Joy and Sorrow
The young woman across the aisle from me on this fast-moving locomotive was pale and appeared sorrowful. Her long, black dress and tearful eyes reminded me of a lost puppy, unable to find its home, whimpering and pathetic. I desired to ask her if I could be of assistance in some way - that worrisome was her appearance. Although I should have chosen to mind my own business, I could not help but notice the tears she occasionally dabbed from her pale cheeks, the sniffles that came before she withdrew the delicate handkerchief and dabbed at her nose and the occasional clearing of her throat to regain her composure.
The steamer train traveled its course across the vast plains, chugging toward the Midwestern city of Chicago and bringing me ever closer to my joyful reunion with my fiancé, Elizabeth. But somehow I could not think only of her at this time. I was determined to make that troubled, sad faced woman across the train aisle from me smile. Might I engage her in conversation? What possessed me to inquire of her troubles I will never know, other than sympathy for her grieved appearance. I could not endure that pretty, pale face that looked distressed for much longer. I was certainly not in any way sad, for my darling Elizabeth had consented to our marriage on the premises that I retrieve her from her Chicago home and accompany her to our future destination, the ranch I had strived to make profitable. Finally, building a suitable home and engaging honest help, I endeavored to gather my childhood sweetheart from our Chicago roots, marry and accompany her west to our future. I was more than excited. It had been several years since I had seen Elizabeth’s fair countenance. Did I wish all to be as happy as I? It seemed so, for this woman who was so visibly miserable, continually tugged at my heart strings and I could bear her suffering no longer. I would attempt to engage her in conversation. “Ma’am,” I probed quietly, looking intently across the train aisle to the slender, dark-haired woman dressed in black. “Ma’am, might I be of some assistance?”
I received no answer momentarily, but then a slight wave of her small hand, as if to dismiss me occurred. Leaning back in my seat, I focused my eyes on the front of the railway car, deciding now to remain uninvolved. As I resolved to do this and began to open the book I had brought to pass the time, I heard her sigh loudly and speak in a soft voice.
“Sir, I am sorry if I am disturbing you. I will do my best to remain quiet for the remainder of this day’s journey.”
Another sniff and a dabbing of her nose repeated. I turned then to look across the aisle, as I watched her cover her eyes and turn her head away to the window. “Ma’am, I don’t wish to pry, yet it is obvious you seem very upset. Are you traveling alone? Is there someone who might assist you?”
Watching her take a deep breath, her large, brown eyes moist in her young face, she turned to look at me as she asked softly, “Have you heard the news of Custer and the 7th Cavalry’s demise? Sadly, I am a victim of knowing many who will not return to Fort Lincoln. I am returning to my Chicago home, sir. Recovery in a familiar surrounding may assist me in my grief, of this I am hopeful. I have lost many a friend and one very dear to me in the slaughter.”
My eyes grew large as I realized the tragedy she was referring to. Last month, in June of 1876, the nation groaned as did I, in learning of the massacre of many of George Armstrong Custer’s men at the Little Bighorn River. Over 250 of those men under Custer’s command had been slaughtered – a massacre by the natives who fought to keep their way of life and homeland. It was in all the papers and had many on edge, and the settlers in the west were fearful. The events of these past years, as encroachment on native lands continued, had blinded many to justice. Those whose wish to begin anew in the vast territories west, like myself, simply looked away and saw only their own interests. Change was here to stay many felt. Natives must accept this. Truthfully, I accepted this. President Grant certainly had no sympathy for the Indians. The reservations were created to hold them. The job to protect those settlers such as myself, was given to the cavalry.
