The short story which follows is intended to shed
some light on the character of Otter Ames from my
latest novel, Flirtation Walk. I realize,
however, it’s entirely possible that you received
the link to this story before having had the chance
to read the novel. If this is the case please
don’t read this story until you’ve finished
The story doesn’t have any spoilers, but it won’t
make sense if you haven’t first met the cast of
Beware: once you read this story, you’ll probably
find yourself flipping back through the pages of the
Then, if you’ve already finished Flirtation Walk,
by all means,
Otter’s Mother - A Short Story
by Siri Mitchell
The bears in the hills awoke with spring and began
shambling about the upper reaches of the West Point
military reservation. Rumors of moose made their way to
As songbirds burst into joyous celebration of spring’s
lengthening days, the laurel sprouted pentagon-shaped
flowers and bees buzzed among the horse-chestnuts’
white, plume-shaped blooms.
It was almost time.
After having spent four years at the United States
Military Academy, the class of 1856 was a week away from
Almost time? It was past time!
In the weeks leading up to graduation, Deacon
Hollingsworth had grown a rather distinguished-looking
mustache. Now that he had become immune to the itching,
he figured it had most definitely been worth the effort.
Seth Westcott had let his hair grow long; longer than
regulation, in any case. His fiancée, Lucinda Barns,
secretly thought he looked even more dashing than he had
when they’d first met. Dandy Delagarde had achieved even
greater heights of sartorial splendor. His uniform and
its accoutrements positively gleamed.
And Otter Ames?
Though his friends might be accused of loafing as they
prepared to step into a new life as freshly-graduated
second lieutenants, Otter Ames rushed about in a fevered
mania. Each day, as graduation crept closer, he could be
heard muttering ‘Mother this’ and ‘Mother that’ as he
gave his gray uniform coat one last good beating. And
applied rotten-stone to his musket with a buff-stick one
Again and again and again.
Not even Dandy’s dark-eyed glower could persuade Otter
from his tasks. He simply blinked away Dandy’s glares,
sharpening his gaze on his work. “Got to have this
looking good for Mother.”
Dandy finally gave up on his barracks-mate, sighing in a
most un-Dandylike way. “Does that woman never give you
Though Otter colored around his neck, he kept on with
the shining of his shoes.
“Look here, Man!” Deacon said one afternoon when
Mother’s name had been mentioned once too often. “I
can’t wait to meet Mother—”
Otter looked up from the shoes he was blacking to flash
him a look of outrage. “You oughter know by now, that’s
Mrs. Ames to you!”
Deacon held up a hand by way of apology. “—I mean,
Mrs. Ames, but don’t you think she’d rather see you
bright-eyed and spiffy, than worn and hang-dog tired?
You know she’s never going to come up to this room.”
After exchanging a look of exasperation with Seth, his
gaze swept over the line of books that Otter had
straightened with the aid of a ruler. The bedclothes
that had been folded into a perfect rectangle and the
dress caps which sat on a shelf near the door, precisely
one-half inch from each other.
“She might.” Otter gave the room another look-over as he
sighed. “I just never can say no to that woman. If she
wants to come into the barracks, not even the commandant
himself will be able to stop her. She just--” He
finished the sentence with a helpless sort of shrug.
Seth raised a brow. Anyone who could put the fear of God
into a commandant inured to normal trials and
tribulations from the wounds he’d endured in both the
Seminole and Mexican Wars must be some kind of
battle-ax. To Seth’s way of thinking, that was a
downright shame. He’d been looking forward to meeting
Otter’s mother. Her letters had gotten them all through
four long, tedious years at the military academy. But
lately? Otter’s recently developed obsessions had begun
to give Seth second thoughts about the woman.
Deacon gave Dandy and Seth a long look before he bent
and took the shoes from Otter. He set them on the table
and then restrained his friend when Otter tried to lunge
for them. “Look here. You’re going to have to fend for
yourself after we graduate. We all are. And I know I
would rest a bit easier…” he gave the others a glance.
