Horse Crazy

Awicagli in a Lakota context means coming home or someone who brings someone home–someone who may not understand how that has happened. Ordell Iron Shell

Before she left, Nancy White Feather told Charlie Good Thunder a lot of things–some wistful, some stone-faced angry: “You have got a lot of things on your mind, but–most of all–you have got horses on the brain–forever on the brain. It’s like you’re always off with some of them somewhere I can never go, do you know what I mean. Like you’re off somewhere with Crazy Horse maybe, but it’s not quite like that either because his name means his horse is crazy, not he is crazy like some kind of horse on bad weed or something.”

She always spoke that way to him as they stood watching the big herd of wild horses stomp and thunder through the grass south of their ranch house just off the big river. As she talked, Nancy always sniffed at the animals way out there in the deep grass as if that was a way in which she might understand what it was about them Charlie knew and she didn’t.

“Yes, Charlie, there’s Crazy Horse and then there’s you–Crazy-With-Horses,” she always said–speaking softly into the silence he always seemed to create between them at times like that.

Then she would say, “Well, you don’t really share any of what this is really about with me either, do you? That Korean War is long gone in history, but there’s some strange thing you haven’t dealt with, isn’t there–something you did or didn’t or couldn’t do or got to you in some way you just don’t understand.  And now I wonder just what you’re really keeping them horses out there for because they’re breaking you. Well, you’ll have to deal with it on your own now or maybe get more help at the VA down in Sioux Falls but I’m tired of talking into your damn male silence all the time.”

He would not reply. Too much to deal with there.  He would just look off toward the horses out there in the grass and wish she would go away even as he wished she wouldn’t.

She left quite silently one October day. Didn’t call or come back. He heard she had taken up with a rodeo rider from Mobridge, South Dakota. Hard drinker he heard. Another crazy cowboy.


Back–things circling back, coming home, making no sense, but having their own logic maybe.

Words from a ragged little page he had torn out from the last issue of Outdoor Life stuck in his memory:

Two Idaho men who couldn’t start a fire shot their horses and waited out a blizzard in the steaming body cavities.

By dawn the carcasses were growing cold…

The two of them hadn’t taken fire-starting tools with them.

So they had to shoot the horses. Gut them. Hunker into the blood-and-shit belly caves. So they could live through the blizzard night in the Idaho mountains. Must’ve smelled like horse in the deepest way…

Gutted horses. Coming back.

And Tex’s son coming to visit for the first time. Yes, Awicagli–bringing someone, something home, full circle. Wants to know more about his father.

Got to figure what to say to him.

A star and a crescent of moon hang over the silence in the snowy fields outside the ranch house.

A white star and a crescent on that red Turk brigade shoulder patch hangs over his desk as if he had placed it there with something like affection and pride, not anger and confusion…

The silence in the snowy fields enters with snow light into the very house itself.

Hoof thump from somewhere near on the frozen earth.

One thump, one beat. Punctuating more silence.

Does silence engender memory?


Horse thump on the ridges of memory.

“So your unit is gone? Well, no we must pull back and you must go with us. We surely can’t leave you out here, can we? So now you have to march with a regiment of Turks–a perilous passage–an odyssey with strangers. So are you ready?”

“How is it you speak English so well?” Charlie asked finally.

“Ah, well, New York and then the artillery school in Oklahoma.”

All around him Charlie saw frantic movement like a great grim olive drab circus pulling up stakes before moving on. He stood there wondering what they were going to do with him or have him do. One of the Turk officers stared toward him, looked away, began to talk with another one.

“Well, for now I will bring this Indian son of President Truman to Second Platoon,” Cohen said, stepping away from a truck roaring dangerously close behind him. He paused only a moment. “You will have a brother American to march with also.”

“What? I mean who is it?”

“Come along,” he said. “It is easier to show this one than explain him.”

Charlie stopped when he saw him–the other orphan–an American, all right, an American with an insolent, sunburned, freckled face–a rodeo rider’s face–a smart-ass face.

Cowboy. Back in South Dakota rinning cowboys can rope you, trip you, make a fool of you if you go into the wrong places…

One thing was sure: there was no disregarding this cowboy. When he saw Charlie he elbowed through the Turks and yelled, “Hey! You ain’t an Indian from South Dakota by any chance are you?” in a scratchy high voice. “I rode ro-de-o out in Mobridge and Pierre and such places out there!” he yelled.

Oh, he was some kind of a cowboy all right–a short–very short–wiry little buck-toothed runt of a cow-poke. He stood there (the Turks behind him grinning nervously) like a bow-legged gopher.

No escaping this one. He ran toward Charlie, grabbed his hand. Charlie shook it hard, looking away from the hot little face. Over the howling trucks and lumbering equipment Tex was telling Charlie about himself: “They call me South Dakota Tex. I spent part of my life deep in the heart of ol’ Texas. Division sent me out to these Turks to sit telephone for lay-son. Now all the lines is cut and God knows what else. I got nothin’ to do except go with!”

