It was miserably cold. The temperature hovered just above freezing, and the gusting wind felt like it was hurling icy needles when it struck bare skin. Travis shrugged further into his wool coat, hitching the collar up around his ears to keep warm. He checked his watch: not even seven PM. He had this duty for two more hours. It was going to be a long night.
Stamping his feet on the unpainted boardwalk, he scanned the row of buildings to see if any more visitors were about. The dirt road along the parade ground was lined with metal shepherd’s crooks, each one holding a lantern in its elegant curve. Down on the ground, a long row of luminarias—brown paper bags weighted with a handful of sand and a tea candle burning inside—lit the road with weak yellow light. None of the light and certainly none of the warmth were doing much good against the brutal night. The only thing he could say was that at least it wasn’t raining. He glanced up. The stars shone with a cold and brittle quality, as if they were bits of broken glass flung across the obsidian-black sky. He knew the forecast: clear and cold. It would be in the teens before dawn.
He loved the idea of having these candlelight tours at the fort for Christmas, and he was more than happy to volunteer to dress in period clothes and act the part of an 1880s cavalry officer, but did they have to schedule the event on the coldest night of the year? He supposed it couldn’t be helped. Christmas was in December. December was cold, even in Arizona. Camp Verde, at just over 3,000 feet elevation, got its fair share of cold and snow.
A smattering of voices caught his attention, and he stared down the road to see if he could make out any movement. Ah, yes, there it was. He saw some of the luminarias—the ones that were still lit—disappear and then reappear as dark shapes moved in front of them. He only caught snatches of conversation, since the wind immediately blew any sound away from him. But yes, now he could see there was a group of four people making their way down the row of buildings. They stopped at the commanding officer’s house first.
John Garner and his wife, Sylvie, were portraying the CO and his wife for the evening. Dressed in period costume, they would welcome the visitors to their “home,” give them a bit of background and leave them to look through the two-story house. The rooms had all been carefully furnished true to the period, thanks to the many donations made by Camp Verde families to the fort over the years. Fort Verde had more original buildings than any other Indian Wars period fort in Arizona and was somewhat of a jewel in the state park system, even if tucked away in a small town in a rural area where many people had no idea it even existed. Luckily the town had realized early on how precious these buildings were, and had rallied around the fort and now supported it fiercely. It was a testament to those supporters that the fort could still welcome visitors more than a hundred years after it had been shuttered by the federal government.
Travis felt his back begin to tighten up with the cold, and he walked forward and back in front of the surgeon’s quarters to loosen up a bit. His post was the furthest building on the row, so he wouldn’t have the visitors for a few minutes yet. After they left the CO’s quarters, they would move on to the bachelor officers’ quarters, then finally make their way down to him. Once they looked through his building, staring wide-eyed at the array of surgeon’s equipment laid out in the front room, imagining the horrors of 1880s medicine on the frontier, they would make their way back to the administration building for hot chocolate and cookies and a chance to warm up.
No such luck for him.
Since he had a few minutes, he ducked inside to get out of the wind. Not that it helped much; the back door was open so people could go out there and see the ancient privy, and the gusts just channeled through the building, in the back door and out the front, a literal wind tunnel. The buildings had no heat. The original residents, of course, used the fireplaces, but no one in their right mind would start a fire in them now. The ancient adobe walls were cracked and crumbling and even the best care could not keep them from disintegrating bit by bit. It was amazing these buildings had lasted as long as they had; it was sad that time would continue chipping away at them.
Travis quickly realized that the cold air in the house was worse than that outside, so he returned to his place on the wooden porch that ran the width of the house and waited there. It was probably a good thing it was so cold. He was so tired that if it were warm, he might just pass out into sleep. Sleep had not come to him lately, nor had he welcomed it. Ever since Ashleigh left him, he’d either thrown himself into his work or had lain wide-eyed staring at the ceiling in the dark. Neither provided any relief.
The people were leaving the bachelors’ quarters and headed his way. Laughter skittered on the wind. He pushed the collar of his coat down flat and the cold wind immediately attacked the skin of his neck that had been protected. A chill patterned through him. He tugged on his sleeves, pulling the dark blue material down as far as he could on his long arms. None of the period clothing at the fort fit him perfectly. He was too tall, too thin. He glanced down at his lighter blue pants, noted that the yellow stripes along the outside seams were straight. The lieutenant’s shoulder boards on the coat echoed the bright yellow.
