Morphine-addicted veteran John Weldon dodges a bullet and gains a son . . .
John Weldon and the soldiers of the West had to shout most days to be heard in conversation over the relentless wind blowing through the forlorn barracks so they rarely bothered unless inside their flimsy shelters. The troops were supposed to be fortifying the place, but most claimed illness and the lieutenant colonel in charge suffered from incapacitating sickness every time he came back from down river where Soldier’s Delight poured freely at the nearest settlement.
Weldon hated loose ends. He stopped to stuff his pipe with dried and stale tobacco leaves he’d bought on the way out, cursing at being swindled. Simon still teased him about it since they ran out of Simon’s cigars a while back. Weldon ducked out of the wind between two sheds to light up.
“Sergeant Weldon!” called the young Irish wife of a sergeant Weldon disliked and outranked.
Too heartsick to do the simple chore of laundry himself, Weldon paid the laundress a small fee to do it for him.
“Sergeant Weldon, will ye ever slow yourself. I’m near out of breath chasin’ ya down.”
Weldon never much spoke to the woman from Sudsville, as the men called her tiny spot of earth, and was unnerved by her attention. “Yes, Mrs. Lyon, how may I help you?” he inquired, glancing around.
Tall and ruddy complexioned with enormous black eyes and hair curling down to her waist, held in check by a long strip of wool knotted at her neck, Oonagh Lyons exuded a forwardness that intrigued and repulsed Weldon. “Sir, it’s I who may help you. I’m just after findin’ this in your coat,” she said, but before Oonagh even spoke the words, Weldon guessed what she was fishing for from her apron pocket.
Weldon grabbed the syringe from the laundress, trying to put words together.
“Now don’t go gettin’ all rattled on me, Sergeant Weldon. I’m no rat, but you’re as fit as a fiddle so I’m thinkin’ you do it for pleasure. I’ve seen it before. You’re a veteran—I’d wager that’s how it started.”
Weldon stood in silence as the sand whistled and spun around them.
“Sir, if you don’t mind, I’m wonderin’ how you keep supplied. I won’t let on to nobody if it’s secret, that you can be sure.” Oonagh looked him over and clicked her tongue. “It’s a real shame ain’t it, sir. In yer prime bein’ a slave to a needle.”
Weldon spoke with feeble words, “I’m no slave . . . I was wounded . . .”
Oonagh Lyons waved him away. “Go on, sir, I don’t much care what your excuses are. I’m sure you’d rather no one knew, but seein’ as I do, all I ask is that you’re a little light on my husband.”
“Yes, and I may be able to get you a higher quality medicine.”
“That is completely unnecessary, Mrs. Lyons.” Weldon’s voice shook with anger and humiliation.
“Well, sergeant, I’ll be seein’ you, I suspect,” Oonagh smiled.
“I think not,” Weldon tried to say with dignity.
“To pick up your duds?” she laughed.
“Yes, I see, okay then,” Weldon stammered as he stalked off for his quarters.
Having no real work until evening, Weldon paced fingering the small syringe in the pocket of the jacket Sarah had made for him with Katherine’s help. He could not spend the day with morphine, worrying about Katherine, a baby, the washerwoman or her husband.
Weldon needed to work.
“Weldon, you look ghastly. Have you seen a ghost?” Simon asked, when Weldon rushed into headquarters.
“I’m reporting for duty, sir,” he said, trying to appear sharp.
“No, you’re not, Weldon,” Simon laughed, but concern traced his face. “Sit down; you look ready to collapse . . . is it your side again?”
Weldon pulled up a chair and came close to confessing his vain attempts at giving up the medication.
Simon stretched. He had just given up the idea of facial hair and rubbed his hand along his clean shaven chin. “It must be awful rough on you, having to leave my sister the way you did, but I’m certain it will all work its way out. In the meantime you should use this extra day to lie about,” he said, looking steadily at Weldon. “Is there something else? Are you sure your side . . .”
