FICTION SERIAL (part seventeen): On Being Hungover in the Desert

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Courtesy of The Library of Congress

 After a night of drinking and dancing Weldon’s scouting party sets out on its mission.

The sun baked the men till their limbs felt like clay. Dust took flight under wagon and hoof. They must march four hours in search of a tiny stream as they headed for the mountains. James, in full and heavy uniform, boiled in a semi-conscious dream state from the inside of his wagon, oblivious to plans as they moved from the soft ground of the low desert into the hills of the ridge.

The mules kicked at every chance, but showed no sign of wear as they stomped into noontime. Not a wild animal stirred; not a person made himself seen, but Weldon knew there were signs everywhere they could not read. Colonel James had been adamantly opposed to taking an Apache scout. They could not be trusted, he said, and Weldon half agreed. Indian fires slid smoke up in the mountain air, but they were too far away to mean much to the soldiers.

Sergeant Simpson trotted up. “Sir, shall we wake the colonel?”

“For God’s sake, no!” Weldon answered. “We’ll push on for another hour if we can. On the old map I found, it showed a small mountain stream or spring. We can rest there until the air cools and then go on another few hours.”

The sergeant pulled his broad-brimmed hat another inch lower and seemed inclined to speak.

“Yes, sergeant?”

“Well, sir, you’ll have a hard time going much further once we find this stream. The ranks are grumbling already.”

“Sergeant, according to the maps, the stream is exposed and not a decent place to settle. The boys should be convinced of it when they see the place–and the colonel, too.”

“The colonel won’t be too impressed with where you’ve taken us so far, Lieutenant Weldon, sir.”

Weldon rubbed his forehead. “Sergeant Simpson, leave the colonel to me. It’s not your worry.”

“Sir, pardon, but it is my worry. I like you and the colonel can be awful spiteful with folks he don’t like and I don’t think he likes you much.”

Weldon laughed. “You’ve got a good eye. The colonel gave me his permission to go into the mountains at some point and so here we are. There ain’t no Indians dumb enough to stand around with their plunder on the main trail to Tucson. We’re here to find the men who harass the settlers. Our trip will be a failure if we don’t find some.”

The party slogged on and Weldon’s horse began to move more tenderly. John jumped off and led it for a while. The complaining of the men to the rear grew more strident. Weldon pretended not to hear. What he did hear now was the pulse of water over rock. He made a silent apology to his mount, jumped back on and trotted ahead to find the source of the happy noise.

Lush green grass grew in small tidy patches tempting the horse, so tired of dry feed. Weldon yanked the animal’s head up and pushed it back to the others with his spurs. He need not say a thing, the spirit of the horse told the story and the others followed at a quick trot. The men and animals jockeyed for position at the stream until Weldon pointed out to the men that cleaner refreshment could be had upstream from the horses.

The colonel descended from his ambulance, scratching himself. “Where’s the bane of my existence—that son of a bitch Weldon?”

The men hung in groups, shirtless, wet and refreshed waiting for their lunches. Weldon, enjoying this small success, went to check on the teamsters and their mules.

“Sir, I’ll bet we nab us some Apache right soon,” ventured one of the men with great optimism as he pulled off his boot to empty it of sand.

Weldon smiled.

“For Christ’s sake, Weldon, where’ve you taken us?” shouted the colonel smoking a cigar and soaking his feet in the stream down a little from the others.

“Sir, this is where we’ll find some Indians, with luck.”

“I don’t give a fuck about Indians, and you’re about as lucky as a fly in a frog pond. Where is that damned reporter? There you are. Strike what I said about the Indians from your notes.”

“Sir,” Weldon said, “you should calm down. We’re only stopped for water. There’s a place on the old map more suitable for camp.”

“You mean to tell me this God-awful ride isn’t up yet?”

“S-Sir, this is what we discussed all week.”

“But I had no intention of actually carrying it off—strike that too, young man! I’m beginning to regret bringing that newsman along, Weldon—he’s like a spy—can’t even take a dump without him snooping around.”

The newsman shrugged and continued his notes.

“Colonel, we must press on. This is an exposed location, sir.”

James pulled himself up out of the water, his ankles swollen and his belly hanging over his trousers. “Great God, I think I know that, but you shouldn’t have brought us here then.”

Weldon’s head pounded in the heat. “Colonel, have some coffee and I’ll set about feeding the men their lunches.”

The colonel made a strange face and sat down on a boulder to rub his feet. “What were the men to take along besides hardtack?”

“Well, the meat of course, sir. It’s not the best but . . .”

The colonel shook his head.

“Colonel James?”

“I sure do hope you don’t mean the stuff stored in my ambulance.”

“Sir?”

James looked to the newsman as he jerked his boots on and stood up. “Well, I wasn’t myself this morning. The Mexicans were vexed when I told them you didn’t like for them to come along so I gave them the cases of meat. I figured you’d have given the men their own food.”

“But we were to be out at least a fortnight. How could each man carry all that he needed? Shit! So we have nothing for the men then?”

“Well, it’s a darn good thing we are so close to home,” James said. “You should go tell the men now.”

“We’re four hours from home. I won’t tell the men,” Weldon stated.

The newsman scribbled every word.

“Weldon, I don’t know who you think you are. You will do as I say and we will go back tonight.”

“Sir, we can’t go back tonight. The path was tough enough in daylight; it’s too dangerous. The camp I propose is only an hour’s march from here.”

