Fiction: The Watch

William travels to Camp Grant to return Thankful’s watch (pawned to a worker at the stables by Haviland).

the watch“He’s intoxicated, the thief, and should be left to wander the desert,” Baker, the preacher’s son said when William arrived at Fort Grant that night.

“I’m not drunk—now let me see Thankful.”

The other sentry with Baker laughed. “She won’t be pleased to see you. No one will.”

“Shit-ass, just let me in,” William said with a slur.

The men relented, William being protected property of Captain Bourke’s.

William heard the tinkling of laughter and music at the end of the wind swept parade grounds. What day was it? Saturday? An officers’ dance was on. He limped towards the music, remembering his timid attempt at dance with his mother in the kitchen. His grandmother’s laughter had put a stop to it. “He’s no Simon, is all I have to say!”

No one could ever be like his Uncle Simon. William remembered him as always so at ease and generous—nothing like his father. He sighed, edging closer to the chapel dance hall and shivering in his light jacket. A visiting party of officers and their wives amplified the merriment and noise. A small window offered him a secret glimpse.

old-camp-grant-280Along the larger windows at the far end stood the regular company men and the laundresses envying the lace and cut of the gowns worn by the officers’ wives. Flags and bunting hung everywhere bursting with national colors. William studied the unfinished paintings of swords and chivalrous sayings on the rough walls. No one had attempted completing William’s work. The music from a few members of the regimental band made something ache inside of William.Why couldn’t he ever remember those times in the army with Mother and Papa—and Eliza? He missed things, but couldn’t figure what.

The notes of a waltz came up, and the honor of leading the dance went to a young officer and his new friend. The captain’s wife had been ingenious in getting up, with a few minor alterations, a dress suitable for Thankful, mix and match always the way at the frontier posts where clothes must last. Though more old-fashioned than Thankful usually wore, the lavender bodice and black full skirt set her streets ahead of the other ladies.

William heard a few of the bachelor officers arguing over promised dances, and he wanted to pummel them. Thankful’s laughter annoyed him, too, as she swung along with Fahy, her dark curls bobbing and shining in the candlelight.

Would the musicians ever stop? William cringed when things grew quiet and Thankful pinned her fan beside the corps badge on Fahy’s jacket. Why couldn’t she just stab him? But everything about the Crenshaws went smooth as silk.

William finished the rough whiskey in his bottle and made his way around to the front where a makeshift punch and refreshment table stood with favors and unusual edibles made with army rations and lit by polished lanterns. William grabbed a snack and waited for his chance to speak with Thankful. He upset a small platter with the carbine dangling off his shoulder. The noise caught Mrs. Markham’s attention. She handed her punch to a young pet officer and hustled over to the uninvited guest.

“Mr. Weldon, how are you here tonight? You know how much I care for you—and the captain, too. We’re both still upset you moved away, but this dance is for officers only, I’m afraid.”

William spotted some civilians, but what did it matter if she lied? “Mrs. Markham, I’m here to return something to Miss Crenshaw.”

“So you did take the money then?” Mrs. Markham asked. “I don’t know how it’s all gone so wrong for you. Well, Thankful was certain it was only some sort of mistake. And I suppose it was—to leave money in town the way she did, she’s very foolish, but so darn lovable—practically family already. You know how the army is, William.”

William squirmed.

Mrs. Markham gave him a hard look after spotting the old boots he wore. “Where are the boots the captain and his men got for you?”

“Lost.”

“You exasperate me, young man, truly, you do. But you realize even our lost sheep are welcomed back into the fold if only they’d come,” Mrs. Markham said with marked emphasis.

“Mrs. Markham, I like town,” William replied. “I only came to see Thankful.”

“My, she’s the belle of the barracks, isn’t she?” the captain’s wife said, admiring Thankful.

“She’s lovely,” William said as he caught sight of her, flying by on Fahy’s arm.

“Are you very distant cousins, Mr. Weldon?” Mrs. Markham asked with a confused look.

“No, just up the hill.”

The captain’s wife guided William out of the light. “Sweetie, your cousin is a fine young lady, who I’m sure doesn’t want her chance for a little society to be ruined and cut short by her pickled cousin. Now be fair. I know that it’s far too late for you to go back to your suite in town, but you can’t hang about here looking all dour. I’ll have you set up for bed tonight and you may speak to Miss Thankful first thing.”

Fahy and Thankful dashed up to the table in high spirits and took drinks.

“Those darned buttons and medals and such are pretty to look at and certainly keep my attention, but they scratch awfully much in a dance,” Thankful giggled, rubbing her cheek.

“If you weren’t so energetic in your steps, Miss Crenshaw, maybe a fellow would have a chance to mind his buttons,” Fahy laughed, his dark eyes full of merriment.

“Well, Mr. Fahy, I learned to dance from my father and he’s gracefuller than most,” Thankful said with her nose in the air.

