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Fort Marcy, 1846
A slight breeze stirred dust across the highly polished black boots of the soldiers and dragoons standing at attention. Men were solemn. Reveille had brought them to formation at half past five this Sunday morning to witness the execution of a dragoon officer, due to take place within the hour.
Rage rose in the throats of the men at Fort Marcy, who had trusted Captain Fielding with their lives in battle against the Mexicans. It was an abomination that he should die.
Fort Marcy crowned a steep hill in the heart of Santa Fe, the first United States outpost in the American Southwest. The grounds of Fort Marcy had been laid only a year ago and it was a sprawling fortification, surrounded by adobe walls rising seventeen feet from the bottom of an eight-foot ditch. Captured Mexican cannons, pointed from the parapet toward Santa Fe, could level the city at the least indication of revolt by the Mexicans.
But now, the threat of rebellion had grown into war. America’s manifest destiny was to push westward toward the Pacific. The first move in this direction had been made by newly elected President James K. Polk when he had sent an army on the Santa Fee trail to seize Mexico’s vast Rio Grande and Pacific territories.
The Mexican War had been the first great challenge to the skillful young officers from West Point who had joined regular Army commands. Captain Michael Fielding had been sent into Texas under command of General Stephen Watts Kearney, and he had yearned for the chance to put his military expertise to the test.
Behind the heavy wood doors of Fort Marcy’s stockade, Michael had just finished shaving. Despite the February cold, he stood, bare to the waist and the suspenders attached to his trousers hung at his sides. A Spanish priest had spent the hours of predawn with Michael, but he had heard little. Rather, he had heard, echoing softly in his head, the words of his stepbrother, Lieutenant Jarred Gunthar, who had pleaded for Michael’s life before the military tribunal.
You have heard the extenuating circumstances surrounding the death of Lieutenant John Gunthar. Yet you call this a cold-blooded act of murder. Nothing could be further from the truth. Michael, John and I were raised as brothers, and we were bound together in brotherhood for all time. When John lay mortally wounded in battle, it was Michael who expressed the greatest love. May he be blessed, even as you condemn him. He is a merciful man. Find him innocent, for God’s sake, and end this travesty.”
But the tribunal had been deaf to Jarred’s plea. And it had been a long, agonizing two and a half months since the sentence had echoed resoundingly in Michael’s ears…death by firing squad.
Michael could not imagine life going on without him. He could not bear the thought of his mother grieving for him. Jarred had been with him these past months. He had been there on the battlefield and had seen how their brother had suffered.
A sharp rap at the door startled Michael. Greselda, the camp washwoman, brought in his freshly laundered shirt and jacket. She entered silently, carefully put his jacket across the back of the chair and his shirt across the small cot.
As she started to leave, Michael murmured, “Thank you.” She grunted, put her hand on the door, and turned to bless him with a smile. Then she quickly slipped out of the door.
Michael’s stomach ached with hunger and nausea. His breakfast sat, untouched, on the wooden table in the corner. He turned back to the mirror, started to sweep his long hair back from his face, but dropped his hand when it began to shake.
“Discipline,” he said. “It is necessary now.” He had seen death and had killed, but he could not see himself dead. Life reflected in the mirror…warm, welcome life, and a strong desire to grow old. “God, help me through this hour.”
Straightening, chastising himself for his lack of self-discipline, Michael brushed back his hair, retrieved his shirt from the cot, and pulled it on. As he completed his dressing, he found himself thinking of the girl he would have married the following summer.
He remembered their pleasant walks along the Hudson River, her laughter, the way she ran with her satin skirts picked up, trying to keep several steps ahead of his playful pursuits. Oh, how long ago it now seemed!
A rooster crowed far off in the distance. Michael sat in the wooden chair beside the cot and linked his fingers together in a moment of thoughtful silence. He soon arose, made up his cot as he had every morning, and sat to write a final letter. As he wrote, he listened to the sounds of morning through the thick stone and mortar walls–the brisk winter wind whistling across the blockhouse, men’s shuffling boots, the click of rifles, the commands of drill sergeants, and the mission bells ringing out the call to services. He thought that Sunday was an awful day to die.
Through the iron-barred window he saw the territorial and American flags being raised over headquarters. He took the gold watch from his waistcoat pocket and stared at it.
Then the door opened and two officers approached. Michael came immediately to his feet, just as a pain grabbed his chest: fear–his final enemy.
Captain Ward Anderssen motioned him toward the door. Michael smoothed down the front of his jacket and fastened the buttons. As he stepped into the chilling wind, he thought of his home, Tarrytown, New York. With thoughts of home crowding his mind, he paced off two hundred steps and stood in the midst of the dragoons and soldiers who had once fought at his side.