The brigade was moving and the platoon was moving with it. Charlie moved past Tex and got in step with them.

He hoped he’d stay away from him–this Tex–but Tex was scampering up alongside and chattering loudly. “This here is a goddamn stampede–thousands of Chinkies comin’ down from Mongolia!”

Tex could march and he was tough. When the brigade took its next break everyone slumped to the ground–but not him. He got up, reached into the bag slung on his back, pulled out some cowboy boots and put them on. There were little patterns of rhinestones running up and down the sides of them and they sparkled in the light.

“Cowboy! Cowboy!” the Turks yelled down the line.

Tex did a stiff little bowlegged dance and produced a crumpled beige Stetson from the bag. He pushed the crumpling out, pulled the hat down on his head with both hands, smiled a crooked buck-toothed smile, stepped out with a piece of yellow rope and started doing some easy-going rope tricks. As he twirled, he talked to Charlie over the Turk voices and the low swish of the rope.

“I got these fancy boots to wear in Casey Phibb’s Rodeo Stampede from Casey hisself. He was a Brahma bull riding champ that year and has a steak house in Mobridge. He always gave me a free steak and come over and sat and shot the shit with me when I ate there.”

Tex spun the rope and tried to dance through it but it caught his foot and went limp. Then he whipped it off the ground and snapped a long loop at Charlie.

“You should get yourself an Indian outfit!” he yelled. “These Turks don’t give a damn what we wear.”

When Charlie yelled, “We got to move on!” Tex scrambled all his cowboy gear back into the back and ran back in line with Charlie and the Turks.

As the brigade marched southward, the hills receded slowly backward toward the north. The roads were raw, ugly yellow ledges the cats had cut into the hills, but the hills farther above the roads flowed with purple vegetation ranging up on plateaus where ragged pines perched on bald rocks. Somehow the trees seemed to be older–maybe thousands of years older–than the blue spruce and pines in the Black Hills–the Paha Sapa.

“I wanted to see the Wild Bill Cody Show out in Wyoming,” Tex yelled, keeping at it, laying his words on Charlie. “Never did. Course old Bill’s really dead so I guess I couldn’t have saw him anyway –except a picture maybe…”

Charlie let him talk. It was too much to answer all that.

“Say,” Tex said, an idiot grin on his face, “how did you get here with these people?”

“They wouldn’t let me go out to find my brother.”

“Brother? Where’d he go?”

“They sent him out as a scout. The Chinese probably have him now.”

“What’s that got to do with bein’ here–gettin’ here, I mean?”

“It’s a long story.”

“ You cut out!”

“I said it’s a long story.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “You don’t have to be so touchy. I feel like I’m marching with my tail between my legs. This retreatin’ ain’t American!”

“You ought to save your strength and not talk so much. We’ll be fighting soon enough.”

“I got enough,” he said. “You better work on your story about how you got here so it don’t sound so funny. Something is missin’ there I reckon–like in a lot of stories.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

Suddenly Tex was hum-singing in a voice that droned through his nose:

Oh, that strawberry roan!

Oh that strawberry roan,..

The man that can tame her

Has never been born…

He stopped, walked back to Charlie. His eyes were full of tears.

“What’s with you?” Charlie asked.

“The one I had was just beautiful!” Tex cried.

“The one what?”

“Roan horse! God and Jesus! I loved that one!”

They marched. Up ahead of them they could hear the rattle of short, hot firefights. The procession moved along in jerks and starts–-water wagons, trucks, half-tracks, jeeps stacked with tents and heavy machine guns. And always there was the dull shuffle of their boots as they marched.

The column had stopped ahead, truck exhausts muttering, men pulling rifles off aching shoulders. Tex stumbled into Charlie’s legs and swore at Charlie’s big feet.

“We wait just now,” Cohen told them, moving up alongside Tex and Charlie. “We are near the pass. If the Chinese are there we will have to fight through it.”

“How could they get there so damn fast?” Tex asked.

“They are good at the forced march. They carry little or no weight–rifles, light mortars, a little dry rice. And some have horses.”

“Horses? Horses?” Tex was indignant. “What the hell are they doin’ with horses?”

“I’ve heard they use bugles too,” Cohen said, giving them a big smile. “Maybe they’ve seen some American cavalry movies.”

“Well,” Tex said, “it ain’t right that some Chink rides a horse while someone like me has to sit around in the war and diddle a switchboard!”

Cohen smiled, shrugged his shoulders, moved away.

There was new, quickened movement everywhere around them–files of somber Turk infantry double-timing down through the ravines or climbing up through them; half-tracks roaring past or laboring up into hills above them to rake the roads and hills behind them with fire from the quad-50s.

