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(This is one of the adventures which may be included in the next Lone Star Sons volume. I am intending this to be released in time for Christmas. If the plot seems somewhat familiar, it is because I have lifted one element – the US Army going rogue and joining an Indian tribe –  from the book and movie Dances With Wolves. From a historical perspective, that seemed to be almost too late in history for that development to be entirely convincing. But an officer leading an exploring party in the Southwest some fifteen years earlier? That seemed to me to be much more workable, as a plot.)

 

Part 4 – Into the Wild

 

“Camels!” Ned Beale exclaimed in delight, when he showed Jim and Toby their means of transport at least as far as the fabled canyon of the Colorado in the vast New Mexico Territory. Beale was a little younger than Jim, a lively and gangly young Yankee with a high sloping forehead which merged into a magnificently beaky nose adorned at the lower margin with an equally magnificent and bushy mustache. His Navy rank on a strength report was a relatively lowly one – but his functioning level appeared to be much higher, due to friends in high places and to his recent daring exploits in crossing the continent several times on his own, armored with nothing but a spirit of his own recklessness. With a certain sinking of heart, Jim realized that here was another enthusiast with an insatiable appetite for adventure, for experiences and arcane knowledge. Not that there was anything amiss with such qualities, in moderation – but individuals possessing an excess of them were apt to go haring off in unexpected and usually dangerous tangents. “Ain’t they a marvel? And what better use for traversing the vast deserts than creatures ideally suited to it! They carry burdens which would buckle the knees of half a dozen mules, without complaint, go for days without food and water …”

“They look like a horse designed by a government committee, smell like Satan’s own privy, and frighten the daylights out of all the horses, mules and oxen around,” Jim replied, refusing to be moved by Ned’s enthusiasm.

“But you see, Jim – I may call you Jim, may I? And you should call me Ned, of course. They are perfectly designed by nature for the harsh climes of this new territory! What better use can we make of them… I am charged to explore the natural route to California from Texas and to see how the camels perform …Hey, Walid Ali – what do you think of their fitness for six months in crossing the southern deserts?”

“A desert – like any other, sire,” replied one of the beasts’ hired handlers, a wiry sun-burned man, who wouldn’t have appeared out of place in a Ranger company, save that his head was wrapped in a turban of fine green cloth. He spoke English fluently enough, although with a strange accent. The other handler looked off into the distance; he was an older man with a thick grey-streaked beard, who never spoke, but was usually to be found somewhere about the camel corral.

“Nonetheless, I am not riding on one of those critters,” Jim announced, flatly. “I’ll stick to the evil I know, rather than fly to that which I know nothing of.”

“You have no sense of adventure, Jim,” Ned laughed in delight. “I tell you, it’s a delightful experience – rather like rocking along in a row-boat on a mild swell … certain I cannot convince you to try it out? We’ll be away tomorrow at first light now that you are here and ready for traveling.” Ned hesitated, and then blurted, “I’m not really sure of why your fellows are detailed to join us. A Texas ranger, and a Delaware Indian, with a wet-behind-the-ears ensign and an old soldier like Owen; you must know that my fellows will be curious, having such an odd collection added on to our party at the last minute. We were supposed to test the camels, map out a good alternate road, and hurry along to California… you know, they have found gold there – and in amazing quantities, just this last autumn – and I know about secrecy and the security of missions and all that. I won’t ask your purpose in this, but the fellows will wonder. A word to the wise, Jim – have some convincing story to tell in answer to questions. For they will ask them, you know. Around the campfire of an evening.”

“Certainly,” Jim replied. “Should anyone ask of you – tell them that we are to recover certain records and items left in a cache on the banks of the Colorado, after the failure of the O’Neill expedition. The party was sent out at great expense, and following upon the disaster which cost the lives of so many – those records were left concealed for later recovery. Sergeant Owen is our guide in this, as he was one of that party, and Mr. Shaw serves as translator, should we encounter any of the local natives.”

Ned Beale nodded, comprehending. “Yes, that is a yarn which will convince. Although there will be embroideries upon it, trust me on that, Jim.”

Jim felt a sudden conviction that Ned was far cleverer and more diplomatic than he had let on. Best to change the subject, then. “Gold in California, you say? I had read of it, but thought it was only stories in the sensational press.”

