The Lady and the Cavalier of Valle de San Jose

(I have been sidelined this week, working on a chapter of The Golden Road, and discovering about the place where Fredi and the herd of Texas cattle would have finished in California)

California marked the high tide-line of the Spanish empire in the New World. The great wave of conquistadors washed out of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century looking for gold, honor, glory and land, roared across the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping Mexico and most of South America in consecutive mighty tides, before seeping into the trackless wastes of the American Southwest. Eventually that tide lapped gently at the far northern coast, where it dropped a chain of missions, a handful of military garrisons and small towns, and bestowed a number of property grants on the well-favored and well-connected. There has always been a dreamlike, evanescent quality to that time – as romantic as lost paradises always are. Before the discovery of gold in the millrace of a saw-mill built to further the entrepreneurial aims of a faintly shady Swiss expatriate named John Sutter, California seemed a magical place. It was temperate along the coast and perceived as a healthy place; there were no mosquito-born plagues like malaria and yellow fever, which devastated the lower Mississippi/Missouri regions in the 19th century. Certain parts were beautiful beyond all reasoning, and the rest was at the least attractive. The missions, dedicated primarily to the care of souls also had an eye towards self-sufficiency, and boasted great orchards of olives and citrus, and extensive vineyards. The climate was a temperate and kindly one in comparison with much of the rest of that continent; winters were mild, and summers fair.

It was a rural society of vast properties presided over by an aristocracy of landowners who had been granted their holdings by the king or civil government. Their names still mark the land in the names of towns, roads and natural features; Carrillo, Sepulveda, Verdugo, Vallejo, Dominguez, Pico, Castro, Figueroa, and Feliz, among many others. They ran cattle or sheep on their leagues – the hard work was mostly performed by native Californian Indians; those who had survived such epidemics as were brought inadvertently by Europeans and who were amenable to being trained in useful agricultural skills. These vast estates produced hides, wool and tallow; their owners lived lives of comfort, if no very great luxury. From all accounts they were openhandedly generous, amazingly hospitable, devout … a little touchy about personal insult and apt to fight duels over it, but that could said of most men of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Carrillo Ranch house - circa 1929

The Carrillo Ranch house – circa 1929


One of the notable estates was that which lay around the present-day hamlet of Warner Hot Springs. Besides being a very fine property, it was also located the southern emigrant trail – that which ran through south Texas and New Mexico territory to Yuma, at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, and terminated in Los Angeles. Eventually, the Butterfield stage line would follow this trail – and the ranch at the place where the road to San Diego diverted from it became a stage stop. The property also was the object of considerable legal wrangling – it was inadvertently granted to two different claimants; Silvestre de la Portila in 1836, and transplanted Yankee, John Joseph ‘Juan Jose’ Warner eight years later. Juan Joseph Warner built an adobe house on the property, and conducted ranching and trading operations until an uprising by local Indians drive him out in 1851. In the meantime, Silvestre de la Portila had deeded the property to Vincenta Sepulveda, the daughter of a long-established and important local family. Eventually, the powers that be decided in favor of Dona Vincenta, who at the age of 21 had married another scion of a well-to-do ranch family, Tomas Antonio Yorba, who was more than twice her age. Yorba and his wife set up first at his family property at Santa Ana, in present-day Orange County, where they ran cattle for their hides and tallow, and operated a small general store, trading all kinds of general goods, groceries and luxuries. Their house was a rather splendid one; they impressed many visitors with not only the generous nature of their hospitality, but order and luxury of their house – better adorned and furnished than the usual hacienda. After ten years of productive and apparently happy marriage Tomas Yorba died, leaving his wife the residence, large herds of sheep and cattle, considerable jewelry and the care of their four surviving children. She continued managing the property, her household and her business; a wealthy, attractive and able young woman. She did not remain a widow for very long; she married again, to Jose Ramon Carrillo, of San Diego, who had managed a large property in northern California. Romantically, they met at the wedding of Dona Vincenta’s niece to an office of the Mexican army. Jose Ramon Carrillo had a reputation for physical courage, which was not based solely on his experiences as a soldier. (He had engaged in several skirmishes between Californios and the Anglo members of the Bear Flag party, or during the Mexican War and in fighting with hostile local Indians, which was pretty much what had been expected of a man of his age and class.) But his most famous fighting exploit wasn’t with other men at all – it was with a bear.

