April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
At the time World War I was nearing its end, I was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as an officer-instructor in light field artillery (horse-drawn three-inch cannon known as French 75’s). Ordered to report at the mess hall, I and my comrades of identical rank were told by an arty major bearing the authority of the high command that as a tribute to the generosity and kindliness of our neighbors in the nearby town of Lawton, we were soon to present, in a curve of the dried-up Medicine River (which we were assured would make an ideal outdoor theatre), a pageant entitled “The History of Fort Sill.”
Soon our whole detachment beheld the rising of a simulated pioneer stockade on the flat where the river had once run, and an authentic old-time stagecoach delivered a load of volunteer townspeople to inhabit it.
The major took his duties very seriously. In the days that followed, he ordered us to assemble after our usual day’s activities to hear him describe in detail the duties of the participants in the forthcoming theatrical.
The first human being to be seen by the audience would be a white-haired old man who would be doing a little whittling outside the stockade entrance. The stagecoach would draw up and unload its passengers before entering the stockade. Then there would be a sudden shot, and the patriarch would keel over, apparently dead. Even as he fell, a pony express rider would be appearing on the horizon. He would swing from his saddle to deliver his precious bundle of mail, then mount a fresh horse, and again race westward. Shortly thereafter, as a grand finale, would come the inevitable attack by Indians, and in the nick of time the inevitable rescue by mounted bluecoats, namely valiant officer-instructors dressed for the occasion in blue fatigues.
When asked what he was going to do for Indians, the major said: “To give the whole production a vraisemblance [his word, not mine], I have employed a group of Apache Indians who live nearby to stage the attack.”
On the afternoon before the day of the performance a group of Apaches arrived and set up their tents. The chief’s tepee was obviously ancient, for an old-time Indian artist had painted a life-size bluecoat on one side, and it had faded so that it was hardly discernible. The other side, however, bore two service flags indicating that the chief’s sons were our comrades against the common enemy across the ocean. That night, at his invitation, most of us instructors at the Fort Sill school attended a performance of Apache songs and dances—wild and delightful but (save for the war dances) incomprehensible. It ended quickly, and we all went back to our barracks hoping the morrow would bring us even more delectable amusement.
The next day dawned sunny, and we of the bluecoat cavalry formed early in a column of twos behind a concealing hillock. It seemed as if the remainder of the population of Oklahoma had seated itself on the sloping banks of the waterless river to witness the impending drama.
Promptly at eleven the old man began his whittling. The stagecoach arrived—unloading its passengers before entering. Then came the sharp sound of a single rifle, and the old whittler dropped to the ground. Two men ran from the stockade to carry him inside while the arriving pony express rider jumped from his horse and then leaped onto his weary mount’s replacement and was gone.
In the meantime my comrades and I had discovered that dismounting from a galloping horse while holding a rifle is much more difficult than dismounting unarmed. Nevertheless, upon receiving the order to save the little fortress we dutifully galloped from our concealment to the scene of battle, waving our guns with abandon and causing much anxiety amid the audience. After the breath had been knocked out of us as we fell from our mounts, we rose from prostrate positions to begin looking for the rifles we had just lost.
The Apaches were taking advantage of our situation and were disregarding our volleys from such guns as we could find. They were keeping up ceaseless fire on us from their harmless weapons and advancing toward us at a rapid pace. It became obvious that not only were they wearing the remnants of their forefathers’ attire but they were also fighting with the spirit that had once animated those ancestors. Little spurts of burning gunpowder came from the muzzles of their guns, and their war whoops were chilling and ominous.
No time was to be lost. In another few minutes the bluecoats would be surrounded—scalped maybe—by their traditional foes. I said to the soldier lying nearest me, “I am thinking of changing my position.” He said, “The man twenty yards ahead of you will be me!”
Something had to be done to avoid a holocaust, but fortunately the man to meet this crisis was at hand. Down from his seat on the river bank strolled the impresario who had arranged for the presence of the Apaches. He was attired in the conventional cowboy costume and wore long black braids that fell in front of his ears and were tied at the ends with pink felt ribbons. Paying no attention to the white soldiers or the red braves, he stopped midway between the embattled lines. A silence broken only by an occasional war whoop fell upon the field. Turning toward his hired Indians, the impresario spoke in a voice that would carry to the furthermost reaches of Oklahoma:
“Ef‘n you don’t retreat you don’t get a goddamn cent.”
Then we fearless bluecoats swept the field before us.