A half a chapter from the latest work, the YA adventure now tentatively titled West Towards the Sunset.

As Ma predicted, the meeting was not done in twenty minutes. Ma looked impatiently toward the Clayton wagon, and the gathering of men around it, and said,

“Go fetch your father, Jon. I’m about to feed his share of dinner to Boomer.”

Jon went off at a run, as Ma finished filling Pa’s plate with cold biscuits and some slices of ham from our stores, and a scoop of apple crumble that Ma had made from dried apples the night before. I was hungry, impatient for sitting down and eating. But within a minute or two, Jon returned, breathless and tearful.

“Ma, Sally – come quick! They’re talking about shooting all the dogs!”

“Oh, my dear Lord!” Ma exclaimed. She flung off her apron; we had already lost any appetite for food, after hearing this.

“Pa wouldn’t let them shoot Boomer, would be?” Jon demanded tearfully and Ma replied,

“No more than he would let someone shoot one of you!” which seemed to comfort Jon at least a little, and he loved Boomer so very much. But I recollected how Major Clayton disliked dogs – and he was the captain of the company, and would Pa have any voice in a decision that the men of the wagon company had voted on?

It turned out that Pa had more voice than I had thought at first, as well as more respect among the men of the company generally. When Ma and Jon and I came running to where the men were at the meeting that Major Clayton had called – it had already gotten fractious and angry. Mr. Herlihy the Irish blacksmith was already shouting, so angry that his face was nearly as red as his hair and wiry beard, his powerful hands knotted into fists.

“God blast you for a treacherous, murdering salpeen!” He bellowed into Major Clayton’s face. “Murther me own dogs, you say! In hell you will be, before ye and your bully-boys harm a hair on the back of them!” And he went on, the Irish in him coming out so thick that we didn’t rightly understand more than one word in five.

“I will not stand for being addressed in this disrespectful manner!” Major Clayton shouted back, when Mr. Herlihy had run out of breath and before anyone else could get in a word by turning it to the thin side and wedging it in.

“Then you had better sit down for it!” Mr. Herlihy roared, and the shouting from all the men present burst out like the whistle from a steamboat. In the meantime, Mrs. Bishop, the poor invalid woman had her little spotted spaniel in her arms, hugged to her as she wept torrents and her husband had her arm around her, trying to talk reason and not being heard by anyone. We stood next to Mr. Steitler and Henry, at the edge of the crowd and Ma asked him what had happened to bring about all this ruckus.

“The lad’s dog,” Mr. Steitler replied. “Our commander of wagons has put it to a vote that all the dogs should be shot as a hazard to the company, since he blames the dog for panicking Herr Martindale’s cattle and breaking the wagon-tongue. All the dogs are a danger. Putting the wagon-train at the risk of harm, he says.”

“Surely the men have not approved this…” Ma replied, and Mr. Steitler shrugged.

“The majority voted so – that the dogs are a risk to all. I did not agree, but since I am a foreigner…”

This was appalling. We could not allow this, not Boomer. What would Pa do, now? Ma had said that Pa would as much countenance someone shooting Boomer as Jon or I … but this was the company, and we were out on the wagon trail, a week-long journey from where there was any settled law.

Meanwhile, Mr. Herlihy had taken a breath and resumed shouting at Major Clayton – and he had such a powerful bellow that he could be heard over the clamor.

“Before God, I swear I will leave the company and set off on me own, and what say ye to that, ye thrice-damned pismire! The de’il will make a ladder o’ your spine, afore ye murder my dogs!”

“You’ll be murdered yourself by the Indian savages before you get a day farther!” Major Clayton roared back, and suddenly, there was Pa, stepping up on the wheel of the Major’s wagon, where he could be seen above the heads of the men gathered. Pa put two fingers in his mouth and whistled – a shrill blast that cut through the babble, and such was Pa’s manner of resolute command, after the anger in Mr. Herlihy and the others, that there was a momentary silence – likely out of sheer surprise – into which Pa said, calmly,

“And I’ll take my own wagon and go with Herlihy, here. We voted to form a company, boys; we can vote to un-make it. Who’s with us, then?”

