FICTION SERIAL (part thirteen): When Worlds Collide

Morphine-addicted and newly-minted 2nd lieutenant John Weldon cleans up his act and introduces his wife, son and baby daughter to  army life in the Arizona desert.

They woke to the whistle of the wind curling up under the canvas where a stake had loosened.  Weldon jumped into his clothes, started a tiny fire, which the wind conspired to put out, and went in search of more blankets and stray coats.

Over a breakfast of hard bread and cool coffee Katherine and William grumbled about the cold as much as they had done about the heat the previous morning but were silenced when John presented them with wrinkled uniform jackets.Someone even lent the boy a moth eaten wool cap to pull over his ears. Katherine wondered which of the men had last worn it. But still they shivered. Wrapped in all they could find including the canvas tent, Katherine, William and Eliza settled into the wagon once more. John rode off in the lightest of jackets to start the day. Katherine did not know then that he had sold off the coat she and Sarah had made for him.

Finally Camp Grant came into sight. A small, faraway and quiet band played a welcome. Distorted by the wind, it sounded hollow and sad. William jumped before Katherine could stop him and ran along the column of men, glorying in the display of flags and guidions. The horses trotted now and even the ornery mules brightened as they rode unto the parade ground. Katherine in the wagon could see only the barren wilderness lit by the morning sun behind her until the wagon slowed to a stop. She climbed out with Eliza in tow. Having imagined the fort to be an oasis in the desert, Katherine stood for a moment catching her breath.

old-camp-grant-280The military men of the post said a few words Katherine could not hear. The ceremony reminded her of the blustery funerals she had been dragged to as a child. When the officers fell silent, the wind kicked up and the ranks broke. Some soldiers had a stoic grace, but most looked disappointed that their lives had come to this. They lingered with their hands in their armpits or pockets, bracing against the cold wind fingering through their scant duds.

On one side of the parade ground stood what at first appeared to be stables, but the eager animals were led elsewhere. The adobe and wood structures acted as officers’ quarters. The small dark windows looked out on the newcomers forbiddingly. Across the grounds an even more ungainly mass of ramshackle structures sat waiting to be beautified by the ranks.

The commissary and hospital shacks lay at the far end of the parade grounds, and now Katherine saw the beasts of burden being led to the stables and corral behind them. Stray dogs yapped and skittered around the new family until John kicked them off. Debris tumbled like circus dancers across the barren grounds. Even the flag flew pale.

The men who came up to greet the newcomers were in various states of undress and had a decidedly low look, as if the desert wind had knocked the polish from them, carrying away buttons, hair scissors and even the will to bathe, but one was friendly. “Will ye look at that—two youngins fer the camp. Well, they sure is fine, ma’am, and the boys’ll have some frolic with ‘em, I reckon. Woo wee, if it ain’t the plumb coldest day out here. Rest easy, ma’am, we’ll get ya the coziest bunk so we will. Lieutenant, sir, ya may as well know you’ll have to bump the Lyons tribe and they’re an ornery lot, but rules is rules and you just about outrank them. Sergeant Lyons got lucky so far cause this place was under manned. They shoulda’ moved right off, but no one had the balls ta tell the missus till today. We thought you’d be here soon enough, and I guess we was pretty right about it. Jus’ follow me, jus’ here . . .”

Weldon swallowed hard as they stepped onto the “porch” of a place that looked more like an outhouse than a home. He had hoped his request to have Oonagh Lyons and her hapless husband transferred went through.

The cheerful private knocked like a bull at the door. “Hey there, missus!”

The door opened a crack. Two stone-eyed girls peered out first, but were shoved aside by the woman with a cynical grin John had grown so dependent on before he straightened himself out this year. She folded her arms and turned to the young man. “Yeah, private?”

“Mrs. Lyons, pack up yer gear, I’m sorry ta say.”

Oonagh glared at Katherine. “And you’re what all the fuss is over?”

Katherine turned to John. “A fuss?”

Oonagh laughed.

“M-Mrs. Lyons was with the r-regiment at F-Fort . . .” John explained, but his voice trailed off.

The cry of a baby within unsettled Katherine. “I can’t steal her home! I can’t do it!”

