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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Secret For The Centennial
|• The Battle • Archeology • Memorials • Little Bighorn Store • News • Book Reviews|
By William Price
Originally published by The Saturday Evening Post, June 1976
In 1938, while waiting out the Depression with a National Park Service job at Glacier, Father was sent to eastern Montana to fill a temporary gap in the custodial system at the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
He took me with him, as a hostage. He hoped that my absence from school would insure our prompt return to Glacier. Father said the country was too flat east of the Rockies; what he meant was that the land stretched too far with no high mountains to remind him that life, as well as the earth, had its ups and downs.
The last thing I cared about was school. I was ten years old and more interested in Indians than in growing up, despite the fact that I'd seen enough of them around Glacier to last anybody but another Indian for a lifetime. All I wanted was to find a relic or two out there, even an old horse skull, anything I could show off to the kids at Browning. I knew more about Indians than the Indian kids I went to school with knew. Naturally, the first time Father and I toured the battlefield in the old government-issue pickup, I found out that the field had been picked clean years before, probably by out-of-work buffalo hunters scavenging the plains themselves for bones to sell to lime manufacturers.
The battlefield was not legally under Park Service jurisdiction, but plans were that it soon would be and the Service wanted to maintain it as much as possible until the changeover was made; the Service, even then, appreciated neatness and did not want to have to take charge of a battlefield that looked as if a war had been fought over it. Our duties consisted mainly of raising the flag in the morning, lowering it at night, and making sure that nobody stole or chipped pieces off the marble markers that proclaimed: "Unknown, 7th U.S. Cavalry, Killed Here June 25, 1876."
A few carloads of tourists drove down from Billings on our first Sunday. The most popular question was whether or not the General had been the last man killed, as was usual in the movies. Father, who knew even less about the battle than they did, logically replied, "I doubt it," until he learned that the second most popular question was "Then who was?" That night Father sat up late in the custodian's office with the history books trying to learn enough about the battle to tell a believable lie: "No, the General was not the last man killed. The last man was Lieutenant Cooke."
We were just beginning our second week when Eddie Morgan called during the soft twilight that follows sunset in that part of the country. Mr. Morgan leased about twenty acres of farmland on the valley floor from the Crow Indians. He said that he and his neighbor, Joseph Bad Foot, had a little problem and they needed someone in a uniform from the battlefield to come down to help them straighten it out. He did not care that we were temporary, he said; it was the authority of the uniform that he and Mr. Bad Foot needed more than anything else. All right, Father said, and we got into the old pickup and drove down to the valley.
Mr. Morgan's farm was between the highway and the river. Father told me that the Sioux village had been here in '76 and that Mr. Morgan's twenty acres seemed to be where the soldiers under a man named Reno came charging in until the Sioux stopped them; then the soldiers made a stand in the timber along the river but within minutes were driven out and chased like buffalo back across the river to a high hilltop where they dug in and kept their heads down until the Indians went away two days later. In the meantime, the General had come charging from another direction, but when the Sioux chased him back he had not found such an advantageous hilltop, the end result for the General's group being the mass grave on the battlefield where Father and I were so tenuously in command.
Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bad Foot were waiting for us in the yard. Joseph Bad Foot had probably received his Christian name at a Catholic school on the reservation, but he also might have gotten his last name there too since the teachers likely referred to him as the one with the bad foot. He limped to Father's side of the pickup and explained the problem while Mr. Morgan stood nearby with his hands deep in his overall pockets. Mr. Bad Foot had been taking some clothes down from his line after supper when an old man stood up out of the alfalfa field and beckoned to him with an old Colt's pistol. Mr. Bad Foot laid his clothesbasket on the ground and went over to see who this fool was waving a pistol, and also to learn how the fool had gotten so close without Mr. Bad Foot's knowing he was there. The old man said his name was Teat and he had information that the General needed.
Mr. Morgan interrupted. "That's Isaiah Dorman."
Father reacted violently. "Oh no, no you don't.” He recognized Isaiah Dorman as a name from one of those books he had read last Sunday.
Mr. Bad Foot fell silent. Apparently if my father was not going to believe him, Mr. Bad Foot was ready to drop the matter right then and go home.
