F Troop ~ Providence
by Dash O'Pepper
Based on the episode "Scourge of the West" by Jim Barnett, Seaman Jacobs and Ed James
The 1860s, like its counterpart a century later, was a time of great change and social upheaval in the United States of America. Filmed Westerns—from the time of Edison to colour television—tended to focus on the honour and heroics of the period. An original for its time, F Troop told the true story of the American West: profit and exploitation; heroism and cowardice; misfits and mistakes.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, and no PC police about, F Troop comically opened the lens on the Old West, and poked holes in and at our country's myths and legends. And, through its two-year, sixty-five episode run it did so with biting wit, satire and gentle humour.
My story, "Providence", focuses on the erstwhile hero, Captain Wilton Parmenter (played by Ken Berry, best known to later audiences for Mayberry: RFD and Mama's Family). Wilton isn't the prototypical Western hero: he's small, klutzy, not a very good shot, nor much of an equestrian. But he also possesses honour, dignity, a belief in truth and justice, a large heart, and innocent naivety. He's the living embodiment that heroes aren't born or made; they just happen to show up—accidentally—when needed.
The early May sun beat down on the row of assembled military personnel, their heavily starched wool uniforms providing protection from the still chill breeze that blew now and again. Wilton Parmenter, U.S. Army Cavalry, stood last in a long line of the illustrious members of his proud military family, awaiting his Medal of Honour and official promotion to Captain for bravery as the "Scourge of Appomattox". By far, Wilton had held the lowest rank ever in his clan. Unlike his older brothers, he had never attended West Point, and held no formal officer training. He'd served the Union as a private in the Quartermaster corps, a fact that his father, General Thor X. Parmenter, had made sure to remind him of.
"Never forget, boy," the General sat behind the desk in the library of the family's Philadelphia estate, "fool's luck got you this promotion. Your hay fever earned this commission, not you."
At twenty-six, Wilton could still feel like a scared child when standing before his father. Even seated, the man seemed to tower over him. He gulped deeply before responding, "Permission to speak, sir?"
"Granted." The General leaned back in his chair, his expression unreadable, but his eyes narrowed in challenge.
"I…," Wilton hesitated, all the words he wanted to say, had been holding back for years, seemed bottled inside him, ready to explode. He fought the chalk taste in his mouth. "You always said I didn't have the stomach—the courage—for war. Yes, it was an accident that a mere private led a charge—which is why you arranged for my promotion ceremony to be held here: to be saved any embarrassment should the true origin of the 'Scourge of Appomattox' become known over brandy and cigars in the officers' club. But I acquitted myself in frontline battle. Even without a West Point education, I've earned the honour, privilege and respect of a Parmenter, sir."
It hadn't been Wilton's choice not to attend the United States Military Academy, as all the Parmenter men had done since the Point's inception in 1802. "The General," as Wilton had come to call his father, had refused to grant his permission, citing how poorly his youngest son had done during the two years he attended military school as a boy. And not all the wheedling or begging of his mother, his brother, or even his grandmother could sway the man's decision.
His ride hadn't been especially memorable; he'd never acquit himself as a fine equestrian. At best, Wilton would admit he was adequate—on a good day, maybe a little above average—in his horsemanship. Yet, he did enjoy his afternoon rides on the family's estate: one of the few pastimes he could enjoy in solitude, and away from the critical eye of the General.
Heading back to the house from the stable, he espied his eldest brother, Marcus, and the General in animated debate through the open window of the library. Marc had chosen a greater mission than most men would likely ever undertake, and their father had always disagreed with that decision. Wilton could imagine the words being exchanged between the two.
As he approached the house, he was taken aback to hear his own name being included as part of their latest argument.
"This isn't about you, Father, it's about what Wilton wants," said Marcus Parmenter, his voice carrying clearly in the still air.
Curiosity had gotten the better of him, and Wilton surreptitiously approached the window to learn why he was the topic of their discussion.
"The boy has neither the mind nor the aptitude to handle a soldier's life," answered the General plainly.
"But dear, Wilton's school grades have always been good. He has always applied himself diligently to that. He tries."
While he couldn't see his mother from his position, he blessed her for her words of support.
