A politically incorrect dinner engagement leaves morphine-addicted John Weldon and his wife Katherine unsettled.
When Katherine said goodbye to her parents in Englewood she imagined they would come visit her one day and be impressed with her, but that flight of fancy dimmed on the arduous journey out. Father would never make such a trip. The final remnants of such hope disappeared after seeing her quarters.
Katherine realized upon entering the colonel’s quarters that Private Higgins was right. Julia James had expertly turned a rugged few rooms into a peaceful and well-appointed home. After a few envious moments Katherine noticed that the settee covered in elegant blue chintz with pillows to match had been constructed with just a few army boxes. The curtains over the lone window hung from ceiling to floor making the ceiling feel not so oppressively low. The only true piece of proper furniture was a small cabinet darkened with age. “What a beautiful piece,” Katherine whispered.
“Why thank you, Mrs. Weldon. It’s from my home state and dates from before the Revolution.”
“What state, may I ask? The cabinet reminds me of home in New Jersey.”
“Oh my! I’m from Trenton. Well, isn’t that a nice bit of luck? I hope we can become the best of friends,” Julia said, pulling Katherine close.
“I’m overwhelmed by your room. It’s so prettily done up, Mrs. James. It reminds me of a playhouse for a child. Private Higgins warned me, but it’s beyond my expectations.”
“I hope you won’t spend much time gossiping with that boy. Higgins is an awful liar and a sneak. I see you’ve hired him on for help, but how would you know how foolish that was unless you made it your business to ask one of us beforehand?” she whispered as the colonel spoke with John. “I find it telling that you call my home a room. I’ll give you a little advice. You’re used to high living back east, but I don’t appreciate your uppity tone especially since you’re married to a lowly 2nd lieutenant.”
“Pardon me, Mrs. James,” Katherine’s voice shook. “I meant no insult. Your home is lovely, and I only hope one day to have something half as nice.”
“Poor girl, you’re a pathetic little creature,” Mrs. James said as she poured Katherine a liqueur and waited for Katherine to take a timid sip. “I pride myself on judging people, especially army wives justly and fairly, and I’ll say that the likes of you never last. All your sniveling and shyness. It won’t do.” Julia sighed and then with an odd smile pulled Katherine to the table to join the men.
“So, Lieutenant Weldon, how does it feel to be stationed at the most desolate post in all of North America?” the colonel asked as they sat down to a supper of roast bird, oysters and white potatoes.
“I guess it’s too hard to tell yet, sir, but the heat is more than I bargained for.” Weldon stared at Katherine until she put down her drink with a blush.
Colonel James, with a heavy brow and full mustache, towered even over Weldon and filled the room with his movement and vitality. “Yes, the infernal heat. After the war I expected a nice little post somewhere pleasant. Even helping out with the coloreds would be better than this. Julia says it right; this is more a punishment than a promotion and no matter what we do for them, it’s never enough for the citizenry of these parts. Thankless work, I tell you. I long for the day of transfer. You see the caliber of men here. I’ve given them up completely.”
“Sir, I think all men can be whipped into shape somehow.”
The colonel eyed Weldon. “Well then, maybe you’re the one to do it. Would you like an old-fashioned army toddy?”
“Water will do, sir. Thank you.”
“Oh, a temperance man!” Julia laughed. “My, you two get better and better—an animal rescuer and a clean living man—you’re saints. You’ll have your work cut out for you!”
“Mrs. James is appalled by the debauchery that goes on here,” James said with what sounded like sarcasm. “It’s a man’s world as they say and you can’t blame a man for his natural urges. The officers are curbed by their families.”
“Oh, really?” Julia mumbled, but Katherine caught it. The colonel poured a drink for himself and a smaller bit for Julia, who threw it back when she thought no one was looking.
“I had expected to see more Indians out here,” Weldon ventured, clearing his throat.
“Well, that, young man, is the problem. We can’t find them, but they find the settlers and do real damage. Hundreds of head of livestock stolen in the surrounding parts and sold to the Mexicans—not to mention the human loss. Grant’s Peace Policy is the last thing the people of Arizona want and I can’t say I blame them. Funny though, if between the Mexicans and our troops we exterminated the Apache, the citizenry would be in a real bind—most money they make is in supplying our troops. In fact the Mexicans do a fair comanchero business with the tribes, buying and selling stolen goods. The army just don’t have the man power to cover the hundreds of miles necessary to protect all the people who clamor for it. So I say damn it all to hell and try to get by dealing with them all as little as possible and making merry on my own terms.”
Katherine and John glanced at each other.
“We spent time at Fort Riley before being ordered here—now there was a social spot—so many young officers and graceful girls, dances and theatricals,” Julia James sighed. “We try to bring some of that to life here, but the cultured type I so enjoy are far and few.”
“I told Mrs. James to invite the Mexican girls; they’re by far the most fetching of women. No race can beat them—the ones with Cortez blood, of course.”
“As I told you, colonel, when you rustle up enough handsome officers I’ll allow the Mexican girls—with Mr. Weldon, you’re off to a good start!”
Weldon fumbled with his fork.
“Mrs. Weldon, my wife tells me you’re quite a climber. Where did you learn that skill?” the colonel asked.
“Oh,” Katherine blushed, “it’s not a skill—I just got caught up in the excitement.”
“Ah, that’s a nice feeling—being caught up in the passion at hand,” Colonel James said.
Katherine hesitated uncomfortably glancing at Weldon. “The poor laundress, she was sweet and knocked at my door. I’d never seen someone so upset over a little bird before, but it seems the family loves it so.”
“The laundresses are an odd lot—where the men pick them up I’ll never know, but they can’t be trusted,” warned Julia on her third sizable drink now.
