There Are No Tomahawks in Europe
By Hoyt Bankston
Wild Bill, or the man who would’ve liked to have been called Wild Bill, was only dimly aware that he was being eaten alive by fever. He understood, somewhere in the pitiful scraps that were left of his consciousness, that he was lying on the floor of a German box car, that he was getting colder, and that his breaths were getting shorter by the moment. However, none of that mattered too much to Bill. It should have mattered to him, he knew it should have. He knew that he should try to force himself to his feet or to suck in air and force his eyelids open. He knew that he should fight and claw, if only so that he could say he made some attempt to save himself, but no battle, no great or climactic final struggle, ever began for his life. Instead, his eyes stayed shut and a small, rueful smile spread across his lips as he thought that it was funny how a mind can wander when it’s boiling with fever. He found that it was too much effort to focus on the floor of that box car, where his pulse faded and his limbs numbed, when it was only one of the thousand different places that he found himself in at that moment. Why should he focus on the box car, when he found himself standing in the recruitment office back in Wyoming just as easy? In that place, a broad smile, so different from the pitiful one he wore on the floor of the box car, was plastered across his face as he watched his enlistment papers lap up the last of his ink, leaving his signature standing tall and proud at the bottom of the page. He had just signed up for a war of his very own.
It only made sense that he should go to war. Everyone he’d known back home had had a war or two of their own. Some had gotten the Civil, others the Spanish American, and few had even made it over to The Great War. They were all full of stories, though the ones from The Great War told theirs infrequently, and Bill had listened to every one they’d cared to tell with an intentness that bordered on greed. Still though, as much as he loved their stories, they were never his favorites. Oh No, the stories that Bill had loved most had come from the lips of the old vets who’d gotten an Indian War or two all to themselves. Other war stories were all well and good, but they didn’t have whooping barbarians in them, and they didn’t have anyone facing down a tomahawk charge single handed, and they certainly weren’t told by men with names like “Jimmy Blazes” or “Crazy Tom Skinner”.
That sort of war, the kind where you got to draw down on savages with your six shooter and earn a nickname for it, had always sounded the sweetest to Bill’s ears, and it was that kind of war that he longed to participate in. When he had stood over his recruitment papers with that smile on his face, that was the kind of war he’d daydreamed about making. It had been one of his better smiles, fueled by both nostalgia and pleasant musings about what his days after the war would be like. He had already decided on the title of the memoir he’d write after the fact: “Wild Bill and How The West Hit Germany”. The only problem was that he kept rocketing from those pleasant musings in the office to the moment he’d seen the Tiger Tank and the muzzle flash of the MG-42 and the awful, startling revelation that there weren’t any tomahawks or six shooters in Europe. There likely never were any in the first place.
He seemed unable to escape the time leading up to that moment and the terrible revelation that followed. Everytime his mind saw fit to wander through a moment spent in open Wyoming plains or pleasantly listening to a story about dead savages piled beneath men in Union Blue, he seemed to spend ten times as long in the moment the Tiger had begun to chew up his men. He’d been looking from behind the gray, half wall of a ruined building as his men had tried to set up one of their anti-tank guns in the street before him. He’d told them to set it up there. He’d given the order even after one of his men had raised his concern that they were leaving themselves too open. He had waved the man off and told him that he’d need to be a little braver if, “He ever wanted to be remembered”. He had said it with a smirk, and he had continued to wear that smirk with reckless abandon right up to the moment the Tiger had rounded the corner and his heart had sunk clear to the floor. He thought the tank’s awful muzzle had looked wide as a missile silo when it leveled on the men assembling the gun.
The shell flew from the Tiger’s barrel scarcely a moment after it had spotted them. It hit the anti-tank gun square on. The crew of that tank had been well seasoned. The blast they made turned the little artillery piece, the one he’d ordered set up in that spot, into a hundred thousand different projectiles as the metal splintered in all directions. Shrapnel shredded the men near the gun in an instant and those who were left after the blast lasted only a few seconds more as the tank’s machine gun opened up in a series of quick, concentrated bursts. Bill had stared at the tank for a moment in disbelief. He thought the armor seemed as if it might’ve been a mile thick. It could not have been more different from the bare chests and war paint that he saw bullets going through in his daydreams. He remembered one of those men from the Indian Wars arguing with one of those Great War vets about who’d had a rougher go of it. Any man can shoot a tank or a bunker cause they’s big targets, he’d said. It takes a special sort of man to shoot a chargin’ Injun, he’d said. Intimidation alone was liable to take the knees out from under a lesser man, he’d said. There was more honor in it, he’d said. For the first time, in his shell shocked daze, Bill thought that he wasn’t quite sure if that man from one Indian War or another had been telling the truth. He would’ve kept staring at that tank in a stupor if one of his men hadn’t dragged him down behind the half wall in front of him. One young soldier had been wounded and had stumbled up the hill just to the right of Bill’s cover where he fell to his knees, exposed.