His father rubbed his eyes wearily. "There are plenty of fine colleges where a young man with his…," he hesitated, "abilities can receive a quality education. But a military college—and certainly not the Point—isn't one of them."
"Isn't it better for Wilton to learn that on his own, than for you to do it for him? Or did I disgrace the family name, too, when I answered God's call?"
"Marc, you and your brothers were never the disappointment to me that Wilton and Daphne are."
His mother gasped at her husband's stinging words. "Thor, how can you say such a dreadful thing about your own children?"
"Are they, Abby?" he snapped.
Wilton heard the door of the library open, and could only imagine the anguish of his mother, as he heard her footsteps hurry from the room.
It was Marcus who recovered his voice first: "I knew you could be reserved and strict, Father, but to be deliberately cruel to Mother—and to take out your baseless suspicions on Wilton and Daphne—"
Wilton's hands balled reflexively into fists. He was accustomed to the General's callousness and indifference toward him—but for what he had just accused his mother and sister of, he would never forgive the man.
He was just about to join his brother when the sound of an ebony cane tapping the floor stopped him.
Until that time, Martha Parmenter, the eighty-one-year-old matriarch of the family, had remained a silent observer in the argument.
"Marc, go to your mother; she needs you right now. My son and I have much to discuss."
"But, Gran, he had no right to—"
Her tone expressed that she would brook no excuse: "I haven't lived all this time to be afraid of things—even your father. And it would be better for you to leave now before you both say things you'll later regret. Your mother needs you right now, not just as her son, but as a minister. Go to her."
He nodded and, without another word or glance at his father, left the library.
"You're a fool, Thor," she said between clenched teeth, as soon as the door closed. "I thought your father and I raised you better than that."
"Mother, I'm the one dishonoured. I'm the one who bears the disgrace of those two—"
"Even if that were true," she interrupted him, "have you told Abigail about your other family? The coloured one."
He hesitated, obviously surprised at her awareness of something he'd believed a private affair. "No, of course not. Besides they're well looked after." His tone was blunt.
"Yes, I know they are. I've made certain of that," she said modestly. "After all, they carry the Parmenter bloodline, too."
"You don't understand, a man gets lonely…he has…needs."
"And it may surprise you to learn that a woman does as well. Do you think that, even after all this time, I don't long for the touch of your father's hand in mine? His gentle ways? His many kindnesses over the years of our love?"
"This isn't about Father. This is about two bastard children."
Wilton felt the salt sting burning in his eyes, as he fought back tears.
"No, this is about your pride," whispered Martha. "Make no mistake, Wilton and Daphne are both your children."
"You have only to look at them—their clumsiness, their awkwardness, their inability to live up to our family's heritage to know that—"
"To know that they have the heart, the kindness and the honour of Parmenters—to know that they've spent their lives trying to live up to an impossible ideal which you set for them. And despite it all, they have, in their own way, succeeded."
"They're as much of a disgrace to you, Mother, as to me."
"I love them, Thor." She rose from her chair. "I find no disgrace in that." As she turned to leave the library, she turned back to him, "As much as I'd like, I can't force you to give Wilton permission to attend West Point. But I think you'll be making a terrible mistake if you don't. Your son still loves you, and all he asks in return is the same from his father. Mark my words, there'll come a day when he'll surprise you, and it will be too late for you to reclaim what you've lost through your arrogance and stupidity."
The General's accusation of his parentage had hurt more than he had thought possible. But Wilton vowed he'd never again give the man the satisfaction of knowing the pain he had caused him. Yet, realizing he had the love and respect of his mother, his brother, and most especially his gran—these were, to him, the most precious gifts he had ever received.
Wilton felt the beads of perspiration between his fingers, thankful that they weren't running down the sides of his face from beneath the brim of his hat. He tried to keep his eyes fixed on General Grant, his current aide-de-camp, standing to the general's left, and Major James West, on Grant's right. West, who had fought side by side with Wilton during those brutal, final days of battle, had recommended his promotion. Yet, Wilton couldn't help stealing a sideways glance at his own family.
His brothers stood in a line to his far right, out of view, while he stood in a row with the senior members of the Parmenter clan: his first cousin, Major Achilles Parmenter; his second cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Hercules Parmenter; his uncle, Colonel Jupiter Parmenter; and, of course, his father.
