FICTION SERIAL (part sixteen): Airing Dirty Laundry

Righteous visitors spoil Katherine Weldon’s day.

Weldon argued with a sergeant over the arrangement of the train as an army ambulance raced up to the guards on duty, stopping the men from their work. The driver wore a slouched white hat covering most of his face, but Weldon recognized the man’s style as Simon’s. The guards pointed to Weldon, and Simon raced his worn out horse to within inches of Weldon and the flustered sergeant standing beside him.

“I’ve come!” Simon announced. “Sergeant, help the ladies in back, please. They’ll be staying with the colonel.” He smiled at Weldon with bleached white teeth and hair.

Once the girls walked off, Weldon jumped up and shook Simon’s hand. Simon’s confidence and verve awed him.

“Some dump this is, Weldon.” Simon laughed. “Can you believe I’m stationed in Texas? I thought I’d be here with you at least a little while. The army must want me out. And where’s my sister?”

“I-I’m glad to see you, sir.”

Simon slapped his back. “Since when do we stand on formalities, Weldon? I hear Colonel James is a real prick.”

“Yes.”

“Frugal with words, as usual. I’m only here a few days so tell me all the news.”

“I’ve already made a mess here, sir, I mean, Captain,” Weldon said. “I’m off on a scout tomorrow and . . .”

“Bully for you! From what I hear, it’s about time. The atmosphere in Tucson is tense to say the least. So, where’s my sis? And the little ones?”

“It’s just that James is a drunk, too, and the men . . .”

“Weldon, you’ll be fine as always.” Simon spotted the run-down corral. “Listen, I have papers to deliver to headquarters. Will you take care of this and I’ll meet you at your place.”

“S-sir, but . . .”

Simon jumped down and ran off. Before Weldon made it home Simon and the two young girls he was delivering to Texas knocked at Katherine’s door. Katherine’s hair was in rag curlers for the dance tonight, and her one clean dress had been burnt this morning. Higgins refused to do laundry and John forbid her to send it to Oonagh Lyons. She had nothing decent to wear in her small yard, so she washed in the dirty and dark little room. William stomped in the mud and sand and Katherine in an overheated temper scolded him, before noticing the knocking.

William ran to open the door, and Eliza bawled. Simon lowered his head and bounded in with a shout. “Your favorite brother, Katherine!” Simon stopped when he saw the state of her, but it was too late. The horrified young ladies followed right behind him.

“Oh, Katie, put something on, for heaven’s sake. You’ve got company!” Eliza pulled Katherine’s wrap open to be fed and Simon covered his eyes. “Land sakes, this is grim.”

Katherine dropped the little girl in her cradleboard and fell upon Simon in a heap of tears. “It’s not always this bad, Simon,” she lied. “Oh, I can’t manage a thing!”

Simon embraced his sister. “There, there, Katie. Girls, put on some water for tea.”
“But the fire’s out. Mr. Higgins will be cross about it, too, but it’s so hot!” Katherine sobbed.

“Katie, sit down.” Simon looked for a chair not covered with clothes. “Willy, shove off, little man and let your mother rest. Is Weldon himself, sis?”

“Whatever do you mean? Of course he is.”

“He usually can’t stand a mess. I just wonder sometimes . . .”

“I’m a complete failure!” Katherine confessed. “No one likes me, and I make such a bad wife. Don’t blame John. He’s busy.”

Weldon stepped into the crowd just then. Eliza was still crying. “What the hell?”

“Mother’s doin’ clothes cause you won’t let her by the bitch laundry,” William said with a grin.

Simon gave Weldon a troubled look.

“K-Katherine, I-I w-would have helped!” John said.

“Weldon, you remember Varina and Emily Watson,” Simon said. “Katherine, these are Colonel Langellier’s nieces. You get to know each other while Weldon and I take a small stroll over the parade.”

“No, Simon, don’t leave yet,” Katherine begged.

“Don’t fret. I’m not going very far until tomorrow.”

2278295_f520After the men and Willy left, Katherine stripped out of her soiled robe and in just her drawers and chemise she bounded past the shocked guests for a tattered dress hanging from a peg. No one said a word for a long moment.

One girl poured herself cold tea leftover from a pot and cradled it in her lap. The other girl held the pot and stared at Katherine. “Where’s her corset?” one whispered to the other.

Katherine didn’t apologize. The stockings she wore smelled of mud, too, but modesty prevented her from changing them in these cramped quarters with two sets of repulsed eyes upon her. Their civilized tea was brought to ruin by this filthy girl. The cuckoo clock broke the silence as did the faint call of the sentry, “11:00—all’s well!”

Neither girl managed a word, but smiled in sickly fashion, avoiding eye contact. They had matching snowy complexions and cream colored hair pulled back into tight buns, but only one passed for attractive.

“Pleased to meet you both.” Katherine’s chin trembled.

They nodded as if their neck muscles might snap. It was painful to watch them sip tea even. Their skin looked so like wax Katherine imagined it melting in the Arizona sun. “So, was your trip a torment for you?”