The boy had been red headed, freckled and short, with a stark gap in his front teeth. They’d all referred to him as Red when they felt nice and “Spackle Face” or “Shit Cheeks” when they felt mean. They did not feel nice very often. Bill himself had told the boy, who’s real name he could not remember if he’d ever bothered to learn it in the first place, that he might be able to find a girl one day if he could just, “Wipe that awful mess off his face”. That was another one of Bill’s pleasant memories, and one of the many that he found himself inhabiting while his feverish brain continued to shatter and cook. But again, he found himself being flung from the chuckle he’d had at the boy’s expense to the look the boy had given him as the bullet from an MG-42 had ripped through the back of his head and out the front. Bill had been powerless and had watched as the boy fell onto his side, facing him. He’d stared at the body, transfixed and unblinking, as the gore from the wound seemed to fill in the spots between the boy’s freckles. A few minutes later a German who spoke English had ordered him and the two surviving men under his command to come out from their cover and surrender or be shelled. They had done as the Germans asked. Upon standing, Bill had seen more of his men’s bodies. He did not know it then, but the two men who surrendered with him were all that remained of his forces. They were still with him, watching him cook on the floor of the box car, even though he was unaware of them. They had once been part of the regiment Bill had commanded. They had been two of forty-five hundred.
In his head, Bill was back at boot camp giving speeches to those forty-five hundred men. He relived how he’d always told them they were to call him “Wild Bill” and that if they just stuck with and listened to him, well, then they’d understand why. Hell, they might even get a nickname of their own. That had been another good moment, only this time it was not his feverish brain that soured the relived memory, it was that little bit of his consciousness that still remained. As his mind leapt through all those memories, and especially all those days in camp, he thought of all the times someone had called him “Wild Bill”. For the first time he realized that the nickname he’d chosen for himself had never truly been popular, and that the only ones who’d ever called him by it were the privates he’d ordered to. The name had always sounded clumsy and unsure coming out of their mouths. He’d either not noticed then, or simply thought that they’d see soon enough, that they’d understand why they ought to call him Wild Bill. He was certain that he would live up to the “Crazy Tom Skinners” and the “Jimmy Blazes” back home. Now, though, as he laid on the floor of that box car, he felt that he was no Blazes or Skinner, but rather that he knew just what Colonel Custer must have felt like.
His men were dead, after all, sure as Custer’s had been, leveled by a strange mixture of zealotry and gunfire. And yet, he did not feel the pain of it how he would have expected to. He thought that losing his men felt more odd than anything else, almost like them not being there was some sort of elaborate prank. Because that’s all it really was, them just not being there. It was a feeling tinged with the simplicity and familiarity of absence, just more strange and terrible than he had ever felt before. He wondered if Custer had felt the same way, only to remember that the colonel had died alongside his men, and that he, the man who would have liked to have been called Wild Bill, was still very much alive. Alive and under the weight of forty-five hundred failures. For the first time since the German had spoken English to him and accepted his surrender he considered that the families of those forty-five hundred would not see it as “them just not being there”.
He wondered what Wyoming would look like when he got back. It was a thought he would’ve been better off without: his mind was all too happy to show him just that. Soon, all those places that his mind had seen fit to wander through, the quiet days filled with wilderness and stories and the horror of the red headed boy’s face alike, faded away. In their place there was only Wyoming, but this time he was not safe at home in his pleasant little recruitment office. Instead, he was the Custer who’d survived and his tiny home of Cody, Wyoming felt even smaller than he’d remembered. He felt the eyes on him as he walked along the rows of shops that formed the little town’s main drag. There was no sound, and certainly no conversation, and he saw a group of farm boys, about fifteen or sixteen years old, look up from their game of jacks to glare at him. Their expressions were set in stone, and they did not seem to care that the man who thought he should be called Wild Bill had noticed them. One cleared his throat and spit in Bill’s direction. His eyes never broke contact with Bill’s. Bill could only try and walk faster. He did not get far before a woman’s voice came from behind him. He had been sure that he had not passed anybody as he walked.
“You cannot be what my son died for,” the woman said in a voice tinged with pain and disgust.
He turned to look at her, and, as the weight of her gaze settled on him, he took an involuntary step backwards, his eyes wide. Her face was plain, just as her brown hair and the rough tan dress she wore were, but the look on her face was one of revolted, disbelieving horror. Her look made him pitiful, and, before he could so much as attempt to stammer out an inadequate apology to her, the words of another, a man this time, made him spin around.