The General had said little to him since their recent argument in the library, but it was probably more words than they'd spoken in years.
Funny, even after all this time, he could barely remember a time since childhood when he referred to his father as anything other than "the General," even in the privacy of his thoughts. The last time he could recall thinking of him as "Father" (never "Dad" or "Poppa") was Christmastime in his tenth year, when he'd been sent unceremoniously home from military school.
The horses' hooves maintained a steady rhythm as they slushed through snow and over cobblestones, every swish and click-click whispering the words "wash out" and "tsk-tsk", brutal reminders of his failure.
Wilton sat miserably in the corner of the family carriage, his wool cape and a worn horse blanket doing little good in keeping his teeth from chattering slightly from both cold and fear.
That no one except Jack, the coachman, who even in the best of weather was still a disagreeable Irishman, and Lemuel, the footman, a likeable Negro a few years older than himself, had come to the station to meet his train, warned him just how much trouble he was in. Not even mother or Daphne…at least he could have explained things to them first before facing father and his brothers.
His academic grades—Latin, Greek, composition, rhetoric and maths—had been good to excellent. Yet, at ten years old, he was already a failure. He'd tried and tried and tried to handle the regimentation and rigors of military life. He was just like his father always said, "You have more left feet than any boy in Philadelphia." On his own when he'd practice the drill routines, he was efficient. But during parade, he would lose his footing or stupidly forget left from right. It didn't help that he was always being compared to his brothers—never mind the rest of his family—by his commanding officers.
Being small for his age made him an easy target for hazing, and with the growing friction between South and North overall, his appeals to the commandant of the South Carolina Military Academy seemed like so much childish whining. The few friends he'd made, mostly other Northerners, didn't have the courage to come to his defence; thus, he was forced to fight his battles alone—usually losing and being put on report for some infraction.
But none of that would matter to Father. He'd see only that, once again, his son had failed to live up to his expectations.
Wilton wiped the frost from the carriage's window, trying to get his bearings and estimate how far before he reached home. His heart sank as he recognized the lamp from the gatekeeper's house. He nervously fiddled with the handle of the carriage door, wondering if it might not be better for everyone if he just jumped out and disappeared into the night, never to return home again.
He sighed heavily and swallowed his rising panic as his home loomed ever closer. Whatever had happened; whatever he did; he was still a Parmenter: that had been drummed into him since infancy. Before removing his SCMA uniform for good, he'd stand before the General: he'd face his shame and embarrassment, and take his punishment like any good soldier under his commanding officer's scrutiny.
From the position of the sun, they'd been out there at least an hour already, he reckoned.
Why couldn't they just finish with the ceremony and be done with it? thought Wilton.
But this whole spectacle wasn't for him. If it had been, his commission and medal would have been awarded shortly after General Lee's surrender. Instead, in deference to Grant's long-time friendship with his father, the Union general had agreed to the ceremony taking place at the Parmenter estate with the whole family (and several of the more prominent Philadelphia families) in attendance. It had been an unhappy coincidence that the original date for the event had been planned for Saturday 16 April, but possibly, it might have been the one thing to have saved Grant's life. Had he not already left Washington for Philadelphia, Grant would also have been at Ford's Theater on that terrible night. A newly reunited nation, already staggered by the loss of so many of its young men, might have been mourning the death of another.
Wilton walked quickly past the drawing room, not pausing to give even a casual glance through the open door. The air was heavy with the aroma of imported Havanas; the conversation was flowing, as were the brandy and port. At the moment, this was officers' territory, reserved for men like his brothers, uncles, cousins, father, General Grant, Major West, and which, until tomorrow, remained off-limits to him. He wondered if, even then, he'd find his way into that inner circle, which for so long had eluded him.
As with most young men who had encountered battle, the war had changed him. Prior to volunteering for service, he had resigned himself to a life of commerce on Market Street, maintaining and enriching the Parmenter fortune, his Princeton education serving him well. Now, he wanted to be as far away from Philadelphia, and family tradition, as he could.