“Mrs. Weldon, it’s the army’s way. Ya cain’t change it and Lieutenant Weldon has rank he earned,” the private said. “One fine mornin’ when yer set jus the way ya like it, you might be put out too, so don’t be too upset takin’ what’s rightfully yers.”

The wind slapped the branches of the ramada porch and Eliza howled. Katherine handed the baby to Weldon, who had no better luck with her and gave her back. Oonagh Lyons looked on wryly. “Ain’t you a tiny thing, Mrs. Weldon? Good luck to ya.”

William clung to Katherine’s skirt, his nose dripping, his body shivering. Eliza swung her arms and scratched at her mother.
Oonagh pushed through them to fetch a makeshift wheelbarrow. The private offered to help. Katherine said to John, “Won’t you help her, too?”

Weldon hesitated, but took a step forward.

Oonagh scowled at them. “Sure, I can do it meself!”

Even in fine eastern clothes Katherine could not compete with Oonagh’s wild beauty. Oonagh threw a few pots and pans, a quilt and some candles into the barrow. The children followed barefoot, dragging a carpetbag with them. They looked hunched and rickety and John worried about rations for his own family. He grabbed the bag from the girls, but Oonagh spoke to her children. “You take it yerselves, we don’t want none of their help.”

Reluctantly the children took the bag from the equally reluctant Weldon. “That’s mean of you, Oonagh—I mean Mrs. Lyons. The bag’s too damned heavy for Theresa and Maeve.”

“Enjoy yer new home, lieutenant. It’s a palace! Just mind yer own children. I’ll take care of mine how I see fit.”

John turned to Katherine and shrugged though he wanted to pummel Oonagh. He would not let his children starve out here. “Where’s Sergeant Lyons, private?”

“Course he’s off in the guardhouse or in Tucson—the paymaster’s just been on a flyin’ visit after mus be six months. Surprised there’s as many here as is, but I guess some is still getting over the fever that’s been round,” the private answered as he entered the quarters. “Darn shame they mussed the paint job us soldiers did on the place jus a few months ago. Never shoulda’ let them dirty micks in here when there weren’t no officer. They ain’t fit fer luxuries, I reckon.”

Katherine stepped timidly over the threshold, the wild flames from a half broken cook stove changing the private’s features grimly. A crooked bunk with legs crippled and gnawed at looked fit for nightmares. A table made of old boxes and covered with what appeared to be the grease and soot from a hundred horrible meals lay toppled on the lone chair. The walls had cave paintings of the most inelegant sort. Splashes of color that could only come from spilled slop buckets and bedpans decorated the once whitewashed corners of their abode.

The private threw more fuel on the fire setting the stovepipe into a frenzy of smoky coughs and spits. “Oh, they’ve gone and cracked the pipe,” he stated as Katherine and John looked on despairingly.

Eliza still cried and now coughed from the black smoke. Katherine bounced her nervously. John brought in the rest of their things and the private went off.

Sitting on the edge of the bed frame, Katherine yelped as it gave way beneath her. William laughed as she sat crying on the dirt floor with Eliza screaming now. Weldon rolled his eyes. He pulled his wife up and held her in his arms. “Oh, Kate, don’t cry!” he begged. “I’ll fix it up somehow. I can make us a better bed, but don’t cry—it only makes things worse.”

“I can’t help it. I keep thinking about our things. I can’t imagine how I’ll make this place homey without them. And what about our clothes and dishes, John? We have nothing.”

“That’s not true—we have a frying pan. And look, one lone teacup from your set.”

Just then a large centipede scurried over Katherine’s bag. John brushed it off as calmly as he could.

“What was that, John?”

Weldon shook his head and plunged into work. He dragged the dirty linen and hay mattress outside. As Weldon did, a blizzard of assorted insects and other small creatures fled from their home in a frenzied stampede. Katherine ran from the room in panic only to be met by three squaws with broad, flat faces half-hidden beneath musky scented black bangs on the porch. With one hand Katherine grabbed Willy, who was mesmerized by the women, and in the other arm she held Eliza. She tried to back into their quarters, but Weldon wouldn’t let her.

