Book excerpt

An Obituary for Major Reno

Richard S. Wheeler


An Obituary For Major Reno
PART ONE1889Being an Account of Major Reno's RequestCHAPTER ONE 
RICHLER DIDNT WANT TO INTERVIEW RENO, THE COWARD, REPROBATE, and whiner, but newspaper correspondents don't always have a choice. Bennett had cabled Richler from Paris, which is where the great man ran the New York Herald these days, and that was command enough. Do it or turn in his press card and cease scribbling for the greatest paper on earth.The Herald's ace Washington correspondent Joseph Richler made his way through a bitter March rain to a nondescript redbrick neighborhood north of Capitol Hill, found a sawed-up apartment building priced just about right for a six-hundred-a-year Interior Department pension clerk, climbed two flights of creaking stairs, and located the correct four-panel door, varnished almost black.He knocked and was admitted to a gloomy two-room flat by a fleshy, dark, and dour man whose gray skin and bagged eyes suggested illness."We've met," Reno said. It wasn't exactly a friendly welcome."Several times."Reno motioned Richler to a wooden chair and relit a much-gummed cigar. The flat exuded the rank stink of cigar smoke. Gray light filtered through tobacco-stained lace drapes from the single window."It's simple," he said. "You get the last interview of Major Reno.""Are you planning on dying?""Not if I can help it. Tomorrow they're cutting out my tongue. Or most of it, anyway. After that, it's silence and paper and pencil.""Surgery on your tongue?"Reno looked annoyed. He sucked on the yellow cigar, bringing its half dead business end to bright life. "Providence Hospital, tomorrow at eight, March fifteen, eighteen eighty-nine. I lose my tongue. Cancer. After that, I'll talk Swahili.""I'm sorry.""Good riddance." He smiled at Richler, and the newsman saw life in those agate eyes at last. "The tongue is the second most important member."Reno was running true to form."So you want to talk before the knife silences you. You told Mr. Bennett it would be the last interview, and he cabled me, and here we are, and you get your last shot at Whittaker and Elizabeth Custer and the rest, courtesy of the Herald." Richler pulled out a notepad and a couple of soft-lead editing pencils."It's honor I want. I want my rank back. I want my record cleared. I want my good name. That's all a man has in life, his good name. I want the true story of what happened on the record. I want the name of Major Marcus Reno to be sunlit and bright. I want my boy to grow up proud. I want the whole damned nation to know what I gave to it in the wars I fought for it."There was passion in his voice. And maybe other things as well. Anger, bitterness, desolation, defiance. Richler discovered a malevolent light burning in Reno's eyes, the first opening into the man's sulphurous soul."And if that doesn't happen in your lifetime?""My ghost will walk the halls of justice until it's done. I'll rattle every flagstaff, and the Seventh will never know peace until I have peace."Richler thought about the petitions to the president and the army, the private bills introduced in each session of congress to restore Reno's name and rank, and the great wall of pained opposition each of those efforts had encountered. He thought about Reno's rejected writings, the ones no one would publish, his version of the horrendous events of June 25 and June 26, the centennial year of the Republic."Good luck," he said wryly."I thought your publisher might be interested," Reno said."He is. That battle is always good copy.""Here's the usual newspaper story," Reno said, scorn underlying the word newspaper. "I disobeyed orders at the Little Bighorn, turned my tail and ran, was eaten by guilt, turned into a drunk, got court-martialed and convicted twice, the second time for conduct unbecoming to an officer, their way of calling me a Peeping Tom, and I'm responsible for the death of two hundred brave men of the Seventh Cavalry, along with its illustrious leader. And I was cashiered, with a dishonorable discharge."Richler nodded. The interview was going about the way he supposed it might. His pencil had yet to touch paper."You haven't written one damned word. During the big war I fought in twenty-four engagements. I started as a lieutenant, was breveted for gallantry in action, to brevet brigadier general of volunteers. Phil Sheridan and others stuffed my files with warm commendations. No one called me a coward. In those days I was Sheridan's kind of sonofabitch."Richler waited for something new, something he could print. The whole interview would amount to a six-inch story, the way it was going."My speech is slurred. My tongue has