When out riding with friends in the Sonoma foothills some time before his marriage, the party spotted a bear, at some distance. Carrillo proposed (and there is no evidence that liquor was involved in any) that he fight the bear … on foot and alone. He took a mochila from his saddle – a flap of leather used to attach saddle-bags and wrapped it around his left arm – and a large hunting knife with a keen blade in his right. When he advanced on the bear, it charged him; Carrillo shielded himself with his left arm, and thrust with the knife into the bear’s torso. Within a very short time, the bear lay dead before him. On another occasion, Carrillo attempted to lasso another bear, from horseback. In the heat of the chase, bear, horse and rider fell into a five or six foot deep chasm, hidden until that very moment by dense brush. The abruptness of the fall removed all fight from the bear – and it tried to scramble up the steep side of the pit. Realizing that there was no scope for fighting the bear in the ditch and that discretion might be the best part of valor, Carrillo braced himself under the bear’s hindquarters and gave a good push with all of his strength. The bear scrabbled at the edge of the pit, got over it and promptly ran away.

By the mid-1850s, Dona Vincenta had clear title to the former Warner property; she and her new husband moved there, built an even grander house – an establishment which also served as a stage station, and on the eve of the Civil War, Don Ramon Carrillo applied for the position of post-master … the rancho was also a post office. During the war itself, he also served as a spy and scout for the Union Army in the Sonora. There were shadows falling on him, however; a political and business rival was found dead, shot in the back by person or persons unknown late in 1862. He was interviewed under oath by a court in Los Angeles, and released – the court having found nothing to charge against him.

Dona Vincenta and her family in the 1890s (She is the elder lady in the center)

Dona Vincenta and her family in the 1890s (She is the elder lady in the center)

Two years later, Don Ramon also fell to an assassin’s ambush. The murderer – again – was never identified, and at the age of 51, Dona Vincenta was again a widow. She continued to manage the ranch, with the aid of her grown son for another five or six years, before moving to Anaheim, and to a long retirement in the house of her married daughter; Dona Vincenta lived to the age of 94. The ranch property was sold in the 1870s, continuing as a profitable sheep ranch for the remainder of the century and into the next. The site is now a museum, and open to the public.

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The Latest Chapter – The Golden Road

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

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

(All righty, then – having been working on several different projects, I have been able to work on The Golden Road – the picaresque Gold Rush adventure that I have always wanted to write, but … the chapters of it are coming slowly. The previous chapters are here, and here. Basically, it’s the adventures of young Fredi Steinmetz, who – for a variety of reasons – takes the trail to California in 1855.)

Chapter 5 – End of the Trail

The heat of summer faded, even though they were still crossing through desert country. It was cold at night; Fredi was profoundly grateful for the warmth of the bedroll that he slept in at night, although as it came about, he and the other drovers more and more often took shelter at night underneath the wagons. With the cooling of the nights came rain, most always in the afternoon about the time that they had chosen to set up camp for the night. Gil had the teamsters park the wagons a couple of yards apart, and to string the wagon covers together on ropes, running between the hickory hoops which ordinarily supported the cover, together with a length of canvas between to make a shelter against the rain, which came in a furious drenching flood for an hour or so. They could often see this rain coming in at some distance; a grey veil hanging from beneath a tower of clouds, the scent of moisture striking dry soil arriving on gusts of a suddenly-active breeze.
Those daily rains made the desert around them bloom, as much as it was a discomfort to the drovers, sleeping on pallets laid on suddenly-muddy ground. Grass came up, lush and green – and the cattle drank eagerly of the fresh rainwater wherever it accumulated – in small and temporary rivulets, or even from those puddles accumulated in the low places along the trail. O’Malley shook his head in dismay and disbelief.
“I swear, ‘tis unnatural. This is September – nearly November, when all should be drear and dead ahead of wintertime – and yet everything is as green and blooming as spring in Antrim.”
“That’s the way of it in this part of the world, Aloysius,” Gil chuckled at the Irishman’s befuddlement. “Autumn and winter are green and blooming – summer is bare and dry. And the oak trees are green the year throughout.”
“’Tis unnatural,” O’Malley grumbled. Read more »

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It Was One Of Those Days

We wanted a bit of a holiday, and to get away from the house and the usual jobs for a bit. My daughter wanted to hit up Herweck’s in downtown for some specialty paper for her origami projects. Herweck’s has a lovely stock of interesting papers; in large sheets, which may be cut to size for her origami art projects. I wanted to take some pictures downtown, and we both thought positively of a late lunch at Schilo’s Delicatessen and then … well, to whatever curiosity took us. We were tempted at the outset by a ere was a huge anime convention going on at the HBG convention center, which counted for the large numbers of … interestingly dressed people wandering around. As my daughter somewhat cuttingly remarked, after observing a herd of costumed anime fans, “Too many freaks, not enough circus.” Still, having acquired a taste for this sort of thing when we used to go to the science fiction convention in Salt Lake City when I was stationed in Utah, we thought we might check out the convention, if the price of entry was not too much out of budget. It was too much, as it eventually turned out, and neither of us was into anime sufficiently to properly appreciate the experience … But after walking back from Shilo’s along Market Street, we happened upon the Briscoe Western Art Museum, which was housed in what used to be – so we were assured by the young woman manning the desk – the old downtown public library building.

