23. June 2015 · Comments Off on After a Long Hiatus – Another Chapter of “The Golden Road” · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book · Tags: , , ,

So – I have the time and inclination to work on the picaresque Gold Rush adventure – about the teen-aged and wide-eyed young Fredi Steinmetz’ experiences in the California Gold Rush — which so far in first draft has him encountering Sally Skull,

Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Charlie Goodnight, Jack Slade, and Leroy Bean … and then a bandit who may be Joaquin Murrieta … or not.

Chapter 10 – O’Malley’s Grand Party

Not daring to venture far from the wagon in search of the mules for fear of becoming lost in the dark, Fredi eventually settled on his bedroll underneath it, holding Nipper still firmly bundled in O’Malley’s heavy coachman’s overcoat. Much to his surprise, he fell almost at once into a very sound sleep, and remained in that condition until wakened just before sunrise by the lightening sky, the cooing of doves in nearby bushes, and the pattering of fat little quail searching for bugs in the leaf-mast under them. The night had been chill enough – and Nipper had not been tempted until then to unravel himself from the toils of O’Malley’s coat. He shook them off, trotted over to the nearest bush and cocked a leg to piss against it. Groaning, Fredi followed suit, and wondered now what he was to do – penniless and alone save for a small black terrier dog, without mules to pull the wagon. The wagon itself now represented the larger part of his and O’Malley’s fortune, and he was loath to abandon it.

Might as well go and search for the mules, first. Perhaps he would strike it lucky – and it would be about time, for there was nothing but bad luck in the last few days. And he had no appetite for breakfast, for worrying about O’Malley and the mules. He rolled up his bed-roll and blankets, pitched them into the wagon, shrugged the overcoat over his shoulders – for he felt the chill – and whistled to Nipper.

“Let’s go find those mules, hey, Nip? There’s a good dog. I know of sheep-herding dogs,” he mused aloud. “Why can’t you be a mule-herding dog?”

He examined the hoof-prints of shod beasts, trodden into the road, and into the grass to either side, but the prints of the mules were indistinguishable from those of the horses ridden by the bandits to his relatively unskilled eye, and all in a muddle anyway, on either side of and ahead of the wagon, sitting forlorn by the side of the road. He wasn’t anything like the tracker that Carl was, although he was good enough at straying cows. Fredi took his lariat from the wagon, and strode off in the direction most heavily marked by disturbance of the mud, crushed grass and small broken branches, in hopes that fortune would favor him and that three mules had not wandered very far from water. From the darker line of green at some distance, it appeared likely that they had gone in that general direction. Fredi gloomily wished that he had kept shrewd Paint, sold at Warner’s for a price in gold now gone to a bandit’s purse. It would be a damned long walk to the water, and a hard chase on foot if the mules weren’t cooperative.

Before he had ventured very far, though – he heard O’Malley’s distant voice, raised in song. Nipper, trotting at Fredi’s side one moment, made like a small black lightening-bolt in the next, soon lost in the low brush.

“You took your time about it,” Fredi gasped, when he emerged onto the track again, to see Nipper capering happily alongside the mule that O’Malley rode bare-back. Now and again the small dog leaped up, clear of the ground. “They must have showed you a grand time.”

“Oh, Freddy-boyo, they did indeed,” O’Malley groaned, even though his countenance seemed reasonably cheerful – especially considering that the bandits had deprived them of nearly all their stake. “Although ‘tis a matter of me, showing them a good time … the poor lads wanted to see someone playing a piano properly, y’see. I thought of it as a command performance, boyo. They heard all about the piano at the Headquarters Saloon an’ the wonders of m’ performances there – but bein’ in the outlaw trade, they could no’ partake of them in person.”

“Where did they take you to?” Fredi demanded, but O’Malley only shook his head.

“It was dark, an’ they tied a blindfold around me eyes, and again this morning when they led me away. It was a room in a house like Dona Vincenta’s, of that I am certain although it was only the one room that I saw – only sore neglected, an’ all covered with dust. The piano was in abominable tune an’ a torment to my own ears … but it pleased the audience well.”

