Uriah’s Cask

By  Brian Gabriel

The mean yellow sun bore down on a mule-pulled wagon rolling west past desert scrub up through Redington Pass, which splits the Rincons and the Santa Catalinas. In the wagon’s bed, covered by worn canvas, a pine box bore the corpse of Mrs. Alice Kincannon, estranged daughter of James Burdett of Philadelphia and, not incidentally, beloved wife to Thomas Kincannon, late of the Smoke Tree Ranch twenty miles east. On both sides of the wagon was once painted in red script, “Todd & Assoc. Freight and Transport Co.,” and added below, “Willing to travel across most Indian lands.” Now the red verged on pink, consequent to the sun’s daily beating, rendering the lettering – chipped, faded – half-sincere.

In the driver’s box, Uriah Todd urging the two mules on, pulled off his old Union slouch hat to wipe his wet brow with his sleeve, matting greying brown locks to his crown. He fanned himself with the hat, pushed hot air across his face. The mules plodded up an incline past rock and ridge. Thin dry shrubs gripped the dry cracked earth.

Not that his passenger, freshly dead as she was, minded the harshness of her passage. And if her ghost concerned herself with earthly matters, it wouldn’t be the relentless sun or the rocky path that raised her ire, but rather the order from her father for her body’s return to Philadelphia, hindering eternal rest beside her husband in the Arizona dirt. Uriah was married once, and well could imagine the battle lines drawn between an overbearing Eastern father and an adventurous young Western man. Normally, Uriah would side with the younger against the other, but Apache soil gave him pause — he’d once passed off the common tales of depravity as the exaggerations you’d expect from the sorts of fellows who travel west to begin with, until fulfillment of his wagon’s advertised promise brought such tales nearer, their details surer. Uriah would not wish his daughter, imaginary though she was, in the West, either. Besides, Burdett was rich — made an early jump into the telegraph business — and Uriah had reached the point in life where wealth was reason on its own.

The wagon hit a rock with its rear right wheel and stopped. Uriah urged the mules on, the mules tugged, and the wheel rose up and over the rock, reaching near a foot high, the wheel’s turning slowing as it did, and the mules pulled hard until the wheel rolled over the rock’s summit, then came down hard against the earth. That’s when Uriah heard the clank and the casket sliding, thumping hard against the wagon bed’s side. Uriah craned his neck to look back, saw the bed’s gate fall open, the casket tilt, sway, and fall out of the bed, crashing onto the dirt of the pass behind him and stopping on its side. The casket’s lid fell open, spilling Mrs. Kincannon’s corpse across the dirt. The corpse tumbled into a ditch beside the path.

Uriah gasped, reined the donkeys to a stop, jumped down and scrambled after it. Laying eyes upon her corpse for the first time, he froze. The air left him. He’d seen the dead before, the dozens under his command at Shiloh. But those dead, the conditions of the corpses, the torn limbs, the disembodied heads, the spilled guts and the dripping blood, all that was so much of a day, mostly. War bears grim scenes. Twelve-pounder field howitzers will leave less than a man. But Alice Kincannon’s condition wasn’t what Uriah had expected to find, despite the tales he’d heard, in cantinas, in churchyards, describing Apache savagery. Tales are only that, but coming face-to-face with the results sent his stomach into revulsion. Her skin was bloated, blackened, burnt like the flesh of a hog on a spit. Her eyes were open, bulging, her mouth agape, like in mid-scream. Several fingers had been lopped. And tears in the flesh, up and down her body, showed where spears and knives and tomahawks had gashed her.

Uriah wretched.

He steadied himself on a rock, huffed deep breaths, then, gathering himself, he set the coffin next to the ditch, and said aloud his first prayer since before the war, little more than a mumble: “Dear God.” He fingered the Remington holstered at his side and scanned the rock formations on either side of the pass, but thought them too small to hide anyone, even Apache. He reached down and grabbed hold of the corpse’s cold arms. He tugged hard, the corpse’s fingerless right hand rubbing against his upper arm, its unnatural touch sending chills through his veins.