This was a wonderful construction of 1920s Moderne, newly spiffed up, and the foyer was marvelous. This was a two-story confection with a deeply coffered carved wood ceiling and a band of designs resembling the buffalo and Indian-head nickels around the walls just below the ceiling – all marvelous and detailed. A visit to a building like this once again reminded me of how much I detest and despise the horrid brutality of modern design for public buildings – lean and spare and square, with windows that can’t be opened, no ornamentation of any sort at all, save a stark open square with a concrete turd in a fountain in the middle of it. No, my detestation of modern architectural design of the Bauhaus steel-and-glass-box or concrete-n-glass variety remains undimmed and burns with the white-hot passion of a thousand burning suns … and as it turned out, the entry fee to the Briscoe was a relative pittance, and further reduced by a veteran discount. So – there was a far more economical use of funds and time.

The art on display is of course oriented to the west – lots of scenic vistas, longhorns, cowboys and the like, but leavened with a series of Curtis photographic portraits of Indians, some scenic vistas of border towns, and of the construction of Boulder Dam. As for big-name Western artists, the Briscoe has a small C. M. Russell bronze, and a couple of minor pieces by Frederick Remington, which to my mind is not very much at all, as far as the classic Western artists go. Most of what is there is in the way of art seems to be on loan from local donors and collectors – and it is a rather newish museum after all. Many exhibits are – not strictly speaking – art, but rather historical relics; a classic Concord stagecoach in one gallery – and a renovated chuck-wagon in another. The third-floor galleries had the most interesting items – antique saddles, including one adorned with silver rattlesnakes; once the property of Pancho Villa, and another which once belonged to the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City. There is also a gallery dedicated to the Alamo – which is only to be expected. It is dominated by one of those elaborate models of the moment when the Alamo was overwhelmed by General Lopez de Santa Anna’s forces – about which I had a small quibble, and another item which raised more questions than the duty guard could answer. (The poor chap is probably curled up in a corner somewhere, quivering.)

This item is a Victorian hair brooch, one of those peculiarly Victorian things – a small lock of hair, made unto a piece of jewelry – usually woven into a pleasing pattern, and preserved under glass in a small setting. They were most often done in order to memorialize a deceased loved one … and this one was supposed to have been … well, the card next to it was singularly uninformative. OK, first of all – was it James Fannin’s hair? Several different alternatives; yes, his – a brooch left with a dear one, after his taking up the position of commander of the Goliad in late 1835. Likely. But his, post-mortem, after the massacre of his company and done after his body lying where it had been left for weeks and weeks? Ooooh – no, don’t think so.

Anyway, we had an interesting time discussing this with the duty guard; it’s true that docents and guards often know rather interesting things about the galleries where they are stationed, often because everyone is always asking them, and being able to give a good answer must be a kind of self-defense. Apparently, he and some of the other guards believe that the Alamo exhibit room is haunted. My daughter says that if any object in that room has the ability to haunt, it would be the gigantic iron 18th century cannon, which was supposed to have been in the Alamo, although if it had any part in the siege, no one knows. It looks like an 18-pounder, and was found buried on private property sometime in this century, so the guard says; the man whose property it was just set it up pointing at his mailbox. We speculated for a while on how it could have finished up buried in the ground, a thing which would have taken at least three ox-teams to move. At the time that the Alamo was the main Spanish presidio in Texas, it was supposed to have had the largest collection of artillery west of the Mississippi and north of the Rio Grande. After Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto, likely the Mexican garrison left to hold the place bugged out with everything they could carry with them. We thought it likely that this particular cannon was dumped, either immediately or after a short distance. The information card at the exhibit offered very little detail – so we had our amusement from speculation.

And that was my bit of a summer holiday – yours?

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A Fascinating Discussion of Indy Publishing

A long discussion regarding independent publishing, vis-a-vis traditional establishment publishing, here, which includes these stirring words:

When in the Course of publishing events, it becomes necessary for writers to sever their ties with the industry that is supposed to have “nurtured” them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we should declare the causes which impel those writers to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all writers should have an equal chance to find readers. That their successes or failures should be dependent upon their own actions and their own choices. That they should be paid fairly for their work. That they should have control over the works they produce. That they should have immediate and accurate access to their sales data. That they should be paid promptly. That they should not be restricted from reaching those who may enjoy their work. That whenever a publisher or retailer becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of Authors to abolish all connections with the offending parties.
The history of the legacy publishing industry is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over writers. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. …
Read the whole discussion – it’s worth it.
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The Shed – Adorned!

It took a bit – because of the heat – to finish the inside with shelves and move everything but the stove inside – and to re-landscape and adorn the outside of The Shed. But now it has everything but a little lace curtain in the window; the pavers have been re-sited, and a couple of bags of pea gravel to refresh the spaces in between … so, behold!

