(Counting down to the release of the second Luna City Chronicles – a short selection from the climax, wherein Richard is tasked with rescuing his frenemy, the actor producer Phillip Noel-Barrett, from temporary imprisonment on the set of the movie which is being shot on location on the Wyler ranch…)

The Charge of the Karnes County Rangers

Narrowly missing being struck by the speeding van, Richard made a fruitlessly obscene gesture at the swiftly-vanishing tail-lights, and pedaled grimly on, down the paved road to the Wyler ranch, marked by a pair of ornamental gates, adorned by sheet-metal silhouettes of longhorns, horses and cowboys in a frieze overhead. He rumbled over the cattle grid. Now on the faint morning breeze, he could hear the distant roar of the electrical generators – not far to go now. The last of the stars winked out, all but the very brightest, Venus lingering coyly just out of reach of the crescent moon’s embrace. Out beyond the huddle of lights, a helicopter rose from the ground, a dragonfly shape hovering in the pearl-colored sky.
He had not been out to the movie encampment before – mostly through having no wish to encounter Phillip Noel-Barrett, but it now looked as if an encounter with the despicable Pip was inevitable. No one stopped him – in fact, everyone seemed to be too busy to take any notion of him. A company of forty extras, in rags of period Mexican uniforms and full zombie makeup were being marshaled at the foot of the hill, with a gold-braid hung officer in a gaudy blue and red uniform just hauling himself into the saddle of a white horse. Richard stared, agog, thinking ‘Stone the bloody crows, this is even worse than I thought it would be!’
Fortunately, the first person he encountered who seemed to take any interest in him at all, when he approached the main pavilion were a pair whom he recognized, with considerable relief: Chris Mayall, lean and saturnine, and Sylvester Gonzales, looking uncommonly smug.
“Hey, man – come to see the fun?” Chris drawled. “They’re about to start rolling on the big scene! Well, you saw the script.”
“I was under the impression that there is some kind of scheme afoot to sabotage the whole thing,” Richard answered, still panting and breathless from the furious pace. “Which I can hardly wait to hear all about. But I actually came all the way out here for Noel-Barrett. He keeps calling the Café, saying that he is locked in the editing van and no one is answering their cellphone.”
“Yeah, we know,” Sylvester replied, without turning a hair. Richard looked upon the conspirators with dawning comprehension, not unmixed with horror as well as envy.
“You did it,” he whispered. “You two … you magnificent conniving bastards. Now get the key and let him out.”
“We can’t,” Chris was entirely unmoved. “We do not, as a matter of fact, have the key in our physical possession.”
“Well then, where is the key and who does have it?” Richard demanded. Sylvester, affecting the retro-nerd look even to the extent of wearing a vintage wristwatch, consulted that watch and replied with nerdish precision. “At this time, and given the legal speed limit between here and Karnesville, Berto is likely at least halfway to that destination with the key in his possession. Chris sent him with the emergency cases,” he added, parenthetically. “Likely, he won’t be back for hours.”
“Well, get a bolt-cutter!” Richard demanded, thinking only of the strips that Araceli would subtly rip off his hide – she being abominably soft-hearted with regard to the suffering of others. Frankly, when it came to Phillip Noel-Barrett suffering, Richard was one inclined to sit back and enjoy, even add a couple of more judicious brands to the flaming spectacle. On the other hand, he had heard Araceli promise to take Noel-Barrett’s calls every five minutes or so – and how could any work be done in the Café under such conditions!
“Sorry, Ricardo; they are about to begin filming the grand scene,” Chris replied, with a perfectly stunning lack of regret. “Likely you won’t find anyone here with a bolt-cutter or the time to go for one until it’s all done. Mega-A** Lydecker is real short of personnel this morning. I can’t think how that could possibly have happened…” At that point, both he and Sylvester exchanged a meaningful look and laughed synchronistically.
Richard looked from one to the other, still torn between horror and envy. “All right, what else did the two of you do?” he asked, fairly certain that he would not welcome hearing the answer.
“What we had to do,” Chris replied. “To sink this movie. Don’t worry, Ricardo; your hands are clean. So are ours, if we have done it right and if Colonel Walcott and his reenactor command do their stuff – which he has promised they will do, come rain or shine. If you want to, come and tell what you see to that friend of yours through the keyhole. I guarantee – it will be the most awesome f**king thing you will ever see!”
“It’s three minutes to rock and roll,” Sylvester said, with another glance at his watch. “As I understand it, our fearless Mega-A** director wants to exceed the record for a single long unbroken tracking shot of a battle scene set by Kenneth Branagh in Henry V. They’ve been setting up the track and choreographing the extras in their moves for a week.”
“Me, I don’t want to miss a single minute. You want to tell Noel-Barret he’d better sit tight for a bit? We can watch it all from the back of the editing van and you can describe it to him through the door.” Chris shouldered the bag that held his First Aid gear and supplies, and Richard followed after; they knew the layout well, after having worked at the site, day and night for three weeks.
A chaos of noise, of movement, three or four young assistant directors with heavy walkie-talkies running around like two-legged sheep-dogs with their ghastly, gore-dripping charges. The helicopter hovering overhead made speech impossible, unless one was right next to the person you were conversing with. Chris and Sylvester led the way, to a hulking 18-wheel truck trailer at the edge of the location encampment. He climbed up the four steps to the door – a solid door, and padlocked on the outside with a fairly substantial lock. He put his head next to the door, and shouted,
“Pip! Damn it, Pip – Noel-Barrett, it’s Rich – can you hear me!”
He thought that he heard someone inside replying, but the racket from the helicopter was so loud that he couldn’t make out the words. Nonetheless, he yelled, “I’m here – but they can’t find the key and they’re about to start shooting! God is my witness, Noel-Barrett, they’ll get you out as soon as they can. Just sit tight … you don’t have to keep calling Araceli, you know! She has bloody work to do!”
At his side, Chris nudged his elbow, and when he saw that Richard’s attention was turned towards them, he made a megaphone with his hands, and shouted, “There they go! See the sun, just above the hill? Watch there!”
The white-hot silver rim of the morning sun touched the crest of the gentle rise just east of location headquarters. It seared the eyes, to look at, as more and more of that blazing orb rose into that breathlessly blue sky. A pale thin mist hovered briefly over the grass, dissipating as the shadows lengthened. Richard flinched at the sound of the blast, as three explosions kicked up gouts of earth and smoke, about a quarter of the way down the hill. The sun floated higher and higher and suddenly silhouetted against it, the figure of a man on horseback. The horse pirouetted and reared, the man lifting a sabre in his right hand, sunlight flashing along it’s brazen length, and it seemed that the horse neighed a challenge ….
Richard had to appreciate the sheer heroic appeal of the image – say what you would about him, and many were eager to say the absolute worst about M.A. Lydecker – he did have skill at creating a heroic spectacle in the old-fashioned wide-screen and cinematic manner. The horse pirouetted once again, and now the ridgeline was lined with advancing shadows, silhouetted as the rider had been, against the bright hot sky – men brandishing flashing knives, with long rifles and glittering bayonets, bearded, burly men, in a long skirmish-line, advancing over the long ridge of that green hill, shouting as they came. Half a dozen riders followed after the first, a purposeful arrow after their leader. But …

