“Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.”
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
May 20th, 1856
I hope that this letter finds you in good health & spirits. I had hoped to send this letter from some outpost farther west with news of our progress, but our departure from Independence is delayed, owing to Father’s illness. He was stricken with cholera, which swept through the camp within the first days of our arrival last month. I spent my waking hours at his side and at the bedsides of many of the afflicted, doing what I could to ease their suffering by administering camphor and laudanum. It is a swift, unseen destroyer which claimed many lives, but by the Grace of Divine Providence, Father was spared and has now made a full recovery.
His prolonged convalescence prevented us from leaving with the majority of the wagon parties. We are now several weeks behind, but Father insists that we can make good time and catch up with the main body. As it is, we are set to leave on the morrow, and hope to make Fort Kearny by early June.
Charlie speaks incessantly of his desire to ‘see the elephant,’ a term which I’ve come to understand conveys the vast, indescribable landscape of our forthcoming journey. For myself, I must confess an apprehension about venturing into such wild, untamed country without the relative safety of others to accompany us. Stories of Indians and marauders are rife among the emigrants and townspeople here, but Father is insistent on our departure. I think of our dear Mother and Sister, and wish they were here with us as we embark, but they have already undertaken that greatest of journeys and now dwell in Heaven’s verdant pastures.
I pray that the day of our reunion in Oregon Territory comes swiftly. Until then, I remain
Your loving & affectionate Sister,
Captain Fox William Mulder squinted through a pair of tarnished field glasses at the sleeping encampment in the river valley below. The smoke of dying nighttime campfires drifted slowly up through tipi openings. A large herd of horses grazed lazily on the far side of the camp. He’d counted nearly fifty lodges; a fairly large camp by Brule Sioux standards. The scene reminded him of a print he’d once seen by the famous Indian painter, George Catlin: a pastoral idyllic in the pre-dawn light. Not for long, he thought dismally, lowering his glasses and glancing behind him to where the soldiers of Company K of the United States Second Dragoons waited on impatient mounts. Behind them were six companies of the US Sixth infantry.
His own horse, Ghost, snorted anxiously, sharing in the growing tension of men and animals. Mulder had participated in several Indian campaigns in his seven years with the Second Dragoons - most recently against the Comanche down in Texas. The outcomes of those battles had never plagued his conscience. Their adversaries had wrought indiscriminate havoc and terror upon settlers and other Indian tribes; the justice meted out to the Comanche had been harsh, yet commensurate with their atrocities. But this, he mused uneasily, casting his eyes once more upon the unsuspecting camp, this was different. The Sioux had, until recently, given little trouble to Americans passing through their land.
The Army had sent General Harney and his forces to “whip the Indians” in response to the Sioux killing of Lieutenant John Grattan and his men the year before. But the details surrounding Grattan’s death were murky, at best, and there was some question whether the Sioux had been provoked into attacking; Grattan had a reputation for being hot-headed and was inexperienced in dealing with Indians. The Sioux may have shot Grattan, but it was widely believed, even back in Washington, that the fool had instigated the affair and had gotten himself and his men killed by a needless escalation of force and poor discipline.
Despite the uncertainty, the order to avenge the “Grattan Massacre,” as it was now being called, had come down from on high, and the Second Dragoons were dispatched from Fort Kearny to join Harney and his forces to punish the Sioux. After nearly a month of hard travel across the parched Nebraskan prairie in the punishing summer heat, they had finally located the Sioux camp here at Ash Hollow, a quiet, tree-filled valley along the Platte River.
Most of the Brule war party, including their chief, Little Thunder, were away from the camp. They had left in good faith to parlay with the US Army, but the party of soldiers they were meeting was a diversion sent by Harney. Now, the camp was virtually defenseless - exactly how Harney had planned it. There would be no parlay, no truce, today, he thought with an appalling sense of dread. Only bloodshed. His own blood ran cold at the thought.
Harney stood a few hundred yards away, flanked by two aides. His tall frame and white beard made for an imposing figure atop his black horse. All eyes were on him for the signal to attack. Presently, Harney drew his saber, raised it, then swung it towards the ground in a single, decisive stroke.