“I am!” That was Mr. Bishop, with his arm around his distraught wife, still weeping over the little spotted pup cradled in her arms. Mr. Bishop looked around, as if he was looking for support in his indignation. Three of the five German boys chorused,

“Ja! Ja – yes, we go mit Herr Kettering! Aber naturlich!” It seemed that they were indignant over their dog being blamed by the Major, in spite of doing all they could to help mend Mr. Martindale’s wagon to make up for it. Mr. Steitler also nodded, in vigorous agreement.

“Mir auch! We go, also mit Herr Kettering!”

At that, nearly a dozen other men called out their own dissent with Major Clayton’s captaincy; some had dogs, others had not, but I guess had been unhappy with how the Major exempted himself and his cronies from taking a turn at guard at night and for traveling on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. The Major looked fit to be tied, almost white with rage at being defied.

“Then leave and be damned to you all!” He shouted – and some of those men and boys who had decided to break from his company jeered scornfully, calling him a tyrannical old windbag and other names that at the time I did not know the meaning of.

Pa, still perched above the crowd, put two fingers in his mouth and whistled again for attention.

“Lads – we’ll move on in ten minutes, all of those who want to leave with me.” He jumped down, and extended his hand to the Major, who refused it and glared. “No hard feelings, sir? We just can’t countenance your latest order. Best that we go our own way, then.”

Major Clayton looked as if he would spit on Pa. “You be damned, sir! You and all the rest of you vile, selfish ingrates!”

“I can not say that it has been a pure pleasure traveling with you,” Pa replied. He seemed unruffled, although Mr. Herlihy glowered, scowling as if he would like to strangle Major Clayton with his bare hands, once Major Clayton had taken a moment and untangled the real intent of what Pa had told him. “Good day to you, sir.” Pa looked past the Major, at the remaining crowd. “Any of the rest of you are welcome to join us and form a new company. Ten minutes, boys. We’ll roll out in ten minutes.”

And that was it – the breaking up of the company. There were eleven wagons following ours and the Herlihy’s two, away from that nooning place. Mr. Martindale and his family followed a little later, rejoining us that evening, at the place where Pa and Mr. Steitler decided to camp, as the sun slid down into the west that evening.

19. February 2024 · Comments Off on Another Excerpt from the W-I-P · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West

Another excerpt from the new WIP – title of which is undecided, as of yet. (Suggestions are welcome.). The Kettering family is about to head west to Independence, Missouri, on the first leg of their journey to California. Sally Kettering tells us a bit about the family wagon –

I should say something about our wagon, since it was to be a home for six months at least, as well as our means of traveling. Pa talked with such of his friends who knew of such matters. He exchanged our old light two-horse farm wagon and some other considerations for one which was slightly larger, with a back and front which sloped slightly outwards like the prow of a boat in both directions. It sat high on the ground, on four heavy iron-bound wheels which were as tall as my chin when I had shoes on.

When Pa first brought that new wagon, telling us that it was the wagon that would take us all the way to California, he took Jon and I out to look at it, standing in the farmyard.  He pointed out the wheels, the axles and running gear underneath the great square box of the body.

“Children – I thought this wagon was perfect for the journey – see the wheels, particularly? I thought them superior to every other wagon which I considered. The hubs are fine, well-seasoned elmwood and the spokes of good solid oak. The trail is long and very rough, in places – and the last thing we want is for our wagon to break down.”

Eight beechwood hoops held up the wagon cover, which was sewn of heavy canvas made waterproof with linseed oil – the hoops on back and front flared out slightly. There was a seat on metal springs that sat on the front of the wagon, somewhat more comfortable to rest up on as the wheels bumped and jounced over ruts and stones in the road. The front and back of the wagon cover could be drawn tight, or loose, with an extra flap to cover up the round opening, keep out the dust or the rain.