(Just have to wait for the book to find out what comes next! Yes, I’m cruel, teasing you all this way.)

Chapter 13 – Summer in the Diggings

 

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

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

Fredi and his two partners debarked at Yuba City after more than a week of poking along in the slow steamboat. The unsettling interval of the hanging at Sacramento had nearly faded from their minds in the excitement of approaching the fabled diggings – after so long and arduous a journey. Edwin, having soon recovered his spirits after witnessing the hanging, continued to enliven the journey with discourses on searching for gold, and on the most expeditious means of extracting it from wherever it might be – among river gravel, or in the crevices of granite rocks.

“Likely there are many who would say that the North Fork is pretty well mined out, but Pa … Mr. Padgett thought it worth the trouble to winter over, to keep the claim, or to work a new one upstream, rather than just follow the rush to a new strike. He was pretty certain of it – and so am I,” Edwin said, when O’Malley questioned him closely about his intention of returning to the stretch of river at Pine Tree Diggings. “And there was always enough and then some,” he added, with touching earnestness. “At every likely bend. But we may have to pack in by mule beyond Downieville, if the road is no better … and it gets rougher, the farther we go.”

The mountains loomed ahead of them now – piling up in distant blue and lavender slopes, the very topmost still lightly touched the last winter snows. The scent of pine-woods breathed on every errant wind – and to Fredi, every streamlet promised to be paved in gold.

“What will we do with the wagon, then?” He asked – as it turned out, Edwin was right about having to pack in all their supplies and gear, but O’Malley found an Irish storekeeper in Downieville, whom he had never met before, but claimed to have come from Balleymena and fell on O’Malley voluble joy, the Irish coming out so thick in his speech that neither Fredi or Edwin could understand him.

“Likely that Con Reilly and I are cousins, several times removed through our mothers, for his sainted mother and mine were both Kellys from Castledown,” O’Malley said, cheerful as a cricket. “And he has struck a bargain with me on the strength of that relation – for the use of our wagon and mules during the summer, he will see that all our trash an’ traps are packed entire to the Pine Tree Diggings, through the good offices of his friend in the mule-freighting concern … who is likely another cousin.”

“Can you trust this man Reilly?” Fredi asked, warily, and O’Malley chuckled.

“Of course, Fredi-boyo – Con’s my cousin from Ballymena, and a good Catholic, as well.”

Fredi sighed in deep exasperation and looked across at Edwin. “This is the man who unthinkingly accepts invitations to games of change with strangers in saloons – is it no wonder he needs a keeper?”

Edwin grinned back, in delight – almost the first time that Fredi had observed a wholly unguarded expression on the boy’s face. “We’ll do, between us,” Edwin replied, wholly confident. “And we are almost there.” His face lost a certain degree of confidence, as O’Malley went to commiserate with his countrymen and arrange the disposition of the wagon and their own mules. Fredi briefly wondered why; and not for the first time. Edwin sometimes seemed as mysterious and unforthcoming as O’Malley did, when it came to background and personal experience. Was he himself the only honest and forthright person of the three in this partnership? Perhaps, Fredi concluded – but then, he was also the only one of them well-armed and a fair shot, with the sturdy Colt dragoon revolver that he bought in San Francisco when Mr. King had alluded to the fact that distributing the Bulletin newspaper might have some hazards attached. The Colt made a considerable weight in the holster at his side – but not as much as the one looted from him by the bandits on the road from San Bernardino.