I had hoped my Elizabeth had not read of Custer and the 7th Cavalry disaster, but I doubted that was the case. The “Battle of the Little Bighorn” as the press was now calling it, was a national disaster and apparently this woman was one of those who had left Fort Abraham Lincoln, home to the 7th Cavalry, to return to wherever her home was after the horror. I had soothed Elizabeth in letters telling her we were protected by the cavalry and nearby forts. We would grow our lives in the vast expanse of a ranch I had created from nothing. My ranch hands and I worked tirelessly and had little contact with Indians. Would that now change? I couldn’t think so negatively and again turned my thoughts to Elizabeth and my future, which included only positive reflections of our certain wealth, many healthy children and our success in a new environment. Oh, why had I engaged conversation with this woman anyway? I could not allow her to dull my joy in anticipating the future with the woman I loved. Now she was talking again, and I had to lead the conversation to more pleasant thoughts.
“Is your home in Chicago, sir?” she asked, her large dark eyes curious. “My family lives on the outskirts of the city, a farm called Meadow Wood. Have you heard of it?
I shook my head; glad her eyes bore no tears now. The conversation seemed to be heading in a better direction. “Ma’am, I am not familiar. My parents’ residence is near the lakeshore, as is my future wife’s home. You see, I am heading home to marry and bring her west with me.”
“Oh,” she replied, as she looked away to the window again. Bringing out her handkerchief she wiped her eyes and put her head in her hands, attempting to hide the fact that she was again distressed.
I sighed loudly. This apparently was not the subject to discuss with her. I shook my head in confusion. Why, oh why, couldn’t I have not spoken to her at all? Mention of marriage had made the tears flow more steadily now.
Sniffing and dabbing her nose, she sat up straight and tried to collect herself, tightly gripping her hands together. After a few moments she said, “That is wonderful news, sir. I am again sorry for my display of grief, for you see, it is still so raw. The man I loved, and hoped to marry, was one of those unfortunates who was killed with Custer. John Vickory was his name. I cannot seem to contain my grief for John at times. I am hoping that returning home, being with my mother and sister again will allow me to heal. Although, now that just doesn’t seem realistic as my heart is quite broken.”
I remained silent for a long, long time. The woman across from me was suffering from such a terrible loss that I knew I would not have been able to withstand. If anything had happened to Elizabeth while I was away, I would have been devastated, as she was now. How I would embrace my dear, future wife when I saw her again. How thankful I would be that she still breathed and walked this earth.
“My name is Cecilia, Cecilia Adams,” the woman declared, lifting her head and straightening her shoulders, attempting to engage in normal conversation. “My sister Mary, and niece Catherine, are still at Fort Lincoln, awaiting the return of my brother-in-law, Michael, who will return unharmed from the campaign. Michael, fortunately, was not in the troops that accompanied Custer. For my sister’s sake and her small child, I have his return to be thankful for. I do wonder that my prayers were not answered though, and John did not return. At times this all seems like a very bad dream, and I hope to awaken soon.”
I had no reply to her statements. Especially, why her prayers were not answered. Even though I was a man of faith myself, I did not understand death and loss well. I could only mumble an introduction and sympathetic reply, “James Ward, ma’am, I am glad to have made your acquaintance. I am very sorry for your loss, Miss Adams. Very sorry. I am certain returning home and being with your family will help your recovery.”
We were both quiet now, I lost in thoughts of Elizabeth and the joy I would have at seeing her again soon. Cecilia Adams appeared lost in memories of the man she would never see again. There was nothing I could think of now to talk with her about that might help her heartache. Gazing out the window at the green plain rushing by us, I remembered the one loss I had felt severely in my early years and that was of Thomas, my sibling, who had died at the tender age of three. I thought of my mother and how she coped, and I wondered if I might share this with Cecilia Adams. My mother for months cried and was in a deep depression, until the day my father decided he had had enough. His wisdom prevailed, for he drew my mother into talking about Thomas daily, as if he was still with us. He reminded mother of Thomas’ little escapades into trouble, of his speech that called things strange names instead of their rightful ones. He made my mother remember the good in Thomas, the blessing of having him for three years. He talked continually of him and drew my mother to remember him daily which eventually helped her melancholy slowly surrender to fond memories. Could this tactic help Cecilia Adams? Should I ask her about this man, John Vickory, allow her to talk of him and his good qualities? Should we talk of his life and not leave him dead, alone and decaying on a blood-soaked battlefield?