The wagon itself had tall sides. Together with the hoops holding up the cover made it like a small room with an arched ceiling, nearly tall enough for Pa to stand in. But once the wagon was loaded with all that was said to be needful, there was no room to stand –The one space which was not packed almost to the height of the cover was at the front, just behind the seat. A pair of big flat-topped trunks sat there, topped with some straw pallets and a featherbed – this was where Jon and I would sleep, once we set out.  For themselves, Ma and Pa had a stout canvas wall tent to sleep in at night. We had a small patent tin stove, and a box full of tin plates and silverware, another box of Ma’s kettles, a big frypan on legs and a covered iron Dutch oven. We had a fine maple rocking chair which Ma treasured since it had come with her family from Pennsylvania, and the parts to a cherrywood bedstead, stowed in the wagon. Pa’s precious patent steel-share plow was strapped to the back of the wagon, as he intended to take up farming again, when we reached California.

Most space in the wagon was taken up with supplies. There were but two or three places beyond Independence where one could buy more, but Pa had told us it would be better to bring everything we would need for ourselves to carry us through the journey, enough for six months or longer; so many barrels of flour and cornmeal, sugar, and a firkin of molasses, a box of coffee beans and a tin-lined box of China tea, another of hard tack, some fine smoked hams and sausages of our own smokehouse and another barrel of salt pork. A covered crock of fresh eggs packed in isinglass, a bushel bag of beans and another of rice. Pa said that he would rather we purchase good quality from merchants which we knew and trusted, rather than strangers in Missouri. Of course, Ma had some crocks of pickles, jams, and dried fruit of her own preserving, all packed away in boxes or in crates padded with straw.

We had been all that late winter, packing and procuring those supplies we would need on the journey. We packed our few precious things as well – Pa’s carpenter tools and his fiddle, Ma’s sewing basket and the box of china dishes which had come from England; my brother Jon had his wooden Noah’s ark with the pairs of animals that Pa had whittled and painted in lifelike colors for him, all winter long when Jon was four years old, and I had my doll, Priscilla – with her rag body and china head, hands and feet – although at eleven and nearly twelve, I wondered if I were almost too old to play with dolls, but I couldn’t bear to think of leaving Priscilla behind, any more than Ma could countenance abandoning the maple rocking chair, or her fine English china dishes.

06. February 2024 · Comments Off on A Snippet From The Next Book – The YA Wagon Train Adventure · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Although Pa and Ma had high hopes for a better situation in California, it grieved me something sore when it came time to leave the farm. I had lived there for all of my life, and Grandpa Reverend was one of the first settlers around Mount Gilead. The truth is that the prospect of taking to the trail did not seem quite real to Brother Jon and I, until the very day that we finished packing the wagon with all of our traps and treasures, to stay at Grandpa Reverend’s house for a week or so until we departed for Missouri and the beginning of the trail west. The new owner, a man named Roberts, wanted to move his own family into the place before he began spring ploughing. It was not quite time for us to head west, as snow was still on the ground and the weather still very cold. Pa said we would linger a week, maybe two, if it stormed bad. The journey from Ohio would take us at least six weeks to get to the jumping-off place, if the weather stayed fair and we didn’t encounter any delays. We meant to go to Independence, on the great Missouri-Mississippi River, and join with other travelers to form a company to venture across what was then called the American desert.

“The grass has to have grown tall enough to feed the animals,” Pa explained. To me, it made perfect sense. Our team oxen had to graze, all eight of them, and Daisy the milk cow which was to come with us on the journey. The snow wasn’t anywhere near off the fields yet in Ohio, so it likely wasn’t any better in Missouri – or across the river, where the trail led west.

Still, it was a wrench to leave the farm, and see our house emptied out, the rooms echoing and comfortless. All the furniture – and there wasn’t much, as we were not rich folk – was sold or given away. Pa said cheerfully that he could always make more, as he was a fair hand at carpentering, as long as there was good wood to be had. On the last afternoon, Pa found me in the barn, where our favorite barn cat, Cally (for Calico) had birthed another parcel of kittens the week before. She had them in a nest of old horse blankets in the stall where we had kept harness and tack for the oxen.