Walking through the south parlour, he opened the French doors onto the veranda. The night sky was brilliant with stars. He wasn't often given to praying—too many times in the past, his prayers had failed to be heard—but he looked heavenward and whispered silently. If there had been a reason why he had been chosen from much more deserving men to lead the charge at Appomattox, let it be for something more than to be a desk officer. Just once, he wanted to prove that he could truly be a hero: that would be enough for one lifetime.
"God, just let me prove that I'm not an accident, an inept, bumbling—" He hadn't realized he was speaking aloud until the familiar sound of a cane tapping the ground in irritation stopped his words.
"Wilton!" Even at eighty-nine, his grandmother was a dominating presence.
"Gran," he turned to face her, feeling like a child caught with a forbidden sweet, "I didn't know you were there."
"Obviously too excited about tomorrow to notice an old woman."
He knew she had heard what he said, but she was too gracious ever to breach that confidence. "You'll never be old, Gran," he smiled at her.
"And you're still my favourite admirer," she returned his smile. "But why aren't you inside? This fête is in your honour."
Wilton shook his head. "It's the General's night, not mine."
"Do you really believe that?"
He nodded his reply.
"Think about it, Wilton, would any of them be here now celebrating if it wasn't for you?"
"The Confederacy would have fallen. It just happened sooner rather than later."
"And how many lives did you save—on both sides—because of that?"
The sound of an exploding flare erupting across the sky turned their attention upwards. Within moments, they were no longer alone, as the French doors opened and Daphne came running out, her eyes red with tears.
"Gran…Wilton, I've been looking all over for you," she gulped between sobs.
"Daphne, what's wrong?"
"It's horrible…How could it happen?…Why would someone do something like this?"
"Out with it, girl," snapped Martha.
"The President…Mr. Lincoln…he's been shot."
Thankfully, thought Wilton, General Grant was not a speechmaker. And following nearly a month of national mourning and the quick capture of the conspirators, what had happened at Appomattox was already an afterthought as the reconstruction began. It was a great relief when Grant finally called the newly commissioned Captain Wilton Parmenter forward to receive the Medal of Honour.
Marching from the row of his family, he kept his eyes riveted on the commander of all US forces. Left…right…left…Wilton had practiced for hours, making sure there would be no mistakes on his part. He had paced himself with precision, with all the military bearing that five years of war could drum into a man.
He was almost there. Left…right…left…as his right foot hit the ground, he could feel it give way, the heel of his boot catching in a gopher hole hidden among the grass. So intent had Wilton been on correctly marching, he couldn't stop his forward momentum, and thus sprawled unceremoniously onto Grant.
Shock gave way to embarrassment, as he had to push against the general to right himself. Whatever Grant's opinion of this latest misstep, he was magnanimous enough to keep to himself. Wilton suspected it was more for his father's sake than his own, however, as the Union General was not one to hold either his tongue or his temper.
Once more standing upright, Wilton snapped to attention, clearing his mind and trying to focus only on what was to come.
Grant's aide-de-camp held the small velvet box containing the medal. The general removed it from the box, and with some theatrics showed it to the assemblage. Wilton suspected it was a way for the often hot-tempered general to release some of his aggravation over what had just transpired. It didn't take long for Wilton's suspicion to be confirmed, because rather than sliding the pin of the medal across his tunic, Grant pushed forward—hard—the needle-sharp point stabbing directly into Wilton's chest. The pain was so unexpected that he couldn't avoid wincing.
It was like something from a nightmare: the next thing Wilton knew he was being awarded the Purple Heart. He'd be able to live down the infamy of tripping onto the former Commander of the Union forces—a joke to be laughed at years from now. But to be awarded a medal for receiving a medal? And the Purple Heart, at that, when there were so many young men on both sides who had lost limbs, and didn't have a family trust to return to. He groaned to himself.
"…at a frontier post like that he may be just the inspirational leadership they need. Captain Parmenter as of this moment you are the commanding officer of F Troop."
Wilton couldn't believe what he was hearing. The general was giving him his own command, not burying him in a desk assignment running errands in Washington. The Colorado Territory would take him to the frontier he'd always dreamed of being a part of. He wanted to shout for joy, and shake Grant's hand in gratitude. Instead, he saluted the general smartly, and turned on his heel—being extra careful to avoid the gopher hole—and returned to the line to stand next to his father.