“Jesus Christ! I said NO! Do you understand English? I’ve put up with your insolence long enough. We won’t go a step further today unless it’s in the direction of Fort Grant.”

“Colonel James, may I speak to you in private?”

The colonel stared with small eyes and a tight mouth considering the man before him. “You’re so naïve, Weldon. It amuses me. You can say all you want in front of YOUR newsman, but he knows that I’m in charge here and he’ll write only what I see fit to have him write or he’ll never be invited back when the top brass come through looking to make peace.”

The writer turned away from Weldon.

“Well then, colonel, you may place me under arrest now, but as far as I know I’m the only one who paid enough attention on the way up to get us back and you can tell the men that they’ll back track, breakdown their good mounts and go hungry for no reason other than you’re a lazy piece of shit.”

The colonel shifted in his boots and ran his hand over his large skull. “Hmmm, that won’t do. The only thing to do is compromise. We’ll stay as we are for the night. Post a guard and such and then tomorrow put it to a vote.”

“Vote, sir? Since when is the army a democracy?” Weldon asked.

“I don’t want a political debate right now, shit-ass,” James said. “I’ve got a steaming head and I know just the thing to do about it. You run along and straighten things out with the men.”

Weldon stormed off. He was out of his league. The blame would fall squarely on his shoulders and he would be hated by soldier and citizen alike.

“Excuse me, sir,” Sergeant Simpson called, trotting up. “The men have found a large school of fish in a pool up a ways and want permission to catch them.”

“Of course, sergeant!” Weldon replied in relief. “And tell the men to make themselves comfortable for the night. We’ll post guards shortly.”

The sergeant gave him a knowing glance and walked off.

Now and again a ripple of purple smoke climbed up over the mountain peaks and as the sun set lower the blue sky and the rough land changed to gold. One private set the record catching seven large fish. As they lounged around full of food and burnt from the sun most counted the day a success. They had gotten out of camp, gone fishing and had grassy beds as comfortable as any in the West. The stream sang out, and the night came on with a welcome chill and the usual dazzling sunset.
Only a few worried about the Indians. More began to steal sips from their bottles.
The men sent Weldon, who sat mulling over the day on his own, a steaming heap of fish and fried hardtack to go with his coffee.

“Cheer up, sir. We know you’re tryin’ yer best. The colonel told us you forgot the meat, but you found us much better grub at this stream.”

“The fish were just luck.”

“Divine providence, sir.”

“Anyway, I didn’t forget the meat. Never mind, Carson. Thank you for the meal.”

“Well, it’s from the lot of us that’s still sober, sir.”

Weldon gulped the food down and then set about putting out the men’s fires.
The men, with some reluctance, followed orders. A few suddenly felt less than secure as the light faded. The horses worried too, making skittish movements on the line. Weldon would stay with the guard.

Sergeant Simpson and Private Flynn had become Weldon’s most dependable men and made up part of his line. He could just see the whites of Simpson’s eyes and the faint shine of his carbine as he left him. Ten others who seemed sober enough took up watch.

Weldon would check position to position all night and check on camp, too, where a fire roared. He ran up. “Colonel James, sir, we have to conceal ourselves for the night!”

“Weldon, if they have the balls to come upon us then I want to see the look of them before I plug them with my Spencer. Say, where is my gun anyway?”

Weldon dumped water over the inferno and James made to get up but lost balance. “You’re one of them, ain’t you? You’re gonna spring a trap on us! Boys, it’s Weldon here we need to be afraid of, bringing us out this way without even a pinch to eat!”

The men humored the colonel, and the newsman strained to get it all down.

“Sir, the guard is posted, but your party will bring the Indians to us if the noise keeps up,” Weldon explained testily.

“Weldon, go find someone else’s ass to crawl up,” he snickered while his men flaunted their drinking.

Walking back to the line of guard, Weldon glanced back over his shoulder to see a new flame set for the colonel. Laughter echoed through the canyon. Weldon cursed and took out his journal, but from where he was it was too dark and he had nothing to say.

The men made merry in camp and the guards complained at missing the fun. Some slipped off only to return intoxicated and cut up against the rocks. A few remained steadfast and were asked to move along the ridge; ripe targets silhouetted against the firelight.

For a second Weldon closed his eyes. When he woke all was quiet, but shadows moved, passing him in the darkness. He scurried to his feet and took aim at the one he could see and missed, but struck the Apache on the second shot from his repeater. The guard now knew of the danger, but not before suffering two hits and allowing the intruders to pass them unmolested.

Men around the still simmering fire awoke groggily, but rolled behind boulders or wagon wheels once realizing what was happening and shot out at all movement, nearly killing a few of their own men.

Soon the horses and mules stampeded, set free by a nimble-fingered Apache. One horse in panic lost its footing and fell into a ravine, but the rest were led off at speed by the raiders who sold them to the Mexicans. Some men never lifted their heads, so drunk they were, while others slipped off to safety. The colonel was nowhere to be found and two of his finest Euchre players were gone, too.

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Courtesy Library of Congress [Soldiers repulsing Apaches]

***Dear Reader,

I’m pleased to announce that the new and improved second edition of The House on Tenafly Road will be released in February! Watch for updates. 🙂

And thanks for reading!

Love,

A

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

PART SIXTEEN HERE

 

7 thoughts on “FICTION SERIAL (part seventeen): On Being Hungover in the Desert

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