The Death Waltz
Within an hour of my arrival at Fort Union, my new post, my best friend Johnny came to the barracks with a broad grin and a friendly clout on the shoulder. He’d hurried over as soon as he heard I had come, and we talked ’til sunset and beyond.
As soon as Johnny mentioned Celia’s name, I knew he had it bad for her. To hear him talk, Celia was the most amazing woman who had ever graced God’s green earth. She was the sister-in-law of the captain, and all the young men on the base were infatuated with her. Celia was the prettiest of the eligible ladies that graced Fort Union society. She liked the spice of adventure to be found so near the wilds.
Johnny alternated between elation when Celia talked with him and despair when she flirted with another man. I watched their courtship from afar and was troubled. There was something about Celia that I didn’t like. I never mentioned it to Johnny, but I thought she was too much of a flirt. I wished Johnny had fallen for a nicer woman.
About a month after I arrived at Fort Union, a birthday dance was given for one of the officers. To Johnny’s elation, Celia agreed to be his partner at the dance. Johnny was dancing on cloud nine all night, until a messenger came gasping into the room to report an Apache raid. With a small scream of terror, Celia clung shamelessly to Johnny and begged him not to go even though he was the lieutenant put in charge of the mission. Well sir, Johnny proposed to her right then and there and Celia accepted. Furthermore, Celia told Johnny that she would wait for him, and that if he didn’t come back she would never marry. I doubted Celia’s sincerity, but Johnny just ate it up.
I was assigned to Johnny’s troop, so I had to leave too. We started out the next morning, and had a rough week tracking down and fighting the Apaches. Johnny split up the troop; taking command of the first group and giving me command of the second. My men reached the rendezvous point with no casualties, but only half of the other group arrived, and Johnny was not among them. They’d been ambushed by the Apaches. I had to take command of the troop. We searched for survivors, but never found Johnny’s body. As soon as I could, I ordered the men to turn for home.
Celia made a terrible, heart-rending scene when she found out Johnny was missing. She flung herself into my arms when I gave her the news and sobbed becomingly. The display turned my stomach, it was so obviously insincere. I excused myself hastily and left her to the ministrations of the other soldiers. From that time on, I was careful to stay away from Celia, who mourned less than a week for my friend before resuming her flirtatious ways.
About a month later, a rich handsome lieutenant arrived at Fort Union. He was from the East, and Celia took a real shine to him. Johnny was completely forgotten and so was her promise to him. It wasn’t long before Celia and the lieutenant were engaged and started planning a big wedding. Nothing but the very best would suit Celia, and her bridegroom had the money to indulge her.
Everyone in Fort Union was invited to the ceremony, and the weather was perfect on the day of the wedding. Everyone turned out in their best clothes and the wedding was a social success. After the ceremony, all the guests were invited to a celebratory ball.
We were waltzing around the ballroom when the door flew open with a loud bang. A gust of cold air blew in, dimming the candles. A heart-wrenching wail echoed through the room. The music stopped abruptly and everyone turned to look at the door. Standing there was the swollen, dead body of a soldier. It was dressed in an officer’s uniform. The eyes were burning with a terrible fire. The temple had a huge gash from a hatchet-blow. There was no scalp. It was Johnny.
The whole crowd stood silent, as if in a trance. No one moved, no one murmured. I wanted to cry out when I recognized Johnny, but I was struck dumb like the rest of the wedding guests.
Johnny walked across the room and took Celia out of her bridegroom’s arms. She was frozen in horror and could not resist. Johnny looked at the musicians. Still in a trance, they began to play a horrible, demonic sounding waltz. Johnny and Celia began to dance. They swept around and around the room, doing an intricate waltz. Johnny held the white-clad bride tight against his dead body while a deathly pallor crept over her face. Her steps slowed but still Johnny held her tight and moved them around in a grisly parody of a waltz. Celia’s eyes bulged. She turned as white as her gown and her mouth sagged open. She gave one small gasp, and died in his arms.
Johnny dropped Celia’s body on the floor and stood over her, wringing his blood-stained hands. He threw back his head and gave another unearthly wail that echoed around the room. Then he vanished through the door.
Released from the trance, the crowd gasped and exclaimed. The bridegroom ran to Celia and knelt beside her, wringing his hands in the same manner as Johnny. His cries were all too human.
Unable to bear the sight of the stricken bridegroom, I took my captain aside and asked permission to take a small detail back to the place where our troop had been attacked by the Apaches to search once more for my dead friend. He sent a dozen men with me. We combed the area, and finally found Johnny’s body hidden in a crevice. It looked exactly the same as it had appeared on the night of Celia’s wedding.
We brought Johnny back to the fort with us and the captain buried him beside Celia. Celia’s bridegroom went back East shortly after we buried Johnny, and I resigned my commission a few days later and went home, never wanting to see that cursed place again.
I heard later that Celia’s ghost was often seen at dusk, weeping over Johnny’s grave, but I never went back to Fort Union to see it for myself.