A few weeks later Buck accepted an invitation to help test the jittery new guards on duty. Stealthy cadets came at all angles and times. One officer played a stranger refusing to give the countersign; another called down from a tree while another one slid by undetected, much to the embarrassment of the fledgling guard.
Buck in his first summer had impressed his superiors by never becoming rattled except for the one time when Fred shoved a garter snake down his trousers.
The moon sunk away, the exercise ended, and the upperclassmen drifted back to their tents for a little sleep. Buck came upon Streeter. He wasn’t tired, so Buck struck up conversation. “How are you liking guard duty, Mr. Streeter?”
“It’s a challenge, sir, but then I guess we wouldn’t be here if we were afraid of challenges,” Streeter replied. “Sir, is it true that when yearlings take to riding lessons, it’s open to the public?”
“Yes. Why?” Buck asked. “Are you not very good on a horse, Mr. Streeter?”
“I’m quite good, but I think it best I keep a low profile.”
“Hmm, I’m fairly good, too,” Buck said. “I want to join the cavalry. I have no intention of keeping quiet on that score. I intend to be head of my class and beat my brother in all things.”
“Well, sir, a high profile will do you no damage,” Streeter replied, glancing around uneasily. “I was given a few newspapers by my congressman who came to visit.”
“Yes, he seemed very distinguished for a colored—I mean a Southerner.” Buck’s face burned in the dark.
A cough from a tent in the distance and busy crickets covered the silence.
Streeter lowered his voice. “The papers are running stories that I’m badly mistreated so far and that I’m behaving in a cowardly fashion to the insults and threats.”
“Is it true?” Buck asked.
“To be honest, I haven’t been paying any attention,” Buck said.
“Oh,” Streeter said. “Well, no, sir. I’ve had no need to fight or defend myself at all. The other cadets keep to themselves—strictly to themselves, sir. I don’t have any words with them except for in the most official capacity.” Streeter waited for a response, glancing up at the stars. “I believe I’m being cut out. It’s to be expected, but what makes me sore is that some of the fellows I studied with before exams now pretend not to know me. Sakes alive, there’s a light complexioned cadet who I know is at least half colored and he is more turned off to me than any of the others. I’ve heard some cadets call me ignorant things when they think I can’t hear, but mostly everyone is exasperatingly cordial and polite.”
Buck had a sudden horrible thought. Was he being cut from the others, too? When was the last time one of his classmates spoke to him informally? Buck wracked his brain and sighed in relief as he remembered a joke someone told him at breakfast.
Streeter spoke again. “Do you want my copy of The Tribune, sir? I’ve finished it.”
“Oh, yes, thanks. It’s my father’s favorite paper. We teased him that it was the personal ads he liked best—you know they’re guides to prostitutes?”
Streeter rolled his eyes. “I wondered.”
“But of course I would never have any interest in that sort of thing!” Buck joked.
“Me neither, sir,” Streeter said with gravity. “The man my father worked for had syphilis—the final stages.”
“Oh,” Buck said, “what did your father work as?”
“A slave.” Streeter laughed.
“Well, he had it better than a lot of other folks,” Streeter said. “He was good with racehorses and even after the war his services were in demand. In the end, he’s well off by southern standards. Sent us to missionary schools. The teacher was a colored lady from the North and all I wanted was to speak like her.”
“You’ve succeeded then,” Buck said. “I’d hardly know you were from down there.”
“Thank you, sir,” Streeter replied.
Again there was a long pause, but no attempt to end the meeting.
“I guess you like thoroughbreds,” Buck said.
“Oh, they’re okay. My father and his master had a queer fondness for Morgans.”
“Really? My father, too. I love them myself,” Buck replied with enthusiasm. He felt around in his pocket. “Hmm, would you like a smoke?”
“That’d be grand. I’ve tried to quit. My parents, when they first found me chewing tobacco, thought I was a ruined son,” Streeter laughed.
“My parents have had more than one reason to believe I was ruined over the years.” He lit Streeter’s cigar. “My brother and I have been a trial to my parents. But I guess we weren’t taught right.”
“You seem all right, sir,” Streeter said.
Buck puffed away. “Anyway, it’s good to be on the straight and narrow for once. I’m going for color guard soon.”
“Good luck, sir. Those officers are tough.”
“Yes, when I got here first I was some mess,” Buck chuckled. “I always had people to do for me at home and now I was on my own. You’ve got a head start on me, Mr. Streeter. I still can’t believe how well you set your things in order on the very first try. I even caught it for being easy on you.”
“Really, sir? I’m not at all pleased to hear that,” Streeter replied. “I wouldn’t like to think that you treat me any differently.”
“No, I never would, I assure you!” Buck huffed at the temper Streeter showed him. It was out of place for a junior cadet.
Streeter continued. “I must say you would do me the biggest favor if you gave me no preferential treatment at all. Maybe even taking this cigar puts us in a bad light. If I’m to succeed in the men’s eyes I must do everything on my own. I cannot be helped by a yearling everyone thinks is too lenient.”
“Lenient?” Buck’s heart raced.
“It is your reputation, sir.”
“How dare you speak to me this way!” Buck fumed. “I show the cadets respect and you see that as weakness?”