They set out from the ramble of a town that was Downieville – a town longer than wide, a ramble of stone-built, log and sawn lumber structures, all crammed into a narrow valley where two streams met, and overlooked by heights from which the trees had been removed, as if by some vast straight-razor. Some of the buildings were very new and fine, for apparently Downieville was of some years’ existence, as towns in the gold country went, and possessed the additional honor of being the county seat. But the territory beyond was increasingly mountainous, and Edwin was right – they could not have taken the wagon all the way to that stretch of the Yuba known as the Pine Tree Diggings. It was not, so O’Malley and Fredi were given to understand, a proper settlement, although if it proved rich enough, there was always that possibility. There was also the possibility of the road being improved, but until that day – a pack-train of mules would make do. There were other hopeful Argonauts on the track towards the higher mountains; men in rough clothes; the poorest of them bearing only a heavy pack on their own bent backs. With a train of eight of Reilly’s mules, every one so fully laden that more of their burden was visible than the mule itself, Fredi, O’Malley and Edwin counted as the most fortunate.

“We should be able to remain all summer, with what we have brought,” Edwin promised. “And into fall – until the first snows fall.”

“And by then, we will all be rich men,” O’Malley promised expansively. Fredi thought again of how he would return to Texas, and pay Carl back the money for the cattle. This was a very agreeable contemplation, and he relished his imagining for the remainder of that day. They camped that night in a small sheltered draw, picketing the mules by the waterside, lulled to sleep by a combination of weariness, the sound of running water, and the gentle tinkling of mule bells. Only Edwin seemed subdued, as if he moved under a private cloud of misery.

Towards the end of the second day, the mountains shouldered in on either side of the river. On the farther side of the ravine, the river described a gentle bend through a level meadow, which surrounded a small eminence which to Fredi somewhat looked like a kneeling woman with her skirts spread around her. A single tall pine tree, half-dead and gone silvery with weathering but still as straight as a ship’s mast crowned the hill. Here the river spread into shallows, and the last of the afternoon sun sparkled upon the running water. A rough oblong of logs notched at the corners – the lower walls of a rough miner’s cabin marked last year’s diggings at Pine Tree. This ramshackle place had been roofed in some previous summer with canvas, which now hung from the rafters in tattered shreds.

“This is the place,” Edwin said, and Fredi noticed that Edwin looked very deliberately away from the ruined structure. “I b’lieve we have arrived in good time, so that we may stake our claim first of all and in the most promising part. This stretch was worked over pretty well last summer, so I doubt if there is much to be found, unless by digging into the hill. We should move a little farther and set up our camp just where the river bends north-east. Tomorrow, I’ll see where color comes up strongest – and that’s where we’ll set the cradle.”

In the night – so dark a night that Fredi could barely see his hand before his face, he was wakened by Edwin; the boy cried out once, so loud that Fredi woke out of profound sleep. They had stretched their plain canvas shelter in a level place between a fallen tree, and a steep bank – it would not do for much longer than a night or two – for they were in haste for some kind of shelter.

“Wake up,” Fredi reached across and shook Edwin’s shoulder. “You’re having a bad dream – d’you want to frighten the mules?” He spoke in German, first – forgetting where he was, and thinking he was a child again, and it was Johann with the bad dream. The younger boy woke with a gasp, and a choked cry of, “Don’t touch me!” and struck out blindly at Fredi with the full force of his fist. That fist landed full on Fredi’s face – it hurt, and Fredi yelled as pain shot though his skull like a lightning-bolt.

“Stop that, you dummy!” Fredi shouted, and launched from his own blankets onto the younger boy, pinning Edwin by the shoulders in his own bedroll with his own weight. Edwin fought him with frantic energy, hampered by the heavy quilts, and it turned into a blind tussle in the pitch-dark, Fredi shouting and Edwin sobbing, until O’Malley struck a patent Lucifer against his boot-sole and lit the single candle in an iron miner’s candlestick driven into the earth bank.

“What’s all this, then?” O’Malley demanded, while Nipper peeked out from under O’Malley’s great-coat, piled at the foot of his bedroll, the dog’s eyes gleaming in the dim candle-light.

“He was having a nightmare,” Fredi replied, regardless of the blood streaming from his nose and Edwin thrashing about, even with Fredi’s full weight braced against the younger boy’s shoulders. “And when I tried waking him, he hit me!”

“Fredi-boyo, it’s the nightmare speaking – let him go,” O’Malley urged him again, and Fredi sat back on his heels with a grunt.

“I didn’t mean to,” Edwin sobbed. “I’m sorry, Freddy … I – I dreamed that someone was trying to kill me.”

“Ach, they say that if you want to wake a sleeper in the midst of a bad dream, you should shake their foot,” O’Malley crooned. “Fredi-boyo – here’s my handkerchief … Edwin, ‘tis lucky you are, then, for our Fredi-boy has a temper when he is roused. Say again that you are sorry – for wakening us all and frightening the poor little doggie. Go to sleep again, and dream of a river of gold – a lovely river, with water as clear as diamonds – and trees by that river, with trunks of ivory – yes, ivory branches, too, and leaves of emeralds …” Fredi, still simmering over the pain of his bleeding nose, took the handkerchief and crawled back into his disarrayed blankets, while Edwin sniffled in misery and O’Malley blew out the candle. But O’Malley kept talking in the dark, weaving with his voice a spell of wonders and marvels, and Fredi drifted away into sleep, only a little rattled in knowing that he and O’Malley were about to spend a summer in the diggings, in the company of a boy who had nightmares about someone trying to kill him. “He hits me again,” Fredi’s last coherent thought before he dropped into billowy grey clouds of sleep, “And I might be tempted to kill him for real. But Nipper likes him, so I suppose that I won’t.”