William hated when she spoke childishly for attention.

“I guess your father had less buttons to get in the way,” Fahy quipped.

“Oh, Father has his big belly to watch out for. . .” Thankful burst into tears.

“Miss Crenshaw, did I offend you in some way?”

“Oh, it’s just you’re such a gentleman—like my father and you’ve all been so kind—what with taking up a collection for me—almost thirty dollars even! I’m so horrible and partly homesick—but I’ve made some very special . . . friends here, I think. I’m so mixed up!” A familiar figure stepped out of the shadows. “Willy?!”

Mrs. Markham could not hold him back.

He tucked his shirt as he walked up. “Thankful, I’ve retrieved something of yours.”

“Oh, William! I knew you couldn’t have taken the money. You wouldn’t! It’s not in you!” Thankful cried, deserting Fahy.

“No, Thankful . . . it’s not the money.”

“Well, whatever is it then?” Thankful asked with pained expression.

“It’s this; your watch.” He handed it over.

Fahy came up behind Thankful, protectively. “What has he done?”

Thankful flipped the elegant watch in her hand. “He’s given me my watch back,” she replied, expressionless.

“What’s the matter, Weldon? You couldn’t pawn it?” Fahy asked.

“Mr. Fahy, I think it’s best if you stay out of family business,” Mrs. Markham warned.

Thankful wiped her teary eyes. “I’m so ashamed of myself! I’m no better than poor William who has some excuse! He’s no cousin of mine—just a friend from home, and we lied to you. I put William up to it so I wouldn’t have to stay in that awful town! And I never should have taken the money from my father without permission! I’m a terrible girl who has brought shame to my family. I hope you can see it in your hearts to forgive me!”

Mrs. Markham took Thankful’s hand. “Oh, child, sometimes we learn from failure—I hope you will. Of course, I forgive you.”

“I just feel a little offended, Miss Crenshaw,” Fahy added. “That you would think that the men of the army would ever allow you to stay in town!”

“I realize that now and feel so mortified and foolish to leave my money—and now I will have to leave before I can regain your trust and friendship, Mr. Fahy.”

“You already have my friendship, Miss Crenshaw, and maybe it is you who must learn to trust others who will like you even more for being honest.”

“I will remember it as a lesson learned, Mr. Fahy,” Thankful said, flashing her long wet lashes up at him.

The color rose on Fahy’s face, and he took her hand in his and kissed it.

William froze. The way they gazed at each other was like his mother and father once did. It was like looking at his own lost dream.

Thankful turned to William, her voice icy. “Thank you for the watch back, but . . . well, it’s broken and all. Maybe you should pawn it.”

“Thankful, I just know that I would never take your money—I know it,” William said.

“Then where is it, Willy?” Thankful demanded.

“I think that maybe my friends . . .”

“Your friends? Who are these friends?” Thankful pulled William aside. “Are they the other drunks from town? I’m ashamed to know you. You’ve turned into what your friends are and your father would be very upset.”

“My father? What do you know about him, Thankful?”

“All I know is that he’s a sweet old man, and he’d be as heartbroken as I am seeing you like this!”

“Who do you think you are? After two days you’re sparking with the officers! Lieutenant Fahy even! Getting their hopes up only to go off and take up with someone else. I thought maybe you were better than the other Crenshaws, but you play tricks with people like nothing!” William said.  Unsteady on his feet, he took a step back.

Fahy and Mrs. Markham inched closer again.

“I’ve never played a single trick on you!” Thankful cried. “Why are you so cruel?”

“Because all of you Crenshaws are a pack of liars and cheats!”

Thankful threw the watch at him, “You are so eaten up with hate and jealousy. There’s no helping it! I don’t want a friend like you when there are men like Mr. Fahy. I’ll be a true and loyal friend to him—in letters even—if he’ll allow it.” Thankful turned to the lieutenant.

Fahy lingered in her adoration a moment.  He turned to William then. “Bill, you need to go to bed. I’ll set something up in my quarters,” he proposed with a magnanimous smile sent Thankful’s way.

William was in no shape to decline his offer.

PREVIOUS EPISODE FROM WEARY OF RUNNING

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw, his sister Thankful and William Weldon’s  misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”

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FICTION: The Holidays Are Awkward

Margaret Crenshaw and her obnoxious son Fred do their best to keep things uncomfortable when they visit with old friends. For Buck, still in shock over his brutal treatment of a West Point cadet, the visit goes from bad to worse.

To the great relief of Graham’s mother and Margaret, Graham gathered up his children and left for home the next morning. They were expected for the traditional holiday dinner at the Weldon home. The Crenshaws in their enormous garnet sleds pulled up the drive at Tenafly Road to be met by a few chairs–badly burnt and smoldering–and a sooty John Weldon limping up to greet them.