He could hear the chattering now, the women laughing, the men offering short responses. The two couples approached the porch.
“Welcome to Fort Verde,” Travis said. He stood relaxed but tall, a combination of at attention and at ease.
“Thank you, sir,” one of the men bellowed. He pulled himself up into a rigid stance and saluted smartly. His gray handlebar mustache twitched, and his basketball-sized paunch, even lost in a heavy parka, jutted forward. The two women giggled.
Travis saluted back. “At ease, gentlemen,” he advised with a smile. “This is the surgeon’s quarters. Come on in and look around.”
“Are you the surgeon?” one woman asked. She was short and round, almost a match for her portly husband.
“Yes, ma’am,” Travis said. “Lieutenant Travis Merrill at your service.” He stepped aside to allow the couples to precede him into the home. “Living quarters are on the left,” he told them, “and the surgeon’s operating room is on the right.”
Each room had been sealed off from the entry hall by a glass portal that allowed guests to take a step into a room while still protecting the fragile furnishings. Travis stood back as both couples crowded the portal into the operating area. A metal tray held a variety of dangerous-looking instruments, which caused a shiver of dread in many visitors.
“Did they have anesthetic back then?” one woman asked.
“Only chloroform,” Travis said. “Or the old standby, alcohol.”
“And no antibiotics,” the woman’s husband said.
“Right. No penicillin, nothing like that. Compared to today, it was all pretty primitive.”
“There are so many weird things in there,” the woman said, pointing to the array of instruments.
“The surgeon was also the dentist, the pediatrician, the obstetrician and the veterinarian, all rolled into one,” Travis explained. “Whatever the people required, that’s what he would take care of.”
The man with the handlebar edged away from the others and stepped up to Travis. “What years was the fort in operation?”
“Eighteen seventy-one to eighteen ninety-one,” Travis said.
“Only twenty years. And how many people lived here?”
Travis waved toward the front door. “There were originally twenty-two buildings all around the parade ground out there, enough to house two full companies of both infantry and cavalry. Most of the time, however, there was only one company of each stationed here.”
“Why isn’t there a wall around it?” the second woman asked. “Did they take that down?”
Travis smiled. “There was never a stockade around the fort, ma’am,” he said, gently dispelling one of the most believed myths. “For one thing, wood for building was scarce, and for another, the Indians never attacked the forts in Arizona. They understood that where the soldiers lived there were a lot of guns, and it was much easier to raid the outlying settlers instead.”
“They never attacked the forts?” the woman repeated in amazement. “But in all the movies…”
Travis nodded. “I know; I’ve seen them, too. But believe me, the movies take a lot of liberties with the truth. No Indians ever attacked a fort in Arizona. And no soldier, either infantry or cavalry, ever wore a yellow neckerchief, no matter what John Wayne did.”
“Now you’re talking sacrilege, boy,” the handlebar said in a mock challenge. The two women tittered.
Travis shrugged, hands held out in a gesture of peace. “It’s a bitter pill, I know, but the truth nonetheless.”
“Well, if you say so,” the man drawled. “You’re the expert. What’s over here?” He drifted to the other portal and the rest followed.
“Living quarters,” Travis said. “And out the back door are the kitchen and the privy.”
The two couples crowded the glass window and pointed to the period furnishings inside the room. Stepping back toward the front door, Travis left them to ooh and ah at the antique furniture and appointments, but stayed close enough that they could still direct questions to him if they wanted.
You’re the expert, the man had said. Hardly. He was a volunteer only, spent a few hours every week at the fort to help out, but certainly no historian. After a year back in the Verde Valley, he felt like he was still finding his way around the rural area. Moving here from Phoenix was culture shock after he’d lived in the fast-paced city for over two decades. And in all his thirty-four years, he’d never been an expert on anything. Not the veterinary school he’d flunked out of, not the National Guard he’d quit, not his marriage. He could still hear the disappointment in Ashleigh’s voice: Don’t you ever finish anything?