But seeing the aftermath of the tortures inflicted on Mrs. Kincannon sparked a burning in Uriah that countered those veiny chills. He pulled and tugged, managed to drag her corpse up out of the ditch, the desert dirt smearing it in umber. He dragged the corpse and lifted it back inside the cask. Using a fallen pine log as a ramp, he even was able, after an hour’s work, to push the cask back into the bed of his wagon.

After, he stood and gazed at the path behind him – all bristly shrubs, whitethorn, rocks, dirt. Ahead, the pass peaked, and beyond that, the blue sky stretched on, endless. Nowhere else to go but on. Below lay Tucson and a railhead, where a train would take the casket to Philadelphia, away from the desert, and the Apache. After seeing the desecrated body of Mrs. Kincannon, Uriah felt relief that he had no daughters, and so no honor to ever reclaim – beyond his own.

***

Overcome by a fierce hunger within moments of handing off Mrs. Kincannon’s remains to Southern Pacific Officials for the journey east – what could better rebuke death than consumption? Uriah fell into El Fantasma, a cantina painted in reds, yellows, and blues, found not far from the depot. A bartender poured a whiskey before a man in uniform standing at the bar. Along the wall behind the bar, oaken casks lined the walls; the bar itself was pine, and stretched almost entirely the length of the room, maybe fifteen feet. Another man snored loudly from his perch at a bench near the far wall, his head upon the table, a straw hat upside down beside him, his black hair tousled across a bottle of whiskey tumbled on its side. Uriah took a seat at a round table near the entrance.

“Whiskey?” The bartender had moved off the soldier, had already cleaned a glass, eager to sell a swallow. “Stew,” Uriah replied, and suppressed any thoughts on the original offer. The bartender nodded. Barely five minutes later, a bowl of pork, cooked in a sauce of green chiles and onions, steamed before him. Before he had finished, the soldier at the bar had seated himself across the table from Uriah.

“Been a long time, Uriah.”

The soldier wore a blue dusty coat over a dusty white shirt. The coat featured brass buttons and the stripes of a brigadier general. A coat in this heat? thought Uriah, guessing it was less the weather outside and more the man’s pride in his rank that argued for it. The caked dirt on his face put in stark relief the wrinkles earned by years spent under the sun. Uriah didn’t at first recognize him.

“Colonel Balthazar Matthews, Uriah – though you may remember me as Lieutenant Matthews. I was at Shiloh under you.”

 

***

Captain Uriah Todd lit a cigar on the riverbank alongside another officer, a former Frenchman named Carrier. Twilight cast the Tennessee river black, and Uriah watched a fallen tree branch devoid of greenery float by. Stars speckled the sky’s deepening blue. A warm breeze swept along the riverside. Uriah sucked again on his cigar.

“Rebs near,” said Carrier. “Pitt’s men, szey kill’t four of szem in szuh trees a mile from ‘ere.” Carrier puffed on his cigar. The end glowed red, grey smoke wafting from it, altogether bringing to Uriah’s mind a cannon blast.

 

Uriah woke to the sound of gunfire. Faint – distant – but his eyes darted open, seeking to ensure that the faintness was not a mere effect of the dream-state. Rising from the ground where he lay, he saw Colonel Whittlesey leading his brown horse by the reins and giving direction to two of his staff officers, men unfamiliar to Uriah. Seeing Uriah with expectant eyes, Whittlesey merely said, “It’s only Sherman’s brigades, near the church at Pittsburg Landing.”

Uriah nodded, exhaled, the volume of which surprised him some, and he joined a handful of his men at an up-turned barrel drinking coffee and playing bridge. The lowing of the cannons and the crackle of rifles drifted through the beeches and sycamores on the wind. Not long after eleven o’clock Grant’s messenger arrived with orders to move. By noon, the Third Division marched down the Shunpike road to join the fight, Uriah’s Company G of the 20th Ohio among them. The blare of battle got louder the closer they marched, with the shouts and yells of charges and the screams and cries of the wounded blending with the booming and blasting. The fearsome cacophony echoed around the hills and got louder and louder.