“Holy Jerusalem, Weldon! What’s happened? Is everyone all right?” Graham asked, climbing down from his seat.

“A fire. S-Sarah s-set the place in flames,” John laughed in his defeated way.

“Graham, dear. . .” Margaret said with her hand held out, waiting to be helped from the sled.

Graham took Margaret’s hand and set her beside him.

“Mr. Weldon, it seems hardly the time for laughter. When will you get some hired help to mind Sarah? Oh, I know Katherine wouldn’t like to spend your small income, but truly,” Margaret said, “Sarah will have you all dead and buried by summer. What a shame she’s so gone off in the head.”

“It wasn’t really—well, it was an honest mistake,” John replied.

“Mr. Weldon, I’m sure that Sarah’s as honest as an acorn when her mind is working, but please,” Margaret huffed.

Nathaniel, the Crenshaw ten-year-old, jumped down to survey the damage.

“Nathan,” Margaret scolded, “get back in your seat this instant. We’re leaving.”

“Oh balls! But Mama . . .”

“No, for goodness sake!” Margaret cried. “Graham do you hear his language? And what will we eat here with the kitchen charred to bits?” Margaret asked Nathan, but her son hardly listened.

Lucy, the Weldon’s adopted niece, wearing thick spectacles and a grin, waved and called to Nathan. “We’ve got gallons of cider and pies like you’ve never seen.” She grabbed the boy and ran to the porch.

Fred stayed perched at the helm of the second sleigh. “Well, if this ain’t rotten luck, Weldon.”

“Mr. Weldon to you, young man,” Graham said. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Fraid not,” Weldon replied, wiping his hands on his trousers.

Margaret huffed again as Katherine strode up with a smudge on her nose. “Come along, Graham. I’m sure the Weldons are in no mood for company now. It’s grum here, right, Katie?”

Katherine looked to John.

“Well, my wife would feel more cheerful if you stayed. Why let a little kitchen fire ruin supper?”

“Supper usually includes cooked foods, dishes, that sort of thing,” Margaret said. “Besides my children suffer in the smoke.”

“Since when, Margaret?” Graham asked and turned to John and Katherine. “We’ve brought nice wine from my mother, and Lucy says your pies are in eating shape. You know that’s why I came. Of course we’ll stay. The boys will help get things in order for you.”

Fred moaned. “But Father, I’m on holiday and we’ve been from Hell to breakfast this morning.”

“And our poor, poor Buck is an invalid this year. Do you still keep Willy’s wheelie-chair thing around?” Margaret asked.

Buck slammed his hand against the side of the sleigh to make his mother stop—uselessly.

Katherine stepped over to him. “Buck looks very unwell.”

“Oh, don’t worry—those cuts will heal and he’ll be as good looking as his brother again. I know he’s gruesome,” Margaret said. “It wouldn’t be right to send him home on his own though.”

Katherine went red. “Of course you wouldn’t, Margaret! I wasn’t speaking of his wounds, only that the poor thing looks green. I don’t discriminate based on looks.”

“Obviously not—look what you married, Katie, and there’s no hope of improvement there, ha-ha,” Margaret quipped.

Thankful, with the youngest child in her arms, jumped from the sleigh.

“Watch the child! Watch the child!” Margaret screamed.

Thankful laughed, handed the happy baby to Margaret and gave Katherine a hug. “Any word from Willy yet, ma’am?”

“Yes, my son sent us lovely gifts.”

Lucy joined them. “Oh, but Willy forgot all about Uncle John.”

“But Lucy, there must have been a mistake,” Thankful said, turning to Katherine.

Katherine said nothing as Weldon walked over and kissed her.

Thankful pulled her bag from the sleigh. “Oh, dash, I almost forgot. I’ve something for Mr. Weldon. It’s from England—a book of flowers, garden things and such. I thought you might like it, sir.”

John glanced at Katherine with a charmed grin. “Miss Thankful, that was thoughtful.”

“Why are you giving Grandmother Martha’s book away when you just got it, Thankful? How rude. She’d be hurt,” Margaret said.

“Grandmother was getting rid of it. . .” Thankful replied, pushing it into Weldon’s hands.

“It’s the thought, Thankful,” Weldon said. “Here you go. I won’t take it, but it’s the thought. I appreciate it.”

Meg, Thankful’s twin yawned and stood beside her mother. Finally Buck made his way to the ground, pulling his hat lower.

“Well, I do hope we can be kept warm. The baby is just over being sick,” Margaret said. “Katherine, I’m so happy that all of you are safe, though. We love you very much.”

Katherine collected herself. “The parlor is fine. I haven’t the heart to look for damage in the dining room—we had it nicely done up.”

The men took the horses to the barn.

“My gosh, I remember this place when old man McCullough used to keep it fine with the best horses in the county—aside from ours. Look at that poor wretch you have now,” Fred said. “Whatever happened to your last Morgan?”

