked the host for his time and set out to rejoin his comrades, ambling back down the side of the mesa and finding them very much alive for the moment.
“He ain’t seen the Federals. I reckon we’re a hundred miles from Fort Stanton.”
They walked through the still heat with their rifles and pistols at the ready, the sun falling between the bleached crags rising off to the South and the stunted trees at the other side of the valley. Private Claudel thought that if he spoke, his voice would echo into every crevice in which an Apache crouched with a bow and arrows. If he died out here, his existence would be almost like the tree that no one hears fall in the woods, unappreciated except by the vultures, yet his mind kept returning to the urgency of his cause, for Confederate ports on the West Coast were a few prizes among many. The gold would enable the South to unleash massive fire on the blue hordes.
Some 20 minutes later, Corporal Fleming found the bullet case.
“Now what did they fire at?” Private Sandefur asked.
“Apaches ain’t far,” came a reply.
The case had appeared just off the trail, not far from where a slope bore several pairs of footprints, winding up into a chasm in the canyon wall.
“They traded fire with somebody here and took off that way,” said Corporal Fleming with a gesture toward the slope.
“It’s time we took the fight to those sons of bitches,” said Private Wheeler.
Some of them would have liked to rest, but the party needed to go ahead before the light waned too much. As they climbed up the slope, and Private Claudel turned over Stephen Lambert’s threats in his mind, the tiny sip he took from his flask did not begin to slake his thirst, but made him realize how little water was left. They passed through a tangle of curving weeds and branches covered with sage and made their way through a pass between the walls of ochre rock that seemed to act as a magnet for the heat. With a glance upward, the private realized how easily the enemy could cause the party to suffocate by knocking stones and sediment loose from the top of the channel. The sun was losing its prominence to the faded blue of six-thirty. Though the slope was less steep now, the private still ambled like a human scarecrow. At length, the corridor widened into a grotto where a thin stream ran from far up the canyon’s scarred face. Private Claudel and three others went to the stream, cupped their hands, drank, and filled their flasks as the corporal gazed at the empty spaces way over their heads, as if sure something would materialize.
“All right, this way,” he declared with a gesture toward a trail leading off in the direction they had been going. They walked for another 20 minutes until they came to the corpse of a Union soldier, the blue cap still tight over the skull from which the left eyeball dangled, while the right one gazed intently. The rotting flesh reached almost to the rifle clutched in his right hand, a defender of Lincoln and the North until his last wheeze. Private Perry reached down, pried the rifle from the corpse’s hand, checked it over, and discarded it before the party continued.
“Looks like a jam made all the difference for that poor fellow.”
“They were in such a hurry to get out of here,” said Private Gibson, “that they couldn’t make a gesture toward Christian ritual.”
Soon the party came to a plateau where a few lonely trees bedecked with anemic growths of creosote mingled with the cacti. How the Federals must have reeled when they came to this view of the mountains way off in the northeast mocking the idea of escaping to Fort Stanton so many miles off, in a land where shadows took bizarre shapes in the late afternoon and the cry of an eagle reminded you of everyone you had ever hurt. They walked on the plateau until they came to a pool whose streams led back toward the brook they had encountered before. Now it was hard not to retch at the sight of two more rotting corpses, their limbs jerked into odd positions as if they were the puppets of a child with emotional problems, their bloody faces blending horror and incredulity. Privates Perry and Evans began stripping the ammunition off one of them while Private Claudel strode over to the other. It briefly escaped his notice that a couple of small shafts had pierced the Union boy in the arm and rib cage. Upon pulling out one of these and inspecting the blade, the private thought he detected a type of sap on its tip, an amber thickness he could not name. The look on the dead boy’s face spoke of unfathomable agonies. Here was a place where the lazy trickling of the water over pebbles and sand seemed to channel all the hellish moments of the white man’s experience, all of his fear and self-doubt, into a hypersensitivity to the mocking trivial moments that said Here’s the substructure of all existence. Why not die now?
No one wanted to linger, but the corporal’s curiosity plied the scene for a minute before they began to trudge on toward the forest at the distant foot of the mountains. With growing unease, Private Claudel felt the damp spaces on the back of his shirt. What if we run into the bulk of the Federal force out here? They moved on through the scrub and the dirt until they spied what looked like a broken-down wagon 200 yards ahead and tightened their grips on their weapons.
Then came the whistling sounds. The first arrow sailed straight through Private Gibson’s neck and made him scream and fire his rifle at the sky before he flopped onto his back, kicking wildly, no one grasping what was happening. Privates Wheeler and Evans spun around as the corporal fired once at the trees and bushes, adjusted his aim, and fired again. More shafts flew, and by the time anyone saw the attackers, they had fatally wounded Privates Gibson, Evans, Wheeler, and Sandefur. The cry of a tortured lion, or so it sounded, pierced the air as the warriors emerged from the trees, Private Claudel and the Corporal fired frantically, their rounds tearing up the torso of one attacker. Private Gibson gagged and tried to pull out the shaft that had bisected his throat. Crouched behind a tree, Private Perry reloaded his pistol; another massive exchange followed, at the end of which Private Claudel and the corporal limped off into the bushes to the north of their ripped-up comrades, an arrow staying just millimeters inside Private Claudel’s arm for only a second before he yanked it out and snapped it in two. He ran through a thicket of sage and thorns that rent his face and would have made him scream if he were not desperate to elude the Apaches.
