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.

So, it’s come to me having to think about the next book project. We’re going to wrap up the Luna City chronicles in the next few months, although I will likely go and do a kid’s adventure series featuring some of the characters as children in the 20s and 30s. I think I can probably do one more collection of Jim Reade and Toby Shaw adventures in the time of the Republic of Texas. Likely, I could do one more adventure with the ancestors of the Vining and Becker families during the Revolution, but right now that prospective project seems more like a grim obligation to fill out the series than anything else. A writer has to feel some enthusiasm embarking on a new book project – it also helps if the enthusiasm lasts through the first draft.

In a way, I’m circling back to my very first historical novel – the one which doesn’t have a single thing to do with Texas. But it has proved enduringly popular and is the only one of my books other than the Jim and Toby stories that I can unequivocally recommend to tween and teen readers. I had an idea – to create a wagon-train adventure again, but with a tween protagonist, experiencing a coming-of-age adventure-journey. Perhaps extend the adventure to the initial discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill, and the wild and raucous days in the gold mines where women and intact families were so rare as to be practically an endangered species … I already have most of the necessary references in house, which saves on research time. Another trilogy, perhaps – but each book separate and stand-alone as a separate adventure. Make the series about a close-knit and affectionate family, like the Ingalls family, of the Little House series. That should have the charm of the unusual, given the current trend in YA for flamingly dysfunctional families. Offer adventures which subtly demonstrate the values of courage, accepting responsibility, and problem-solving … yes, I could have fun with this, and make it a good, engaging read – like Harry Potter, although I’ll likely never be able to buy a couple of castles out of my royalty payments. For some peculiar reason, it seems more natural to me to do the story in first person voice. Which can be fun – I can try and model the main character/narrator voice after a combination of Jaimie, from The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Huckleberry from Huckleberry Finn and Mattie from True Grit – just make the reading level and vocabulary a bit more comfortable for modern tween and teen readers. So … off we go, on another book adventure!

29. June 2023 · Comments Off on The Murder of a Very Modern Major General · Categories: Old West, Random Book and Media Musings

This post was inspired by a terse note next to a picture of the gentleman in question, on a page in one of my reference books – a note that the Confederate commander, one Major General Earl Van Dorn was murdered in mid-campaign, in his HQ in Spring Hill, Tennessee by an outraged husband. A personal thing, not an arranged assassination … or was it? Intrigued, for such is my butterfly interest in such matters, I went snorkeling around in the various sources, searching for more details.

Like the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical Pinafore, Earl Van Dorn was a very modern major general for the 19th century; a handsome cavalryman, the very beau ideal of a certain breed of Victorian male. He was accounted to be very handsome, by the standards of the time, although my personal reaction is meh; the enormous bushy soup-strainer mustache in contemporary photographs is off-putting to me, but photographic portraiture of the time really doesn’t do much in establishing the raw sexual appeal of anyone. But Van Dorn was also a charismatic and flamboyant personality, so that may account for it. He was a gallant officer in service to the Noble Cause, cutting a splendid figure in the gray and gold-hung uniform of the Confederacy … he wrote poetry, painted, was a consummate horseman … and notoriously, loved the ladies, who loved him right back. He loved them so much that he had long been known as the terror of ugly husbands and nervous papas everywhere.

He was a Regular Army officer, a heroic veteran of the war with Mexico, who had thereafter served a somewhat rewarding and satisfactory career on the Texas frontier. He was accounted to be a master of cavalry command; fearless, able, competent. He was also a great grandnephew of Andrew Jackson, being born to one of Jackson’s nieces; a place at West Point was thereby assured, although he successfully graduated 52 out of 68 places, due to use of tobacco, failure to salute superiors and extravagant use of profanity. He had several sisters who adored him, a wife whom he married after graduating from West Point – and sired two children with her, although never quite being able to establish a permanent home for his family. Whether this was due to disinclination and lack of enthusiasm on either part, or the brutal requirements of service in the military in those decades is a matter of speculation. He had mixed success as a commander in the first few years of the Civil War – a loss at Pea Ridge in a Confederate attempt to take St. Louis, another in the Second Battle of Corinth, but slashing success as a cavalry commander in fights at Holly Springs, Thompson’s Station, and the first battle at Franklin.