“Kate, be calm,” he said gently as he put his arm around her.

“They’re like trolls with rodent eyes…and the one…what’s happened to her nose?” Katherine whispered.

“Apache men hack the noses from wives they think betray them,” Weldon said, matter-of-factly.

Even in the cold too much of their bodies hung out. They spoke in an aggressive tongue as they poked the crying baby with their thick-skinned, misshapen fingers. Katherine clung even tighter to Eliza.

“Katherine, they only want to see Eliza.”

“Child—cry baby,” one of the women said. Her sun-baked skin crinkled like wastepaper, and she spoke to the others and back to Weldon and Katherine again. “Cry-baby weak—no good.”

“She’s not weak!” Katherine said.

The woman mumbled, and her friend nodded in agreement. “Cry-baby no good,” she said again and wrung her hands around an imaginary child’s neck. “Too much trouble—won’t live long—get rid.”

“Get out of here!” Weldon shouted and waved his gun. “Stay away from us.”

The women pulled their blankets around themselves and walked off. The butchered one laughed and looked back at them. Katherine watched them go in silence and went back inside with Weldon at her heels.

“Oh, John! We have to escape! I’ll never survive!”

“Kate, where would we go? Those women—they’re harmless. They were just trying to scare us.”

“It worked! I won’t be able to leave this bug-infested place at all. And what will I do when you’re not here? Oh, John, I’m afraid I’ve made a big mistake following you. I love you, but . . .”

“Katherine, my pet, don’t give up so easily! I know you’re scared and miss your comforts, but I also know you’re a brave little thing deep down.”

Katherine searched Weldon’s face unsure if he believed what he was saying.

There was a knock at the door. Weldon sat Katherine on the only chair and opened the door in dread but was relieved to find a statuesque woman, trim and neatly dressed, smiling coquettishly at him. She touched his arm with her bleached glove and spoke with an Eastern, educated accent. “Good day, Mr. Weldon, the boys tell me you’ve lost your things on the trip out. Is Mrs. Weldon in?”

“Oh, yeah, yes,” Weldon answered and allowed the lady to pass him.

Her back was long and straight against the rough angles of the room. “I’m Julia James, the colonel’s wife. Mr. Weldon, my husband was sent good reports about you from Colonel Langellier. Your brother-in-law was to be stationed here with you, but he was too good for us, I suppose. Always one for a party and quite the favorite with the Langellier girls and that’s dangerous. It’s best that Captain McCullough gets away from temptation, and it’s ever so nice that Simon has connections. It’s how you were promoted, or so I’ve heard. The army being such a small world. We end up knowing everything,” Julia said still smiling. Holding out her hand, she gazed at Katherine. “Pleased to meet you.”

Katherine spoke shakily over the baby. “I’m Katherine…Weldon.” Again she cried. John took the children and went outside. “My mother packed so many pretty things and a lovely tea set and books for John…all lost!”

Mrs. James pat Katherine’s back smelling of rose perfume. “Oh, you’re overwhelmed aren’t you? We all were when we got here. It’s so different. But you’ll get used to it. The ladies will send over clean things, and once you’re settled we’ll make you a nice meal and discuss what you need to have on hand from the commissary. Sometimes we even go into Tucson for a day of shopping. We’re all in this together. Just remember that,” Julia assured the new recruit and pulled the hair from Katherine’s face. With her large green eyes and full mouth turned up slightly, the colonel’s wife got intimately close. “I’m in charge here, Katherine Weldon.”
Katherine couldn’t meet her eyes.
Julia smiled, “So you can depend upon me.”

Remington-CavalrymansBreakfast2
A Cavalryman’s Breakfast by Frederic Remington

**Featured Image A Cold Morning on the Range by Frederic Remington

PART ONE HERE

PART TWO HERE

PART THREE HERE

PART FOUR HERE

PART FIVE HERE

PART SIX HERE

PART SEVEN HERE

PART EIGHT HERE

PART NINE HERE

PART TEN HERE

PART ELEVEN HERE

PART TWELVE HERE

11 thoughts on “FICTION SERIAL (part thirteen): When Worlds Collide

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