Mr. Morgan, being more used to the English language, insisted that my father take a look. The old man had collapsed, he said, as if the pistol had gotten too heavy for him, and Mr. Bad Foot had carried him into the tool shed and laid him down on a pile of gunnysacks. Father said he didn't like it, but we got out of the pickup anyway and trudged across the alfalfa field after the two farmers. Trying to keep perspective, Father asked Mr. Morgan, "How many last survivors turn up every year?"
“Not many anymore," Mr. Morgan said. "But this one's different."
Mr. Bad Foot led us into his tool shed and he turned up the wick in a kerosene lantern that was hanging on a nail.
What hair was left on the old man's head was white and curly. He had the strangest skin of anybody I had ever seen. He didn't look like any white man I had ever seen but he was no Indian either. Father said, "He's a Negro, son."
I had never seen one in my life. I wondered if they were always that gray. I had thought they were supposed to be black.
The old man tried to raise himself on his elbows but he did not seem to have the strength. He was the oldest man I had ever seen, and I doubt that I have seen anyone older even now. His voice was in gasps when he tried to talk and he wheezed so much that I was afraid that if he stopped he would not be able to get started again.
"I'm Teat," he said. "I have to tell the General."
Mr. Bad Foot and Mr. Morgan both looked at my father as if to say, "I told you so."
Father looked very official in his khakis and his peaked hat. He leaned over the old man. "Who are you? What are you doing?"
"I'm Teat. Don't you know me? I'm Dorman. You got to tell the General. Too many Injuns in the valley to handle. Reno pulled out. You got to tell him."
"Were you in a car wreck?" Father asked. "Did you fall off a train?"
"I told you." The old man squeezed his eyes shut as if he wanted to cry but he was so dried out that just more wrinkles emerged from under the lids. He opened his eyes again to look up at my father. The whites were all red as if the blood veins had broken permanently, but the pupils were rich black and shiny. "How can I tell you? I told the Crow but he brought the other man and now you. You must be an officer, you must be. Where's the General? He knows me. He knows Teat. I just got to tell him what I seen. Tell me where he is."
Loud enough for the old man to hear me, I said, "The General is dead."
The old man pulled his head around to try to find me. He snapped, "Can't be so. Can't be so." His voice for just that second was strong and deep. He said once more, "Can't be so," then looked up at my father as if he might believe an officer and my father said, "It is true. A long time ago. Where were you going on the train, old timer, when you fell off?"
Mr. Dorman lay back as if he might relax. "Never been on no train. Never going to ride no train. Just a mule, that's all I want. Not no horse. No train. Mule take me wherever I want to go."
The old pistol with which he had earlier threatened Mr. Bad Foot was strapped around his waist with the raggediest-looking leather belt I ever saw. It was in an old flap holster but the flap was mostly worn off. His clothes were in bad shape but they weren't nearly as bad as his old holster outfit. I looked at the wooden handle of his pistol and wanted desperately to get my hands on it. The kids in school would love to see it. I was already making up a story that it was the General's own pistol. None other. They'd have believed it too.
Mr. Dorman's hands fluttered on his chest, like a frail heart trying to keep going. Father asked Mr. Bad Foot if he had something to cover the old man with and Mr. Bad Foot said, "He's already wearing my clothes."
"What do you mean?"
"Somebody stole that jacket off my line two years ago. Pants too, maybe."
Father said, "We'll see that you get them back. You have a blanket?"
I thought it was funny, my father asking an Indian if he had a blanket.
Mr. Bad Foot offered another gunny sack.
Father spread it over Mr. Dorman. There wasn't much of him to cover and it didn't stop his hands from shaking. His voice quivered almost as much. "I was supposed to tell him. Reno told me. I'd a told him if I could have found him." The red eyes closed, then opened wide as if he suddenly remembered something. "I heard shooting. All up and down the river. A long time. A lot of shooting."
"No shooting now," Father said, "Not for a long time."
"There was so much shooting," the old man said. "Too much shooting."
I began to know with all my ten-year old heart that the old man had heard the shooting when all the General's men were being killed up on the ridge. I could almost see him hear the shooting.