 

The next morning proved to be the pattern for many another morning, through that long summer; Edwin went to the river-edge with the broad-brimmed pan, and scooped up a pan of river-gravel, sand and water. Crouching on his heels in the shallow water, he began agitating the pan so that the water and gravel swirled in a circle. He tilted the pan at the water’s surface, as the water continued swirling, allowing water to sweep away a little of the gravel and sand. O’Malley and Fredi watched, breathless with anticipation.

“Gold is heavy,” Edwin said, as earnest as a professor giving a lecture. “It will always settle to the bottom of the pan – don’t ever slop the sand and gravel out – just let the water sweep it off, layer by layer. By the time you have a spoonful of sand left, you ought to see the gold – that is, if there is any color in this stretch. And I am bound and certain there is.”

“How much can we claim of this riverbank?” Fredi asked anxiously.

“Only as much as we can work, the three of us,” Edwin answered. “I think there was someone working this claim around mid-summer, but they abandoned it after a while, upon hearing stories of richer strikes. If you stop working a claim … then it’s up for grabs. So … one of us must always be here on the claim.”

“Aye, that’s enough of a reason to take partners,” O’Malley nodded sagely. “So – if this is promising enough, we set up camp and assemble the cradle?”

“That’s the plan,” Edwin dipped the pan under the water and let the slight motion scoop away all but a trifling smear of sand. “You see – there it is! Gold – and enough to be worth setting up right on this place. I thought I might have to pan up and down this stretch for hours.”

“You have the fortunate eye, boyo,” O’Malley remarked, “And we’ll be rich men, in the twinkling of an eye, that’s for certain!” He and Fredi looked over the boy’s shoulder, hardly daring to believe; but yes, gleaming in the dark sand in the water at the bottom of the pan were half a dozen bright globules, as bright and sunny as the edge of the sun, peeping just now over the shoulder of the hill to the east, and outlining the eldritch shape of the tall, half-dead pine tree upon it.

Edwin grinned at them in triumph and relief. “Perhaps not rich, but at least fortunate,” he allowed – and they went to mark their claim, set up a more permanent camp and assemble the rocker, in happy expectation of a fortune awaiting them, at the edge of a river running out of the mountains of California – where there was perhaps, a single great cliff of gold, crumbling into grains and pebbles of pure gold and scattering into the streams and rivers of California.

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

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

(So, I have been able to pick up the story of Fredi Steinmetz, adventuring in Gold-Rush era California, having finished some other projects and the second Chronicle of Luna City. He and his eccentric and slightly mysterious friend O’Malley have spent an eventful two months in San Francisco, waiting for winter to end in the diggings, working at odd jobs, encountering interesting people, and making friends – among them, an apparent orphan boy of about 14, Edwin Barnett … whose history might just be the equal of O’Malley’s for mystery and intrigue. But Edwin knows of a potentially rich dig in the lower Sierras … and so he becomes a third partner …) 

Chapter 12 – To the Mines

The wagon packed high with supplies, a canvas tent and bedrolls, as well as a contraption that Edwin said was a ‘cradle’,  O’Malley and Fredi finally departed from San Francisco on a foggy morning early in May. They took deck passage on a relatively comfort-less and therefore cheap freight steamboat bound to Sacramento and beyond as far as Yuba City for the wagon, mules, and themselves. With some difficulty they urged the mules over a wide gangplank laid between wharf and the blunt prow of the boat, drawing the wagon after, and found an open space between the neat piles of fuel cordwood and bales of goods bound for the mines, which were stacked on the main deck. Edwin Barnett with Nipper in his arms, clung to a high perch on top of the cargo, as the side-wheel steamer threshed out into the bay, heading north towards Vallejo and the old territorial capital at Benicia, and from there into the tangled delta of the American River. It was estimated they would be a week or so at this – a considerable savings in time over driving the wagon all the way. The patchwork heights of San Francisco and the forests of ships’ masts in harbor vanished very soon in a billow of fog. Within a short way, every surface was wetted with condensation, collecting in beads of moisture. The slight vibration of the mighty steam turbine below deck shook rivulets of water from every slanting surface. It felt to Fredi like the beating of a mighty heart. O’Malley, the boys and the dog huddled in blankets, under the dripping wagon cover, and the mules stood miserable with their noses together.
“This is the first time I have ever been on a steam ship,” Fredi’s excitement at this new experience overcame the misery of passage across the open bay.
“I’m glad to be away from there, Fredi-boyo,” O’Malley confessed. “Between the crimps kidnapping men off the street, an’ murdering swine like that devil Cora, not to mention the fires and the constant pestilential weather … I dinna care to stay a moment longer. There’s a feeling in the city like a storm about to break – a dangerous mood, when honest, well-intentioned men are becoming fed to the back-teeth with corruption and vice. There’s murder in the air, an’ I want none of it.”
“Mr. King was always carrying a revolver, there were so many threats against him for what he printed in the Bulletin,” Fredi nodded in agreement. He had been half-appalled, yet tantalized by the chaotic, haphazard life of a large city, the like of which he had never experienced before. The seamy, vice-ridden waterfront district, the haphazard tents and shanties climbing up the sandy slopes of Russian Hill, muddy streets, magnificent gambling halls and theaters, jousting uncomfortably with the respectability of churches and luxurious mansions, all hung over with the smoldering threat of violence … and fire. Sober Yankee businessmen, elbow to elbow with edgy chivalric gentlemen from the South, Chileans and Chinamen, Kanakas from the Islands of Hawaii, sailors from every nation, swaggering thugs, straight off the latest ship from the Australian prison colonies – and madmen in plenty, most of them mad for gold. Nothing in Fredi’s previous life had ever prepared him for this, not the cattle trail from Texas, or the staid and orderly streets of Fredericksburg, back in Gillespie County.
“It’s not like there is any more law in the diggings,” Edwin now said, morosely. “There are brigands and bandits and claim-jumpers a’plenty.”
“For certain there are,” O’Malley said, agreeably. “But they are few and go against the company of righteous men – they have not suborned the law to feather well their own nests. So, tell us, now – there are rich diggings in the hills between … which river is it?”
“Between the middle and north forks of the Yuba River,” Edwin nodded, rubbing the end of his nose with the back of his sleeve. “They called it Coarse Gold Hill, sometimes Pine Tree Diggings … it’s far enough up into the mountains beyond Camptonville, to where the snow closes down the diggings in late fall.”
“And you know of rich diggings because …” O’Malley hinted broadly and Edwin replied, “I had kinfolk with a claim there. A rich one … which still ought to be mine, by right. But it has been left for months …” and Edwin’s pale, peaked face was adult in its adamantine determination. “But I know where the best and most promising part of the diggings lie – and if we are the first to reclaim and stake our own claim … this will be worth the journey. I promise you fellows …” Edwin blushed, boy-like, and embraced Nipper even closer, as if for security, and Nipper, who above all else hated cold and wet with an uncharacteristic passion for a dog, licked the lad’s cheek, and burrowed deeper into the shelter of the blanket wrapped around them both. Edwin continued, “You are both stout fellows and have been good friends to me, so a third each of the gold in this claim; that would be fair, would it not? And we are good friends, aren’t we … three in fortune and friendship, like the royal musketeers in that French novel of M. Dumas … All for one and one for all?”
“We are indade, boyo,” O’Malley answered, comfortably, “Although Fredi-lad and I have been true companions these many months … to admit another to our fellowship – especially a trusty fellow with knowledge of the mines – is a most providential occurrence. You have a skill, complimentary to mine and Fredi’s. So you see, we shall get on very well, I believe. Even more when we get out from this pestilential fog. My oath upon it, lads – there is nothing to equal this fog and misery, not even in old Eire…” More »