“As you know already, Fred, I sold the horse for my son’s trip west and I’d do it again. Seems Willy’s doing really well with his paints and all.”

“So he’s painting fences out west?” Fred asked.

“F-for m-magazines,” Weldon replied.

“That’s nice about the horse,” Buck whispered.

“What are you saying, Buck?” Graham asked.

“It’s nice that Mr. Weldon did that for his son.”

They stared at him.

Buck took up a grooming brush and ran it a few times over the horse, but soon tired and sat on a hay bale, close to napping.

Weldon said to Graham, “I’m surprised you let him out.”

“Oh, Buck was adamant. Wanted to come. I don’t know why, but well, I’m inclined to give him what he wants after coming so close to losing him. He’s still in for some big trouble yet at school.”

Weldon was just putting out the final lantern when Lucy arrived.

“Uncle John,” she whispered as she came up beside him with big eyes.

Weldon gave the willowy girl his undivided and adoring attention.

Lucy pulled a tiny kitten from her coat.

Weldon laughed.

“Please, uncle, please let me keep it. It’s forlorn.”

“Lulu, but how many orphans can we keep?” Weldon caught himself and kissed Lucy’s pale forehead. “Go on, then, but what will you name it?”

“Willy,” she replied. “He’s handsome like Willy.”

Fred guffawed. Lucy walked out whistling but not before showing Doctor Crenshaw her new little pet.

Fred laughed and whispered to his father, “She’ll be something to look at in a few years, won’t she?”

Graham glared at Fred. “Wake your brother. Come along now.”

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw and his misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”

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

PART SEVENTEEN HERE

A Christmas Card For A Soldier

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“A green wrinkled sheet of thick card in his empty money pouch caught John Weldon’s eye. He pulled it out between his two long fingers. Hand-drawn timorous trees in black ink dressed the card’s message from the only care package he had ever received that first Christmas of the war . . . Christmas . . . the most dismal time of year for a soldier without family. Weldon found ways to avoid mail call, but one day someone shouted his name. He thought he heard it, but wasn’t sure so hung back. The call came again with more impatience and Weldon slunk up, with his sunken, dark eyes lowered and his crow-black hair shorn short since the summer of lice. The heavy, battered box had his name on it. His face burned. He cut the top with his knife and reached in to find soft mittens and socks—hand-knit and familiar in a way—they were like Simon McCullough’s and for a horrible moment he thought there had been an embarrassing mistake. He fumbled to close the box but noticed a tiny, hand-drawn card with funny little trees around the edge. “A friend of Simon’s is a friend of ours! Merry Christmas! Warm Regards—Scott, Sarah and Katherine McCullough.”

Hazelton sidled up and read the card. On the back in the same small script was scribbled an address in Englewood, New Jersey Simon McCullough had talked about endlessly—almost like a fairytale, being too perfect to be real—as if they had expected Weldon to write. He’d never done so, but had run his fingers over the little tree drawings many times.

“Sir, you need help and if it ain’t the hospital you’re going to then I’m going to put you on the train.”

“I don’t know them…I can’t face Simon…I…”

“Any place is better than here and Simon is your friend.”

Weldon had done everything he could think of to repulse this invasion, this toppling of his defenses but Simon McCullough wore him down. The whole world seemed to love him—no Simon pretended to love the whole world—he even played with the darkies’ children.

He remembered squeezing into his first army boots at Carlisle Barracks and then going off to the war with a commander who convinced him to volunteer for a Jersey regiment on a lark.  There he met Simon and for a sparkling few years pretended at being someone else. But now fevers came on strong. He held the pus-filled flap of skin at his side a little tighter. How had he been so damned stupid? How had he ever let Simon McCullough in?—that piece of shit. What a terrible, stupid blunder. He would bring it all to him. Just shove it in the lieutenant’s face—all the suffering he caused. Weldon  always expected a life of aching and scratching and he could die doing it, but not before presenting it to the one person who duped him just long enough to give him hope.”

(excerpted from The House on Tenafly Road)

http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-house-on-tenafly-road/


In the Beginning . . .

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Chapter One:

John Weldon’s head throbbed as he focused in on the strange man standing above him.

“Sergeant Weldon, one day soon you will be free of all pain and medication,” the doctor said as he gave his patient a little more morphine through a new British syringe in the bright, garland-trimmed soldiers’ hospital in Washington on the first warm day of late spring. Weldon remembered little since he lay in the sun and fire of the Wilderness. The room smelled of coffee and dried blood. Flies buzzed at unreachable parts of his stiff body. Weldon’s head boiled and his body resisted the lightest duty between doses. He had heard himself beg one of the pretty nurses, Penny Garner, for more morphine only once. Catching a look in her eye—the same look he had seen people give his mother, a drunken Delaware, so many times in his childhood—he never asked again.