They began to march again, moving up a hill against the deep purple-blue of the evening sky..

Tex moved up alongside him, stepping along, straightening his pack, never really looking at Charlie.

“They ain’t even looking at us,” he said finally, “–them Turks.”

“Looking at us?”

“You and me–they don’t give a damn for us. They just do what that All-Ah tells them to and he don’t give a damn either.”

“He can hear you,“ Charlie muttered, trying to see where Cohen was.

“Maybe. But I tell you I ain’t sure of that at all. I know you ain’t nobody and neither am I. You wasn’t nobody back home and I wasn’t either.”

“Skip it.”

“You think I ain’t got it figured how you come here to Ko-rea? You and me are people they wanted to get rid of.”

“You have just got to shut up,” Charlie said.

“Stay close!” Cohen yelled. “This is the passage through the hellfire. Watch out for rushes down the hills. They will be moving fast.”

They kept moving. Everything kept moving.

“Hurry!” Cohen yelled. “We must take up positions ahead or they will have us. They come behind.”

They double-timed–dancing aside only to let the radio jeeps or the medics go by. Wounded lay stacked together in the jeeps, their toes pointed up at the sky. A boot smoked there at the end of a stretcher.

“Hurry!” Cohen cried. “They must not get above us.”

They ran. Tex‘s little bowlegs moved twice as fast as Charlie’s. On his back, the bag with the boots in it bounced and bounced.

As they ran up a little incline on the road a Turk officer waved them up the steep hill to their left. They stumbled; clawed; tugged themselves up on branches and vines and rocks. Charlie begged the Spirit to let him feel soft earth at his belly.

They were in position, digging madly, blindly, like moles or badgers. Everyone digging. They come! No time to dig, but dig anyway! Wish you had a pickaxe but dig with the trench spade. Chop. Curse roots, rocks, a little stick that slows you down in your fury. Lucky if you got a piece of soft ground.

Suddenly, a Turk patrol was running toward them through the trees and then jumping into the positions. They were breathing hard like chased animals. Their voices were high and excited as they talked to an officer.

“Many, many Chinese,” Cohen said, leaning in close to Tex. “They see we are vulnerable here on this long ridge along the deep ravine!”

“Well, shit! That’s just hunky-dory!” Tex drawled.

Mortar rounds began to burst along the line.

“I heard them out there,” Tex announced, his face moronic with his words.

“Heard what?’ Charlie asked as Cohen stood up and moved away into the rest of the company.

“You should see them back home,” Tex replied, his face quivering like he might cry.

“See what?” Charlie asked.

“Them bays and pintos in the corral–they was sometimes quick and nervous before dark so I would sit up on the railin’ and talk at ’em. Them horses could easily kick me or any other man to death, but they give me their power, let me ride ’em–a little hombre like me!”

“Well, that is crazy! You really do have horses on the brain,” Charlie said.

Then Tex began to sing in that nasal voice of his, nobody paying much attention to him except Charlie:

Oh, that strawberry roan!

Oh, that strawberry roan…

The man that can tame her

Has never been born…

Soon–too soon–they could see the Chinese coming on–swarming toward them in the light of the moon and stars.


The support barrages caught them, ripping their lines, cutting roads through them, but they filled the roads again and again. At first they were little cotton puppets, then they got larger–hundreds -hundreds–sad fact for short clips in the rifles. Then they were crossing the creek, their splashing silent under the fire.

The whole Turk line was firing and then they were all in the mad place–the burning of the fires of hate and fear and rage to live.

They began to go crazy, to growl and swear as they worked. Hot shell cases stung their arms and necks.

The Chinese came in waves, spewing fire, running, running –straight at the Turk line..

“God damn you sons-a-bitches!” It was Tex screaming above the firing. “They got horses, the sons-a-bitches!”

Horses! Coming up behind the Chinese, following, but moving up too far so they were caught in the firing. Maybe two dozen big chestnut horses crashing through the creek– haunches staining wet, eyes bulged. They humped and bounded up the bank, beautiful with the huge levering of hind legs. Already, many were riderless but they followed the others bravely, their nostrils flaring…

Some of them carried big, clumsy packs that seemed to pull them backward down the slope.

“What for?” Tex screamed. “What for?”

The horses came at them up the flashing corridors of the Turk fire. Some reared up–their hooves in their own guts–and danced like crazy circus ponies in the fire and smoke. Some pitched over and rested hooves upward–legs stiffening as they died.

Under the fire the attack wave was slowing, beating slower. The Chinese were going away slowly, splashing in the creek, going back into smoky gloom with the rest of the horses.

Behind them, the wounded horses tried to follow but could only stand about numbly or thresh and kick about on their good legs. Some made low screams and showed their big teeth. It was a nightmare carousel all smashed up and broken and tangled…

Tex! Tex!” the Turks cried down the line.

