Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charlie's War, part one

Michigan Creek, Colorado
January 1915

The newspaper, a weekly from Leadville, was almost three weeks old when Hank brought it to Charlie's attention. He showed her a tiny article on the fifth page with the headline of Men Are Needed To Die For Their Country. It was about the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and its need for volunteers to go immediately to France and fight against the Germans. Charlie read it and then looked up at her brother with a confused frown on her face. “But we're not Canadians. Besides, Papa wouldn't ever let you join up. You're only twenty. You still have two years of school left.”

Hank looked disgusted at his little sister's fatheadedness and crumpled the paper up and threw it into the little wood-burning stove that heated the kitchen of the large house built on the banks of the South Platte River. The huge picture window in the parlour where the rest of the McNamara family was gathered commanded a breathtaking view of the expanse of the snow-covered meadow of South Park and the ring of mountains that encircled it on three sides. Winter had come late to the high country, but now that it had arrived, it had settled in with a vengeance, tightening its icy grip around the tiny community of Michigan Creek, covering the houses and stores and mines with a thick blanket of fluffy, white snow, all but cutting it off from the rest of the world.

You don't understand, Charlie,” Hank said and took another sip of his rum-spiked eggnog. “You're only seventeen. America needs to get involved. The Germans and the Turks are threatening to swallow all of the Middle East and Europe. America's next and President Wilson would be best served realising that sooner rather than later!”

Charlie gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. Bad-mouthing the president was something Hank would never have thought of doing a year ago. She suspected his new friends at Yale had had something to do with that. He was probably just spouting some nonsense he'd heard from them. Charlie shook her head and sipped her milk after fixing Hank with a long, level look. “Better not let Papa hear you talk like that,” she said after a moment. “He'll have your hide. And you'd better forget joining up, too. Papa won't let you, Hank. Just forget it.”

I'll be twenty-one in April,” Hank said smugly. “I'll finish out this year at New Haven, and then next summer, I'll go to Toronto and volunteer. If America hasn't already become involved, that is. If we have, then I'll just go to New York and ship out from there. I'll be in my majority then. Papa can't say a thing against it.”

But Hank,” Charlie said, tears filling her dark brown eyes. “It's a war! Boys are being killed, shot at, gassed! Papa got a cable from one of his friends in New York and their girl's son was killed in France.” She shot off her chair and threw her arms around her brother's neck, hugging him fiercely, clinging to him as if she could keep him safe. “You can't go, Hank! You just can't!”

Henry can't go where, darling?” asked their mother, Marjorie, as she entered the kitchen, carrying a tray of empty mugs. She looked at her children and a frown marred her delicate, porcelain features. She took in her daughter's tears, the fact that Charlie was currently smothering her brother in a tight embrace, and then turned coldly appraising Delft-blue eyes on her son. “Henry, what did you do to Charlotte?” she asked with just a touch of heat in her voice.

N-nothing, Mama!” Hank answered immediately, turning a mute appeal on Charlie as he pushed her off his lap. Please don't tell Mama that look screamed. “I didn't do anything to her. We were... We were just talking about how I'm leaving to go back to school in a few weeks.”

Marjorie, always slightly sceptical of Hank's stories and explanations, turned those blue eyes on her daughter and arched a delicate wheaten eyebrow. “Charlotte? Is that true?”

Charlie, wincing at being called by her Christian name, looked back and forth between her mother and her favourite brother. On the one hand, if she lied to her Mama and Marjorie found out, there would her Papa to answer to. And on the other hand, if she told her Mama what Hank was planning for next summer, there'd be Hank to answer to. Of the two McNamara men, Hank was the far more intimidating.

Yes, Mama,” she said and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I... I don't want Hank to go back to school. I'm going to miss him something awful.” The look she turned on her brother once their mother nodded and turned away spoke volumes about what Hank owed Charlie for covering for him. It also promised that the discussion about him joining the Great War wasn't over.

Michigan Creek, Colorado
February 1915

Hank and Al, the youngest of the McNamara boys, left to go back to Yale two weeks after Hank and Charlie's conversation in the kitchen. Life in Michigan Creek slowly returned to normal. Howard Senior and Howard Junior continued their business as attorneys, seeing clients when they could and clearing up any legal issues their out-of-town clients had developed during the previous months before those clients left Colorado to return to New York and Boston and Philadelphia for the winter.

Marjorie continued educating Charlie while the tiny town's single-roomed school house was buried under seven feet of snow. Truth be told, however, there was very little left for Charlie to learn in order to pass her entrance exams to any of three acceptable women's universities: Wellesley, Vassar, or Bryn Mawr. She was fluent in French and ancient Greek, and could read and write passable Latin as well; she excelled at mathematics and sciences and could churn out beautiful, moving poetry and often won debates against her father and brothers. Mrs McNamara finally decided half-way through the first sunny day in February that there was little point in continuing the lessons and released her daughter early for good behaviour.

Charlie celebrated by donning her warmest clothing and a pair of snowshoes before digging a path from the front door to the road that led into town, which had been minimally ploughed. The sun was shining brightly, setting the snow to glisten like diamonds and making Charlie squint as she picked her way through drifts that were sometimes three times higher than her own head. She waved to the few neighbours who had braved the brittle cold and stopped to speak to those who called out to her. She never lingered long, though; she was determined to make it to the Colonel's cabin before nightfall.