The doctor lifted Weldon’s bandages and shook his head. As he walked away he said to Penny, “Dear girl, I know that you have a soft spot for that one, but he has no hope,” he put an arm around her as she cried. “Can’t believe he’s hung on this long. We can just keep him comfortable. It’s a shame, I know.”

Weldon stayed awake at night, worrying that the doctors would send him to the dying room again or cut his medication so he stole it when he could and even found some syringes, shoving them under his bedding. He had watched the sorry lines of soldiers on sick call, hoping for a bit of opium or brandy with contempt. He had control. He would stop this when he felt better.

The rush of warmth the doses provided took Weldon deep inside himself where an infinitesimal hum of satisfaction lived if only briefly. The loneliness and hunger, the black something he had never escaped, disappeared.

A trim officer sauntered by and spoke with one of the medical staff. Weldon’s military career would be over if anyone caught him stealing, but no one seemed to understand his pain. Feverishly he vowed to hold this closer to himself than any person had ever come and he would STOP. The army was his home.

That night Penny caught him holding his guts in and knocking things about the dispensary. Bringing him back to his bed, she wrapped a new bandage around his middle tightly. She helped him lower his bad leg into the itchy trousers she found for him and laced a brand new pair of expensive boots, just his size, for him to slip into.

Opening the back door, Penny flashed Weldon a look. He smiled and felt a small, ridiculous thrill. Grabbing his old haversack filled with morphine, he limped with the help of a cane, into the fragrant, leaf-filtered moonlight of late June. Penny handed him five dollars in change.

“Good luck, sir,” she whispered heroically naïve before disappearing behind the closed door.

Weldon’s head still throbbed as he licked his rough, parched lips. He took cautious breaths of clean, moist air, stepping out tentatively in one direction and then in the other. He had felt this way only once before—that last day in the Wilderness with Simon. No. Simon McCullough had deserted. He pulled at the hair behind his ear. The moon sank away and a tender breeze chilled Weldon as he stood in this spot for hours under an ancient tree like the ones his father had been crushed under in the Western Reserve of his youth. He leaned against it and finally slept beneath it until a gentle hand tapped his shoulder.

“Sergeant Weldon, by golly, it is you!” a ruddy-faced private stood above him.

Weldon pulled himself up on his elbows and felt the dried pus at his side crack beneath his shirt. The morning sun hurt his eyes.

“I’m Private Patrick Hazelton, sir. Do you remember me?”

Weldon touched his side gingerly and used his other arm to grab the man’s hand. The surprised private helped Weldon to his feet and readjusted his hat.

“Sir, you look a caution. Better head back in,” Hazelton suggested with a nod toward the Washington hospital. He took Weldon by the arm, but Weldon stood still.

“Who are you?” Weldon asked.

“A few years back, sir, Lieutenant McCullough convinced you not to report me to my unit for leaving my camp to go looking for girls. You and the lieutenant saved me much grief with my company commander—that incompetent ass. He’s been mustered out since, thank the Lord.”

“Simon McCullough is a bastard,” Weldon said from some faraway surface of himself. “He d-deserted and left me dead.”

“No, Sergeant, you and him were best mates,” Hazelton said with hesitation. “I don’t believe a word. McCullough’s a captain now, I hear. After the Grand Parade he took leave but never deserted.”

“Grand Parade?”

“The war’s over…sergeant, you need to go back inside. You’re not yourself and you’re shaking.”

“No. I’m lost. They can’t help me, you idiot!”

“Now, sergeant, I don’t blame you for being sore. Times are tough. Washington’s a bad place to wander with money hanging out you’re trousers. Where will you go?”

Weldon stood with the oak, paralyzed again. “I don’t know.”

Hazelton reached forward and grabbed Weldon’s leather money pouch. “Someone will swipe this if you ain’t careful.”

“It’s mostly empty,” Weldon said, taking it back and opening it to drop in the loose change he had in his trouser pocket. A green wrinkled sheet of thick card caught his eye and he pulled it out between his two long fingers. Hand-drawn timorous trees in black ink dressed the card’s message from the only care package he had ever received. That first Christmas of the war… Christmas . . . the most dismal time of year for a soldier without family. Weldon found ways to avoid mail call, but one day someone shouted his name. He thought he heard it, but wasn’t sure so hung back. The call came again more impatiently and Weldon slunk up, with his sunken dark eyes lowered and his crow-black hair shorn short since the summer of lice. The heavy, battered box had his name on it. His face burned. He cut the top with his knife and reached in to find soft mittens and socks—hand-knit and familiar in a way—they were like McCullough’s and for a horrible moment he thought there had been an embarrassing mistake. He fumbled to close the box but noticed a tiny, hand-drawn card with funny little trees around the edge. “A friend of Simon’s is a friend of ours! Merry Christmas! Warm Regards—Scott, Sarah and Katherine McCullough.”