They marched for hours, going one way then the other before coming to a stop surround by towering pines. Uriah guessed they couldn’t be far from Owl Creek Bridge – just over that was Sherman’s division. A half hour passed. Strange how quiet the woods were. No birds, no deer, no squirrels. All fled, Uriah inferring a suggestion that maybe he and the others should take heed.

“Ain’t gonna kill no rebs standing here,” said someone. Uriah recognized the tinny voice as that of a soldier named Balthazar Matthews, a slippery sort with overly greasy hair who seemed always to have a suggestion for what anyone should be doing, as opposed to what they were.

“Nor get killed, being the other side of that coin,” said another.

“Survival on its own won’t get you stripes,” said Balthazar.

“No one said nothing about talking,” said Uriah. Uriah knew talking could give their position away, but mostly hoped to bar thoughts additional to those already in his head from entry. His mind had enough unease to contain.

Late afternoon they were on the move again, and near seven o’clock they reached the line of battle, where Sherman’s men had just fought back a furious rebel assault. The fall of the evening’s darkness silenced the guns and halted the charges, and the armies camped for the night.

Uriah watched flocks of birds squawk into the twilight, their numbers blackening the baleful sky. This gloom blanketed him and his men, the men of Company G of the Ohio Twentieth, for they knew that for some of them death crept nearer. Though it’s not uncommon for fighting men to ignore the specters of death and destruction and instead smile at the thought of battle, of heroics and glory, of Washington at Trenton, or Allen at Ticonderoga, for these men, the opposite held sway. Too many Germans and Swedes, maybe, lacking childhoods graced with fireside tales of revolutionary heroics, but with a singular disposition to see darker prospects. Heroism ended in silence.

Uriah spread a blanket and laid his head on the ground.

He closed his eyes, and as his men fell to sleep around him, he watched the moon mope across the sky and, the thoughts of blood and death he’d scattered from his men’s minds, he let slip into his own, and as the moon fled the treetops on his left and hid among those on his right, he wondered whether this was his final moon, and these his final constellations, and that there his last shooting star. So that by dawn, he’d slept not a wink, his body overcome with chills, and his mouth dry and hardly able to gasp the air. Rising, he lifted a bottle of bourbon to his lips and let that warmth ease the cold he felt all around him and within him. The Tennessee spring’s chill departed reluctantly, so Uriah felt the need for warmth throughout that morning, such that, when the rifle shot first echoed from somewhere in the trees south, his bottle held only backwash, and he swayed when he bridled his horse.

The rifle shot then exploded into cannon fire, shouts, yells, and screams all echoing from beyond, somewhere in the trees to the south. The men of Company G all looked at one another as they listened. Uriah looked around, his eyes fixing on no one, just blurs of trees and men and commotion, until he heard an order to advance coming from someone, northwesterly, and some soldiers over there moved forward, and then more on the far side of those did as well. So, he gave the word and Company G moved into the woods where bullets ricocheted off birch and cottonwood and the brush and branches obscured any view of the enemy. He led them through the trees, stumbling over fallen branches and tripping over vines and roots. Ahead of him, the rifle shots sounded closer, the rebel rifles themselves were closer, advancing. Uriah, drunk, concentrated on dodging the grasp of sycamore branches, but misjudged, his coat catching on a low outgrowth, and turning to detach himself he lost his balance and fell. Uriah hit his head on the thick root of the tree, tried to keep his eyes open but they fell closed, and as blackness took hold only the popping and crackling and booming of the battle reached his mind, growing fainter until those sounds faded and he heard nothing; silence overcoming all.

The rest of Company G continued onward into the enemy.

