Lieutenant George Hawkins wore no blue uniform when he passed through the arched entrance of Fort Leavenworth. He was paid little mind once his questioning by the sentries was complete. He turned his mount toward the main parade ground and headquarters.
He rode toward the command post, looked around and remembered the names and faces of men he’d wintered here with when he rode with the Seventh.
A chill raced up his spine, although the temperature was brutal. How many of those men were now dead? And why in God’s name had he come back?
Duty. He was a soldier. Most of his young life had been spent in that pursuit, or actually wearing the uniform of the United States Cavalry. He had a responsibility to himself, if not to his dead father who’d saved for years to send him to West Point. And George had things to do.
He drew in the reins, dismounted, tied off his mount and stepped into the headquarters building.
"Help you?" a scrawny aide behind a desk asked.
"I need to speak to the commanding officer."
"Do you have an appointment?" the aide asked with self-importance.
"No. I’ve just ridden in from Kansas City."
"If you came to enlist, you may do so through me."
"I’m not here to enlist," George said, his voice hard. "Please tell your commander I’m here to speak with him. It’s a private matter."
"Lieutenant George C. Hawkins, Seventh Cavalry, G Company."
Recovered from his initial shock, the aide hurried into another room to re-emerge seconds later and show George inside.
George saluted the man behind the desk and noted the captain’s bars on his shoulders. "Lieutenant George Hawkins, G Company, sir."
"Lieutenant?" the officer asked. "From Reno’s G Company of the Seventh that fought at the Bighorn?"
The officer came to his feet. "If that’s true, soldier, where is your uniform? And where have you been for the past month?"
"Sir, as stated, my name is George Hawkins. I was present at the battle against Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Bighorn River."
George saw interest in the man’s eyes. "I rode with Reno, but in the confusion when the Cheyenne counter-attacked, I became separated."
"Separated?" The officer lifted a condescending eyebrow. "And you managed to stay alive how in this confusion?"
George’s heart pounded, but he gave no outward sign of nervousness, other than resettling the glasses on his nose.
"So many," he whispered, thrust back into the heat of battle. "They exploded from the village, yelling, racing toward us, our death in their eyes. The companies split, tried to escape, but there were too many. They surrounded most of the men, drove others into a small copse of trees by the river. I managed to make my way from the main body of the Indian force, but was followed by two braves." George took a breath as he relived the scene in his mind. Heat washed through him, sweat broke out on his brow. He rubbed his shoulder, still mending and sore.
"I eluded them for a time and found a place to hide, but they came back," he said, his throat tight. "I managed to surprise and kill them, but I was wounded, too."
He paused, the story from here on a lie.
"I took one of their horses and rode as fast as I could back toward Reno. But I was losing blood. Things became blurred and I passed out."
"And where was that?" the officer asked.
George’s mind shouted a warning. He had to be careful, the man was obviously uncertain of his story.
"I don’t know. I woke up in a ravine. It was quiet. The shooting had stopped.
"I don’t remember much after that. I fought a fever. For how long, I don’t know. Miraculously, the horse was still there when I woke. Once I was able, I started toward what I hoped was civilization." He looked directly into the officer’s eyes. "It was days before I came across a small cabin, was taken in and allowed to convalesce for several weeks."
George grew quiet. The officer paced, hands laced behind his back, as though sorting through all the details. Finally, he stopped in front of George.
"I’ve considered your story, Hawkins. If this is the truth, you’re a brave man to survive a battle so many didn’t. It’s my understanding even those who tried to run away were killed. Therefore, you have succeeded where most did not," he added with a note of skepticism.
"It will take me a few days to verify this information. If everything checks out, you’ll be re-assigned. For now, you may rest. You’ll be given temporary quarters until this matter is settled. Peterson!"
The aide rushed in.
"Take this man to the guest quarters. See he’s given a decent meal." He turned to George. "As soon as this is confirmed, you’ll be back in the saddle, soldier. So don’t get too comfortable."
George followed the aide outside and across the parade ground. He surveyed the fort, compared it to others he’d seen. Next to desolate Camp Robinson in the Nebraska Territory and Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, this was a veritable paradise. Bustling with activity, Fort Leavenworth was unparalleled in George’s mind. Buildings surrounded a large parade ground, a huge treed area at its center where the American flag fluttered in the breeze atop a tall flagpole. Men came and went from the barracks to the left of the main parade and the headquarters building on the right. Smaller trees dotted the road along the walkway, giving the center of the fort the appearance of a well-kept little town. Officers shouted orders while men drilled to the sharp beat of a drum. He could hear activity on the Missouri River to the east. And the sounds of the horse stables echoed from above the parade, the smell of freshly turned hay and manure in the air.