Coming up for air, after more than a week of … well, stuff. Firstly, Blondie and I decided to bring out the sequel to Chronicles of Luna City at the end of this months, rather than try and do three books all at once at the end of the year. I have the sequel to Lone Star Sons to write, and The Golden Road to finish – those last two got set aside in the rush to finish Luna City and Sunset and Steel Rails in time for the Christmas market season. Inspiration, OK? It strikes where it will. So – finishing that sequel and going through editing and layout, and devising new pictures for the chapter heads … and right in the middle of all that, my main computer chooses to not be able to internet. Seemed to be a purely mechanical thing – as in some connection in the innards not being able to connect – and I had some handy work-arounds, which were sabotaged by the wireless router crashing shortly thereafter. And then my daughter’s computer crashed utterly and irretrievably. Sigh.

This is why we have a spare everything, in boxes in the closet. Computer, monitor, router … and also why I back up everything to a thumb drive and an external hard drive as soon as I finish writing a chapter. And a laptop, which those generous people running the Amazon Vine program offered me earlier this year. I will never forget that horrible day around Christmas 2007 when I was just about ready to sit down and write that fifth chapter for Adelsverein: The Gathering – where Carl and Magda meet cute on the bank of a river when she is desperate and he is heroic – and the then-current computer crashed, taking all four previous chapters with it. My dear late friend, Dave the Computer Genius was able to sort out the crippling virus infestation after a couple of days, retrieve all my files (including the chapters!) and revive the then-current computer unit to serve for a few years more … but prepared is to be forewarned. Hence the redundant back-ups. And I also bought into some particularly effective virus-killing programs and have used them religiously ever since. This is my livelihood, OK?

Still, it does take some time to migrate everything to the new unit/units. It’s rather like a PCS – moving into a new space. There is some time required to settle everything familiar into the new location, get comfortable with the layout, locate the new electrical switches – especially because the new units and the laptop came already pre-loaded with Windows 10 … as well as some kind of leftover function that made me sign-in repeatedly, if I walked away from the computer or didn’t move the mouse or strike a key in one minute. Took two days to sort that one out, which tends to tell on the writing time, let alone re-installing certain necessary programs, which I was foresighted enough to have on original discs. (What is with this thing about paying a monthly fee to have certain programs available – a rant for another occasion, I think.)

Anyway, now settled into the new work-space and picking up those writing projects set aside, and thinking about new ones. What to work on when I finish The Golden Road? I’ve been toying with the thought of a WWI novel, since there are characters in The Quivera Trail and Sunset and Steel Rails of an age to have been affected by it. I may still do something of the sort, but writing about how the 19th century world came to an end in bloody mass-slaughter of men and empires, not to mention a certain degree of confident optimism … at this present depressing time, I don’t need any additional depression. I’m toying more energetically with the idea of an adventure set in the American Revolution; how the original Becker paterfamilias came to America as a Hessian mercenary, and deserted at the end of the war to stay behind, marry a local girl named Katerina, and set up a prosperous farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. That would be more to my liking – picking up the circumstances briefly mentioned in Daughter of Texas, with a young Margaret Becker fondly recalling her grandfather; the wisest, kindliest and most humorous man of her acquaintance, who made certain that she and her brothers spoke proper German.

How careful he had been in speaking the old language, ensuring that she and Rudi said words in the proper way, so that Oma Katerina laughed and laughed, saying that the children sounded as if they had a broomstick up their backsides, so prim and careful with words and sounding like proper children of Hesse. Margaret had never thought that Opa had been sad about leaving his family, and his soldier comrades. The story of Opa and Oma had a rightness about it, the comfort of a familiar fairy-tale for children; of course young Opa Heinrich should stay in America and marry the young Oma Katerina. That was the happy ending which all fairy tales had.