Painted and landscaped, with fresh gravel - The Glorious Shed!

Painted and landscaped, with fresh gravel – The Glorious Shed!

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Another Book Ruckus

Ho, hum – it’s Wednesday, so it must be time for another ruckus in the book world. This time it’s between one of the Big Five in traditional publishing, versus the retail Gargantua of Amazon. As near as I can make out, Hachette Book Group has their panties in a twist over the pricing of e-books, and how Amazon discounts print books for sale … oh, a pretty comprehensive account is here. Yes, it’s biased towards Amazon of course. Amazon is pretty good to those of us independent authors and small publishers. Which is not to say that they have not done some bone-headed and outright underhanded things in the past. But as it is, only the very, very, tippy-top of the pile in best-selling writers get anything like a fair shake from their publishers.

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The Secret of San Saba – Part 3

Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(All righty then – another in the serial adventure of Lone Star Sons – a reworking of a certain classic Western serial, wherein our heroes go adventuring, searching for the lost silver treasure of the old presidio of San Saba. Previous chapters are here and , here and previous adventures are linked or are on this page.)

At the door of the mansion where the Biddles were hosted, Jim was received with all courtesy and directed to a suite of small rooms adjoining the garden. Windowless on the outer walls, the parlor and sleeping chambers opened into a covered arcade overgrown with sweet-smelling jasmine – an arcade which almost constituted a room in itself, set about with bright-painted pots of flowering geraniums, and a number of chairs made of roughly carpentered wood and upholstered with rawhide in the local fashion. There was also a small table, pressed into service as a desk, which was piled with much paper, an inkwell and an ordinary schoolchild’s slate, much scribbled over with chalk markings. Here Albert Biddle had been at work … and a scattering of dolls and children’s toys testified that Albert had combined duty with domesticity. Out in the garden, in the paved area by a mossy and trickling fountain, Dona Graciela’s two daughters rolled a ball back and forth for the amusement of the small child who had become his and Toby’s god-son, and Albert’s son. Little James Toby Albert was now a small boy just able to toddle in his plain baby-dress, who gurgled with delight whenever he managed to capture the ball. Usually this came at the cost of sitting down heavily on his diapered behind.
“He’s still in small-clothes, I see,” Jim observed. “At least that makes me feel that not so much time has passed.”
“They do grow up fast,” agreed Albert Biddle, with an air of superior knowledge which Jim found faintly annoying – especially as every time that he visited Rebecca in Bastrop it seemed like hers and Dan’l’s daughter had grown another six inches. It wouldn’t have surprised him in the least to see on his next visit that the girl had put up her hair and let out the hems of her skirts to the length appropriate to a young lady. That was a slightly uncomfortable thought, and Jim put it aside with an effort.
“How goes the deciphering?” he asked, and Albert Biddle grinned.
“Very well, actually. I’ve pretty well deduced the area where the treasure was buried – in the north-east corner. The old boy wasn’t that much of a hand in coming up with a cipher … but the thing that worries me is that others might have knowledge of the treasure at San Saba. It was a military garrison, after all – and he was not the only officer. If he knew of it, then others knew as well. Gracie says that the old boy had some mighty strange visitors in his last days. From what she says of one of them, I’m wondering if it is our old friend of the Casa Wilkinson…”
“Don Esteban Saldivar?” Jim ventured. “Logical, I suppose – since it was a matter for Spain…”
“No – the Englishman; the actor.” Albert Biddle’s pleasant and anonymous features bore an expression of distaste. “Gracie said he had a voice that sounded like he was speaking to a multitude, so I thought of him at once. Does he have friends in Mexico, I wonder?”
“I saw a man by San Fernando,” Jim answered, with a feeling of foreboding. Yes, the man playing mumbley-peg against himself was the age and build of the English actor and paid agent. And had not Jack said something about a fellow he thought looked familiar, when he saw Dona Graciela and Albert Biddle and their family and train? “This very day, as I was coming to call; I thought he looked like someone I knew, but he looked down, as if hiding his face, so I cannot be entirely certain it was Vibart-Jones … But he had the color and bearing, although he was dressed as a Mexican grandee. Jack said something about seeing someone following you, the thought – the day that you returned to Bexar. Why do you ask if Vibart-Jones has friends in Mexico?”
“There were English bankers and investors left bankrupt by Texian independence,” Albert Biddle explained. This matter was meat and drink to his clerkly soul. “They had made loans to Mexico secured by vast tracts of lands in Texas. Once Mexico lost the war, they lost control of the lands and couldn’t repay the loans … and the English bankers and their investors went bust. I’ve heard tell of English bankers and pamphleteers who wouldn’t mind in the least if Mexico had a chance to win over Texas, throw us all out and retrieve their fortunes.”
“Reclaiming the San Saba treasure would comfort them mightily,” Jim finished the thought. “Yes, it would make sense, especially if they could extract it from under our very noses. Albert – I think it advisable that we leave soon, and unobserved. You or I – perhaps both of us, I cannot say for certain – we are being watched. Old Bexar has a thousand eyes. Cap’n Hays used to have a camp out on the Salado north of town – for his Rangers patrolling the hills, so that they might come and go unobserved.”
“I agree about leaving immediately.” Albert Biddle nodded. “What stratagem do you propose regarding keeping our departure a secret?”
“Make no change from your routine,” Jim was already thinking, planning an unnoticed departure. “But come to visit us tonight when you return from Compline. I’ll have a horse for you, and all that is necessary for the journey – the stable is behind the house, with high walls on every side. No one can observe preparations for a journey unless they are within the house and yard. Act as if everything is utterly normal – but Cap’n Hays will assume your overcoat, and accompany Dona Graciela to this house, while you and I wait until the wee hours. Say nothing to anyone – not even to your lady until the moment of departure.”
“My wife’s honor is my own,” Albert Biddle’s voice was frosty with displeasure. “Sir, I will not abide any hint of doubts regarding her loyalty, from you or anyone else.”
“I think of her safety, and that of the children,” Jim answered. “I did not mean to insult her – only that I consider that if she does not know of our departure beforehand, she will not be put to the burden of lying – or to the effort of guarding herself among her friends and kin. You may attest to the trust that you have of your wife, which I am certain is not misplaced, as she is a noble and virtuous lady. But consider this – do you assign the same trust in your your hosts, and most particularly their servants … their friends, and those hangers-on who are quick to bear any rumor that someone might pay a peso or two for? Do you trust them, in equal measure?”
“Likely not,” Albert Biddle’s expression relaxed, and he cast a fond look out into the garden, where his stepdaughters and little god-son continued to play. Happy and handsome children, without a care in the world, not burdened with knowledge of the efforts of their elders and men like Captain Hays, which labors kept them safe, secure and happy, laughing as they romped beside a garden fountain in the old quarter of Bexar.
“I will make it square with you and your lady,” Jim suggested. “When you visit tonight, I will say that we have only just received a message of the most urgent nature. We may then depart at once, without giving her any cause for unhappiness with you.”
“A very fair suggestion,” Albert Biddle looked relieved. “Then, I will work thru the afternoon on this puzzle, and perhaps by the time we arrive at the old fortress I will have pin-pointed the exact location.”
“Good,” Jim answered. “I do not relish the thought of searching and digging through old stone-work for any longer than we must. Old Mopechucope might have promised friendship and hospitality to Toby and me, but I don’t want to lean on that reed for any longer than we have to.”

