Beautifully written and filled with unforgettable characters, Little Bighorn brings to life the American West and its heartbreaking history, brilliantly portraying the flawed and tormented Custer.
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By John Hough Jr.
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2014 John Hough, Jr.
All rights reserved.
The doorman at the Willard admitted him wordlessly, and Allen thanked him and crossed the columned rotunda with his valise and topcoat, his footsteps ringing hollowly on the tessellated floor. Two men on a leather sofa stopped talking and watched him pass. One of them leaned forward and tapped cigar ash into a cuspidor. The concierge straightened, brightened, and set his hands on the desktop.
"You'll be young Winslow," he said.
Allen nodded and put down his valise, his topcoat. The two men on the sofa resumed talking.
"Miss Deschenes is in the dining room," the concierge said. "You're to go right on in." He glanced at the two men on the sofa and leaned closer and lowered his voice. "She's in there with General Custer."
Allen looked at him. "Say again?"
"Think I'm joking you," the concierge said.
"No," Allen said. He looked off over the rotunda. Potted plants, the imperious leather furniture. It didn't surprise him. Nothing would. Buffalo Bill Cody. The King of England. "What's General Custer doing in Washington?"
"Testifying in front of Congress. I'm surprised you ain't heard. There's been a big stir about it. The general's been spilling some beans. There's crooks getting rich off the Indians and army both. Post traders and Indian agents and such. Cheating them. Paying big bribes in Washington for the chance. People'll go to jail before this is over. Friends of the president, I'm talking about."
"Good for General Custer," Allen said.
"Maybe not. The president's right huffed about it."
The concierge rotated the leather-bound register, dipped a pen, and passed it to Allen. Allen bent and wrote his name, wrote Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., and returned the pen. The concierge turned, hunted around on the wall till he found the room key in its cubbyhole.
"Come to see the play at the National, did you?" he said.
"If I'm here long enough."
"Miss Deschenes said two nights."
"Then I guess I'll see it."
"Your own mother in it, I guess you better. Room number four-thirty-seven, but you best go on in to supper. The bellboy'll take your valise up."
"I was hoping to bathe," Allen said.
"Miss Deschenes and the general have been at table over an hour," the concierge said. "You best go on in."
"Is there a washroom about?"
"Down the corridor, just past the barbershop. I wouldn't be long, I was you."
* * *
He was dressed in his uniform, Union-blue jacket with gold braid on the shoulders and gold tassels on gold cords dangling on his chest, light-blue trousers with the yellow cavalry stripe. His hair was neither long nor golden, as Allen had always heard, but reddish-blond and cut short and carelessly, as if he'd done it himself with a pair of dull scissors. The hairline had moved well back. He wore a bushy, untended-looking mustache. A slender unremarkable man but for the bladelike nose and deep-set agate-blue eyes. He had risen, smiling, as Allen approached the table, the smile implicit under the tuft of his mustache.
"I'm sorry," Allen said. "The train was late out of Boston and then ..."
"We know," his mother said. "We sent a man around to the station." She pushed her chair back and rose. "Hello, darling."
Allen stepped into the tentacles of her embrace, her blossom-smell of powder and perfume. There was a sour-sweet tang of wine on her breath. Her shoulders were bare, and she wore a pale green dress of taffeta or satin, with white satin gloves to her elbows. The dress matched her eyes. She brushed Allen's cheek with hers and kissed the air.
"And now," she said, stepping back, "may I present the great Indian fighter ..."
"Lieutenant Colonel Custer," Custer said.
"General Custer," Allen's mother said.
"My brevet rank during the Rebellion," Custer said. "I'm only a poor colonel now."
His hand was as small as a woman's and his grip easy, not insistent, something you could decline or accept, as you chose.
"Call him General, Allen," his mother said. "He loves it."
"It's a pleasure, sir," Allen said.
"Let's do sit down," said Mary Deschenes.
