Monday 11 June 2012

The Red Sabbath

By Lewis B. Patten
Tandem, 1976

Originally published by Doubleday, 1968

“The column of dust was like the smoke from a monstrous prairie fire, boiling, yellow. Beneath it was a savage horde, yelling, barbaric in their feathers and brilliant paint, firing into the air out of sheer exuberance, coming in hungry for the vengeance due to them for fifty years of broken promises, for half a hundred savage massacres.”

Sioux, Cheyenne and Kiowa, they longed to wipe out the detested Yellow Hair. But not only the Indians loathed General Custer; many of the men who rode with him towards the valley of the Little Big Horn also hated Custer, and with good reason. He was ruthless and vain and ambitious – and he needed a victory. So he led two hundred and twenty-five men of the 7th Cavalry into one of the bloodiest massacres in American history. With them was Miles Lorette, hard-bitten civilian scout whose life had twice been wrecked, by white men and Indians, and who was to take part in the violent and terrible hours of that blood-soaked Sunday in 1876.

This whole book pretty much takes place over that one bloody Sunday, moving into the next day for the conclusion. The story is told in the first person through Miles Lorette and his back-story is explained through a series of flashbacks during lulls in the battle.

There are many exciting, and tense, scenes throughout, one of the best for me being the desperate attempt to get water. Patten superbly portrays the fear of discovery and the frantic race back to the soldiers’ lines when discovered.

Lorette finds himself with Reno and Benteen’s commands, pinned down and helpless to go to Custer’s aid, hoping for Custer’s death but saddened by the thought of the loss of the men with the General. Lorette isn’t the only man who has these wishes, for most of the characters Patten features in his novel also want to witness Custer’s death for past wrongs.

Lewis Patten captures the atmosphere of the battle and its immediate aftermath in moving and visual prose. Even though the outcome of this savage clash between white men and Indian is well known, I still found myself swept up in the story, eagerly turning the pages to see what happened next, the final scenes of Lorette riding through the masses of dead making for a powerful ending to the book.

The Red Sabbath is a must-read for anyone with an interest in Custer and/or the Indian Wars, and, of course, for fans of Lewis Patten’s work.

This book was the winner of the Spur Award for best western historical novel in 1968.

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