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.

01. February 2024 · Comments Off on Life On a Small Note · Categories: Uncategorized

Just a few months ago, I began going back to a hobby that I pursued from high school on to a point when I had a real, full-size house to play with – that is, miniature interiors and structures, I had subscriptions to all the good hobbyist magazines, frequented conventions as often as I could, really spent more than I probably could afford on the good stuff, and my family knew what to get for me, for birthdays and Christmas. Great-Aunt Nan was especially good at this, after I provided her with some print catalogues with the items that I really, really, really desired all circled. (With exclamation points!) Anyway – it was really quite mentally satisfying, constructing tiny environments out of this and that, but the interest faded when I had a for-real, for-permanent house and garden to play with.

Until I found some interesting kits on Amazon last year, and was offered some of the nicer, more detailed ones through the Vine program, and suddenly, I was interested again. The latest, which just arrived today, is a half-inch-to-a-foot scale Japanese sushi restaurant – a basic little building, with all the banners, flags, display cabinets and all … and about eighty tiny individual dishes of various sushi and noodle bowls to contrive and display – just like in such real Japanese restaurants, where the sample dishes were artfully made from plastic and on display in the windows, with the price next to each. It used to be very easy to meal-shop in ordinary Japanese restaurants; if the menu was impenetrable, you just went to the window with the waitress and pointed to whichever dish looked good. And with the realistic degree that such items were made – it was very easy to figure out what you would like to eat, since it would come out from the kitchen looking exactly like it did in the display. (more information here, about this interesting and useful Japanese restaurant custom.)

The instruction booklet – the actual building is 6.5 inches wide, by 5 deep.

The first page of instructions for making the tiny sushi – the two platters are about the size of a dime.

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!

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.”

We spent most of Saturday morning doing the semi-monthly grocery shopping run; a rather abbreviated run as it turns out, as my daughter has some houses to show on Sunday to clients who work Monday-Friday. We have given up driving to New Braunfels once a month to drop a goodly lot of money on meats from Granzin. This is lamentable, as Granzin’s sausages and the various meats, fresh, marinated, smoked and dried were absolutely prime and relatively inexpensive, but with Wee Jamie, a full schedule of real estate stuff for my daughter, and the nerve-wracking drive on a busy highway … road trips like that were just not something we can keep on doing – and never mind the hours’ long trip to Pflugerville or Victoria to the Aldi outlet. (That’s for when we are going in that direction for something else, anyway.)

The cost of most grocery staples has gone up, making certain economies necessary. I’m accustomed to cooking most things from scratch and have lived through patches of extreme economy and a limited budget, so the shopping list doesn’t include much in the way of frozen prepared items anymore – just basic ingredients. As my daughter says – ‘We are Old Poor, compared to the New Poor,’ for whom necessary austerity must bite very hard in the last year or so. But even basic ingredients have increased in price, to the point where now the military base commissaries offer a better deal than HEB, the Texas grocery chain, which has a huge distribution center here in San Antonio, and which has run just about every other national chain out of the state. (It’s a small town indeed, which doesn’t rate a HEB grocery outlet.)

This wasn’t always the case. When I first came to Texas, assigned to the video production unit at Lackland AFB, it was honestly even money whether HEB offered better pricing than the Commissary – various HEB locations certainly offered a wider selection than the commissaries, which mostly featured national big-name brands, and offered in-store bakeries and deli counters and numerous Texas-local brands. After so about a decade and a half of having the base commissary as the only and often limited grocery option, I was glad to shift my grocery-purchasing custom to HEB, and the lavish array of staples and specialty foods on offer, and to either Costo or Sam’s Club for items we used in quantity. We still do Costco, for certain items, and Chewy for pet food … but we’re back to making a commissary runs twice a month. It turns out that the DOD has extended commissary and PX access to veterans across the board, not just retirees, which means that my daughter can shop there for baby and toddler food for Wee Jamie, as the prices for the brands that we favor for him are somewhat less expensive – one thing that has changed for the better, I guess.