Mr. Bad Foot believed it too, because he backed off to stand in the background, as a Crow scout might have done in the old days, hovering around there like a bird ready to take wing if called upon but otherwise content to take his dollar a day and go home after the campaign was over. Father straightened up and gave Mr. Morgan a dirty look for having gotten us involved in such a thing. We were going home ourselves in another week and Father did not want to be trapped here when an authentic survivor showed up or we'd be here for months.
Father touched the brim of his hat and said to Mr. Dorman, "We'll be back." He gave an I'm-in-charge nod to Mr. Bad Foot and Mr. Morgan and led them outside.
Isaiah And Me
With the light of the lantern over my shoulder, I looked long and hard at Mr. Dorman. That's how I remember him so clearly today, so long after the event. I touched the back of his hand. His skin was like old newspaper that has been buried under floorboards for a long time. It was about the same color too, but with gray and black in it.
His red eyes traveled around the tool shed and landed on me. I took my hand away. He asked, "Is it true?"
He asked me as a common soldier might ask another when he was sure the officer he trusted had told less than the truth. "They all got killed," I said. "Not Reno's men, but all the men with the General got killed."
He looked right at me as if I should burn in hell if I was not telling the truth. I am still grateful that I had the ignorance of a child and told him the truth. You cannot lie to a man Mr. Dorman's age. Now that I am older and supposedly wiser I suppose I might have told him the General had won the fight, was waiting for him just over the next hill. That might have been a kind thing to say, if the man was truly crazy. But as I said, I believed the old man and I did not want to lie to him. After all, if he was telling the truth, he above all other men deserved to have the truth told back to him.
Father heard us talking and said, "Come out of there."
I looked at Mr. Dorman. I didn't want to leave him.
"Get," he said. "Don't get in trouble for old Teat." He thought I was a soldier and Father was my officer. I got out.
Who He Was
Father said to Mr. Morgan, "I understand why you called me, but the agency police have to be notified now."
Mr. Morgan looked at his neighbor, Mr. Bad Foot, who stood to one side. "It's true, ain't it, Joe."
"What's that?" Father asked.
"The Crows have been saying for years that there's somebody living along the river. They said he's always been there."
"It's just an old Indian story," Mr. Bad Foot said.
"Damn it, Joe, you believe it yourself. You always have."
"Sometimes," Mr. Bad Foot agreed.
Father looked puzzled and when Mr. Bad Foot assumed the protective silence of his race, Mr. Morgan explained. "The Crows say somebody's been living along the river for years. Signs of him have been seen about five miles south of here and once above Crow Agency, but usually right along here in the valley. They never saw him but they thought he was a ghost of one of the soldiers. The Crows used to be scouts for the army, you know, so they weren't afraid of him. Some of them used to put out food and try to catch him but he'd never show up; however, if they put out food and didn't watch for him the food would be gone in the morning. Some of them started putting out food regularly, as if they were paying rent for the valley. That right, Joe?"
"Sometimes that would happen."
Father thought he had found the weak spot in the story. "You mean that old man in there, that old Negro, outsmarted the whole Crow nation?"
Mr. Bad Foot studied his alfalfa field in the dark.
Mr. Morgan explained. "Dorman used to live with the Sioux, before he went to work for the army. That's how he got to be a scout, he knew all the country around here. He lived with the Sioux for years. They gave him that name, Teat." Mr. Morgan looked at Mr. Bad Foot and when Mr. Bad Foot pretended he wasn't listening Mr. Morgan added, "Dorman lived with the Sioux so long he was half-Sioux himself. The Sioux could always outsmart the Crows."
Father sighed. "The Crows don't believe he's been hanging around here all the time, for heaven's sake. That's over sixty years ago."
"There's a lot of Indians over to Pine Ridge who were in the fight." Mr. Morgan scuffed a boot toe in the dirt as if drawing a map. "Dorman could have lived that long. There's some soldiers still alive, guys who were with Reno on the hill, like old Windolph over in the Black Hills. There's other guys too. They find a body every once in a while. They found one in '26 when they built the highway. That's his grave right there by the Garryowen store."
