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Captain Jean Francois Xavier Benoit answered the knock at the door of his spartan Army quarters. In the dying light of day, he saw Sergeant Hamilton Phipps waving a letter in his hand.
"General Smedley asked that I bring this to you."
"Another letter from Senator Couvillion?" Benoit asked, anger simmering in his voice.
Benoit cursed silently as his jaw tightened. He made no effort to accept the letter or to invite Phipps inside.
The sergeant stood awkwardly a moment, his hand slowly falling. "Wish it was a letter from your wife, Captain."
Benoit realized his anger at Couvillion had made him forget his manners. He motioned for Phipps to enter.
Phipps lifted his right foot, displaying his muddy boot. "Don't want to track up your room."
"Can't hurt a hard-packed dirt floor like this, Sergeant."
"Won't do it no good either."
Benoit looked at his candlelit room, taking in the cot, the table and stool where he managed his correspondence, a trunk for his clothing, a small comer fireplace, and a washbasin on a washstand in the opposite comer. "These adobe quarters aren't exactly palaces, Sergeant."
"Better than enlisted men's quarters, sir, and besides, Lieutenant Coker's giving a concert in a half hour and I need to get over there soon to get a good seat."
"I'd forgotten about that, Sergeant." Benoit took the letter from Phipps. "Thank you for reminding me."
Phipps nodded sympathetically. "You're anxious for them to get here, aren't you, your wife and daughters?"
"Wouldn't you be, if you'd never seen your twindaughters?"
"Army's a hard life for families, Captain. Lieutenant Coker hasn't seen his wife and girls for eighteen months."
"I don't know whether it's tougher on a man never having seen his daughters, like me, or being like Lieutenant Coker, separated from them." Benoit ran his fingers through his dark hair.
"Sir, I must be going if I'm to get a seat at the Governor's Palace for the concert."
"So they moved the piano from the saloon?"
"Yes, sir! You know Lieutenant Coker, as straight as they come. He wouldn't play where there was sin." Phipps grinned and saluted, then spun about and strode away, his boots making slurping noises as he escaped down the muddy street.
Benoit shut the door softly and walked to the table that served as his desk. He sat on the stool, fingering the letter a moment, then reached for a bundle of letters tied together with twine. He loosened the twine, slid the letter beneath the string and retied it. He didn't have to count to know that the bundle held seven letters, each from Couvillion, each unopened and each unanswered.
He tossed the bundle aside, picked up the top letter from another bundle, and reread the most recent missive from his wife, Inge, marooned by winter at Fort Laramie, his previous post.
Winter had seemed to linger forever in Santa Fe to Captain Jean Francois Xavier Benoit because of his separation from his family. When winter finally did break, spring came in a rush. One day it had been unbearably cold and the streets of the territorial capital were carpeted with an inch of snow as pure as a virgin's sheets. But by the following day, the sun had muscled through the lowhanging clouds. The snow, crisscrossed with the tracks of men, animals, and wooden wheels, and smudged with the pinyon smoke that settled like a gray veil upon the winter precipitation, had turned the streets and paths of Santa Fe into mush. The warmth of the days increased, and the chill of each passing night diminished.
The abundant snows in the mountains began their annual melt, first with a trickle, then with a gush that filled the stream beds that ultimately fed the mighty Rio Grande River as it roiled southward toward Texas and Mexico, providing the very boundary that separated them.
The land was the tawny color of a doe's skin, splotched with the gray of rocks shouldering their way through and the green of plants vying for precious moisture plentiful in the spring, scarce the remainder of the year. The pinyon pine with their dark green needles, and the juniper bushes with their needlelike leaves, were hardy but not colorful. The scattered cacti were efficient collectors of water but certainly not ostentatious in appearance.
Inge was like the desert cacti, Benoit thought. She was not the prettiest woman he had ever met, but she was the best. She was practical, dependable, and so loving that her daughters, like their father, would never want for affection. He had never seen Colleen and Ellen, but Inge had sent him a lock of hair from each. No treasurecould mean more to him. Benoit unfolded the sheet of paper in which Inge had secured each lock of hair with a drop of candle wax. Beneath each she had written the daughter's name. Softly, Benoit stroked each lock of hair with his finger. An angel's hair could not have been softer. He touched the soft hair a final time, then returned the treasure to its envelope.
He knew he had his best friend to thank for his two daughters. First Lieutenant Jason "Jace" Caldwell Dobbs had been post surgeon at Fort Laramie while Benoit was stationed there. The babies had been premature, and only Dobbs's medical skills saved them. It had been Inge's idea to name one girl Colleen, for Dobbs's late wife, and the other Ellen, for the woman Dobbs had planned to marry at Fort Laramie before her tragic death.
Benoit arose from his stool, tucked his Army blouse in his pants, then grabbed his hat and blew out the candle on the table. The glowing coals from the comer fireplace warmed the room and illuminated it with a soft light.
Benoit placed his hat atop his head, then stepped out the door and into the muddy street. Though officially stationed at Fort Marcy, few soldiers actually lived on the fort proper on the outskirts of town. Instead, most lived in quarters near the compound that was headquar...