Captain Anderssen stepped forward, unrolled a document he had clutched between his sweating fingers, and began to read in a loud, clear voice. “Be it known that on the twenty-fourth day of October, 1846, Captain Michael George Fielding, under the direct command of General Stephen Watts Kearney, the major command of Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor, did take the life of Lieutenant John Gunthar following engaged combat with invading Mexican forces at the American position of Coballo. We, the military tribunal of the First Cavalry Division of the Southwest, impaneled under special order, do sentence Captain Michael George Fielding to death by firing squad. The sentence shall be executed at half past the hour of six on the twenty-first day of February, eighteen forty-seven.” Captain Anderson looked up from the document. “Captain Fielding, do you understand that all legal delays for appeal have passed?”
Michael nodded his head imperceptibly. “I do, sir.”
“Have you any issues to address to this assembly before sentence is carried out?”
“None, sir, but I wish a word in private with Lieutenant Jarred Gunthar.”
Anderssen, a tyrant in the guise of officer’s dress, shot back in an angry, growled whisper, “You killed the man’s brother, for God’s sake!”
“And my stepbrother,” Michael countered softly.
Anderssen clicked his tongue as if he found the request an intolerable and unnecessary delay, and directed a hasty order to the corporal standing beside him.
Lieutenant Gunthar was immediately summoned from the Santa Fe headquarters office where he waited with his father for this grim moment to pass. The two young officers met in the bitter cold air. Michael took the letter he had written from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it to Jarred.
“I know the general is your father and not mine, Jarred,” Michael said, “but since he and my mother married and the three of us became brothers…”
“He loves you, Michael, as his own.”
“Perhaps,” Michael replied, putting the letter in Jarred’s hand. “But right now he believes only that I murdered his son.”
“I told him the circumstances. He will come to grips with it.”
“Eventually,” Michael conceded. “One day when he understands, give him this letter.”
Jarred quickly thrust it into the pocket of his jacket. “Do you wish to send any messages for your mother when again we meet?”
“Assure her of my deepest love. Assure her that I die bravely today.” Michael embraced him and whispered a final farewell.
Jarred clipped his boots and turned away, his eyes moist with tears. Before he took three steps, he pivoted back and embraced Michael once again. “The men tried hard to clear you, Michael. May God forgive this travesty.” Then he turned in an abrupt military fashion and quickly put distance between them.
Captain Anderssen approached with the guards and escorted Michael to a tall, flat beam against the stone wall. Immediately, wide leather straps circled his legs just above the knees, and his shoulders, pulling them painfully back. Anderssen unbuttoned Michael’s jacket and pulled it back from his chest.
Michael’s eyes moved swiftly, frantically, taking everything in…the solemn faces, the immaculate formations of blue-uniformed soldiers and officers, their brass buttons and sabers gleaming in the early morning light, bayoneted rifles rigid against the gold stripes of Army trousers…above, territorial banners flapping in the wind. Michael’s strength began to abandon him.
Within moments, he would feel the impact of eleven bullets in his chest. He trembled. Had his knees not been firmly strapped to the beam, they might have buckled. Tension and dreaded anticipation crawled through his shoulders. Panic blinded him. The last thing he saw before his face was covered by a blindfold was Jarred disappearing into battalion headquarters across the battery. All that was left now was the dreaded sequence of commands.
Captain Anderssen moved away from him. From another direction, he heard muted boot steps comingled with commands that seemed muffled and far away. Then all movement ceased.
The provost marshal announced, “Officer of the Day, by your command, the sentence shall be…” A tremor settled in his throat, which compelled him to turn away and cough. He turned back immediately. “The sentence shall be carried out, sir.”
“Carry on,” Anderssen replied. He had always been a stickler for tradition and firmness among men. He was sick to the pit of his stomach that men of the United States Army were as weak and undisciplined as schoolboys. Perhaps the lot of them should take example from the condemned man, who stood motionless against the beam.
The provost marshal looked down the neat line, at twelve men whose faces seemed strangely void of emotion.
His first command, “Ready…” sent renewed nerves, and the greatest fear he had ever known, crawling through Michael’s shoulders.
His throat was suddenly parched and dry. He breathed deeply. As rifles clicked in unison, behind the blindfold, the muscles of Michael’s face grew taut. Sweat poured down his hairline to his collar.
“Aim…” Michael did not hear the drums roll, only the clink of weapons. The world’s noises abandoned him. A second became an eternity in which a sob choked in his throat. “God,” he muttered, involuntarily drawing his chest into a tight knot of muscles.