They were beautiful kittens, and their eyes had just begun to open, all blue and wondering at that strange world around them. Cally was accustomed to Jon and I, so she let me hold the new kittens without raising a cat-ruckus. The largest was another calico, like their mother, but I liked best the orange kitten with four wee white paws and a white tip to it’s brief tail. I thought that was the sweetest of the litter. I was holding it in my lap, and letting it play with the end of a wheat-straw, when Pa found me. Boomer the hunting hound pattered after him, but he knew well enough not to pester Cally when she was nursing kittens. Boomer lay down on the old straw and rested his nose on his paws, while Pa asked Cally if she had caught any more mice that day, since mice were a plague in the wintertime, and came inside from the fields looking for warmth. Pa liked animals, and animals liked him, you see. There wasn’t a better hand with oxen or horses in the whole of Marion County then.

“I should have asked for another dollar for the place, seeing that a new passel of barn cats are included in the sale,” Pa said, finally.

“Pa, this one is so pretty,” I held up the orange and white kitten. I was crying, all of a sudden, like a ball of sadness suddenly unraveled inside me, like a skein of yarn. “Can’t I keep just this one, and take it with us to California?”

Pa heaved a sigh, shook his head and sat down on the straw next to me, while Boomer pricked his ears up and looked back and forth between us, as if he were wondering about what we were saying. “We can’t do that, Sugar-plum,” he replied. Sugar-plum was his pet name for me, and he used it only in the family. “It’s too little to be taken away from it’s mama. Besides, cat’s ain’t really at all like dogs. See – cats; they’re set on a place that they like. Oh, they’ll tend to like the people in it, well enough – well, mostly. But it’s the home-place they favor over anything. Not people so much. It’s pert-near impossible to move a cat from a place that it’s accustomed to. Now dogs,” and Pa fondled Boomer’s ears, “Dogs are different. Dogs favor the person they love over anything. Leave a house for someplace else, that dog will follow you over all creation. A cat will just yawn at you and wonder when that new person in the home place will give them some fresh milk. So, no, Sugar-plum. Leave the kitten with it’s Ma. Besides, I hear tell there’s wolves out west, big hungry prairie wolves. A little kitten like this wouldn’t last a minute, and you couldn’t keep a cat in a cage all that way to California. Tell you what, though,” and Pa ruffled Boomer’s ears again. “I can promise you this – when we get to California, and get ourselves a nice farm there, and have a good house – then I’ll get you a pretty orange kitten to keep for your very own. A pretty orange kitten with white feet, just like this one.”

“Promise, Pa?” I had no notion of the likelihood of finding an orange kitten in California, or even if they had cats there at all. I knew practically nothing about the place, even from hearing Pa and Ma and our friends talking about it.

“Of course, Sugar-plum. Now, wipe your eyes and blow your nose. Don’t I always keep my promises?” Pa fetched out a calico handkerchief from the front of his heavy roundabout jacket and handed it to me.

“You do, Pa,” I gulped, still feeling tearful. Pa kissed my forehead and said,

“Now, say goodbye to Cally and her babies, and go find your Ma – she’s packing up the last of those things that we’re taking with us, and needs your help.”


I walked through the house – from the kitchen, through the parlor, listening to the hollow sounds of my footsteps. I found Ma in the empty room where she and Pa had slept, folding the last of her good quilts into the small trunk. She stuffed a pair of good goose feather pillows into the top of the trunk. They didn’t really fit, until she punched them down as if they were riding bread dough and looked up at the sound of my footsteps.

“Sally, will you sit on the lid, so that I can close the latch?”

“Yes, Ma,” I answered. I did so, and Ma snapped the latches closed.

“You look sad, like you’ve been crying,” she said, and I nodded, still sitting on the trunk.

