Monroe’s Widowed Bride – Natalie Dean

Stoop Heckton was building coffins so that the men who had been killed in the Comanche attack the night before could be decently—and swiftly—buried. The hammering of his nails into the wooden coffins provided an alternate rhythm to the noise made as the men went on pounding nails into the wooden planks of the wall that was being built. Work could not stop on the wall, Marshal Walker said and Mayor Abe Winslow agreed. The wall, even in its unfinished state, had shielded the town from the worst of the Comanche aggression and it was imperative that no time should be lost in finishing the project. For the townspeople knew that the battle with the Comanche was not finished. One hard-won victory was not the end of the war. No one wanted to contemplate another attack, even though they knew it would come. And so they found succor in the work, while the others who were not engaged in the labor also found comfort in the sound of the hammers. It was not quite that matter-of-fact for those who had lost men in the battle. Lotta Ford Carver was sitting at the side of her dead husband’s body as he was laid out on the table, arms crossed upon his chest in the position he would occupy throughout eternity once he was placed in his wooden coffin. The noise of that coffin that was now being built seemed to be an irritant, like the buzz of an insect swirling around her face. She was sitting without movement, her eyes on the flames of the candles that had been placed upon the corners of the table as a sign of the obsequies for which Lucius Carver was waiting. As long as she looked into the flames, she could ignore the sounds of the hammers. “Mrs. Carver?” Lotta was too new to the town to know people well and her married name was still strange to her.

But she recognized the soft, Southern accent of the woman speaking; it belonged to the nurse who had tended to Lucius’s wounds. The wounds were too serious and he did not survive. But that was not the nurse’s fault. “Here, Mrs. Carver,” the nurse said. “It’s far too hot in Texas in July for you to go without liquid refreshment.” Lotta felt the edge of a cup against her lips and so she drank. She thought it was cold tea, but she couldn’t be sure. It had no flavor and no scent, at least nothing that her numb senses could detect. “Have another sip,” said the nurse.

Obediently Lotta opened her lips so that more liquid could enter. Mrs. Sarah Harlow had seen this sort of behavior when she had nursed veterans of the Mexican War back home in South Carolina. They stared with eyes that saw nothing because everything in their minds blocked their vision from noticing what was in front of them. They had seen too much and endured too much to be able to take part in the ordinary routine of daily life. The past had them in its immutable grip and would not release them. “Try another, please,” Sarah Harlow urged. Lotta obeyed and drank until the cup was empty. She had done what was asked of her. Now she wanted to be left alone.

Mrs. Harlow patted her arm. “I’ll come back soon and check on you,” she said before rising from her chair and departing in a vapor of gardenia fragrance and the whiskey that had been used for anesthesia. Mrs. Thelma Garrett had come over from the boarding house to lend a hand with the work. As she helped to bathe the body of one of the men who had been killed in the attack, she continued to glance over her shoulder at the strangely silent young Mrs. Carver. “Not a single tear,” she commented again. “When I lost my husband, I cried for days, but there she sits, not a single tear.” She shook her head.

These young women, her words implied, did not understand what it meant to lose the man to whom a wife pledged herself. “Till death do us part, the preacher said, but it doesn’t end with death. No,” she intoned sadly, “it just goes on and on. Many a time I cry when I remember my husband.” “Poor girl,” said Mrs. Jack Walker, the Marshal’s wife. “She barely had a chance to get to know Lucius before he died, and it’s not so long ago that she was held captive by the Comanche. She’s holding up surprisingly well, under the circumstances. “I meant no disrespect,” Mrs. Garrett protested.

“I’m just remembering when I lost my man, and how I cried every day. Zipporah will tell you. Every day, I cried. Everything I saw reminded me of him and his ways.” “She’s had a shock,” Piper Walker said. Mrs. Garrett nodded wisely. “That’s how it is when you lose your husband. It leaves an ache that brings on the tears.” And why Lotta Carver wasn’t crying, her silence implied, was reason enough for criticism.