“I didn’t say I thought you were too lenient, but I must watch the impression I make with the others, sir.”
“Get out of my sight!” Buck yelled and stormed off to the tent they shared.
Lieutenant John Bourke discovers morphine-addicted John Weldon’s journal behind some commissary supplies and returns it to Katherine.
The writing was tiny like a secret. Katherine flipped through to the beginning. It predated their time together. It was older than time; the war, Carlisle Barracks, a bounty of withheld information. Maybe she should hide it and look it over a little at a time. What did she want to read first? Katherine flipped and flipped—the month when they met, the day…and she found it. Katherine’s heart raced.
Visited Captain McCullough. Felt I knew the mother already from his stories of home. I intended to talk to him about all that has happened since the Wilderness, but he was off with his sister racing horses and I hated them for their perfect little world where even the flowers matched.
The girl seemed stuck on herself for someone so small and boyish, but then she wore a blue dress for supper and she smelled so nice. After the meal I couldn’t help stare at her, but I don’t think she noticed, she was rudely reading the whole time like she was bored with us all. Simon is just the same—spoiled and fun and I can’t decide to forgive him or not.
I was so damned awkward. That door, that brief hope I had of having a normal happy life died at the Wilderness. But there is something about that girl. She’s nothing like Simon McCullough. Coming to New Jersey has made me see how much I will miss in life. How much I always miss. Katherine McCullough will think nothing more of me, but I will never forget almost dancing with her.
Weldon’s boots scuffed the floor on the other side of the curtain now, and Katherine slapped the book shut.
“What have you got there, Kate?” John asked as he came around to see her.
Katherine stayed on the bed. “Oh, nothing.”
“Come on, what are you up to?” Weldon asked.
“Did you really think I was stuck on myself when you first met me?” Katherine giggled.
Weldon sat down beside her, tugging at his boot. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason. Do you think I didn’t see you staring at me that first night in my father’s library?” Katherine purred and tickled his chin.
Weldon wasn’t smiling now. “Katherine, why do you ask? I don’t understand. It was so long ago.”
“It’s funny you didn’t notice how nervous you made me. I was hiding behind my book listening to every word you said.” Katherine pulled the journal out from behind her and placed it on his lap with a grin. “I’m sorry I read it without your permission, but it’s lovely to go back to those days.”
“You read it all?” Weldon cried.
Katherine sat up. “John, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have, but Mr. Bourke said the writing was impressive. I couldn’t help myself.”
“Bourke saw it? He read it?” Weldon asked panicking. “I’m found out!”
“John, Lieutenant Bourke said it was good! He only read enough to find your name somewhere.”
“Katherine, now you can see I’m ruined! How can you take it so lightly?”
“John, John! What are you talking about? So now the world will see our romance?”
“I can’t believe you read it!”
“Only about us and the way you felt on our first meeting—you are such a surprise—how could you deprive me of reading it? It made me happy.”
“It was private! And now Bourke knows!” Weldon paced, pulling his hair. “How did he seem?”
Katherine laughed at her husband’s discomfort. “Bourke seemed impressed by your style and nothing more. He just wanted to return it to its rightful owner.”
John took the journal and threw it into the fire before Katherine could stop him. He clutched his hair in both hands while Katherine looked on in shock. Gently she pried his hands loose and took them in hers. “My darling, what was in that journal that you’re so afraid of?”
John looked at her searchingly. “You only read about our meeting?”
“John, you’re scaring me. Please be honest with me. Did you have doubts about us?”
“Yes,” Weldon answered miserably, knowing that Katherine would never guess the truth if she hadn’t read it, and he would not have the courage to present it.
“Still?” Katherine asked.
“Yes…sometimes. You’ll find things you won’t like about me.”
“I already have, John. You snore and you don’t clean up after breakfast and you don’t trust me enough, but I will always love you.”
Weldon moaned and felt he might be sick. He wanted to tell Katherine how naïve she was, how blind and foolish…and it angered him. Weldon resented Katherine for having so little to worry about, but…he loved her still. It was that unquestioning devotion, that blind faith… “Katherine, I am saved by you. My foolish thoughts and actions from before…I’m glad to be rid of them.”
Katherine pulled him close. “You spend so much time worrying over the past it clouds our future. I wonder what it is—it must be worse than I can imagine—that causes you to suffer. You say it has nothing to do with us, but then why won’t you tell me? What have you done?”
Katherine asked with a calm that surprised Weldon. Now was the time to tell. Her eyes were set on him. Katherine was determined to hear anything, to accept anything. He would tell her, and she would understand.
“Katherine, during the war I let down my company. I tried to be someone I wasn’t. I even stole from your brother.”
“Yes, strawberry preserves.”
Weldon continued impatiently. He must tell Katherine everything… “Yes, I did it more than once, too. And I used to steal more than that from Simon, and he knew all along, but then he called me on it. Thieves are hated in the army.”
The idea of anyone taking advantage of Simon annoyed Katherine. “Yes, thieves are the lowest of the low,” she blurted out and regretted it.
Weldon flashed her a look like a door closing, got up and went for a smoke.
