THUS FAR THE SUMMER of 1916 had been a siege of wrathy wind and heated air. Dust and light. Sand and light. Wind and light.
There was drought and the land was parched and dry and the country bleached, burned out, and furnacelike. At first, dogs attended the troopers, but then they experienced a plague of fleas, so the order went out to shoot the dogs.
It was 125 miles south of the international line in Colonia Dublán where the expedition had established its headquar-ters. They were well supplied. They shipped in tons of ma-terial by rail, truck, and mule team and employed thousands of civilian workers. The cantinas and whorehouses were open all night long and the only hardship, other than being there, was riding out each day to patrol the dry dusty roads. They were in search of Poncho Villa and his bandits who on March 9 audaciously attacked Columbus, New Mexico, burning, looting, killing, and theyd been hunting him ever since.
But everywhere they went it was the same story. They just missed them a day ago, an hour ago, the next high val-ley, the next mountain peak, a cave that did not exist. By most measures the expedition had been a failure.
His brothers job was to turn out as many horses as possible in service to the U.S. Army, while his was to turn out as many horsemen as possible. He took his men out every day and lead them over country of all kinds, to teach them every plateau, arroyo, bajada, canyon. He had little faith in their ability and even less in their capacity for improvement.
He remembered Bandys lips so cracked and blistered it was near impossible for the boy to eat and when he spoke his mouth was too swollen to form words enough to make sense. Every one of them had a case of the piles from so many hard days in the saddle. The seat of Turners pants was spotted black where theyd bled into the cotton material and would not wash out.
Each morning the red dawn came and all day long was the blazing and deadening heat, but the night could be freezing cold with a swing in temperature of thirty degrees be-tween high noon and midnight.
They wore their peaked Stetsons low on their foreheads and still the light so bright they spent their days squint eyed, or staring through the color-tinted lenses of their goggles. There were wire-framed glasses to purchase: deep green, rose colored, and blue. But there was no blazing corona in the sky to see and only light as if there was no head or brain or mind, but only the idea of light.
He remembered these as the conditions of their lives when they departed expedition headquarters that white chalky morning. He remembered the morning itself and its dim blue light and upon waking the decision he made to begin another day.
This is what he remembered of those days in Mexico and much later in life some of it he would talk about, but not everything. He was not inclined to talking, but about these days in the desert, he was even less so.
He remembered a small man, a minor jefe politico, wear-ing a black felt hat. He was peddling a red hen and a white hen, held by the legs in each hand, and inside the perimeter, down the wind, there were penned and mudded barrow hogs, their flies and their drift of stink.
He remembered a horse trader talking to his brother. Their father had named his brother Xenophon after the an-cient horseman and his own name was Napoleon after the great general. Xenophon liked to feed the horses pepper-mints and the smell of peppermints was constantly on his hands and breath. While he talked to the horse trader, the horses slopped their lips in the trough, their tails idly whisking flies.
From a narrow dirt street there emerged a wedding party, women in summer dresses and men in shirtsleeves, returning home from a long nights celebration. A little wind was moving but not much. Then it concentrated, took a mans straw hat from his head, and disappeared. A water cart trundled by, sprinkling down the dust that would dry and rise again.
Excerpted from Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead © 2009 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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