“My Jimmy tried to warn you and you looked at him like he was a fool, you stupid, stupid bastard,” The man said, his eyes like black marbles.
Bill stared back at the man. He was middle aged and balding, but he was tall and his overalls did little to hide the lean farmer’s muscle underneath them. He looked like he could’ve rung Bill’s neck as easily as he would a chicken’s, and that he would’ve liked to do just that if Bill took a single step closer. Again, Bill tried to muster an apology, if only to assuage the fear that the hate behind those eyes made him feel, but before he could say anything back to the man another voice called out from behind him. The voice belonged to a young woman, and, as Bill turned to face her she held up her hand with her nails facing him so that he could see the modest ring that she wore.
“He gave me this ‘for he left, said he meant to give me another one when he got back, but I guess something like that don’t mean shit to the Wild Bill,” She said, her voice dripping with an acidic sarcasm, her eyes hard.
The girl was at least a head shorter than Bill with a white, flowery dress on and blonde hair that was set in bangs over her forehead. In another time and place he might have found her pretty, but, in that moment, with her brow scrunched into a ruthless furrow, a snarl set across her lips, and her whole body on edge like she wished to lunge for him, he found her no less intimidating than the man who’s spoken before her. Before he could process the strange sort of fear that the girl sent shivering down his spine, a pebble impacted the back of his head. He turned back to where the man in the overalls had been a moment earlier and was met with the tear stained face of a little boy.
“Why was you always talking to my brother about killin’ injuns? You ain’t never been to war before! And you was going to fight Krauts anyway!” the boy’s strained voice cried as snot ran from his nose.
He did not feel shame the way he had with the first woman or fear the way he’d felt with the girl and the man, instead he wanted to weep. For the first time, no new voice called out from behind him and he had a brief window to make that attempted apology.
“I-I’m sorry. I’m sorry about all of them, a-alright?” he said, his words choked and shaky.
“SORRY?!” A new voice boomed out from behind him.
He whirled around to look down the main drag of tiny Cody, Wyoming. The blonde girl with her ring, the plain woman with her disgusted eyes, and the farm boys with their hard faces were all gone. In their place was a single woman, walking towards him slowly. He did not know when it had happened, but the sky above the new woman had turned a gray so deep that it was almost black. It was the sort of color that served only as a harbinger of those inland squalls that he’d known as prairie storms. As the woman got closer, he was finally able to make out some of her features. Her hair was a deep, dark red, and her face was spackled with freckles. Her mouth was set in a tight line and her eyes were ablaze. She did not blink a single time. She seemed unable to see anything except the man who would’ve liked to have been called Wild Bill. He noticed that she had a bottle in her hand.
“I am sorry, I am r-really, I mean it,” He stammered out as he began to walk backwards in a nervous jog, unable to take his eyes off the woman.
The red headed woman made no reply and continued to walk towards him, the black gray of the storm clouds following closely behind her. It never occurred to him to run, even as he made his automatic, nervous, shifting steps backwards; her eyes held too much sway over him. When she was less than ten feet from him she reached back with the hand that held the bottle. The amber liquid within it swirled, and the glass seemed as if it might’ve been a mile thick. When she had pulled her arm back as far as her body would allow her, she let the bottle fly. Her eyes never once left Bill’s even as she followed through on her vicious fling. The bottle flew through the air and smacked off of his forehead. His head jerked and he fell straight back. His vision clouded and his ears rang as his skull bounced off the concrete. He stared up into the sky that he had always always remembered as blue as the rain began to fall. The first drop hit him just under his left eye. He wished it would’ve ripped through the front of his head and out the back.
He began to hear the clack of shoes on pavement as the sidewalk around him started to teem with the feet of townsfolk who were seemingly untouched or undeterred by any old rain storm. Most simply passed him by, with hardly a glance or a care to his pitiful state, but a few took the time to walk right over him or to absentmindedly spit on the man who would’ve like to have been called Wild Bill. They paid no mind to his quiet tears. He did not know quite how he had imagined his return, but he knew that it was so very different from the place that he found himself in. He knew that he’d always imagined himself famous and had fully believed that all of those forty-five hundred souls that had been entrusted to him would make the journey to his little slice of Wyoming to have regimental reunions. Yes, he was sure that he’d always wanted to have reunions for his boys, but where could he do something like that? He’d never thought about it before and he supposed that he would need someplace large like a piece of farmland, or a bar, or a lodge. A lodge would be best, he thought. Yes, a lodge would do nicely.