“They’re not that bad when they’re young,” the colonel added, raising his brow, “So go on, Mrs. Weldon . . .”
“Well, the bird escaped from its cage, and Suzy’s children were devastated—it’s their only thing from home, and the men had teased the children by saying they’d have a shooting contest if they found it. But there it was on our roof—on the stovepipe of all places—luckily I still couldn’t start a fire to save myself. There were no men about so I had no choice. Susanna is far too heavy for climbing, and there was the bird so I climbed up and caught it.”
“That was adventurous of you, Mrs. Weldon,” Julia said, “but you would do well by your husband not to associate with the laundresses.”
“Now, Julia, you’re too all consumed with rank and class. This is a free country. You must not assume everyone cares to be promoted or given agreeable assignments,” said the colonel, finishing up the last of his meal and leaning back luxuriously in his chair.
“My father and mother have taught me to be helpful to all sorts when I can,” Katherine said.
“Don’t upset yourself now,” Julia said. “I’m sure they meant well, but I imagine even they would be embarrassed to see you climb ridgepoles doing the bidding of a common woman. That’s what privates are for, dear. How fair would it be to Lieutenant Weldon if you broke your little neck, and he had to care for you instead of the other way around?”
The colonel added in a fatherly tone, “This may be a lonely outpost, but there must still be standards of civilization or we’re no better than the Indians.”
“I’m sorry I managed to bring on the downfall of civilization so quickly!” Katherine replied.
“Dear, don’t be silly,” Julia said. “We’re here to teach you the ins and outs of this camp. We like things done a certain way, and you’ll see it’s for the best. I suggest too that you hire one of the quieter privates or a Mexican old lady to help you. Get rid of Higgins and don’t hire a laundress—they’re awful forward and would be all over the likes of your husband. Mrs. Lyons says you were a good customer of hers before, Mr. Weldon.”
Katherine turned to her husband. Weldon sat red faced, unable to look up from his plate. Eliza cried from her box on the floor.
“I don’t know how people manage children—they’re so bothersome and I couldn’t bear it!” exclaimed Julia, with her tiny white hands covering her ears.
“I consider it an honor to help in carrying on my husband’s name. I’m sorry for women who are unable to do so.” Katherine picked up Eliza.
“Excuse us, Colonel James, sir, and Mrs. James,” John said, “the meal was nice, but we should take the children home. W-we don’t want for them to spoil your evening.”
As they made for the door, carrying their children, the colonel whispered to Weldon, “I hear childbirth loosens a woman up. I like a good tight squeeze.”
“Sir, I’m sorry to say I find your words disgusting and offensive.”
“Don’t drink or joke…you’ll be a real fine addition here.”
John and Katherine stalked off together, unsettled and listening to their feet squeeze sound from the sandy earth. After putting the children to bed, they collapsed into their own.
“You climbed the roof?”
“I had to. The poor thing would have perished, and it’s a short roof. I didn’t expect to be lectured on it.”
“You’re my little card!” Weldon laughed uncomfortably. “So we’re stuck with a rough man and his pretty wife. Maybe you should be more careful with the laundresses.”
“You think Julia’s pretty?”
“Well, yes, she is but…not like you.”
“Not like me? What am I if I’m something other than pretty?”
“You’re beautiful and perfect, Kate.” Weldon squeezed her. “And that’s all.”
“Why would you say she’s pretty? I already dislike her intensely!”
“They’re awful—the both of them and I’d say they don’t care for us much either. We’re off to a great start,” John stated, kicking off his boots. “It’s so blasted hot in here. Won’t you even consider sleeping outside under the ramada?”
“I’ll not have strange people staring at me while I sleep! But maybe you want to show yourself off to the pretty one!”
“Kate, you’re being foolish.”
“I heard what that disgusting man said to you.”
“Katherine, he’s a man we should avoid. Mrs. James is pretty, but you’re the only girl I’ve ever wanted.”
“Why, because you think that you could do no better?”
“Of course I can do no better,” John assured her.
“Julia makes her place so homey. I could never . . .”
“Julia James is selfish and mean; that’s clear. For all of her nice looks it’s her meanness that shines through. You’re smart and kind and the only one who knows me and still likes me.”
Katherine laughed. “Yes, I still like you.” She messed his hair, but then something else pricked her nerves. “John, what about Oonagh Lyons?”
“Jesus Christ! What about her?”
“Why are you overreacting?” Katherine asked. “Why did you lie about doing your own laundry in the past?”
“It wasn’t a lie!” he turned on is back and stared at the low ceiling. “I was tired of doing it so I paid her sometimes . . . to wash my shirts—so now you’ve caught me out—are you happy?”
“John Weldon, there’s something wrong that you won’t say, because you don’t trust me. It’s Oonagh, isn’t it? Do you like her?”
“No! She’s an awful bitch! I . . . I love you and sometimes . . . it’s almost unbearable how much. . .” Weldon threw the light blanket off and got up. “How many times can I ask you to forgive me? I’m sorry about the clothes. I don’t want you to leave. I shouldn’t have lied.”
“Leave? Over shirts? John, you must be mad! I don’t care a fig who did your laundry.” Katherine pulled him back to bed. “If Oonagh made your life easier . . .”
“Let’s not talk about her anymore . . . she’s not worth the time. Now you’ll do the laundry.” Weldon kissed her, but it felt forced. “And I’ll depend on you alone. I want to make you proud.”
“I’m already proud,” Katherine said. “You are the only man here who carries himself like a true soldier.”
“Katherine, how did I get so lucky to catch you.”
“There’s no luck, my mother says, just grace,” Katherine said, tucking herself beneath his arm.
**Featured Image 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
PART THIRTEEN HERE