Reluctantly, Mulder drew his sword and spurred Ghost forward to join the throng of blue and black jackets streaming down the hill.
As they closed the distance, he could see faces peeking out of tipis - mostly women and children. The expressions turned from curious to panicked as they saw the oncoming line of men and horses.
“Wasichu! Wasichu!” Mulder recognized the Sioux word for “white man” echo throughout the camp. Their cries vanished amid the noise of stampeding hooves and the relentless thunder of rifles and revolvers.
Screams drifted upward through the gunfire as naked and buckskin-clad women, many with babies in their arms, rushed from their lodges away from the soldiers. Children followed, looking back now and again in fear and confusion. A few men, mostly old-timers and boys too young to join the war party, ran out to meet the attackers with bows and flintlocks, but were quickly mowed down by the superior firepower of the soldiers. He charged through the camp, weaving through lodges, bodies, and soldiers, unable to bring himself to swing his saber or fire his weapon. I’d rather be thought a coward than to take part in this mindless slaughter, he thought grimly, as he maneuvered Ghost through a small stand of trees and up a small hillock on the far side of the camp.
The attack was over in a matter of minutes. Besides the occasional moan of an injured Sioux, a heavy, unnatural silence fell upon the valley. An order was given to search for survivors. Mulder remained in the saddle, watching as the regiment fanned out over the surrounding hills.
“Captain! Over here! I’ve found some!” Away down the hill from Mulder, Sergeant Krycek was waving his hat and gesturing excitedly to him. Mulder rode over to where Krycek and a half dozen men stood with their weapons aimed at a hole in the side of the hill. A cave, he realized. He dismounted to stand beside the sergeant.
“They’re in there, Captain,” Krycek said, the excitement evident in his voice. “I can hear ‘em cryin’.”
Mulder paused and listened. The frightened whimpering of children could be heard from a short distance inside the cave.
“Lower your weapons,” he said. The men didn’t move, their weapons still trained on the cave entrance.
“Come on, Captain, they ain’t nothing but a bunch of animals.” Krycek flashed him a savage grin.
Mulder drew his revolver and pointed it at the sergeant. “Lower your weapons!” he yelled. Krycek glared at him, but he and the others reluctantly backed away from the cave.
Krycek was trouble - his spiteful and cruel nature was well known throughout the regiment - but since he hadn’t disobeyed his order, there was little Mulder could do to discipline him.
Mulder holstered his weapon and turned to a small man with glasses. “Private Burks, you know Sioux, don’t you?”
The short man bobbed his head. “A little, yes, sir.”
“Tell them to come out of the cave. Tell them that we won’t harm them.” Burks stepped forward hesitantly.
“Belay that order.” The voice of General Harney boomed behind Mulder. Harney, his aides, and a small contingent of infantrymen had gathered around the cave entrance.
“Sir,” Mulder interjected. “There are women and children in there.”
“There could also be a dozen warriors down there with them, waiting to ambush us. I will not risk the life of my men, Captain.”
Mulder knew the risk to be overblown. “Sir -”
Harney cut him off with a sharp gesture of his hand. “Sergeant, have your men open fire.”
Krycek gave him a vicious smile, then gave the order for the soldiers to line up in front of the cave. Mulder watched helplessly as they opened fired into the cave. The deafening echo of rifles rippled through the valley. The voices in the cave fell silent.
An order was given by one of Harney’s aides to clear the cave of bodies and check for survivors. One by one, the bodies of five women, six children, and three infants were pulled out and laid in a shallow depression beside the cave opening.
“Just as well,” Harney said, glancing disdainfully at the bodies as he brushed dirt from a gilded jacket sleeve. “Nits make lice.”
Mulder’s stomach churned at the grisly sight: tiny hands covered in blood, eyes that once glimmered with carefree delight now sightless. His head became light, and his legs suddenly felt like gelatin. Faintly, as if from a great distance, he heard the bugle call to fall back into formation, but he remained motionless besides the empty cave and bodies.
The sun had risen and the last of the soldiers faded beyond the horizon when Mulder dropped to his knees and vomited.