Book Three of
THE WIDOWS OF THE CIMARRON SERIES
In January 1868, Alice Jenkins, the widow of Lieutenant Jenkins, killed by Gus McGregor during an escape attempt, must leave Fort Union unless she can find a position for herself at the post. She has not heard from her family for over four years, since she and the lieutenant came west. She has nowhere to go. When Dr. John Conley asks if she would like to be a hospital matron, she gladly accepts his offer. It means she can stay at the post and reside at the hospital.
Dr. Conley, one of the few bachelor officers at Fort Union, is pleased to be able to help the lovely widow Jenkins. He needs another matron at the hospital. And when he learns that Alice Jenkins is pregnant by her late husband, he quickly seizes the opportunity to employ her as his housekeeper and cook instead, where she will not be exposed to the dangerous infectious diseases that run rampant in the post hospital. But there, in his quarters, she runs new dangers from envious rivals, both for her affections and from jealous officers’ wives.
The greatest danger comes from his old nemesis, Captain Herbert Evans, chief of the quartermaster’s depot. Evans controls the allocations of quarters and all supplies, and exercises no little amount of power at the post. He and the doctor have had a long, contentious rivalry that goes back to the war. Now that the widow Jenkins is in the midst of their rivalry, one or the other of them must go. The two of them can no longer share the same posting. To what lengths will Captain Evans and Dr. Conley go in their efforts to get the other dismissed, and will they risk the good reputation of Mrs. Jenkins in the process?
If you enjoyed the first two chapters of
please contact Montana Dawn at
If you are a publisher or an agent,
Cate Duncan will be happy to entertain solitations.
January 15, 1868, Fort Union, New Mexico. At Colonel McMullin’s signal, the firing squad ceased pumping bullets into the bodies of the four Comancheros. All four lay partially slumped into the shallow grave dug to receive them. The commander of Fort Union Military Post left his position at the end of the line of soldiers from the Third and Sixth Cavalry who volunteered for this onerous duty and walked to the nearest body. Drawing his service revolver, he fired one bullet into the man’s forehead. He walked to the next body and did the same. And to the third. The fourth Comanchero, Gus McGregor, had fallen with his head turned to the south. Colonel McMullen placed the muzzle of his pistol on the man’s ear and administered the coup-de-grace.
The ceremony ended with an unnecessary waste of ammunition. Not a man in the firing squad had wished to let these criminals off without their death penalty. These dealers in ammunition, arms and liquors with the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne and renegade Apache were responsible for the deaths of scores of their regimental comrades. And three months ago, Gus McGregor had killed Lieutenant Peter Jenkins, a popular officer in the Third Cavalry. A firing squad was too good for these men, most believed. Hanging would have been better, but there were no trees tall enough, and wood was too scarce to build a scaffold. No, Colonel McMullen had been forced to sentence these men to die in too honorable a fashion. But at least it had been done without the full pomp and ceremony of a military execution. These men were being consigned to a shallow, common grave with no coffins, on the prairie, a mile from the southern entrance of Fort Union. In a few years, the disturbed soil would be gone and not even the patch of weeds would mark where these men lay buried.
Colonel McMullen holstered his service revolver, snapped a salute to the firing squad, and scanned the small crowd that had gathered. There, he saw who he looked for, a diminutive figure dressed in black, the widow of Lieutenant Jenkins. He strode towards her to pay his respects.
Captain Dr. John Conley peered over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses to watch Colonel McMullen walk towards Mrs. Jenkins. This was not the first time he had attended an execution in his official capacity as a post surgeon, and it would not be his last. It was, without a doubt, his least favorite duty in his military service, pronouncing the convicted dead.
It didn’t take long. One look at the bullet-ridden bodies would have sufficed for most surgeons; John did indeed try to find a pulse on the three Mexican Comancheros without success. Gus McGregor’s head was so badly blown to bits that it was impossible for him to live, so there was no point. John motioned to his hospital steward for pen, ink and the forms he was to sign, and using the clipboard Private Hoffmeir brought, he dispatched the paperwork as quickly as possible. He hated to have this sort of thing linger around. Then he nodded to the burial squad that they could get on with the work. A few flakes of snow swirled on the wind, and he knew everyone just wanted to get back to the fort.
Looking around, Dr. Conley hoped to catch sight of Mrs. Jenkins, but he didn’t see her. He cursed. He had hoped to escort her back to the fort, and had brought a second horse for her to ride.
