The story of a morphine-addicted Civil War veteran and his redemption continues . . .
Weldon stood, using the solid table, cluttered with unfamiliar cooking utensils, as his support. His eyes blurred as the dull pain at his side and in his leg begged him to remain seated. But he had come a long way for this moment…if only this kitchen wasn’t so cozy. His resolve softened. Before Weldon could recover his thoughts, Simon and his sister, Katherine, barreled in with six dainty toy spaniel dogs. The girl laughed while giving a short summary of her victorious race before noticing the stranger at the table. With reddened cheeks she scooped up a noisy pup to quiet it.
“Oh, so many ridiculous dogs, you must think, Mr. Weldon,” Sarah said, “but Katie didn’t mind her father’s words and let them breed and of course her father refused to make her part with them. Simon, you didn’t tell me you’d made any friends with manners during the war.” Sarah flashed the sergeant a generous grin.
“Yes, Mother, indeed.” Simon outstretched his hand, stiffly. “Weldon, this is some surprise…it’s good to see you…recovered.”
“N-no…” Weldon stammered, scratching his scalp as Sarah and the girl looked on.
Simon withdrew his hand.
“Weldon, …well, you’re back from the dead almost. I’m so surprised…happily so. It was tough in the end…” Simon looked towards his women. “It was very tough for Weldon in the end.”
Weldon said nothing.
“Mr. Weldon, my son is rude,” Sarah said as she put her arm through his. “Please allow me to introduce my daughter, Katherine.”
“S-Simon t-talked about you.” Without the morphine Weldon stuttered more. Sarah’s arm was warm and soft like yeast dough. The sound of a cat licking itself under the table seemed loud and vulgar. It distracted him. “Pardon, what was the girl’s name again?”
The girl turned red, and looked longingly towards the door that led to the rest of the house.
“Her name is Katherine, poor boy. You look all wore out. Now sit again and you’ll stay for supper.”
That evening Sarah seated the girl, wearing a powder blue tea dress with navy trim, next to Weldon. “I don’t understand why you didn’t wear the pretty dress I made you,” she whispered disapprovingly.
Katherine blushed, but said nothing. She smelled of lilacs and once she brushed against Weldon’s sleeve with her poker-thin arm. He noticed the blonde little hairs on it and a freckle just above her wrist.
Scott McCullough had just arrived home a few moments ago and had not seemed pleased with company. “So Sergeant Weldon, are you going to tell us all about your brave feats during the war?”
Weldon answered the patriarch’s war questions slowly and personal questions vaguely. He tried to be polite, but his head ached every time he glanced at Simon. Simon was a captain now? It sickened Weldon. His wool uniform scratched the back of his neck.
“Sergeant Weldon, Simon tells me that you were in the Regular Army before the war,” Scott said. “What interested you in the military?”
“I s-suppose, sir, it was the food and discipline.” Weldon carefully placed his fork down in the right spot. His father’s tales of the old dragoons and the British navy of his grandfather’s day had offered a dream of escape as a young boy, while the strange staggered stories his mother told of hunts and ceremonies and hunger frightened him, being too close and real. Army food wasn’t good, but it came in steady allotments. Discipline put his life in order. He had his own place, tucked between two others, who also had their place. Every button and boot counted for something. His lack of eloquence and grace did not preclude him from his part in something larger than himself.
“Do you hear that, Sarah? This boy is so unlike our Simon. Our boy’s never known a rule he couldn’t break.”
“Scott, must you tease?” Sarah asked, while motioning for Weldon’s plate to be refilled. She glanced down the table and caught her daughter, again, with a vacant look in her eyes, picking over her food. “Katherine, do you have anything to add to the conversation?”
“Then you may clear the plates,” Sarah ordered. “Simon says we should hire one of the new colored women in town for help, but a woman should run an economical and efficient home on her own. We’re strong enough for it. Don’t you think, Mr. Weldon? What about you’re mother? I bet she’s strong.”
“I d-don’t recall, I…my m-mother died, but…”
“Sergeant Weldon, I’m sorry,” Sarah continued, nervously, “would you like a little more?”