“We probably all would rest easier, if we knew we
could depend on you to go out and meet some girls at
your new assignment.”
“Girls?” He frowned. “I don’t think Mother would much
“Sometimes, we all have to do things our mothers might
not like or agree with.” Seth and Dandy were nodding at
Deacon’s words. “It’s the way of life. Growing up.
“I suppose some fellows might do things like that, but
I never would.” Otter was casting a longing
glance towards those shoes.
“I’m not asking you to take up with some saloon girl
once you get out West but—”
“I should hope not!”
Seth broke in. “That’s not what Deke meant. He’s just
concerned--honestly, we’re all concerned...shoot, Otter!
You’re going to be a lieutenant. In the cavalry.
Assigned to forts not even the army cares to remember.
It’s just…” Seth laid a hand on Otter’s shoulder. “Mrs.
Ames isn’t always going to be able to take care of you.”
As Otter glanced from one friend to another,
comprehension dawned in his eyes. “Do you mean to
say…you’re worried? About me?”
Dandy scoffed. “I wouldn’t say we’re worried.” He
eyed the others. “Not exactly. I wouldn’t say worried.”
Otter’s face relaxed. “Well you shouldn’t be. It’s just
that I promised Mother when I came here that I would
never do anything that would make her ashamed of me. I
haven’t yet and I oughter say I don’t intend to in the
future. Ever.” The Otter of old shone in his
eyes. “Now, hand me those shoes, Deke, if you don’t
mind. I don’t want Mother to see them scuffed and
As his friends filed out of the room, even Seth Wescott
had to consider that trying to free Otter Ames from his
mother’s influence might just be a hopeless cause.
Come graduation week, as Dandy and Deacon walked into
Otter’s room one evening, he was scraping his hair up
off his brow and grabbing for his gray cloth forage cap.
“Fellows.” He greeted them with a nod.
Deacon noticed Otter was smiling. He looked practically
carefree. “Where you off to with that look in your
“Over to the hotel! Mother sent a message, said she got
there last night and the youngsters are near to
bursting, wanting to see me.” His grin seemed to grow in
magnitude as he spoke.
Seth clapped him on the back. “Go on then. Have fun.
Give her our regards.”
“I sure will. I’ll do that.” He bolted from the room.
They could hear his footsteps beat a tattoo down the
Deacon shook his head. “That, there, is the family-est
family man I’ve ever seen. It’d be admirable the way he
looks after them if it didn’t keep him from having some
fun now and then.”
Dandy grunted as he looked up from the book he’d been
Speculation gleamed from Deacon’s eyes. “You think he
has any chance at all of ever getting married?”
Seth shrugged. “Maybe once his mother dies…”
A corner of Deacon’s mouth lifted. “One thing I’ve
always said, ‘What my mother doesn’t know won’t hurt
her.’ In fact, there’s a time or two I started telling
her a story and she got up and walked out of the room.
Said she just didn’t want to know. I tell you…” He
squinted off in the direction Otter had gone. “Can’t
wait to meet that woman.”
Seth glanced off in that direction as well. “I Wonder
what she looks like…”
Deacon shrugged. “Used to be, I never wondered. But
seeing him work himself into a panic these past few
weeks…She must be thin as a rail. The mean,
self-righteous ones always are. Cranky. With a face that
looks like she’s been sucking on lemons her whole life.”
He pulled a face in illustration.
But Dandy was frowning. “I don’t think so…Otter’s a good
one. Can’t think he’d come from a woman like that.”
Deacon snorted. “Maybe not. Maybe she’s…maybe she’s one
of those southern belles from a good family can’t bear
to think the worst of her precious son. Wants to keep
him wrapped around her finger. No one ever good enough
“You’re just jealous.” Seth softened his words with a
“Of his mother’s being here for graduation.”