***Watch for the fully re-edited version of my novel THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD to be released soon! In the meantime enjoy some tasty bits:
Morphine-addicted Lieutenant Weldon remembers a friend’s generosity during the war.
It was winter camp. Simon was on the outs with Captain O’Malley for flirting with the captain’s fiancé and for bleeding the captain dry at cards. Simon had also upstaged him in all the real fighting they had done so far and would probably be promoted soon. So Simon fell in with the non-commissioned officers—anyone would have him. He never lacked for invitations. Reluctantly Weldon agreed to let Simon stay in the small, but warm shelter he had built for himself.
“This place sure looks like a crazy beaver’s dam to me, Weldon, but it’s warm. Not very cozy though with that sour look on your face, but at least I’ll have peace when I want it. It’s big enough for a game of Bluff with the fellows. What do you think?” Simon asked with a teasing grin. “All right, no poker, but how about a few shelves? And we should name the place—for fun.”
Weldon looked up from his book. “I’d rather we remained anonymous, lieutenant.”
“Of course you would, but it’s too late for that. Your architectural style has already been noted by the boys.”
Weldon went back to his reading, but stealthily eyed Simon’s larder. Mostly Simon gave things away, but found that his mother’s preserves got him a fair bit of bargaining power so he requested a lot and sold a lot. The profits disappeared in town among friends and acquaintances when they ran the picket and went on a spree, but Weldon also noticed delicate things sent off to one of his girls, he figured.
“No, this is for my sister, Weldon. Do you think I’d be stupid enough to leave some little flower pining for me at home? My family would be under all sorts of pressure to keep me on the straight and narrow. Why put extra strain on the home-folks?”
It annoyed Weldon to be in this man’s company. Simon always had the right thing to say and the luck to do as he pleased and get away with it. But Weldon couldn’t help being curious. “So what’s she like—your sister?”
“Oh, Katie’s sweet as they come, poor thing.” Simon looked at Weldon and decided to say no more. “I’ll be back with some wood for the new sign for our door.”
What had possessed Weldon to do it that first time? It was such a foolish thing. Weldon wasn’t hungry, and he needed no money. He took a jar of strawberry preserves, ate the contents and hid the empty jar. Not quite satisfied Weldon lifted the lid of Simon’s ridiculously childish bank and grabbed a few notes.
Simon hadn’t noticed it the first few times, but then one night Weldon watched as Simon counted and recounted his stash. Simon threw himself on his bunk and whistled a bit. “The men in the officers’ mess say I’m nuts to be sharing a place with you, Weldon, but I tell them it suits me fine—you’ll be an officer soon anyway, I imagine. You know I’m about to make a good trade of the preserves for some excellent contraband tobacco.”
“That’s nice,” Weldon replied, writing in his journal.
“You never do write letters, Weldon.”
“Well, did you have a terrible falling out with your family?”
“They’re dead, lieutenant.”
Simon shifted awkwardly.“All of them?”
“At the same time?” Simon pressed.
“No, my father was crushed felling trees, and my mother died in her own vomit,” Weldon answered.
“By golly, that’s rough.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t know,” Weldon said.
Simon shook his head. “Weldon, you have such a pleasant way about you.”
Weldon laughed despite himself.
Simon sat up and offered Weldon a cigar, and they smoked in contented silence.
“You know, Weldon, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out you’ve been lifting my strawberries.”
Weldon said nothing just stared at the ceiling.
“I’ve been wondering about why you might do it for a while now. You’ve just cleared it up for me. You shouldn’t try to deny it, your mattress is full of those jars my mother uses. I think you’re younger than you say—about my age—and you ran off and joined the cavalry and since your father died you didn’t have much so . . .”
“You win the prize,” Weldon said.
“The thing that makes it interesting is why you steal from me when you know I’d share freely with you,” Simon stated, flicking his ash on the floor.
“So you’ll run me out of camp then, I bet,” Weldon said.
Simon wasn’t finished pondering. “You follow every rule in the book then you steal from a friend.”
“What will you do then?” Weldon asked.
“Weldon, is this a test? Well, I’ll tell you I won’t be getting you kicked out over preserves.”
“I guess I’ve had a good Christian upbringing and enough of my own sins to forgive your strawberry habit. You’re always at the Bible—ever read that old stand by—the Ten Commandments?”
Weldon sat up and grabbed his kepi, pulling on the buttons.
“You almost seem disappointed, Weldon. Did you suddenly want to leave the army?”
“No, it’s not that. I’m ashamed is all and sorry. Truth is I’ve been trying hard to hate you, but I can’t now, can I?”
“Others have told me if they concentrate on my dashing good looks and the luck I have with the girls they can keep up a healthy resentment,” Simon joked. “But listen, I don’t get played the fool more than once, Weldon. Don’t let me find you at my stuff again. Ask and you shall receive. You know you are such a pain in the ass, but for some reason you’re like family—life’s strange that way. But stealing strawberries…some might think you’re touched in the head.”
Weldon smiled. He would never take anything again.
“Here shove this in your pack and come with me for a trade. You owe me,” Simon said.