Piper realized that it was no use trying to engender empathy in Thelma Garrett. She was a woman who could only respond to her own griefs and emotions; anything that was experienced by anyone else was no more than a reflection of what she had endured. Such women were tiresome and Piper had little patience with that sort. But there was much to take care of in the wake of the Comanche attack that had turned the Independence Day celebrating into a night of battle and a day of mourning. The Comanche had been fought off and they had not carried off prisoners, nor had they committed any of the terrible acts of mutilation for which they were famous. In that sense, the settlers of Knox Mills had won the day. Recognizing that the day of victory was also a day of mourning, the Reverend McCallister did not want to waste any time in holding a service of thanksgiving, to thank Almighty God for sparing the town and to pray for the souls who would be joining Him in heaven. Piper knew and understood the clergyman’s eagerness, but she also understood her husband’s reluctance to move so quickly. He had enlisted her help in persuading the minister that it would be better to wait until the dead were buried and the townspeople were not constantly looking over their shoulders to see if they were once again threatened. Then, a service of remembrance could serve a broader purpose, as the citizens of Knox Mills counted their blessings and mourned their losses together.

In the meantime, there was work to be done. Piper was a bit surprised to hear a knock upon the front door as she was leaving the parlor, and even more surprised, when she opened the door, to see Marshal O’Keefe standing there. Tall and rangy, with a faint hint of silver at his temples, his hair as shaggy as her husband’s was neat, and the evidence of days without shaving plain to see in his weather-beaten face, the Marshal looked as if he were not entirely comfortable. He had removed his hat and was turning it round and round between his hands, the brim moving in his hands like a carousel. “Ma’am,” he said politely. “I’ve come to pay my respects.” “To?” It seemed an absurd question; one man was already laid out and ready for his coffin, others were being prepared for theirs. “To Mrs. Carver upon the death of her husband. I knew her father.

” It was somewhat of a marvel that the mysterious Marshal O’Keefe knew anyone. Piper knew that her husband found his latest hire an enigma, not because of his qualifications, which were superior, but because he seemed to be someone with no ties to anyone. No wife, no children, no family . just a stint in the army and then a lawman. “Mrs. Carver . she’s having a rather difficult time of it, you see,” Piper said. “She’s . been through a terrible ordeal. More than one terrible ordeal.

” “She’s a tough girl,” O’Keefe said brusquely. “She’s no water lily, to shrivel up just because things go dry.” It seemed a very odd sort of comparison to make and Piper was not impressed with his callousness. “She is not a flower, Marshal. She is a young woman who endured captivity by the Comanche, and then the death of her husband. I think she might be entitled to a bit more sympathy than one would extend to a wilting flower.” “She was rescued from the Indians, and she only met her husband the day she married him,” the Marshal answered. “She’ll come ‘round.” “Marshal . I do not know if it would be wise for you, believing as you do, to see her right now.

” “I’m someone from her past, ma’am. It can’t do any harm if she’s as bad off as you say.” There was a certain logic to the Marshal’s plain-spoken remarks. Piper inclined her head. “Very well,” she said. “Please come this way.” She led him through what seemed to be a catacomb of rooms. It was the home of the late Aldous Babbage, one of the finest residences in town and unoccupied while Mayor Winslow awaited for directions from the lawyers in Philadelphia on the disposal of the Babbage property. It was a grand home with much space, and today it was being put to a grim purpose, as the dead were being prepared for their burial. “Mrs.

Carver?” Piper said gently to the straight-backed girl sitting in a wooden chair at the side of a dead man. “Marshal O’Keefe is here to see you.” Lotta stared into the flames of the melting candles on the corners of the tables. As she stared, the body in front of her seemed to fade and the dark room took on another form, years burning away in the flickering light until a happier time came into view. “Monroe?” C H A P T E R 2 “L APRIL, 1846, BENT’S FORT, COLORADO otta Ford!” “Ma’am?” Lotta Ford twirled around in response to her name. “What are you doing wearing britches? You’re a young lady now and you’ve no call to be wearing men’s clothing.” Lotta was used to the lecture. The subject of her wardrobe was not a new one, and Lotta was well aware that there were others at the Fort who were equally disapproving. Most, however, held their tongues except for a shake of their heads when she appeared in boy’s clothing; her father was, after all, the lieutenant commander and whatever his deficiencies, as they perceived them, in raising a daughter, he was a high-ranking officer. But Mrs.

Lysander Oliphant, the wife of Captain Lysander Oliphant, was a stickler for decorum at Bent’s Fort and it didn’t matter that Elias Ford was a widower doing his best to raise a teenaged daughter without a wife. If he would just listen to her, Mrs. Major (as she was privately known to Lotta and Monroe O’Keefe, a soldier and her father’s friend), he would understand that he need not strive in vain to raise a young lady. Mrs. Major had raised three daughters and knew how it ought to be done. “When will you ever be a lady?” Mrs. Major demanded. Lotta, her right hand postured as if her fingers were a gun, replied, “When I’m dead!” She looked to her left and right for her quarry, ducking behind one of the barrels waiting to be loaded onto the quartermaster’s wagons as she sought a hiding place. “Guess that time is now,” drawled a voice behind her. She whirled around, her chestnut braids flying like wings, as Monroe O’Keefe’s fingers aimed at her and shot.