Deacon dismissed the comment with a wave. “I’ll see my
own soon enough. Spending a month in Ohio before I head
out west.” He smiled at Seth. “I was thinking, maybe I
can catch up with you and the missus at Laramie, when
you go to meet up with your sister.”
At the mention of Lucinda and their upcoming wedding, a
flush worked its way up Seth’s neck to his ears.”It’d be
Deacon laughed. “Probably not for you, but it would be
After their last sunset parade, the class of 1856 was
ordered to remove themselves from the corps of cadets
and join the officers’ line. When they returned to the
barracks they were no longer first classmen; neither had
they yet been given their orders as lieutenants.
They gathered together the next morning to receive their
diplomas. As they waited, Otter poked a finger down
between his stock and his collar and then ran it about
his neck as he tried to loosen them both. He turned to
Seth. “Do I look alright?”
“You look fine.”
“I just want Mother to be proud of me.”
Seth barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “She will
be. How could she not be?”
Dandy flicked a bit of dandelion fluff from Otter’s
sleeve and straightened his friend’s sash.
Otter flashed him a smile by way of thanks as Deacon
joined the conversation. “I hope you warned her about
your assignment. It’s not as if you’ll be able to go
back and tie yourself to her apron strings after
Otter’s smile disappeared as he blinked in confusion.
“Apron strings?…She already knows where I’m headed. I
wrote her first thing, soon as I found out.”
“Well…that’s good then.”
Otter smile broke out once more. “Can’t wait to see
those boys again. We sure been having fun this week. And
after this, I won’t have to say good-bye no more.”
Dandy and Seth exchanged a glance. “Least not for the
next few days.”
Otter’s glance cut from the small crowd of civilians
on-lookers to his friends. “What’s that you said? Afraid
my thoughts were drifting.”
Deacon opened his mouth, but Seth beat him to it.
“Nothing. Best not to think about good-byes right now.”
The men, called to attention, waited for the
superintendent to appear. Once he did, they were put at
ease. As the commandant called them out by name, in
order of merit, Colonel Lee handed each man a diploma
and his orders. Soon, only Otter was left.
A ripple of confusion spread through the men.
Clarence? Did they have a classmate named Clarence?
Otter couldn’t contain his grin as he stepped out toward
Deacon’s elbow dug into Seth’s arm. “I clean forgot he
isn’t really an Otter.”
As the men dispersed, shaking hands and clapping each
other on the back, Otter had taken a girl by the arm and
was pulling her toward his friends. A sleeping child lay
in her arms and as they walked, a pair of small,
tow-headed boys romped about their feet.
Deacon nodded in their direction. “Looks like Otter has
a sister he never told anyone about!”
Otter had a sister he’d never told anyone about?
That was one of the worst forms of selfishness in the
corps. Sisters, of course, weren’t meant for everyone,
but a fellow liked a girl to dream about now and then.
And more than one June wedding took place each year
between a new lieutenant and a classmate’s sister. But
Otter seemed to have no knowledge of his great error. In
fact, he looked fit to bursting with pride.
“Boys, I’d like you to meet Mother.”
The girl nodded and then smiled at each of them in turn.
But…this couldn’t be his mother, could it? This
young, fresh, slip of a girl with honey-colored curls,
and cornflower blue eyes who was looking up at Otter
with such an ardent, adoring gaze? “Mrs. Ames, these are
the boys I wrote you about. This one here’s the
Instinctively, Seth bowed, though he couldn’t quite make
sense of anything Otter was saying.
“Mr. Westcott! I’m just so pleased to meet you.” Her
cheeks dimpled as she spoke.
Otter was already continuing with the introductions.
“And this here’s Dandy.”
Dandy swept his hat from his head with a flourish as he
“Oh my!” Her eyes widened at his gesture.
“And this one’s Deacon.”
He lifted the fingers of Mother’s hand away from her
bundle and pressed a kiss to them.