“It was … I wanted to take one of Cally’s kittens, and Pa told me why we couldn’t and then I was so sad to think of leaving… I don’t know why I felt like that, all of a sudden. It’s such a long way, Ma. So far from Grandpa Reverend and Aunt Rachael … even Granny Eliza in heaven, but her grave is here and…” I began to feel the tears coming on again, and Ma patted my cheek.

“It’s all right, Sally-child,” she said. “It is a very long way; so very much farther than it was from Pennsylvania to here, when I was a little girl and my ma and pa decided to come to the Ohio country. I cried then too, for leaving my friends and all the kinfolk around Downingtown. And oh, it was a wild frontier then, even more than California might be. The wars with the Indians were just barely over, back then. But there was something new to see, every day. So many curious and marvelous sights, and so many strange people! My ma – your Granny Sarah that you are named for – she told me that I should always look ahead.  I should think of it all as a wonderful adventure, like in the old storybooks. A new story, a new page, every single day.”

“But what about Indians? And wild beasts – wolves and lions and such?” I asked. From what Jon and I had overheard the grownups talking, there were such dangerous things out along the long trail to California. Ma laughed.

“Oh, the stories that men do tell! I wouldn’t pay them too much mind, Sally-child. Men will say such things to each other, boasting how brave they are for facing such perils! Besides,” Ma added, “Your Pa will have his long hunting rifle, and I am certain that other men in our company will have such rifles and blunderbusses as they have thought to bring with them. I am certain that they will be the equal of any wild beasts or Indians that we might encounter! Now, help me carry this out to the wagon … I do believe that Father Kettering will be expecting us in time for supper tonight, and it has already gone past four…”

Ma and I carried the small trunk between us, until Pa came around from the barn with Jon, to help load it into the wagon, all hitched to three yoke of oxen, waiting in the farm yard, with Daisy the milk cow and the two extra oxen hitched to the wagon tail by long halters. The sky was grey overhead, with a scent of snow in it; spring seemed as if a faraway dream.

Pa lifted Jon up to the wagon seat, but I scrambled up by myself, up and over a wagon wheel nearly as tall as myself. Ma came up with a boost from Pa, and we all squeezed together on the wagon seat, huddled against the cold. Pa strode with his big stock whip in hand and gave a quiet command to the lead pair. The wagon lurched once, and then rolled steady, lurching as the wheels turned. Out of the farmyard, past the blank windows of our house, the house that wasn’t ours any longer but belonged to Mr. Roberts, and onto the winter-rutted road that led to town.

I didn’t look back. Ma had said, always to look ahead.

Richard was halfway through his final pre-supper circuit through the Cattleman’s restaurant kitchen when his cellphone buzzed with the urgent message from the VFD; all available volunteers report to the firehouse immediately. He had been a volunteer for the past several years – and this was one of his standby days. He wasn’t yet a full-fledged fire-fighting volunteer, due to his erratic attendance at training sessions, but he had scored well enough on the required first aid exams and victim rescue tests to qualify to ride out with Chris in the VFD ambulance. He rushed into the office, to pull his coat out of the closet, and collided with Lew Dubois as he rushed out again.

“You, too?” he gasped, and Lew nodded.

“We’ll take my car, cher. Mr. Charboneau, from housekeeping has been called as well.”

The two men hustled out of the service door, where the old stables used to be, joined in the parking area by a large and normally silent Fred Charboneau, the resident handyman, who had married into the sprawling Gonzalez/Gonzales clan. The rain was pelting down in a manner which reminded Richard keenly of summer in Bickley. Both Lew and Fred hefted duffle bags of turnout gear into the trunk of Lew’s late model Lexus and peeled out of the narrow employee lot on two wheels. It was barely three blocks to the VFD station, already being converged upon by an assortment of civilian vehicles.

“It’s hard to believe that something is on fire in this weather,” Fred Charboneau observed. Richard and Lew laughed, hollowly.

“It is said to be most difficult to make something fool-proof, as fools are most ingenious,” Lew replied. Richard, remembering the flood on the river of some years previous, ventured an explanation.

