After standing around for most of the morning as the missionaries and soldiers packed their wagons, William got bored and wandered to the sutler shop at the edge of the fort to make a trade. He convinced himself he was getting candy for the Markham children.
Soldiers on leave played checkers in the corner as William stepped toward the counter and opened a finely crafted box full of squirrel and horsehair brushes. “What would you give me for of these?”
The sutler ran his wrinkled fingers over the box. “Hmm, nice case—I’ve no need for brushes, Bill. You still owe me, but I’d take the case and give you this bottle as an even exchange.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a real mind bender, from what I hear. An old man makes it just across the border.”
“Guess, I’ll give it a try,” William said, but then remembered. “Oh, I don’t suppose you’d take a brush for a little of that candy for Markham’s kids.”
“Bill, keep your brushes. Take some candy to them,” the sutler said, stuffing a brown bag full of cream candy and French kisses. “The young one’s not long for this life, I hear. What’s it malaria with her?”
“I don’t know, but this is a shit place to raise children.” William tucked the candy in his pocket. “Thanks,” he said and grabbed the loose brushes and the bottle, but as William turned around there stood Thankful. The commissary store was out of baking soda so she came to the sutler.
“Oh, Thankful. I . . .” William sputtered, but the look on Thankful’s face stopped him. “Are you all right?”
Thankful burst into tears and pulled the bottle from William. “You’d trade away your mother for this wouldn’t you?”
“No, not my mother, Thankful, I . . .”
“I can’t believe I ever cared for you! How dare you say a word about your father’s behavior!”
“I haven’t said a thing! Thankful! Please calm down. You’re making a scene.” William clutched her arm and pulled her outside.
“I don’t care what people think, William Weldon! Why are you ruining your life? Why?” Thankful sobbed.
“I’m not . . .” William began, but sighed and began again. “Look at you, Thankful. You fit in wherever you go. Everyone loves you from the start. Sakes alive, you met the love of your life on the first day out here. I’m not like you. I, I don’t know how to be with people. This,” he pointed to the bottle, “this helps me.”
“Willy, you’ve become a drunk. That’s it. You can’t really think I’m so stupid to listen to your poor excuse. You have a fine personality—at least you did at one time! How pitiful that you trade away such nice brushes—where did you get them?”
William’s shoulders slumped, but his eyes flashed defiance. “The missionaries. The brushes belonged to their beloved dead friend—he was killed or something—maybe I’ll meet the same fate!”
“No, not you, Bill. You’ll just disappoint them and ruin their trip. You’re too addicted to your self-pity to part with it.”
“Thankful, at one time I’d have taken your self-righteousness to heart. I would have even respected you for it, but now I know the truth about you—to think that you’d let Fahy poke you—it’s disgraceful!”
Thankful made to slap him but William blocked her and stole the bottle back.
Thankful hit him. “I can’t believe you’d be so cruel to someone from home!”
“When will you ever realize, I hated everything about home!” William shouted. “If I ever treated you well it had nothing to do with you being from Englewood! That was a stain against you!”
“You’ve always gone against me!” Thankful cried. “I can see that now! It was your way of getting back at my brothers—for all of their cruel pranks! I just thought you might not judge me with them!”
“What?” William’s temper had gotten the best of him and now he almost couldn’t remember what they were fighting over. He cursed to himself as she ran off. Behind a tool shed William emptied most of the new bottle of spirits into his flask and swallowed what remained in one jolting gulp, chucking the bottle behind some brush.
Kenyon was making a last arrangement with the soldier Joyce when William swayed up.
The missionary’s smile froze until the lieutenant walked off. “William Weldon, what do you want from me?”
“What do you mean? I don’t want anything and you can’t tell me what to do,” William replied.
“No one’s telling you what to do,” Kenyon said, the smile disappeared now. “You can drink all you like—but not with us. So please, it seems you’ve made your choice. Stay in Willcox, but not before returning our things.”
“Fine. Here are your lousy brushes.”
Kenyon took the brushes. “Where’s the box?”
“I don’t know. Who gives a damn? I don’t—piece of junk anyway.”
“That box was important to Ignatius. His nephew made it,” Kenyon informed him.
William rolled his eyes. “So why in damnation did you give me the box?”
“I imagined you’d like something nice of your own.”
“I’m not materialistic,” William said with his arms folded. “And you’re not my uncle and I’m coming for the money.”
Kenyon shook his head. “You contradict yourself. Seems you’d make a poor prospector.”
“You don’t recognize gold when you see it,” Kenyon said.
“I don’t care about gold, sir.”
“William Weldon, you have a decision and you have about five minutes to make it. If you want to come along and do wonderful drawings then please hand over your flask and canteen.”
“No. You can’t force . . .”
“Then please get out of my sight,” the missionary said.
William didn’t move. Kenyon waved him off and returned to his work by the wagon.
“Sir,” William called and caught up with him. “Sometime I’ll see you again and get you the box back.”
“Son, don’t you see? Isn’t your life worth more than a box or bottle?” Kenyon asked.
“I never get what I want!” William said, licking his chapped lips as if the act might retrieve his humiliating words.
“And what do you want?”
William glanced toward the Markhams’ porch where Thankful stood embracing Fahy. “I don’t know.”
Kenyon hid his smile.
William spoke from inside. The alcohol made it easier. “Mr. Kenyon, I don’t think I can, you know, give it up. I don’t know if I can give you . . . I mean—I didn’t want this to happen. I kept losing things—I keep losing things. I’ve lost it all and I lose more and now . . . I don’t even want things anymore. And I’m afraid on my own—life is so damned unsteady.” He pointed to the barracks where a small group of men were smoking and laughing. “Look at the soldiers—I can never get so straight as them.”
“Where did you get the idea that life was a straight path for anyone, William? I won’t allow you to get lost if you come along with me, but it has to be your choice. I trust that you can do without the bottle and I believe you’re as steady as any of those soldiers if you’d only give yourself a fighting chance. You must quit the drinking.”
“What will you do if I fail?” William asked, looking at him sideways.
“What any friend would do—help you up again.”
“I’ve never had friends like that,” William said.
“Well, you do now.” Kenyon waited.
***Featured Image by Timothy O’Sullivan
“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”