Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Because he could, Lieutenant Mal Forbes flipped over his Nieuport 28 fighter airplane and flew upside down. He bent back his head, as to look up, but now up was down. He could feel the strain of his seat belt upon his waist, the blood rushing to his head. He peered over the cockpit coaming at the cloud-plumed blue sky now below his lower wing.

This ability to change point of view with a flick of his wrist and a kick of the rudder made these solo hours in the air, while potentially deadly, his respite from the foes he faced back at his squadron aerodrome.

After righting his nimble, though fragile, French-built aircraft, Forbes took one more swing along the front, hunting German artillery spotting planes. His fuel on reserve, he whispered a “Damn it” that blew away in the slipstream almost before he finished saying it, and headed southwest for the squadron landing field.

Forbes wished he could just remain up there, flying, never having to go back and face those Ivy League pretty boys and their snide jibes about the “half-breed” cowboy pilot. He’d passed five-victory Ace status in the American Air Service two weeks ago, more than anyone else in the squadron, and still they treated him like a stable boy.

Maybe it was his dark skin he’d picked up from his mother’s side of the family. She was half-Ute and he’d grown up on a ranch with his Ute grandmother.

“Hey, Forbes, is it true what they say about Indian women, real wildcats in the l’amour department?” Lt. Edmund Garry said one afternoon in the officers mess. This was the third time he’d made such a statement and Forbes instinctively reached for the Colt on his hip. Instead, he threw a left hook that sent Garry to the hospital and him to the Squadron CO. Other pilots confirmed that Forbes was to blame for the altercation. The incident gave him three days confined to quarters and a reputation as not only an Indian, but also a hothead.

Where more than half of his squadron mates boasted fathers and grandfathers who’d served as state governors, United States Senators, or congressmen at the least, he thought of countering with the fact that his Grandpa Forbes was once the mayor of Winfield, Colorado. He never mentioned that Grandpa was the only mayor of Winfield and that the silver mining boomtown went bust in three years.

They don’t even deserve a lie, he told himself.

After a smooth landing, Forbes taxied the Nieuport to its assigned hanger tent and hopped out of the cockpit to greet his mechanic, Dino Cenci, already waiting with a pail to drain the oil from the Gnome engine and prepare it for his pilot’s next sortie.

“Might be a ring going on one of the pistons, Dino,” Forbes said. “She’d give a pop and sag a little whenever I pulled up quickly to gain a little altitude. Check it out for me, will ya, please?”

“Yessir, Lieutenant. By dawn, she’ll be purring like our cat on mia dolce nonna’s lap,” Cenci said, as the rest of Forbes’ ground crew inspected their respective parts of the Nieuport.

“CO says he wants to see you, Chief,” Forbes’ flight commander, Capt. Benton Stearns, an upstate New York farmer’s son and Cornell graduate, called over from a nearby card table where he was playing penny ante poker with his crew. “I raise two cents,” he said.

“Thanks, Cap. Any idea what the Old Man wants?”

Stearns had to laugh. Their squadron commander was all of twenty-eight years old.

“Nope, just said to send you over to his tent when you got back. Or as he said, ‘If that pain in the ass gets back.’ For what it’s worth, I find you sterling company and a damned calming presence on my right wing. I call,” Stearns said.

“Thanks, Cap,” Forbes said.

When Forbes entered Major Phillip Bush’s office tent, he noticed Bush’s expression change from its normal staid to thinly veiled contempt.

“You asked to see me, sir?” Forbes said with a click to attention.

“Yes, Forbes. I see you made it back. Still flyable? No perforations and broken ribs or such?” Bush said. He meant the airplane. As far as he was concerned, Forbeses were more easily replaced than aircraft.

“Just a little engine trouble, sir. My mechanic will have it in good shape by morning.”

“Good. Now let’s talk about you.”

“Me, sir?” Forbes said.

“I won’t frame this in any coddling way, Forbes. The pilots tell me you’ve become a problem, a distraction, a victory-hogging vulture. In other words, they want me to transfer you to another squadron.”

“Would that request come specifically from Lt.Garry, Sir?” Forbes asked.

