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?
The visitors wandered out the back door, still chattering, and Travis returned to the front porch. Letting his eyes readjust to the darkness, he stared down the road to see if any more people were braving the cold, but the only movement was from the two soldiers who stood warming themselves around the fire pit out on the parade ground. One wore a dark blue coat like Travis’ while the other sported the longer, lighter blue caped overcoat, the edges of the cape tossing about in the wind. The first poked the fire up with a stick of wood, and glowing embers danced upward, swirling toward the stars. Fire and ice. The fire burned more brightly for a moment, illuminating the men, then died back down to a more comfortable level and the men stepped closer to warm their hands.
For a fleeting moment, Travis felt as if he could see the fort as it was back in the late 1800s, most of the buildings buttoned up for the night but a few stalwarts still on watch. With only the weak lantern light and the paltry stars, there was no way to distinguish the year, whether 2016 or 1880.
“…had to be tough,” he heard the gregarious man saying as the small group returned from outside. “No sissies allowed.” Laughing, the two couples trooped through the hallway and joined Travis outside. “Ain’t that right, Lieutenant? Going out to take a piss, you better have your boots on, your gun handy and a keen eye out for snakes and mountain lions.”
Travis smiled. “Well, the snakes wouldn’t be much of an issue during the winter; too cold for them. But the mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and javalinas, yes.”
“Javalinas?” one woman echoed.
“Wild pigs,” the man said knowingly.
Travis gauged the man’s sense of ego and decided to opt for truth. “Peccaries, actually,” he said. “Slightly different. But you definitely would not want to meet up with them outside after dark. You’re right about that.”
“What’d I tell ya?” the man said, puffing up again. He winked at Travis, then stuck out his hand. “Thank you, Lieutenant, for showing us around.”
“My pleasure.” Travis pumped the meaty hand. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your time here at the fort. Don’t forget, there’s hot chocolate and cookies back at the administration building.”
“Oh, good, we need that,” one woman chuckled.
A sudden gust of wind slammed them all, tossing the women’s longer hair and propelling them down the boardwalk toward the promise of more comfortable conditions.
“Good night,” the man called back over his shoulder.
“Good night.” Travis watched them go, noticing the way they all hitched their jackets up around their ears. The sound of shoes crunching on the dirt road rapidly faded as the visitors disappeared into the darkness.
The fort grew eerily quiet, the only sound that of the wind buffeting the old buildings. Even the sparse traffic on Main Street, a block and a half away, was silent in the face of the wind. One soldier, still in his caped overcoat, stood at the fire pit at the far end of the parade ground. Travis noticed that at least half of the lanterns and luminarias had gone out, so there were only weak spots of light along the road. There was no reason to relight them. He doubted any other visitors would venture out tonight. Stepping back inside the entry hall, he checked his watch. Only 7:40. This night was dragging on forever.
Eyeing the overstuffed chair in the entry hall, he wondered if he could—should—rest for a few minutes. He was tired to the bone. He’d love to go home—home, he snorted. That double-wide rental that was now empty of any sign of Ashleigh, of their stormy four-year marriage. But no, he couldn’t leave. There may yet be people wanting to see the fort in its vintage Christmas grandeur. He stepped back outside and stared down the dirt road. No movement save the dwindling fire in the fire pit.
A green flash above him caught his eye. He looked up at the cold stars. No planes winking by, no clouds drifting in. Wait—there it was again. He turned toward the north. There was a shimmer of green, almost transparent, but he could see it move like a sheer curtain against the backdrop of the sky. It couldn’t be—but it looked like it. Northern Lights? In Arizona? Not impossible, but certainly rare. He seemed to recall something on the news about an unusual solar event, a flare or something. He squinted at the green shimmer, but it never resolved into more than a flicker of shadowy light. Not the light show they’d see in more northern areas for sure.
A blast of wind drove him back onto the porch. Stamping his feet, he crossed his arms and shoved his hands into his armpits. He wondered how long it took frostbite to develop.
He eyed the chair inside again. It was angled out to face the front door. If he pushed it back parallel to the wall, the high back would block most of the wind. Maybe it would be enough so he could retain a little of his own body heat, at least enough to ease the tight ache across his back.