***Watch for the fully re-edited version of my novel THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD to be released soon! In the meantime enjoy some tasty bits:
After a failed scout the newspaperman takes sides.
By chance the mail came in early and with it the local paper from town. Just as reveille played there was a pounding at the door. John jumped from bed fully dressed.
“Lieutenant Weldon! Look at this!” Jones whispered.
Katherine came up behind them.
“Morning, Mrs. Weldon. Land sakes, lieutenant, it came out fast, didn’t it?”
Weldon scanned the story from the newsman, running his fingers through his hair. “The ineptitude and corruption of Colonel Dixon James became apparent…The lieutenant and his men behaved admirably, even heroically…saving their fallen comrade and putting the savage Apaches on the run…the prisoners were mishandled by the colonel…the writer suggests the true heroes should be put in charge of military operations in our victimized territory…”
“It’s bully, sir, don’t you think?”
Weldon said nothing for a long while and then passed the paper to Katherine.
“I thought you’d be happy, sir. I don’t gather you are,” Jones said.
“Jones, don’t let any of the men see this,” Weldon warned, glancing across the empty land.
“But why, sir?”
“The colonel will have our heads for this.”
“WELDON!!” came a thunderous shout. Jones backed away to face the colonel as he trotted over to them. “You sneaky, lying son-of-a-bitch!” James ranted, waving a copy of the paper in Weldon’s face. “You think you’ve won? You’re a goddamned, ill-bred, half-wit. I have friends, Weldon, who will vouch for my word against this trash!”
“But sir, we were all there,” said Jones.
James clobbered him.
Weldon did not miss his chance to get the better of the colonel this time. His fist hit James’ jaw with such force that Weldon figured he’d broken his hand. The colonel didn’t fall, but staggered back, cradling the side of his face. It was light now, and the men had gathered on the parade grounds in silence not wanting to spoil the show. Katherine stood, gaping in the doorway.
The colonel lunged forward, but missed his mark and spit blood. “You son-of-a-bitch!”
Weldon grabbed him, but before he could get off another punch the colonel dragged Weldon to the ground, kicking and throwing fists. Katherine stepped between them, timidly tugging at the colonel. James turned and clutched her by the neck throwing her against the wall. Weldon dragged a lantern from atop a nearby crate and smashed it over the colonel’s head, shattering the glass and slashing the colonel’s face and neck. “You piece of shit! NEVER touch my wife, you miserable bastard! I’ll kill you!”
While James pulled shards of glass from his bloody face, John pulled a knife from his belt and went for the colonel’s throat, but the colonel flipped him with a horrible grunt.
“Men, take this rascal to the guardhouse!”
No one stepped forward.
“Sentiment may cause some of you to side with this little family here. But I can assure you that army regulations do not. This man has tried to kill a superior,” James said with blood dripping down his chin, “and it’s my right to put down insurrection—mutiny. The crime is punishable by death, boys. So I suggest that someone step forward to bring this outsider, this scoundrel, to the guardhouse.”
Five men stepped up, and as James stumbled to his feet they all took out their revolvers and aimed them at the colonel.
“You must be bloody joking, fellows. I’m not the enemy,” James chuckled uncomfortably. “Recognize your folly.”
Jones stepped forward. “We know you stand to make a pretty penny when the Indian rations arrive. We know that you’ve cheated us, and General Stoneman don’t much like you neither. But we’ll stay shut up if you let Lieutenant Weldon be.”
John tried to sit up, but James pushed him down.
The colonel took out a rag and wiped his face. He picked one last shard from his forehead. “That sounds like a deal I can live with, Jones, you snake-in-the-grass. I underestimated you. You caught me with my trousers down, but it won’t happen again.”
***Watch for the fully re-edited version of my novel THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD to be released soon! In the meantime enjoy some tasty bits:
John Weldon’s wife Katherine is feeling the effects of 19th century military living in the desert.
Katherine took a long breath and thumbed through a book on European history. She moved to the door and opened it to the night. The few men left behind to guard the camp were supposed to take turns at watch, but it looked as if most were asleep with their beds dragged out under the stars. Leaning on the frame of the doorway, Katherine gazed past the barracks and searched the barely detectable desert horizon, lonesome not just for John, but for the world.
Living here was like being abandoned. Everyone Katherine knew had their own lives. Father and Mother, Simon and now John. Her children would grow up and desert her just as she and Simon had done their parents. Any remnants of the close ties were loosened by the irregular mail in Arizona.
Simon used to tell Katherine in his letters home during the war that they could see the same stars in the sky even with state lines and mountains and streams between them. Before the war and before the Undercliff boy and before Simon had been sent away, the two had imagined on humid nights under tall elms that they would tramp the world together gathering stars. Instead they caught fireflies, killing them in sealed jars by mistake. Katherine’s one foolish winter daydream had sealed Simon’s fate and taken all of their summer nights away forever.
A hollow, useless wind blew over the parade grounds, a tease. A dog yelped in one of the quarters begging for supper scraps. Someone’s door hung loose on its hinges and tapped open and shut in the small melancholy gusts. Why had Katherine come all this way? Her thoughts turned morbid, and Katherine imagined a funeral after a quick illness. No one would know what dress to put her in or who to send word to if John were away.