The dining room was oak-paneled, with maroon curtains and red and gold carpeting that deadened sound. Gas chandeliers and wall lamps gave down a muted, churchy light. There were four or five other parties still at table, and Allen knew by their silence that they were watching Custer and the beautiful bare-shouldered woman, whom they may have recognized but would have looked at, anyway. Now they'd be wondering who Allen was.
"Have some wine, darling." She reached for the bottle.
"Oh Christ," she said.
"Quite right, Allen," Custer said.
She turned to him, still gripping the bottle, and their gazes met and they smiled. Allen wondered how long this had been going on.
"Armstrong doesn't approve of drinking," she said and lifted the bottle and refilled her own glass. Her hand was steady. The jade-green eyes were wine-lit but clear. "He won't even pour it for me," she said. She smiled at Allen, raised her glass, and toasted him wordlessly. Her shoulders were finely sculpted and very white. Her black hair was gathered above her neck in a chignon.
"Mother," he said, "what's this about?"
But the waiter had come. He handed Allen a menu bound in calfskin. Talk had resumed at the other tables, muffled and confidential-sounding.
"Try the oysters, Allen," Custer said.
"Allen doesn't like oysters," his mother said. "Tell Allen why you don't drink, Armstrong."
Custer eyed her mildly. He turned, winked at Allen. "The spring lamb, then," he said.
The waiter stood gravely by, and Allen wondered what he made of this and if he was accustomed to witnessing such illicit and blatant goings-on. He read the menu. He wondered if Custer was married and thought he must be.
"Chicken gumbo," he said. "Spring lamb."
The waiter scribbled it on his pad.
"Mashed potatoes. Lima beans. Maybe some stewed tomatoes."
"Did you not eat on the train?" his mother said.
"I bought a sandwich," Allen said.
"Try the sweetbreads," Custer said.
"Why not save time and order the whole menu?" his mother said.
"Bring him some sweetbreads," Custer said.
The waiter wrote it, then took Allen's menu and disappeared.
"You didn't tell Allen why you don't drink," Mary said.
"Maybe Allen doesn't care to hear it," Custer said.
"It's his high opinion of himself, Allen. He thinks drinking is beneath him."
"I think it's unnecessary," Custer said.
"Why am I here?"
She looked at him, her gaze canny, speculative. She'd been Mary Hennessy, then Mary Winslow. She'd come back from England, where she'd studied under Emma Brougham, with her third name. Allen's father had been alive then. Winslow, she said, sounds like a skinny virgin off the Mayflower. His father had smiled and made no objection, but Allen had never forgiven her. Winslow was her name. It was his. Theirs.
"Well," she said, "I've some good news for you. Marvelous news. Armstrong?"
"I hear you can ride a horse," Custer said.
"Well enough, I guess," he said.
"Darling, you ride excellently, and you know it."
"A farm horse," Allen said. "Just larking around."
"He has an affinity for horses, Armstrong, and he's strong and fit, as you can see. He disappears on the horse for hours. His uncle gets quite vexed. He talks to the creature."
"What are you two trying to put over on me?" Allen said.
"Don't you take that tone," his mother said.
"Be quiet, Mary." Custer set his elbows on the table, laced his fingers, and laid his chin on the top hand. "I have a proposition for you," he said.
"An offer," his mother said. "Do get to it, Armstrong."
And Custer told him of the summer campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the Dakota and Montana Territories. Of the hostiles led by Sitting Bull and the three columns converging on them, General Crook's and General Gibbon's and his own Seventh Cavalry out of Fort Abraham Lincoln. He hoped to leave within the month, he said.
The waiter arrived with Allen's soup and Custer stopped talking. Allen shook out his napkin and tucked it under his collar and dug into the thick gumbo. Custer said it would be his last campaign. That he would come East then and write about it. Give lectures, maybe. He said that it would be a man's last chance to see the territories before the railroad went through and civilized them. He said it was beautiful country, vast and empty and unpredictable in its terrain and weather, a land of exhilarating extremes. The days are hot but bearable, he said. The nights are gloriously cool.