“It doesn’t matter, but, yes, he was one of the men who pointed out your consistent lack of team play and flight integrity.”

“Flight…integrity…”

“Yes. It’s said you will break formation to hunt on your own, which I will not allow while a regular squadron sortie is being conducted.”

“Have you discussed this with my flight leader, sir?”

“No. Captain Stearns needn’t be consulted on such a command decision. Therefore…”

“Who’s command would that be…Sir?

“I beg your pardon, Lieutenant? You may have been able to play fast and loose with military decorum in your French squadrons, but not in mine. In the hopefully very short time you will be under my command, you will recognize my authority and that of all your superiors,” Bush said. His patrician pallor shifted to a farmer’s red neck.

“Yessir. And where is it you’ll be transferring me? Sir!”

“There’s an opening at the 103rd. Maybe you’ll fit in with Soubiran, Larner, your fellow Lafayette Corps types under Thaw’s command. I figure anyone who’d buy a live lion as a squadron pet, plus served with Bert Hall without killing him, should handle you and your…proclivities…quite… Well, he has a chance to make you a gentleman,” Bush said.

“When do you wish me to leave, Sir?” Forbes asked.

“After your dawn patrol with your new flight commander, Captain Garry,” Bush said with a smirk. “That’s all.”

Forbes stalked to his tent and began packing his effects into the cases he bought on holiday in Paris after his fifth victory in ’17. The one that made him an ace in his French squadron, Spa. 75.

Stearns burst into the tent and roared, “What in the hell is going on, Chief? I just heard that piss ant Garry whined to the Old Man and, et voila, you’re sacked? Going over to the 103rd?”

“Yep, but at least I’ll be with guys who know what they’re doing, and flying SPADs, to boot. They may have the glide angle of a brick, but at least they don’t fall apart in the middle of a scrape.”

“You’re okay with this, eh?”

“Sure. And you can’t help but love the irony of moving to a squadron whose insignia is an Indian head, can you?” Forbes said.

“These punks wouldn’t be that smart, would they?”

“Garry would.”

“And I heard you’re going up with his flight in the morning,” Sterns said.

“Yeah, a goodbye ‘Fuck You’ from Garry, Bush and their frat brothers,” Forbes said

“Well, bon chance, Chief. I’ve learned a lot from you. And my right wing will feel mighty bare-ass and at-risk starting tomorrow.”

Bon chance, Cap. See you at Maxim’s when this is over.”

In the pre-dawn chill, Forbes met Garry and two other pilots at the flight line.

“Well, Forbes, nice of you to join us. Let’s see you stay with us for the duration of this patrol,” Garry said.

“You know, Garry, I wouldn’t miss this sortie for the world, just to see you oblivious to all the Boche observers with your head up your ass instead of on a swivel. You only join the fray when someone else spots the Boche and then fire off a few bursts and claim their kills. My guess is you’ll be dead soon enough, so this morning I just wanted to say goodbye,” Forbes said and headed toward his Nieuport and ground crew.

“We’ll be much the better for your departure, you half-breed mutt,” Garry yelled at Forbes’s back.

“The crew’s awful sorry to see you go, Sir. We liked to think you were one of us,” Dino Cenci said as he extended his oil-stained hand to Forbes.

As he shook each man’s hand, Forbes said, “I like to think that, too, Dino. Every time I step into that cockpit, we’re all in it together, right?”

“Yessir, Lieutenant.”

“Now let’s twist this pussy’s tail and see if she purrs like your nonna’s cat.”

After a smooth start and climb to the flight’s prescribed altitude, the patrol began. Each man was to hold his aircraft in a specific position for the other’s protection and to multiply the chances of finding enemy aircraft to engage.

Forbes was first to see the seemingly alone German LVG reconnaissance plane five thousand feet below. He wagged his wings to get Garry’s attention, but shook his head “No” and pointed up to the flight of eight Fokker D-VIIs breaking through the clouds.

An obvious trap, but Garry pointed down and the other Nieuports dutifully followed his attack on the LVG.

Forbes lagged behind, knowing that the flight would be under the guns of the Fokkers in moments. He broke off and swung around the diving Fokkers, picking out one with some bird device painted on its side. He may have hated Garry and the Harvard man’s gang of snobs, but he would protect them whether they knew what was about to happen or not.