Hazelton sidled up and read the card. On the back in the same small script was an address in Englewood, New Jersey Simon McCullough had talked about endlessly—almost like a fairytale, being too perfect to be real—as if they had expected Weldon to write. He had never done so, but had run his fingers over the little tree drawings many times.

“Sir, you need help and if it ain’t the hospital you’re going to then I’m going to put you on the train.”

“I don’t know them…I can’t face Simon…I…”

“Any place is better than here and Simon is your friend.”

Weldon had done everything he could think of to repulse this invasion, this toppling of his defenses but Simon McCullough had worn him down. The whole world seemed to love him—no Simon pretended to love the whole world—he even played with the darkies’ children.

He remembered squeezing into his first army boots at Carlisle Barracks and then going off to the war with a commander who convinced him to volunteer for a Jersey regiment on a lark.  There he had met Simon and for a sparkling few years he had pretended at being someone else. But now fevers came on strong. He held the pus filled flap of skin at his side a little tighter. How had he been so damned stupid? How had he ever let Simon McCullough in?—that piece of shit. What a terrible, stupid blunder. He would bring it all to him. Just shove it in the lieutenant’s face—all the suffering he caused. Weldon had always expected a life of aching and scratching and he could die doing it, but not before presenting it to the one person who duped him just long enough to give him hope.


Meritocracy in a Fallen World–A Spelling Bee

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Recess at Noontime–Winslow Homer

Spelling bees can be fun sport for smart-minded chums, but what of the poor souls without talent? Let’s join William Weldon at the beginning of book two. After a head injury he’s fallen prey to his rivals–Fred and Buck Crenshaw who offer to “help” him learn the spelling words for a contest. Oh, boys will be boys:

            And so the night of the spelling bee arrived with snow falling. William scanned over the worn spelling list in his hands as his family dressed in the only warm room of the house.

“Maybe it will be cancelled,” his father said, as he struggled to get hold of his suspender straps behind his back. His mother came and tossed the bold blue straps, bought for the occasion, over her husband’s shoulders. She came around front and helped button his blouse at the top. He had never fully recovered from fighting in the West.

“Lieutenant, are you cold?” his mother asked dotingly.

            “Kate, I wish I could do the words for him tonight,” John confessed.

            “You are too old and too tall, Mr. Weldon. They’d surely find you out,” Katherine joked and took his arm. All winter his leg had been a problem so she helped him now.

 “Maybe I shouldn’t go into town with you,” he said.

 William wished he wouldn’t come. His father had slipped back into the morphine just once since returning from the army, and had been discovered asleep in the park, so the whole town knew. Fred Crenshaw had told William one day while studying.

           “You will see tonight, Mr. Weldon, that having the boys around has made all the difference for William. Maybe in the spring we can think of school,” Katherine chirped.

            William hated the false tones she used around his father.

             “I don’t know about school, but I can’t argue that Willy does seem more cheerful. I’m glad he has friends again, though I still have trouble liking them.”

            Katherine kissed his chin and he smiled.

            William went over the words. “L-e-u-t-e-n-e-n-t.”

            John hustled over. “Willy, you spelled that wrong!”

            “John, don’t upset him now. Maybe you didn’t hear him correctly,” Katherine said.

             “No, I heard him, damn it,” John replied and stumbled over to William, who sat tucked in his chair with his hair greased and combed and his new shoes polished. Since falling from the horse any upset stunned and confused him. His father seemed enormous.

             “Papa, you’re wrong. I spelt it right.” He repeated it for them.

 “No! No! That’s incorrect! I should know!” John burst out.

             William looked at the list, moving his finger shakily over the worn and wrinkled paper and found the word carefully printed out by Buck weeks ago. “I’m right, Papa. See here!”

            John grabbed the sheet, but it fell between his weak fingers. William moaned impatiently. Katherine and John bent at the same time and almost bumped heads. Finally John looked it over, shaking his head. “These are ALL misspelled, Willy.”

            “What?” Katherine cried and took the paper.

            “No, Papa, that’s the very list the boys gave me. . .”

            “Those bastards! They’ve taught you all the wrong spellings! They’ve made a fool of you! You should have let us see the list from the start when I asked you!” John yelled. “I could have helped you!”

            “I don’t want your help!” William cried.

            Katherine took John’s hand. “Don’t take it out on poor William!”

            John ran his hands through his hair. “W-Willy, I-I know it’s n-not your fault.”

            William cringed at his father’s halting speech that had reappeared in the past months.

            “It’s j-just that you’ve worked so hard and I never wanted you to do this in the first place.”

            “I know! You’re embarrassed of me!” William cried.

            “No!” John tried to kneel at his son’s side, but it was awkward and painful so Katherine helped him back to standing. “Willy, I want to protect you.”

