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Authors: Al Sarrantonio

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Kitt Peak

BOOK: Kitt Peak
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KITT PEAK
 

By Al Sarrantonio

First Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press

Copyright 2011 Al Sarrantonio

Cover design by David Dodd

Parts of the Cover image provided by:

http://quaddles.deviantart.com
&
http://artemis-stock.deviantart.com/

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Moonbane

West Texas

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Toybox

Halloween & Other Seasons

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For

Pat LoBrutto

Who's been there

Chapter One
 

Bad day.

They had all been bad days lately. Thomas thought about other times when there had been no bad days, only days to get work done, to work with his hands and mind. Even when bad things were involved — even when death was involved — his days in the Army, as the very first Negro lieutenant in the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-Negro regiment of the cavalry, had been good ones.

Foolishness
,
he thought.

Steel your mind.

It seemed as if he had spent a lot of time lately steeling his mind. And it seemed as if it was getting harder to do. Retirement did not agree with him; and even the Sherlock Holmes stories, which had always brought him so much joy, and which he still looked forward to receiving every six months in a packet of
Strand
magazines sent from New York, brought him little solace these days. It was as if his restless mind could no longer concentrate on mere fiction, that the loss of his vocation had, over the last months, begun to
turn him into the one thing he had always guarded against.

You're soft, Thomas.

You're soft and if you don't watch it, you're going to get old.

He rose from the chair he had been sitting in, the one facing the front window of his home on Maple Street in Boston, Massachusetts, and waved an impatient hand at the air.

Bah
,
he thought,
it's all foolishness. I'm already soft, and already old. An old man sitting in front of the window waiting for the mail.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught movement on the street outside, and turned to face the window again. Sure enough, the mailman was making his slow way up the path toward the house. John Reynolds, his name was. Bundled up to the chin against the cold, with his cap pulled down over his earmuffs. He looked like a blue tick.

The mailman caught his eye through the frosted window, and Thomas started to wave his hand in greeting; but Reynolds merely looked away, scowling. Another bigot in a country of bigots. Thomas was sure that if the force of the federal government wasn't behind Reynolds, the man would have dropped the mail in the snow and walked away.

As it was, there was the sound of the mail-man jamming the letters into the box and hurrying away, his back to Thomas as he left the gate open on his way to the next house.

Scowling himself, biting back his anger, Thomas went to the door, opened it, bracing himself against the blast of cold air that pushed in, pulled the crumpled mail from its wall box, and closed the door again.

His pension check was not among the creased letters, and, momentarily, another flare of anger rose and then died within him.
Damned bureaucrats.
Ever since Roosevelt had come to office in 1901, two years ago, the system of government had come to a complete halt. The damned Republican cared more about trees and bears than he did about the men who had fought, and too often died, in Indian wars, making the West safe for white settlers. And Roosevelt of all people, who had at least been out there himself, seen the land with his own eyes, experienced at least some of the hard-ships, and knew what it was like . . .

A single letter fell from the mass of handbills and fluttered to the floor. For a moment hope rose within Thomas, thinking that maybe the check had come at last. For an instant, he even thought that perhaps Roosevelt wasn't a bad sort after all —

But it was not a government check at all. Thomas raised the envelope to the lighted window. There was something dimly familiar about the scrawl of handwriting on the face. The letter looked as though it had been through a war. Besides the mailman's crumpling, the letter was torn in one corner and stained with something that looked like coffee across the front. The lettering on the address was smudged.

Thomas turned the letter directly to the light. The coffee stain, up close, was clotted and uneven. . . .

Chicory coffee.

Only chicory coffee would leave that distinctive gritty blotch. And the handwriting. . .

The lettering, he now saw, was not smudged at all, but had been written with a dipped quill in a trembling hand. A blotter had been badly employed, further running the letters. The writing
was
familiar. . . .

Adams. Bill Adams, one of the very few white men in the 101st Cavalry worth a spit. He had been Thomas's friend and confidant, the only non-private, with the exception of young Sergeant Chase, who had been sorry to see Thomas retire.

But Adams had never trembled over anything, not at Fraser Pass during the war with Victorio, not in the teeth of death in Limpia Canyon, when surrounded by an overwhelming force of rogue Mescaleros commanded by Victorio's vengeance-seeking brother. . . .