“No,” Ned shook his head. “Tis all true about the gold. I brought the samples east myself, not three months ago. It is real and an amazingly rich find – so rich that every fortune-hunter in these States – and even farther afield – will be heading California-ward. No, strike that; Captain Reade, I am assured they will be heading to California even as we set out.”

“As long as they do not interfere with our mission,” Jim insisted, and Ned Beale laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nor mine as well. I tell you, Jim – I do not hunger for riches, myself. Knowledge, experiences, the sight of new horizons… all that is worth more to me than any quantity of gold. Still, ‘tis curious. The Spanish came to this place, this new world, avid for gold. And found it, now and again in rich mines and taken from the native tribes in Mexico and Peru. But they never found it here, no matter how their conquistadores searched for the Seven Golden Cities, for Quivera, the greatest of them all. It is a curious coincidence that once their hold on these places in the northern continent was shattered … that a man building a humble saw-mill should find gold, gold in such quantities to beggar the imagination.”

“An irony, indeed.” Jim replied. Another thought occurred, as he and Ned watched the camels in their enclosure, walking to and fro with their particular swaying stride. “Ned, what do you think? What do you know of our Sergeant Owen? Is he a man to be trusted?”

“I honestly do not know,” Ned replied after a moment of considering silence. “I have heard nothing disparaging to his character. But he is an enlisted man, not an officer. Two worlds, Jim – to us of the profession of arms. I would trust him with my life and the lives of my men, based on his repute. But I do not know him, having never served with him, not as you have with Mr. Shaw.” He added, with a smile, “I do not know you, either, save that Colonel Hays, whose reputation as a commander of irregular soldiers is a byword – has vouched for you to the satisfaction of my own commander – and to my own.”

“Thank you, Ned,” Jim replied. “We’ll be ready in the morning. Mr. Shaw and I are accustomed to travel light and fast – although I cannot speak for our Army contingent.”

“They’d better be ready as well,” Ned chuckled. “Or they will be playing catch-up all the day.”

“We’ll be ready,” Jim said, and strolled away to the ramshackle and rambling quarters – a crude-built dog-trot cabin of logs, from which most of the chinking had already fallen, which the commander at Camp Verde felt to be all the hospitality necessary for visitors, important or not. Toby was already sitting outside of it, cross-legged in Indian fashion, contemplating the fading sunset, a blaze of red, purple and gold on the western horizon.

“We’re away in the morning,” Jim said, softly. There was a rough bench sitting on the bit of turf outside the cabin. He sank into it. He and Lt. Barnes were bunked for the night in one part of the cabin, Sergeant Owen and Toby in the other – although Toby, as was his usual habit, had taken his bedroll and spread it out underneath a generously sheltering oak nearby.

“We’re away at sunrise,” Jim told him, “Camels and all,” and Toby nodded.

“As I expected.”  He returned to his contemplation of the sunset. Very little surprised Toby. “James, do you think that we will find the missing Captain O’Neill? And that if we do – will he want to return?”

“Of course, we will find him,” Jim replied. “We’re Jack Hays’ finest stiletto-men. And he will wish to return – he is a white man, a soldier. Duty requires it. Why would he not?”

“I have been talking a little with young Barnes,” Toby replied. “He said that Captain O’Neill had a … fondness as a cadet for the tales of Fenimore Cooper, and a great interest in relics and weapons of my people, and those Others. Barnes says that he used to laugh at himself – saying that he was meant to be a wild Indian or an Arab corsair, but by mistake his soul was wrapped in the flesh and bones of a Christian. It struck young Barnes as curious, which is why young he remembered. If such is the case, your Captain may not wish to return, and what would we say to convince him?”

“I don’t know,” Jim replied. Yes, this was another dimension. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, I guess.” And yet another random thought occurred to him; his own instinctive dislike of Sergeant Owen. “Toby, do you remember that treacherous Englishman, Vibart-Jones – the one involved in the Wilkinson letters, and the matter of the Spanish treasure at San Saba? I am given to wonder if he has turned up again, in disguise. The man was an actor, after all. And at a squint, Sergeant Owen looks enough like him, and the age is right…”

“No, James,” Toby shook his head, very definitely. “They are not the same man, even though there is a likeness.”