“Oh, no, Mrs. Weldon,” Varina explained. “We’re active in the temperance movement. Our mother worked in the Christian Commission during the war. One day we plan to work among the Indians, isn’t that so, Emily?”

Emily nodded. “Sister says the men here will give us good practice with savages.”

Varina spoke with an affected accent Katherine suffered through during her brief time at private school. “The Lord is calling us to fight against sins of the flesh. Intoxication in the army leads many of these undeveloped men to ruination. Gambling, fighting and even rude treatment of women stem from the ease with which liquor is attained.”

Emily leaned forward earnestly. She had tiny blue drop earrings on that matched her large, wide eyes. Katherine envied her. “We plan to help our father with the troops in Texas.”

Varina sipped her tea. “The enlisted man’s pay should be held from him until he leaves the service.”

“To protect him,” Emily added.

“Yes. Most of the boys know little about finance. A cut in their monthly spending is just the thing to train them in the practice of economy.”

“Pardon me, Miss Varina and Miss Emily,” Katherine said, regaining her composure, “but as the wife of a veteran and former enlisted man who always goes without, you had better find a more humane way to keep the less disciplined men from earthly pleasures.”

“Sinful pleasures,” Varina corrected.

“She is such a gosling, sister,” Emily giggled. When she smiled Emily looked soft, sweet and not as erect as Varina.

“A gosling?” Katherine asked.

The girls laughed. “That just means you’re inexperienced in the army,” Emily explained. “We held temperance meetings every Thursday evening when we were last west with Lieutenant Weldon and Captain McCullough. Katherine, if I may call you by your Christian name, I feel we’ll be friends.”

“I’d prefer to be called Mrs. Weldon, please.”

They all waited for someone to speak.

Katherine realized they were expecting something from her. “I’m glad you both have a constructive hobby, and thank you for telling me about it, but I don’t involve myself in causes.” She tried to rise from her stool, but Emily took her by the arm.
“You might try to convince your brother, Captain McCullough.”

Katherine laughed. “Simon would never…I hope you do not insinuate that the captain . . .”

“No, of course not,” said Varina. “It’s just that the men are fond of him and enjoy his company. If Captain McCullough gave up the spirits the others might follow.”
“No. Accept my apologies. I appreciate your opinions, but I don’t intend to force them on my brother. Simon has a right to live his life the way he sees fit.”

“Even if it hurts others, Mrs. Weldon?” Emily asked, noticeably ruffled.

“Who has Simon hurt?”

“He hurts the men under him who don’t have the sophistication to get themselves out of situations the captain leads them into. You cannot expect boys of eighteen to give up game playing if their captain is often seen at the games.”

Katherine pulled away from Emily and brushed her sleeve. “People make their own decisions in this country. No one forces someone to get drunk or gamble away his wages. If they can’t afford it they shouldn’t join the fun.”

“Drunkenness is fun?” Varina asked.

“No!” Katherine shook her head. “It’s common among men to seek entertainment after long monotonous work at a thankless job.”

“Rewards are gotten in heaven, Mrs. Weldon,” Varina said.

“All men shouldn’t be punished because a few of them can’t handle themselves and act foolishly,” Katherine said, giving Eliza a crust of bread.

“Has the paymaster come in yet?” Varina asked.

“No.”

The girls exchanged grins. “Well, that explains it then. You’ll be surprised how the boys change. Some sneak out never to return, some get lost in Indian country. One was killed right in sight of the fort, but there weren’t enough soldiers inside to save him. They used to steal little boats and find liquor wherever they could.”

“I suppose it makes more sense to provide the men with a small bit of drink inside the fort,” Katherine thought aloud.

“Wait till you witness it. Oh, how they change. Even Lieutenant Weldon came to a few of our meetings after a spree. He was quite changed.”

“Sister, hold your tongue,” Varina said.

“Forgive me, Mrs. Weldon. That was so rude of me.”

“How dare you condescend to me and tell me lies about my husband so you can succeed at your little Christian project!” Katherine said. “You’re just the type I’ve always hated. You’re gossips and busybodies, pretending to be concerned about the men. I’ll tell my brother about this, and he’ll laugh at you both. And if my husband made the mistake of trusting the likes of you I’ll make sure it doesn’t ever happen again!”

“Please accept our apologies.”

“I don’t care for your easy apologies. I’ll never forgive you speaking about John that way!” Katherine shouted before scooping up Eliza and vanishing behind the curtain to the bed.

Katherine heard the girls whispering. Pulling the threadbare curtain back Varina offered, “Please, you must forgive us. Sometimes our faith causes us to be overbearing. Please pray that the Lord will give us more guidance.”

“I hope we can still be friends while we’re here, Mrs. Weldon,” Emily added in a more genuine tone.

Katherine refused Emily’s outstretched hand.

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

PART FOURTEEN HERE

PART FIFTEEN HERE

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