Thomas almost tore the letter open, and then hesitated over the tear along one edge.

Examining it more closely, he saw that the tear had been made deliberately, a small thumb-ripped opening that had then been straightened down the edge by the pull of a knife or letter opener. But the would-be opener had hesitated before the letter could be pulled out, and had abandoned his task.

Thomas faced the letter toward the window again, and studied the postmark.

April 14, 1902.

Nine months ago.

And with a postmark from Tucson, Arizona. Is that where Adams was?

Again suppressing an urge to open the letter, Thomas instead crossed the room, lay the letter down on a lamp table while he bent to pull a wooden cartridge box from under his bed. He had to move aside a stack of
Strand
magazines to get at the box, which was covered with dust. He rested the box on his knees and blew the dust off. Glancing at the unmade covers of the bed, he winced momentarily, realizing just how soft he had become. Instead of sharp military corners, the covers were piled in a heap, unmade.

He thought of Sherlock Holmes.

At least I haven't reduced myself to taking cocaine.

He shook his head.

That's no excuse.

He turned his attention to the box, and went slowly through it. Two letters from Lincoln Reeves on top, the most recent received nearly a month before. Whose turn was it to write? With shame, he realized that he had not written back to Reeves, not answered either this letter or the last. The young man he had thought of as his Watson must wonder at this point if Thomas was even alive.

He set the two letters aside on the unmade bed, resolving to answer them this day.

Next were family papers, the deed for this very house from his deceased Aunt Martha Johnston Mullin. The house had been left to her by the abolitionist Fay Gordon, who had died proud though nearly penniless after Boston ostracized her for her relationship with a former black slave. There were other papers relating to the property, various town ordinances meant to ostracize the property itself, abolitionist lawyer writs blocking those moves by the city of Boston, etc.

Next was a flat of cardboard, and beneath that, Thomas's Army papers.

He had located the last correspondence from Bill Adams in a moment. Nearly three years. The handwriting on the last letter, from Adams's newest, and last, post at Fort Brayden, in northern Arizona, was firm and confident. He remembered the letter as being full of hope. Adams would be retiring in six months, and moving to Arizona to live with his daughter. There had been some chatting about old times, about how they would have to get together after Adams's retirement even though both of them knew that would probably not happen, about Bill's sorrow that Thomas's bid for reenlistment had been turned down. Thomas even recalled Adam's phrasing, "They stepped on your neck real good, Thomas, and I'm sorry there's nothing I can do about it. Comes with the territory of laying low on the ladder all these years. If only Grierson or one of the other mucky-mucks were still in power in Washington..."

Thomas laid the letter back in the cartridge box, rose, and retrieved Adams's new letter from the lamp table.

So. . .
he thought, a faint stirring of juices long dormant, of interest and excitement, already beginning to rise within him.

He opened the letter carefully, unsticking the back flap, noting how carelessly it had been sealed to begin with.

He pulled the letter from within.

As he unfolded and looked at it, a pang of sorrow drowned out the rise of interest; but then the excitement quickly overcame the sorrow, pushing it to the back of his mind.

He pulled the letter up to his nose. It nearly reeked of alcohol. An amber stain, different from the coffee stain on the envelope, washed the upper right-hand corner of the page. That was where Adams would have kept his whiskey glass. He was, Thomas remembered, right-handed. And so, that coffee stain on the envelope was evidence that the letter had been written in the throes of alcohol, and was probably sealed and mailed during the aftermath of attempted recovery, while Adams had been drinking coffee.

The letter was dated April 10th, bearing this out.

If anything, the handwriting on the letter was even worse than that on the envelope.

Thomas folded the letter flat on the table top and read:

~ * ~

Dear Thomas,

It is not with joy that I write you this time, I'm afraid. Things have not gone as I had planned. Perhaps if this were the Army, things could be handled differently, but I doubt it. We both know how the Army
operates, and in this case the result would be no better. There is a man in Tempe, name
of
Cross, who would help, but I heard he's out with the 66th, scouting, and won't be back from California for at least eighteen months. He owes me, but that's another story.

BOOK: Kitt Peak
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