“Glad that it pleased someone,” Fredi observed sourly, resenting O’Malley’s good cheer on this disastrous morning. “They stole our stake from us, O’Malley – and unless we can recover the other three mules, no chance of earning another one before spring.”

“Our stake? Pish-tush, boyo – all they took from us last night was some small coin, your revolver and my timepiece,” O’Malley’s countenance reflected such smug satisfaction that Fredi almost wanted to hit him, hit him again and again. “I took the precaution – well-justified you must admit now – of sewing the most of it, including the gold coins – into the hems of my coat, that very coat you are wearing now, leaving the lesser coin and notes as a decoy. You and Nipper between you, it was guarded well. I could not say anything to you last night. It was in my mind that Murrieta – I am certain that was him, being not dead but as alive as you or I – understood English better than he let on. Two may keep a secret if one of them is dead, you apprehend, Freddy-boyo; or one of them being a poor little doggie with no human speech at all.”

Astonished and overjoyed at this news, Fredi felt along the first hem of O’Malley’s heavy and many-caped woolen overcoat; yes, along that hem there were many small hard discs, buried in the doubled fabric. Only if you had thought to press the edge of that cape would one have detected their presence, and Fredi would have assumed them to be leaden dressmaker weights, inserted to make the ancient garment drape favorably.

“You could have told me,” he accused, and O’Malley sighed, a great and gusty sigh.

“Ah, boyo – there was not the time, and you are no actor, experienced in the intrigues among the wicked and lawless. It is indade a sadly wicked world that we live in … and the result of a bad performance is not a matter of rotten vegetables thrown upon the stage in disapproval – but a bullet aimed true at the heart or head.”

“Let’s go find those silly mules,” Fredi suggested, his heart already lightened considerably by the intelligence that O’Malley did retain a degree of low cunning about him. He set aside, with an effort, his previous conviction that O’Malley might have to be looked after as did Vati, who was dreamy and bookish, and lived life on such a high intellectual plane that realities such as Mexican bandits never impinged upon it.





(All right – here it is, the first chapter of the next book but one – the Gold Rush adventure that I have always wanted to write. This one takes place in between Book One and Book Two of the Adelsverein Trilogy.  Enjoy – I’ll be posting occasional chapters here. )

Chapter 1 – Two Boys

             Spring came to the lowlands around San Antonio de Bexar as it always did – with the springs of clear water flowing clear and ice-cold, with meadows of flowers splashed in swaths of yellow, pink and the deep rich blue of buffalo clover as if a reckless artist had chosen to go mad with the paint. Young Friedrich Steinmetz, whom most everyone called Fredi, had come with his brother-in-law’s herd of cattle and three hired buckaroos to sell in the market-plaza in Bexar. Carl Becker’s ranch spanned a stretch of the hills that defined the valley of the upper Guadalupe, where he had built a tall stone house and brought Fredi’s older sister to it some eight years before. The hill country – ranges of limestone hills quilted with oak trees, formed the wall between the grassy and well-watered lowlands, long-settled by white men and Mexicans, and the Comanche-haunted plains of the Llano country. For more than half his life, it had been home to Fredi and his twin brother Johann. They were alike in form, being wiry of build, hazel-eyed and with light-brown hair, but different in character.  Fredi was the scapegrace, impulsive and bold. Johann was the clever one; this very spring he was to sail away and study medicine in the Old Country, that country where the twins had been born sixteen and a half years before.

“I want to go and see Johann off when the cattle are sold,” Fredi said, that night when they were less than a day’s journey to Bexar. The sun had already faded to a deep apricot blush in the western sky, and the stars to glimmer pale in the sky overhead. The herd was pastured in a meadow on the bank of Salado Creek, running deep and cold at this time of year. The cattle drank from it eagerly, after a warm afternoon of being chivvied across a dry stretch. Fredi’s brother-in-law Carl Becker helped himself to another piece of journey-bread, and answered through a mouthful. “You’re gonna have to travel on your own, then. I can’t stay long enough from the place to see you to Indianola and back an’ I sure as hell can’t pay your way on the stage.”