“Miss Adams, tell me a bit about John Vickory. A very brave man, I am sure.”
Cecilia Adams gazed at me for a long moment and then closed her eyes, a small smile developing on her young face. “Well, Mr. Ward, John was very dedicated to his fellow soldiers. He had been promoted to serve as regimental color bearer right before the regiment left Fort Lincoln. I can still picture him upon his muscular horse, proudly raising the flag, as the 7th marched from Fort Lincoln. I will always have that picture of his handsome, distinguished figure engraved in my mind.”
Should I go on? I did detect a wistful smile on her face when she remembered her last sight of the man she had loved. There must be other good memories in her youthful mind, for she looked to be barely twenty years old. There was much life ahead of her, of that, I was sure. This loss would stay with her for years and perhaps she would never be quite the same, yet as it was with my mother’s experience, time would heal her deep grief and leave her with twinges of pain that dimmed as she aged.
“John was very tall, Mr. Wilson. I don’t think I even reached in height to his shoulder! We rode together at times near the muddy river, the Missouri. I had never ridden a horse, other than ponies at our farm, before I visited Fort Lincoln. It seems there are many things I have done now that I hadn’t experienced before in Chicago. How much fun we had with Mary and Michael at their home! It was a time I will always think of with great happiness.”
The porter came along, and I asked for a glass of water for myself and Cecilia. Her tongue had loosened, and she spoke of her daily life at Fort Lincoln, her times with John and her love for her sister, small niece and her brother-in-law. There were many friends she had made at the fort, and she would also miss these people who played a part in her young life. Unfortunately, there were also those she knew that suffered the same fate as her beau, John. This created a lump in my throat, for it wasn’t just the loss of her love she would always grieve, but of many she knew. By the time the water arrived to quench both our thirsts, Cecilia Adams seemed talked out and I was grateful for the reprieve. Hearing only the groaning of the trains’ metal parts and the muted speech of other passengers in the railcar, I sat staring out the window, trying only to think of Elizabeth and our joyful reunion. I glanced at Miss Adams occasionally and realized that her eyes were now closed and with her head resting on the back of the seat, she slept. Only an occasional flutter of her lids gave a clue to the dreams she might have been having and I hoped they were of the happy times she was remembering.
Upon our arrival in Chicago, the bustle of people and luggage on the platform turned my thoughts only to seeing Elizabeth and returning home with her at my side. As I heard my name in that sweet voice of hers that I could never forget, I turned to see her rushing through the crowd to my side. The loving embrace she gave me was nothing but pleasurable and I knew my grin was from ear to ear. Taking my arm in hers, we made our way to the awaiting buggy her brother had driven, with a porter inching behind with my luggage. Glancing around as Elizabeth and I settled down in the back seat of the buggy, I saw Cecilia Adams on the railway platform, surrounded by what I supposed was her mother and sister. Holding her daughter tightly, Cecilia’s mother attempted to calm the trembling that racked her body and sobs which emitted from a sorrowful daughter, glad to be in her mother’s embrace. I drew my head in my hands and felt Elizabeth’s steady hold on my arm.
“James, why James, what is the matter?”
Glancing once more at the women who had come to take Cecilia Adams home, I sighed and turned to my precious Elizabeth stating emphatically. “Let us not waste another day. We will marry immediately.”
Elizabeth chuckled and kissed me lightly on my cheek. “Oh James, of course. But you know mother and father have a lovely wedding planned for us. Not much longer now, sweetheart. A couple of weeks and I shall be your bride.”
Counting my blessings, I thanked God for my bright future and said a prayer for Cecilia Adams. We all experience grief in our life, and it was not my turn today. Young Cecilia would heal in time, and I had to turn my head to not glance again in her direction. I would cherish the days ahead, one at a time with my Elizabeth, for as Cecilia had learned, we never know how long we will have those we love around us.