The order for attention was given, followed by the call to dismiss.
Defying family protocol, he walked quickly away from the senior military men of his family to greet his grandmother, as well as his mother and sister, who were already weeping over his western posting.
"Wilton, you'll be half-way around the world from us," sniffed Daphne, wiping away her tears with a handkerchief.
"Daffy." He smiled, trying to cheer her up. This was a time for celebration. "Colorado's less than two weeks by rail, hardly the end of the world."
"You'll be out there among all those savages, dear. It's just not fair," said Abigail. "You've been fighting already for five years. You should be assigned to something less dangerous—embassy duty or the diplomatic corps. I'll speak with your father—"
Before Wilton could reply, his grandmother spoke, "Nonsense, Abby. An officer's duty is to perform the assignments he's ordered to do to the best of his ability. And I expect Wilton to do nothing less. Isn't that right, Captain?"
"Yes, ma'am." He saluted her in appreciation of her support.
"Mother, now that the war's over, the country needs to be settled, and I want to be part of that." He hugged her to reassure her that everything would be all right. For the first time in years, he really felt that.
Releasing her, he felt a gentle touch on his arm, as a soft voice cooed, "You won't forget me when you're in the wild west, will you, Wilton?"
He turned toward the voice. As always, Lucy Landfield was the picture of Main Line Philadelphia refinement: her family had a heritage dating back nearly as far as his. Their parents considered them a suitable match and encouraged a romance as far as Victorian propriety would allow.
"Of-of course not, Lucy," he stammered.
"Mother Parmenter. Mrs. Parmenter. Daphne." She nodded to each in turn by way of apology for her intrusion on their discussion.
Abigail took her mother's-in-law arm, and drew Daphne beside her. "I think we should excuse ourselves. I'm sure you both have much to discuss," she twittered at the two of them.
Always willing to mischievously tease her younger brother, Daphne added, "You probably won't get Wilton to stop talking, Lu-Lu."
"Miss Landfield, perhaps we shall speak more later," said Martha with little conviction that she was enthused by the possibility. "Wilton, dear, don't forget that providence always allows choice. Make it wisely." She kissed her grandson on the cheek before walking away with Abigail and Daphne.
Lucy waited until certain that the three were out of earshot before speaking again. She was not unaware of Martha Parmenter's polite dislike of her: years of the finest finishing schools had taught her the subtleties and nuances of playing a very feminine game.
"Whatever did she mean by that?" she asked coyly.
Wilton pulled slightly at the suddenly constricting collar of his dress uniform. "I suppose with all the guests here, Gran was afraid she might miss you later."
"Really, Wilton, you can be so silly at times," she laughed lightly, a giggle as dainty as she. "I was wondering about all that talk of providence and choices."
"That? It was just a discussion we were having around Mr. Lincoln's death," he replied hurriedly.
Satisfied with the answer, and bored with the topic, Lucy coiled her arm around Wilton's elbow. "Walk with me and tell me all about your new assignment," she asked eagerly.
He unwrapped his arm from hers. "I thought you held no interest in my remaining in the military?"
"But, that was when you were only a private." She looked at him, puzzled by why he couldn't understand something so obvious. "You had only to ask your father, and you could have been a major by now. Instead of travelling from one muddy battlefield to the next, you might have even been able to stay in Philadelphia for the whole war."
"Don't you understand, Lucy? I had to volunteer."
Wilton had always been a light sleeper: as a young boy, he never knew when the General might call a surprise inspection; at SCMA, it had been self-preservation to help avoid nocturnal hazing; now, living at home and attending school during the day, it was simply force of habit.
So, when he heard a horse's whinny and his gran's hushed whisper to keep it quiet, he snapped awake. At first, looking around the nearly pitch room, he thought it might have been a dream, but then he heard the soft stomping of impatient hooves in the dirt. Throwing back the covers, he quietly got out of bed, wondering if there might be horse thieves about. Only his and Daphne's bedrooms overlooked the stables—and Daffy could sleep through anything.
Pushing back the drapes slightly to peer out the window, he was surprised to see a dark form hitching two horses to the family's old carriage. It took him a moment to realize that it was Lemuel. He couldn't imagine the footman being a horse thief—especially given the two horses and the carriage he'd chosen—the Negro had always been hardworking, honest and loyal.