a big cauliflower lump on it, and it hurts. But I'm used to slurs."Richler elected not to smile at Reno's witticism. The major's speech was indeed slurred, oddly inflected by the painful lump on his tongue. He pitied the man."I earn six hundred a year in the pension office." Reno waved a hand at his humble gray surroundings. "It fits. I was comfortable once, earning better than three thousand as a major in the regular army. But those were other times.""You had my publisher send me here because you have something new to tell me?"Reno ignored him. "I inherited my wife's estate. A farm, city lots, houses, real estate mainly, but cash too. Lawyers have it now. My honor has cost me thirty thousand dollars. My second wife, Isabella, wants therest. She's suing me for divorce, for 'insults to her person.' You will wonder about those insults. I kissed her with a mouth full of cigar smoke. She took offense at my body and then took offense at my empty purse."Richler doodled on his notepad. He had scarcely asked a question and doubted that he would have to. He would listen. He could do that much for the man, then walk out and write a few words for a pitiable devil who would slide into perpetual silence in a day or two. He disliked Reno. Hardly anyone liked him. The man put off people, and that seemed ingrained in his very nature."It didn't start with the Little Bighorn, you know. It started earlier."Richler was interested at last. Here would be a confession that Reno and Custer had been at odds for years, that this thing had roots deep into the origins of the Seventh Cavalry.But that was not it at all."In eighteen and seventy-four, Mary Hannah died. It started then.""What started?""The curse, the bad luck.""You were far away when it happened," Richler said. He knew that story."With the boundary commission on the Canadian border. I had some cavalry and infantry under me and we were keeping the Sioux off the backs of the commission while they surveyed the line. Then she died. For years she had taken care of her mother in Harrisburg at the family home, and then her mother died, and then she died of kidney disease, and I was a widower with a boy who needed a mother."I couldn't get away. I applied for leave at once, but they were shorthanded, with so many officers away and they wouldn't let me go. Not until a month later. So she was buried in her Ross family plot in the Harrisburg Cemetery, and I wasn't there, and I couldn't go there for several more weeks, and the Rosses held it against me, even though I explained that my orders kept me there on the boundary."Richler knew that was leading somewhere, at least in Reno's thinking, though he couldn't fathom it. Not yet.But then Reno stopped talking, as if a water gate had clamped down and the flood ceased. He was lost in his own world, a world he was not sharing with the correspondent. He smiled at last, offered Richler a green-leafed panatella, which the correspondent refused, nodded toward a bottle of Old Orchard bourbon, which the Herald man declined also, and settled at last in his battered Morris chair."The Herald's been fair to me," Reno said. "Your man O'Kelly reported the Little Bighorn story accurately in the days that followed that fight. I think highly of Bennett and his rag. He's put correspondents all over the globe, and taught them how to cable the news to New York. That's why I went to him, and why you're here now.""I'm not quite sure why I'm here, major. You have not given me anything new.""I suppose you want me to talk about the battle. I intend to.""Actually, I want you to talk about the army's court of inquiry in Chicago in 1879, held at your request, if I remember rightly. They exonerated you. 'Major Reno did nothing that would merit the animadversion of this court,' or something like that.""It cleared me.""But it didn't change anything, did it? Your critics still want your scalp. It's as if that court didn't exist. They've never ceased laying the blame for that disaster on you. It was all your fault that Custer and his command perished. What I want to know is, why didn't it change things?"Reno sucked, lighting up the end of the cigar, and exhaled noxious smoke."You don't feel exonerated, not even by an official inquiry. Why is that?""I don't know the answer," Reno said."You have enemies," Richler said. "Who are they?"Reno stared sadly into the drifting cigar smoke, and turned at last to Richler."Myself," he said.Copyright © 2004 by Richard S. Wheeler Richard S. Wheeler is author of fifty novels of the American West. He is recipient of four Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in Western literature from Western Writers of America, Inc. He lives in Livingston, Montana