In the spring of 1863, Van Dorn was stationed in Spring Hill, Tennessee, thirty miles south of Nashville and almost in the dead center of the state. According to some accounts, Van Dorn and his staff were first billeted in home of local magnate Aaron White and his wife and family, but that didn’t last long. Accounts vary – some have it that Mrs. White was unhappy at having most of her home taken over as a military HQ, leaving her family with a just couple of bedrooms and access to the kitchen. She was even more unhappy – scandalized, even – when rumors began to fly about General Van Dorn’s romance with a married woman in Spring Hill. Jessie Peters was the very pretty, flirtatious, and much younger third wife of Dr. George Peters, who very openly came to visit the General at the White residence – a considerable breach of Victorian etiquette. Mr. and Mrs. White were not pleased at this scandalous turn of events. At about this time, Van Dorn moved his headquarters to another residence in Spring Hill, the mansion owned by one Martin Cheairs, about half a mile distant. (Both houses still stand, apparently.)

George Peters was a wealthy landowner and politician, a doctor, and often gone on business for long periods of time, leaving his young wife to find her own amusements, domestic and otherwise. It was also rumored that he was of Union sympathies, but nevertheless, upon his return to Spring Hill in early April, 1863 Dr. Peters became aware of the rumors concerning his wife and General Van Dorn, the long unchaperoned carriage rides they went on together, and the General’s many visits to the Peters home. To say the very least, Dr. Peters was not pleased, especially after he caught his wife and the General in a passionate embrace. Angry words were exchanged; George Peters threatened to shoot Van Dorn then and there. Supposedly Van Dorn asked for forgiveness and took the blame for the affair all to himself … and the matter seemed to be smoothed over.

But two or three weeks later, Dr. Peters appeared at the Cheairs house, asking to speak to General Van Dorn. Assuming that he wanted another permit allowing him to pass through the Confederate lines, he was directed into the study where Van Dorn sat at his writing desk, hard at work. Dr. Peters pulled out a pistol and shot Van Dorn in the back of the head. No one among the general’s staff took notice of Dr. Peters’ swift departure – not until the young daughter of the Cheairs family ran out of the house, exclaiming that the General had been shot. Of course, everyone rushed into the study, where they found Van Dorn unconscious, but still breathing. He died hours later, much mourned across the South, although there seemed to have been many who considered that he had brought it upon himself with his reckless pursuit of women captivated by his personal appeal.
Eventually, Dr. Peters was apprehended and arrested for the murder, but curiously, never tried. He insisted that Van Dorn had, in his words, “violated the sanctity of his home.” Most everyone then and since assumed that it meant Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters. But was it? A novel by another indy author, also fascinated by the conundrum and possessed of certain local-specific resources, suggests that the motive for murder was not simply Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters but his seduction of Clara Peters, Dr. Peter’s unmarried teenage daughter from an earlier marriage … a doubly scandalous matter which resulted in Clara Peters being pregnant.

Just another rabbit-hole in the pursuit of writing engaging historical fiction – additional evidence that our 19th century forbearers were at least as horny as humans anywhere else. They just … didn’t do it in the road and frighten the horses. Comment as you wish.

13. March 2023 · Comments Off on Just a Heads-Up! · Categories: Old West, Random Book and Media Musings

The next installment of the Lone Star series is done – the further adventures of Texas Ranger James Reade and his blood-brother, Toby Shaw of the Delaware – Yes, it’s titled Lone Star Blood, and will be launched in print and ebook by the end of this month! Yay, me! Another item checked off my yearly to-do list! One of the short adventures was published last year in the anthology volume Tales Around the Supper Table Vol. Two! I intended it as a retelling and homage of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, which at least two reviewers of the anthology considered to be a rip-off. No, it’s an homage – every excellent plot ought to be taken out for a romp in every geographical location where it might be made to fit! Anyway, my version of that adventure and four others will be available in print and ebook by the end of March, 2023.