And now Katherine had children. What would come next for her? And what if something happened to John? Katherine would have no one for the rest of her life; no one else would ever do. A coyote mourned the passing of another day and Katherine wondered if John thought of her or if he enjoyed their time apart. “Please God, let me die first! I couldn’t stand to lose him!”
Katherine splashed her face with water and lay down on the bed, knowing she would not sleep, but closed her eyes and remembered the rain; large drops of summer rain in Englewood sliding over broad leaves outside her bedroom window and the sweet smell that came up from her mother’s gardens of lilacs and roses. The porch swing was so cool during an afternoon thunderstorm, and Katherine used to watch the steam rise from the earth feeling refreshed and alive. Often her mother suggested a stroll then through the bright evening. There was no place to walk out here.
There was no safety past the barracks and nothing to see; besides Katherine could not leave the children alone. When John was here she could bear it, but now only three days since he’d left, Katherine worried. How would she feel after ten days? How would she feel to be stationed out here for good?
After tussling with Colonel James, Lieutenant Weldon brings back Indian prisoners, ending the scout on a sour note.
The men followed as Weldon went off toward the supposed Indian camp. They made quiet time and chanced upon the faintest light from the smallest fire in a ravine. Weldon signaled for his men to crawl on their knees, and finally their bellies, as they inched over to the boulders that concealed their progress. The small camp had a few shelters. Two braves sat at the fire.
At Weldon’s signal the soldiers fired into camp startling, but missing the two. Weldon slid, walked and tumbled after them, shot again and caught one. Another went down, but the rest escaped into the darkness. The soldiers tore the shelters and ransacked them for whatever they thought worth taking. A mother and child huddled inside one, too panicked to move. Weldon grabbed the woman and tied her hands after passing the child to another soldier.
“Shall we take the heads of the braves to show the citizens?” asked a private.
“No, let’s get the hell out of here,” Weldon replied, taking the woman by her arm as the sun rose. “We have prisoners and injured men to worry about.”
Sending two more men to stay with the sergeant, Weldon led the rest of the party back to camp just as the men there finished their morning coffee.
The colonel and the reporter shielded their eyes from the morning glare as the men came in. A shirtless James stood sipping coffee, his suspenders hanging around his legs, but the reporter trotted up for news. Weldon brushed by him. The others were happy to give their accounts of the events so far.
“Weldon, again you defied me!” James yelled, scratching the peeling sunburn at his chest.
“Sir, the sergeant is hurt but safe for now,” Weldon said with the Indian woman in tow. “I suggest we start back as soon as possible for Camp Grant.”
“Weldon, make the preparations. I’ll see to the prisoner,” James said, spilling his coffee at Weldon’s feet and handing him the cup before pulling up his trousers.
Weldon threw the tin on the ground and went to get the men from the stream.
The Apache woman screamed when the colonel cut her clothes from her. “Take a good look at that quim, boys.” James laughed, inviting the boys to poke her with their guns. No one did. The colonel took her by the hair and dragged her to his wagon. A few of James’ cronies cheered. The newsman had stopped writing and watched with his arms folded and his face dumb as stone.
“What the hell’s going on?” cried Weldon running up. “Where’s the child?”
The writer reported, “Nits make lice as they say.”
James cursed from the wagon. Weldon and a few others jumped on back but it was too late. The girl fell out before them.
“That filthy bitch bit me!” the colonel announced, jumping down. He grabbed his pistol. The men pulled at James, but he was not to be deterred. The woman tried to run but James caught up with her and knocked the butt of his gun against her skull with a heavy thud.
No one laughed now. One man vomited as the woman lay oozing blood and brain.
“Private Darlington, get rid of this mess. Pick a friend to help you,” the colonel ordered. At that moment the poor private had no friends. He tapped Jones on the shoulder and received a savage look.
“By jinks, these Indians have soft skulls,” James said. “I hardly hit her.” He glanced at his audience and once at the lifeless woman, small and soft. “Weldon, get us out of here. I’m tired of this scouting business,” the colonel stated with a touch of emotion. “You got us into this mess, now you get us out!”
James ordered a large fire set to the wagons and anything else that could not be taken along. Darlington and Jones wrapped the woman in a blanket and rolled her over a steep hill until she hit rock. The ground was too tough to dig and there wasn’t time.
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.
“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.
“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.
“I sure do hope you don’t mean the stuff stored in my ambulance.”
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.
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. 🙂
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.”
“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.”
After 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.
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.
Lieutenant Weldon suggests a scouting mission and regrets it.
“Weldon!” called the colonel who rarely made it up before noon.
James cleared his throat and spit, smelling as usual of the previous night’s whiskey as he entered headquarters. “I’ve noticed that you’re fond of putting things in order…always working on this or that report about what I don’t know.”
“You might to read them sometime, sir.”
James laughed. “Why would I want to do that? From my shady ramada I can see full well that, aside from the occasional intoxicated savage wandering in and cursing the government or the dogs humping each other on parade, nothing much is happening here. You entertain me with your harsh style of discipline though. Nearly drowning Lyons for drunkenness was such excitement we hardly ever have. My lovely wife takes bets on when an all-out mutiny will occur. Mrs. James is quite taken with you, Weldon, but I warn you– you may look, but you can’t touch.”
