featured image: ‘Hip Hip Hurrah!’ Peder Severin Kroyer, Goteborgs Konstmuseum
William sat beneath a cottonwood in the searing heat trying to ignore the hordes of flies and eye gnats commuting from breeze to hot breeze. Kenyon gave him the well-kept sable brushes and the vivid oil tubes left by their fallen leader. William flipped through Ignatius’ leather bound sketchbook with sinking heart. Crow warriors, Sioux women and children stood stiffly on the pages with orderly lists of Indian sayings and Bible references written out in a regular, precise script. William considered keeping the book to emulate it, but it was impossible to be so perfect. He tossed the book aside.
The hum of light female conversation from the little yards on officers’ row and the gruffer voices of men on police and stable duty floated over the parade ground. The buzz of the telegraph wires sang William a lullaby. There was nothing as regular and homey as a western army post.
A small dog, well-fed and friendly, trotted up to share the shade. William scratched it behind the ears before sketching the quaint maternal scenes in the yards. He hadn’t put pencil to paper in a long while and was rusty, but this world on paper was his. The characters kept a safe and idealized distance.
Two dirty children raced up, wanting pictures. William complied and sent them off as Mrs. Markham strode toward him in her heavy-footed way.
“Bill, sorry to trouble you. I’ve got some oranges—all the way from California.” She handed him the fruit.
“Thank you, Mrs. Markham.” William waited for the real reason she stood over him.
“Bill, I know you’re busy.”
William laughed, peeling his orange. “I look busy?”
Mrs. Markham glanced back toward her quarters. “Would you mind doing a nice sketch of the children? Lydia–is awful weak—she’s day to day and the captain’s pet. We’d like a nice picture—just in case.” Her eyes held the worry so like his mother’s years ago when his sister Eliza was sick. “We’ve tried having them sit for a camera, but you know how antsy young ones get and your drawings—the ones Thankful showed the captain really pleased him.”
William got to his feet—realizing that he should have done that already “Mrs. Markham, I’m out of practice—but I’ll do my best. Anything to help you.” He gathered the supplies and followed Mrs. Markham into the house. Thankful pretended not to see him and soon disappeared. The children were gathered, cleaned up and sent out back where Mrs. Markham had cultivated a sparse desert garden along the side fence.
None of the children cooperated but for the weak one so William set to work on her. Lydia folded her petite hands and smiled. Her eyes were framed in circles of dark sickness, but her voice was like music. William had no trouble exchanging the reality of a sick little girl before a wilted garden into a composition of vitality and splendor. The girl recited nursery rhymes while William sang to her in his father’s awful voice the salty songs passed among military families:
It’s all for me grog, me jolly jolly grog
It’s all gone for beer and tobacco
Well I spent all me tin on the lassies drinking gin
And across the western ocean I must wander.
The music for supper came from outside the adjutant’s office.
Mrs. Markham, in a thick sweat from the stove in desert heat, rushed out back then. “Oh dear, Bill, I forgot all about you! Supper for those missionaries and the rest of you kept me in a great flurry.”
William looked as though he had just wakened from a trance. “I didn’t notice the time, ma’am.” He handed her his work with a wary smile. “I’m afraid that I’m not much interest to children. I couldn’t make any of them stay, except for Lydia here.”
Mrs. Markham looked over William’s work for a minute and cried. “Bill, the captain—he’ll be astonished. It’s lovely.”
“I’m sorry I have no time to do the others.”
“Never mind. This is more than enough. Thank you.”
“It was nothing, ma’am.”
“Oh, you don’t know!” Mrs. Markham gave him a warm embrace. “I will pray for you, Billy. You’re good deep down.”
“I guess,” William replied. His new shirt itched at the collar.
Mrs. Markham placed the drawing on a high shelf in the kitchen and pushed William into the parlor where Miss Peckham read and Thankful mended socks.
“Girls, our first guest is here. See to it that Bill is given something to drink.”
Neither of the girls were in a hurry to offer William anything. William pulled the flask from his bag and took a long gulp—a deserved one.