Climbing to the top of the rise where he left the two horses tethered, he scanned the roads leading in and out of the fort. To his surprise, he saw a small figure dressed all in black walking on the road to the fort cemetery, located three miles to the west and north. It appeared to be Mrs. Jenkins. He mounted his horse, caught up the trailing reins of his extra mount, and trotted down the road after the widow.
Alice Jenkins heard the two horses come trotting up behind her, so she moved off to the right side of the road, expecting a pair of soldiers to pass her by. Instead, Dr. Conley slowed to a stop and doffed his hat in the cold breeze containing isolated flakes of snow. The wind ruffled his sun-lightened hair and reddened his cheeks.
“The weather may turn evil, Mrs. Jenkins,” he warned. “May I escort you to the cemetery and back?”
Alice looked on the doctor’s kind, masculine face and thought once again about how handsome he was. He had keen, brown eyes behind a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses, a straight nose, and a wide mouth under a well-trimmed mustache. He wore his light-brown hair cut short, only a couple of inches long. He cut an altogether dashing figure in his military blues with his knee-high cavalry boots. Of all the officers at the post, that this man should be unmarried mystified her and the other wives most.
“I’m not much in the mood for company, Dr. Conley,” Alice warned, even though of all the men at Fort Union, the doctor was the only one she would indeed like to talk to at this time.
“I’ll not presume to intrude,” he stated. “I don’t like the turn in the weather, is all.”
She looked into the dark gray sky and had to agree. The snow could get much thicker any time.
“I see that horse has a side-saddle,” she observed.
“I thought you might want to ride back to the fort after the execution.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
Before she could say anything else, he dismounted and stood to the side of the horse with the side-saddle, ready to help her mount. Considering how much she liked to ride, she couldn’t turn him down. If she wanted to go out to the cemetery, this was certainly better than walking.
“Thank you, Doctor,” she muttered, as she took the reins from him and set her left foot in his interlaced hands. He boosted her up with barely any effort, as well as Peter ever did. The familiar show of manly strength brought a sudden pang of sorrow. Alice looked away to hide her tears. She busied herself getting settled in the side-saddle so that he couldn’t see how his help had affected her.
The ride to Fort Union’s cemetery took place in silence, as the doctor promised. He let her ride a few steps ahead, and she knew he followed only by the sound of his horse’s footsteps on the hard, dry roadbed. After a few moments, Alice Jenkins returned to her thoughts.
She supposed most of Peter’s fellow officers and the men who reported to him felt some vindication at the violent death of his murderer. Alice felt nothing but a continuing horror. More blood on white bandages. Someone had bandaged up the terrible wound that had killed Peter, but the blood had soaked through. Now everywhere she looked, Alice saw blood on white bandages. She wondered if she was doomed to see the sight the rest of her life.
Going to the cemetery to tell Peter about it, well, that probably wouldn’t help any. But on this day, of all days, she had to visit his still-fresh grave. Alice didn’t know how much longer she would be able to find comfort there, how much longer Colonel McMullen would let her stay at the post. It had been six weeks. She would be lucky to have two more, before they expected her to leave, to join family elsewhere.
A family she hadn’t heard from since she’d come to New Mexico three years ago.
When they arrived at the cemetery half an hour later, Dr. Conley took the reins from her and tethered the horse to a post outside the white picket fence surrounding the cemetery. He put his hands on her waist and took her weight when she leaned forward off the horse, helping her to dismount. Again, Alice felt a pang of sorrow at the reminder of a man’s strength. She had only felt such strong arms when her late husband had touched her. It confused her to feel them on a man she thought of as having no sex at all, the post doctor. At the same time, the feel of them comforted her. Here was a man who had always shown her sympathy and kindness. She was suddenly quite glad he had offered to go with her to the cemetery.
He secured his horse and offered his arm, helping her through the turn-style constructed to keep out animals that might find the grasses and flowers inside the cemetery worth eating. Lieutenant Peter Jenkins’ six weeks old grave lay mounded at the bottom of the latest row, the most recent addition to the military cemetery. Five years after the war, only four or five deaths occurred a year, and most of those were due to disease. Peter had been the fort’s yearly homicide. Colonel McMullen told her she should be happy that they caught his killer. Often it was an anonymous Indian. Alice would have preferred there had been no murder at all.
“I’ll wait for you here,” Dr. Conley said in his deep, quiet voice when they had approached within twenty feet of the grave. Alice nodded with gratitude and left him standing in the swirls of white flakes of snow.
