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22. August 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

From the next Luna City book – due out in October, 2016 -

 

Road Trip!

Big Sky Country - By The Side of the Road“I have absolutely got to get away from the madness,” Richard confessed morosely, to Araceli, Patrick and Chris, on a Sunday afternoon at the Gonzales’ residence – which had become almost as comfortably familiar to him as the Age of Aquarius. “Even if just for a couple of days. It’s becoming unbearable. That wretched Gunn person is glaring at me around every corner, as if it were all my fault.”

“He must have heard that Collin Wyler is coming to spend Christmas at the ranch this year,” Araceli nodded in sage agreement. “Patricia says that’s because he’s between wives again … I suppose Gunnison Penn must think the hunt for the Mills Treasure is on again, in a big way.”

“He was on Coast to Coast a couple nights ago,” Patrick agreed. “And that’s what he was all about … the treasure, and how the Wylers and VPI and whoever are all about deliberately sabotaging his search.”

It was the second weekend after the Luna City Players’ benefit performance, the second weekend after the sighting of what had become known across the pseudo-scientific tabloids as “The Mysterious Luna City Lights”. The Age of Aquarius – once a quiet, semi-deserted backwater save for a few days around the yearly solstices and equinoxes – was now a lively and exciting place, filled almost to overflowing with treasure hunters, detectorists, and UFO hunters. The Grants, of course, were mostly pleased. Even for what they charged for a day or a week – which was more of a token gesture for parking or camping there than a serious fee – their business accounts were profitably fattened to the point where Sefton was considering renovating the old conblock latrine and bathhouse, served by the hot spring which had given the impetus to the original owner of the property to think of setting up as a destination spa and resort. Sefton also grumbled about the constant racket upsetting the chickens and goats, but Judy was pleased beyond words, at having another outlet and audience for her Tarot cards, her organic simples and natterings about old-world “magick.”

“I liked it out there because it was quiet,” Richard continued, still simmering over how his own refuge had been sabotaged by the constant influx of strangers over the summer. “After days in the Café, and people coming and going, it’s restful to go out … well, it used to be restful to go out to the trailer and unwind. Watch the goats, listen to the chickens, the wind stirring the leaves. It was positively blissful. Now … it’s full of people, pottering around with their metal detectors … waving around their sensor wands and standing up in front of each other’s video cameras as if they were on the B-Bloody-BC yammering on about their search for whatever … it doesn’t even let up after dark, either … because a good third of them are hunting for ghosts, and they sit up in the bushes, whispering to each other. I swear, if anyone shows up looking for something like the Loch Ness monster living in the river, I’ll give it up and sleep nights in the Café Ladies. And those bloody cameras give me the pip.”

“That bad, uh?” Chris replied, with sympathy. “Look, if you really feel like that – you can crash at my place until it quiets down, some. All I hear is traffic on the road, and sometimes the crunch of someone hitting the bridge abutment… don’t mind that at all, reminds me of home. I’m going up to Marble Falls for a marathon, the weekend after Thanksgiving – you’d have the place to yourself, then.”

“I might have to take you up on it,” Richard said, although he was not entirely in earnest – still, it was his chance to vent to a sympathetic audience. This was over a meal of hamburgers, skewers of barbequed chicken, fire-roasted whole ears of corn, and a number of hearty salads. Araceli and Patrick, with their circle of friends had long ago fallen into the habit of those Sunday afternoon cookouts. By degrees, Richard had fallen into the habit of joining them; on this particular Sunday, the other participants included Chris, Sylvester, Kate Heisel, Jess Abernathy and Joe Vaughn.

(“Do you good to have a social life, Chef,” Araceli had urged him some months ago, fixing him with that severely analytical eye. “You need to get out more – hang out with real people.”

“Likely I do need to hang out with people,” Richard replied in a waspish mood. “That is – with people who don’t tell me I need to get out more and hang out with people.”

“There, you see!” Araceli pronounced in triumph. “Exactly what I said. Come over on Sunday – steaks from Doc Wyler’s cow, that we bought half of, this year. You’ll be amazed at how good, grass-fed beef can taste.)

“You know,” Patrick announced, with a broad grin. “I think it’s time for a road trip. How about we all go to Marble Falls – and cheer on Chris. I have that weekend off, you and ‘Celi can close the Café … I mean, who’s gonna be eating out over that weekend?”

“Where the hell is Marble Falls?” Richard demanded, and Patrick’s grin widened even farther. “About two and a half hour’s drive north. Heart of the Hill Country … it will be a blast. Let’s do it, ‘Celi – leave the kids with Abuelita, and have some fun! Like we used to do…”

“I’d be game,” Joe set aside his beer, and exchanged a quick glance with Jess. “If we can stop over in San Antonio for an hour or so … Jess and me, we have an errand to do there. Y’all can show Ricardo the Alamo … long as he promises not to pee on it. We can meet up at Buc-ees in New Braunfels and convoy to Marble Falls – all of us.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Patrick beamed. “Uncle Jesus says it’s OK to borrow Romeo’s Fifth-wheel – and that thing sleeps six!” while Richard demanded, “What in hell is Buc-ees?”

“You have to pee to believe!” Patrick replied and laughed so hard that he choked on a mouthful of beer.

“Count me in,” Sylvester said, and Kate chimed in agreement, adding, “I can do a quick report on it for ‘Talk of the Town.’”

“Look,” Sylvester brought out his cellphone and worked some miracles of inquiry on it. “Got a nice RV park, near enough as to make no difference … some rental cabins and a space for the RV – are we game?”

“Call me a ten-point buck,” Joe answered, with a distant look on his face. “Yeah, we’ll be at Marble Falls to cheer for Squid Medic when he crosses the finish line … but then Jess and I have some other plans – don’t we, Babe?”

“We do,” Jess replied – and Richard didn’t even try to figure out what that was all about.

 

So that was how, ten days later, Richard tossed a small overnight bag with some toiletries and a change of clothes into the back of Chris’ little red coupe. Chris didn’t hit the gas until they were well out on the main road north, in deference to the tires and suspension system.

“Man!” he exclaimed, as they spurted a bit of gravel behind them, and the speedometer steadily climbed to a hair below the legal speed limit. “I wish Sefton could get one of the Gonzalezes to come over with a scraper and level that broke-ass driveway of his. I shit you not, Ricardo – I drove on better-graded roads in Iraq, and that is saying something.”

“No argument here,” Richard agreed. “I just don’t think the Grants really expected all the traffic this year. I know I didn’t…” He was still simmering over the regularly-occurring medium-distance death-stare from Gunnison Penn, although they did their mutual best to avoid coming from within twenty feet of each other, under the terms of the legal injunction. Obviously, it still rankled with Penn.

“Well, never mind, bro!” Chris seemed unusually light-hearted. “The open road calls! We meet up in New Braunfels at noon, hit Marble Falls by mid-afternoon, set up camp … and then then I gotta be ready at oh-dark thirty. I’m aiming to do the whole course in under four hours, based on my last half-marathon. Hey, you should join me sometime – you’d get a kick out of running and the exercise would do you a world of good.”

“Riding my bike supplies that need, thank you,” Richard answered. “Frankly, I couldn’t see the appeal, even when I was at school. Run around and around the track, looking at the backsides of all the fellows ahead of you? Nothing more boring can be imagined, and since I’m not a poof, I didn’t even get any jollies from the exercise.”

“You could join a club or something,” Chris shrugged, echoing Araceli’s earlier words. “You need a social life, for sure. Hey – you could learn to drive, even. Widen your horizons beyond Luna City.”

“I like my horizons just as they are,” Richard argued. “I agreed to join you all on this little jaunt – isn’t that enough?”

“True, dat,” Chris slanted a sideways look at him. “OK, so no more bugging you about getting out. But still – you ought to learn to drive, like a real American.”

“I will take that advice into active consideration,” Richard said, in such a flat monotone that Chris dropped the subject at last.

They zoomed northwards along Route 123, which angles north and west through the gently-rolling ranchland country, stretches of pastures and thickets of oak, cedar and hackberry trees, interspersed with small towns like Stockdale, Sutherland and La Vernia where it was necessary to slow down, and now and again obey the strictures imposed by a stop sign or a traffic signal light. Those towns all looked rather like Luna City absent the grandeur of Town Square, no matter if they went straight through the town center or around the outskirts; a row of businesses, a straggle of cottages and double-wide trailers, a sign boasting the prowess of the high school football team – and then out into the pastures and groves again, dotted with grazing cattle and the occasional oil or natural gas pump or tank.

Until they came to San Antonio – the city, which from the southern approach was not one of those sprawling ones, attended by a steadily denser concentration of suburbs, strip malls and industrial parks. It seemed to Richard as if Chris’ coupe topped one last rise of the highway ribbon – and there was the city, a modest gathering of high-rise towers just ahead.

“I promised you a look at the Alamo,” Chris grinned. “You can’t say you’ve been to Texas without you see the Alamo…”

“I am breathless with anticipation,” Richard commented, with a complete lack of emotion. Half an hour later, after Chris had deposited the little coupe in a city parking garage, and they had walked down one street, turned an urban corner and sauntered down another, Richard brought much more feeling into it. “Stone the bloody crows – is that it? It’s … so small – it never looked like that in the movies!”