“I have no wish to be anywhere near Mrs. James, sir. As usual you’ve found a new way to disgust me,” Weldon said, dipping his pen and making to get back to work.
“Be careful, Weldon, I’m still your superior. I tolerate you because you foolishly take your assignments seriously. As you know, my hands are tied when it comes to real promotions—it’s the system.”
“I know, sir. Is that all?”
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss me, lieutenant. I may be of some help to you.”
Weldon glanced up, shook his head and went back to his papers.
“Really, Weldon, you might want to curb your suspicious nature. It’s off putting,” James advised as he fingered through the pile of papers on Weldon’s desk. “Now, we’ve come upon a problem with Beckenbauer. Although he’s tried his darnedest to run the commissary and the quartermaster departments here, he’s failed. On our last scout before you arrived he went plumb loco in the heat and is near an imbecile now. Mind you, he was always a little off. Men would find him fondling himself at strange and inappropriate times like when the Jesuits came for a visit. Anyway, it makes one sick to think that he ever handled food and such.”
“What will become of Beckenbauer, sir?”
“Oh, I’ll bring him up on charges and get rid of him, but that’s no concern of yours. This place is disease ridden, and a person has to be strong here to survive. I bet you could do with some extras for the little ones and Mrs. Weldon. General Stoneman has designated this location as a feeding station for the friendly Apaches—what a laugh—but we need someone to manage the books. There may be some financial incentives, too.”
“A raise in pay, sir?”
“Well, I’m not sure of the details, but I need an answer soon. I want the books in order before anyone comes snooping around.”
“May I ask why you expect snoops?”
The colonel huffed impatiently and his nose, enlarged from sun and drink, took on a purple glow. “If you must know every detail, I will tell you. I pitied Beckenbauer for far too long, and I suspect he may have made a right mess of the books. We can ill afford such incompetence when the supplies for the Indians arrive. I can order you to do it, but you’ll be better served if you accept my offer.”
“I’ll discuss it with Mrs. Weldon and . . .”
“My Weldon, I see you must jump through hoops to get that twat; maybe that’s why you are so hard on your men.”
“Sir, I’ll do my best to carry out your orders, but I wonder, sir, if you’ve given any thought to a scout.”
“Frankly, lieutenant, I never give much thought to scouts—I just jump in come what may when the mood strikes. And most of the men here don’t enjoy marching out and camping.”
“The better men have expressed an interest and are tired of the papers saying we’re not doing our job.”
“Oh, so you’ve convinced the men to work, have you? I’m sure they’re just avoiding being horse whipped by you. I told you having the local papers for the men to read would be a bad idea. We don’t answer to the Tucson papers.”
“Well, who do we answer to, sir?”
“The people of the United States; most don’t want us to do a damned thing. That suits me fine and you’ll find that most men agree with me.”
“If we aren’t going to do our job then there’s no point in drilling the men.”
“My point exactly,” James said, tapping the reports again.
“Some soldiers want to do their duty, sir.”
“Don’t you dare, Lieutenant Weldon,” the colonel said, looking hurt. “I served my time in Mexico and during the war. You’re nothing but a small time martinet with lots of big ideas you couldn’t possibly carry out. I asked about you and correspond with my friends in Washington. Seems you got quite a lot of men to go follow you in the Wilderness. I hear most ain’t around to tell about it, and you were rash and lacking in judgment. Don’t go insinuating I don’t know my job.”
Weldon’s heart pounded. “S-sir, if you allow me to organize a scout for the men wanting to go, I’ll be able to write a report to the papers showing we’re trying to protect the citizens. It would look good for you, sir.”
The colonel mulled over the idea and clapped his hands together. “Yes, Weldon, you may do it. You’re a pain in my arse, but you’ve hit upon something. It may keep the higher ups off my back if you write something favorable. But you had better not take my best Euchre players.”
“There’s no worry about that, and I’ll invite along the newsman.”
“A newsman? Well, that changes everything then. I shall come along, too.”
Weldon kicked himself all the way back to his quarters that evening and sat sullenly through another less than ample meal.
A politically incorrect dinner engagement leaves morphine-addicted John Weldon and his wife Katherine unsettled.
When Katherine said goodbye to her parents in Englewood she imagined they would come visit her one day and be impressed with her, but that flight of fancy dimmed on the arduous journey out. Father would never make such a trip. The final remnants of such hope disappeared after seeing her quarters.
Katherine realized upon entering the colonel’s quarters that Private Higgins was right. Julia James had expertly turned a rugged few rooms into a peaceful and well-appointed home. After a few envious moments Katherine noticed that the settee covered in elegant blue chintz with pillows to match had been constructed with just a few army boxes. The curtains over the lone window hung from ceiling to floor making the ceiling feel not so oppressively low. The only true piece of proper furniture was a small cabinet darkened with age. “What a beautiful piece,” Katherine whispered.
“Why thank you, Mrs. Weldon. It’s from my home state and dates from before the Revolution.”
“What state, may I ask? The cabinet reminds me of home in New Jersey.”