It went as planned, that evening: Albert Biddle and Dona Graciela attended Compline, and as soon as Jack answered the knock on his door, saying,
“There’s been an urgent message – you and Jim must leave tonight. There is danger – we are all being watched.”
“Any notion of whom?” Albert Biddle answered, as briskly as a well-rehearsed actor, as Jack closed the door on the evening clamor in the Plaza outside, with the swifts dipping in and out of the gardens on either side – dark shadows in the pale twilight.
“No – but the safety of your mission depends on absolute secrecy respecting your movements. Fifteen minutes – and then I shall put on your coat and accompany your wife to the casa.”
“It is sudden, querida,” Albert Biddle answered. “I know – but I have expected such a message for some days…”
“If you wish some few private moments for a farewell…” Jack said, already taking his topcoat from the peg where it hung. “Jim and I will step out to the stables…”
“There is no need, “Dona Graciela replied, her voice firm, the expression of her face resolute. “Go with God, Alberto. He will protect you … until you return.” She kissed Albert Biddle once. “I trust that it will not be many weeks on this errand of yours?” She let the question hang in the air, until Jim assured her.
“He will return before many weeks have passed, Dona – my word as a gentleman and a Ranger upon it.”
“Mine also, Mrs. Biddle,” Jack added.
“Very good.” Dona Graciela answered, stalwart as if she were a soldier herself. “I will hold you to that promise, Senors.”
“She will, too,” Albert Biddle whispered to Jim as he and Jack exchanged coats and hats – Jack’s hunting coat for Albert Biddle’s old-fashioned coachman’s overcoat. “She’s that kind of woman.”
In a moment, they were gone, Jim having turned down the lamp-wick to a bare golden glow, so that no one might see Dona Graciela and the disguised Jack clear in the doorway.
“And now?” Albert Biddle whispered, as Jim barred the door behind them.
“We wait until the moon sets,” Jim answered. “May as well sleep until then. Jack will come back by the stable – he has a key to let himself in.”
“Nothing happens at that hour, I always used to say,” Albert Biddle mused. “The good folk are still asleep in bed, and those otherwise inclined are the worse for drink – whatever devilment they wish to do, they have already done.”
“That and it will be as dark as the inside of a bull with the tail clamped down,” Jim pointed out … with a fair degree of accuracy, as it turned out.
Jack returned, well after midnight, with Albert’s coat rolled up in a bundle underneath his arm. “All in order,” he added, somewhat reproachfully at Jim, who had unshipped one of his patent Colt revolvers, when he had heard something scratching at the door that led into the stable. “There was no need for you to stand guard, Jim.”
“There is, always,” Jim returned evenly. “Even in your own quarters … Cap’n.”
“Perhaps you are right to do so,” Jack acknowledged. “Right then – your saddlebags an’ traps an’ all are ready to go?”
“We’ve been ready to go for hours,” Albert Biddle yawned – and they had. All that was required was to saddle their horse, and the pack-mule with the tools and supplies they had chosen – and leave, as stealthily as Jack had returned.
“See you by mid-summer,” Jack said, then. “Or before … and if I don’t, then I guess Mopechucope wasn’t as good a friend as all that.”