"Skeletons," Father said. "Been in the ground since '76. You’re talking about a living man who's been hiding out in the brush for sixty years. Soldiers were all over here after the Indians left. Why didn't he come out then?"
"Don't ask me," Mr. Morgan said. "Ask him. He's right inside."
Father shook his head. "He's an old man, but he can't be that old. He couldn't live out here that long. He fell off a train this afternoon and staggered around until he found Mr. Bad Foot's place. That's what happened."
"Where'd he find that old pistol?" Mr. Morgan asked.
"Why don't you ask him?" Father said, taking a turn of his own in the direction of good sense. "Not hard to come by an old pistol like that."
We heard a little pop then, from inside the tool shed, like a charge with about half the strength of a cap gun. I was nearest to the door so I was first inside. Mr. Dorman looked at me with a very sad expression.
He had gotten his old pistol out of the holster and tried to shoot it at himself. The cap had sort of exploded but it didn't have enough power anymore to push the bullet out of the barrel. Mr. Dorman just lay there now having failed at killing himself the same as he had failed at taking the message to the General.
His red eyes looked at me without moving. I thought he wanted to say something to me. I touched the back of his hand again. He was so weak that he had dropped the pistol into his armpit and it just stayed there now, his fingers resting on the grip. He didn't have the strength to lift it and try again.
Father told him to lie still and not use his energy all up. "You've probably been hurt." Father still thought the old man had fallen off a train. "We'll get you a doctor.”
Father lifted the pistol and Mr. Dorman's fingers let go of it and fell back against his chest like there was no strength left in them at all. He seemed to sink a little farther into the pile of gunnysacks, as if he was getting smaller, thinner. He kept watching me with his sad red eyes.
Mr. Bad Foot reached across my shoulder and put his fingers on Mr. Dorman's eyes and closed them and they did not open again.
Mr. Morgan said, "He won't tell you anything now, that's for sure."
Mr. Dorman was the first dead man I had ever seen and I can still close my eyes and see him lying there like the ghost the Crows always thought he was, Mr. Bad Foot taking his fingers away from the closed eyes, the body seeming to shrink as the strength and resiliency left the old bones. I had seen my first Negro and my first dead man within a matter of minutes and it was very exciting for a kid; I didn't realize then that I also had seen the last man in the world who cared but hadn't known until I told him that the General and his men had lost the fight, in fact had all been killed. I hold it a singular honor that I am the one who gave him the news.
Father took off his peaked hat. Mr. Morgan took off his own battered fedora but then put it on again as if he felt foolish holding it in his hand.
Father looked at Mr. Bad Foot as if the silent Indian might have the answer.
Mr. Bad Foot simply turned down the wick in the lantern. He didn't look at anybody.
Father laid the pistol beside the body of Mr. Dorman. We walked outside but stopped as soon as we were in the dark. There was no moon at all, but I remember how bright and clear the stars were over the cottonwoods. I imagined, as kids do, Mr. Dorman hiding at first from the Indians who would have killed him on sight, then hiding from the soldiers because he had forgotten that he was one of them now, then simply hiding for years until the Crows came back and the valley came under cultivation. I imagined his dismay when he saw the first car whiz and bang its way up the old wagon road. I can easily imagine him inspecting the railroad tracks as they were being laid, moving cautiously out of the brush in the dark of night to wonder at the heavy timbers being laid one after another and the heavy spikes and the iron rails. He must have seen trains before '76, but he probably never expected them to be laid straight through his hiding place. And wondering all the time where the General had gone.
Mr. Morgan asked, "You going to notify the agency police?"
"Have to," Father said. "You have a phone?"
"At my place," Mr. Morgan said. But nobody moved. "Mr. Custodian," Mr. Morgan began.
"I'm temporary," Father said. "My son and I go back to Glacier next week."
"That's what I mean," Mr. Morgan said. "If word of this gets out, there'll be so many people down here from Billings that you won't be able to count them. They'll come to see him." Mr. Morgan nodded toward the tool shed. "And to look for anybody else."
"There can't be more people out in the brush."
"That's not what they'll think. Where there was one, you know, there can be another."
"I can't believe there was one," Father said.