"Lem, aren't you finished yet?"
It definitely had been his grandmother's voice that had awoken him. But why would she and Lemuel be riding around in the middle of the night? he wondered.
As he made up different scenarios, each more outlandish than the next, curiosity got the better of him. Quickly dressing, he left his room and cautiously proceeded down the back staircase. Making his way through the darkened house, he headed through the kitchen and out the servants' entrance, certain he wouldn't encounter anyone—staff or family—at this hour.
By the time he ran around the side of the great house, the carriage was already on its way down the drive, and he had to run to catch up with it. Winded, he made a jump for the back of the carriage, managing to grab onto the leather straps that would normally have tied down a trunk. His shins ached from banging against the axle; as his already sore arms held on for dear life, the horses gained speed as they got farther from the house.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, he thought, as he tried again to pull himself onto the trunk ledge. Straining with all of his might, he finally managed it, with the help of a road rut that bounced him upward. Sitting down, he nursed his bruised legs. He was going to hear it tomorrow, when it was discovered he'd ruined a good pair of trousers, and his best boots, too. But for now, he was enjoying the excitement, the adventure and the mystery of where they were going too much to worry about such details.
Even by the gaslight of some of the lamps they passed, he didn't recognize the route they were taking. If it wasn't for the position of the North Star, he wouldn't have known their direction—away from Philadelphia and into the more rural farm lands.
Wilton wasn't certain how far they'd travelled, but it was long enough for him to feel the damp chill from the night air seep through his clothes. Twice, when they'd slowed to cross a covered bridge, he'd had to stifle a sneeze, afraid that its echo would alert Gran and Lem that they had acquired an unexpected passenger.
With all the stories he'd created for this nocturnal adventure, he was starting to feel foolish. Maybe this midnight excursion was nothing more than Gran paying a visit to her sister's family in Lancaster, and wanting to be there for first-light or breakfast. After what he figured to have been an hour of travel, the coach slowed. While he couldn't see the light ahead, it had illuminated the underbelly of the carriage enough for him to know that it was pointed directly at them.
"Do thee pass in God's love?" he heard a voice call in the old Quaker tradition.
"It is in His love that we are here." His grandmother's voice replied from inside the carriage.
The lamplight was suddenly extinguished, and it took his eyes a few seconds to readjust to the darkness. He heard two carriage doors open, then a shuffling as at least two people joined his gran inside. Except for the horses' snorting, the entire exchange had been conducted in silence.
Wilton needed all his willpower not to peer around the side of the carriage and peek at what was transpiring. He realized quickly that it was a good thing he had resisted the urge, because Lemuel clicked the reins and brought the horses to a sudden and unexpected cantor. The speed nearly knocked him from his perch as they headed back the way they came.
Why would they have come all this way in the dark to meet strangers in the middle of nowhere? Wilton bit his lip in concentration. He spent the return trip wondering about the two silent passengers in the carriage, about Lemuel, and about his gran. He was surprised when the carriage changed direction again. Instead of heading for home, they were heading into the heart of Philadelphia.
When the carriage finally stopped in front of a neat white house with a freshly painted white fence and a sign he could read even in the gaslight from the street lamps, he knew where they were, which only added to his confusion: Mdme. Antoinette's, one of the most popular women's couturiers in Philadelphia, a place he had been dragged to numerous times by his mother and sister.
He heard Lemuel step down from the driver's seat and open the carriage doors. His gran's cane tapped the sidewalk, as she and her fellow passengers went up the walk that led to the back of the house, with the Negro following close behind. Other than that, everything on the street was silent.
Waiting what seemed an interminable length of time, Wilton finally jumped from his perch, being careful not to be seen or heard. He followed the walk to the back of the house. Seeing the oily light seeping through a pair of drawn curtains behind what had to be a kitchen door, he stepped cautiously up the steps and tripped unceremoniously over a bucket of ash that was in an unilluminated part of the back porch.
Before he knew it, he was being manhandled into the house; he could feel the cold metal of a gun pointing at the back of his head and gulped in fear.
"What do you want here, boy?"