That will be an interesting book to write, although I shall have to stretch my research library in a whole ‘nother direction; I do have some materiel about late 18th century America and life in the colonies – but more will be required.
And I will have to find the time to get out the sewing machine and start to work on my author-garb for the upcoming year – the Edwardian-style walking suit and a towering period hat to wear with it.

This was on the grounds of the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture – which as it turns out – is a little bit off the road from where we go once a month for the local Tractor Supply outlet; a lovely meadow dotted with oak trees, patches of wildflowers, and old houses, moved onto the property to be an indoor-outdoor museum.

We went to a Hancock Fabric outlet this last weekend – my daughter wanted to take advantage of the going-out-of-business bargains. She has developed an interest in needlework and embroidery of all sorts, and since we try to live rather frugally – well, sales prices do have their appeal at all times. But it is with sorrow that we visit the Hancock Fabric outlet within our neighborhood. We have both worked in a going-out-of-business-enterprise, so we can comprehend the absolute sorrow and shock of the employees. Upon my retirement from the military, I took on a temporary sales job in the Marshall Field’s outlet in San Antonio, which was closing – and part of that was that a fur-coat concession took up a small part of the retail outlet. Which experience gave me no end of insight into the whole ambiance of high-end department store retail sales… and yes, I sold fur coats, for a basic wage plus a small commission on sales. Which did mount up, as the months wore on, towards closing of the Marshall Field’s store. We lived on the paychecks from that job for simply months, as Blondie joined me on the fur salon sales force … but never mind. I can wholly and deeply sympathize with the employees of the Hancock Fabrics store, even past the point of merely apologizing as a customer for their situation. No, I do not want to say anything about how the sales floor will contract and contract again, the shelves will empty out, as the discounts grow deeper and deeper. The store will become a bare husk of what it was – and at the end, locked doors with a pile of pathetic and picked-over goods. So sad, so sad … since I do not have to put on the whole office-work skirt suit and all, every day, I have kind of gotten away from the sewing and tailoring that I used to do for myself then, and with my nieces both well beyond the age of wanting cute little dress-up outfits … but I will miss Hancock Fabrics anyway.

In grey, with a black velveteen collar...

In grey, with a black velveteen collar…

The only time I really have to make an effort these days is for author events, where one simply has to make a splash, especially if there are other authors there. And depending on the genre or book, some authors do dress to impress and attract the eye. Another member of the on-line author circle I belonged to early on had a couple of books set in 19th century China. He had a full set of Mandarin robes with suitable accessories and that always made a bit of a splash at signings. On his advice, I have tried to do something with a sort of movie cowgirl look for book events. Lately I’ve been thinking that straight period 19th century might work better. But since we usually have to set up, and haul heavy boxes of books back and forth, the full crinoline, bonnet, bustle and trained gown is absolutely out. But there was a possibility in the Butterick Patterns costume section; an Edwardian walking suit; slim skirt, tailored jacket over a high-necked blouse. So, I bought the pattern, and there was some grey polyester suiting going for practically nothing – not that I am a fan of polyester, or that it will be in the least period-accurate. It will look nice and wrinkle-free without a lot of pressing and steaming.

I have some high-laced shoes already, a wide-brimmed hat which can be dressed up with lace, netting, plumes and whatever to match, and a replica ladies’ pocket watch on a fob; voila – new look for me on the very busy author scene for the rest of the year. Since I am going to try and bring out the second Luna City Chronicle, another Lone Star Sons book, and finish The Golden Road all in time for Christmas, I will simply have to have something smashing to wear …