"Well, I believe it," Mr. Morgan said. "Just go back in there and look at him. That old man didn't fall off any train. He doesn't have a mark on him. If he fell off a train he'd be hurt somewhere, scratched up. And how come he's got Joe's coat on? A coat that was stolen two, three years ago."
Father put his hat back on his head squarely and said, "We have to notify the authorities."
"You're the authority," Mr. Morgan said. "You've been notified. "
Father stopped to think that over. "We have to do the right thing. "
“The right thing is to let it die. Let it go. What's right? We're here, you're here, we helped. What more can anybody do?"
"If you wanted to handle it yourself, why did you call me?"
"I didn't know he was going to die."
"He has relatives somewhere that need to know what happened."
"To them he died sixty years ago. The only people who know he even existed are the Crows and they'll know soon enough that he's dead. I got a field that's ready to cut and so does Joe. I don't like the idea of everybody tramping around here looking for stuff that ain't here. This is our valley now and what happens in it ought to be kept private."
"You can get an argument about that from the government," Father said.
"The government owns the hill, up there." Mr. Morgan waved defiantly toward the battlefield where the white markers were scattered over the ridge. "I don't care how many people go up there. This is down here where we live. This is ours."
"What do you want to do with him?"
"He lived here with us all these years. We can take care of him now. There's a national cemetery on that hill, right?"
Father waited a few minutes, breathing the night air. It had gotten cold while we stood around. Father considered himself not only a temporary custodian but a temporary Park Service employee as well, and being only temporary he thought he could hold himself loyal to a higher authority than the U.S. government. He asked Joe his opinion.
Mr. Bad Foot said, "The man is dead. The agency police would just have him buried. Anybody can dig a hole.”
Father said, "We can't stand around here all night talking about it. Don't you two have wives who will be looking for you?"
Mr. Morgan said, "My wife thinks I'm with Joe."
Mr. Bad Foot said, "Mine thinks I'm with him."
Isaiah Among The Unknown
If Father had insisted, I know that everything would have been done properly. The agency police would have been notified, the higher authorities would have descended upon us, followed by the historians and other souvenir hunters. They might even have dragged what was left of the poor old corpse to the Black Hills to show it to Windolph for identification. All you can do is what you think is right and once you've done that, that's the end of it.
Father trudged back through the alfalfa field to Mr. Morgan's house and drove the pickup around the road to Mr. Bad Foot's place. He turned out the headlights. While I spread gunnysacks in the back of the pickup, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bad Foot carried the body of Mr. Dorman outside and laid it gently down on the bed I had prepared. Mr. Morgan looked through his pockets, found them empty, and covered Mr. Dorman with extra sacks. He said to Father, "I'd better drive so you don't get involved anymore."
"I'll drive," Father said. He laid the pistol beside Mr. Dorman and got behind the wheel.
Mr. Bad Foot slid in beside my father so he would be in the middle and would not have to ride in the back with the body. Mr. Morgan climbed in beside him, then looked out at me, hoping I would jump right into the back with Mr. Dorman. Not me. I wanted Father to make one or both of them get out so I could ride up front. Nobody wanted to ride with the corpse.
Finally Mr. Morgan said, "Come on, son, there's room for you," and squeezed me in beside him.
Father drove straight to the custodian's house. He came out with one of the government's own bedsheets in one hand and a pick and shovel in the other. We drove to the top of the hill where the monument is and parked the pickup. Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bad Foot wrapped Mr. Dorman's body in the sheet while Father walked down the slope to select a spot that was not likely to be disturbed by historians in the future. He did not want suspicious bones to be found by accident, nor did he want the Park Service to know that somebody had been digging up what would soon be their property.
Father found a place, though it seemed to me that one place was as good as another. Father did the pick work at first while Mr. Morgan shoveled. It was tough ground, full of pebbles and almost solid clay and packed as tight as God could pack it unless he had made it a rock. Later, Mr. Bad Foot swung the pick while I did the shovel work. The sound of our digging seemed so loud that somebody must have heard us over their radios in the farmhouses down in the valley, but nobody showed up to ask embarrassing questions.
