Lieutenant Archibald Butt in 1909, Wikipedia
I wrote this fun bit of fiction on a lark after listening to The Railsplitter Podcast. Jacopo della Quercia, the author of The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy challenged the audience to write something using his characters. I fell in love with Archie Butt in his story... so behold! A short tale from my imagination:
“You’re having nightmares again, aren’t you?” Archie peered over Francis’ shoulder. Splashes of red decorated the canvas, the edges drying thick and black like a wound attempting to heal. “Another painting I won’t be showing.” Francis sighed, and then stepped back into Archie’s embrace.
“Neat deflection.” Archie said.
They stood awhile gazing at the paint, each lost in their own private hells. War was like that, no matter how close a soldier was to another, each would be an island alone in a sea of memory. The waves would rise up. The drowning would begin, and it would be up to each man to paddle to the surface of time. To skim back the oiled surface, to bravely insert oneself into the present.
The piercing cry of a tea kettle made them both jump. Francis clutched his chest for a second, and then howled in laughter. Archie covered his smile with his hand, and then gave it up. “Tea?” he sputtered.
The two men settled themselves on the veranda. Archie poured as his mother had often done for him, and Francis closed his eyes. He listened to the gentle waterfall as the hot water made its way into his cup. He focused on the breeze lifting his hair off his forehead. He even appreciated the slight pinch in his leg from pressing it too hard in the back of his chair.
Once the tea hit his tongue, everything was as it should be again. Almost. “Archie.” Francis leaned forward, resisting the urge to scoop up his friend’s hand. Every once in a while someone would amble by, and while Francis could give a fig what others thought at this point, Archie cared. Archie cared about so many things, and so deeply. It was terrifying at times, how much he cared. How does one ever deserve such regard?
Francis shook off his own feelings of stupid inadequacy. “Did you consider what I said?”
Archie set his tea cup down, and then carefully stirred in sugar. He picked up a spoon and meticulously worked at the lump of sugar. A bird fluttered in the yard, and Francis turned from the depressing sight of Archie and his sugar.
Birds just dove in and took the worm. Then they flew away to shit on the eaves of splendid houses, or whatever birds did. Archie was not a bird. Much too hard working. Francis rested his chin in his hand. He was a bird. He hadn’t completed a painting in months. He’d gotten too distracted by shit on the eaves.
“Hello!” a great bear of a man came barreling up the walk way. He had a muffin in one hand, and waved a sheet of paper in the other. He stuffed the muffin into his mouth whole, and blueberry crumbs rained down. The birds gave up on worms and dive bombed the President.
Archie flew out of his seat to assist him, but Taft had already dispersed the birds with a muffin-spittled roar. The President bounded up the remaining steps, knocking a potted plant over in the process. He sank into one of the dainty iron wrought chairs. “I really ought to buy you a new table set for the veranda. I don’t know how you two live like this.”
“Let me get you a cup of tea,” Archie said. He hurried into the house. Taft helped himself to a biscuit off of Francis’ plate. “Lovely day, isn’t it.” Taft leaned back, balancing his chair on two protesting legs. Francis hoped the thin metal held. He watched his biscuit make its journey into Taft’s mouth. It was just as well. He’d noticed his stomach was getting a bit soft. Francis prided himself on being fit. Taft…
Well. When one was as strong as a bear, what was a little extra padding for the winter? And if Archie’s worried pacing throughout the night were any indication, Taft needed his reserves. There would be no hibernation for the leader of the great Republican party.
Archie returned with a cup. He poured a healthy amount of tea for Taft, and once again took up his spoon. “How can I help you?”
Taft slurped his tea, then smacked his lips in satisfaction. “You just did. Marvelous tea, Archie. Truly, you are gifted.”
“My mother made the best tea.” Archie clinked his spoon along the bottom of his cup. Francis suppressed a sigh. Archie loved reminiscing about his beloved mother when he was in good spirits, but when he was in low spirits he practically lived in daydreams of his boyhood. Not that Francis had any room for complaints. He’d wasted three tubes of perfectly good vermilion paint so far this month. What a sorry pair of fellows they were.
Taft brushed biscuit and blueberry crumbs off his rather splendid mustache and leaned forward. “Archie, I know this has been a horrible time for you. Nellie, Francis, and I have been-“He broke off and rubbed his calf. “Francis! Why’d you kick me? Watch yourself. Where was I? Ah…” Taft produced the paper he’d been waving on his way up the walk.
“You know I would never intentionally make you pick between me and that… that… Teddy.” Taft spit out the word like a curse. Archie took the paper from Taft. “I know you wouldn’t.”
“Well, we all think it would do you some good to take a leave of absence.” Taft said.
Archie let out a strangled cough. “A leave of absence! Did I do something wrong?”
“Of course not! You just… Francis thinks…Ouch!” Taft glared at Francis.
“When is the last time you had a vacation?” Francis asked, though he knew full well the answer.
“It has been some time. Very well, if this is what you feel I should do, I will.” Archie spoke with precise formality.
“Oh, don’t be like that. It’s because we love you, Archie! We all just want you to take some time for yourself. Go fishing or whatever you’d like. You could go visit Tesla! I hear Twain is there now.” Taft cajoled. “You could sit in the middle of an electric storm while listening to the latest tale Twain is working on. Then come back and tell us all about it when the Primaries start.”
Francis forced down another swallow of tea. It was cold.
Taft shrugged at Archie’s silence. The sound of Archie’s spoon rang like an omen to Francis. “You going to eat that?” Taft asked even as he lifted Archie’s biscuit into his mouth.
The President chewed with his eyes closed in happiness. Francis wished he’d kicked him harder. Minutes passed. Birds. Spoon. Taft’s chewing and slurping.
Finally, Taft pushed back his chair. “Lovely tea, Archie. Just wonderful. Oh!” he reached his hand into his coat and produced a sealed envelope. He tossed it on a plate that formerly held biscuits.
“What now? You’ve decided to make my leave of absence permanent?” Archie asked, casting his gaze up at his friend and Commander in Chief. “Oh, stop it. It’s a vacation. And well deserved! I wanted a vacation, too, but Nellie said I haven’t earned one.” Taft shook his head fondly.
“That is a letter I would like you to give Pope Pius. I simply have to thank him for elevating three Americans to the rank of cardinal! It’s extraordinary.” The President’s eyes sparkled in excitement. “I knew you wouldn’t like this vacation… So… You see? Not just anyone could represent me to the Pope! I need you, friend, I just want you to sleep more.”
Archie grinned. “Thank you! I can do that.”
Taft launched himself down the steps. He almost tripped over the potted plant lying on its side. “You two should hire a groundskeeper! Someone could get hurt!”
Francis and Archie exchanged a look. “We’ll think about it.” Archie waved.
They gathered the tea things, and quietly took them to the kitchen. Francis took in Archie’s relaxed shoulders. The second letter had gone a long way towards repairing the initial damage, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“Don’t do that.” Archie said, gazing out the window above the sink.
Francis grimaced. “You needed a break, and you’d never admit it.”
“Don’t do it again.”
“Alright. I’m sorry. Your job, your call.”
Archie turned, and gave a faint smile. “You apologized. You must be pretty tired yourself.”
“I am. What do you think I should do about my latest disaster?”
The men walked back to Francis’ work room. They stood in companionable silence, arms clasped round one another.
“I have an idea.” Archie said.
“I was hoping.”
Francis gasped. He laughed. He shook his head.
He turned and kissed his lover.
“Archie, you’re inspired!”
Archie waved the letter. “Thank Taft.”