Chris was laughing, in what Richard considered to be a completely heartless manner. “Ricardo, man – that which you see before you was only the least part of a larger establishment – the post chapel of a frontier garrison, as it was. The original place – well, the walls around it went all around the outside edge of this plaza – most of it mud-brick and a single room deep. The chapel and the long building next to it were made of stone. Prolly why they lasted so long. But come on – you gotta see the inside, and the list of names. There were some of you Brits fighting here at the last, you know. And a mad Scot who played the bagpipes, too.”

Borne along on Chris’ unaccountable enthusiasm, and interested in spite of himself, Richard submitted to being dragged along. It was barely mid-morning on a Friday; the pleasant and oddly-shaped plaza was not particularly crowded. The classically Victorian bandstand reminded him of the one in Luna City. At every few paces, Chris pointed out a significant place where something or other had occurred –

“You come here often?” Richard finally asked, as the heavy wooden door closed after them with an ecclesiastically serious thud.

“All the time, when I was at BAMC,” Chris answered, in hushed and reverent tones. “Miz Alice and Miz Letty used to bring me, when I could get a day pass. There’s a nice garden at the back. Miz Letty, she was doing some research at the Daughters of Texas library – that’s around the other side. Miz Alice – she would get tired, and we would go sit in the garden, wait for Miz Letty to get done. And she would tell me stories about this place, about her family, and I’d talk about J.W., mebbe. And then we would walk around to this old-school deli place on Commerce and have Reuben sandwiches and real old-fashioned root-beer …”

“You sound as if you are fond of the place,” Richard commented. “As well as being almost embarrassingly knowledgeable.”

“I am,” Chris laughed, sounding slightly uncomfortable. “Miz Alice made it sound … you know, real to me. And Miz Letty – she knew so much. Between the two of them, I could see it in my head, you know? They were just guys. Real guys. Betting they talked dirty, knew that likely they wouldn’t ever see their families again, but that they trusted the ones to their right and left … and they had something to believe in, at the end. Did you see that Billy Bob Thornton move about the Alamo? I did. There was a bit in it that stuck with me – Colonel Travis saying that Texas was a second chance. That’s just what Luna City was for me; a second chance. Bet it was for you, too. A second chance at getting something right in your life. Something meaningful to hold to and believe in, a chance for something real and good, for friends that believed in you … well, anyway. This is the sacristy room – where the womenfolk holed up in at the last. And there’s the list of the garrison. See any names you know?”

“Not a one,” Richard replied. “But … which was the crazy Scot with the bagpipes?”

 

22. July 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

Dance with the Bunny Boiler in the Pale Moonlight

Some weeks after Romeo Gonzales arrived and set up his own campsite in the near-deserted Age of Aquarius, Richard pedaled up the road – deftly avoiding the ruts, bumps and puddles that nature and the passage of the occasional heavy vehicle had scoured into the clay-like soil with the skill of experience. It had rained lightly the night before, so puddles there were in plenty, and the fresh new grass had begun just raising tender new blades coyly between the old dead hay of the previous season.
On the whole, he had found Romeo Gonzales to be a congenial neighbor, given that it was hard to be anything else at half an acre space between their trailers and workplaces some blocks distant from each other. At least, Romeo showed no inclination to conspire together with malignantly-inclined micro-media operatives to ambush him at the door with lights, cameras and harassing commentary, unlike the egregious Penn. Who, in concordance with the injunction delivered through Jess, showed every inclination of making himself scarce whenever Richard was around. Richard was profoundly glad of that, not least because he treasured his afternoons of solitary contemplation of the pleasant but uninspiring landscape and his studies in Larousse.
And besides all that, Romeo was good at fixing things. He took it upon himself to shinny up and lubricate the old-fashioned windmill that drove the water-pump which supplied hot water to the old concrete block washhouse in the campground. Romeo adjusted the handbrakes and the chain of Richard’s bicycle, and when completely bored and bereft of things to do, popped up the hood of his pick-up truck and tinkered with the mysteries within. Still, Richard had looked out of the Airstream’s windows, very late at night, rubbing his eyes because he thought he could see some kind of ephemeral apparition – kind of like the Northern Lights, but rather more red-tinged than electric green, writhing and twisting in the air over Romeo’s Fifth-wheel. But as soon as he blinked, that vision was gone.
Now, that very pick-up coasted slowly across the campground, and Romeo leaned out of the drivers’ side window. “Hey, Rich – I’m heading out to Karnesville to swap out my propane bottles; you were saying that one of yours is empty and the other almost – you wanna come along?”
“Certainly – and thanks for the offer,” Richard answered with honest gratitude. “Run over to the Airstream – I’ll put them in.” He had been experimenting with various interesting recipes on the tiny propane-powered cooker in the Airstream, which had completely drained one tank – and to judge how the burner flame had been flickering of late – was close to emptying the other. The tanks were heavy – and the Walmart in Karnesville was a good ten or fifteen miles distant. In the space of a minute or two, his tanks were in the back of Romeo’s sturdy workman’s pick-up, and they were out on Route 123 – the back road between San Antonio and Aransas Pass, which gained in scenic qualities and relative lack of traffic in its soothing meandering across scenic portions of South Texas what it lacked in the boring celerity of the major highway.
But there was frequent traffic upon it; some miles along the way to Karnesville, the two of them witnessed evidence of that, in the form of a very late-model, velvet-black Mercedes sedan, off on the grassy verge on the other side of the road. The front left tire of the Mercedes was fatally, hopelessly flattened, and the driver stood uncertainly by it, very obviously boggled by this misfortune, although she held a cellphone in her hand.
“Oh, man,” Said Roman, in admiration. “What a gorgeous piece …”
“I don’t care!” Richard, recognizing the unfortunate driver, was horrified. He barely restrained his first impulse to dive under the passenger-side dashboard of Romeo’s truck – which being one of these huge garish American things, would have been big enough to hide at least two people, three of them if they were light of build. “Drive on – that’s the horrible Susannah! She’s a stalker, the bunny-boiler of Mills Farm! An executive of theirs! She has haunted me – chased after me! She came out to the trailer … for god’s sake, man – don’t stop! If you do, you’ll regret it, I tell you!”
“She came out to the Aquarius?” Romeo answered. “Damn, Rich, she’s way to classy for a regular lot lizard. I’ll run that risk, sure. And that Merc is one awesome bit of machinery.” He sighed, as the pick-up swept past the stranded Mercedes. “Sorry, man – you have issues with her. Your problem, not mine. I don’t leave ladies with car trouble by the roadside – just my personal standard.” He grinned sideways at Richard, who felt his heart sink right down to the level of his trainers. (Bought at Marisol Gonzalez’s thrift shop in Karnesville. He did wonder briefly if he could impose on Romeo to make a quick pit-stop there after trading in the gas bottles.)
“She’s a remora in human-guise,” Richard gabbled, frantic and horrified, as Romeo made an easy U-turn and drove back towards the stranded Mercedes and Susannah Wyatt – as always, slim and dressed to the nines in elegant and high-fashion vacation wear. “Just drive on! Call your uncle with the garage and the wrecker – anything! Once she latches onto your flesh, she doesn’t let go! A relentless succubus …”
“Sounds like my kind of woman!” Unmoved, Romeo did another U-turn and eased the pick-up off the road, backing up and parking just ahead of Susannah and her stranded Mercedes.
Richard slid down in the passenger seat, lower and lower, hissing between his teeth as Romeo turned off his engine, “I won’t be a part of this – I can’t be a part of this! For the love of God, don’t let her see me – don’t tell her I am here! The woman is a menace – you have no idea of what you are letting yourself in for …”
“No problem, bro,” Romeo answered, with total assurance. He unsnapped his seat belt, and opened the driver-side door. “I reckon maybe that I do … and I just won’t leave a woman stranded by the roadside with car trouble. That’s just not the Gonzales way.”
“You’ll live to regret it!” Richard made one final frantic and fruitless plea … to no avail. He slid farther down in the passenger seat, certain that he would not be seen, since Romeo’s truck sat so much higher than the Mercedes and had tinted windows in the back. But he could observe what transpired in the mirrors and hear Romeo’s and Susannah’s voices since the windows were open.
Romeo – swaggering just the tiniest bit like an old movie cowboy – doffed his hat and drawled, “Say there, little lady, you look like you’ve got a flat tire, there.”
Richard sank even farther down in the seat. “Oh, god – the bloody stereotype. Kill me now.” He couldn’t hear Susannah’s reply, but Romeo continued, “Don’t you fret, ma’am, I can change it for ya – just show me where your spare is. I got all the tools I need in the back of my truck. I’m Romeo Gonzales, by the way – of the Luna City Gonzaleses. You must be Miss Wyatt, from out at Mills Farm … I’ve heard so much about you.”

(to be continued in amusing fashion. Luna City 3.14159 will be released late this year, in both print and ebook versions.)