He touched off his dual machine guns and hosed tracers up the spine of the Fokker to its cockpit, watching its pilot slump and then saw the plane burst into flames.

That’s one, he thought. Look the hell behind you, Garry!

The LVG dove away from the American pursuit planes just as the German fighters opened fire. Chapman, another Harvard man, never knew what hit him.

Forbes flipped his plane and turned on another Fokker as they began leveling off to chop up the over-matched Nieuports. The American planes had a slight advantage of maneuverability in the right hands, but Forbes’s were the only right ones in this fight.

He let go a burst just as the Fokker flashed by and saw its left aileron come loose and float away like a leaf. The Fokker dove in hopes of surviving a landing on the American side of the lines.

Two.

Above him, Forbes saw Garry tailing one of his flight members, who was jinking and rolling madly to elude another Fokker. Garry’s tracers cut through the German’s fuselage, but to no effect. Forbes pulled a twisting climb and caught the Fokker with a burst from beneath.

Three, Forbes thought. Now where the hell are the rest?

Red tracers whizzed past his head, as bullets from a pair of German Spandau machine guns stitched holes through his left wings. Tracers crossed the German’s path and Forbes saw Gerry’s aircraft, flight leader pennants straight out in the slipstream from its struts, flash across their path. With that distraction, he fired into the Fokker’s engine, which began to smoke.

Four.

But Garry didn’t see the Fokker behind him who buried a burst into his Nieuport’s slender, tapered fuselage. He immediately dove in attempt to escape, but the Fokker had the weight and power advantage.

Shit, I should just let the bastard get it and head back to the base, Forbes thought.

But his training, from his Ute Grandmother, his ranching parents and his French comrades wouldn’t let him. He gave chase and potted the Fokker with a burst and then another, causing him to pull away from Garry.

Five. Now get the hell out of my life, Garry, you pompous prick. Where the…

The burst of bullets arced from one of the remaining Fokkers Forbes had lost contact with while coming to Garry’s aid. Forbes felt the burn through his chest and in the briefest of moments saw all the good in his life, then the killing and the bad, then…nothing.

Garry managed to bring his damaged Nieuport down to a French aerodrome. When he returned to his own, he claimed three kills, which were approved and moved him past Forbes on the squadron’s victory ranking.

The two Fokkers who survived Mal Forbes last fight returned to their Jasta. There, a party of fellow Prussian officers clustered around one of the planes, praising its pilot for wiping out the American flight. Forward observers would relay that information to the Jastas.

Down the flight line, only the ground crew of the other pilot, the one that killed the American ace, welcomed their Herr home. They inspected the stripe of bullet holes that pierced the six-pointed star on his fuselage’s side.

From amid the cluster of Prussian officers walking past the lone pilot came a laugh from the other surviving pilot.

“Even the Jew got his Amerikaner today,” he said, just as they always described Leutnant Oskar Schneider, even after today’s fight brought him to ten-victory Kanon status and a sure Pour le Mérite medal of a hero of the German Empire. Even if he was nothing but “the Jew” to his Jasta mates.

Schneider wondered what it would be like to be on the other side, an American, where your comrades didn’t care about your race or religion, just your character and courage.

“Thus it will always be, boys,” he said to his crew, but they ignored him and had already begun preparing the aircraft for its next flight.

Here’s the too-long first draft of Story #2 for my September Story-A-Day Challenge. It’s rough, as any first draft should be, but I think it has “good bones.” I was supposed to write a story using the following words: Blame, State, Frame, Holiday, Relay, Waist, Pail, Gain, Raise, Mayor, Airplane, Remain. 

Pretty certain I did. You check. I’m done for the night.

A Kiss Before Dying

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Sioux tipi, watercolor by Karl Bodmer, ca. 1833

Mose Randolph sat bound and beaten in a dark, empty and smoke-filled Oglala lodge when the tipi’s flap opened and a handsome girl entered with a bowl of food and a gourd of water, which Mose was sure was his last meal.

