Fiction: Drawing From Memory

William sat beneath a cottonwood in the searing heat trying to ignore the hordes of flies and eye gnats commuting from breeze to hot breeze. Kenyon gave him the well-kept sable brushes and the vivid oil tubes left by their fallen leader. William flipped through Ignatius’ leather bound sketchbook with sinking heart. Crow warriors, Sioux women and children stood stiffly on the pages with orderly lists of Indian sayings and Bible references written out in a regular, precise script. William considered keeping the book to emulate it, but it was impossible to be so perfect. He tossed the book aside.

The hum of light female conversation from the little yards on officers’ row and the gruffer voices of men on police and stable duty floated over the parade ground. The buzz of the telegraph wires sang William a lullaby. There was nothing as regular and homey as a western army post.

A small dog, well-fed and friendly, trotted up to share the shade. William scratched it behind the ears before sketching the quaint maternal scenes in the yards. He hadn’t put pencil to paper in a long while and was rusty, but this world on paper was his. The characters kept a safe and idealized distance.

Two dirty children raced up, wanting pictures. William complied and sent them off as Mrs. Markham strode toward him in her heavy-footed way.

“Bill, sorry to trouble you. I’ve got some oranges—all the way from California.” She handed him the fruit.

“Thank you, Mrs. Markham.” William waited for the real reason she stood over him.

“Bill, I know you’re busy.”

William laughed, peeling his orange. “I look busy?”

Mrs. Markham glanced back toward her quarters. “Would you mind doing a nice sketch of the children? Lydia–is awful weak—she’s day to day and the captain’s pet. We’d like a nice picture—just in case.” Her eyes held the worry so like his mother’s years ago when his sister Eliza was sick. “We’ve tried having them sit for a camera, but you know how antsy young ones get and your drawings—the ones Thankful showed the captain really pleased him.”

William got to his feet—realizing that he should have done that already “Mrs. Markham, I’m out of practice—but I’ll do my best. Anything to help you.” He gathered the supplies and followed Mrs. Markham into the house. Thankful pretended not to see him and soon disappeared. The children were gathered, cleaned up and sent out back where Mrs. Markham had cultivated a sparse desert garden along the side fence.

None of the children cooperated but for the weak one so William set to work on her. Lydia folded her petite hands and smiled. Her eyes were framed in circles of dark sickness, but her voice was like music. William had no trouble exchanging the reality of a sick little girl before a wilted garden into a composition of vitality and splendor. The girl recited nursery rhymes while William sang to her in his father’s awful voice the salty songs passed among military families:

It’s all for me grog, me jolly jolly grog

It’s all gone for beer and tobacco

Well I spent all me tin on the lassies drinking gin

And across the western ocean I must wander.

The music for supper came from outside the adjutant’s office.

Mrs. Markham, in a thick sweat from the stove in desert heat, rushed out back then. “Oh dear, Bill, I forgot all about you! Supper for those missionaries and the rest of you kept me in a great flurry.”

William looked as though he had just wakened from a trance. “I didn’t notice the time, ma’am.” He handed her his work with a wary smile. “I’m afraid that I’m not much interest to children. I couldn’t make any of them stay, except for Lydia here.”

Mrs. Markham looked over William’s work for a minute and cried. “Bill, the captain—he’ll be astonished. It’s lovely.”

“I’m sorry I have no time to do the others.”

“Never mind. This is more than enough. Thank you.”

“It was nothing, ma’am.”

“Oh, you don’t know!” Mrs. Markham gave him a warm embrace. “I will pray for you, Billy. You’re good deep down.”

“I guess,” William replied. His new shirt itched at the collar.

Mrs. Markham placed the drawing on a high shelf in the kitchen and pushed William into the parlor where Miss Peckham read and Thankful mended socks.

“Girls, our first guest is here. See to it that Bill is given something to drink.”

Neither of the girls were in a hurry to offer William anything. William pulled the flask from his bag and took a long gulp—a deserved one.

As William lowered the flask from his lips the missionaries entered the front vestibule with Captain Markham and Lieutenant Fahy in happy conversation.

“Ah, there you are, Mr. Weldon,” said Kenyon.

William put away the liquor.

Mrs. Markham passed around drinks. William asked for water, but felt put upon and angry. They talked about the San Carlos Agency and the Indians and Geronimo, but William didn’t care a fig. He considered different ways of slipping out to get drink.

It was then the thought came to William–the alcohol was in charge. It was a fleeting, yet terrifying realization he wanted to escape—by getting drunk. Absorbed in his thoughts, the sound of his name brought William back.

“Captain, dear, I must show you what our Mr. Weldon has done.”

The captain looked as though he expected something less than admirable but waited patiently for his wife to return with the sketch. He glanced at William and then at the drawing. “But . . . you never saw her when she was well, son. How did you capture Lydia as she used to be?”

“I imagined her, sir, and it was easy since Lydia’s such a good little pixie,” William explained. All eyes moved from the drawing to him. “May I have a drink?” he asked Mrs. Markham, but saw Kenyon and Thankful. “Of more water, I mean, ma’am.”

Captain Markham put his arm over William’s shoulder, with an emotional sigh. “You Weldons sure have a way of surprising folks.”

“What do you mean, sir?” William asked.

“I never knew Lieutenant Weldon, William’s father, well,” the captain said to the others. “Met him only once, in fact. A good soldier from what I was told, but a secret saint according to a friend of mine who is no longer with us. Seems Lieutenant Weldon gave my friend all his savings so my friend could live out his final days in California in comfort with his family—all had consumption. The poor sergeant and his family were sent small sums of money till they died.”

This was the family that gave Eliza the disease. William remembered and his heart grew hard. His father was a fool. “I guess that was a waste of money in the end,” he said.

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