08. June 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

From the current work in progress (well, one of them anyway) — the adventures of Fredi Steinmetz in Gold-rush Era California. I have been making great advances on this picaresque adventure, The Golden Road,  which in the time-line of the Adelsverein Trilogy slots in neatly between Book One and Book Two. Magda’s scapegrace younger brother Fredi went to California in the mid-1850s, which was mentioned several times in the Trilogy, and in Sunset and Steel Rails, by which time he was late in middle age and the romantic interest for Sophia Brewer Teague. But this is the story of his younger days in California… it should be out by the end of this year.

Chapter 15 – The Express Mail

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

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

Wakened just before dawn by a distant rooster crowing in protest in the next street over from the saloon, Fredi crawled out from between his blankets. Pale light seeped through the gaps between the boards that made the lean-to shed appended to the back of the Craycraft Saloon. He pulled on his outer garments, noting with some surprise that Edwin and his bedroll were nowhere to be seen. From the foot of O’Malley’s bedroll, Nipper looked out from beneath O’Malley’s worn coachmen’s overcoat with bright eyes, but declined to rouse himself. The dog abominated cold, as well as damp – and Fredi sympathized wholeheartedly with Nipper, especially on this chill morning.
Still – Fredi did wonder what had happened with Edwin. O’Malley gave every indication of being deep in slumber, and Fredi was loath to wake him and demand an explanation. Was it to do with the quarrel between the two on the night before? And where was Edwin? O’Malley would be playing the piano in the saloon tonight – as well as for Lotta’s second performance. It was his understanding that the Faery Star would perform twice more at the Craycraft Saloon, so he would have the opportunity to see a performance at least one more time, after his journey with the mail and back.
The previous evening, he had importuned the Chinese cook – by gesture and very simple English – to put two potatoes to bake for him on the stove, when he banked the fires for the night; now the potatoes were done and hot. Fredi slipped them into the pockets of his coat, where they radiated warmth, somewhat enthusiastically. He helped himself to coffee, from the pot already sat at the back of the stove; the coffee was also hot, and there was molasses to sweeten it, but no milk. The Chinaman came in from the outside, with an armload of wood for the stove. Fredi nodded to him, from courtesy. He didn’t quite know what to make of the man, with his almond-shaped eyes, and long black queue snaking down his back; he didn’t speak much English – or German. China was called the Celestial Kingdom, and was along away across the Pacific Ocean, and if Fredi had known much beyond that, he had forgotten it long since.
O’Malley was still gently snoring in his bedroll; Fredi pulled on his coat, wrapping a heavy muffler around his neck and mouth, and tiptoed more or less silently out of the back door of the saloon, still wondering where Edwin was, and what the dispute between the two had been.
It was light outside now; a faint pearly light sifting through the overcast. Frost crunched under his feet – either a heavy frost from last night, or a light snow-fall. The river was not yet frozen, although a substantial layer of ice rimmed the banks, those rocks in mid-stream and those places where the water lay still. The water itself was black, cold-looking, and shriveled between its banks. Fredi walked along to the express office, down a muddy street which even at the crack of dawn was full of lively activities; a few stores were already open, and the gambling hells really never closed.
The express office was no exception, either; Mr. Layton, who managed the office was a stickler for opening early. In the early days in Downieville, it cost a dollar a letter. Profits were still good enough, however – and the mail service was even faster. In the early days, before California was annexed and gold discovered, Fredi had been told it took six months or a year, for a letter to travel from the east.
“Morning, Dutch,” Mitch Layton said, as Fredi came in. “Hope you dressed warm, today – it’s gonna be cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey, and even worse tomorrow, if my bunions aren’t lying.”
“Two sets of flannel longjohns,” Fredi replied, cheerfully. “And hot potatoes in my pockets.”
“You’ll need ‘em today, Dutch. You gotta full pair of saddlebags, and likely the same waiting for you in Camptonville. Oh – and keep your eyes wide open. There’s been a couple of road agents reported laying for the stage, last couple of weeks.”
“Good thing I’m only carrying letters, then,” Fredi patted the reassuring weight of the long-barreled Colt dragoon revolver, hanging from the belt under his coat. “Nothing worth getting shot over.”
“You never know,” Mitch Layton answered. “There are some damn-stupid sons of whores out there.” He handed Fredi the packed pair of saddle-bags, bulging with mail, bound for Camptonville, San Francisco and the east. “Don’t take any risks with ‘em, if you do run into one. Especially with my horses.”
“Safe as if in a baby’s cradle,” Fredi replied jauntily, and slung the saddlebags over his shoulder. The horse was already bridled and saddled, tied to a hitching rail out in front, stamping impatiently and blowing out steamy breaths into the frigid air. Fredi flung the saddle-bags over, and mounted up, feeling as free as a bird soaring into the air. Mr. Layton’s express horses were a very fine collection of horseflesh, Fredi thought to himself once more; fine-blooded, high-spirited stock rather than the small and nimble mustang cowponies of no particular breed that he had been accustomed to riding back in Texas and with Gil Fabreaux’s outfit. Today’s mount was a tall brown gelding with a slightly darker mane and tail; Mitch Layton said that this horse was named Brownie. Even at a trot, Brownie had a comfortable gait, and his canter was a smooth as silk. There were some stretches when Fredi must rein him in, for Brownie loved to run when he was fresh – but it was a hard twenty miles and a little more to Camptonville, over a twisting, rutted road which had been established more by use and custom than any deliberate program of road-building.
No – Fredi was done with gold-seeking, not if it meant standing knee-deep in ice-cold river water for most of a day, or grubbing a dark tunnel into a hillside, like a mole. It was only after giving up that notion of a fortune in gold to be had for a small labor that Fredi could see to the heart of the matter. Did this insight mean that he was closer to being a man – an admirable man, like Carl, or O’Malley, or Gil? Riding for the express mail suited him better, although the work of it was no less arduous, and certainly no warmer.
“I’m just not cut out to be a miner, Brownie,” Fredi confessed to his mount, and Brownie’s ears twitched, as if he was listening and sympathetic, even if Fredi was speaking German to him – that language of his childhood, although he had spent so much time of late speaking English that now he thought he had begun dreaming in English, too. “I can’t stick staying in a single place. Maybe I will, some day. But this … always a fresh prospect over the horizon … something new and exciting. Vati used to say that you had to know yourself. Perhaps this is what he meant by that.”
The sun was just peeping over the eastern horizon as he left the flats behind; a thin golden thread illuminating the mountaintops, but the valley of the Yuba Forks was still masked in blue shadow. Walk, trot, canter – at a steady pace, intended to make all possible speed while conserving the strength of his mount.
Walk, trot, canter, matching pace to the condition of the road and the pitch of the slope in it; Brownie’s steady, obedient hoof beats ate up the miles, as the sun rose higher and higher at their backs, the mild midday warmth melting the frost on the trees, and at the edges of puddles.
“It’s one of those things, Brownie,” Fredi continued, in a confiding mode when they reached a slightly up-hill stretch of road. “Loyalty to a pard, like you and I. One for all, all for one. O’Malley and me – we’re partners, too. And Edwin, too – even if I wonder what he has gotten up to? O’Malley sounded angry last night … What we do, we ought to do it together – a man needs good friends out here, and no mistake. There’s men who wound up being shipped off on a ship to Shanghai, or dead in a ditch, if they didn’t have friends looking out for them. O’Malley, now – if there was a man who needs a keeper. And Edwin – he’s a babe in the woods, like that old story – for all that he says he isn’t. If it weren’t for them, I’d take my share of the gold from Pine Tree and go home to Texas. And that’s the truth of it.”
Brownie’s ears twitched again, as if he understood perfectly. Walk, trot, canter, yet again. Pause to water him from the river, pause again for Fredi to dismount and stretch the kinks out of his legs and back, and eat his near-to-cold potatoes. Let Brownie graze briefly on a patch of winter-killed grass, and feed him a handful of oats, before resuming the journey. He saw only a handful of other travelers, all that way, for winter was closing in.

He reached Camptonville – brawling, sprawling, wood smoke-shrouded Camptonville very late in the afternoon, Brownie, being a well-conditioned horse and accustomed to the regular long journey, still had sufficient energy to prance, as Fredi threaded through the outskirts to the express office, and the stables behind. John Harvey, the express agent at Camptonville, came out to take charge of the saddlebags. He was a very thin young man, a little older than Fredi, afflicted with a persistent racking cough that hinted at consumption. He had wrecked his health through laboring in the placer mines for three seasons.
“No problems?” he asked, as Fredi un-cinched his saddle girth. Brownie seemed to shiver with delight, and blew out his nostrils in a great sigh of relief.
“Not a whisper,” Fredi shook his head. “Mitch said he had heard about a road agent setting up along the road, but I expect that he must be laying for the stage. I didn’t see anyone the whole way who didn’t look like he had a good reason for being there.”
“It’s too cold a day for any but an honest man,” John replied, and coughed. “Well, when you get done with rubbing down Brownie, we’ll go over to the Nevada House for supper. My treat, Dutch.”
“Bring a full poke,” Fredi replied, “I’m hungry enough to eat a whole beeve.”
John Harvey laughed, shaking his head, and left Fredi to finish tending Brownie. The stable was unexpectedly warm; the bodies of the other four express horses and the milk cow stalled therein likely had a lot to do with it. Fredi filled the manger of the empty stall with dried hay, and a handful of oats, rubbed Brownie’s long nose with affection, and went into the express office. John Harvey lived there, in one of two little rooms behind the office; two lengths of dark red calico stretched from wall to wall and floor to ceiling formed the separating walls, Fredi would spend the night in the other, sleeping on a straw pallet, and head back to Downieville the next morning, with the mail dispatched from Yuba City which had arrived the day before. Fredi liked to think of that company of express riders, moving up and down the tracks between San Francisco and the remotest of the gold camps; the saddle-bags of letters, moving by relay riders on twisting mountain tracks, and by steamboats ploughing up and down the rivers. Perhaps he would be tired of this job soon enough, but at the moment – especially this moment, with his day-long journey over – he was supremely contented with it.

