Major Long looks forward to mountains. Mountains he understands: rock, and streams that spring from snow, gentian and bellflowers atop green boulders at right angles, summits here and there, and tree-edged pools. This, he mutters to his horse, disappoints him.
Hand to brow, arm outstretched, pointer finger pointing, he feels his horse lift a leg in impatience. The horse is thirsty. Like himself and the other twenty riders, the horse wants to get on to water, dip its head into a stream and have it course down its impossibly long neck, its organs unshriveling. Yes, well, the view is not promising: first and foremost, no trees. If you need premonitions for your bodings, that lack says no to bodies of water, to underground seepage, to moisture anywhere that would attract a seed.
However, the grass here grows as high as your withers and not two days ago, the Pawnee had at least eight thousand ponies standing by. Then the head native put forward discouragement: If I even thought your hearts bad enough to take this land, I would not fear it, as I know there is not wood enough on it for the use of the whites.
Big Elk, that was his name. With regard to that bad enough insult, the Major’s flag shows a scientist and an Indian shaking hands. Surely the elk man noticed it. Major Long is also quite proud of the steamboat it flew over, the first such vessel up the Missouri—he engineered its paddles himself. Was Big Elk alarmed by the boat’s decorative elements? Painted with a gigantic black snake that belched the steam and smoke that powered the boat, its portholes bristled with guns, and the wheelhouse came armored. Alarm was the point. Surely what he meant was: Stay away from our gold. Anyway, that’s what the military before him heard. Although no one had turned up much gold to justify all the torturing that so exhausted the soldiers, nor the lying these natives did to discourage the appropriation of their miserable land, or even of having three scientists and an artist along to memorialize Major Long’s accomplishments—and where is that artist now, pray tell?
Major Long twists on his horse. The artist has his tools arrayed and is duly filling the time and the sketch. The sentry tied him to his horse on account of his getting weak, and the charcoal and paper falling off at the least canter. He doesn’t look that alert, although the doctor bled him profusely just after dawn, and he has refused to show his sketches for days. The Major is going to insist on seeing them, or stop his double rations, those that course through him so fast that administering them is a waste from the start.
Keep your eyes open, he commands the artist.
What do his sketches preserve anyway? Flat land, a bare rolling acreage like a poor muscle, and sand, brush in tufts here and there, mostly sky, and that is the end of it. Small game. One of the scientists decided the dog singing all night of their whereabouts was not a wolf but more of a jackal.
No wonder it follows us. Snakes. He’s seen deserts with fewer snakes that looked much more vicious than the ones in this part of the world. He turns his horse completely around for a new view of nothing. Steppes.
The guide says none of his people venture this way, he doesn’t know the route through, and can he go home now? Sacred, he says next, or at least that’s how the half-breed decides to translate him, whose father was a trapper who gave him away to the Pawnee along with a keg of brandy, a shorthaired pale child, really almost a man, with eyes that shift from the guide to the Major as if between two thunderclouds.
Sacred. Major Long has not been fooled into churches all his life to believe such a word. Being told he cannot pass is incitement, although he far prefers exploring mountains. He urges the expedition forward—On to the sacred!—but his horse refuses. He has to dismount and beat it. The legs of the beast shake but after he mounts again, the horse still does not walk. The others, by then, have traveled nearly a furlong ahead of him. They were perhaps annoyed by his discharging a pistol in the middle of the night as a way to test their coolness and self-possession.
He suggested that they had eaten too many currants the night before, and that was why they were so loathe to rise. Look at how many miles they have gone already today! And certain of their coolness, and no more currants.
The horse, after a drink from his canteen, moves on.
Thus, Major Long explores under the hot and harsh light of this world. It is never spring or cool autumn when he leads expeditions. It snows heavily on mountain passes and rains at every swollen river, or so it seems to Major Long. Climate is cruel, that is the lesson. He shares this observation with his horse, who shakes its tatty mane. He does not put this in his report, taken down daily by his aide-de-camp, a dolt whose love he writes to every evening as if he had only a few hours left of his life and will recount them in excruciating detail until he falls asleep and rises the next morning with less dread. Perhaps he too is intending to publish.