Finally we finished with the grave and while Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bad Foot lowered Mr. Dorman's body into it, Father went up the hill to the pickup and came back with the pistol. He stood over the open grave as if he might drop the pistol in with the body of its former owner. He asked, "Any ideas?"
I wanted to cry out.
Mr. Morgan said, "Give it to the boy. Every kid wants an old pistol."
"Joe?" Father asked.
"Sure," Mr. Bad Foot said.
Father reversed the pistol in his hand and held it out to me, butt first. I took it. It was very heavy. I felt the wooden grips. They were worn and smooth but rot had started to feather the edges. The exploded cartridge was still stuck in the barrel and the pistol would not cock anymore. I held on to it with both hands while the men took turns filling in the grave.
Afterward, we stood there for a moment but nobody felt like saying anything. We carried the tools to the pickup and drove down the hill to the custodian's house. Inside, Father took a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey out of his suitcase. I brought four glasses from the kitchen and we sat in the office while Father poured everybody a drink. He even poured a sip for me, and despite the fact that Mr. Bad Foot could not legally drink at the time in the state of Montana Father poured just as much whiskey in Mr. Bad Foot's glass as he did for Mr. Morgan and himself.
He got out the history books and looked up Isaiah Dorman. It was possible that there were other black men with the Indians that day, descendants of the one who went west with Lewis and Clark or fugitive slaves still hiding out ten years after the Civil War, but the man Dorman was the only Negro with the troopers and he had fought in the valley and not on the ridge with the General. Reno could have given him a message while they were holed up in the timber and when the troopers went piling out, chased by the Sioux, Dorman did the wiser thing and went deeper into the brush. There were reports by both Indians and soldiers that they saw his dead body on the valley floor after the fight, but Mr. Morgan said, "It's not hard to make a mistake when everybody you're looking at has been dead two or three days and most of them had their heads cut off anyway."
Mr. Bad Foot shook his own head at the idea of those savage Sioux.
Father said, "Don't you think people have a right to know what happened? For history?"
Mr. Morgan, the philosopher, said, "People know what they already know. They don't need to know too much."
Later, we drove Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bad Foot down to the valley and dropped them off where Mr. Morgan's road connected with the highway. They disappeared in the dark together, walking toward the farmhouse.
Father and I spent a lot of time during our last week at the battlefield tramping around the grave, making sure as best we could that it looked like all the rest of the country around there. When we raised and lowered the flag after that it seemed to me that the ceremony was more than a simple ritual; it meant something I thought for the old man buried in the unmarked grave. When the tourists came the following Sunday and asked the usual question of whether or not the General had been the last man killed, Father said, "I don't know who the last man was, and neither does anybody else."
We went back to Glacier and were still there three years later when the war started. Too old for the infantry, Father signed up with the Merchant Marines and his ship was lost with all hands in the North Atlantic in the summer of 1942. I like to think of him doing the right thing until the water was too high for him to do anything but swim, then I like to think of him swimming to the only lifeboat and making it to Scandinavia, somewhere. I like to think of him starting life over with the Swedes. I think he might have done something like that, because he knew I was old enough to take care of myself, and it was better than thinking of him in the water.
During the Korean War in the 1950s I was in the army myself and when I got out I took a job on the T.M. Landreth place in the Wenatchee Valley in Washington. Sixty acres of red and golden Delicious apple trees. I'm still there and now, with things mechanized the way they are, I'm the only man Mr. Landreth keeps steady; you might say I'm the foreman, though I'm also the crew. I have no family of my own, but I've known Mr. Landreth's daughter since she was eight and she still calls me Uncle and her two children call me Bopey, so I have an adopted family but no responsibilities except to Mr. Landreth and his orchard. I like it that way. Not many people work as I do anymore, so I'm a kind of survivor myself, but I like working outdoors, even in winter. We do most of the pruning in winter, Mr. Landreth and I and the two or three transients we hire.
I still have the pistol. It’s wrapped in some of my old shirts, tucked away in a wooden apple box under my cot. I had to tell my class back at Browning about the trip, but I didn't tell them about Mr. Dorman nor did I show anybody the pistol. I would like to give it to Mr. Landreth's grandson. What's the use of being a survivor if you can't share it with somebody?
Published by permission of the author, all rights reserved.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022