"Tell him about the beautiful Indian girls," said Mary Deschenes.
"They can be quite handsome," Custer said.
"Armstrong's a bigamist, Allen. He married an Indian."
Custer smiled. "One of those wild stories that go around. She was my interpreter. A Cheyenne. A captive at the Washita."
"She was your interpreter, all right. Why don't we get to your offer?"
"I think Allen knows what it is."
"Go with you," Allen said. "Fight Indians."
"Not fight them," his mother said. "Just watch. Think of yourself as the audience."
"You'll go as my secretary," Custer said.
Allen tilted his bowl, spooned up the last of the soup.
"My nephew's coming," Custer said. "Autie Reed. He's eighteen, as I understand you are. And my youngest brother, who's twenty-seven but more like eighteen. You'll fit right in with them."
"You'll be paid, darling."
"A hundred dollars a month," Custer said.
Allen looked at him. "To do what?"
"Nothing," Custer said. "My brother's going as a guide. My nephew's going as a herder. Boston couldn't guide you to your hotel room. Autie couldn't herd a litter of puppies."
"Is that ethical?" Allen said.
"Allen, do stop being sanctimonious," his mother said.
The waiter was back, one-handing a silver tray above his shoulder. He dragged a trolley up with his other hand and deftly swept the laden tray down onto it. He took away Allen's soup bowl and began setting out the dishes of meat and vegetables. His mother poured herself some wine.
"Another bottle, madam?"
"No," Custer said.
Mary Deschenes looked at him. Smiled. The waiter bowed and left them.
"What does the secretary do when the Indians show up?" Allen said.
"Darling, you'll be perfectly safe. Armstrong's promised me."
Allen took up his knife and fork and cut into the moist slab of lamb. "I can't go till after graduation," he said.
"You'll just have to miss it, darling."
Allen put his fork down. "Wait a minute," he said.
"You'll get your diploma. I'll write to Dr. Bancroft, and, believe me, you'll get your diploma."
"Not if I don't take final exams."
"Really, Allen, you've the chance of a lifetime. This is General Custer, for God's sake."
"What about Harvard?"
"You leave that to me and Armstrong."
"The entrance exam is in July."
"I told you: we'll get around that."
Maybe she would, at that. Go up there and fuck the president of Harvard. Fuck the dean.
"Supposing you do rig it some way, I don't believe in putting down the Indians," Allen said.
"Oh for Christ sake," his mother said.
"It's their land," Allen said.
"They live on it, but they don't own it," Custer said. "Like the antelope. The buffalo."
"It isn't ours, either," Allen said.
"Do stop that nonsense," his mother said. "It's all been settled. I've given up the house on Washington Square. I've taken one on Gramercy Park, but the lease isn't until the middle of August. I'll be here doing the play till then. There's no place for you, you see."
"Why not the farm?"
"It won't do. You know Nettie was married and is living with them now. And then your Aunt Samantha's illness."
"Suppose I refuse to go?" Allen said.
"Where would you live, darling?"
"I'll figure it out."
"The figuring out has been done, and now stop whining and eat your supper. Armstrong, will you see me to my room? I'm suddenly all in."
She stood up, and Custer with her. There was a lax grace about the man, a lithe athleticism. Again a cessation of talk in the room, a turning of heads.
"Wait for me in the drawing room," Custer said.
"Ah yes," she said. "A little man to man. Talk some sense into him, Armstrong."
She leaned, shielding her décolletage with her arm, and kissed the top of Allen's head.
"Good night, darling. We'll breakfast together."
"Good night, Mother," he said.
Custer sat down and watched her go. Allen picked up his fork. He took some mashed potato. The supper had gotten cold.
"This wasn't my idea," Custer said.
"She wants to get rid of me."
"Why are you helping her?"