“Probably an emergency rescue on the river, or a low crossing … some kid messing around on the riverbank and getting swept away.”

“Could be, cher,” Lew found a place to park as close to the station as he could, and they all dashed through the driving rain – which now seemed determined to achieve in four hours what it had taken Noah’s flood forty days and nights.


There wasn’t anything but somber faces in the briefing area, once Milo Grigoriev finished outlining the situation, and setting the search parameters. Every single one of the volunteers in the room knew Joe Vaughn, some of them had even played on the Moths Varsity football team, back in the days when he was the high school football hero. There wasn’t a single one who would mind getting soaked to the skin, or worse, scouting along the two most likely back-country roads – just to make certain that he would be found and returned, safe and sound.

“The weather folks predict that the worst of this storm will pass over the search area in half an hour to forty-five minutes,” Milo Grigoriev concluded, “There’s a hazard in sending out a search while it’s still pissing down to beat the band … but they call it the Golden Hour for a damned good reason – if we find someone injured – badly injured –  and get them to medical care within that hour, then there’s a much better chance for survival and recovery. We have to risk it, people. It’s a matter of life and death. You know the plan, then. Go, people. Find Chief Vaughn – and stay safe out there.”

That being said, all but Richard, Chris Mayall, Lew and Steve Gonzales, a full-time FD employee scattered for their personal vehicles. Since the expansion of Venue Properties, International to include a lease on the Cattleman Hotel and a constant stream of day-trippers and holidaymakers, the VFD had found themselves in the way of a second ambulance, the vehicle and contents of necessary gear generously funded by the corporate Good Fairy. There were just the four remaining at the VFD to take any calls for EMS and an ambulance from Tina Gonzalez at the police station dispatch desk.  Chris tapped Richard on the shoulder.

“You’re with me, if they call for Number One Magic Bus. Lew, if you don’t mind – you’re with Steve on Number Two. You OK with that, Ricardo – Lew?”

“Fine with me,” Richard replied. This gave him time to change into his VFD gear, now that he had achieved the dignity of a locker of his own at the Fire Station, in which to keep the issue trousers, boots, and official shirt with his name embroidered over the pocket, against the day when the whole crew of volunteers was called out. Then he rejoined his First Aid fellows in the all-purpose room, where the on-duty firefighters whiled away the idle hour in luxuriously overstuffed Barca-loungers, waiting for various disasters to call them to action. A tall coffee urn perked away on a table in the corner, attended by a stack of heavy china mugs, and a dispenser full of sugar packets and little round containers of shelf-stable creamer.

Chris and Steve were watching an old film noir mystery movie from the 1950s, without much interest. A somewhat intrigued Lew was identifying the scene of the outdoor locations, since he had attended college in Los Angeles and had once intended a career in Hollywood set design, before diverted by chance into hospitality management.

“Lake Arrowhead was very popular for shooting scenes of mountain lakes and pine trees,” He was saying as Richard took possession of an empty lounge chair. “Alas, it looks nothing like the Alps of Switzerland at all … but in those days, very few people might know the difference, just by looking at a movie screen. But …”

At that moment, the duty room telephone rang, and Chris picked up with a crisp report;

“Luna City FD, Mayall speaking.”

“Ambulance call, 24 Pin Oak, elderly woman in distress,” reported Tina Gonzalez, from next door in the police station – the extension was on the speakerphone mode. Chris gave a deep sigh.

“Thanks, Tina. Sending Unit 2,” Chris hung up the receiver, and addressed the room at large. “Mrs. Mafilda Potrero – probably having a panic attack again. She always does, when it rains heavy like this. Never got over getting caught in a flooding low-water crossing, ten-fifteen years ago. Steve, you and Lew take it. Ricardo and I’ll wait to hear from the search party.”

“On it, Doc,” Steve shouldered into his rain slicker and hood. He and Lew vanished into the garage part of the station, and the brief wail of the ambulances’ siren could be heard until it faded into the sound of rain drumming on the metal roof. Chris sighed again. “You want some coffee, Ricardo? We may be here for a while.”