The doctor tells me that walking will improve your health, he says to the artist, as soon as he catches up.
I don’t want to walk, says the artist. I can’t.
Major Long raises his plumed hat. He’s just had it replumed. He means the raising as a signal of his disapproval of weakness. Nonsense, it says.
He rides forward. Constitutions are all that matters in leadership, he says to his horse. His country has one, and his own fits that one perfectly. Men have rights so long as they are strong enough to exercise them.
Without warning, the sky goes dark and storm clouds cathedral-high roll toward them faster than the men can curse them. The artist had taken sick in a storm in the first place, painting in the rain, and stood so wet afterwards steam rose from his clothing beside the fire. Get that man under the tent, Major Long tells his aide-de-camp. The soldiers are busy tying up the horses, one or two having fallen to their knees for lack of water, and the scientists are stretching out canvas to catch whatever rain might fall.
The artist creeps under the downed canvas with his tools. The rest of them stand in the rain, tongues out.
Soon the guide perishes, of what no one knows. It is, after all, his land, and surely he is suited to it. It is also noted by the aide-de-camp that the half-breed’s eye has started to wander in his head, giving him a crazed look. The boy makes no secret that he does not want to die like the native, exploring. Major Long no longer trusts him as a translator. He follows the sun.
They meet a rise and take it. At its bottom, his horse begins to paw the ground. As much as Major Long digs his spurs into his flank, the horse again will not go forward. He swings his legs off in fury and loads his gun and shoots the animal. The soldiers drag off the load and butcher the horse, catching as much of the blood as they can. They are all ready to remount when the artist walks up to the Major with a sketch. There, he says, and thrusts it in front of the Major’s pince-nez.
Major Long says he can see nothing, just a dark patch in the middle of light.
It was wet, says the artist. Under where the horse deliberated.
The others look off into the clouds.
Are you telling me that the horse found water?
The artist shrugs, and in retaliation, the Major takes the artist’s nag. The artist will walk at last.
Major Long is soon pointing ahead again, his skinny forefinger burnt from gunpowder, his nose red from the sun, his dress hat collapsed and his ears still quite deaf from the shot. Innumerable buffalo have the temerity to appear at a distance just as he is solving the problem of the design of a steam carriage. Link them together! he shouts to his horse.
Perhaps the approaching buffalo inspire him. They swirl past, parting at his scent, closing in as they proceed. Befouled dust blinds and chokes him, swarms of gnats and flies are drawn along in the swirl, and the rush of these moving thousands sting and buzz at his eyes, ears, and nostrils. After a few long hellish minutes, the herd veers and only the sick and young totter behind, calling out for the rest.
All the men survive—though the insect specimens, pinned flat and desiccated—whirl off into the unknown. Even the artist’s work, rolled in a cylinder, is intact, though the artist, on foot, suffers a broken shoulder and the loss of most of his clothes.
That evening, mumbling at the campfire because the new horse doesn’t seem to hear him, Major Long works on his report. Do these buffalo drink from some mammoth underground cave full of water? And what of the grasses, how can they flourish in the poor sandy soil without moisture to wet their roots? He comments to the aide-de-camp that every drop of that torrential downpour was gone in an hour. The dolt replies that sand has a way with water and swallows it like wine, and dolefully holds out his cup.
The wine was drunk fifteen days ago, all except his own. He has had enough of the trip. He tells the aide-de-camp to label the map Great American Desert. The expedition had not been his first choice, the insect man is despondent, the aide-de-camp’s hat has been trampled, the artist has run out of blue and is now complaining about his shoulder, and the botanist is bored to madness.
Not a mountain in sight.
Excerpted from Great American Desert, published by Mad Creek Books, 2019.