It would be his lodge, not his cabin or his house, but his lodge. The sign outside would say so, after all. It would read “Wild Bill’s Hunting Lodge and Club” in big cursive letters that’d be done up in a particularly loud shade of red. There would be a great hall inside with chandeliers made from the antlers of thousand successful hunts, and they would hang from vaulted wooden ceilings. Beneath them, men would sit and smoke and drink and bicker about whose war had been the best. At the center of the hall would be a roaring fire and in front of it would be a chair, his chair. He found himself in that chair, watching the enormous carcass of a spit roasted elk turn slowly over the blaze. It was the biggest elk that Wild Bill had ever killed. He thought it might’ve been the biggest ever killed, but Wild Bill, who had already done so much in his life, figured there was no reason to draw attention to it. He would let someone else have that particular record. He continued to watch the carcass turn over the great pit and, through the flames, he could see the fireplace on the opposite side of the room.
His war time revolver, his very own six shooter, was mounted above the mantel. He smiled as he looked at it. He had used it to kill Germans, his very own savages. It hung above the mantel because it was too special to sully with everyday use. Underneath it, there was a copy of his memoir which had been a bestseller, “Wild Bill and How The West Hit Germany”. It had paid for the lodge. From the chair that he sat in, he heard someone near the door say his name. He turned around to see the face of a red headed former soldier. He was speaking shyly to the man by the door.
“Hello, I’m looking for Wild Bill.”
“Well, he’s here, but he don’t much like to be bothered. Got a good reason you’re looking for him?” the man asked gruffly in a thick country accent.
“We were in the war together. He told me to look him up if I was ever in Cody, Wyoming.”
With that, the man who felt that he was every ounce the mythical Wild Bill, locked eyes with the boy he’d known as Spackle Face. A broad smile spread across both of their lips. There was another place, one he had found himself in not that long ago, where he had seen a bullet snuff the light from the boy’s eyes and fill in his freckles, but that was that place, and only one of the thousand that he found himself in. Why should he focus on the street and the tank and Europe’s disturbing lack of charges and tomahawks, when he found himself sitting in his lodge back in Wyoming just as easily? With that, Wild Bill’s voice shook the hall of his great hunting lodge as he greeted the redhead by the door.
“THAT’S RIGHT! IF YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF IN CODY, WYOMING YOU JUST GO ON AND LOOK UP WILD BILL,” he hollered.
He shouted those words aloud on the floor of the box car as a very real grin found its way on to his ashen face. He did not know it, but some of his soldiers really did hear those words. Only two though, there were only two left of his forty-five hundred after all, and they were in the box car with him. He had no idea, he was too busy in his lodge back home. He especially had no idea that the man nearest to him was moving his hand towards Bill’s mouth and nose as he stared at the increasingly weak rise and fall of Bill’s chest. He did not know that this man had watched him the entire time they’d marched, that he had stared daggers at the back of his head and had witnessed Bill’s shell shocked gaze give way to a cough which in turn gave way to an ashen face and eyes that would not focus on anything. Pneumonia had taken Bill and he’d been saying those same words he’d just yelled at a shout or a whisper for hours, speaking to people who were not there. They were people that the man reaching for his face had known well.
The other man who’d been captured with Bill was sat on the opposite side of the box car. Not all that long ago, he had saved Bill’s life by pulling him down behind cover. He was wide awake and knew what was happening. He saw the taut line of his fellow soldier’s mouth and his fingers extended like bare tree branches against a full moon, but he made no move to either wake the man who’d been his commander or to stop the other soldier’s course. He had no love left for the man who’d order him to call him Wild Bill. He had always liked Spackle Face. Bill went to yell his invitation again, but did not quite get through it.
“IF YOU’RE EVER IN CODY, WYOMING, JUST LOOK UP WILD B-,” Came the hoarse cry that was soon muffled by one hand pressed over his mouth and another that pinched his nostrils shut.
As the airflow stopped Bill’s body bucked up in a single, unnatural jerk. All that followed that sad last gas was a brief flop of his forearm against his former soldier’s leg. It mattered very little to Bill. In his mind, he had succeeded, he was sitting back home in Wyoming surrounded by relics of his achievements, even as one his failures pressed his hands over Bill’s face. The Germans did not question his passing. They threw him in one of the many ditches they’d dug. One of them noticed that, even in the ditch, he still had a smile on his face. It was more than could’ve been said for his killer, he actually had to live with the legacy of the so-called “Wild Bill”.
Biographical Note: Hoyt Bankston, who is the third person in his family to have that unusual first name, is a writer who hails from Central Florida. He is currently a sophomore at St. Augustine’s Flagler College, and had just recently turned twenty years old. He is new to the world of writing, but intends to publish several more works before the year is out.