The Colonel was former U.S. Army Colonel Dudley Simpkin, a decorated veteran of both the War of Secession and the Indian Wars. He'd been an invaluable friend to the McNamara family when they'd first settled in Michigan Creek, ten years before. Coming first from Newport, RI, then Colorado Springs, the family carried with it the stigma of being not only rich but complete greenhorns as well, and the townsfolk took an instant dislike to them. Only the Colonel and the town's unofficial historian, Emmett Laird, welcomed the family with open arms, realising what a coup it was for their tiny community to have a lawyer of such talent, and whose client list was filled with America's blue blood elite. The fact that Howard was so intensely interested in the area's history certainly didn't hurt, either.

Simpkin and Howard bonded over late nights, discussing history and politics, and they taught Junior, Hank, and Al to hunt and fish. Finally after two years of begging, they gave in and taught Charlie as well. Over the next few years, it became apparent to the Colonel and to Mrs and Mr McNamara that Charlie would never be a proper lady, so she was allowed to go on weekend hunting trips with her father, brothers, and the Colonel. The year she turned fifteen, she requested a weekend fly fishing trip. Between the six of them, they brought home over thirty fish – none of them were less than a foot in length. The next year, when she turned Sweet Sixteen, she requested a hunting trip, where she bagged a huge four-point bull elk on her own. It soon became apparent that whatever the men in her acquaintance could do, she could do much better.

The Colonel's cabin sat in one of the only aspen groves in the open expanse of South Park, the site of an ancient inland lake in the time of the dinosaurs. On a good day, it took Charlie an hour to travel from the McNamara home on the river, but today with the snow, the trip spanned nearly three. When she arrived, she found the Colonel chopping wood in his expansive yard.

He was an impressive man, even at almost seventy years of age. His hair, sandy blond during his youth, had turned to a silvery-white though his full beard still retained strands of blond. He was as tall as her father, who stood a bit over six feet, barrel-chested and as strong, quick-minded, and agile as he'd been when he was fighting at the Battle of Milk Creek, where he won a Medal of Honour and an Indian Campaign medal. He'd given them back when he retired some ten years later, citing his firm belief that what the American government had done and was continuing to do to the indigenous population was nothing short of criminal.

The Colonel looked up as he split a final log in half with one powerful swing of his axe and squinted at Charlie. “Ain't ya supposed ta be learnin' now, girl?” he asked her, his voice gruff with good-natured annoyance. He'd never admit it to anyone, and certainly never to Charlie herself, but he thought of the girl as the child he'd never had, and he looked forward to her visits as a child looked forward to Christmas Morning.

Mama said there wasn't anything left for me to learn, so she chased me out of the house,” Charlie said and went to give the man a hug. Her arms couldn't reach all the way around his massive chest and she felt as though her ribs would break when he swept her up in a bear hug of his own. After pressing a kiss to the crown of her head, he released her and put her back on her feet. She looked up at him and said seriously, “Got another letter from Hank yesterday.”

He still joinin' up in the summer?” Charlie nodded and the Colonel sighed deeply and shook his head. “Durn fool boy,” he muttered. “Well, since ya walked all the way from yer house, ya might as well come in fer somethin' hot. Grab that axe, wouldja? Can't leave it out all night.” He moved off towards the cabin, limping more noticeably than he normally did.

Charlie shouldered the axe and left it in the small shed that contained the Colonel's tools before joining him inside the cabin. There was a fire merrily crackling in the hearth and a cast iron Dutch oven hanging above the flames. She went over to it, and covering her hand with the hem of her jacket, lifted the lid and took a sniff. “Mmm. Elk stew,” she said and picked up a spoon to give the thick stew a careful stir so it didn't burn.

Ya make summa them biscuits yer mama taught ya and ya can stay fer dinner,” the Colonel said and began to strip off his outer clothing, hanging them carefully on iron hooks next to the door before he went and sat down at a sturdy wooden table near the hearth. “And put on some coffee, too, while yer at it.” He took a pair of spectacles out of his shirt's breast pocket and settled them on the bridge of his nose. “Now then. Let's see this letter of yers.”

Charlie took off her outer clothing as well and hung it with his before she dug an envelope out of her pants pocket and set it down on the table in front of him. Then she donned an apron, made a pot of coffee, and began work on a batch of biscuits to go with the stew. While she mixed and rolled out dough, cut out dough circles with the mouth of a jelly jar and put them on a griddle to bake, the Colonel read Hank's letter a few times and then carefully folded it and slipped it back into its envelope.

So,” he said. “We got less than three months to convince the durn fool boy not to join up's the way I sees it.” He took off his glasses and replaced them in his shirt pocket before turning to look at Charlie. “Yer mama and daddy know yet?”

She shook her head and sat down with two mugs of coffee. “No, sir,” she answered. “Hank made me promise I wouldn't.” She managed to look embarrassed. “I know I should, sir, but I don't want him mad at me.”

The Colonel snorted and sipped the coffee, noting with pleasure that it was better than any mud he could have brewed up. “Better mad atcha than dead's what I says. I'll talk to Howard if you'd rather,” he offered, giving her a way out that would preserve her relationship with her favourite brother.

Oh, would you?” Charlie responded with a big grin. “I'd be ever so grateful!”

Sunday, after church. Mebbe we can get yer mama to invite an old, lonely man to dinner. Speakin' o' which, them biscuits done yet?”

Continued here

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