Sunday Sampler: The Captive Boy by Julia Robb
December 20, 2015
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Sunday’s Sampler is an excerpt from The Captive Boy, historical fiction of the Old West by Julia Robb.
As one reviewer said: No one writes about the West with as much expertise and authenticity as Julia Robb. She knows the location of her story as though she had lived there all of her life. She understands the time period. Her characters are so real you sometimes believe they still ride the prairies that stretch between the mountains. The Captive Boy is one of those wonderful, hidden stories that no doubt happened during a time when men fought to hold onto their land and others were ready to kill to take it. We’ve just never heard about it before. The novel is filled with pathos and emotion. It captures a colorful time in our history and, just as importantly, captures our imagination as well.
Col. Mac McKenna’s Fourth Cavalry recaptures white captive August Shiltz from the Comanche, only to find August is determined to return to the Indians. McKenna attempts to civilize August and becomes the boy’s foster father.
But when August kills another boy in a fight, McKenna rejects him. August escapes from Fort Richards (Texas), and when war with the Comanche breaks out, McKenna discovers August is a war leader–and his greatest enemy.
With the Fourth Cavalry in Texas: A Memoir of The Indian War, By Joseph Finley Grant, Reporter and Illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
I was sitting by Col. Theodore (Mac) McKenna’s desk when Privates Wilson and Smith dragged the kid through the door.
They wrestled him to a chair and held him down, trying to tie him up while he fought them, their hands slipping on his greased up skin.
The kid wasn’t wearing clothes to speak of, just a breechclout barely covering his privates and deerskin leggings over his tattered moccasins.
Wood smoke, hot sweat and buffalo robe–which smells like mangy dog–radiated off the boy like heat off a campfire.
Breathing was difficult, even with the window open.
You usually smelled that particular combination of foul odors when parleying in some benighted Comanche lodge.
Finally, Major Sam Brennan and Sergeant-Major Pruitt helped, and the four of them managed to grab the boy by the shoulders and hold him down in the chair.
Even then, the kid thought his name was Eka Papi Tuinupu, or red-headed boy; but he was really August Shiltz, son of kraut-eating immigrants who were farming near Fredericksburg when they were murdered and their son taken.
A neighbor (if you can call someone who lives fifteen miles away a neighbor) took some food to the family, as the Shiltz’s were hard-luck people, and found everyone except August lying in front of the smoking cabin.
Their naked bodies were white in the sun, scalped, mutilated, the woman and girls’ raped–which was what the savages always did.
I never understood how the army spotted August during the raid on the Comanche village, as it was easy to mistake him for a Quahadi (what this band of Comanches call themselves, antelope people).
Sun had darkened his skin and his red braids were black with dirt and grease.
Only a close look revealed the Teutonic face; his long nose and long jaws below sharp cheekbones, the thin lips and narrow, defiant blue eyes.
Also, at sixteen, he was already taller and heavier than most fully-grown Comanche warriors.
On horseback, the Comanches were magnificent, but standing on level ground with the rest of us they usually failed to exceed five feet six inches tall, much like jockeys one sees at Saratoga, and their bowed legs made them appear even shorter.
August was already four or five inches taller than most of his compatriots.
I’ve been to the university at Heidelberg and seen students dueling–their facial scars are marks of honor and proof of their dubious manhood–and August looked just like them; minus the scars.
As soon as the men dragged August into Mac’s office, I snatched my sketching pencils from my pocket and went to work.
I still have that sketch, which came in handy a few years later when I wrote about the war: August, perching on the chair like a bound hawk, his eyes slit in rage and fear.
Colonel McKenna watched the boy, his hands folded on his desk, light from the window shining on his blue cavalry uniform, glinting off the silver eagles sitting on his shoulders.
Army command sent McKenna to Fort Richards eight months previously to command the Fourth Cavalry. He fought in the War of the Rebellion and was a decorated war veteran, wounded six times and brevetted seven times on the field, climbing from second lieutenant to colonel to brevet major general: Not even George Custer was promoted that rapidly.
Brevet means holding a rank without being given that rank’s responsibilities and pay; which was a way to reward good officers without actually doing anything for them.
Mac was a handsome man. He had long, thin jaws, a full, well-curved mouth and a square chin. But he also had a perpetual squint around his blue eyes, as if his head hurt.
Although he looked calm that day, Mac McKenna was probably not calm all the way through.
Sometimes Mac’s hands shook, like he vibrated inside, though he carried himself like an iron rod on parade. He had a pleasant tenor voice, but it was controlled, as if his feelings were in the guardhouse and he had thrown the key away.