“Oh my! I’m from Trenton. Well, isn’t that a nice bit of luck? I hope we can become the best of friends,” Julia said, pulling Katherine close.
“I’m overwhelmed by your room. It’s so prettily done up, Mrs. James. It reminds me of a playhouse for a child. Private Higgins warned me, but it’s beyond my expectations.”
“I hope you won’t spend much time gossiping with that boy. Higgins is an awful liar and a sneak. I see you’ve hired him on for help, but how would you know how foolish that was unless you made it your business to ask one of us beforehand?” she whispered as the colonel spoke with John. “I find it telling that you call my home a room. I’ll give you a little advice. You’re used to high living back east, but I don’t appreciate your uppity tone especially since you’re married to a lowly 2nd lieutenant.”
“Pardon me, Mrs. James,” Katherine’s voice shook. “I meant no insult. Your home is lovely, and I only hope one day to have something half as nice.”
“Poor girl, you’re a pathetic little creature,” Mrs. James said as she poured Katherine a liqueur and waited for Katherine to take a timid sip. “I pride myself on judging people, especially army wives justly and fairly, and I’ll say that the likes of you never last. All your sniveling and shyness. It won’t do.” Julia sighed and then with an odd smile pulled Katherine to the table to join the men.
“So, Lieutenant Weldon, how does it feel to be stationed at the most desolate post in all of North America?” the colonel asked as they sat down to a supper of roast bird, oysters and white potatoes.
“I guess it’s too hard to tell yet, sir, but the heat is more than I bargained for.” Weldon stared at Katherine until she put down her drink with a blush.
Colonel James, with a heavy brow and full mustache, towered even over Weldon and filled the room with his movement and vitality. “Yes, the infernal heat. After the war I expected a nice little post somewhere pleasant. Even helping out with the coloreds would be better than this. Julia says it right; this is more a punishment than a promotion and no matter what we do for them, it’s never enough for the citizenry of these parts. Thankless work, I tell you. I long for the day of transfer. You see the caliber of men here. I’ve given them up completely.”
“Sir, I think all men can be whipped into shape somehow.”
The colonel eyed Weldon. “Well then, maybe you’re the one to do it. Would you like an old-fashioned army toddy?”
“Water will do, sir. Thank you.”
“Oh, a temperance man!” Julia laughed. “My, you two get better and better—an animal rescuer and a clean living man—you’re saints. You’ll have your work cut out for you!”
“Mrs. James is appalled by the debauchery that goes on here,” James said with what sounded like sarcasm. “It’s a man’s world as they say and you can’t blame a man for his natural urges. The officers are curbed by their families.”
“Oh, really?” Julia mumbled, but Katherine caught it. The colonel poured a drink for himself and a smaller bit for Julia, who threw it back when she thought no one was looking.
“I had expected to see more Indians out here,” Weldon ventured, clearing his throat.
“Well, that, young man, is the problem. We can’t find them, but they find the settlers and do real damage. Hundreds of head of livestock stolen in the surrounding parts and sold to the Mexicans—not to mention the human loss. Grant’s Peace Policy is the last thing the people of Arizona want and I can’t say I blame them. Funny though, if between the Mexicans and our troops we exterminated the Apache, the citizenry would be in a real bind—most money they make is in supplying our troops. In fact the Mexicans do a fair comanchero business with the tribes, buying and selling stolen goods. The army just don’t have the man power to cover the hundreds of miles necessary to protect all the people who clamor for it. So I say damn it all to hell and try to get by dealing with them all as little as possible and making merry on my own terms.”
Katherine and John glanced at each other.
“We spent time at Fort Riley before being ordered here—now there was a social spot—so many young officers and graceful girls, dances and theatricals,” Julia James sighed. “We try to bring some of that to life here, but the cultured type I so enjoy are far and few.”
“I told Mrs. James to invite the Mexican girls; they’re by far the most fetching of women. No race can beat them—the ones with Cortez blood, of course.”
“As I told you, colonel, when you rustle up enough handsome officers I’ll allow the Mexican girls—with Mr. Weldon, you’re off to a good start!”
Weldon fumbled with his fork.
“Mrs. Weldon, my wife tells me you’re quite a climber. Where did you learn that skill?” the colonel asked.
“Oh,” Katherine blushed, “it’s not a skill—I just got caught up in the excitement.”
“Ah, that’s a nice feeling—being caught up in the passion at hand,” Colonel James said.
Katherine hesitated uncomfortably glancing at Weldon. “The poor laundress, she was sweet and knocked at my door. I’d never seen someone so upset over a little bird before, but it seems the family loves it so.”
“The laundresses are an odd lot—where the men pick them up I’ll never know, but they can’t be trusted,” warned Julia on her third sizable drink now.
“They’re not that bad when they’re young,” the colonel added, raising his brow, “So go on, Mrs. Weldon . . .”
“Well, the bird escaped from its cage, and Suzy’s children were devastated—it’s their only thing from home, and the men had teased the children by saying they’d have a shooting contest if they found it. But there it was on our roof—on the stovepipe of all places—luckily I still couldn’t start a fire to save myself. There were no men about so I had no choice. Susanna is far too heavy for climbing, and there was the bird so I climbed up and caught it.”
