Miss Peckham’s mistake was sympathizing with a drunk.
Someone pinched William’s arm. He shielded his eyes from the light of day as Miss Peckham stared down at him.
“Mr. Weldon, I sent you to get my things YESTERDAY. I expected you back YESTERDAY.”
William looked up with scorn. “Why should I care what you expect? You’re not my master.”
“I smell your master on your breath,” Miss Peckham said. “Now where are my things?”
William inched up, scratching his sweaty chest through his damp checked shirt. “In the corner—over there.”
Miss Peckham folded her arms. “Don’t fool with me, Mr. Weldon.”
William saw that the corner was empty. “Damn, I think I left it at The Buckskin.”
“You really are a moron like they say.”
William couldn’t deny it. He grabbed his boots, slipped them on and led her into The Buckskin. “We’re looking for a carpetbag I may have left here.”
The bartender handed it over to him. William considered ordering a drink, but thought better of it.
Miss Peckham took the bag and once outside inspected it. “Everything is wet!” She pulled out the journal of her travels and shoved it under William’s nose. “My work is destroyed! How could you, Bill?” she cried.
“I-I didn’t spill anything!”
“Of course not! Oh, I’m cursed! No matter how many times it happens, I’m still taken in by drunkards and bummers! You’re both. Lieutenant Fahy said as much. But you seemed so harmless!” She burst into tears.
Miss Peckham slumped onto the bench usually occupied by two Mexican alcoholics. “I was orphaned because of the drink. My father and mother both and no matter how I try I still land sitting outside a tavern with my life in tatters. All of my work ruined!” she cried again.
William sat beside her, half expecting to be hit. “I know how you feel, Miss Peckham. Honestly, I do.”
“I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t need it, and I’d rather you left me alone, now that you’ve ruined my life,” she replied and pulled a hankie from her sleeve.
William was tempted to point out that anyone with half a brain would never leave things in the hands of whores and drunks, but didn’t. “No, Miss Peckham—I mean, my father is worse than a drunk—he’s an opium eater and if he hadn’t quit the army he would have been drummed out. I hate him, but then . . . look at me.”
Miss Peckham wiped her tears and glanced at him. She laughed. “By golly, if we aren’t the most pathetic pair.”
William took a deep breath. “I used to think God wanted me for something.”
“God doesn’t exist. Science has won the day, I’m afraid. We’re just tiny parts of a long march to perfection.” She laughed again. “You said yourself that weak ones like us will die out for the good of the species.”
“The species? You are unusual, Miss Peckham, but I’m not able to completely give up on at least the idea of God.”
“Well, maybe with an education you would be,” Miss Peckham said, fanning a wet journal page. “Look, what has God done for you?”
“God expects decent behavior,” William said. “I’m just a rotten drunk. I’ll never forgive my parents. I’m not good enough for . . .”
Miss Peckham closed her wet book. “Who says you’re not good enough? You are what you think you are. That’s what my uncle always said. Listen, I’m sorry for you, but I want to be a great writer, not someone who allows self-pity keep her down. I’ll copy as many of my notes as I can into a new journal—so don’t feel bad. Your mistakes won’t finish me.”
“Well, can we remain friends then?” William asked.
“I can’t—no–I won’t be around your type anymore.” Miss Peckham stood and walked off without even a glance back.
William sat for hours, staring out at the awful little settlement with its wilted cottonwoods and dusty, filthy paths. People moved in slow motion. This was home. He had no parents, no friends, not one person to turn to. He had no work, no money and no inspiration as to how he might get some. He starved but could get no nourishment. Not a single person acknowledged him as all day he sat in the blistering sun until it fell with only the smallest relief. As a child William sat upon his father’s knee following the hummingbirds darting to and fro at sunrise in the desert. How William had admired his father then. Adored him even.
A man came and sat beside him. William held his breath in annoyance and considered rising but had no place to go.
The man spoke. “I’ve been watching you all day.”
William glared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a statement of fact,” the man responded.
William waited for further explanation, but none came and so they both sat watching men unload flour sacks at the general store.
“This is an interesting little town,” said the man.
William chuckled. “Yes, it’s all very interesting.”
“You’ve been out here for hours—since the girl left you.”
“Hey, are you some kind of spy?”
“No, I was reading beneath the tree over there and fell asleep. When I woke up you were still sitting here.”
“What’s your trade, son?” the man asked.
William took a good look at the heavy, bearded man and figured he was harmless. “I have no trade to speak of anymore.”
“Why are you here?”
“I ask myself that very same question. My father sent me for an adventure—to learn something, I guess.”
“Well, that’s nice,” the man said, stretching his legs before him as if he might stay a while.
“Not really. I’ve bungled it all. My parents and friends are ashamed of me—as well they should be.”
“That’s too bad.”
William rolled his eyes. “Yes, it is too bad.”
The man wiped his shiny forehead with a faded bandana. “Listen, I’m not one for hot climates. I’m going to get out of the sun. Would you care to join me? For a meal. I’ve no company as my associates went in search of artifacts, and I hate to eat alone.”
“I don’t know what you’re on about, or what you want from me, but I may as well tell you I’m broke—there’s nothing you can take from me.”
“I’m a little out of my element here in the desert and everyone is a bit intimidating. I just thought you looked trustworthy.”
William cussed under his breath. This man had lost his wits.
The man stood up. “Maybe you could point me in the right direction for a decent place to eat.”
“The only place in town is Matilda’s. It’s over there and it’s Mexican.”
“So have you decided you’ll come?”
William shielded his eyes from the last bit of sun. “I don’t even know you. Why would I eat with you?” he asked, his stomach grumbling.
“There’s not much to know. I’m a missionary. My name is Seth Kenyon, and I was told by Captain Bourke that there was a talented mapmaker and artist living here in town. Maybe you know him—a William Weldon?”