As William lowered the flask from his lips the missionaries entered the front vestibule with Captain Markham and Lieutenant Fahy in happy conversation.
“Ah, there you are, Mr. Weldon,” said Kenyon.
William put away the liquor.
Mrs. Markham passed around drinks. William asked for water, but felt put upon and angry. They talked about the San Carlos Agency and the Indians and Geronimo, but William didn’t care a fig. He considered different ways of slipping out to get drink.
It was then the thought came to William–the alcohol was in charge. It was a fleeting, yet terrifying realization he wanted to escape—by getting drunk. Absorbed in his thoughts, the sound of his name brought William back.
“Captain, dear, I must show you what our Mr. Weldon has done.”
The captain looked as though he expected something less than admirable but waited patiently for his wife to return with the sketch. He glanced at William and then at the drawing. “But . . . you never saw her when she was well, son. How did you capture Lydia as she used to be?”
“I imagined her, sir, and it was easy since Lydia’s such a good little pixie,” William explained. All eyes moved from the drawing to him. “May I have a drink?” he asked Mrs. Markham, but saw Kenyon and Thankful. “Of more water, I mean, ma’am.”
Captain Markham put his arm over William’s shoulder, with an emotional sigh. “You Weldons sure have a way of surprising folks.”
“What do you mean, sir?” William asked.
“I never knew Lieutenant Weldon, William’s father, well,” the captain said to the others. “Met him only once, in fact. A good soldier from what I was told, but a secret saint according to a friend of mine who is no longer with us. Seems Lieutenant Weldon gave my friend all his savings so my friend could live out his final days in California in comfort with his family—all had consumption. The poor sergeant and his family were sent small sums of money till they died.”
This was the family that gave Eliza the disease. William remembered and his heart grew hard. His father was a fool. “I guess that was a waste of money in the end,” he said.
“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”
William pushed aside his glass, remembering the first time he took a drink.
When William and a few greenhorn privates, hanging together like newborn pups, had first visited town Haviland sauntered up.
“New to these parts, I see. Are you going to stand on the corner barking at a knot or do something with your freedom?”
William didn’t trust a man with sayings that made no sense—his mother told him not to.
Haviland leered at the pioneers with a mix of pity and scorn. “Look, boys, there’s a lot of bad types out here to take advantage of new recruits and the four of you standin’ here is advertisement enough that you’re wantin’ to be taken. You don’t know me from a wohaw, but my family built up this town and I’m like the hemp committee and the welcoming team all in one.”
One soldier whispered around, “What in heck is a wohaw?”
The others shook their heads at him like they knew.
“And a hemp committee—is there hemp growed out here in the desert?”
William spoke. “No, Baker, it’s the folks who do a lynching.”
“Oh, so there’s one bright spark! Course he’s smart enough not to sell his soul to the government—lying bastards,” Haviland said, and smacked William’s back.
William scratched his head with a small grin, but said, “We should go, boys.”
“You ain’t the boss of us, Bill Weldon. Everyone knows you ain’t clever!” one soldier replied.
“So, young lads, would you like an expert to show you town?” Haviland waved his arm all around him as if they were viewing a grand wonder of the world instead of a single street of false fronts and ne’er- do- wells.
They shrugged and gave each other tentative glances as they followed the shiny-looking Westerner with all the latest gear.
The tour started off with a short history of the settlement, tales about Indian fighting and then a look-see in the general store and the haberdashery. One of the boys plunked down his money for a big cowhand hat. The others laughed. Further along the short, dusty and exciting road Haviland noted, “Fellows, when a good carte-viste won’t do it for you and you want a real fuck, this is the place to go first. It’s a high-class place though and they’ll want cash. Cards are on the ground floor and the women on top (if that’s the way you like it).”
The boys eyed everything with enthusiasm, but William and one of the others, a Methodist preacher’s son, hung back.
“You don’t like women?” Haviland asked.