“That was adventurous of you, Mrs. Weldon,” Julia said, “but you would do well by your husband not to associate with the laundresses.”
“Now, Julia, you’re too all consumed with rank and class. This is a free country. You must not assume everyone cares to be promoted or given agreeable assignments,” said the colonel, finishing up the last of his meal and leaning back luxuriously in his chair.
“My father and mother have taught me to be helpful to all sorts when I can,” Katherine said.
“Don’t upset yourself now,” Julia said. “I’m sure they meant well, but I imagine even they would be embarrassed to see you climb ridgepoles doing the bidding of a common woman. That’s what privates are for, dear. How fair would it be to Lieutenant Weldon if you broke your little neck, and he had to care for you instead of the other way around?”
The colonel added in a fatherly tone, “This may be a lonely outpost, but there must still be standards of civilization or we’re no better than the Indians.”
“I’m sorry I managed to bring on the downfall of civilization so quickly!” Katherine replied.
“Dear, don’t be silly,” Julia said. “We’re here to teach you the ins and outs of this camp. We like things done a certain way, and you’ll see it’s for the best. I suggest too that you hire one of the quieter privates or a Mexican old lady to help you. Get rid of Higgins and don’t hire a laundress—they’re awful forward and would be all over the likes of your husband. Mrs. Lyons says you were a good customer of hers before, Mr. Weldon.”
Katherine turned to her husband. Weldon sat red faced, unable to look up from his plate. Eliza cried from her box on the floor.
“I don’t know how people manage children—they’re so bothersome and I couldn’t bear it!” exclaimed Julia, with her tiny white hands covering her ears.
“I consider it an honor to help in carrying on my husband’s name. I’m sorry for women who are unable to do so.” Katherine picked up Eliza.
“Excuse us, Colonel James, sir, and Mrs. James,” John said, “the meal was nice, but we should take the children home. W-we don’t want for them to spoil your evening.”
As they made for the door, carrying their children, the colonel whispered to Weldon, “I hear childbirth loosens a woman up. I like a good tight squeeze.”
“Sir, I’m sorry to say I find your words disgusting and offensive.”
“Don’t drink or joke…you’ll be a real fine addition here.”
John and Katherine stalked off together, unsettled and listening to their feet squeeze sound from the sandy earth. After putting the children to bed, they collapsed into their own.
“You climbed the roof?”
“I had to. The poor thing would have perished, and it’s a short roof. I didn’t expect to be lectured on it.”
“You’re my little card!” Weldon laughed uncomfortably. “So we’re stuck with a rough man and his pretty wife. Maybe you should be more careful with the laundresses.”
“You think Julia’s pretty?”
“Well, yes, she is but…not like you.”
“Not like me? What am I if I’m something other than pretty?”
“Why would you say she’s pretty? I already dislike her intensely!”
“They’re awful—the both of them and I’d say they don’t care for us much either. We’re off to a great start,” John stated, kicking off his boots. “It’s so blasted hot in here. Won’t you even consider sleeping outside under the ramada?”
“I’ll not have strange people staring at me while I sleep! But maybe you want to show yourself off to the pretty one!”
“Kate, you’re being foolish.”
“I heard what that disgusting man said to you.”
“Katherine, he’s a man we should avoid. Mrs. James is pretty, but you’re the only girl I’ve ever wanted.”
“Why, because you think that you could do no better?”
“Of course I can do no better,” John assured her.
“Julia makes her place so homey. I could never . . .”
“Julia James is selfish and mean; that’s clear. For all of her nice looks it’s her meanness that shines through. You’re smart and kind and the only one who knows me and still likes me.”
Katherine laughed. “Yes, I still like you.” She messed his hair, but then something else pricked her nerves. “John, what about Oonagh Lyons?”
“Jesus Christ! What about her?”
“Why are you overreacting?” Katherine asked. “Why did you lie about doing your own laundry in the past?”
“It wasn’t a lie!” he turned on is back and stared at the low ceiling. “I was tired of doing it so I paid her sometimes . . . to wash my shirts—so now you’ve caught me out—are you happy?”
“John Weldon, there’s something wrong that you won’t say, because you don’t trust me. It’s Oonagh, isn’t it? Do you like her?”
“No! She’s an awful bitch! I . . . I love you and sometimes . . . it’s almost unbearable how much. . .” Weldon threw the light blanket off and got up. “How many times can I ask you to forgive me? I’m sorry about the clothes. I don’t want you to leave. I shouldn’t have lied.”
“Leave? Over shirts? John, you must be mad! I don’t care a fig who did your laundry.” Katherine pulled him back to bed. “If Oonagh made your life easier . . .”
“Let’s not talk about her anymore . . . she’s not worth the time. Now you’ll do the laundry.” Weldon kissed her, but it felt forced. “And I’ll depend on you alone. I want to make you proud.”
“I’m already proud,” Katherine said. “You are the only man here who carries himself like a true soldier.”
“Katherine, how did I get so lucky to catch you.”
“There’s no luck, my mother says, just grace,” Katherine said, tucking herself beneath his arm.