He checked the road again—nothing. There was no reason not to. He went inside and wrestled the chair around to the most sheltered position and sat down. Jamming his hands down underneath his legs, he leaned back against the faded floral material. For a few seconds, his body shivered uncontrollably but then slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to quiet. He shrugged his shoulders to ease the tight muscles. Better. He let his head fall back and closed his eyes. Just for a minute. Maybe a few…
A loud gust of wind slammed the back of the house, and he was on his feet before he knew it. He felt groggy, as if he had been deep asleep, but his watch said only 7:50. He walked to the door and glanced outside. It was pitch black. He couldn’t see a single flicker from a lantern, not the tiniest glow of a luminaria. The fort seemed completely deserted.
He headed back to the chair. Those few moments of total oblivion had felt like heaven. No lingering thoughts of Ashleigh, no recriminating what-ifs running through his mind. Just blackness. Forgetfulness. He settled into the chair again and let a long, deep exhalation carry him away.
A furious blast of Reveille startled him awake. It was daylight. He’d slept the entire night, the first time in several weeks. He certainly needed it, but why hadn’t one of the park rangers or volunteers woken him up? Why hadn’t anyone come to lock up the building? Maybe everyone assumed he would do it.
Rubbing his eyes, he stood and stretched the kinks out of his body. For an old chair, it hadn’t been too uncomfortable, although he guessed that was more because of his own exhaustion and not so much the primitive upholstery. And the wind had stopped sometime during the night, so no gusts had rattled the house.
Funny—the Reveille sounded different. Not as loud as usual over the PA system, not as crisp. And he could hear muted noise from the parade ground: talking, laughing, footsteps on the wooden boardwalks. He tried to remember if an event was scheduled for today, but nothing came to mind. Still, it sounded like a lot of people out there.
He stepped to the open doorway and looked out. Blinked. Rubbed his eyes and looked again. His mouth fell open in complete bewilderment.
The parade ground was ringed with buildings: stables, barracks, sheds. And from most of those buildings, soldiers rushed out in twos or threes, gathering on the parade ground, assembling loosely as they found places. Unable to count the moving bodies, Travis estimated close to a hundred men, maybe more.
He’d never seen that many re-enactors at the fort at one time. Not even for the major events.
He stepped further out onto the porch and looked down officers’ row. Instead of only the three buildings that he knew, there were now five. What the hell?
He saw several officers step from the BOQ, none of whom he recognized. They turned away from him and walked to the COQ, and when the commanding officer stepped out, they all headed onto the parade ground. The enlisted men immediately straightened up their lines and came to attention.
This is impossible, Travis thought. No matter what the event was—Fort Verde Days, History of the Soldier—there was no way they could have constructed those buildings overnight. This was crazy.
His eyes swept the fort. The parade ground looked bigger and was edged by large trees that lined both sides of the road in front of officers’ row. These trees were easily twice as tall as the ones that were there yesterday. And all the buildings that sat along the west side of the grounds, opposite officers’ row—those were not half-assed temporary structures. Those were solid, wood-framed buildings, built to house dozens of solders each. That’s when he noticed there were no town buildings beyond the barracks, no restaurants, no town hall, no shops. The road in front of the administration building, south of the parade ground, was dirt. No asphalt. No cars. His own pickup truck was nowhere in sight. Hell, there wasn’t even a parking lot.
This was nuts. He was starting to sweat inside the wool coat, even though it was still cold outside. His stomach turned. There was something wrong with him. Very wrong, to be hallucinating this way. This was all impossible.
Turning away from the activity outside, he re-entered the surgeon’s quarters. Reboot, like a computer, he told himself. Go back in, start over. But as he moved toward the chair, his eye caught on the portal to the operating room. Except there was no portal. It was an open door. He stepped into the room, through what should have been a glass window. The room smelled of dust, of age, of mustiness. A crude wooden table stood in the center of the room, a simple sheet over it. On one end sat a wooden box, larger than a tackle box. He fingered the latch and opened it. It was filled with instruments, forceps and tweezers and scissors and a hundred other things he couldn’t identify. The metal plating on many of them was flaked and rusting. He thought he could detect blood stains on some.
This is crazy, he thought again. I’m crazy. His whole body felt hot. He began to unbutton the wool coat, but he still had on a thermal weave Henley underneath, protection against the bitter cold last night. Was that only last night? His mind swam. It seemed like ages ago.