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Back Yard Re-Landscaping

Completed shed with step ... and now to do all the other stuff...

Completed shed with step … and now to do all the other stuff…

So, I took it into my head – and my daughter agreed with me – that we needed a shed in the back yard. Something to store the things that we use for market events, and other bulky items to large for the various closets in the house; yes, the garage is already disgracefully stuffed full of my daughter’s things, brought home from two tours in the Marines, passed on from me to her, or purchased against the likelihood of an establishment of her own. Alas, the current economic situation has delayed that eventuality – anyway, we enjoy each other’s company, and partner in business and economics, so why this is any different from the 19th century anyway … that’s anyone’s guess. Still leaves the garage packed full; as the tee-shirt says, “It’s Not an Empty Nest Until All Their Stuff Is Out Of the Garage.”

So, we decided that we needed a shed, to store the various items involved with doing market events (tables, the pavilion, the weights and racks, the Chambers stove inheritance, the gardening gear, the various impedimenta to do with our home canning, home brewing and cheese-making enterprises – and really, what could be more convenient than a small shed in that corner of the back yard shaded into oblivion by the horrible laurel-cherry trees. I kick myself every time I look at the wretched things – why, oh, why didn’t I pull them up as saplings? Because they grew into rather substantial shrubs/trees, which provided a degree of privacy on the boundary between my yard and that of my neighbor. Anyway, the darned things are doomed, as soon as the date for brush pick-up is posted in the fall.

But I digress … the shed. All the lovely, attractive wooden sheds or those which were half-storage and half-greenhouse were either too expensive or too inconvenient in dimension. And after serious consideration, I didn’t think that my daughter and I would be up to assembling a DIY unit. Those molded-plastic ones available here in Texas for fairly reasonable sums through the usual outlets … we have seen how they endure, and no … just no. They were eliminated from the get-go. So, we were thrown back on a local provider with a premise which we had driven past for ages … a provider of bespoke metal-sided and metal-roofed sheds … which, we were given to understand, were temporary and removable … but which could be build to the exact dimensions and features required … and so we went with Chaparral, who seems to do everything but actually have a website. Sigh – still, they seem to be able to manage without it … one of those instances where word of mouth or dropping in personally still counts.

So, we went in to their San Antonio premise a couple of weeks ago, and outlined what we thought could fit into the back left corner of the back yard, paid a deposit and made arrangements for installation … and they came and did it last Wednesday. Done before noon, actually – although my daughter thinks they were not happy about having to slash away a pair of hackberry shrubs and remove a length of fence-line through the back of the property to accommodate installation. The good thing – they were able to come at it all through the back of the property with all the pre-built panels. They were done, as I said, before noon – and all to the design that we had worked out with the local salesman.

And now, we have to integrate it into the back-yard landscape. Oh, oh, oh – like re-do a length of the back fence, using the existing posts and pickets. The most important thing is that the pavers and gravel that I had already existing will have to be re-done. That is, yanked up and re-set, and a stair set up before the door … but this is about the second or third time that I have re-done the back yard. No, I was never content with it for long – and now that we have the shed, with a narrow porch in front … and oh, well. There is so much to be done. But the guys from Chaparral did a good job. We sent them away with six bottles of home-brewed beer, a reference to the commercial outlet at Home Brew Party, and our grateful thanks.

So – now we have a month of weekend projects set out for us. But when we are done – I am certain that it will be amazing!

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My Absolutely Most Memorable Fourth of July Ever

(From my archives, and included in this book – my most memorable 4th of July ever!)