“Well, it’s done, Peter,” she told the frozen mound of dirt clods. “McGregor is dead, as well as the infamous Leon Moreno, for whom he worked. Colonel McMullen arrested the man in the Quartermaster’s armory who was supplying the Comancheros with arms and ammunition. He is lying in the grave with Moreno and McGregor, too. The cavalry is safer, now, because the trade in rifles and ammunition has been slowed.”
The tears came to the surface. She couldn’t stop them. She knew the Comanches and Kiowas would find their ammunition some other way, and her husband was still dead. Killing McGregor and the Comancheros hadn’t brought him back to her. She buried her face in her gloved hands.
Dr. Conley let her weep for almost fifteen minutes before he approached and put his hand on her elbow.
“Forgive me, Mrs. Jenkins,” he interrupted. “I said I wouldn’t intrude. But perhaps a shoulder …”
She took it. She had not cried on a man’s shoulder since she had left her papa’s farm in Indiana. The dark blue wool uniform coat felt rough and warm under her cheek, and his strong arms warmed her against the cold wind. He was almost a head taller than her, and his manly shoulders provided shelter from hard little balls of snow that spit against his back.
“I thought their death would help,” she said when she could find her voice.
“Only time will make the sorrow bearable,” he offered.
“I suppose so,” she acknowledged. Time was something she didn’t have. Not here at Fort Union. “I wish I could see the flowers grow on his grave.”
“Command won’t let you stay, I suppose.” It wasn’t a question.
“Captain Evans of the Quartermaster Department says my quarters must be given up to another officer within the month.”
Dr. Conley scowled. Even such an expression couldn’t make his handsome face unattractive. Alice imagined he would be devilishly good-looking well into his eighties.
“Captain Evans, huh? That man has all the sensitivity of a mule. Where do you intend to go?”
He offered her his arm, and they started to walk back towards the horses.
“That’s the problem,” Alice explained. “I haven’t heard from my family since I left Indiana three years ago. Father was ailing then. Mother has not returned my letters, and my only sister married and moved away. I don’t know if I have family. I wrote to both my parents and my sister when Peter died, but I haven’t heard from them. I don’t know where to go, except back to where they lived. They may not be there.”
“Three years. That was the end of the war,” the doctor observed.
“Yes. Peter came home to Indiana after the war and we married. He re-enlisted and was sent here to Fort Union. We thought it would be exciting, different after the misery of the war.”
“Different? Yes. New Mexico is different,” the doctor agreed.
They came to the turn-style, and the doctor helped her through it. The snow flurries thickened, and Alice was glad she could mount the horse for a ride back to the fort instead of walking back the two miles.
“So you have nowhere to go?” Dr. Conley asked as he interlaced his fingers and prepared to boost her into the saddle.
“That’s right,” Alice replied, placing her hand on his sturdy shoulder to steady herself. She stepped into his hands and let him boost her up. He appeared to spend no effort at all.
“I’ll talk to Captain Evans and Colonel McMullen. Perhaps we can find a place for you on the post, at least long enough for you to receive word from your family.”
Before she could thank him, he turned his back and mounted his own horse. Alice could hardly believe her good fortune. She hoped he would be able to succeed in securing at least a temporary home here at the post she had come to love.
“Sir!” Dr. John Conley snapped a smart salute as he stood before Colonel McMullen’s desk.
“At ease, Captain,” his superior officer returned without rising. “Nasty business, this morning. Glad it’s over.”
“That goes for the entire garrison,” John assured him. “The men are especially pleased to see McGregor dead. It’s widely known he abused his wife.”
“Yes. Sergeant Jackson is taking her to Cimarron. They are to be married within the month.”
“So I heard. It’s a good match. We wouldn’t have captured McGregor without the sergeant’s help, I hear,” the doctor added, remembering the Army scout who requested permission to be discharged from duty due to his disabilities received from the wounds administered by these very Comancheros last fall.
“What can I do for you, Doctor?” McMullen wanted to know.
“Mrs. Jenkins tells me that Captain Evans will be confiscating her quarters within the month. Did you know that she hasn’t heard from her family and has no place to go?”
Colonel McMullen’s eyebrows went up. “No. I was not aware of her circumstances. She wants to stay here at the fort?”
“It seems so, at least until she receives word from her family,” John replied.
“We’ve been lenient in letting her stay in the officers’ quarters this long. A new lieutenant will be reporting for duty any time now, and he brings a family with him. She will have to vacate her quarters for him. Unless there is some family willing to take her in, I’m not sure what we can do for her,” McMullen explained.
“I could use some more help at the hospital. I thought she could serve as a matron. Surely her wages there in addition to Jenkins’ pension could pay for a room somewhere on the post,” John suggested.