He whirled and strode across the entry, directly into the living quarters. No portal there, either. The couch was a dark wine color, edged and backed by almost black wood. The coiled rag rug on the floor was drab, stained and rendered almost colorless by the stamp of many feet. A secretary desk sat before the window. A faded deck of cards lay on the surface, their markings strangely ornate.
Then he saw something hanging on the wall above the desk. A calendar. The word November in flowing script. A grid of thirty days, only the first few marked out with exes. The year…
His heart began thudding in a trip-hammer beat. Sweat ran down the side of his face. He struggled to breathe. Finally breaking out of the mind-numbing paralysis that gripped him, he ran out the front door.
No reboot. The trees, the buildings, the soldiers were all still there. The troops must have been dismissed, because they separated and drifted off to various areas of the fort. The commanding officer—and two of his adjutants—were striding down the boardwalk toward him.
“Attention!” one of the officers barked.
Travis gaped at them. Did they mean him? He glanced quickly behind; no one else there. He turned back to face the men fully and snapped to attention, his arm in a rigid salute.
The three men halted in front of him, and the commander—a captain—saluted him down. Travis pulled his arm to his side and stared blankly past the captain’s left ear.
“Who are you, soldier?” the captain asked.
“Lieutenant Travis Merrill, sir.” He couldn’t think of what else would be appropriate. He swallowed uncomfortably and waited.
“And when did you arrive in camp?”
Travis’ mind spun. “Late last night, sir.” He felt like he should say more but was afraid to.
The captain narrowed his eyes at him. “We weren’t expecting our new surgeon for another eight weeks. Where are your orders?”
Travis worked his mouth open but no words came out. His mind darted to a million answers, a million explanations. He seized one.
“Lost, sir,” he said crisply.
The captain frowned. “Lost?”
“Yes, sir.” Travis swallowed again, frantic to piece a story together. “I came in late, sir, and was ambushed about a mile upriver. Bushwhacked. They took everything but my clothes, sir.”
Even as he told the story, he knew he didn’t look like he’d been attacked. His uniform was too clean. Wrinkled from him sleeping in it, though; that helped. He was glad he hadn’t worn his replica Peacemaker. He’d have a hell of a time explaining that.
Suddenly he remembered his coat was unbuttoned. He hurried to close it up, although he still felt warm. A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face, but he dared not wipe it away. He worried that the captain might think he was sweating from nervousness instead of the sick feeling in his stomach.
“So you came down from Fort Whipple?” the captain asked.
Travis racked his brain. Fort Whipple was up near Prescott. Too close. Too easy to verify.
“No, sir. My last duty was…” What forts were further east? Fort Sedgewick? Was that a real fort, or only a fictional one in Dances with Wolves? “Fort Leavenworth, sir. Kansas.”
The captain stared at him with hard eyes. The man’s dark mustache twitched slightly. Travis stood stock still, but the roiling of his stomach made him queasy. He couldn’t be sick. Throwing up on the captain’s shoes would not, he felt sure, be a good thing. He tried to swallow down the bile that surged into his throat, but knew he was losing that battle. He felt unsteady on his feet, as if he were swaying. Heat flashed through his body again, and then he was listing sideways. His knees buckled and he had no strength to catch himself as the boardwalk rushed up to meet him.
He woke slowly, his head and the rest of the world spinning in different directions. He opened his eyes a crack, then squeezed them closed to shut out the spinning. It didn’t help.
The sickness rose up again. He moaned and struggled to turn over, get off his back before he choked.
“Easy, sir,” a quiet voice said. “Let me help you. Easy. Easy.” An arm around his shoulder, a hand at his back. Something hard and cold at his lips.
If he hadn’t been sick before, the smell would have clinched it. He gagged, letting the juices in his mouth dribble out into the spittoon. He tried to breathe through his mouth, but the sickness wouldn’t allow it. Another wave of nausea swept him and he coughed, spitting vile-tasting saliva. He had nothing else to give; his stomach was empty. Dragging his sleeve across his mouth, he pulled away from the spittoon and settled back. The arm around his shoulder let him down easy.
“’Tis not right that you should be a patient in your own quarters before you even get settled in, sir,” the voice said. “But we’ll get you fixed up. Wish I had some ice to put on that bump on your head, but cold water will have to do.”