13. May 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Book Event, Chapters From the Latest Book

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Celia Hayes Books



The Chronicles of Luna City – Available also through Amazon – in print and Kindle

And at  Barnes & Noble

The Second Chronicle of Luna City

In print and Kindle on Amazon

And at Barnes & Noble

Sample Chapter from The Second Chronicle of Luna City

Things That Go Bump in the Night

It gratified Richard no end, to discover that there were a number of weeks – months, even – during which it was possible to be comfortable in the little Airstream without running the air conditioning or heating. It seemed at first, that Texas had only two temperature settings; Broil/Roast and Blazingly Hot. To someone accustomed to the fairly mild summers of Northern Europe, alternated with the occasional frigid winter blast, it had all come very much as a shock, especially when such extremes could sometimes be experienced within a single day. However, once he discovered that autumn, winter, and spring were very much like an  English summer, he was prepared to be more philosophical about it. The only bad thing about leaving the windows of the Airstream open at night, for the fresh air was the occasional scream of a pea-fowl who preferred to roost in a nearby tree, (until he took steps to discourage the blasted creature), the distant crowing of the Grant’s half a dozen roosters, and now and again something that sounded like a dog suffering from fits of nervous laughter.

“Coyote,” Sefton Grant explained to him, the morning that Richard first mentioned this. Sefton, who was lean and stringy and looked like a slightly younger, fitter and less run-to-seed Willie Nelson, was putting out morning feed for the goats, clad in his usual working attire of battered cowboy boots, a pair of baggy cut-off jeans and a wide-brimmed ‘boonie’ hat which had once been military green but was now weathered to no particular color at all, and nothing much else besides. “Yeah, there’re are coyotes all over in the brush. You won’t see them in the daytime, though.”

“Do they present any danger?” Richard asked, nervously – since he had coyotes and wolves rather muddled in his own mind.

“Only if you are a housecat, or a chicken,” Sefton replied, grinning. “That’s why we lock up them both at night, and give the dogs free run. Judikens says that the coyotes gotta live, too … but not on our damned chickens.”

The dogs – a couple of houndish-looking mutts and one which looked rather like a standard poodle – were usually to be found lazing in any convenient patch of sunshine in the Grant’s yurt-centered compound, where they had all found a happy refuge. Richard didn’t think any of the three were energetic enough to be effective guard dogs, but you never knew. The Grants hadn’t selected the dogs for particular guarding-skills in any case; it was more a case of the dogs – all strays or cruelly dumped in the countryside by irresponsible owners – selecting the Grants as their chosen humans.

“The goats now,” Sefton added, with some satisfaction. “They look after each other. Don’t worry about anything you hear at night, Richard – the dogs are on guard.”

This conversation was the first thing to come to Richard’s mind – actually the second thing, after, “What the hell was that?” – when something woke him in the middle of the night. Something; he sat up in the dark, trying to recollect what it was, or might be. Yes, a sudden kind

of ‘whumping’ noise, as of something heavy hitting the ground. Without turning on any of the interior lights, he slid out of bed and padded through to the front of the caravan, where the larger windows offered views of the goat pastures, and the lumpy meadow leading down to the river, with the forlorn campground bathhouse and lavatory, standing foursquare with moonlight silvering the white-washed walls and tin roof. The moon drifted, a milk-pale orb, above the tree line at the water’s edge, where mist tangled like shredded gauze among the distant shrubs and stands of rushes. Was there something moving, there among the brush? Something white; Richard was not certain of what, exactly. Could it be Azúcar, the Grant’s infamously bad-tempered pet llama?

He shrugged – likely it was. Well, no matter to him; and Azúcar was big enough and sufficiently aggressive to look after himself very well. Richard would have thought no more about it – and then he recalled what Araceli had said about ghost riders, along the bank of the river at full moon. Nope – didn’t look anything like ghost riders on spectral horses at all.

But something woke him the following night; not the ‘whump!’ noise that he had heard before. This was more like a regular squeaking sound, like a supermarket trolley with a bad wheel. It went on for about fifteen minutes, finally diminishing into silence, and Richard went back to sleep, muzzily thinking to himself that it was someone passing in the street below … only to recall upon waking very early – that there was no street and no ‘below’ from an Airstream caravan parked in a deserted campground. This was curious at the very least. He could not be certain that it wasn’t a dream anyway.

He mentioned it to Araceli, about mid-morning, when the breakfast rush was over.

“I’ve been wakened in the early morning, a couple of times,” he ventured. “The place is usually so quiet that I sleep like a log … but there is something queer going on.”

“Not that,” Araceli said, in much alarm. “Judy and Sefton are nudists… and totally against any kind of exploitation in any form!”

“No, not that,” Richard sighed. “Not the way that it sounded. It’s just

… odd. The place is quiet as a tomb, when the old commune or Founder’s Day isn’t in session. But I can’t help thinking that something strange is going on. Two nights in a row, and something waking me up in the wee hours.”

“Not the ghost riders, is it?” Araceli ventured. “That’s a tale told by teenagers to frighten each other or by the abuelitas to frighten disobedient children.”

“The ghost riders?” Richard raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Pull the other one, Araceli my sweet country innocent. Britain is haunted several times over every inch by the ghosts of two thousand years. I doubt that there is a square inch of the place completely un-haunted. Spectral riders, of a mere hundred and fifty years’ provenance? Please.”

“Well, you’re living there, you figure out a way to put up with them,” Araceli replied smartly and then their conversation wandered on, perforce, to more immediate topics.

But on the next night, Richard was wakened again. This night was a one where a storm front had blown through, dropping quantities of rain, and now the warmer temperatures were bringing moisture up from the ground and the water. The entire campground was shrouded in mist. It was not quite solid enough to be called a ‘fog’ – but it did wrap the low- lying area adjacent to the river-bottom in a silvery-white veil. And there came that same squeaky-wheel sound again. Only this time, he recognized it for what it undoubtedly was – the hand-cart that Sefton hauled heavy things like goat-fodder and straw bedding from the yurt compound to the series of ramshackle sheds which sheltered the goats in bad weather.

“I wonder what the old berk is up to?” he wondered. Well, nothing much could startle him with regard to Judy and Sefton, but why they were doing it in the middle of the night was a puzzlement. On that note, he rolled over and went back to sleep. He did make mention of it, the following afternoon, after bicycling home from the Café. He stopped at the yurt to ask for half a dozen eggs for himself.

Judy beamed at him, saying, “Sure – let me see what the girls have produced! Can’t get any fresher than straight from the hen’s butt, can we?”

“No, I think not,” Richard replied, slightly unnerved by Judy’s way  of putting it and also by a sudden mental vision of a hen on a gynecologist’s examining table, with feet in the stirrups. She bustled off towards the henhouse, as Sefton came around from the main shed, rolling the wheeled cart before him.

“’Lo, Rich,” he said. “How’s it goin’, man?”

“Pretty well,” Richard answered. “Getting ready for the mid-summer solstice?”

“Yep. We’re hoping for a good turn-out this year. The weather’s gonna be nice.” Sefton scratched his slightly bristly cheek with a faint scratching sound, and Richard suddenly recollected the sound of the cart, from the previous night.

“You might want to lock up that cart,” he said. “I could swear that someone has been using it at night. I keep hearing someone or something out in the campground in the wee hours.”

“Do ya?” Sefton shrugged, as if this was of little concern. “No one locks up anything around here. Mebbe ya heard the ghost riders, ‘r something like that.”

“Maybe,” Richard agreed. There were large bottles of something in the cart, large, opaque plastic bottles, mostly covered by other bags of wood-shavings used for bedding the hens and goats. But not quite … and he did wonder why Sefton headed off to the goat pasture as soon as Judy emerged from the henhouse with a wire basket of eggs.

And that night, he was wakened again – this time, not by a squeaking wheel, but by a strange kind of ‘chuff-chuff-chuffing’ sound. Without turning on any lights, Richard padded silently to the banquette end of the caravan and looked out into a world of fog and mist, an eldritch world in which a single small light flared and bobbed. Up and down across the length of the deserted campground, bobbing as a man might walk with a small light affixed to his forehead, the regular ‘chuff-chuff’ noise now close, now distant and nearly inaudible.