His eyes fluttered open hours later. He stared up, trying to remember where he was. He saw trees rising all around him, though some of the branches had now been ripped into splinters jutting from where the branches once were. His head throbbed in relentless waves. He grabbed a sycamore’s low branch and pulled himself to his feet. Around him, the bloody bodies of the men of Company G, and other men besides, lay strewn about. He saw other things, too, there on the ground in the woods, arms, hands, chunks of flesh, pink and grey flesh splashed with red blood and already overrun with flies and vermin. Long shadows stretched from where he stood over the detritus of the battle. The sun fell toward the tops of the western forest.

When he saw the head of the Frenchman Carrier with entrails slipping out from the half-neck, he wretched.

Balthazar Matthews approached from the woods behind him, near the riverbank. He watched Uriah wipe the vomit from his. mouth, then held up a slip of paper with writing on it.

“Captain Uriah Todd. I have orders from General Wallace. You are hereby relieved of your duties, and I am now to lead Company G. Or what remains of it.”

***

To Uriah’s consternation, Balthazar joined him at the table, placed his Colt next to Uriah’s bowl, and watched him eat. He mention his own cavalry regiment and how, once two of the companies were able to meet him here in Tucson, he would lead them off to wreak vengeance for the killings of the settlers on the other side of Redington Pass.

“The Kincannons,” Uriah said.

“If that’s their name,” came Balthazar’s reply. “Word from the telegraph office is, the father of the missus has offered a reward for the scalps of those that killed her. Ten thousand dollars.”

Uriah couldn’t stop his eyes from widening just enough to convey his interest in such a reward to Balthazar, and Balthazar couldn’t stop his lips from curling into a self-satisfied smile.

“Of course,” Balthazar continued, “being an officer in the army, any reward for me, should I be so fortunate to collect those scalps, is out of the question. Having once been an officer yourself – in another life, it seems, doesn’t it? – you don’t need me to tell you this. It’s at least one advantage you have over me as a civilian.”

Balthazar then smiled and excused himself: telegraphs to send back to General Sheridan about the prospects for Camp Huachuca, southeast of there, near the Huachuca Mountains, before joining up with his regiment to pursue the Apaches. Uriah nodded politely, and Balthazar left the dark of El Fantasma and disappeared into the bright light of the sun-fried streets of Tucson.

Uriah could count on one hand the times he’d been as happy to see someone take his leave, and at least two of those times involved threats to his life. Still, he hadn’t known about the reward. And thinking again about what he’d seen of Mrs. Kincannon, the state of her corpse, and the implications it had for what they’d done to her, it made unpalatable his remaining stew. And set his mind on a path strewn with the vileness of the heathen savages, their pagan gods, their revels in the dirt and sand of the desert, their lazing in the shade, traipsing from camp to camp, the value they put in beads – beads! – their rejection of civilization, now before them for a hundred years, yet still resisted. Animals, or near as man gets, sure. Uriah thought of their weakness for whiskey. The taste of it seemed to send them into a frenzy, rumor held, unable to stop until they passed out in the desert weeds – helpless. He knew well the weakness – Balthazar himself was a reminder of that – but knew also its subjugation; he’d not had a drink since seeing so closely the fields of Shiloh and like a Caesar in triumph, held in contempt those unable to master a foe.

There was a thought. Shiloh’s events had shown to him that a man can hardly defend himself under whiskey’s sway. Then to collect the scalps of the whiskey-sodden should be an easy task. They only need be invited to a drink. And to invite meant only to be made aware of its presence, for the Apache took what they wanted. It was a simple matter then. Just leave some whiskey where they would find it, and wait. Depending on how accessible the whiskey dozens of scalps might be had.

Uriah glanced at the casks behind the bar of El Fantasma Sonriente.

“Bartender.”

***

As the rising sun crested scatterings of ocotillos and mesquite, Uriah’s wagon crossed back over Redington Pass, the pine box swapped for an oak barrel. Following a faint path pocked with cholla and yellow palo verde, by noon he’d transited the pass. The hills and ridges around him showed no signs of life, yet the dread crept on him as the shadows cast by rocks and dry trees grew longer. He gripped the barrel of the Winchester at his side tighter, patted the box of shells at his feet in reassurance of their presence. By dusk he reached a red-rock canyon that glowed scarlet in the falling sun’s light. The cliffsides revealed only misshapen rocks and hoodoos, half submerged in shade. Even so, he was sure he’d been seen by them, here in the canyon or before, the feeling inescapable – he’d ridden through too many Indian lands to not gain some sense of their ways and methods.

