Charlie walked down the streets of Stockton toward the saloon. He got his usual share of stares from the men. The women just lowered their eyes and veered well clear of his path. He passed the storefronts, the café and the hotel.
His business was not welcome at any. But Stockton was really no different than any other town. He hadn’t expected it to be. He’d come here for one reason: to find Heath.
Heath was his only real friend from his Army years. Heath had always
respected him and treated him like a true equal. They were kindred spirits in away.
Both had been forged in the same fires. Heath was the finest White man he’d ever known. He possessed the content of character that was highly respected among Charlie’s own people. Heath was intelligent, honest, courageous and true. He showed both man and beast the respect and dignity they deserved. How could anyone view this man that Charlie knew as inferior? Heath was more than the equal of most men in the qualities that really mattered. But Heath had shared with Charlie the circumstances of his birth. There were people who would never see Heath as anything other than an inherently flawed second-class citizen. Just like Charlie’s.
“I know what it’s like, Charlie. People used to stare at Mama and me when we’d walk down the street. We could go in a store, and the clerk wouldn’t even speak to my mama. I’d watch as other customers walked in after my mama did and the clerk would rush over and say, “Can I help you?” My mama was never shown the common courtesy the other ladies were. And you’d better believe they watched me like a hawk! I guess they figured that my being a bastard just naturally made me a thief as well. I’ve seen and heard it all, Charlie: the name-calling, the snide remarks, the laughing, the fights, or just plain being ignored. You can’t dwell on those things, Charlie. Look inside yourself at the
man you are and hold your head high. Character is what you are; not what someone else thinks of you. The triumph is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Charlie had gone home after the war and his hitch in the Army was over. The land reserves set aside for the Indians were the most God-forsaken pieces of real estate the Government could find. The prime land was for the settlers. Their beloved buffalo had been decimated and the way of life they’d known for generations was gone. With their freedom and way of life went their self-esteem as well. They had once been a proud, industrious, self-sufficient people. Now bureaucrats in Washington, D.C administered their affairs for them. They had become wards of the government. The proud warriors had once provided for all of their families’ needs. Their hunts provided skins for teepees, clothing and moccasins, and meat for their sustenance. Now the men sat idle, grieving for the loss of their land and their way of life. All too often, they tried to drown their sorrow in a bottle of ‘fire water’. When Charlie could no longer face the despair that stared back at him through Native eyes, he too had turned to the bottle. His downward spiral had been a swift one. When you no longer contribute, you begin to die. He was ashamed of the power that the bottle held over him. He knew that he needed to beat this demon alcohol, but he could not find the strength for the battle where he was. Once, when
they were truly free, the warriors would paint their faces before going into battle. They would look deeply into the eyes of their brothers, each man drawing on the strength and determination he saw there. “It is a good day to die!” They would say with courage and conviction.
Charlie remembered how Heath’s eyes had shone with courage and determination. Perhaps if he found Heath, he could also find the willpower to defeat his demons and make a better life for himself.
Heath had done everything he could. He had convinced Nick to hire him and tried to keep Charlie away from the bottle. It had only worked for a little while. Charlie kept falling into the clutches of his nemesis. Heath would talk Nick into re-hiring him, only to have the cycle repeat itself.
Nick saw him for what he was: a drunk. Nick treated him as if he’d always be the same.
Heath saw him as the man he could be and the man he ought to be. Heath still treated him as if he were that man in the hope that he’d become that man. Charlie knew his friend would never give up on him.
Charlie tugged the dark blue Union Army jacket a little tighter around him. Did the people in this town even realize why he continued to wear it? Had they ever heard the message he sought to convey? He had fought bravely and honorably for his country. No, not his country; their country. He had fought to preserve their way of life. His way of life was gone. He had defended an ideal that he would never be allowed to fully participate in. He had saved the lives of husbands, brothers and sons. He had been a decorated war hero! When he had left the Army, it had all accounted to nothing. It had not been enough to stop him from sliding into the depths of humiliation.
He had become not only an embarrassment to himself, but to Heath as well. And lately, he had become something far worse than a dangerous liability. Heath was fighting mad over some of the treatment Charlie had received. The fury and fire that smoldered in those blue eyes when Heath threatened to kill a man if he hurt Charlie again had been genuine. Charlie knew it was no idle threat. The care and concern he saw in those eyes had warmed him in the face of the chill he saw in so many others. But for Heath’s sake, he could not afford to stay in Stockton much longer.
But, where could he go? As much as he loved his people, Charlie had no
desire to return to the reservation. There had been times he had felt like human livestock. No, he’d only drink himself to death there. Charlie paused before pushing through the swinging doors of the saloon. He wasn’t really welcome here either, but he was viewed as sport: a kind of cheap entertainment. Offer the Indian a drink to make a public fool of himself.
Charlie climbed over the banister and tied the rope around his ankles. The one thing he knew for certain was this rickety old balustrade would never hold his weight. He took a deep breath. A frantic cry broke his concentration for only a moment. It was fitting that he could look into those blue eyes one last time and draw from the courage and determination he found there before taking the head first plunge.
It is a good day to die, my Brother!