“I’ll tell ya, missy, I’d go to hell with a smile for just one more kiss from a beautiful, entrancing woman like you before these savages kill me,” Mose said as the woman in her colorfully beaded elk skin dress loosened his bonds and checked his wounds.

Feeling he had nothing to lose, Mose leaned over and kissed the young Oglala woman–who responded in kind–but recoiled when he felt beard stubble against his lips.

“What’s wrong, mate, a fine looking man like you never kissed or been kissed by a winkte, a Two-spirit before?” said one-time stage performer Alfie Windemere, now called White Star, himself once a captive, but who had found the one place in the world he felt accepted for who he really was.

The Oglala men, including a bloodied White Star, took care in slowly dispatching Mose Randolph after he beat the respected winkte and lost a chance to live in a place where people accepted you for who you really were.

A quick draft of a five-sentence story based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt, ENTRANCE. Let’s say I took that word and used a scatter of its meanings.

I’m pretty careful in writing anything concerning gender, but the idea of man potentially being saved from death by someone for whom he could never imagine a place in his life (or death) appealed to me. I hope I got the dynamic of the Oglala Winyanktehca close to right. The winkte were not marginalized, but rather were considered to be people with special spiritual and other talents that fulfilled some needs of the community that other people could not fill.

Like a Wave

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An 1897 photograph of a buffalo wallow, by Willard Drake Johnson. 
Photo via Wikipedia

After the third day and night on the run from the Cheyenne with no food and little water, his horse now lying dead a thousand yards away, Cleve Mason settled to rest in a buffalo wallow somewhere south of the Platte River in western Nebraska Territory.

Gathering some buffalo chips from the rim surrounding the nearly dry depression in the prairie, Mason lit a smokeless fire and began cooking off a piece of his mount’s stringy haunch.

Mason had been lucky enough to evade his pursuers this long, but fatigue and hunger proved too much, figuring it was only a matter of time before the marauders rolled over him like a red, feathered wave.

“The hell with this, just let ‘em come,” Mason said, as he gorged himself on a huge chunk of horse meat, closing his eyes and trying not to think that only an hour before it had been his companion for two years.

So intent was he with his meal he never saw, heard nor smelled the wall of flame, a speeding prairie fire set upwind by the Cheyenne, as it rolled over him like a red wave, though not the one he expected.

A quick five-sentence piece of flash historical fiction based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word, ENGULF. Thought I’d try a couple uses of the idea of the word.

Warrior in a Place of Ghosts

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Plenty Horses, photo via Wikipedia

The fickle winds swirled me around, like I was
a snowflake dashing among the bullets
and over the frozen dead at Wounded Knee.
I, who could read the spirit of The People
and also read the books of the Wasi’chu.
I, who was shunned as neither Brulé nor white.
I, a ghost in the land of the Ghost Dance.

After I shot the yellow leg leader
of the Šahíyena scouts who hunted and
drove us to that place where the winter winds
tossed away our life and lives like dried leaves,
I once again became one of The People,
not a murderer as the Whites said.
I was a warrior, only now one in a place of ghosts.

On December 29, 1890, a detachment of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment entered a camp of about 350 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota people at Wounded Knee Creek to disarm them before returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation. But then a shot rang out, and some 300 Lakota men, women and children were gunned down. The Wounded Knee Massacre is viewed as the end point of the so-called “Indian Wars” between Native and European American people.

But a week later, a young Brulé man named Plenty Horses, recently returned to the Rosebud Reservation from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, shunned by his people for being like a White and by the Whites for being Indian, shot and killed Lt. Edward W. Casey, commandant of the 8th Cavalry’s Cheyenne Scouts. By doing so, he hoped to regain standing among his people as a warrior.

Charged with murder, Plenty Horses was eventually acquitted based upon his need to be regarded as an enemy combatant in order to provide a validation of the Army’s massacre at Wounded Knee. It was indeed, a time and place buffeted by winds of hatred, confusion and tragedy. I hoped to somehow express that “world turned upside down” state of Plenty Horses’ unique situation on the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre with this piece.

The Sons of Shem

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The Arapaho boys came across the dead body of the Rev. Linus Quimby wrapped in a wool blanket at the bottom of a buffalo wallow, a thick book clutched in his frozen hands and an expression of joy upon his face.