“Good night, nurse!” Richard said to himself, having finally realized what he was seeing. He watched for a bit longer; until the figure in white, the small light bobbing in the fog passed close enough to the caravan for him to be absolutely certain. And then he went back to bed, and slept the sleep of a man with a completely unworried mind.

In the morning, before the sun was more than a brief bright line on the eastern horizon, he went to the nearest goat shed with a battery torch in his hand. The small goats nuzzled at him in mild curiosity, and Che the now full-grown Nubian goat butted his thigh as if demanding the caress that was only his due.

Buried deep in the goat’s bedding in the second ramshackle shed were some very curious items. And when Richard returned home that afternoon – how very strange to think of the Airstream as home! – with small shreds of bread dough still clinging to his hands, a dusting of flour on his shirt and in his hair from the weekly preparation of an enormous batch of cinnamon rolls, he put up his bicycle and wandered over towards the yurt. He was exhausted from the day of work, which had begun before dawn, and from pedaling the bike, for the summer heat was merciless, but he had just enough energy to look for Sefton.

He found him shoveling the latest accumulation of chicken dung into the serried rows of reeking piles that were the Grant’s compost heaps. (Used and reused wooden pallets, strung together in fours to make individual compost containers.)

“Hard at work, I see,” Richard observed, and Sefton hesitated and grinned –  an expression which vanished completely from his bronzed countenance as soon as Richard added, “Near to twenty hours a day, that I can see, after last night.”

“Er …” Sefton went several shades paler under his tan. “What did you … it was foggy last night. That’s when people see the ghost riders! Judikens says that …”

“Likely she could see the whole mounted parade of Horse Guards, given the right encouragement,” Richard drawled. “But what I saw was someone in a white cover-all, walking around fogging the whole place with insect-killer and the whole lot of bug-killer and fogger is presently hidden under the goat’s bedding materiel in the second shed where you  left it in the wee hours.”

Sefton recovered something of his composure, squinting at Richard. “There hasn’t been anyone living in the trailer long-term since the commune broke up, so there ain’t no way that anyone took note before. Well, you know how Judikens makes such a big thing about natural remedies, and chemicals. She’s been big on it for years, tell the truth. But the truth of it is that folk that are not used to the outdoors much; they can get sort of over-exposed, real easily. You know; mosquitoes. Fire ants…”

“Yes, I recollect that, very clearly,” Richard answered with a reminiscent shudder. On his very first morning in Luna City, he had awakened from drunken slumber, lying naked on top of a large fire-ant hill on the riverbank, with predictable results. It had taken nearly two weeks for the small pustules left wherever they stung him to heal entirely. “So, the usual environmentally-sensitive stuff that Judy wants us to

use doesn’t make a dent,” Sefton looked at Richard – not quite imploring, but inviting comprehension. “And we can’t have our guests, our old friends bitten six ways from Sunday. I do what needs to be done – been doing it for years, without her knowing. Hell, she was raised in the suburbs, had no idea of what farming and raising stuff really meant when we first came here. I did; I grew up on a ranch, outside of a little burg called Noodle … ever hear of it?”

“Can’t say I have,” Richard managed to swallow his astonishment. “Really – there’s a place in Texas called Noodle?”

“You betcha,” Sefton nodded. Richard thought about it some more, wondering for almost the first time how Sefton and Judy became a pair. A more oddly-assorted couple was hard to imagine.

Sefton answered the unasked question. “We were at UT, together. A thing, ya know? Turn on, tune in, drop out. Summer of Love, and all that. My folks were almighty pissed – hers’ too. I was supposed to be studying agronomy. But Judikens had a way with her. Crook her little finger, guys come running. Goddess-power, ya know?” Sefton leaned against his shovel and sighed, reminiscently. “It seemed like the world was on fire, falling apart. We had to get back to the garden, get in touch with nature, withdraw from the materiel world an’ all. So, Judikens had this little piece of worthless, overgrown land she inherited, and we had the notion to set up a commune on it.” Sefton chuckled, wryly. “Yep – buncha college kids with a load of airy-fairy notions. Took most of the summer to kick that nonsense out of them. But us two – we stuck to it. No, it ain’t much to look at, and I’m the first to admit it. But we don’t owe nothin’ to the man, and we don’t call anyone boss. We’re off the grid, got plenty to eat, a roof over our head. We get by – you know what they say ‘bout how country boys can survive? Heck, I wish that Judikens was a better cook, but I’ll  bet there are folks like Mister Clovis Walcott who might live under a better roof’n ours, but aren’t any happier. You don’t wanna give me away, do ya?”

“My lips are sealed,” Richard replied, with perfect contentment. “I promise, I will say nothing to cause domestic dissention between yourself and your good lady. I have no great love for either mosquitoes or fire ants.”

“Thanks, Richard,” Sefton beamed at him. “It ain’t much, but it’s home … an’ you’re a part of the family.”

“Looks like we’re going to get another member of it, by extension,” Richard observed. From where they stood, by the henhouse and the compost enclosures, they could see a battered RV crawling carefully down the rutted dirt road which led from Route 123 towards the campground enclosure. “Is this anyone you know?” he added, for Sefton had mumbled something uncomplimentary under his breath, upon noting the large logo applied, as a banner across the side of the RV. “Treasure Hunters, International” it read, in ornate letters, with a website in slightly smaller letters underneath and a portrait representation of a beaming, bearded gentleman alongside the logo.

“Yep,” Sefton replied, and spat into the weeds which fringed the compost piles. “Xavier Gunnison Penn, the world-champion treasure- hunter as he calls himself. He’s been coming here for years, looking for Charley Mills’ treasure hoard. I’ll bet that Araceli Gonzales’ little boy finding a gold coin in the Easter Egg hunt has fired him up all over again.”

“He’s been here before?” Richard was frankly astonished; the only regular visitors to the Age of Aquarius were either members of the old commune on their regular mid-summer pilgrimage, or out-of-town residents returning for Founders’ Day – in either case, visitors knowing well what fresh hell awaited. He had yet to see a casual traveler pull off the main road and find their way to the overgrown meadow; if they did, turning around and driving away as soon as they saw the place, as fast as they could risk their tires and shock absorbers on the rutted unpaved track. Now Sefton nodded glumly. “Yep. And aside from being about six kinds of nut, he’s a cheap bastard. Guess I’d better call Joe Vaughn and let him know.”

“He’s not some kind of criminal, is he?”

“No, not that you’d notice so much,” Sefton hesitated. In the campground, the RV trundled slowly across to the far edge where the single row of electric hook-ups was situated, several spaces down from the Airstream. The RV halted, then backed slowly into the space. “It’s just that he’s one of these enthusiasts. No discretion. Some crazy notion pops into his head, he’s going with it three seconds later.”

The driver-side door of the RV opened, and a man emerged; short, stocky and bearded. He saw the two of them and waved, not with any urgency. As the driver – presumably the impulsive Mr. Penn – went around settling the RV hook-ups, Sefton continued, “You ever hear how he got banned for life from the Smithsonian? I’ll tell ya; I know it’s a fact because he told me the story himself. He got it in his head that there was a map to a treasure, etched on the inside of one of those big dinosaur bones. And nothing would do but that he had to look at it, right that very moment. So, he jumped over the rope and shinnied up into the exhibit. You know – into it! One of those big bastards in the main exhibit hall. You gotta know that everything and everybody all around went all kinda ape. He got into a fist-fight with a nice lady docent, right on the spot, and that was when they banned him forever.”

Sefton shook his head, sadly. “You know, any real sensible person woulda asked permission, written a letter asking real nice, pretty please. So, if he gets some sorta notion to pop over to the Wyler’s or to Mills Farm with his metal detector and a coupla shovels, try to talk some sense into him. And if you can’t manage that, then don’t let him talk you inta going with him.”

“I will keep your wise advice in mind,” Richard replied. “Consider me warned. And thank you once more for the midnight mosquito- slaughter.  Judy might not approve, but I do, most enthusiastically.”

“No problem,” Sefton grinned, revealing a most unexpectedly healthy set of good teeth. “Say, I know you’re a two-fisted drinking man. I got a good batch of mustang grape wine made a couple years ago – k’n I bring you a coupla bottles, as a token of my esteem?”

“Certainly,” Richard answered – really, considering some of the swill he had pounded down in his time, how bad could mustang grape wine really be – and what was a mustang grape anyway? He devoutly hoped that it wasn’t some kind of rural slang, like road apples for horse droppings.

“Great!” Sefton replied. “Soon as I get finished with this, I’ll bring it over.” He looked over at the RV with the Treasure Hunters banner across the side, and sighed, his features returning to their usual expression of lugubrious gloom. “Guess you’ll be seeing how long it takes for Gunnison Penn to come over and make friends, Rich. Inside-outside, about two minutes is my bet. Sorry ‘bout that. But as Judikens says, it’s our sacred obligation to make strangers welcome at the Age of Aquarius.”