“I’ll approve her being hired as a temporary hospital matron, if you’ll speak to Captain Evans about quartering her on the base,” the colonel agreed.
Dr. Conley scowled. He didn’t get along well with the self-important Captain Evans, who was in charge of the Quartermaster’s Depot. For Mrs. Jenkins, though, he would humble himself and beg the favor. He didn’t look forward to the prospect.
Snapping another salute, he straightened and said, “Thank you, sir!”
At the north end of Fort Union lay the Quartermaster Depot, which supplied the U.S. Army throughout New Mexico. The head of the Fort Union depot, Captain Herbert M. Evans prided himself on knowing where every horse, mule, wagon and paperclip in the territory was and how much it cost. Dr. John Conley knew that Captain Evans could find a room for where Mrs. Jenkins. Whether he would divulge that information was an entirely different matter.
John shoved through the Quartermaster’s door, hoping to find a warm stove and knowing he’d be disappointed. He was. The room was barely warmer than the frigid air outside, and that only because it was out of the wind. The Quartermaster believed he and his men could save money by burning one Spartan log at a time, and that down to the ashes before putting on another. The doctor had engaged in a long, acrimonious battle with the quartermaster on the amount of wood to be used in the hospital. Thank goodness, the regulations supported the doctor’s contention that the patients needed a warm ward in the winter, or the death rate would be three or four times what it was now.
“I’m here to see Captain Evans,” Dr. Conley announced to one of the privates chafing his hands before the cool stove. The private saluted and marched to the quartermaster’s office. He returned within two minutes to say the captain would see him, long enough for John to hang his snow-covered cloak on a hook by the door. He retained his warm uniform jacket on due to the low temperature in the room.
More salutes, these of equal timing and duration, when John entered Captain Evans’s office, as they were both captains. These equals in rank had only to recognize each other as equals, something both were loathe to do. They had had their disagreements in the past, and would continue to do so in the future. Their animosity went back as far as the Battle of Glorieta in March of 1862, Captain Evans’s love of rules and regulations, and Dr. Conley’s regard for the health of his men.
“John. A pleasure, as always,” Captain Evans smiled. As usual, the smile did not extend to his pale, gray eyes.
“Herbert. As always, it’s a joy coming to call on you.” Both of them knew they lied through their teeth.
“And what favor can I do my old friend today?” Herb Evans asked, scowling through his iron gray beard in a more genuine expression.
“Sadly, I do come to beg a boon,” John grimaced as he leaned back on a secretariat. “However, I do have Colonel McMullen’s orders with me to reinforce the request, so it shouldn’t put you out too much.” He handed over a sheet of paper folded twice with the commander’s request that the quartermaster find quarters for Mrs. Jenkins while she serve as a matron at the hospital.
“Mrs. Jenkins will be working for me at the hospital for the foreseeable future. You are to find her a place to live commensurate with her position. If that will be all?”
John rose to leave. He didn’t care to get into an argument with Herbert Evans about Mrs. Jenkins.
“What if there is no place for her?” Evans snapped.
“I’m sure she’d be pleased to stay where she is,” the doctor suggested.
“A lieutenant’s quarters is much too fine for a hospital matron,” Captain Evans objected.
“Then I’m sure a capable quartermaster such as yourself can work something out,” John said. “If that’s all?”
“Hmmph. Yes,” Evans dithered. Finally he saluted, evidently deciding that he didn’t have anything more he could discuss with his old nemesis. “Dismissed.” He snapped a salute, which John returned.
Dr. John Conley smiled as he left the quartermaster’s office. Herbert Evans was really not that hard to manipulate. One just needed to know how to appeal to the man’s vanity.
On the way to the hospital, Dr. Conley stepped off the stone-paved walkway and walked up to the door of Mrs. Jenkins’s duplex at the north end of officers’ row. When he rapped on the door, she opened it, dressed in her usual black dress and heavy black shawl. The black clothing did not suit her fair complexion or her stunning auburn hair. Mrs. Jenkins didn’t make an attractive widow. In a blue or green dress she would have been beautiful, with peach-like skin and abundant tresses that didn’t want to stay in the bun she knotted at the back of her head. Her thickly lashed, brown eyes swam like warm chocolate surrounding large, dark pupils. Dr. Conley suddenly understood the utility of the black widows weeds. They protected a comely woman from the unwanted advances of men like him who would be too forward too soon.
“Dr. Conley. Come in.” He wondered if he imagine the brief smile that lit her face. Surely he must have. So recent a widow would not have smiled. The sun must have tried to come out from behind the clouds for a moment.