“It is already the Moon When the Buffalo Calves’ Noses Turn Brown and the first snow came last night, so to find a man, even a foolish white man, traveling without a horse or even a dog to carry his provisions shows he was as crazy as he looks,” said the younger boy, taking the blanket from the would-be missionary.

“Look at the useless fire he made of these white skins with markings, not the leavings of the buffalo or even a stick from the trees on the banks of the Niinéniiniicíihéhe’, only two days ride from here,” said the older boy, as he relieved his brother of the blanket and Rev. Quimby of a knife and a piece of flint.

After riding east until the sun had almost reached its highest point, the boys found the remains of Rev. Quimby’s horse being picked clean by coyotes and birds, stripped of its saddle by a roaming band of Cheyenne hunters and with more of those marked skins scattered on the yellow grass in the melting snow.

If the boys could read, they might notice one that was dated two days before, November 20, 1830, and it said: Last night I burned all my maps, Psalm 23 and First Thessalonians from my Bible, my Lord God, because where I am going in Your name, I have faith You shall guide me, help me lead the sons of Shem back to you, and we shall never be lost again.

A story of unrelenting faith, based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word, Maps

Colonel Louis Comes to Call

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Pencil sketch of Colonel Louis by John Trumbull

Even before Trish Bodden turned to see the dark man wearing a mélange of Mohawk, frontier militia and country gentleman’s clothing standing in the back doorway of her master’s house on Schoharie Creek, she could feel dark eyes watching her.

“Excusez-moi, Madame, parlez-vous français, ou Kanien’keha, or the Anglish…I regret I do not speak the German.” he said, with a pronounced French accent.

“I speak English and you, sir, will scare the children if you continue to stand there in so threatening a manner, so I must ask that you step back,” said Trish, hands on her hips, trying her best to sound like the confident lady of the manor.

“Ah, yes, les bebes…the ones who belong inside these doors, unlike you, the indentured girl, nor I, Louis Cook, the man who is not white, nor truly black nor red, yet am asked by your General Schuyler to kill them all,” he replied with a deep bow and broad smile.

“That may be true enough, sir, but I am inside these doors and now you are not; and you will find the master and his sons coming any minute from those trees on their way home from the Herkimers’…oh, there they are now,” Trish said, closing the door, swiftly slipping a thick bolt of hickory across the jambs, sitting on the floor, and exhaling a long shivering sigh as she pulled one of the master’s horse pistols out from the folds of her skirts.

Based on the prompt word Doors, for Lillie McFerrin’s Five Sentence Fiction exercise, I thought I’d play with the lead character and a very interesting supporting player in the novel I’ve been researching and denying for the past year. Maybe a few of you’ve seen Trish in another story I wrote called Stillwater. Oh, and there really was a Joseph Louis Cook or Akiatonharónkwen, a half-African, half-Abenaki leader of the Oneidas in the American Revolutionary War.  Oh, one last bit of business: the word “Kanien’keha” is Mohawk for…well, “Mohawk.” 

Under a Blood Moon

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Step by silent step, beneath the brilliant red moon staring into his face, Dekanawida, Two Rivers Running, was careful to keep his shadow — hidden among the weave of trees on the forest floor — behind him. This way, he would never signal his presence to the prey.

Dekanawida remembered hearing the Shaman’s teachings of the legend, calling it a Blood Moon, a night for the hunt. He knew it as a time to prepare for the coming dark times, keeping his family sustained for when the white storms would come and game would become scarce.

In memory, Dekanawida heard the ringing words of the missionary, the Rev. Mr. Kirkland, when he told of the old holy man Joel’s foretelling, ”The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.”

Closer now, Dekanawida shallowed his breathing, coiled, his trade fusil charged, ready to slay the nearby animal for which he bore no malice. After all, he was stalking under the blood red moon, just like the one the Five Nations first came together under in the before times. The one that made the Haudenosaunee the strongest of all their people.

In the end he decided to use his warclub on the white hunter, who pushed his black shadow ahead of his loud steps upon the trail, just as the rest of this white storm pushed its stormy darkness toward the lake called Teshiroque and the people Two Rivers Running swore to sustain.