There are three official historical markers in Town Square, much cherished by local citizens. The most noted is the one marking the site where Old Charley Mills was nearly lynched by infuriated citizens, which action was forestalled by the timely intervention of somewhat less-infuriated but more clear-thinking individuals, who included Doc Wyler’s father, Albert Wyler and his younger brother Thomas Wyler, the Reverend Calvin Rowbottom, then senior minister of the Luna City First Methodist Church, and a handful of others whose irreproachable respectability was of such a degree that they were able with reason and persuasion, to turn their fellow citizens aside from such an irrevocable action. The second official historical marker is set into the wall of the building now housing Luna Café and Coffee and marks the site of the last officially noted personal gunfight on the streets of Luna City in 1919; this being a duel between Don Antonio Gonzales and Eusebio Garcia Maldonado. The only casualties were the radiator of Don Antonio’s Model-A sedan, a city street-light and a mule hitched to a wagon parked farther down the square, and felled by a wild shot from Eusebio’s revolver.
The third historical marker is set into the red brick and neo-classical style exterior wall of the what was once the Luna City Savings & Loan, but now houses city offices and the Chamber of Commerce. The Savings & Loan was a casualty of the Depression, closing its doors in 1933; since then, most Lunaites must do their bank business in Karnesville – but in the evanescently prosperous decade of the 1920s, it was a temple of the local economy. It even looked rather like a temple, a smaller mirror of the Luna City consolidated public school across Town Square – but in January, 1922, that magnificent neo-classical façade concealed a weakness: the bank’s massive safe was an older model, and vulnerable to a form of safe-cracking which was the forte of the quartet of bank- and railroad-robbing Newton brothers, of Uvalde, Texas. The mastermind of the gang, brother Willis Newton had procured a list of banks with old safes from a corrupt insurance official, and methodically worked their way through it. None of their bank heists were particularly notable for the size of the haul but they regularly cleaned out everything of value from a targeted bank, including small change and the contents of safe deposit boxes, striking early – usually in the middle of the night – and often, and making a clean getaway as well. In other words, the Newton boys and their safe-cracking expert, Brentwood “Brent” Glasscock, practiced bank robbery assembly-line fashion. Regular and successful looting of small-town banks amounted to more in the aggregate over a long period than an occasional spectacular and more dangerous raid against a bigger target.
But Luna City proved to be more than a match for the Newton boys, through a couple of fortunate circumstances. The first was that the local telephone exchange had just that very week been relocated to new premises, and the second – that Albert Wyler and a number of fellow ranch owners and cattlemen from across Karnes County were having a post-New-Years get-together at the Cattleman Hotel, a get-together involving much marathon yarn-telling and a certain amount of well-disguised alcohol consumption.
Although Karnes County was by tradition and practice not completely ‘dry’, at this time the United States labored under the burden of the Volstead Act, which likely only inconvenienced casual social drinkers … including Albert Wyler and his friends, some of whom – like Albert himself – had also been volunteer Rough Riders with Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalry company twenty-five years before. Luna City was, after all, the home town of Charles Everett Mills, bootlegger extraordinaire. Sometime around two in the morning, Albert Wyler excused himself from the gathering in the Cattleman Hotel’s second floor small salon and smoking room, pleading a call of nature and retiring to the room which he had taken for the night, for convenience, rather than returning in the early morning hours to the Wyler main house, which was a mere two miles from the Cattleman. Little did he expect the good fortune that would come from this circumstance. Even as Albert Wyler made his excuses to his fellows, receiving a certain amount of ribald teasing in response, Willis Newton was silently shimmying up the side of the building which had formerly housed the telephone exchange, and cutting what he assumed was the main line, thus rendering the whole of Luna City unable to communicate to the outside world … or even from telephone to telephone within city limits.
Unbeknown to Willis Newton, he had gone to the wrong building to sever the telephone wire, and during his brief absence from the gathering of cattlemen, Albert Wyler stepped out on the second-floor gallery for a breath of fresh air. Before rejoining his fellows, he looked down into the shadowed square, faintly illuminated by the streetlights of the time, and noticed a large Studebaker automobile, with headlamps dimmed, idling in the street before the Savings and Loan. Albert noted this initially with mild curiosity and then with growing concern. Automobiles were not uncommon in Luna City at that date; however, ownership of one was sufficiently rare so as to render each easily recognizable to a knowledgeable resident of the area. And Albert did not recognize the Studebaker at all. In those few moments, the conviction was formed in his mind – as he so related later – that there was nothing good going on, what with a strange automobile, it’s engine running in the street in front of the Luna City Savings and Loan. Indeed, this was the customary stratagem of the Newton gang – small town, dead of night in the middle of winter, fast and powerful automobile for a quick getaway. So firm was Albert’s instant conviction of this, that he hurried back to the gathering, exclaiming,
“Fellows, grab your irons – I think there’s a gang about to rob the bank!”
At that very instant, and as if to add emphasis to Albert’s words, Brent Glasscock blew the door of the massive safe – using a combination of nitroglycerine forced into the slight gap between the safe door and the safe itself, and setting it off with dynamite caps. The explosion was massive; not only did it open the safe, it also blew out the front door, every glass window at the front of the bank, and rattled windows all along the square. It also wakened every resident – and there were more of them in that day than this – who lived over a shop on Town Square, including Charles Abernathy, of Abernathy Hardware. (The father of Hiram Abernathy, grandfather of Martin and great-grandfather of Jess.)
Charles also looked down from the second floor window of the building which housed his enterprise and his family, and being closer to the Savings and Loan, had an even better view – or he would have, if he were not so near-sighted as to require eye glasses. But he could see the Studebaker, and the blurred forms of the robbers, even as three of the gang dashed back into the bank to grab what they could from the blown safe. Charles Abernathy caught up his father’s lever-action Winchester shotgun which had ever been the Abernathy’s first choice when it came to protecting their home, business and high-value stock, and blasted away.
Two of the Newton gang stood fast, with their own weapons and blasted back, not with any particular effect but to waken everyone who had not been wakened by the explosion in the Savings & Loan. Albert Wyler and his friends were also doubling through Town Square from the front of the Cattleman Hotel, howling and whooping like banshees, and firing their own sidearms. That there were no human casualties in this encounter is doubtless due to several factors. The Newton boys, unlike a number of other robbery gangs of that and an earlier era, had a demonstrated reluctance to add murder charges to that of robbery, in the event that they were ever captured and brought to trial. They were scrupulous in that respect, preferring to menace, scoop and skedaddle – hence their preference for minimizing risk by robbing banks when no one was likely to be around. That they were not casualties themselves was due to Charles Abernathy’s near-sightedness, and the amount of alcohol consumed by Albert Wyler’s companions.
Realizing that the element of surprise was lost, and that elements of the local citizenry were aroused, and perfectly willing to make a fight of it, the Newton gang prudently cut their losses and ran for safety, having only had time to empty out a small portion of the safe’s contents. They fled with the Studebaker’s engine roaring – waking up at last that portion of Luna City which had managed to so far to sleep through the explosion and the subsequent exchange of gunfire. Law enforcement was alerted in a timely fashion, but fortune smiled belatedly on the Newton gang, and they were able to shake off pursuit. It is a matter of record that they were somewhat shaken by their hairsbreadth escape in Luna City; their next recorded robbery of any substance took place in Toronto, Canada, the following year – nearly as far away from Luna City as you could get, without departing from the North American continent entirely.
There are still some obvious small chips and divots in the lower outside walls of the old building which housed the Savings and Loans, which are still pointed out to visitors – supposed to have been caused by one of Charles Abernathy’s missed shots, on a chilly January early morning in 1922.