Three hours later, he was lying by the side of a mighty cactus looking at the stars, thinking, Maybe that shell and the first corpse didn’t fall where we found ’em! The Feds ain’t dumb, they wouldn’t have continued in the same direction if they thought they’d strayed into a red trap. In the blazing dawn he woke, squinted, wiped some of the blood off his face with spit, and tried to stare into the distance as the sun tormented him. He tried to rise and sank with a groan, then he drifted off again with his face down, tasting the dirt. When he woke minutes later, the face of Don Mateo filled the whole sky, laughing at him and the rest of the party. Don Mateo, who hated the whites for reasons unrelated to the imaginary destruction of his village. Don Mateo, who had a vision for the future that the private could not begin to fathom. Maybe I drank the mescaline at Don Mateo’s, or maybe it was in the stream, or maybe the shaft brought it home. Or maybe I’m delirious like that Irishman. Private Claudel was painfully aware of the evils done to both the Mexicans and the Apaches as he drifted off into his dreams. Then he was on a train with his mother and older brother, George, whose hair was darker, but that was not the chief distinction. They stood in the midst of crates and trunks, a squawking chicken on the right and bags of flour to the left, wishing the line would budge. The attendant at the counter up ahead had his hands full selling pretzels and lemonade. The black nine year-old standing just inches from Charlotte Claudel had noticed George’s stump and could not avert his eyes from it.
“What happened to your hand?” he asked. George gazed out the window, pretending not to have heard.
“What happened to your hand?” the boy persisted.
George turned halfway to the kid and put the stump forward, and the boy took it in both hands, feeling, rubbing, and inspecting it with fervor, as if this was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen, but soon the boy had other questions too, namely whether the absent father was some kind of mutant.
They had a father once, a little, vain, depressed drunk, whose jokes fell on still air and who could not have failed worse in his career as an entertainer.
“I can’t stand to be around you,” Robert said after his father came home drunk one night, remembered that it was Robert’s birthday, and tried to make his son laugh with jokes that the boy had endured before. Robert’s words cut the father short in the middle of a line about the donkey and the 40 pounds of butter. His father went into the foyer and opened yet another bottle. Yet again, Paul Claudel would drink until he blacked out. Young Claudel retired to his and George’s chamber and stared at the wall.
Months after the funeral in March 1859, Robert had a dream in which Paul Claudel appeared in the likeness of an absurdity from the circus, his torso and limbs enclosed in wooden boxes as if he were some kind of robot. He moved with ungainly steps down the street toward the boy, not taking his eyes off Robert as he made a stop, a movement of one unbending leg, then the other, and another pause to master his new position.
“Er, Rob, I, ah, need some time here. But you might get to hear about the bear and the fox, or the hunter and the great big mountain. Just hold on, I might need a hand, heh heh . . . ”
The cloud of what Robert had said to his father hung over the man until the razor-sharp bisector came down and lopped off the box protruding forward from the robot’s right shoulder, and it clattered to the ground.
“Oh, heh heh, Rob, I might need help here, you know what the hunter told the mountain goat—”
Retreat, said the boy’s eyes, retreat from this place.
The partition came down again, taking the left arm, and blood spurted from both sides now.
“Er, Rob this, uh . . . you are glad to see me, aren’t you?”
The dad creature toppled onto its back and flopped several times in the blood.
“Rob, if you help me, I’ll tell you about...Rob...er...”
Torrents of blood came as the torso moved spastically and the creature’s syllables reached the air. It was about to die, yet its words touched on points so remote from the fact.
“Rob, do you know what made the monkey dance? Rob...Rob!”
Now the voice grew lower as blood came seeping down the street toward the boy.
After they buried Paul Claudel, Robert threw himself into an orgy of drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, and hanging around at all hours of the night in the red-light part of New Orleans, prey for the denizens of dubious health who reduced the sacred rewards of the flesh to a transaction. Then came the brawl with a kid who tried to talk to Rob’s girlfriend. He might have gone to jail if the state’s decision to secede had not shifted everyone’s attention so decisively.
Once again, Private Claudel tried to get up and sank into the dirt. Even as he cursed his pitiful state, he saw all the Confederacy rising in the form of an angel, spreading its wings and setting out from its perch into an infinity of azure. All of the new nation’s might, all of its potential to stride the stage of the world and shake up and trade and wrestle with other nations was here, contained within the spread of its majestic wings, and now he yearned to be a particle of the nation, to see his failures and agonies and humiliations resolved into the soaring splendor of the triumphal country, reaching from the beaches of Tidewater, the Carolinas, and Florida to the shores of California, bedecked with the gems of Mobile and Pensacola and San Antonio and New Orleans. The breadth and diversity of it, and now the gold, would furnish the men and material with which to repel those killers and rapists so ill qualified to lecture anyone about civil rights. Then the southern states would go unmolested, its belles would stand on porches sipping wine in the evening as the scent of wisteria drifted on the faintest of breezes.
The next morning, he rose and stumbled through the haze until he saw the pennants flying way off in the distance. They can’t dare join the battle without me, the private thought as he staggered through dirt and sagebrush, dimly aware that his wound had re-opened and more blood had left him. But when he reached the 20 Confederates, among whom Corporal Scott Martin stood prominently, they hailed him and handed him a new, clean rifle, and asked if he would accept the honor of leading the charge against the Federal position. Surveying the other brave men in gray, he knew they would have made able leaders. But it was he who led the charge off into the valley, not caring how many shots the enemy fired at him, the thunder of millions of aroused tempers echoing through the vast reaches of sand and sage.
MICHAEL WASHBURN is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. His short story “Hearts, Minds, and Spirits” appeared in the March 2006 issue and his story “The Convict’s Tale: A Sydney Chronicle Exclusive” appeared in the July/August 07 issue.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.