His men were in terror of him, and for excellent reasons.
“Are you August Shiltz?” Mac asked.
Mac said to Ben Washington, the black Seminole scout standing by his desk, “Tell August if he stops struggling he will not be restrained.”
Now here’s something odd. When Ben first came in, the kid straightened to attention and said something urgent in Comanche.
I assumed they knew each other.
Ben answered him, and the kid looked confused.
Then Ben mumbled something else to the boy, pushing Comanche words out of his chest like rocks, and August quieted.
You would never mistake Ben for a soldier, or for a regular Seminole, for that matter. The Black-Seminoles were descended from runaway slaves who took refuge with the Seminoles in Florida and sometimes intermarried.
Ben was typical of that ilk. Kinky hair fell to his shoulders but his skin was lighter than his slave ancestors. And he had slim lips and Indian cheekbones perching under his eyes like iron bars.
Ben would have been nice-looking, for a half-breed, but a round scar on his face puckered his left cheek and I suspect some teeth were missing. Obviously shot from his mouth.
Mac sat with his hands clasped on his desk, staring at the kid.
That was another thing about Mac, he didn’t exude warmth or empathy. Cross him in any way and you would live to regret it.
“You have been identified as August Shiltz, taken from your father’s farm when you were nine years old,” Mac said, waiting while Ben translated.
August looked coiled to pounce.
“The raiders killed your parents and your sisters. Do you have other family here in Texas?”
“How much English do you remember?”
I pulled out my notebook and writing pencil.
This might make two columns in the newspaper: White Child Rescued From Savages. Years of Brutal Captivity.
I usually wrote about the joyous reunions though the joyous reunions were usually on the relatives’ side.
If captives lived with a tribe more than five years, once we got them back they didn’t remember their own mothers, assuming those mothers escaped being raped to death in the raid.
Assuming anyone survived.
Assuming the captive was adopted into the tribe.
If you were a woman and not adopted, life was a hell of sexual slavery and endless toil.
Sometimes returned captives became good white citizens: A few pined away until they died, longing for God knows who or what.
“Ask the boy if he remembers his white name or his family,” Mac said.
After Ben translated, August sneered and rattled back.
“He says he is Comanche, not white,” Ben said, his expression unchanged.
Mac wasn’t surprised. None of us were. That’s what captive kids usually said.
“Tell him the raiders who killed his family captured him on December 25, 1864.”
August shook his head, his face indifferent.
“Tell him the squaws we took in the raid confirm he was a captive.”
August shook his head.
“Ask him to explain his eye color.”
“Tabernacle my father,” August said, blurting the words in English.
That was startling, as we believed the boy had forgotten his English.
Mac leaned back in his chair, contemplating the kid and snapping his stumps, the three partially amputated fingers on his left hand. Everything was gone below the first joints, thanks to rebel artillery.
The men called the colonel, among other things, “Three-finger Jack.”
They also referred to him as “hard ass,” and they weren’t joking.
While McKenna pondered, the kid jumped from his chair and dove for the open window behind Mac’s desk.
A flash and he was almost gone, but Mac threw himself at the kid and caught his leg, then the troopers grabbed the other leg and they pulled him back inside.
“Tie him to the chair,” Mac told his men, and one of them reached for a lariat and wrapped it around the boy until he couldn’t move.
August’ eyes were wide, his pupils dilated until they looked black.
“Do you remember if your family got mail, letters?” Mac asked, as if nothing had happened.
“Tabernacle my father.”
“I can’t allow you to run back to the Comanches.”
Mac shook his head, glancing at Sam Brennan: “Remind me Major. Where did the Comanche capture this boy?”
Sam glanced at Mac, his eyes brimming with good-humored interest at the situation (as he viewed most situations), and said, “His parents were farming beyond the safe line sir, twenty miles west of Fredericksburg. We believe the Comanche fired the family’s cabin and then killed them when they ran outside.”
“No reported sightings until now?”
“Do you have relatives in Germany,” Mac asked the boy.
Mac turned to Ben and said, “Explain Germany to him, that it’s a country across a big body of water, tell him that’s where his parents came from.”
“I Quahadi,” August said.
“Major, what would you do with August, had you the decision?” Mac asked Sam.
“Send him to the reserve Sir.”
“He’s not a Comanche.”
“Find a foster family.”
“He would run the first day.”
“That would be his decision. He’s a big boy.”
“We don’t need another fighting Comanche.”