“Not unless it’s from the Café,” Richard replied. “I don’t trust anything calling itself coffee, unless it came from my kitchen or one that I supervise. Sounds as if you’ve gone to the dance with the Potrero woman before.”

“Frequent flyer, man,” Chris sauntered over to the coffee and helped himself. “Nice old broad, but still has PTSD from the fright of near drowning … in a foot of water over the old road a couple years back. I can relate. A good few puffs of oxygen, some sternly-worded reassurance, and she apologizes for having been such trouble, and brings out some butter cookies that her sister made, and brags about her grandchildren. All hunky-dory. But one of these days, she will have a heart attack or something for real … aannndd that’s why we send the Magic Bus over to 24 Pin Oak. Just in case. You might as well kick back and relax, Ricardo … by my reckoning, we won’t be called for …” Chris consulted his watch. “At least twenty-five minutes. Sooner, maybe, but only if Joe was exceeding the speed limit, and you know what a freak he was about that kind of thing.”

“How do you figure?” Richard was honestly intrigued. He really hoped that Chris was right. And that the rainstorm had blown through by the time #2 Ambulance returned to the barn. And really – if this call-out took too long, could Chris or Lew drop him off at the Age, and spare him the long trek on his bicycle?

“Joe told Jess that he was about half an hour out,” Chris explained patiently. “So, even in the rain, it will take almost that long for our search crews to reach the approximate area and begin to search. Longer, if they have to be careful in heavy rain. So, relax, Ricardo. Have a cup of awful coffee. Sit back and watch a dumb old movie. Betcha anything that Steve and Lew will be back before we get the call. We might even see the end of the movie.”

19. November 2023 · Comments Off on Just As A Teaser… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

the notes from the end of That Fateful Lightning, which is now available for pre-release order in Kindle.

Like the story told in my previous series of books, The Adelsverein Trilogy, a lot of the background to this story was new to me. I wasn’t raised in the South, and the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist. Frankly, all I knew about the chattel slavery in the South was what there was contained in generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War and articles in my mothers’ issues of American Heritage. There was nothing much in my store of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it was in the time in which the first half of this book takes place, so a deep dive into contemporary accounts of travels in the South were required.

Richmond, Virginia, was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: I have tried to describe what Minnie would have seen and experienced in that visit to Shockoe Bottom and create conversations that she would have had with Southerners like Pres Devereaux and Levi Chaffin, Susan Edmonds and with slaves like Hepzibah – all of whom would in real life in that period would have said something like the dialog which I wrote for them. There is a word for readers who will assume that such words are my own thoughts on the matter of chattel slavery, as they are very much counter to contemporary mores. That word is “idiot.” That term also extends to writers who bolt conventional contemporary attitudes onto characters set in another place and time. It is a disservice to readers who honestly want to explore other places, times, and situations, and a grim transgression against the art of building a story, in that it basically puts 21st century characters in unconvincing costumes.

Details are taken from contemporary accounts. Minnie would not have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions.   For most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.

The escape by rail travel of Miss Bonnie Beauchamp and her servant/husband was based on a similar occurrence; that of William and Ellen Craft from Macon, Georgia in 1848. Ellen Craft, who appeared sufficiently white to pass as such, dressed in male clothing, bandages, and spectacles, claiming that injuries prevented her from signing hotel registries and deafness as an excuse to not chat with fellow passengers. They posed a wealthy young planter and his manservant, and gained safety in Philadelphia, Boston and eventually England, after many close calls and fraught moments.

Boston was practically the epicenter of the American abolitionist movement, a movement which roiled the political world in the U.S. for more than two decades, finally culminating in open war. Whether it was slavery, or economics which served as the touchpaper to war is a matter still disputed by historians, but to the real-life contemporaries of Minne Vining, there was no question at all: slavery was the issue.