“A concept to be heartily embraced by all in the business of providing hospitality to the public,” Richard answered, unable to think of anything else to say. He bade farewell to Sefton and strolled down the gentle slope to what he had begun to think of as home. Over the past fifteen years of his life, he thought – the old Airstream was the one place in which he had remained in residence for the longest unbroken period of time – a straight eighteen months. On that account alone, good reason to think of it as home. All the better reason to defend it – and by extension, the Grants, eccentric as they were, and as inconvenient as Che the goat and the unbearably noisy pea-fowl – that beast which had taken to roosting nightly in the tree adjacent to the Airstream and rousing Richard at ungodly hours with its’ incessant screaming. Still … if he had his old income at his command, he could purchase the Airstream from the Grants, and move it to … no. To change anything about his situation was to make it something less than what he had become comfortable in.

He opened the door and closed it behind him, relishing as always the cool air inside which came to meet him, the tiny, tidy and comfortable interior; a quiet place to eat, sleep, and read Larousse Gastronome, to sit in the banquette seat, or in one of the patio chairs outside and watch the sun go down, after a long and rewarding day of work in the Café. Yes, he was a self-centered bastard. Never mind about the subjugation of enemies and listening to the lamentations of their women – life’s greatest pleasure to him was watching the sun set on a day of honorable and rewarding  work … oh stone the bloody crows, was that someone tapping on the door?

He opened the rounded-corner trailer door – yes, of course; there stood the driver of the Treasure Hunter RV. He was a gentleman of late middle age, balding above, and extraordinarily hirsute below the nose – which organ was large and curved like a parrot’s beak. He was clad in khaki shorts and an eye-wincingly multi-colored Hawaiian-style shirt patterned in palm-trees and electric pink canoes, alligators and hula-skirt clad dancing girls.

“Hi, neighbor,” this person said. “Do you have a pint of milk to spare?”

Second_Chronicle_of_LC.inddThe e-book version has gone live on Amazon, and on Barnes and Noble with a release on Friday; the print version will soon be up and available as well. I regret that until it goes officially on sale, there is no look-inside feature yet. Tomorrow, I will set up page for readers who would like to order directly from me – with autograph and a personal message.

But for those readers who have begged to know the identity of Richard’s mysterious visitor – from the first chapter, this excerpt:

That’s Show-biz

In the early morning, before the sun was more than a brief bright apricot rumor along the eastern horizon, Richard Astor-Hall pedaled grimly along the back road from the aged Airstream caravan at the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm towards the site of his daily labors. At least now the Airstream was beautifully and comfortably-maintained, since he appeared to have been informally adopted by the sprawling and omnipresent Gonzales-Gonzalez clan, on top of paying rent to Sefton and Judy Grant from his income from the Café. This was managed through Jess Abernathy, whose firm hands channeled the financial streams of a myriad of Luna City enterprises, including that of the Café and of the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm.

“Rent. I manage all of Sefton and Judy’s financials as well as those of the Café,” Jess informed him, some months ago when he asked for an explanation for a certain deduction marked every month in his stipend from the Café paid into a bank account at a bank in Karnesville.

“Why?” Richard had asked. “Can’t they manage for themselves?”

Jess frowned. “They are communists,” she explained, in a patient kind of voice which absolutely rubbed him the wrong way.

“I thought you Yanks disapproved of communists in the most strenuous fashion,” Richard replied, to which Jess snapped, “In the old sense, Richard; the lower case-c sense. Judy and Sefton are the last of an idealistic colony of true believers in a system which is only practical when it involves volunteers who work hard to benefit the collective and when it comes to finance, they don’t have the sense that God gave a goose. But they do good work and a lot of it,” she fixed Richard with a commanding glare. “So – I see to handing the takings from the goats and the campground and their Saturday market. I make certain that their taxes, utilities, health insurance and license fees are all paid … so the Grants can go on with tending their goats and worrying about whether it is ethical to weave with machine-made yarns. Never mind Judy twittering on about all that New Agey crap; she and Sefton show up when anyone needs help, and Judy hasn’t yet met a suffering animal that she doesn’t want to rescue. Who do you think fosters all those cats and dogs dumped out here in the country by idiot former owners? From each according to their abilities,” Jess added with a particularly cutting turn of sarcasm, “And to each, according to their needs. Or as we call it around here, supply and demand. I demand regular supplies of their honey, eggs, and goat-milk rosemary soap in return for economic services rendered and Judy supplies them: a win-win, all the way around.”

“I regret even asking,” Richard said and Jess snorted. On further consideration, though, he had to admit to himself that he rather favored Jess’s system of intelligent budgeting and rigid cost-to-benefit analysis. (‘Can we afford this for the Café?’ ‘No, not until ….’ Or sometimes, ‘Yes, but only up to this amount.’)

In his past life, he had been spectacularly careless with money. I had millions of pounds in income once and blew most on loose women and abuse-worthy substances. The rest I wasted. That recollection led to a dire contemplation of the other recently-arrived element of that old life.

Now he pedaled the bicycle along the verge of one of the unpaved back roads which eventually led into the heart of Main Square, Luna City, still pondering on the unfairness of it all. The bike was a mountain model, which had come to him through the largess of the Gonzales/Gonzalez clan, through one or another the the seniors bashfully admitting that it was a great bike, but the son – or possibly the grandson – had outgrown it or moved on to other and less environmentally-sustainable means of getting around. Hey, Ricardo, it’s a good way to get to work! You want it? Twenty-five dollars; I’ll tell Jess and it’s paid for.

As he came up on Route 123, he saw the lights of an automobile at a distance – ah, one of those grossly over-chromed SUVs. Knowing that drivers were apt to speed, in spite of the efforts of Chief Vaughn’s patrol cars and the much more substantial hazard posed by deer insouciantly wandering into the traffic lanes, Richard braked the bicycle, went onto the narrow gravel-and-weed shoulder of the road and waited for the SUV to pass. Which it did – about fifty yards farther along Route 123, where a number of unaccustomed lumps lay, slightly off the tarmac.

It looked, from where Richard stood, as if a deer had gone mano-a- deero against a mechanized vehicle, with predictable results. Hundred- pound deer, five-thousand-pound motor vehicle – which was going to win that contest? To his mild curiosity, the SUV slowed abruptly and went off into the shoulder. The blinking hazard lights flicked on, and someone emerged from the vehicle … a masculine outline, a male someone followed by a faintly overheard burst of indignant Korean in a familiar and feminine steam-whistle shriek. Ah; Clovis and Sook Walcott. Richard wondered why on earth Clovis should be interested in roadkill – but not for very long. To the tune of a final machine-gun burst of Korean, the shadowy figure of Clovis got back into the driver’s side, the blinking red hazard lights resumed their steady beam and with a roar the SUV pulled back onto the road and vanished around the next bend. Now that the road was empty, Richard remounted the bike and carried on – he had another fifteen minutes before he was due at the Café.

When he got to the place where the Walcotts had pulled off the road he saw that yes – indeed a deer; relatively undamaged from the impact but quite plainly dead; neck at a grotesquely unnatural angle. Nearby lay another roadkill; this one a hulking black bird of the kind he was given to know was called a ‘turkey-buzzard,’ also sprawled on the edge of the pavement with one wing upraised like a small black sail. The turkey- buzzard stank like a charnel-house. Why this unlovely spectacle of vehicular/wildlife mayhem had drawn Clovis Walcott’s intense interest was a mystery indeed. In the seven months or so that Richard had lived in Luna City and bicycled back and forth between the Café and the Age, he had seen it often enough himself … and even more often, the live deer creatures, wandering dainty and long-legged in the open spaces between thickets, or the turkey-vultures soaring on motionless dark wings in the faultless azure midday sky. But – he said to himself, in a grumpy acknowledgement he had made a thousand times in the last six months and would doubtless make a hundred thousand times more – this was Luna City, Texas.

He continued pedaling through the pre-dawn dimness, relishing the welcome chill of it all after the ungodly summer heat, a chill which had left a slight crunch of frost on certain grassy spaces. The sky was the color of mother-of-pearl, an elusive shimmering shade flushed with pink and apricot-orange, evanescent. He passed the bright orange Luna City Independent School District bus, pausing briefly at an intersection on the outskirts of town to collect a gaggle of small children, swathed in their winter coats and burdened with small rucksacks. These children were also burdened with the attention of watchful mothers and the occasional father who went scattering to their own daily devices once the school bus bore their offspring away.

He waved to Patrick Gonzalez, rumpled in his oil-stained coveralls, and sleepy-eyed from a night of driving a tanker truck; it seemed to be his morning to see Angelika and Mateo off to school, while Araceli turned on the lights and the coffee-machines at the Café.

Still ruminating alternately over why Clovis Walcott was  so interested in fresh roadkill and his own predicament with regard to the recent inconvenient visitor to Luna City, Richard turned down the narrow street which ran along the back of that block of buildings. Most of them housed garaging or at least a place to park a car, and in the case of the Café, the rubbish bin, a small weed-grown space and a small loading dock. The Steins, in the next building over, had a garage and a small shed at the very back, with a walled little garden between it and the rear windows of the main shop. As Richard wheeled into the back of the Café, he saw Georg’s bare-bones sedan backing out of their garage. He wondered vaguely what brought out Georg so early; on most mornings, he and Annise were over in the Café at that large table in front of the front window – what Georg jokingly called the ‘stammtisch’ – where the  regular patrons gathered.