"I thought I was helping you. I couldn't imagine a boy not wanting to ride with the Seventh."
"I'm set on Harvard, sir."
"Rather than go with me."
"I hate New York City. I hate the theater. Harvard's my chance to make a different life for myself. I'll be a writer. A teacher. It's what my father wanted for me."
Custer had folded his hands on the table and considered them now, and the blue eyes softened. "You'll go to Harvard," he said. "Don't underestimate her."
Allen only shrugged, done talking about it. He ate his cold supper. Custer turned in his chair and looked into the drawing room, where Mary Deschenes was appraising herself in a mirror. A man and woman on a sofa, in evening clothes, were watching her.
"There's one other thing," Custer said. "One of my regimental surgeons has got a sister who wants to come to Fort Lincoln, see him before we go out. An orphan girl. She's quite a bit younger than George, and he doesn't want her traveling all that way alone. I thought you might come out with her. Watch out for her."
"I'm to be her nanny," Allen said.
"She's about your age. She might be a looker."
"I don't care if she's Sarah Bernhardt."
Again Custer smiled under the mustache. "You'll be getting a wire about her," he said. "Her name's Lord. Goes to some fancy boarding school on Manhattan Island. You'll hook up with her in New York. She's from up in Massachusetts somewhere, so you'll have that to talk about."
"You already told them I'd do it, didn't you," Allen said.
Custer looked again into the drawing room. Mary Deschenes was moving toward the elevator. He stood up, placed a hand on Allen's shoulder.
"A new destiny, Allen. It won't ever come 'round again."
And he headed upstairs, watched closely by the couple on the parlor sofa, to bed Allen's mother.CHAPTER 2
SHE THREW THE COVERS BACK AND GOT UP AND CROSSED THE room, gloriously white in the darkness, her hair awry and thick on her shoulders. He turned his head on the woman-smelling pillow to watch her. Yes: crinolines, bustles, corsets concealed the truth of a woman. There was a decanter of whiskey on the vanity, and she poured some into a tumbler and drank it off. She poured again and brought the tumbler and sat on the edge of the bed with her legs crossed.
He'd met her backstage at the National two weeks ago. The Lady of Lyons was all the rage, a full house every night, bookings into August. Lawrence Barrett, down from New York, had introduced them. Lawrence had played opposite her in The Seven Sisters and The Marble Heart and might have given her a go himself.
"Why do you drink?" he said.
"Because I like it," she said, "why else?" He placed a hand on her thigh. It was warm. Firm. "To annoy me," he said. "To get my goat."
"God you're vain," she said.
She drank. He could smell the whiskey. A window was open to the balmy night, and a carriage rattled by below, a distant clop of hooves.
"You'll ruin your health," he said. "Your beauty."
"Risk is what makes life sweet," she said. "Where did I hear that?"
"I don't mean that kind of risk, and you know it."
"Risk is risk," she said and emptied the tumbler. He'd never known anyone who held their liquor as well as she did, and he'd seen plenty of drunkenness, including his own, once upon a time. She leaned forward to set the tumbler on the bedside table and looked at him and smiled.
Then she was in bed again. He was ready for her, and she sat astraddle of him, leaning to pin his shoulders. He smiled up at her. The covers had slipped down her back, and she loomed over him, shadowy under the canopy. Her hair fell like softest rain on his chest. Breasts white in the darkness. Whiskey on her breath. She held him down.
"Maybe it's because I don't want to grow old," she said.
"No one wants to grow old," Custer said.
"Then we won't."
He was going to disabuse her of this childish notion, but now she released him and rolled down beside him, yielding the initiative. He took it, had her till she cried out, and after a time he withdrew and curled himself against her and fell asleep.
She woke him some fifteen minutes later. She was sitting on the edge of the bed again, still naked.
"What time is it?" he said.
"Something past one. You'll be exhausted tomorrow."
Excerpted from Little Bighorn by John Hough Jr.. Copyright © 2014 John Hough, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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