“Got ya,” he said. With theatrical flair and a disregard for the ground, Lotta staggered in the street until she finally fell to the dirt street. Grinning, Monroe reached his arm down to help her get to her feet. He was an officer in the army and he wore his uniform with distinction but that didn’t prevent him from sparing a moment for mischief. “Will you two cut the shenanigans?” Elias Ford called out. “We’ve got a heap of work to do to get ready. President Polk is itching for war with the Mexicans and we’re going to miss the fighting because you two can’t stop your playacting.” Monroe winked at Lotta before he went to the wagon and began lifting barrels into it. “Just making sure she doesn’t lose her aim, Elias,” he said. “Who’s gonna teach her how to shoot while I’m away? Mrs.

Major?” Even Elias had to crack a smile at the thought of the prim matron with a rifle in her hands. Then he sobered. “I reckon I should have seen to it that you knew how to do more than shoot, Lotta,” he said. “Oh, Pa, I’m glad I know how to shoot. I know how to hit my mark, too. Monroe makes me practice until I never miss.” “Monroe doesn’t know any more about teaching a daughter to be a lady than I do,” her father said. “That’s why I’m the honorary uncle,” Monroe said impudently. “I can teach her to shoot a gun and skin a squirrel and bait a fishing hook. It’s not up to me to worry whether she can sew and cook.

” “That’s a lot more useful than learning how to sew a sampler, Pa,” Lotta argued. “Sewing is useful,” her father disputed. “Your ma had a fine hand with a needle. You’ve seen her handkerchiefs.” Lotta had seen them, and all the other items that her father had saved after her mother had died. Her mother’s death had taken place while she was still young and the sewing was the only tangible bond that she had to her mother, but Pa had told her the stories of his courtship. How her parents had opposed the marriage because they didn’t want their daughter marrying a soldier. And how Ma had dutifully listened to their orders, all the while sewing her trousseau and writing letters to him. Finally, she turned twentyone and told her parents that she was either going to run away to marry him at the Fort, or she could become engaged and they could be married here in Ohio. But marrying him was what she was going to do.

Lotta knew, because her father told her, that she had her mother’s chestnut hair and hazel eyes. But she knew that she was nothing like her mother in personality, because the painting on the wall revealed a delicate young woman whose features already bore the imprint of the consumption that would claim her life. Lotta was animated and energetic and the passive woman in the painting appeared to be rather wistful and subdued. She had asked Pa once, when she was younger, why her mother looked so sad in the painting. “Did she know she was going to miss me?” Lotta had asked with a child’s unerring insights. Tears had sprung to her father’s eyes. “I reckon she did,” he had answered. He was a widower and she a child of seven when they left their home in New Jersey for her father’s posting at Bent’s Fort. With the rapid acquisition of lands west of the Mississippi, the military leaders in Washington D.C.

knew that they needed to build up the Army of the West to protect the settlers who were heading across the vast stretches of the Plains, despite the threat of the tribes who still dominated the territory. Brigadier General Stephen Kearny had specifically requested Lieutenant Commander Ford, knowing that his organizational skills and leadership would be a vital cog in the turning wheel of American military might. And so, Elias Ford went where he was sent. And he took his daughter with him. There were families in the Fort and she grew up, surrounding by a multitude of indulgent honorary uncles who saluted her father and pulled her braids, as well as a circle of wouldbe mothers who tried to persuade her to adopt the habits of her gender as a girl ought to do. They loved her and scolded her as they did their own offspring, but at the end of the day, Lotta’s home was with her father in the small cabin inside the fort where they lived. It was, in many ways, a rough-hewn life, but as she grew, memories of New Jersey and the East and all its established ways faded and she thrived on the frontier. She came to live by the code of the soldier: always be prepared, know your surroundings, keep your wits about you and leave matters in the hands of your commanding officer and God. The sedate etiquette of the womenfolk who struggled to bring civilization to a wild land was not for Lotta. These women tried so hard to transplant the habits they had learned as young women into a raw and untamed setting.

They brought the protocol of courtship, the decorum of the table and the cherished heritage of the Bibles to the untamed land

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