Wilton didn't recognize the voice, but it made him wince. Covered head to toe in ash, his vision still hadn't cleared enough for him to see if gran and Lemuel were still in the room.
He had no lies to tell, no stories to make up, nothing that would get him out of the predicament he was now in. "I-I was looking for my Gran," he managed to stammer.
He heard her voice and breathed a sigh of relief, until he heard her add: "What the devil are you doing here?"
"Is he all right, ma'am?" the gruff voice asked.
She must have nodded, because the gun was removed from against his head.
He wiped the soot from his eyes, finally able to see things clearly. There were six people in the room; he recognized three immediately: Gran, Lemuel and Taniel, a Negress, who was one of Mdme. Antoinette's seamstresses. Of the other three, two were Negroes—a man and a woman—while the other was a white man wearing a preacher's collar. They must have been the passengers in the carriage.
"What are you doing here? Don't you know you could have been killed tonight?"
He gulped. If he thought he was going to be in trouble tomorrow, it would be nothing like what he was going to get tonight. "I was worried when I saw you and Lemuel take the carriage. I thought—"
"You don't know what you thought!" she snapped.
"Don't be too hard on him," said Lemuel, smiling at Wilton, "I'd have done the same thing in his place."
"You're older, Lem. You'd know better."
"Gran," Wilton finally asked, "what's going on? Why all the secrecy?"
She sat down tiredly on one of the kitchen chairs. "I suppose after tonight's adventure you are old enough to know—everything."
Taniel spoke up, "Do you think that's wise, ma'am?" She looked at Wilton, her dark eyes boring into his soul, "He's his father's son."
"And that's exactly why he should know."
No one in his entire life had compared him to his father, except to tell him that he couldn't live up to Thor X. Parmenter's reputation in anything, and the seamstress's tone told him that it was not a compliment.
"Reverend, will you take our guests into the other room? And give them whatever they need for the night?"
The preacher nodded and led his party from the kitchen.
"Wilton," began Martha, "Taniel is a former slave—"
"I-I'm sorry, ma'am," he bowed slightly in respect to her. Two years in South Carolina had given him first-hand knowledge of the evils of slavery.
"Your father purchased her freedom…."
He was surprised to learn that the General had done anything so remotely humane; he didn't think the man was capable of that kind of selflessness.
"…after she bore Lemuel, your—"
"Don't, ma'am, he doesn't need to know that," interrupted the Negro.
Martha shook her head. "It's better he knows the truth. Wilton, Lemuel is your half-brother."
If anyone was expecting a tantrum or a denial from the youngest Parmenter, they were mistaken. There wasn't much that he didn't think his father capable of doing. Wilton had never noticed it before, maybe because he wasn't paying enough attention, but, except for the skin colour, there was a resemblance between Lemuel and one of his cousins. He'd always liked Lem, and hoped that the feeling was mutual.
"No, Gran, you're wrong," he finally replied. Seeing his hands and how the ash had made him look as black as coal, "I'd say that tonight Lem and I are brothers."
The tension in the room was broken by the inept joke. Even Taniel, who had been watching him distrustfully the whole time, smiled slightly.
"Your grandmother, Lemuel and I have been helping other slaves to escape. Reverend Bixby takes them farther north to Canada."
"Is there anyway I can help?" he asked without hesitation.
"Yes," said Martha, "by keeping your mouth shut about what you've seen here tonight. Too much is at stake for it to be destroyed by careless words."
"I want to do more, not just for Lem and Miss Taniel, but for—"
"I know that, Wilton," she interrupted his youthful enthusiasm, "but you're too young right now for this battle. You're only twelve; Lem's got six years on you, and I've got over sixty. There'll come a time when you'll be needed, but hopefully it won't be necessary. This sin against God and man can't go on much longer."
Lemuel spoke up, "I do know of a way you can help."
"Just name it."
"Do you think you could handle the carriage and take your—our—gran home?"
He nodded, grateful to be of some help.
"Miss Taniel, if I can ever be of assistance to you, please let me know." He bowed courteously to her.
"Good night, Taniel. Lem," said Martha, as she took Wilton's arm and they left the house.
Taniel turned out the lamp light in the kitchen. "I was wrong about the boy, Lemuel," she said.