He let himself in through the back door into the kitchen, which smelt divinely of fresh coffee and baking cinnamon rolls. Araceli was empting out the dishwasher, stacking plates and mugs with nervous efficiently and a great deal more force than strictly necessary. She glared at Richard, as he shrugged off his winter coat; this was a vintage military field jacket from Marisol Gonzalez’ second-hand shop in Karnesville. Chris Mayall at the Gas & Grocery had already been humorous  about it, but the jacket  was well-made and warm.

“That friend of yours is here,” She said, sounding if she were speaking around a clenched jaw. “The English one.”

“Not a friend,” Richard sighed. “More like an associate … and I regret like hell that it was ever that close.”

“Oh, Rich,” drawled the visitor in tones of tragic disappointment. Alas, Richard’s visitor was leaning picturesquely in the door way to the main room of the Café. “I am cut to the quick. I thought we were best chums, always.”

“Nope.” Richard was inordinately proud of the way that he thought  he had adopted something of the classic western bent towards the taciturn. Besides it was past time to fire up the griddle and start the bacon, then those slivered ham slices that everyone called Canadian bacon, and finally a nice vat of scrambled eggs.

“You’re a brute, Rich; a cold, cold unfeeling brute.”

“All a part of my happy, inconsequent charm,” Richard answered, sternly unmoved.

“I come all the way to this out-of-the way hole,” his visitor protested; tragically wounded as to expression, languid as to posture in the doorway, “I endeavor to make myself pleasant to your friends, rekindle our old relationship, relish the charms of this quaint little village, and this is my reward?”

“We were never friends,” Richard replied, his attention bent upon the griddle, and preparations for the morning rush of breakfast customers. “It was a mutually-advantageous association; friendship had bloody-all to do with it. Are you going to stand in the door all morning, with Araceli and the girls constantly stepping around you? You’ll be trampled underfoot in the morning rush for cinnamon rolls – consider yourself warned.”

“If you truly feel that way, Rich,” there came the deep and wounded sigh. “I’ve tried to reach out to you so many times! You never replied.”

“Life is full of these little tragedies,” Richard brought out a bowl of eggs from the refrigerator and began cracking them with deft and systematic skill into another. After some moments, he looked up from this task.  “’Ere – you still there?”

“I am,” replied the visitor. Araceli took up a tray upon hearing the front door open and close with a musical chime, and interjected, “Well better find another wall to hold up. Your special order is ready. Best eat it before it gets cold, then.”

“You take such good care of me, dear girl,” the visitor answered, without a blush. Richard thought it a testimony to good manners and excellent customer relations training that Araceli refrained from bouncing the tray off the visitor’s skull as she carried the breakfast special order  into the dining room. After a moment, she returned, not visibly fuming, although Richard could read the signs accurately.

“Pip Noel-Barrett was never a bosom chum of mine,” he confessed with a long sigh. “Truly – I have better taste than taking that poser to   my … well, to my confidence, anyway. He is, as practically everyone eventually realizes, an insufferable, inconsiderate, and amoral git; I  deduce that we are in accord in that matter. Ordered off-menu, I take it? Told you to add it to his running tab?”

“Of course,” Araceli snapped. “As always; I do not mind taking the trouble, Chef, I really don’t. What I do mind, is that he picks over it with an expression on his face like Mateo when he doesn’t like what’s for supper, leaving most of it on the plate and never saying a darned thing about what’s wrong with it. If he calls me ‘dear girl’ or ‘Araceli-my- darling’ one more time, I WILL hit him with the heaviest iron skillet in  the Café.”

“No, you won’t,” Richard answered. “It will make a mess on the floor, and assaulting one of Clovis Walcott’s business associates will reflect badly on everyone. Speaking of business, has he done anything about paying?”

“Nope,” Araceli’s expression was thunderous. “It’s always – sorry love, left the card in my room, sorry, bit short of the dosh at the moment, tomorrow, Araceli-my-darling. Jess will be furious.”

“If it comes to that,” Richard sighed. “I will set Miss Abernathy on him. That would give me the greatest pleasure. He owes for more than a fortnight of breakfasts and sandwich luncheons since he took up a room at the Cattleman.”

“A month is more like it. You’d think if he was in the movie business,” Araceli continued grumbling. “He’d be a lot better about paying his bills.” For some reason that Richard couldn’t fathom – save that Araceli was one of the most hard-headed women of his acquaintance and that she was badly offended by a customer pick-pick-picking at the Café’s food offerings like a dyspeptic hen – she was immune to the fabled Noel-Barrett charm.  The front door chimed again and then again almost at once. Yes, the first of the morning regulars. Araceli bustled out with carafes of fresh coffee and hot milk.

(All righty, then – this should hold y’all til Friday!)

(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.)

25. April 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

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.

18. April 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West

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 »

(This is an excerpt from the next Luna City Chronicle, wherein big show business comes to town to film a movie — a movie which at first has the enthusiastic backing of practically everyone in town. But there is something not quite aboveboard about the movie production — and two of the most influential townsfolk have just found out what it is. They have a cunning plan …)

          Three days later, two men sat on the terrace of the Wyler home place, watching the sun slide down in the western sky, and the shadows lengthen across the formal garden below, and the green pastures beyond, where cows drifted idly hither and yon. A comfortably shabby set of rustic bentwood furniture contrasted rather oddly with the pillared splendors of the mansion built by Captain Herbert Wyler, in the first flush of his prosperity in the 1880s cattle markets. But they sat at the exact best place to watch the sun go down on the Wyler Exotic Game Ranch, and on the distant trees and church spires of Luna City, and so it was one of Doc Wyler’s favorite places, even in the heat of a Texas mid-summer. The temporary headquarters for filming extensive location shots was also within view, a prospect in the farthest meadow, and now viewed with sudden distaste by both men.

“Good of you to drop everything, and hustle all the way from Houston,” Doc Wyler said at last. The pages of the script lay on the table between them.

“You said it was an emergency in the note,” Clovis Walcott replied, as grim as s stone face on Mount Rushmore. “By god, so it is. I’d like to smash that miss-representing little weasel into a bloody pulp with my bare hands. We got taken, Doc. And taken bad.”

“That we did, Colonel – that we did. They told us what we wanted to hear, like any good convincing conman does.” Doc Wyler sounded much the calmer of the two, although the half-consumed mint julep at his side may have had something to do with his air of relative equanimity. “The thing is now … what are we gonna do about it?”

“My lawyer’s going to hear from me – first thing in the morning, if not by voicemail tonight,” Clovis sounded as if he were grinding his teeth. “And my banker, as well. I invested in this travesty – and I was near as dammit about to make it a bigger investment, on account of what those bastards said. I wouldn’t have touched this travesty with a ten-foot-pole, no matter how sweet they talked. As it stands in this script, this movie will be a disaster, all the way around. I wonder if my lawyer can make a case for fraud …”

“Ah, but there was nothing in writing, was there?” Doc Wyler sipped meditatively at his julep. “All a verbal understanding between honorable men doing business together on a handshake understanding … sharp practice, Colonel. It’ll be the death of this world. A man’s word used to be a bond. I’ve always said ‘trust but verify,’ but when it turns out that you can’t trust ‘em after all…”

“Thought that was Ronnie Reagan who said that,” Clovis Walcott sounded as if his own barely touched julep had just begun to mellow the edges of his fury.

“Yeah, he did – but he stole that line from me,” Doc Wyler replied. “As I was saying – if  it turns out to be that you can’t verify, and don’t trust … and that you have been, in fact, lied to in the most infamous fashion – what do you do then?”

“Destroy them,” Clovis Walcott looked out upon where the temporary film headquarters had been set up; tents and generators, with tall lights on stilts, and elaborate RVs. Filming was set to begin in earnest on the outdoor scenes the following morning. “Destroy them, root and branch. Sue them into such oblivion that their grandchildren are still paying into the end of this century … I roped the Karnes Company into participating in this, on my word alone! I’ll never be able to lift up my head in Texas reenactor organizations again, if this movie shows in any venue but a midnight cable freak-fest … and even then, I know there’ll be words spoken! It’s my good name – my reputation on the line, every bit as much as the Karnes Company Living History Association.”

“Destroy them … what, with a lawyer, brandishing a brief and a court order?” Doc Wyler chuckled. “They’ll use it as publicity, and then where will you and your history enthusiast friends Be? Oh, yes – I agree with the overall aim, but not the immediate means. Look, son – they’ll be done with the last filming before your lawyer can even draft the first cease-and-desist order. Time … time is against us in a legal sense … but not the opportunity for sabotage.” Doc Wyler sank another third of his mint julep, and regarded the distant movie camp with the same calculating, squint-eyed expression with which his grandfather (had he but known) had regarded such obstacles in his path as Union Army foragers, Comanche raiders, cross-border Mexican cattle rustlers, and various Kansas rivers in flood-stage. “Suppose … just suppose, you tell your Karnes Company reenactor pals about the dirty trick that’s been played on you … has been played on them all. Emphasis upon ‘them all.’”