Mrs. Ames couldn’t quite mask the giggle which escaped
“Oh!” Otter glanced away from her toward his friends.
“—and these here are the boys.” He looked down to find
they’d gone and hid behind his mother’s skirts. “Boys!”
They emerged, warily, one on each side.
“This one here’s Junior. The other’s Jed.”
Mrs. Ames beamed at them both and then looked down at
the child in her arms. “And this one’s Lil.”
Comprehension began to dawn upon Seth. “How old is the
Otter sighed. “Well now…” He consulted the sky as if it
might help him with the calculation. “…Furlough was back
two summers ago, wasn’t it?”
“She’s just got fourteen months to her.” Mrs. Ames
pressed the child closer to kiss her chubby cheek.
But Otter wasn’t to be stopped once he started his
calculations. “So…two years, minus nine months. That’d
“That would be fourteen months.” Mrs. Ames went on
tip-toe to kiss Otter’s cheek as well.
“Fourteen months.” He grinned.
Seth’s confusion seemed to clear. He stepped close and
spoke into Otter’s ear in a low tone. “So…this isn’t
Otter blinked. “This is Mother.”
“But not your mother.”
He smiled one of his beatific smiles. “My mother’s back
at home with my brothers and sisters.”
Deacon had been trying hard to follow the conversation,
but now he howled with laughter.
Otter didn’t like being left out of the joke. “What’s so
Seth had gone red about the ears. “Didn’t they tell you
back when you applied for admission that cadets couldn’t
“Well…” He tugged on an ear. “As I recollect, I told
them all about Mother. And the boy too. There was just
one of them then. He’d just passed his first birthday.”
A frown rippled across his face. “Do you think…they
wouldn’t take away…” His words were plaintive. “Did none
of this count? Are they going to take back the diploma?”
Deke was wiping tears from his cheek. “Oh, it counts
alright! Just think, Otter. Here we were sneaking off to
Benny Havens’ and making hash in the barracks and trying
to swindle a swindler there you were perpetrating the
greatest prank in academy history!”
“But I was always talking about Mother.” He glanced at
her. “I was, you know.”
Dandy tried to reassure him. “You were.” He glanced over
at Otter’s wife. “He was. It’s just that none of us
ever…well…” He shrugged.
Seth had finally decided to laugh. “It’s just that you
were cleverer than all of us, Otter, that’s all.”
A grin flashed across Otter’s face before disbelief
restrained it. “I was?”
Mrs. Ames was looking up at him, prouder than a
partridge, with stars in her eyes. “Clarence always has
been a smart one.”
One of Otter’s boys was tugging at his trousers. He bent
to lift the lad up and set him on his shoulder. “Sorry
fellows, but I got to—“ He nodded off toward the river.
“Won’t be gone long.” They galloped away together across
Later that afternoon, the fellows took one last run to
Benny Havens’. They didn’t have to go under cover of
darkness now and there was no need to hurry, so they
abandoned the river path for the road as they ambled
toward Buttermilk Falls. Once they reached the tavern,
Dandy bought them a round of drinks. When they were
seated, he raised his mug toward them all. “To
After they’d all taken a drink, Deacon raised his mug in
“To the future Mrs. Westcott.”
Seth returned the toast. “And to the future Mrs.
Deacon took a long, noisy swallow. “I’ll drink to that!
Someone’s got to drink to that poor girl, whoever she
is.” He turned toward Dandy and lifted his glass. “And
to the future Mrs. Delagarde.”
Dandy reached out a hand to stop them all from drinking.
“Don’t bother. There’s not going to be one.”
Otter was shaking his head. “Mother always says that
Dandy raised his glass in reply, cutting him off. “To
“To Mother!” the others echoed.
All except for Otter whose good cheer had given way to
an indignant frown. “I oughter think you’d know by now:
that’s Mrs. Ames to you!”