The preacher’s son replied, “Course I do, but my daddy raised me right and this ain’t nowhere near right. I’m leavin’ back for the post. Bill, you comin’?”
William liked the preacher’s son, but something, a memory, made him stay.
The soldier shuffled off. “Friendship over,” William mumbled.
The other soldiers laughed.
“Can we get a girl in broad daylight?”
“Course. If you have enough for it.”
The soldier took out his pay, minus the money spent on his ostentatious hat and Haviland shook his head. “No, this is high class, I tell you—go down to the bed bug hotel if you want a quick and easy cheap lay—no tellin’ what you’ll end up with.”
The men turned up their noses.
“Hmm . . . now, if you were to maybe win a hand at bluff . . . do you fellows play?” Haviland asked.
“Our captain says we shouldn’t,” the soldier, who had followed up until now in silence, said.
The last soldier with the big hat remained steadfast in his enthusiasm. “Come on, men, we’ll try our beginner’s luck. If I win big, we’ll all get a girl. Anyway, I’m damned good at cards—you’ll see.”
“Now watch your manners—you don’t want to wear your welcome right off,” Haviland warned, dusting off his hat at the door.
Two men inside the thick-aired room heavy with drapery and cheap art turned and stared. William’s gut burned. This parlor—the smell and feel of it—was so familiar and, in some small way, comforting. He couldn’t bring himself to leave though nothing good could come of staying.
The two soldiers took seats at the long, beat-up table. If this was high class what was low?
“You with the gimpy leg, are you playin’ or babysitting?”
“Neither, sir,” William replied.
The man stared at his manners.
“Are you in or not?”
“Then, boy howdy, take yourself to that there settee. Your gangly self is makin’ me jittery. Where’d you drag him in from, Haviland?”
“He was part of the package deal,” Haviland replied.
William knew from the start that his friends would lose everything and they did. His parents had instilled in him a deep distrust of cards. When the soldiers rose from the table, beaten and demoralized, William tried not to appear too self-satisfied, but clutched his money even tighter in his pocket. A long, miserable hallway led from back to front. Light from the back door lit the kitchen and William stopped short. A young lady shot by and ran out back.
Haviland laughed, “What a wretch that one is—ugly as a one-eyed cat.”
“Pardon?” William turned to him.
“I bet you can get that one cheap—she’s from down the road, but wants to step up. There’s not a chance in hell.”
“I don’t want her!” William replied, horrified at the thought, but shaken, too. Something about her. . .
The soldiers snickered and Haviland slapped William’s back. “It’s been a rough time for you cubs—fleeced like sheep. I’ll treat you to some Shepherd’s Delight at The Buckskin—it’s the best whiskey for miles, I tell you.”
“My daddy back home, he makes the best. . .” the cowhand soldier said.
“Yes, yes.” Haviland dismissed the soldier’s small talk.
They followed the westerner, impressed and put-off by him at the same time.
“Bill, are you coming?”
“Sure.” But he had promised his mother. . .
The soldier wearing the tall hat whispered, “Bet he won’t take a drop—afraid of his own shadow—bet he’s scart he’ll tumble over on that crooked leg of his.”
“You ain’t one of them religious crazies, too?” Haviland asked.
“No, sir.” William followed the others into the saloon.
“Whiskey all around, Robinson.”
The bartender shook his head at the greenhorns.
William spoke. “I’ll just have, well, a lemonade, sir.”
Robinson didn’t bat an eye, just poured him a lemony drink and added something unfamiliar. William sipped it. The other’s threw back their whiskey and waited for more. They laughed at William so he finished his with a gulp.
William felt pressured to buy his friends a round. He had only brought his money along so he wouldn’t misplace it. The soldiers stared, bug-eyed, at William’s fund as he brought it from his pocket and laid it on the bar.
Haviland kept a close eye on him. After two drinks William no longer hurried to go and after five drinks the soldiers had to mind him and the money he left unattended. William relaxed and the soldiers liked him.
WEARY OF RUNNING PREVIOUS EPISODE
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.”