Katherine stared at his plate, while hovering over Weldon.
All eyes were upon him and he couldn’t take of another bite. “I don’t know…”
Katherine smiled wanly and took his plate before he could answer.
As the men made themselves comfortable in Scott’s library around an enormous stone fireplace, the tribe of dogs wandered in, sitting at Weldon’s feet.
“Katie does love her nuisance pets,” Scott said. “That one wants your lap, sergeant.”
Weldon picked up the dog feeling mildly ridiculous. His mind drifted as Scott poured the men a drink…. He sat at the edge of the bloody stream, picking at the sores on his scalp. It had started at the ear, his right ear, behind it—just pulling bits of hair and it had been satisfying for a time. And then there were secondary spots and sometimes he’d pull at the finest threads and sometimes, most times, clumps and it felt like sin and he couldn’t stop even with praying.
He would NOT cry and he would not do another bad thing. This was it. This one last thing. His shaking fingers ran over the soft scar hidden at his collar from his father’s last flogging. John had lost a contest at Sunday school—scripture memory—and his father had bragged on him, but the prim, eagle-beaked young lady in charge had unnerved him and he lost the first word in a fluttering, stammering blur of sounds.
These things were his; his hair, his skin—and he needed to keep track of them. He needed to hold onto this little bit of territory. Something, a tiny voice, caught his attention, and he turned towards the water, towards the bag of his pups. John thought he had beaten them dead, but the bag moved a little, and in a rush of small hope he cut the bag open and the creatures, all mutilated and bloody, tumbled into the muddy, slow-moving stream. But one—with small opened mouth—expressed the surprise, the sorrow of being expendable and unloved. John pulled it from the rest and saw that it could not live and that it was broken and he twisted its neck till it snapped and tossed it with the others, but as soon as he did, he began to imagine that he could have saved that last one. He was a murderer—no. He had obeyed his mother, and it was for the best. The bitch that had birthed them beneath the cabin was a starveling and soon would die, too. He could blame his mother, but with all the big trees slain to make room for corn and whiskey, God would know what had happened and John begged to be forgiven this one last thing.
“Weldon?” Simon pulled him back. “Are you all right?”
The door creaked and Katherine tip-toed in, keeping her slim body close to the volumes that lined the walls, floor to ceiling, until she had safely stowed herself away in the window seat with its well-worn cushions and a tightly knit shawl for her shoulders. Weldon Scanned the shelves and the toppling piles of books and journals all around the room. Not once in the years of the war did he spot Simon with a book, except for the dirty one he had confiscated from a private. Katherine and her father were the readers. He knew it by the way the girl gently fingered her way through the onion skin pages of a well worn copy of Dickens.
“Have you read all these books, sir?” Weldon asked with envy regretting it instantly.
Scott laughed tracing his fingers over the rim of his glass with a self-satisfied air. “This and more, of course. A person is nothing without a mind for knowledge. I had high hopes for Simon and bought every book here for his education.” He sighed.
Simon took a drink, looking absently into the fire.
“Well, when things turned sour, and we sent Simon off to military school…our Katherine kept reading for enjoyment sake, I suppose. She has a decent mind for a girl, but an education is wasted on women. And truth be told Simon was no scholar.”
Simon, with his light hair slicked back and his broad shoulders pent up in fine summer linen, oozed a restlessness that annoyed his father and saddened Katherine who knew that Englewood was too small for him now. Simon drank some more in the stifling silence. Katherine mourned over something lost in him. She went to a shelf and took out the scrapbook she had made since his first going away to West Point and then the war. She ran her fingers over the tintypes of Simon at war and the yellowing newsprint that had brought the battles home to her. The boy who used to bring her into his world had never come back as a man.
Scott’s eyes fell upon Katherine with an air of sad disappointment.
