The following is a short story based on a prompt at Ireadencylopedias.wordpress.com. The prompt follows two simple rules: it must incorporate the line “What am I supposed to do with this?” and must be a piece of historical fiction. Click here to read the rules, and try writing a piece for yourself.
by Joshua Bertetta
Dear Mother, Dear Father,
Mother, you taught me well to be a good, God-fearing man and now I ask myself, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
With my life?
They received us like heroes in Denver. Colonel Chivington said we fought nobly and, in comparing himself to Joshua, likened our victory to Joshua’s in Canaan. They were savages. He called our enemy savages. After our victory against the Confederate Army, I followed Colonel Chivington and Mother, I volunteered. I volunteered. Do you hear me Mother? I chose to do this. And now, as the rest of the 3rd Regiment and the 1st Volunteers celebrate their heroes’ welcome, I sit alone, atop my bunk, ashamed.
I ask myself over and over again, why. Why did I volunteer? Was I so enamored with this man, this minister from Ohio? I remind myself I was not the only one. There were 750 of us who looked at him, standing tall over all of us, his chin high, his barrel-chest—the kind of man you knew would lead you, protect you. He convinced us Mother, persuaded us that those of us on the frontier were fulfilling God’s plan. He had promised us salvation against the Confederates, and he fulfilled that promise. He promised us salvation again and who I am to turn from the man I looked to as if he were, as if he were…God?
But Mother, that was not my only mistake.
Mother, your beloved son is now a murderer and there is no court on God’s great earth that would commit me of any wrongdoing.
We left Fort Lyon at night. We marched and at first light, frost still covering the ground, we saw their ponies. Chivington detached a small group of men to chase away the horses after we saw the teepees along a creek bottom below the bluff. We stood over them Mother. A woman came out and looked up at us, much as we all looked up to the colonel, like the Israelites looking up to Moses on Sinai. She sounded the alarm and a man emerged carrying a white flag.
Then the first canon shot. And the rifles. And more canons. The ridge billowed with white smoke and through it we charged. We chased them down, we surrounded them, shooting them down and wounding ourselves in turn. Mother, I love you too much to describe to you the atrocities I witnessed and I can only pray for mercy when it comes time for my reckoning. If I were my own judge, I would have no other recourse than to condemn myself to the eternal fire, for with the sins I have committed I am already damned.
We ran them down. We hunted them. Three, four miles from their camp. We found where they hid, both women and children.
Mother, let it be known that I protested, but Colonel Chivington convinced me. Maybe I let myself be convinced. “It is right and honorable,” he told me, “to use any means necessary.” He quoted scripture. He said it was God’s plan. We had to eradicate them, he said, because “nits make lice.” He smiled when he said that. As always, there was peace in that smile and in seeing that peace, I knew at once he was right.
I fired, I charged, I chased them down. I don’t remember it now, I don’t remember doing any of it. But I know I did, for the blood on my uniform and the scalp in my hand testify against me. I am a murderer Mother.
I can hear you now, trying to console me. “War is war. You did what you had to do.” And when all was over, I looked across the field. The sun was clear, and bright, and a little bird, its wing wounded, fluttered through the smoky air like a broken psalm.
Mother, what I am about to tell you might be the last thing I ever say to you, for there is a noose at my bunk. I would rather face my Lord in Heaven, may he forgive me, now than live the rest of my life knowing what I have done.
I saw what I saw. I looked down, and saw it again. I might agree with you if this was war, Mother, but these were not hostiles, for on their teepees, and sewn into their backs—their backs now riddled with bloody holes from the bullets of my rifle—the American flag.
Your beloved son, your only son, the one you love,
Dated November 29th, 1864