“That’s what I planned on,” Fredi answered. “An’ … if I run out of money, I’ll work my way back.”

“That’s the ticket,” Carl Becker grinned. He was a big young man, Saxon-fair and soft-spoken, some fifteen years older than Fredi. They spoke together in German, that language which Carl had from his family, who had been settled in America some three generations longer than the Steinmetzes. “But you better get yourself back as soon as you can – I don’t want to explain to Magda and Vati that I’ve let you loose on the world, all on your own.”

“If Johann is old enough to go study medicine in Germany,” Fredi answered. “Then I don’t see how anyone would mind me making my way in the world. You told me that you enlisted in a Ranger company when you were the age I am in now.”

“That was different,” Carl answered, but didn’t offer any explanation as to why that would be. “And if something happens to you, your sister will skin me alive.”

“She’s all taken up with the baby,” Fredi answered, carelessly. “But I won’t see Johann for years and years, Carl – we’re brothers! I want to see him one more time … we can hurrah in Indianola for all the times we won’t be there with each other.” He fixed Carl with pleading eyes. “I promise I’ll come straight back to the ranch.”

“Promises like that are nut-shells, made to be broken,” Carl answered, with a touch of wry cynicism. “You and Johann are as thick as thieves and I always like to think that he keeps you out of trouble … Go and see him away – but if you do get into a ruckus on your own, I promise I will come down and skin you myself. Especially if I have to bail you out of the cabildo.”

“Excellent!” Fredi exclaimed, joyfully relieved. “As soon as you sell the cattle, then – I’ll take the road towards the coast. Johann and Mr. Coreth were to take passage on the steamer to New Orleans in three weeks. I’ll be back well before mid-summer. You can count on me!”

“I can count on you to be a handful – and that’s what worries me,” Carl answered. More »

21. March 2012 · Comments Off on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Slade – Part One · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , , , ,

 “In due time we rattled up to a stage-station, and sat down to breakfast with a half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranchmen and station employees. The most gentlemanly- appearing, quiet and affable officer we had yet found along the road in the Overland Company’s service was the person who sat at the head of the table, at my elbow. Never youth stared and shivered as I did when I heard them call him SLADE! … Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings, or all men lied about him! … He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history. It was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody- bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with.”  That was what Mark Twain wrote, years afterwards in an account of a stagecoach journey to California, in 1861, upon encountering Joseph Alfred  ‘Jack’ Slade, a divisional superintendent for the Central Overland, and a man who combined a horrific reputation with a perfectly soft-spoken and gentlemanly demeanor … and who in the space of four years,  went from being a hard-working, responsible and respected corporate man (as these things were counted in the 19th century wild west) to being hanged by the Virginia City, Montana, Committee of Vigilance.

It’s a curiosity of history; most people who have heard of Jack Slade have heard of him only through reading Roughing It. While Mark Twain cheerfully repeated every horrific tale he had heard about Slade without acknowledging that the very worst of them were either exaggerations or flat-out untruths – he did acknowledge and puzzle briefly over the curious dichotomy.  Which was the real man? The notorious murderer Slade … or the mild-mannered, gentlemanly person that he met at breakfast?  And what in Slade’s life would lead to the ending of it in such an awful and degrading way?