Tex was running out there, a bow-legged little madman screaming and bawling and running at the wounded animals. Again and again he ran at them, stopped, shot them between the eyes, the M-1 kicking his bony little shoulders hard, hard…. He didn’t care who else was shooting or at what. Some of the horses seemed to wait patiently for him to come at them and give them mercy.

“Come back! Come back!” the Turks shouted.

But he wasn’t. And then Charlie was running after him like a fool and trying to tackle him and bring him down. He was hard to catch. He was a crazy, sad-eyed little monkey out there–bawling, swearing.

When Tex stopped to reload Charlie slammed into him and pulled him down on the ground. He fought back, kicking and hitting with his fists. Charlie hit him in the gut and he folded, bawling and swearing. A few feet away a big horse lay at the end of a trail of tangled intestines. Its belly was a dark cave with bloody rib ends over the mouth of it. The belly opening yawned back toward Turk positions. Charlie wrestled Tex over to the horse, backed his ass into the cavern and lay in the blood and shit, holding Tex while he squirmed and fought.

From there they could look right into the Turk positions. The Turks were still shooting over them and down both sides of them.

Tex jabbed Charlie with an elbow. Charlie locked his hold on him.

“You dumb little shit!” he yelled into his ear “–you dumb little shit!”

“Let me go!” he bawled, slamming his head back at Charlie’s jaw. “You ain’t nobody human over here!”

“They were carrying ammo. They had to stop them. Most of them got away.”

They were moving out, picking up the pieces, picking up the dead and the wounded.

“Come on,” Charlie coaxed as they slid out of the horse belly and stood up. “We can’t stay here!”

Tex got up slowly, stumbled along. Wet. Piss and gut juice and shit. Only a few tremors of crying there, no words.

Tex. He was bringing his little bag of boots and things along, but he wasn’t a funny little cowboy any more. He was utterly silent, his face a frozen mask. They tried to get him to take some clean fatigues but he just shook his head and called them all Stupid Fucking Turks and pushed them away. As they moved southward along the road to Inchon he stumbled out of the ranks from time to time until the Turks put him into the back of a deuce-and a-half truck with their wounded. One of the wounded Turks patted Tex on the back and talked softly to him as the truck moved along.

Later the chopper came to take Tex back to Division, wherever that was. Lt. Cohen stood silently next to Charlie as the two of them watched the chopper groan, crank up and rattle into the sky, Tex sitting huddled over his little sack of cowboy boots and things.

Charlie wondered how they would be able to help Tex and if he would ever see him again.

And knew he would.

So, Tex’s son is coming to visit for the first time. Was born after Tex died. A nice young man. His mother took him to New Mexico right after Tex’s funeral.  Of course, Charlie has told him about his father a dozen times at least. The story always went pretty much like this:

Well, your father and I were eating a late supper in a rest stop café north of Pierre. He had been out there somewhere in Wyoming trying to rescue wild horses that were being shot for the meat. It was one of those dangerous ghost nights, thick fog flowing over the land. And, of course, no Indians were supposed to be in that or any other bar in South Dakota at the time, but I was just back from Korea and all that so I didn’t give a damn about such a law… Well, when he saw a big livestock truck full of what he thought were wild horses pull up and park across the highway he yelled and jumped out of our booth and ran out there like he was going to set those horses loose or something. I guess he didn’t see or hear another big truck wheeling through the fog. It hit him, threw him off into the fog and out into a field across the highway. He never knew what hit him, but I guess he died happy. A funny thing: when the trucks at the stop turned their lights out on the field I saw a few horses moving out there, all of them galloping ghostlike and one-by-one into the light and out of it again. The bartender and I went out there and found him out there in the grass among the horses. He was given a full military funeral and all that. You were still in your mother’s womb.

It made Charlie feel tired as hell to think about telling much more about Tex. He wouldn’t tell Tex’s son the livestock truck Tex was going after was full of silent beef cattle. He wouldn’t tell the son what really happened that night.

He wouldn’t tell him he was sick of trying to be a buddy to his father who had followed Charlie halfway across the earth, calling him from jail, borrowing money a hundred times and never paying it back, bringing truckloads of wild horses into his life, driving his women away!

He was very drunk that night and Charlie was sick of him. Somebody (Who? Who?) told him a big semi full of wild horses was coming toward the truck stop on Highway 14. Told him it would pass by in a couple of minutes and maybe slow down or stop to get fuel.

Charlie let him walk out there drunk, bawling, singing that damn strawberry roan song… Probably figured Charlie would go out there and pull him back.

Charlie didn’t. Didn’t know why not.

It made Charlie feel tired as hell just to think about all that again.

Stories, things keep circling back, circling back, coming home.

Hard to stop them. You’re inside them.

Inside them.

Always will be.

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