Simon noticed and quickly broke into story. “Father, you’d have been appalled at the antics of the soldiers away from home doing as they pleased. One officer even tended bar in a bawdy house in full uniform . . . or so I hear,” Simon winked at Weldon. “And some of the girls were pretty . . . from a distance, anyway. Father, you know the Renner’s from English Neighborhood? Remember, Weldon, how we caught him out? It was a laugh. We were just walking through Murder Bay—for an evening stroll to round up the boys, Father, nothing more—and who do we come across after leaving a drinking establishment, but Renner as tight as can be in an alley—how idiotic he looked with his trousers around his ankles and a Cyprian with her mouth around his . . .”
“Simon! Enough of this story, I’ve got the idea.”
“So we come along and surprise him, but he doesn’t mind. Asks us if we’d like to join him since he’s got another standing there waiting for her three dollars. Land sakes, they were ugly. So we declined, not because they were ugly, but because that sort of thing is wrong, Father,” Simon said while pouring scotch and then a bit more into his glass. “Well, I say as a small joke, I ask him if he’s been cured of the clap yet and, well, the girl at his waist stops bobbing her head and just bites down hard. He sobered up enough after that. Of course he never had the clap, but will have to explain to his girl back home about the scar.”
Scott turned to Katherine. “Your brother has a talent for bringing up conversation unsuitable for mixed company.”
“My apologies, Father,” Simon said with a grin. In the fire light any hint of age vanished from his sun-burned good looks.
The men watched the fire or pretended to. Weldon’s eyes were on Katherine.
“Katherine,” Scott said, disconcerted by the look on Weldon’s face, “dear, please go to see if your mother needs help.”
The library door creaked as Katherine returned with a teetering tray. Gently she set it upon her parents’ wedding table, but still a cup tumbled. Weldon’s quick hand saved it as the little dog yipped and jumped from his lap.
“For God’s sake, Katherine, be more of a lady for once!” Scott moved the tray.
Katherine’s small voice shook. “Sergeant Weldon, how do you prefer your coffee?”
Her mother entered with a flourish, carrying her gorgeous confections. “Now then boys, please help yourselves. Sergeant Weldon, please eat.”
Scott looked at his wife with pride. “Mrs. M, sit and Katherine, too. We need more enlightened conversation.” His wife sat between the two soldiers. Katherine sat at her father’s feet, staring into the glimmering embers.
“Father, let’s offer our guest one of your better cigars,” Simon said, standing up.
Scott waved him down. “Don’t want you foraging through my things, son,” he said, pulling the smokes from a drawer himself and barely replying when Weldon thanked him.
“Father, Weldon here loved these cigars. Being the friendly sort, I took the young soldier under my wings during the war.”
“Poor boy,” Scott said.
“Ha-ha, Father. He kept to himself—not originally from the garden state and all. Lied to the army at Carlisle about his age to join the cavalry. Bookish, too—you’d like that, I’d say, Father. He once told me how he’d stolen books from the old librarian at Carlisle because he loved the books so, right Weldon? You should hear how he recites things from the Bible.”
Sarah brightened. “Now that’s a very nice thing. Will you show us?”
“I-I don’t remember n-now…”
“Oh, what a shame. Well, can you recite poetry?” she asked.
“M-my father taught me to read, ma’am, from the Bible only. It’s the only book he cared for…the only one we had.”
Scott puffed his cigar. “I’m not much for the revival-preaching westerners.”
“Father,” Simon said while reaching behind him for another bottle of something on his father’s lower shelf, “Weldon got it in his mind that I wanted his expert military advice—that I came by for a chat in camp each day to gain knowledge of regulations regarding the company sinks—thought the cigars a bribe of some sort, right Weldon?”
“I don’t recall…I…” Weldon stammered, having trouble reaching the ash tray from his seat.
“Father, on his small salary, he went and bought me the best cigars he could get hold of to repay me. Told me not to play at friendship…a hard nut to crack, he was.”
“Sounds like childishness to me,” Sarah said. “Of course Simon doesn’t play at friendship. That wouldn’t be Christian now would it, Mr. Weldon?”