“I’m not sure that I follow,” Clovis Walcott ventured, and Doc Wyler’s gaze returned as if from a long-distance journey to the movie camp.

“No? The scene they are to film in a week – if this schedule is to be believed – is the climactic scene. The one that they gathered all of your reenactor folks to film, in wide-screen and thrilling detail, from every perceptible angle, including a very expensive helicopter and a tall bucket-truck or two. If I have been reading this script aright … it’s the make or break for the whole production in a whole lotta ways. Now, between the two of us … we have a considerable force at our disposal… which, if we deploy them effectively, might damage this production beyond recall, and leave us with relatively clean hands. What say you to that, Colonel?”

“What can we do?” Clovis replied. “And who have we got? Who knows about the contents of this document?”

“A varied collection of volunteers,” Doc Wyler replied, briskly. “You have your reenactors, of course. As for who has seen this script, besides you and I? Chris and Jaimie’s boy, Sylvester – he was a Marine, too – like J.W. Richard from the Café. And Benny Cordova, who was the one who put them wise to it. Those last two, I’d rather leave on the sidelines, keep their hands clean – Benny especially. But we can count on Chris and Sylvester – boots on the ground as it were. Chris’ll be one of the movie crew as the on-scene medic. Sylvester has gotten himself hired on to help with communications. I believe that your folks, though, have the very best opportunity to wreck the shoot of that big battle scene.”

“I’ll take those I can trust into my confidence,” Clovis nodded. “We’ll come up with something, my word on it.”

“And if you could find a use for a couple of pints of methylene blue,” Doc Wyler scratched his chin most thoughtfully. “I b’lieve I can lay hands on some in a day or two.”

“Why, and what does it do?” Clovis Walcott looked doubtful at first, but a broad grin crept across his countenance, as Doc Wyler explained. “My hat is off to you, sir – I know just how this might be used to good effect. Confusion to our enemies, Doc.” He lifted his julep glass and drank from it, looking happier than he had since reading the script.

“To confusion, humiliation, and pain.” Doc Wyler lifted his own glass, and added, “It’s an established fact, Colonel – old age, guile, and treachery will always beat out youth, speed and a handy lawyer.”

 

(Yes, in the next Luna City Chronicle, there are some matters which will be addressed … such as — what is going on with the Mills Farm movie project, and why will it be a disaster? Yes – a stealth volunteer company of Lunaites propose to find out…)

Show Business in Luna City

“I might have to take you up on your kind invitation of hospitality very soon,” Richard said morosely to Chris, late one afternoon at the VFW. It was visitors’ evening, and the place was still relatively uncrowded. Midsummer was at hand, and the Age of Aquarius Campground had filled almost to overflowing with the reunited members of the old commune. “Between the constant drum-circle, and visitors constantly tapping at my door asking for this or that, and that obnoxious Canadian treasure-hunter yammering on and on about his latest test-pit and trying to recruit me into pulling a commando raid dig on Mills Farm, I hardly get a wink of sleep.”

“You’re more than welcome,” Chris replied, shrugging. “Me, I had trouble getting used to the country, because it was so damn quiet. For the longest time, I missed the sounds of sirens, gunshots and fenders crunching.”

“It’s dark, usually,” Richard continued. “I got kind of used to that – seeing the stars, all clear of a night … Venus in the morning, clear and bright by the moon. The only moon I’ve seen lately is sagging old hippy bum.”

“My sympathies,” Chris murmured, nodding towards Sylvester Gonzalez, and Benny Cordova, who had just come in out of the harsh afternoon sunshine. “Hey, Benny, man! How’s show-biz?”

“Crazy,” Benny answered. He joined them at the bar, shaking his head somberly. “Just a beer, Chris. They’re setting up for the exterior shooting, supposed to start with it next week, if they keep to schedule. The director himself flew in just this morning … on a private helicopter, no less. I can’t remember the last time I took such a deep dislike of someone, just by shaking hands. Made me want to sponge myself off all over, with about a quart of hand sanitizer. I can’t wait until this movie stuff is all over and done with.”

“Same here,” Richard agreed with a lugubrious sigh. “This whole movie project has a definite pong to it. No, it stinks to high heaven, and I’d be saying so even if Pip Noel-Barrett wasn’t involved.”

“Funny you should say that,” Benny regarded his drink with a thoughtful expression. “That’s the exact same thing as I’ve been thinking myself.” Almost inconsequentially, he added, “Anyone like to take a look at the shooting script? Looking at that script might explain a hell of a lot.”

“Why? Did you get a look? Could you get ahold of one?” Richard’s interest was piqued – not the least over why Benny had suddenly soured on Pip Noel-Barrett’s movie project.

“No can do, partner,” Benny drawled. “Tightly controlled items … numbered, signed for individually and secured under lock and key. I’m not on the need-to-know distribution list. But Miz Wyatt has a copy. Board of directors; VPI has its privileges, after all.” Benny directed a significant look at the wall, over Chris’ head. “I had a look at a few pages. Not hard to cultivate the ability to read upside-down. You ought to figure out a way to get a better look at Miz Wyatt’s copy – the whole thing. And then … do what you think best.”

“Man, I thought you were all about corporate loyalty,” Chris spoke, after a long silence, and Richard said, “What is it that got up your nose, Benny? What did you see in that script?”

“I can’t really be specific, Ricardo,” Benny replied, with carefully-selected words. “You’ll just know why, once you’ve had a look.” He considered for another moment, before addressing Chris’ question. “Corporate loyalty – it’s a give and take, Chris. Me, I’ve been the GM for Mills Farm for … eight, nine years, now. Best job I’ve ever had. Guess you can say that I love the place. My folks out there – they’re like family. If something happened … a huge, flaming corporate disaster with the result that VPI decides to close Mills Farm, you know how many people would be out of a job? I do. I sign their paychecks, every two weeks. You think many of them are going to be employed again soon, if they loose their jobs? In this economy – you gotta be kidding me.”

“You’re saying this movie will be such a stinker that having anything to do with it might very well might sink Mills Farm?” Chris shook his head. “There are people in Luna City who wouldn’t mind that at all.”

“I can see that,” Benny replied, with a serious expression on his face. “But if Mills Farm goes down, Luna City will most definitely feel the pain. This movie project is a stinker – not a doubt in my low-level corporate management mind. We have a commonality of interests, guys, in preventing Mills Farm and VPI from committing a self-inflicted public-relations disaster.”

“So, exactly how big a sh*t-storm will this blasted movie create?” Richard asked as a matter of self-preservation, as he had survived several in his time and did not wish to participate, however peripherally, in another. And anything which could get Pip Noel-Barrett out of Luna City would be all to the good.

“Not measurable with current technology,” Benny was examining the wall over their heads again. “Miz Wyatt is staying in the little pink guest cottage, round the other side of the Mills Farm Dance Hall – that’s where her office is. You gotta know that security has cameras pretty much covering all the public areas, and the grounds between buildings. Figure out a way to fox security, and you’re home free. I can’t be seen to cover for you too obviously, but I’ll do what I can.”

“We’d welcome suggestions as to timing,” Chris drew out another beer for himself and after due consideration, another for Sylvester, who came drifting over from the pool table, as soon as Chris caught his eye and beckoned. Benny seemed to be conducting a detailed survey of the wall above their heads. Sylvester silently took a seat several stools away, as length along the bar went.

“This Saturday night, there’s going to be an all-hands launch party at the Dance Hall,” he said. “A kind of meet and greet, for the out-of-town crew, the cast, and all the local folks involved. Lotsa people drifting in and out. Miz Wyatt, couple of investors, a VPI VIP or two, maybe. Lotsa alcohol and food, a live band. Best time? Maybe at the shank end of the evening. As for the rest, I’ll leave it all up to you.”

“We’ll keep you posted,” Chris lifted his own beer in a toast and salute.

Benny grinned. “No, I’d rather you not. Plausible deniability, you know. And if you flub the mission, I was never part of this conversation.”

“Got it,” Chris replied. “And this tape will self-destruct in three minutes.”

“Good luck,” Benny swallowed the last of his beer, and set the bottle on the bar with a small but definite clink of glass against tin countertop. “See you Saturday … or not, depending on good luck. Ricardo,” he fixed Richard with a particularly speculative gaze, “You know, Miz Wyatt – she has the hots for ya, in a not-wholesome way. If you choose to exploit that weakness, be a gentleman, ‘kay? She might be a real PITA, in some ways – but she’s an OK boss. Or at least, not near as rotten as some, in my experience. That’s all I’m gonna say. An’ now I’m gonna go, so that I won’t have to testify later about what I heard, should this all go south.”

“Appreciate the consideration, dear chap,” Richard sketched a brief bow. “I will be the complete gentleman; I assure you most sincerely on that account.” Benny departed silently, grinning – although how a man in cowboy boots could ghost though a room with a creaky wooden floor was a mystery beyond anyone’s ken.

With a brief gesture, Chris summoned Sylvester even closer, to join the knot of conspiracy at that end of the bar. “OK, Comm-expert; you’ve been listening to all of this. What’s your plan for foxing the Mills Farm security system?”

“You’re gonna love it,” Sylvester replied, a mad grin spreading across his face.