The person known as Jack Slade began his career in the west, as a seventeen-year old Army teamster, driving military freight wagons to Santa Fe during the Mexican War. Born Joseph Alfred Slade, he was a younger son of a fairly respectable family from Carlyle, Illinois. No authenticated photographic likenesses exist of him – very likely, he didn’t hold still long enough. He was later described as being a small and stocky man, with dark hair and eyes, a swarthy complexion, quick-moving and with a phenomenally good memory. He was also an excellent shot with a revolver, and had that elusive quality known as a ‘command presence.’ In the decade following the war, he worked as a teamster and stage-coach driver before achieving the dignity of a job as wagon-master for a Salt Lake City-based freighting concern on the Overland Trail. This was position of extreme responsibility; a wagon-master had absolute authority on the trail, in sole charge of valuable property and the lives of subordinates while traveling through a dangerous country devoid of any kind of law, civil or otherwise. The job demanded a cool head, a mastery of the profession, and command of men and animals; a wagon-master was paid three or four times as much as a teamster in the west – and teamsters were quite well-paid in comparison. Jack Slade went on to serve a succession of employers during a chaotic three years on the eve of the Civil War as section superintendent, overseeing the doings of the all-important stage line on the Central Overland trail. He had authority – and responsibility for siting, building and supplying the stage stations along his section of the overland trail. Hiring personnel, seeing that the mail, the company employees, and the passengers moved along the road in safety and at full gallop – all that made him of inestimable value to his employers. Jack Slade had one more valuable quality – that of a man who solved problems. The unsavory reputation as a stone-hearted killer was the unspoken side-bar to that. Frontier teamsters were a rowdy and barely disciplined lot, out and away from any governmental authority, civil or otherwise. That Jack Slade had killed a drunken, rebellious and disorderly teamster in a trailside dispute in the late 1850s was an established fact. The encounter might have been a fair fight – or not. The accounts (none of them first-hand) varied. Anyway, it wasn’t the most notorious murder ascribed to Jack Slade; that would be the death of a man whose severed, dried ear Slade took to carrying around in his waistcoat pocket.

By 1859, Slade’s experience in freighting operations and knowledge of the territory along the overland trail made him of inestimable value to his employers – and so had his reputation as the hardest of hard men. He was the go-to manager when the shipping firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell decided to establish the Pony Express in the critical year of 1860. Jack Slade was promoted and moved east to take up authority over 500 miles of a division which ran all the way from Julesburg to South Pass. So varied and vast was the professional experience and sheer dogged drive of the managers who set it up and employees who subsequently ran it, that the Pony Express was able to begin operations in a little more than two months. In that time, they hired eighty riders, purchased hundreds of strong, fast horses, and equipped nearly two hundred stations. In the middle of all urgent and complex project, one of Russell, Majors & Waddell’s problem employees came back to haunt Jack Slade – worse than that; to shoot him at least six times and leave him for dead.

Jules Beni was a Canadian-French trapper who had set up a little trading post and road roach at a point on the overland trail to Oregon, California and Utah crossed the Platte River. The place became known as Julesburg when a rough and ready settlement grew up around it. Jules was in his fifties, a very good a good age at that time and place, and most everyone around called him “Old Jules.”  It was only logical that Russell, Majors & Waddell hire him to stationmaster at Julesburg for the stagecoach and Pony Express enterprises. His place was right where the road branched – one leg going on to Salt Lake City, the other to Denver. Almost at once it became clear that Jules Beni was incompetent as a stationmaster and abusing his position. Old Jules appropriated company horses and supplies for his own use – and sometimes horses were stolen outright – and ‘returned’ after a reward negotiated with the thieves by Old Jules and charged to the company. Travelers complained of extortionate prices for lodgings and food, the constantly missing horses played havoc with the stage schedule, and the mail was often mis-routed; that intended for Denver sent to Salt Lake and vice versa. This kind of incompetence couldn’t be tolerated for long – and Jack Slade essentially fired Old Jules from position as stationmaster late in 1859. Not from Julesburg, though – where Old Jules still maintained his trading post. Jules Beni simmered for months over the implied insult. On a spring day, three weeks before the Pony Express was set to run the first cross-San Francisco-St. Joseph run, Jack Slade stopped off at Julesburg. He was making a routine inspection of the stage stations on his divisions, and fatefully had forgotten his knife and revolver at the last station of his rounds.  After an apparently amiable conversation with Jules Beni and two of the company stage drivers, Jules Beni noticed that Slade was unarmed. He fetched a six-shooter from his own quarters. Before anyone could react, he emptied the weapon at short-range into Slade’s body. Slade, who looked to be mortally wounded, staggered towards the stage station. Jules reached inside the door of his own place, and brought out a double-barreled shotgun and finished off the job with two barrels of buck-shot. He turned to the horrified stage drivers, saying, “There are some blankets and a box – you can make him a coffin if you like.”

(To be continued … of course.)