A cold, sodden weight settled onto the side of his head, just above his right ear. He winced away from it, but the hand held it gently against him. As his skin grew used to the chill, he realized it actually felt good. It seemed to relieve some of the thudding in his head.
He tried opening his eyes again. The light in the room stabbed them with needles of brightness. He blinked repeatedly to get them used to it.
“There you are, sir,” the voice said. “We’ll be havin’ you back to your auld self in no time.”
Travis let his eyes settle on the room. A window, closed tight against the winter cold, was hung with sheers. The heavier, darker drapes had been tied back to let the light in.
A shaving stand stood against the wall beneath an oval mirror. A pitcher and basin occupied the top, alongside a shaving mug. The mirror’s surface was grainy and chipped, but it reflected the image of his own body, still in uniform, lying on a narrow iron bed.
He moved his eyes cautiously, careful not to invite another bout of sickness. A heavy wardrobe took up one corner of the room. His eyes slid past it to the man sitting next to him.
“Who…?” It was all he could manage. His voice was a croak.
“Corporal Riley, sir,” the smiling Irishman said. “I’m bein’ your striker, sir.”
Striker. He’d heard that word before. Enlisted men tasked with being servants and assistants to officers. Not even his passing out had rebooted the impossible. He was still… wherever he was. Whenever he was.
“What day?” he asked weakly.
“Still Sunday, sir, December ninth. You’ve slept a good bit of it away, but couldn’t be helped.” Riley pulled the wad of cold cloth away from Travis’ head. “I’m afraid you’ll have that lump for a day or two, sir, but by tomorrow I’m thinkin’ you’ll be feelin’ a right bit more chipper.”
Travis reached one hand up and touched the cold, damp skin. Beneath his hair, the lump was undeniable, and sore as a boil. He let his arm fall back to the bed.
“We’ll keep this on for a while more, sir,” Riley said as he reapplied the cold cloth. “It’ll help to keep some of the swellin’ down.”
But none of the pounding in his head. He’d give a lot for an aspirin right now. Did they even have aspirin in 1877? Was it really possible that was where he was? When he was?
“Perhaps later you might be up to eatin’ a bit,” Riley said. “Once your stomach settles, I’m guessin’ you’ll be right famished. When you’re ready, I can get you some dinner.”
Travis had a feeling that saltines and Campbell’s cream of tomato soup would not be on the menu. Nor ginger ale. None of his mother’s old standbys for a queasy stomach.
“Maybe… maybe later,” he allowed.
“Oh, aye, no hurry, sir. You just take it easy.” Gently Riley repositioned the cold cloth. “I’m hearin’ you were bushwhacked comin’ in. That’s a bad bit o’ business. Did you get a good look at ’em?”
Travis began to shake his head but quickly thought better of it. “No,” he said. “They hit me from behind. Three or four of them, I think. Civilians.” Just those few sentences exhausted him.
“Aye, there’s always a few bad ’uns out there. Sometimes it’s settlers who’ve lost everything and got nothin’ left but desperation. Sometimes it’s just blackguards up to no good. Took your horse and all, sir?”
Travis nodded, then instantly regretted it. “Horse, gear, weapons. Even my orders.”
Riley sighed emphatically. “Hoopies, all of ’em. Well, we’ll get you fixed up, sir, don’t you worry.” He pulled the cloth away and inspected Travis’ head. “Let me refresh this for you, sir. Keep it cold. Then I’ll need to report to the captain. He wanted to know when you were awake.” Riley took the cloth to the basin and dunked it in cold water, then wrung it out again.
“Captain—?” Travis asked.
“Captain Wahl, sir. Credence Wahl. He’s stern, but a good man.”
Riley brought the cloth back and applied it gently to Travis’ head. The coolness felt heavenly against the hot pain. As much as he had already slept, the oblivion of sleep was too tempting to ignore. He felt himself sliding into the blackness, and he welcomed it.
When he awoke again, Riley was gone. Travis rubbed his eyes and looked around. The room was the same, except the light was softer. Afternoon. He touched the lump on his head gingerly. Tender, but not nearly as sore. He was pleased to notice the movement did not induce any sickness. The room stayed in one place even as he looked around.