“How can you be so certain?” Jim was diverted, but not convinced. Toby considered gravely, before replying. “Two things, James; things which no man can disguise through art or effort for very long. First, the lobes of Sergeant Owen’s ears are not attached to his head, but droop, separately, to the width of my thumb. Vibart the English spy – the lobes of his ears were narrow and attached. And have you not noticed how a man favors one hand over the other, for holding a pistol, a knife, a pen? Vibart the English spy favored his left hand. You and I, and Sergeant Owen, all favor our right hand. Sergeant Owen is not Vibart. He is who he claims to be, a soldier of long service in many lands. I would say we can trust him with our lives. Perhaps not with the good name and virtue of our sisters, though.” Toby added, with a grin.

 

In the cool of a dew-spangled morning, Ned Beale’s exploring party set off; twenty men and a dozen camels, most laden with half-a wagon load of gear, and led on a string by Walid Ali and his assistant, the mute Hassim.  Jim could not find the proper words to express how very strange and alien they looked – the long necks and longer legs, the oddly-humped bodies piled high with gear and supplies, plodding relentlessly along the track from Camp Verde to the north-west.

“They say that every one of them can carry more than four pack mules,” Young Joe Barnes observed in admiration, and Jim replied, “And smell worse than four pack mules, too. He had already agreed with Ned Beale that he, Toby and the others in their party would ride upwind of the camels on the trail, and picket their horses apart from them at night, although Ned assured him that their horses would eventually become accustomed to the odor and behavior of the beasts. Jim doubted that, profoundly; his own horse – normally a steady-tempered brown gelding turned jittery and restless whenever within sight and smell of the camels, his eyes showing white all the way around. The one pack mule that he and Toby shared was even more reluctant to associate with the camels. He could only hope that any curious Comanche with a taste for stealing exotic stock would be just as unsettled – and their own horses even more so.

Still, the first part of the journey was a relatively pleasant one; folk came out from their houses and fields, just to watch the camels amble past, and to cheer the Federal soldiers in their neat blue uniforms. At long last, perhaps there would be a relief from the dangers of Comanche war parties, striking deep into settled territory! They were invited to settle for the night in pleasant pastures, and more came to marvel at the gangling camels, and to offer hospitality, food, and drink to the soldiers – which was much appreciated. At one camping-place, an obliging Walid Ali clipped a fine harvest of hair from the camels, presenting the women of the locality with better than a bushel of coarse stuff, which they carried away in triumph, saying that they were going to spin it into yarn and knit stockings from it.

What Jim also appreciated – especially when it rained, or an unseasonable spring norther blew – was that among the burdens carried by the camels were several commodious canvas tents. They lived in some comfort, for the soldiers were most practiced at setting up the tents of an evening, and the baggage also included numerous items of folding camp furniture. One soldier in particular proved to be a most accomplished cook, for which all were grateful.

“He was detailed for that skill, let me assure you,” Ned Beale asserted. “French creole from New Orleans, prolly got a drop of the African in him, but he looks white enough, and so I don’t enquire too close. Best not, when someone is cooking the food you eat. Tastes prime, though – doesn’t it?”

“Best Army meal I’ve ever eaten,” Jim acknowledged – for it was. Corporal Fournier was indeed a masterful cook, commander of the cook-fire, the array of skillets and iron ovens deployed over them, the Army rations seasoned with spices and additions conjured up from his own private stores. Even the corporal’s corn-dodgers were amazing.

Even better, of an evening after a supper provided by the expert corporal were the yarns told around the fire, for the party proved to have some excellent spinners of same around them. Ned Beale, as a raconteur, ordinarily would have been a champion among them, but his stories of California and the fabled gold mines paled next to those told by Sergeant Owen, and most unexpectedly – by Walid Ali. The sergeant had an inexhaustible fund of stories, of his service in India for the British crown and the India Company; accounts of intrigue and spectacle, of Indian princes and princesses, clad in silks and jewels of incredible richness, of deeds of derring-do – most of which Sergeant Owen modestly averred had been those performed by other men, and of which he had only heard second-hand. Walid Ali also had stories; fantastical stories of the middle east, in which names of towns known in the Bible featured heavily; Damascus, Jerusalem, Babylon, and Antioch. Such enthralled the party, every evening, even the mute Hassim, who did not speak but apparently could understand English.

