Red, White & Army Blue by Peter Decker begins as a fictionalized account of the U.S. Army 4th Cavalry supervising the removal in 1881 of 1,500 defeated Utes from their 16 million-acre Uncompahgre River Valley homeland in western Colorado in a 250-mile march to a dusty patch of useless land in Utah Territory.
It soon becomes a story of the conflict between the Army’s disreputable purging the West of “The Indian Problem” and the compulsory punishment for one cold-blooded murder by an officer decorated for his skill at premeditated extermination.
Author Decker is a scholar of American history, a professor retired from both Columbia and Duke universities and the author of nonfiction books and treatises on the history of the American West. He has lived since 1980 on a working cattle ranch in Ridgway, smack dab in the middle of the Uncompahgre River Valley and the original Ute reservation.
Decker is a scholar by profession and a Westerner by inclination, so he knew where his dream ranch was located in history. While fixing a fence, he stumbled upon arrowheads that eventually lead to his fictionalizing this story about a single incident of the extreme racism upon which Manifest Destiny was polished bright.
The transition from nonfiction writing, especially scholarly writing, to making up a convincing fictional tale is a big leap that – at best – is difficult, certainly unnatural and usually unsuccessful. Red, White & Army Blue is a delightful book and nothing of what I expected and feared. Decker may be a cobbler of dehydrated academic text, but he is a natural wordsmith with an innate flair for creating narrative tension – the very marrow of fiction.
Col. Joseph Kindred was a renowned strategist in the vanquishing of Native American tribes. How does one say that any nicer and stay further from the truth? Kindred was a butcher, and his men were butchers. They had Army blue coats with polished brass buttons, sabers and rifles as well as a license to kill Native Americans – men, women, children and elders and their horses, dogs and babies – no questions asked.
Kindred was especially adept at killing with hate. The men under his command who survived his engagements with the Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Kickapoo and Cheyenne feared his rage and serviced his hatred, either themselves inured to their commander’s depravity or short-timers just awaiting discharge from Civil War service and filling in on the frontier until papers arrived, turning a blind’s eye to the turpitude they took part in.
Hiram Marlow was a short-timer on his first frontier assignment and final posting before heading back to the family farm in Iowa. He was a young, friendly lad who is exceptionally good with horses and people and made friends easily, including with a number of Ute families and especially with Kindred’s Ute interpreter Ben Carrol, half American from his father but all Ute from his mother and tribal upbringing.
On the trail to Utah, Marlow on guard duty one day saw an Native American brave riding back toward Colorado pulling a travois. Marlow’s orders were to shoot escapees, but instead, he approached the young man to find he was hauling his deceased mother back to their Colorado homeland for sacramental burial. Marlow led the Ute brave peacefully back to company headquarters. The translator was summoned, and the Ute brave turned out to be Running Bear, a sub-chief. Kindred in a fit of rage had the Native American put on his knees with his hands bound behind him and shot him in the head.
There was little justice and few rules associated with the Native American subjugation by the U.S. Army, but on this isolated occasion, Kindred was brought up on murder charges filed by his Ute interpreter, Carrol, and was reluctantly found guilty by a jury of cigar-smoking generals. He was dishonorably discharged without pension from the Army and went on the hunt for Marlow to kill him for flouting his loyalty and telling the truth.
I’ve taken you a little too far in the plot. But Red, White & Army Blue is not another rehash of an abject time in this country’s history, but instead, a story of conflict between degrees of honor among men. Honor that can easily be tempered by the fabricated laws of duty, honor that can be suspended, honor that can grow to hurricane frenzy when it’s safe to be arrogant.
Red, White & Army Blue is cut expertly from fine cloth by Decker. It fits the reader well: no annoying wrinkles, none too much fabric. It’s a resplendent book you will enjoy your time in.
Jeff@jeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.
Red, White and & Army Blue, by Peter Decker, 242 pages, published by Western Slope Press.