"I told you, Ma, he and his sister aren't like the others."
"The Orisha need to know it as well." She spoke of the Vodoun gods she still honoured: the old faith still practiced, alongside her American-taught Christian one. "I just hope it is not too late for the boy."
"You didn't have to go. You could have had someone—like those terrible Irish—go in your place," she pouted. "You once told me to wait for you, and I did wait all this time. Now you're leaving to go west, when you could have your pick of any assignment you wanted."
"Parker! Parmenter! Peters!"
Wilton grabbed the letters from mail call greedily. Letters to the battlefield were sporadic at best; often you had marched on before the mail ever reached you.
He looked at each in turn: one from his mother, one from his sister, one from his grandmother, one from his oldest brother, and one scented with roses from Lucy. He opened the last one first, excited that he had finally received word from the girl he considered his sweetheart.
She wrote of their friends; the latest gossip among the Main Liners; fashions she had purchased and parties she had attended. There was a long paragraph about the inconvenience of the war, and finally some words asking about his health.
He re-read the letter, looking for anything that he might have missed where she said she missed him and couldn't wait for his return when the war ended. But there was nothing further to it. Yet, it was all Lucy, exactly as she had always been.
"Lucy, you knew that all I ever wanted my whole life was to be an Army officer. Couldn't you be just a little proud for me that I finally realized my dream?"
"Yes, you've gotten everything you've ever wanted. You're a captain now. You're going to be transferred to a place filled with filthy savages, and you expect me to be happy about it? What about my dreams? I don't want to live in some filthy town where indoor plumbing is a tin bucket and a bath is a monthly event! I want symphonies, museums, the ballet, opera—"
"You hate the ballet, and you get bored at the opera."
"That's beside the point, and you know it."
"A soldier's duty is to go wherever he's assigned, and my assignment is Fort Courage."
"With your connections, you could pick your assignments."
"I didn't ask the General for my first assignment, and I'm not going to request his help on this one."
"Which is why you remained a private for so long." She realized quickly that she had touched a nerve.
Her lip quivering slightly, she continued, "Wilton, I've attended the finest finishing schools in the Northeast. My fashion taste has always been impeccable. I have quite a flair for entertaining the crème de la crème of Philadelphia and New York society. Your father always said I am the perfect hostess."
"The General has always regarded you highly, Lucy," he said ambivalently.
"I can't imagine myself wearing buckskins and shooting squirrel and possum for our dinner, or sitting home alone waiting for you to ride back from a cavalry charge. That's not a life I can live."
"Don't worry, Lucy," he smiled at her, a compliment that she believed her tears had caused. "I haven't asked you to."
He drove the wagon with his few personal belongings through the gates of the fort, his escorts riding their mounts alongside. F Troop was assembled on horseback to give him their official greeting, while some of the townspeople had gathered to view, as much as to welcome, their new military governor.
Fort Courage was a far cry from Fort Riley that was certain; yet, he was as excited about taking command of this small frontier outpost as he would have been if they had offered him command of the entire 7th Cavalry. This was the frontier he'd always wanted to be a part of.
As he saluted his new command, he remembered his gran's fateful words. It was providence that had brought him to this moment, and Captain Wilton Parmenter intended to seize his destiny, as he began what he hoped to be the greatest adventure of his life.…
~ Fin ~
Author's Notes: I can't give my sis thanks enough for listening to my incoherent ramblings as this story was percolating. She's my beta and best friend—what more could you ask from family. My acknowledgements for this story would not be complete, if I failed to thank my muse: I just never expected my muse to be a Captain in the US Army Cavalry. Wilton you had more faith in my completing this story than I did, and I salute the Captain for all his help in writing this. I would be remiss in not thanking my editor, Cathy Schlein, for working with me to tweak this story (and tweak some more). I will never look at my writing the same way again. Thank you for giving me the opportunity of having my story published in "Of Dreams & Schemes #20".
Disclaimer: This work of fanfiction is in no way meant to infringe on the rights of AOL-TimerWarner, Inc., or any of its subsidiaries. This story first appeared in print in "Of Dreams & Schemes #20" (2004), Cathy Schlein editor.
© 2011 Dash O'Pepper