“Poor fellow,” Ned explained early on. “He’s from Baku on the Caspian Sea, so I was told – I’d guess that he is mostly Russian, or Crim Tatar. They say that the local Bey’s men cut out his tongue as a punishment for something or other. But he’s a hard worker, and does what we tell him. God knows, he could have finished up in worse conditions.”

06. July 2017 · Comments Off on Another Lone Star Glory Adventure – Into the Wild · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Picking up the story as I am writing this and another adventure for Lone Star Glory – the continuing adventures of Texas Ranger Jim Reade and Delaware Indian scout Toby Shaw – Part 1 is here, Part 2 here.)

Into the Wild – Part 3

“Camels!” Ned Beale exclaimed in delight, when he showed Jim and Toby their means of transport at least as far as the fabled canyon of the Colorado in the vast New Mexico Territory. Beale was a little younger than Jim, a lively and gangly young Yankee with a high sloping forehead which merged into a magnificently beaky nose adorned at the lower margin with an equally magnificent and bushy mustache. His Navy rank on a strength report was a relatively lowly one – but his functioning level appeared to be much higher, due to a number of friends in high places and to his recent daring exploits in crossing the continent several times on his own, armored with nothing but a spirit of his own recklessness. With a certain sinking of heart, Jim realized that here was another enthusiast with an insatiable appetite for adventure, for experiences and arcane knowledge. Not that there was anything amiss with such qualities, in moderation – but individuals possessing an excess of them were apt to go haring off in unexpected and usually dangerous tangents. “Ain’t they a marvel? And what better use for traversing the vast deserts than creatures ideally suited to it! They carry burdens which would buckle the knees of half a dozen mules, without complaint, go for days without food and water …”
“They look like a horse designed by a government committee, smell like Satan’s own privy, and frighten the daylights out of all the horses, mules and oxen around,” Jim replied, refusing to be moved by Ned’s enthusiasm.
“But you see, Jim – I may call you Jim, may I? And you should call me Ned, of course. They are perfectly designed by nature for the harsh climes of this new territory! What better use can we make of them… I am charged to explore the natural route to California from Texas and to see how the camels perform …Hey, Walid Ali – what do you think of their fitness for six months in crossing the southern deserts?”
“A desert – like any other, sire,” replied one of the beasts’ hired handlers, a wiry sun-burned man, who wouldn’t have appeared out of place in a Ranger company, save that his head was wrapped in a turban of fine green cloth. He spoke English fluently enough, although with a strange accent. The other handler looked off into the distance; he was an older man with a thick grey-streaked beard, who never spoke, but was usually to be found somewhere about the camel corral.
“Nonetheless, I am not riding on one of those critters,” Jim announced, flatly. “I’ll stick to the evil I know, rather than fly to that which I know nothing of.”
“You have no sense of adventure, Jim,” Ned laughed in delight. “I tell you, it’s a delightful experience – rather like rocking along in a row-boat on a mild swell … certain I cannot convince you to try it out? We’ll be away tomorrow at first light now that you are here and ready for traveling.” Ned hesitated, and then blurted, “I’m not really sure of why your fellows are detailed to join us. A Texas ranger, and a Delaware Indian, with a wet-behind-the-ears ensign and an old soldier like Owen; you must know that my fellows will be curious, having such an odd collection added on to our party at the last minute. We were supposed to test the camels, map out a good alternate road, and hurry along to California… you know, they have found gold there – and in amazing quantities, just this last autumn – and I know about secrecy and the security of missions and all that. I won’t ask your purpose in this, but the fellows – they will wonder. A word to the wise, Jim – have some convincing story to tell in answer to questions. For they will ask them, you know. Around the campfire of an evening.”
“Certainly,” Jim replied. “Should anyone ask of you – tell them that we are to recover certain records and items left in a cache on the banks of the Colorado, after the failure of the O’Neill expedition. The party was sent out at great expense, and following upon the disaster which cost the lives of so many – those records were left concealed for later recovery. Sergeant Owen is our guide in this, as he was one of that party, and Mr. Shaw serves as translator, should we encounter any of the local natives.”