            “Well, you’re too late for that! I’m stupid now and easily tricked,” William sobbed. “And I thought that they might really be my friends. I can’t even fight them.”

            “Well, I can!” John fumed.

            William pulled at his short-cropped hair. “Now what shall I do? It took me forever to learn the words wrong—I’ll never be able to change them in my head!”

            “William, we just won’t go,” John suggested, but William’s grandmother Sarah was listening at her seat near the window. “Be a man, William. Take your licks and show them you’re not beaten. Don’t be like your parents, hiding in this house.”

            John opened his mouth to speak, but Katherine’s severe look stopped him.

            William looked to his mother. “Mother, it’s so unfair. I worked so hard. I don’t want to give up.” He wiped his nose.

            Katherine kissed his forehead. “Papa will drive and we’ll practice as best we can.”

            John shook his head and grumbled to himself, but went for the horses. Katherine got behind the chair.

            “Katie, the boy shouldn’t be pushed in that cart so much. He’ll never grow strong and that contraption has already torn the carriage to bits,” Sarah complained.

            William agreed, carefully, trying to prevent a dispute between the two women. “Mother, I should try. I want to try. I probably won’t last long in the bee anyhow.”

            Katherine smiled, pulling him from his seat. “Come along, my brave little man.”

            Sarah continued her darning by the window, but gave William an encouraging nod. His legs had never set right. The bee would be the first time without his chair. He hobbled to his grandmother and nearly fell into her arms when he tried to hug her. “Sorry Grandma.”

            “No, my pet, it’s not your fault, but you’re standing on my foot,” Sarah said.

            He pulled back quickly, ready to apologize again, but Sarah waved him off.

            Katherine steadied him, but he gave her a sneer and bolted forward a few awkward steps at a time as Katherine held her breath. He allowed her to help him into his coat, but perched his cap on himself. He was exhausted already.

            The winter had been such a long one and seemed bent on staying the spring, but all of Englewood turned out for the bee. Ladies with rosy cheeks and fancy bonnets chatted. The new Presbyterian Church was drafty and, although the building won rave reviews for its stained glass and imposing architecture, William hated it. It was too big.

Settling back in Englewood had been a necessity after William’s fall. The house on Tenafly Road would be safe for him, but then John had come back and Grandma with Uncle Simon’s little girl and suddenly life was sad and full and happy and strange all at once with no time to think.

            Everyone was different now. Papa was nerves and pain, Grandma was mean, the new baby was a brat and his mother didn’t have time anymore. Tonight was supposed to be for him, but as he struggled through the words with mysterious spellings on the way into town in the dark, William’s heart sank.

“I could kill those boys,” John mumbled.

            “John, you shouldn’t give up on Willy.”

            “He always gives up!” William cried.

            John slowed the horse as if about to mount a defense, but instead said nothing. The icy branches of the trees moaned and the horses snorted as they moved on.

            The Crenshaws raced towards the Weldons as they made their way up the center aisle of the church. Buck and Fred were first followed by the twin girls, Meg and Thankful, the youngest boy, Nathan and two younger girls, Maddie and Abby. Fred came up full of smiles and talk. “So, you’re set free of the chair for once.”

            Buck was ashen faced and nervous.

            All of the students from Kursteiner’s School for Boys sat up front, having gotten there early to cheer on their mates and to see William Weldon—a ghost from their past.     Doctor Graham Crenshaw’s voice was heard from the front and the crowd began to hush. William, now sitting with the other young people on the Sunday school stage, scanned the audience and saw his mother wave. Where was Papa? He was never where he should be. There he was standing stone-faced, at the back of the church, with his arms folded.

After a few words of introduction, Doctor Crenshaw, in his ever-pleasant way, began the bee. He was always so well turned out and relaxed. There was a fullness about him that went beyond his large bodily proportions that comforted and awed William. Why couldn’t his father be so good?

            The first few contestants came up primly and spelled with confidence the words they had studied and then came William’s turn. His limbs were clay as he pushed his crooked leg forward.

             “William, let me help,” Graham whispered, stepping out from behind the podium, but William was determined to go it alone. There was a bit of tittering from the boys out front. Crenshaw gave them a severe look and then a firm warning to be quiet. He turned to William, who was struggling to hold his awkward position. Muffled amusement floated through the crowd of adults who did not know William’s story and thought he was just the sort of odd fish to win at spelling.

             “William, the word is lieutenant. Your father was a decorated lieutenant in the army,” Crenshaw said.

             William just stared up at Crenshaw with his big, shining eyes, as if under a spell. Crenshaw waited and William finally blinked. The word was a shadowy blur in his mind’s eye and the army held such a mix of feelings for him. Abruptly he turned, and in his own unstable way, rushed to leave the stage. The boys up front laughed, and laughed harder still at the sight of William’s father with his cane and limp, coming to the rescue. But Crenshaw got to William first and steadied him. “I know that you’ve studied hard, young fellow. Won’t you try at least?”