John gladly stepped into her small, warm parlor. Mrs. Jenkins did not stint on wood. He swirled his cloak off and hung it on the tree by the front door.
“I come with good news, Mrs. Jenkins,” he announced.
She did smile, then, sending a shaft of sunshine blazing through the room. A touch of pink flushed each of her cheeks. Even the drab black of her dress and shawl deepened in value by comparison.
“Let me bring you a cup of tea, and you can tell me all about it,” she suggested.
John yearned for his second cup of coffee, but since she offered tea, could not be so crass as to ask for something else. “Of course,” he nodded, glad to have anything hot on such a cold morning. The snow had continued to fall since yesterday’s execution, as if the very heavens wished to obliterate the memory of Gus McGregor and his fellow Comancheros.
John busied himself studying the knickknacks, paintings and decorations in the room while Mrs. Jenkins went to make the tea. The furniture, of course, belonged to the Army. Each piece was marked with the number of the quarters it occupied, and would remain in its own building until the fort was decommissioned in some impossible future. Mrs. Jenkins would be allowed to remove only her personal possessions, those decorations he admired now: a bud vase containing a silk rose, a painting of a Greek ruin covered with vines, a photograph of Lieutenant Jenkins in full military uniform standing next to a radiant Mrs. Jenkins in a bridal gown. Indeed, John suspected Captain Evans would find quarters for her barely large enough to permit these few mementos of her life.
Mrs. Jenkins appeared from her kitchen carrying a tray with a china teapot, two cups and saucers, cream, sugar and muffins. She set it on a low tea table in front of the serviceable red velveteen settee and gestured to him to sit down. He, of course, waited for her to sit before him. They ended up sitting at the same time, the hostess and gallant gentleman fussing over who should having the privilege of taking their seat first.
John waited until the ceremony with the tea was complete. Although they both knew the entire rite, he did not want the questions about cream, sugar – he drank his tea with neither, and yes, he would like a muffin – interrupting his good news.
“I found you a position, one I hope pleases you,” he announced at last after swallowing a bit of apple muffin and chasing it down with a sip of surprisingly good black tea.
“Oh? You mean Commander McMullen will let me stay?” Alice asked.
“Until you hear from your family,” John nodded. “I say, these are very good. Did you just make them?”
She nodded. “I hoped for callers this morning. You are my first.”
“Colonel McMullen said you could serve as a matron at the hospital. I need assistance there. I just spoke to Captain Evans, and he will arrange for housing for you.”
To his great consternation, a tear gathered on the bottom lid of Mrs. Jenkins’s nearest eye. She wiped at it quickly, and then dabbed at her nose.
“I’m sorry. It’s the best I could do,” he apologized, at a loss for what he had done to bring on the emotional reaction.
“No, please forgive me,” Mrs. Jenkins hastened to explain. “I thought I was about to be cast away from the fort altogether. You arrive to tell me I have not only a position, but assurance of quarters. I … I am simply overwhelmed.”
“The duty will be light,” John hastened to assure her. “I have nurses and stewards for most of the more strenuous work. I do need the matrons to help with my records, feeding the patients, and simpler chores, especially with those patients who are not contagious.”
“Oh, anything. I feel so useless sitting alone in this house by myself,” Alice volunteered. It will be so good to be doing something useful for others. Some mornings it has been hard to get out of bed. I imagine that I am ill. Now I will have chores to look forward to each day.” Again she smiled, and John thought the sun shone in the parlor.
“Ill? What do you mean? Tell me the symptoms,” he pressed, not willing to pass it off as simple sadness.
She waved away his concern. “Oh, its nothing. Stomach queasiness, is all. I feel better after some tea and toast.”
John narrowed his eyes and glanced at Mrs. Jenkins’ mid-section. In another month, surely she would know if she was pregnant. Time enough for him, as the post physician to ask such an intimate question as the state of her monthly courses. He told himself he would keep an eye on Mrs. Jenkins’s health. If she was indeed with child, both she and the babe would be in danger only in the infectious disease wards. He would do everything to keep her attending the men with wounds and non-infectious diseases. There were plenty of those, so he could keep her legitimately occupied.
“You will let me know if the nausea gets worse, won’t you Mrs. Jenkins? Keep a few crackers by your bedside to eat in the morning. It might help.”
Knowing she may be indisposed in the early morning, Dr. Conley arranged to have Alice begin working at the hospital the following morning at nine o’clock, about the time he usually began his rounds. He left her somewhat later, feeling that he had accomplished a good deed for the day.