The flags are out, like it’s 4th of July every day, like the pictures I saw of the glorious, Bicentennial 4th of 1976… which I actually sort of missed. Not the date itself, just all the hoopla. The 200th anniversary of our nation, celebrations up the wazoo, and I missed every one of them because I spent the summer in England, doing that cheap-student-charter-BritRail-Pass-Youth-Hostel thing. I lived at home and worked parttime, and finished at Cal State Northridge with a BA and enough money left over to spend the summer traveling. I didn’t go alone, either. My brother JP and my sister Pippy were bored with the prospect of another summer in Tujunga, California. I assume our parents thought the world in 1976 was a much safer place than now, or I was responsible enough at 22 to be at large in a foreign country in charge of a 20 and a 16 year old.

JP and I, waiting for a bus in Scotland later that summer. Pippy took this picture.

JP and I, waiting for a bus in Scotland later that summer. Pippy took this picture.


So we missed all the official 4th of July events, but boy, do I remember that 4th. We arrived in a village called Street after three train changes, a bus ride, and a half-mile walk on a dusty road in the hottest, driest summer Britain had endured since 1940, or so older people said. Thirsty, sweating, dusty and longing for a shower, we arrived at the Youth Hostel, which oddly enough, was a three story Swiss-style chalet on the outskirts of Street. The ground floor contained the offices and member’s kitchen, and a combination common-room and dining room. The boys dorm and facility was on the next floor, and the girls on the top floor, right under the eaves. Pippy and I dropped our packs by a corner bunk and went looking for the showers.

We’d have had to walk all the way to Wells to find them. The girls washroom contained a single bench along the wall, with ten or so large plastic basins on the bench and an equal number of large pitchers underneath. There was a single cold-water tap, and a sign directing us to the hot-water tap, next to the kitchen, two flights of narrow stairs down. Pippy and I looked at the basins, the tap, and each other and burst out laughing, our only alternative to sobbing hysterically. When we met JP in the kitchen to do our dinner, he said the boys’ washroom was just as Victorian, and Hatch and Kowalski from Michigan who had been at hostel in Bath were staying here too, and had bang-up plans to celebrate the 4th.
“We have a bet on to drink 10 pints of English beer” said JP. He had been overjoyed to discover that if you appeared old enough to walk into a pub and ask for alcohol, you would be served, no questions asked.
“Gee, think your kidneys are up to it?” I said. Pippy and I resolved to have no part in this, and to stick to lemon shandy.
“The warden won’t let us celebrate here anyway, he says he’s a patriotic Brit. Are there any other Americans here.”
“Just Hatch and Kowalski and us. There’s this Guy from Canada, he says he has a half-interest, so he’s coming too. Everyone else is part of some school sociology class field trip. They have teachers and chaperones with them. Bleah… where on earth is that stench coming from? It smells like something died. About a week ago.”
From where we were eating our dinner, I could see into the kitchen, where elements of the sociology class were prepping their own evening meal.
“Some chicken they’d bought. I think it went bad in the heat.”
After our dinner, we washed the plates and utensils we used, relenquishing them to the school party. We put away our jar of jam and packet of tea and the end of a bottle of milk in one of the small cupboard spaces, hoping the milk bought fresh in the afternoon would be fit to drink in the morning. Youth Hostel amenities usually didn’t include refrigeration, and were usually short of things like mugs and forks.

Wandering outside, I asked directions to the village pub from a older guy in overalls who was doing something vaguely agricultural in an overgrown garden next to the hostel. He pointed out a footpath between his garden and a fenced pasture and replied, unintelligibly. It sounded like
“Argy-bargy-argy-bargy-rhubarb-rhubarb-argy-bargy-rhubarb,” and Pippy apprehensively moved closer to me.
“Thank you,”I said politely.”It is lovely weather….”
“What did he say?” JP asked, when we were out of hearing.
“No idea… but this is the direction we came from this afternoon. It wasn’t that big a place.” The path led to a stile, and across another field, where cows had obviously been grazing, and leaving huge, mud-puddle sized cow-pies.
“Great, just great,” JP grumbled, “Cows with the trots. It figures.”
The lane on the other side of the field was free of cows, and led towards the metropolitan heart of Street, and the excitements offered by a pleasantly shabby pub with a terrace and tables outside at the back. Hatch, Kowalsky and Guy from Canada waved to us.
“Catch up!” Hatch slid a pint in front of JP as we sat down. “Here’s to George Washington!”