A high, shrill voice, rising in a stream of curses, drew George to an abrupt halt. He followed the source, curious about the string of colorful expletives.
"You dirty son-of-a-bitch!" the slender figure yelled. "Now ma’am, wait just a darn minute..."
"Don’t you ma’am me, you rotten bastard. You tried to cheat me. You think because I’m a woman I’m too stupid to realize," she shouted.
"Now Miss Douglas, don’t get your panties in a bunch. I wasn’t trying to cheat you," the plump shop owner muttered, wiping shaking hands on his apron.
"Don’t you dare chastise me. The proof is right here." She kicked a bag of flour at her feet. A white cloud billowed up, and George watched a rock roll from its center.
She bent over, picked up the rock and tossed it from hand to hand, little clouds puffing up into the air with each throw.
"You mean to tell me this is standard fill for a bag of flour?"
The man sputtered and kicked the dirt with the toe of his boot.
"Now Miss Douglas, I didn’t know that was in there."
"No?" she shouted. "Well weren’t you the one who raced off to fill my order when I placed it earlier this afternoon? You seemed anxious enough to take my money, but not to give me the proper goods I’ve purchased. And how many others of these bags have rocks in them?" Her hand indicated three other sacks in her wagon.
She was shouting again and George couldn’t help but grin. She had a right to be mad. He would be too if he’d paid for two pounds of rock in his flour.
"Come, sir. You needn’t bother yourself with the likes of her," the aide interrupted. "She’s known as a troublemaker round these parts. She’ll simmer down eventually." Peterson turned George around and shuffled him down the walkway, the sound of the woman’s voice still carrying on the breeze behind him.
They stopped in front of a small cabin and the aide opened the door. George stepped inside, dropped his pack and surveyed the uninviting room. A cot and a washstand beside the fireplace were all that furnished the tiny cubbyhole. But George didn’t care. He didn’t plan to be here long. They’d check out his story and learn he’d indeed been in G Company under Reno and that he’d been at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The rest was all conjecture and no one could prove otherwise. For all concerned, he’d convalesced in a helpful stranger’s cabin in the woods somewhere. Not at White Oaks with the man who’d saved his life at the Little Bighorn. Blue Fox with Two Hearts. His best friend. His blood brother. An Indian.
"Why won’t you listen to reason?" Blue Fox, the half-breed Lakota, shouted. "You know damn well nobody’s going to listen to a word you say about the Indians. Isn’t it true, ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’?" Blue quoted.
George whirled on his best friend since childhood. "No! And I’m going to make them realize it, too."
"You and what other army? Blue scoffed. "They won’t listen, I’m telling you."
"If you’re so certain, I suppose you’ve changed your mind about going to Washington then?" George challenged. Blue was determined to become a lawyer, to go to Washington and work on behalf of the Indians. Considering he was half white and half Sioux and had lived in both worlds, he believed he could make the government better understand the plight of his people.
When Blue didn’t answer right away, George poked his friend in the shoulder with his finger. "Well?"
"All right, all right. No. I haven’t changed my mind. But the men in Washington are more open-minded than the army..."
George laughed in Blue’s face. "More open-minded? You’ve got to be kidding! Those open-minded men are the ones who sent Crook, Terry, Gibbon and Custer after the Indians in the first place! What do you think would have happened at the Little Bighorn if Custer had waited for the others like he was supposed to? And who do you think gives the generals their orders in the first place? Do you really think you’ll have any more success than I will in changing their minds?"
Blue didn’t answer, and George didn’t push further. He stepped up to his friend and took him by the shoulders.
"We both have a difficult task in front of us, Blue. Just because it’s going to be tough, doesn’t mean I’m going to give up before I even start. And neither are you. Think about it. If we’re both hammering at them from different directions, maybe, just maybe, they’ll listen."
Blue closed his eyes and nodded slightly. "I’m afraid for you, George. I’ve only just found you again after all these years and now you’re riding away. You know you’ll be sent back to Indian country. What then?"
"I don’t know. Pick at them. Try and change their minds a little at a time. Work from within. But I have to do something. I couldn’t live with myself if didn’t."
Blue nodded again and sighed. "I understand how you feel." His voice was gentle. "I’ll never forget the excitement inside me when Yellow Lodge Woman pointed out that because of what I am, I might be one of the few people who could make the men in Washington understand what’s happening to my people. My life opened up, as though the pages of a book had come alive, with me as the main character. It was then I understood everything my spirit guide had tried to tell me. Then I knew what I had to do."
"It’s the same for me," George said. "I had no direction, beyond going back to Leavenworth to fulfill my duty. No idea what was going to happen to me. But now I have a goal. An important one. And I’m going to finish it. Mark my words. I’m going to do this, Blue. Or die trying."
Blue’s head snapped up, his cobalt eyes filled with fear.