“He was rough around the edges, I’d say. He wasn’t shoved off to West Point like I was, but I sensed a good chap beneath it all and after I realized how much he loved your socks and preserves, Mother, I knew he couldn’t be all bad. It took me a while to figure who was stealing them.”
“I knit my fingers raw trying to fill your requests for socks! My Simon-what a kind soul to care for the less fortunate. I can’t tell you how much it pleases me to know that my strawberries were thoroughly enjoyed, Mr. Weldon,” Sarah said, patting Weldon’s knee.
“I never stole…I…”
“Come now, Weldon,” Simon laughed. “No hard feelings.”
“Land sakes, and if those aren’t the very boots Mother sent for Simon two sizes too big like he asked,” Katherine said.
“At the hospital, I had no idea…they just appeared.” Weldon itched all over.
“Katherine, apologize for being rude to our guest,” Sarah said.
“Mr. Weldon, I meant no harm,” Katherine whispered, sinking into her chair. She looked as small as Weldon felt.
“And so, sergeant, what will you do now that we’re at peace?” Scott asked, wiping his spectacles.
“I’ll g-go back to my regiment, sir.”
“Really? So you enjoy the vagabond life of a soldier? Business of some sort or finance is of no interest to you?”
“Father,” Simon said, draining the contents of his father’s scotch, “Weldon is an excellent soldier. So many times he got me out of a jam—remember that night of the big poker game, Weldon? Oh, Weldon didn’t care for cards though he has the poker face. Anyway, I came away with big winnings—a young private’s watch and a fair amount of his other truck. Weldon covered for me in his morning report. Could have gotten in a heap of trouble over it, but he’s true. Very dependable. Our army would do well to have more like Weldon enlist. As it is, we officers will have it rough with the dregs that may now join.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that many of the enlisted men are of the disreputable sort. Cover-ups don’t impress me,” Scott said. “The military has corrupted your values, son. All the stand-up men have gone home since the war.”
“You wouldn’t know a thing about it, Father. Weldon is of a better breed. He’s loyal.”
“I meant no offense to you, Mr. Weldon,” Scott said. “I’m sure you’ve overcome many obstacles to make it this far. Speaking of breed where is your family from? Weldon is an English name is it not, but . . .”
“Ohio, sir. The Western Reserve.” Weldon scratched his arm.
“I believe there are a fair amount of Indians out in Ohio, Weldon?”
“Not so many as there once were, I suppose.”
Scott took his time looking Weldon over. “Terrible what those Sioux did to those farmers up in Minnesota a few years back. Four hundred dead that first day and some nailed right to their doors—children, too. Wasn’t it half-breeds involved somehow?”
“I didn’t keep track of the details, sir, while off f-f-fighting a war.”
“I just thought you might take an interest in such things. My wife thinks you look Italian or Indian.”
“Father!” Simon complained.
“Mr. McCullough, I am part . . .”
Simon grabbed his friend’s arm, “No, Weldon, my father is being rude. Don’t give him the satisfaction of answering his idiotic questions!”
“Pardon me, Sergeant Weldon, I only meant to make conversation. My son is far too confrontational since the war. I hear that fighting can cause a man to suffer mentally for years after . . . and drink . . .”
Sarah took up the coffee pot. “Sergeant Weldon, more?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. McCullough.” He wiped his face. “You have been far too generous. I th-think I shall leave before I overstay my w-welcome.”
They all stood but Scott, who poked at the fire.
“Father!” Simon begged.
“Oh, yes, good night, Weldon.”
After awkward maneuvering, the crowded room emptied. Simon led his guest out past Katherine.
“Good night, Miss Katherine,” Weldon said, only glancing at her.
Katherine tapped his shoulder. “Sir, good night…I wanted to say…” she checked to see that the others were outside. “I wanted to say that you’re the nicest soldier yet Simon has brought home to marry me off to. You didn’t talk about Gettysburg once or get drunk. The last one got so drunk he lost his new teeth in the lilac bushes and had to be hauled down to the station in a donkey cart after he made a mess on my father’s library rug.”
TO READ PART ONE OF THIS FICTION SERIAL CLICK HERE