“Can you get it through your head I’m fine?! I just need to keep busy! I can’t keep thinking and thinking of this child!” Weldon explained.
Simon didn’t take these little outbursts to heart. “Okay, if you insist on badgering me for work and keep in this rotten humor, the only thing for me to do is comply or fight you, which I’m too queasy to do. Me and the boys had a big night. Paulsen is down again, with delirium tremens,” Simon said, “so if you want to, you can help me with the morning reports and some ordinance papers— finish the maps you began on the way out. The lieutenant colonel is impressed with what we did so far.”
Weldon nodded. “I’ll begin right away.” He took the maps and tried to focus on the smudged pencil marks.
They whiled away the afternoon, Simon taking a brief nap, with legs outstretched over the top of his paper work, until the post came after dark.
“Land sakes, if you two ain’t the popularist men along the Missoura! A letter for each of you. Good news I hope,” the soldier said and excused himself after touching his cap.
Weldon ripped open the letter and read it out loud:
Englewood, New Jersey
Congratulations! Your baby has made his arrival–a beautiful boy with a full head of hair like yours, but with the McCullough spunk. He decided to come over a month too soon. Both mother and child are weak, but Doctor Currie and the midwife are cautiously optimistic about their survival.
Simon stood over Weldon’s shoulder reading along. Weldon paused as the two came to their own conclusions about the less than comforting lines. The letter continued:
Katherine was despondent without you here, Sergeant Weldon, which may have contributed to her weakened state, but then Sarah had hardships in delivering all of our children and I was with her every day.
John leaned back stung by Scott’s words. Simon took the letter and read the rest of it.
Katherine asks that I send you her love and tell you that she will write when she is stronger. The poor thing felt guilty about you leaving her! We hope you are having some sort of success out there.
“Well,” Simon said, “it’s unfortunate that my father was the one to write but . . . we should celebrate.”
Weldon looked miserable. “I wonder what Katherine named him.”
“Of course it will be William as you both decided—Katherine wouldn’t leave your wishes out,” Simon assured him, but realized how difficult this marriage would continue to be with his sister so far away; it might be months before Weldon could be certain of his first son’s name. Weldon would not attend a christening or probably a Christmas. A few of the officers here hadn’t gone home in over five years. As much as Simon enjoyed a good celebration, he understood his friend’s lack of enthusiasm.
“Weldon, listen to me. Katherine has made it through. Your biggest fear is lifted.”
“But they are only cautiously optimistic . . .” Weldon said, flipping the note in hopes of more information.
Simon sighed. “Remember who wrote the letter. My father knows how to get under your skin, Weldon, and he’s a bastard for doing it now, but you must not let him succeed. You were there as long as you could be. Katherine knows that.”
“Yes, I know, but I wish …” He looked out onto the sandy, barren parade ground.
“John Weldon, stop this. You have just received wonderful news. Celebrate when you can in life.”
“Why is it in life whenever something good happens it’s so surrounded by shit?” Weldon asked.
“My father says that everything evens out in life. I don’t like that theory, but nothing’s ever perfect. You have to choose what to focus on.”
“Yes, yes, I know. It’s all in the attitude right? I’ve tried different attitudes, and they didn’t work any better,” Weldon said.
“I can only take just so much self pity, sergeant. This is not the man I knew in the war! You lie anyway. Once you stopped being so stand-offish and superior during the war the men grew fond of you and you know it. It was all attitude,” Simon said.
“Maybe you have something there,” Weldon said, with a faint smile. “I don’t know. I think it was just luck to meet the right people . . .”
“Yes, but . . . anyway, will we tell the boys your news? Give them an excuse to be cheerful for the night,” Simon suggested.
PART ONE HERE
PART TWO HERE
PART THREE HERE
PART FOUR HERE
PART FIVE HERE
PART SIX HERE
PART SEVEN HERE
**Images Frederic Remington