He rode another mile or so in the canyon, until the twilight had succumbed to the night, then reined the mules in, grabbed the rifle and his Colt and scanned the ridge tops where a sliver moon cut into the black sky. He climbed off the bench and listened to the desert, heard only the hooting of an owl, echoing down the canyon from who knows where. He wrapped the strap around the Winchester over his head, stuffed the Colt in his belt. Grabbed a box of shells, then clambered up the cliffside and wedged himself into a dark crevice. He had a view of the wagon, and the canyon about a hundred yards on either side.

So long as they didn’t see him take his place among the rocks, and, likewise, so long’s he kept his own eye out for them, he have the edge.

Sitting there in the night’s darkness and silence, Uriah reflected on how, with two of his senses subdued, the others announced themselves more noticeably, so that soon the rocks grew ever harder against his seat and back with each passing minute, and even a shift in position did little to quell the discomfort. The dry night air soaked the wet from his mouth. He could yet see the wagon’s silhouette some hundred yards away, and his mind, freed from regular thoughts in some measure by the circumstances, wandered toward thoughts of the cask, and its contents, and how soon the Apache would find it, and so take it, and open it, and drink the bronze waters within. The warmth falling from tongue down the throat into the gut. The warmth spreading from there and coursing through the body in waves, soothing, invigorating.

The more Uriah squeezed shut his eyes, the more powerful came his imaginings, and the more he told himself: it will help, it will calm me down, allow me to relax, allow me to think, allow me to breathe.

He strained to think of something else. Imagined the killing, the shock in the savages’ eyes in that moment before death. The shock of truth. You have breathed your last, red man. He thought of the blood of Shiloh, and longed for the horror of it again, but now, fear had turned to fury, and the desire to draw blood flooded his being.

What you did to Mrs. Kincannon comes round now to inspire your own death.

Would they even recognize the name, Kincannon?

He blinked, came out of his reverie, thought the walk might refresh his legs, and reinvigorate himself to last the night alert and awake. He cast a wary eye around the canyon, and, seeing nothing, stood, and listened. Then, Winchester in hand, he ambled back to the wagon. Pulled a tin cup from the driver’s box, wiped off coffee grinds with the end of his shirt, and then open the cask’s spout and took a cup full of the whisky.

He put it to his lips, could not suppress the smile that stretched across his face in anticipation. Then, he shot it down his throat in one swift jerk. The warmth both soothed and shook him. He gasped for air, heat spreading through his veins. He looked around. Another swallow will be just the thing.

One more after that. Those rocks are vicious long term.

 

The colors flashed by in streaks, reds, and greens, and yellows, blurs of color, copper, white, brown, and the sound slowed in unearthly howls. Uriah opened his eyes to the sound of muffled screaming, that grew louder and louder with each passing moment. Flashes of angry faces, long black hair flowing, black eyes filled with rage, blurs of feathers bedecking lances, and always the high-pitched wailing, tawny faces with mouths wide, white teeth aglow, chattering, yelling, shouting, circling him and then he felt warmth in his chest. Looked down to see an arrow, impaled within him, and he tried to awake, but couldn’t, and then another arrow, this one in the neck, the red blood flowing onto his shirt, down his arm, and the wailing pierced his ears, seemed to make them bleed, too. He felt the burning, and looked down to see half a dozen arrows jutting from his body, and the blurs continued to move around him, laughing, dancing.

The dead of Shiloh were not vindicated.

***

James Burdett left a bouquet of flowers on his daughter Alice Kincannon’s grave, there in the Pennsylvania dirt, the day they lowered her there, and walked away, and never visited the grave again. Memories play like fire.

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