Tuesday, June 29, 2004

June 29, 2004
Last week I said I would find the real last words of Kit Carson and here they are courtesy of Paul Andrew Hutton:

“Kit Carson had been under the care of Dr.Tilton at Ft. Lyon since the death of his wife on April 27, 1868. The aneurism that so troubled him had left him very weak even before his wife's sudden death after childbirth. He stayed in the doctor's quarters at the fort, sleeping on a buffalo robe on the floor. The doctor had told him what to expect when it would finally burst. In the afternoon of May 24th, as blood gushed from his mouth, he called out ‘Doctor, Compadre, Adios.’ He died quickly in the doctors arms.”

Last Friday at 3:30, on the 128th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, I parked my rental car at the Visitor Center and started to walk towards the Custer Monument on Last Stand Hill. But before I could get twenty feet I was accosted by Rangers Michael Donahue and Jim Hatzell. They demanded I not even look up there because, according to them, the park is set up backwards and they didn’t want me to be influenced, like virtually millions of others have, by seeing the battle from the end backwards. “It skews your understanding of what happened,” Jim told me.

They loaded me in Jim’s F-150 and we motored around and through the valley eastward, out to Little Reno Creek, just West of the Crow’s nest. From this vantage point they began the story and showed me the numerous locations, like Lone Tipi and the Morass, where Benteen came back onto the trail and where Boston Custer watered his horse as the pack train came up (a critical piece of evidence as to George Armstrong Custer’s mindset during the battle). All along this stretch both Jim and Michael would ask me, “Can you see the village from here?” And as I looked up the valley I confessed I could not. “Neither could Custer,” they answered, all the way up to and including the spot where Custer ordered Major Reno and his men to attack.

Almost every foot of terrain from this point on has a name burned into my gray matter. I grew up reading about Medicine Tail Coulee, Deep Ravine, Nye-Cartwright Ridge and Weir Peak to name but a few, and to actually be standing there, where they rode and fought is quite overpowering. Some things seemed smaller than I had pictured (Weir Peak is by Arizona standards a molehill), while other sites seemed huge (Reno’s skirmish line of 100-some-odd men stretched all the way from the river tree line, across a large open field, across the freeway, past the Conoco sign, up a long slope to a white house on the opposite side of the valley. Really a vast expanse, especially when you realize they were up against 2,000 pissed off warriors!).

Almost every step of the way had a fascinating story: “The Indian horse herd of 20,000—yes, twenty thousand!— ponies was over there, and with Custer were Indian scouts who rode with Reno, and they successfully made it over there, cut out a significant amount of horses and escaped. Incredible. Never heard that before.

Also, The Crow scouts who were with Custer were mainly along because the Indians in the village were camped illegally on their reservation and they wanted them off. Ever since a small pox epidemic had decimated the tribe, the Crows had been bullied by the Sioux and consequently, the Crow sided with the whites to get their enemies off their land. So it is quite ironic that one of the new Indian markers on the battlefield says, “he died fighting for his homeland.” This really irritates the modern Crow because their take on the fight is that the Sioux and Cheyenne were trespassing on Crow land (it’s still Crow land today). As Michael and Jim told me, “You never see that in a movie.”

By the time we got to Nye-Cartwright Ridge we could see the skirmish line that Custer deployed to make way for the pack train to come up. When Boston Custer caught up with his older brother he surely told him the pack train was a mere 15 minutes behind. Basing his actions on this false assumption (the pack train and Benteen’s command stopped short with Reno and never came up in spite of Custer’s written orders to do so), the soldiers on the ridge were surrounded, one by one, and the haunting part of the battlefield is the lonely markers where the men fell. The white markers grow thicker as the overrun soldiers ran desperately towards Last Stand Hill. I finally understood Michael and Jim’s logic at seeing the battlefield form this direction, because now the fight had a momentum you don’t get coming at it from the other end.

Among the incredible, almost unbelievable stats: the Custer soldiers fired some 38,000 rounds and killed maybe 40 Indians. I believe Michael told me that at the Battle of the Rosebud, which happened days before this fight, the U.S. troops under Crook fired some 40,000 rounds at the same Indians and killed only 10. A little target practice was in order and consequently the Army totally revamped their shooting training after this twin debacle.

Five hours later we wrapped the tour (because the park was closing at 9 pm) and I actually felt like they had to rush certain parts because we just didn’t have enough time.

Here’s a photo of Jim Hatzell (left) and Michael Donahue at the Reno-Benteen Battlefield pointing out into the very valley that held one of the largest Indian encampments in history. The other photo is from the Hardin Custer reenactment. That is Custer in left foreground coming right at us.

We went into Hardin for pizza and beer (I bought, $20 cash), then Jim and I went to a cavalry reenactor’s encampment right across from Medicine Tail Coulee and I slept in a gooseneck trailer until three a.m. when a horse tied to the back kept jerking on his tether and urinating on my bedroom. I stumbled off my pallet, found my shoes in the dark, got out to my car and took off for Cody. It was, by then, 3 a.m. After a four hour run (I pulled over and slept for a half hour on top of the mountain west of Ranchester), I got back to Cody at 7:30 a.m. and met Sue for breakfast at the Buffalo Bill Village. And, after four cups of coffee and a skillet of eggs and country fries ($14 cash, I bought) I was refreshed to begin the day at the trade show.

"If everything is under control, you're not going fast enough."
—Mario Andretti

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