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The Ghost Ponies Wail in the Bloody Swale



I am honored to have singer/songwriter James Lee Baker cover my song Most Promising Officer on his new album Impressions. He brilliantly infused the song with the haunted atmospherics it needed to convey the tragedy and complexity of the story. Also impressive is the art work by Zulfikri Mokoagow (illustrating his songs is part of James' aesthetic). It shows the narrator of the song and the vision he experienced while encountering the ghosts of Palo Duro Canyon of Texas.



Most Promising Officer


I wandered the trail a mile or three

For a day, maybe a week

Til I came to the crossroads place

Where I could no longer speak

I raised my face up to the sky

Where the prairie sun burns white

On the lonely Llano Estacado

At the place of the Mckenzie fight


He was the most promising, most promising officer

The most promising, most promising officer


The ghost ponies wail in the bloody swale

Where their bones bleach white in the sun

At night a light flashes across the sky

Where the thunder stallions run

Up north in the Bighorn snow

Where the Tongue's clear waters flow

There's a cut-throat pony in the blizzard night

Where the Old Ones' feet were froze


He was the most promising, most promising officer

The most promising, most promising officer


I guess it's true when they say

That Custer died for our sins

I figure he got what he deserved

For the rest of us, the judgin's not in

Mckenzie could not bear the burden

He could not still the cries

He could only dream of a Colt Army 45

Right between the eyes


He was the most promising, most promising officer

The most promising, most promising officer


I raise my face up to the sky

Where the prairie sun burns white

On the lonely Llano Estacado

At the place of the McKenzie fight



I wrote Most Promising Officer after many days exploring the backcountry of Palo Duro Canyon and reading and studying its history. Ulysses S. Grant called Colonel Ranald Mckenzie "the most promising officer" in the Army. Mckenzie attacked and defeated the Comanche and Kiowa in Palo Duro Canyon in 1874. Two years later he did the same to the northern Cheyenne on the Tongue River of Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. Mckenzie fought without the brutality that usually accompanied the genocide against Native Americans. That's scant praise. In both cases, the free life of the Native Americans was violently and savagely ended and they were forced to reservations.


The obvious contrast with Mckenzie was with George Armstrong Custer. In the graduation roles of West Point, their names are adjacent; Custer last in the class of 1861, Mckenzie first in the class of 1862. Both men received accolades for their Civil War service. Both men faced ignoble ends; Mckenzie went mad, and Custer, of course, "...got what he deserved". I think the most important line is the one that follows: "For the rest of us, the judgin's not in". What is the fate of a country born in violence and blood, slavery and genocide? Is it different from the fates of Custer and Mckenzie? Is there any redemption in raising our faces toward the prairie sun's burning white truth?


And the ghost ponies? After Mckenzie scattered the Comanche and Kiowa, he burned their lodges and provisions. He then drove the captured horses south to Tule Canyon where he ordered the herd slaughtered. More than 1000 horses and mules were left rotting in the Llano Estacado sun.


https://orionmagazine.org/article/bone-of-conciliation/

https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/palo-duro-canyon/




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