"That’s what I’m afraid of, George. Your ideas will be enough to get a knife in your back. The simple fact you sympathize with the Indians after the Little Bighorn is enough to get you killed. Please. Just be careful." Blue slapped George on his uninjured shoulder, but the jarring caused George to grimace anyway. "Don’t go charging out there shouting your cause at the top of your lungs for all to hear. Because if you do, your butt is going to wind up either dead or in a stockade. You mark my words," Blue added, his voice hard.
"Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. But sooner or later, someone is going to listen to what I have to say. To what is the truth."
Their conversation was interrupted when the rest of the family came out to say goodbye to George. Today he was leaving White Oaks to return to Fort Leavenworth.
Sarah, the woman who had taken both he and Blue in as boys when Blue’s mother died and George’s father needed a place to live, was the first to reach him. She pulled him close and hugged him.
"You be careful, George Hawkins. Do you hear me?" she scolded. "We’ve only just gotten you back. And barely alive, may I remind you? So don’t go off and get yourself hurt again." Her voice faltered, although she was trying desperately to sound stern. She squeezed him one last time and whispered, "Come back soon."
She pulled away and hurried back to the house, sniffling as she went, skirt billowing around her ankles in her haste.
Sarah’s husband, Ben, and George’s surrogate father, stepped up and offered his hand. "Take care of yourself, Son. Don’t do anything foolish." Ben pulled him close and gently pounded his back, careful of George’s healing shoulder. "We’re going to miss you."
"Yes, sir, I’ll miss you, too. But I will be back." He paused. "You understand why I have to return, don’t you?" George asked, wary. Ben, after all, had been a soldier and knew all about duty.
Ben sighed and nodded. "I understand, George. Must be something only men understand, because Sarah sure doesn’t. She’s probably inside crying like a baby right now. And she’ll worry about you until you ride back through that gate. Just take care of yourself. It’s the best advice I can give right now. You alone know what you must do."
The two men shook hands, George nodded, and Ben walked back to the house.
George turned to Amy, Blue’s wife. Tears streaked her cheeks. Without warning, she hurled herself into his arms. He grunted and gritted his teeth against the pain that shot through his arm.
"Don’t you dare do anything to get yourself killed, George Hawkins," she whispered in his ear. "I’ll never forgive you if you do. You’re my husband’s brother, and damn important to him. And me." She pushed away, snuffled in a most unladylike way, swiped the back of her hand under her nose then splayed her hands across her hips. "And I mean it."
"I’ll be all right."
"Good. I’ll hold you to it." She stepped back and Blue stepped forward.
George extended his hand, but Blue pulled him to his chest and squeezed.
"My wife has made you promise to be careful, my friend. It’s a promise she and I will both hold you to," Blue whispered in George’s ear, his voice gruff with emotion.
George smiled and chuckled, pulling from Blue’s embrace. "It’s nice to know so many people will be worrying about my well-being."
"There will be many, my brother-friend. Be safe." Blue stepped away.
George sighed and shook his head. It was time to go. There was nothing left to say. He extended his hand one last time and Blue grabbed it, but before he released it, Blue turned their palms up and pointed to the thin white scars there.
"This, my brother, means I’ll always be with you. Don’t ever forget it."
George nodded and turned away. He grabbed the saddle horn and swung himself onto the horse’s back. Minutes later, sad yet anxious, he was on his way. He had things to do.
A week after passing through the gates of Fort Leavenworth, George was back in uniform. The material, stiff and scratchy against his skin, was a symbol of honor, yet a constant reminder of the horrors he’d seen. He stood at attention in front of Captain Wildrick, the commanding officer.
"You’ve been assigned to ride with Colonel Anson Mills, Third Cavalry, attached to Brigadier General George C. Crook, in Indian territory."
A chill went up George’s spine. "And what of the Seventh, sir?"
"What few are left of Reno’s and Benteen’s commands have been scattered. Reassigned, as you’ll be. You will serve with the Third now, Hawkins. Forget the Seventh."
George straightened and pushed the men and memories of Custer’s ill-fated cavalry from his mind. "When do I leave, sir? And how will I reach the Third?"
"Immediately. You’ll go by rail to Fort Laramie. Upon arrival there, you’ll join the supply train going to Fort Fetterman where you’ll ride with a courier to General Crook’s troops. I’ll leave it to Crook and Mills to which company you’re assigned. Questions?"
George snapped to attention and saluted. He was being sent to Indian territory. Since the battle at the Little Bighorn, talk throughout the country had been of nothing but Generals Crook and Terry decimating the Sioux with one swift blow of their mighty army. And he was to be a part of it.
"Dismissed." Wildrick saluted and rounded his desk.
George left the building, his thoughts jumbled. There was no turning back. Now it began.