“Thomas Jefferson! (cheers!) John Hancock! (cheers!) Ethan Allan! (cheers!) Button Gwinnett! (cheers!) John Addams! (hic-cheers!”
The evening passed, long and impossibly golden in that summer twilight which lasts to almost 10PM in northern Europe, an evening as bright as an afternoon. JP, Hatch and Kowalski’s pint mugs covered most of the table at times. Pippy and I stuck to shandy in half-pints: curious thing, it wasn’t ladylike to drink shandy in a pint, even if Pippy and I could put away two half-pints in the same time as it would take JP time to do justice to a pint. We drank toasts to all the signers of the Declaration that we could remember, to Revolutionary heroes, to Betsy Ross and Lafayette, von Steuben and Paul Revere. Hatch and JP held true to their intent of drinking 10 pints, although both of them did have to make sudden, hasty visits to the WC.
“It’s true,” Guy from Canada murmured quietly, “You really only rent beer.”

It was a lovely evening, I don’t think we were raucous enough to bother the other customers, no one got sick or belligerent, we remembered the curfew for the hostel was 10PM, and paid the tab, weaving only slightly as we walked back along the footpath, full of mellow goodwill and good English ale, bound for our various sleeping bags and pillows.
We were not in the least prepared to see the Youth Hostel all lighted up, and a pair of ambulances and a couple of cars at the front door, people coming and going, frantic footsteps and the sound of noisy barfing, upstairs and down.

Pippy and I climbed the stairs, and it got even worse. Upstairs in the girls’ dorm, one of the girls in the sociology class was throwing up into a basin every ten minutes. The girls who were still there, lay miserable and queasy on their bunks. We washed up, and got into our sleeping bags, while a doctor and the ambulance attendants bustled in and out. Everyone in the school party – which was everyone in the hostel but us Americans and Guy from Canada – had gotten suddenly and violently sick during the evening.
“Food poisoning,” explained the girl on the bunk next to mine. “They think it was the bean salad. We threw away the chicken, but we thought the salad was all right.”

And that was my memorable, Bicentennial 4th of July; believe me, I’ve been trying to forget about the food poisoning part for more than twenty-five years now.

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Tending the Home Fires – And Other Stuff

This is what I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks – tending to home, and to the business, and wrapping up two of the three current book projects. The two authors involved are thrilled to bits with the work done for their books, and both of them – marvelously – have each a follow-on project which will come to me by the end of the month. Hopefully, the third follow-on project will be completed by then. The visual elements for that book are … well, the author is one of those who has to see the completed project before deciding if it is satisfactory, or not. Anyway, the business is paying nicely, and so I can afford some more home renovations and repairs.

Last month’s home renovation project was a complete revamp of the kitchen pantry – basically, a small closet, 25 inches wide, and about 27 deep. The original builders put in five or six wooden shelves, which ran the full width and depth of the closet … and basically made anything shoved to the back of the shelves unfindable and irretrievable. Unless you emptied everything out. Last month we hit Peak Exasperation with the whole thing – that is, the point where the hassle of doing anything constructive about about the problem is less than the hassle of continuing to put up with it. So – emptied everything into cardboard boxes, knocked out the shelves, repaired the various small dings in the drywall, repainted to cover the patches … and applied about $140 worth of wire shelving from Lowe’s, an assortment of square bulk storage containers from the Container Store, and mirabile dictu, now we can find everything easily.

This month, the project was – where to store Blondie’s inherited vintage Chambers stove, and all of the gear we need to do the various markets, especially around Christmas; the tables, the pop-up, the dolly, the chairs and all. The garage is packed pretty full with Blondie’s household goods already, and so … it came to us – a shed. A nice, tidy little shed in the back left corner of the yard; for the stove, and all the market gear, and various gardening tools, the home-brewing and canning things – which take up an incredible amount of space in a small house … any way, whatever we decided on would have to be fairly attractive, because the windows at the back of the house look out on that patch of garden. Function and beauty – as William Morris’ dictum has it, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

All the wooden sheds that I really, really liked the look of were way too expensive, even if we put them up ourselves – and I am just not interested in that kind of construction any more. The inexpensive ones – Rubbermaid makes them, and I seem them all over the place – do not age very well at all. We compromised on a metal version – temporary and portable – the salesman assured us, but built to order. It was a bit more than I had thought to spend at first – but we wanted one that had the appearance of a small porch with an overhang at the front, although the porch is really more of a wide step. It has one little window, and a door, rather like a kindergarten drawing of a house … and two carpenters from the company came to install it yesterday. It had to be assembled on site, but the four walls were already pre-fabbed, so they only had to build out the foundation, slide it into the most advantageous position, put the four walls on it and nail them together, and then do the roof. It only took half a day – Blondie thought it would be more than a day, but they were quite terribly efficient.

So – the project for the holiday weekend is to fit out the inside with shelves, move everything intended to be inside it to them, paint the bare wood of the support posts and balusters to match the color of the trim (dark green) and to re-accomplish the landscaping around it so that the shed itself presents an attractive appearance. We’ve promised a couple of pictures to the company, of course. And that was my chief concern – Blondie’s is how to go about moving the Chambers stove from the back porch into the shed. I think we’ll appeal to some neighbors for help on this.

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