It seems that there is a great social and literary kerfuffle going on in some circles about J. K. Rowling writing about the sub-rosa magical world of Harry Potter, and extending it into North America … and collecting a ration of butt-hurt thereby, over an interesting concept called cultural appropriation. She earned this through including Native American – as in Indian-with-a-feather rather than Indian-with-a-dot – legends and aspects of culture in her writing and world-building. In using the feather/dot descriptive extension, the Gentle Reader may gather straightaway that I care not for jealous cultural-claim holding, so if a wide-ranging and imaginative use of literary sources outside the one that a writer was born into offends thee, then retire to your fainting couch and trouble this noble company no longer!

Or attend to my gentlewomanly words … sorry, I seem to be channeling the idiom of the great English genius, William Shakespeare, who was and still often is accused of not possibly being the person that he seemed to be – a hard-working lower-to-medium-middle-class actor, playwright and greedy cultural-appropriator of every thing going and available to him in the 15th century – and also imagining the character and conversations of nobility and royals, of soldiers, lawyers, cutpurses and bawds, of innocent virgins and the not-so-terribly-bright lovers who loved them …
So – clearing my throat and waving off the last vestiges of the various cinematic Shakespeare romps that we have watched over the last several evenings – really? Certain tropes are now off-limits? Because … ohhh – those doing the writing and appropriating are not of quite the same matching color and culture of those doing the appropriating. Really?

Sorry, my own dear segregationist cultural warriors … won’t wash. First – if it is out there, it will be used by story-tellers. Full-stop. Oh, it is still frowned upon to outright plagiarize – but there is nothing new under the story-telling sun. To take an element, a character-type, a plot device, a trope – as it were, and run away romping with it in one’s own style … well, that’s pop-culture all over. I did a college course in Greek and Roman lit, back in the day – where the professor confessed that in all of Roman comedy there were only about three plots and half a dozen stock characters, which made it sound like late 20th century TV situation comedies, or possibly even classic commedia del arte.
So appropriate away – just for the love of the audience, make it good. Take those little Lego blocks of characters, tropes, plots, legends … and build something new and amazing. At the very least, make it interesting.

06. March 2016 · 1 comment · Categories: Domestic

The tomato trees - just planted

The tomato trees – just planted

Here we are, a week or so to go until the traditional last recorded winter frost in this part of the world … which I do not think is going to happen, to speak candidly and openly. Two years ago, we had a sudden norther which blew in and dropped the outside temperature about thirty degrees in the space of twenty minutes, and went farther – from a mild and temperate afternoon, to a hard frost after sundown. And this, after a weekend spent in the garden, and a week after having planted the first of the beans, and the garden starts bought from the local HEB grocery store, which has them available at a good price at this time of year.

But this early spring has been – mild. Warm, even – to the point where we have had to run the AC on some late afternoons. The house is one of those mid-1980s cracker-boxes, without any air flow-through, with minimal insulation, and large windows across the western-facing elevation which catches the full fell blast of late afternoon sunlight. There are things which can be done to amend this situation, which are being done as fast as I can afford them – but this concerns the garden, spring planting and all.

Apple Blossom - Early March

A single pink and white apple blossom

Having the chickens – or the ‘whup-whups’ as my daughter calls them, for the contented noise that they make when they are happy – makes it necessary to rethink the yard as regards the potential for veggie growing. The whup-whups are death to most green and growing stuff. Plants must be either tall enough to escape their snacking habits, totally distasteful to them or out of their reach entirely. It’s just the way that it is. There are, apparently, lovely chicken-proof gardens that one can design, but I will note that a lot of these depend on keeping the chickens on a plot of land large enough to be fenced into segments – and to keep them out of the area where the ambitious back-yard farmer is trying to grow vegetables, in an area either large enough to where their depredations are not noticeable, or specifically fenced off from those plants most vulnerable to chicken-snacking.

This means that our veggie-growing area is either out at the front, out of reach of the whup-whups, or in containers suspended out of their reach. Like the patented tomato-trees that Blondie bought at amazingly-marked down prices a year or so ago. We planted them in tomatoes last season, didn’t have much luck, so we are trying again this year. Honestly, conditions change so much from one year to the next. Last year wasn’t so good for tomatoes, but the pole beans were champions. I’ve also managed to grow some interesting varieties of peppers from seed over the winter, so – I have hopes of a bounteous harvest of bell, jalapeno, cayenne and poblano peppers. There is also a large bed set aside for potatoes; last year wasn’t so great for potatoes; I think we got some fancy assortments from Sam’s Club that looked promising, but had sat too long on the shelf or something. This year I have a five-pound bag of seed

Pepper plants - grown from seed over winter

Pepper plants – grown from seed over winter

potatoes from Tractor Supply, who on the whole seem more … serious about things agricultural, and a goodly assortment of seeds bought in the fall from Rainbow Gardens. So – a promising start to the gardening season, I think – as long as it doesn’t become too hot. There are buds on the plum tree, a blossom on the apple tree sapling, tiny buds on the calamondin orange, on the lemon and lime shrubs, the Spanish jasmine is in full bloom, and the wisteria is about to go full-blast, so hope springs eternal in this particular back-yard gardener.