The existing pre-Civil War US Army was a small one as national armies of the times counted, with a correspondingly tiny medical corp. All of that went out the window when the fighting began. Congress authorized the creation of the Sanitary Commission in June, 1861. The Sanitary Commission served the Union Army much as the combined military medical commands, the Morale, Recreation and Welfare offices and the Red Cross serve our armed forces today.

Although the national leadership of the Commission at the upper levels were male, women made up an extraordinarily large number of mid-level workers, fund-raisers, administrators, nurses, and general support personnel. Being also proud of their contribution, many of those women contributed memoirs written after the war. Those accounts make for stirring reading and I have depended on several of them, especially a memoir left by Rebecca Pomroy to fill out Minnie’s experiences. The account of Minnie’s daily routine at the Columbia College Hospital was taken from Mrs. Pomroy’s memoir. There was a lot of overlap between abolitionists, temperance activists and women’s rights advocates during that period. Many of the best-known women volunteers were active on all three fronts, as well as being friends with each other. Minnie’s friend, Mary Ashton Livermore was one in real life. She also served as reporter and editor for a newspaper which her Universalist minister husband owned.

As related, Mary Jane Bickerdyke was an early volunteer nurse in the western theater. Perhaps we do not realize today how much of a woman’s domestic duties then involved caring for the sick and invalid, before sanitation, sterile surgery, and vaccination for common childhood diseases. Both Mary Bickerdyke and Rebecca Pomroy had cared for invalid husbands for years; they and other volunteer nurses had already done a lot of practical nursing, without the benefit of formal medical training. General Grant endorsed her presence and actions as Union forces advanced down the Mississippi. It was the peppery-tempered General Sherman who responded one of his subordinates complaining about her, demanding that he do something about that ‘damned bossy woman’ by saying, “I can’t – she ranks me.” Mary Bickerdyke was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Western Army’s medical command. She participated in Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, at General Sherman’s express request.

Mary Jane Safford, the nurse at the Cairo Army hospital when Mrs. Bickerdyke and Minnie arrived, was a real person also – who later studied medicine herself and became a one of the very first female gynecologists to practice in the United States, and a professor of gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, Virginia, was indeed a spy for the Union all throughout the war, and upon defeat of the Confederacy, was the first in Richmond to hang the US flag from her house. It has been claimed that one member of her spy ring, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave freed by her family, was placed in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Her spying and philanthropic activities eventually drained her family fortune, and in later life she was supported by the families of former POWs held in Libby Prison during the war.

The character of Colonel Levi Chaffin is based on the experience of General George Henry Thomas, known as “The Rock of Chickamauga” – born in Virginia to a plantation-owning, slave-holding family, but married to a woman from upstate New York. Like Grant and Sherman, he was a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War … and he broke with his family in remaining with the Union. His family never forgave him for that disloyalty to his native state. They burned all of his letters, never mentioned his name again, and did not attend his funeral when he died prematurely of a stroke, barely five years after the end of the war. A modest and competent man, he may have been the only Civil War general on either side who never wrote a post-war memoir and burned his private papers.

Finally – this account of the experiences of a 19th century American woman who was not all that unusual as an activist and campaigner for all kinds of causes – fills in or provides a background to certain stories and characters in my other historical novels. Minnie’s deceased younger brother Horace, husband to her dear friend Annabelle, is the bigamous husband of Margaret Becker, of Daughter of Texas and Deep In the Heart. Unknown to Minnie, the unconscious Confederate soldier in her field hospital in the final chapter is Horace Vining’s youngest son, Peter Vining. In the opening chapter of Adelsverein: The Harvesting, Peter Vining returns alone and on foot to his family home in Texas, after the defeat of the Confederacy, and tries to figure out a new life for himself. An octogenarian Minnie herself appears in the first chapters of Sunset and Steel Rails, belatedly providing her grandniece, Sophie Brewer, with the means of escaping Boston and the machinations of her lamentably sociopathic brother. And finally, Minnie’s experiences after the battle at Shiloh are briefly referred to in My Dear Cousin, with Sophie Brewer’s granddaughter Vennie Stoneman as an Army nurse in WWII.