            William shook his head helplessly. “No. I can’t remember it right.”

            “But Willy . . .” Crenshaw continued.

 The audience was perfectly still until one of the boys yelled, “No special treatment!”

             There was a small and mean bit of applause from some elements of the crowd. Buck got up and went to his father. The audience watched the boy whisper to Graham.

            Crenshaw, with a reddened face, went back to the podium to regain his composure. William struggled towards the steps. Finally Graham spoke. “I’m sorry to say that there has been a horrible act of foul play and mean spiritedness committed against a poor boy, still recovering from a serious head injury. I am ashamed to be part of such an unchristian crowd that is amused by a child’s suffering and most ashamed of my family’s part in it. My own sons, Buck and Fred, have conspired against a boy who has trusted their friendship. It is a sorry day when a father is sickened by his sons. For those of you who have studied, I offer my apologies, but we will now use an alternative list and of course my boys are disqualified. Go to your mother, boys.”

            Buck went willingly, but Fred said, “It’s not our fault Willy’s so slow.”

            Crenshaw took an aggressive step forward and Fred jumped from the stage to the great delight of his mates. John took hold of his son as he stepped down off the stage, but Crenshaw rushed over. “We will start again, William. You should stay.”

            “No, he won’t. I won’t allow it,” John said firmly.

            The decent folk in the church cheered William on. The boy pulled from his father and took Graham’s hand. Margaret Crenshaw was enraged at her husband for handling the situation so publicly. Before she left she asked, “Katherine, why didn’t you watch what was going on with the boys?”

            “I trusted them,” Katherine replied.

            William won the spelling bee. Graham Crenshaw gave him simple words and all of the participants and spectators left with sour tastes in their mouths.

I Want to Ride my Bicycle!

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The New Girl by Sally Mitchell (great book)

A confession–I home-schooled my daughter for less than a year. ( I also got donkey basketball cancelled at our town school–but that’s for another day). After days of arguing over multiplication I ended up letting said daughter sleep until noon and go for bike rides for the rest of the day (she still was ahead of her class upon return). The one thing we agreed upon was that The Little House on the Prairie books were cool. Here’s when men’s eyes glaze over or  looks of uncertain panic race over their features imagining (wrongly) that women really want a Michael Landon “Pa” who constantly breaks into tears as a husband. Let me assure you, men, that the books are nothing like the insipid show. In real life Pa fought wild animals, built things, teased his wife, and nearly starved to death to save his family during a long winter. He died young, but before he did he lived adventurously and sang songs at bedtime.

Women readers grumble “I thought she was focusing on women for a few days?” and I hear you.  Laura Ingalls, writing about her young adulthood at the turn of the century,  captures the bittersweet reality of life. She doesn’t write about women kick boxers coming to town to show the men a thing or two. She doesn’t make men “sensitive” in a Alan Alda/Ed Sheernan sort of way. And most of all she doesn’t have the women grow up and turn into beautiful, delicate creatures. We often look back or look forward to a time when women and men got things right or will get things right (depending on our agenda), but even a quick perusal of Genesis shows the same battles. The stories also show pretty strong women. (As an aside Teddy Roosevelt once said that a thorough reading of the Bible was worth more than a college education and I have to agree with him–I thought I knew the Bible from stories I heard on Sundays as a child, but REALLY the actual Bible when read and pondered is a writer’s dream go-to for drama).

Maybe I am avoiding really focusing on women because we’ve become a very controversial lot. If I say we’re in danger of becoming dictatorial in our constant demand for “rights” and more “rights” to “express ourselves” in ways that half the time seem self destructive, some feminists will get huffed. If I suggest that men and their patriarchal society are at the root of all evil, I lie to myself because women in business, the arts and politics can be just a vicious and brutal as men. So how does one write about women in the late-Victorian era?

Katherine Weldon in The House on Tenafly Road  and I both picked men with substance abuse issues. It doesn’t really matter that much that she wore corsets and skirts and I wear Levi’s. A love story is a love story (I don’t buy that patriarchal society created romantic love as a device to control women). Feminists say the personal is political and to some extent they’re right, but what tends to happen is that every slight, every misunderstanding, every rape, every wrong against women lands squarely on the poor guy in front of you who for the most part doesn’t have the time or inclination to be all of that evil at once.

Now in my actual life most of my friends are drawn to men in a big way. They’re kinda cute, you must admit. In my fiction the girls/women are really confused and mixed-up and in love and restless and confined and . . . all of the things that make us human. When one of my favorite girl characters (after a tragic incident with an unfaithful suitor) is feeling particularly bitter about being a woman, a man gives her a bicycle and there begins her lust for freedom. It might cost her everything. It might not.

http://www.victorianstation.com/leisurebicycle.htm