Siri Mitchell

 

 Otter's Mother 

 

 

 

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Dear Reader,

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 Flirtation Walk.

The story doesn’t have any spoilers, but it won’t make sense if you haven’t first met the cast of characters involved. Beware: once you read this story, you’ll probably find yourself flipping back through the pages of the novel.

Intrigued?

 Then, if you’ve already finished Flirtation Walk,

 please,

 by all means,

 keep reading…

 

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 Buttermilk Falls.

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 graduation.

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 last time.

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 any peace?”

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 like that.”

“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. Moving on.”

“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 dusty.”

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.

zz

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 eyes?”

“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 hall.

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 reading.

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 for him…”

“You’re just jealous.” Seth softened his words with a wink.

“Of Otter?”

“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 a pleasure.”

Deacon laughed. “Probably not for you, but it would be for me.”

zz

 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 graduation.”

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.

“Mr. Clarence—”

 A ripple of confusion spread through the men. Clarence? Did they have a classmate named Clarence?

“—Ames.”

Otter couldn’t contain his grin as he stepped out toward the superintendent.

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!”

A sister? 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 general.”

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 bowed.

“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 her lips.

“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 baby?”

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 be…”

“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 your mother.”

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 funny?”

Seth had gone red about the ears. “Didn’t they tell you back when you applied for admission that cadets couldn’t be married?”

“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 the Plain.

zz

 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 friendship.”

“To friendship!”

After they’d all taken a drink, Deacon raised his mug in Seth’s direction.

“To the future Mrs. Westcott.”

“Here, here.”

Seth returned the toast. “And to the future Mrs. Hollingsworth.”

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 you—“

Dandy raised his glass in reply, cutting him off. “To Mother, then.”

“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!”

 

 

 

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Last update: 03/07/2016