Ned Beale nodded, comprehending. “Yes, that is a yarn which will convince. Although there will be embroideries upon it, trust me on that, Jim.”
Jim felt a sudden conviction that Ned was far cleverer and more diplomatic than he had let on. Best to change the subject, then. “Gold in California, you say? I had read of it, but thought it was only stories in the sensational press.”
“No,” Ned shook his head. “Tis all true about the gold. I brought the samples east myself, not three months ago. It is real and an amazingly rich find – so rich that every fortune-hunter in these States – and even farther afield – will be heading California-ward. No, strike that; Captain Reade, I am assured they will be heading to California even as we set out.”
“As long as they do not interfere with our mission,” Jim insisted, and Ned Beale laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nor mine as well. I tell you, Jim – I do not hunger for riches, myself. Knowledge, experiences, the sight of new horizons… all that is worth more to me than any quantity of gold. Still, ‘tis curious. The Spanish came to this place, this new world, avid for gold. And found it, now and again in rich mines and taken from the native tribes in Mexico and Peru. But they never found it here, no matter how their conquistadores searched for the Seven Golden Cities, for Quivera, the greatest of them all. It is a curious coincidence that once their hold on these places in the northern continent was shattered … that a man building a humble saw-mill should find gold, gold in such quantities to beggar the imagination.”
“An irony, indeed.” Jim replied. Another thought occurred, as he and Ned watched the camels in their enclosure, walking to and fro with their particular swaying stride. “Ned, what do you think? What do you know of our Sergeant Owen? Is he a man to be trusted?”
“I honestly do not know,” Ned replied after a moment of considering silence. “I have heard nothing disparaging to his character. But he is an enlisted man, not an officer. Two worlds, Jim – to us of the profession of arms. I would trust him with my life and the lives of my men, based on his repute. But I do not know him, having never served with him, not as you have with Mr. Shaw.” He added, with a smile, “I do not know you, either, save that Colonel Hays, whose reputation as a commander of irregular soldiers is a byword – has vouched for you to the satisfaction of my own commander – and to my own.”
“Thank you, Ned,” Jim replied. “We’ll be ready in the morning. Mr. Shaw and I are accustomed to travel light and fast – although I cannot speak for our Army contingent.”
“They’d better be ready as well,” Ned chuckled. “Or they will be playing catch-up all the day.”
“We’ll be ready,” Jim said, and strolled away to the ramshackle and rambling quarters – a crude-built dog-trot cabin of logs, from which most of the chinking had already fallen, which the commander at Camp Verde felt to be all the hospitality necessary for visitors, important or not. Toby was already sitting outside of it, cross-legged in Indian fashion, contemplating the fading sunset, a blaze of red, purple and gold on the western horizon.
“We’re away in the morning,” Jim said, softly. There was a rough bench sitting on the bit of turf outside the cabin. He sank into it. He and Lt. Barnes were bunked for the night in one part of the cabin, Sergeant Owen and Toby in the other – although Toby, as was his usual wont, had taken his bedroll and spread it out underneath a generously sheltering oak nearby.
“We’re away at sunrise,” Jim told him, “Camels and all,” and Toby nodded.
“As I expected.” He returned to his contemplation of the sunset. Very little surprised Toby. “James, do you think that we will find the missing Captain O’Neill? And that if we do – will he want to return?”
“Of course, we will find him,” Jim replied. “We’re Jack Hays’ finest stiletto-men. And he will wish to return – he is a white man, a soldier. Duty requires it. Why would he not?”
“I have been talking a little with young Barnes,” Toby replied. “He said that Captain O’Neill had a … fondness as a cadet for the tales of Fenimore Cooper, and a great interest in relics and weapons of my people, and those Others. Barnes says that he used to laugh at himself – saying that he was meant to be a wild Indian or an Arab corsair, but by mistake his soul was wrapped in the flesh and bones of a Christian. It struck young Barnes as curious, which is why young he remembered. If such is the case, your Captain may not wish to return, and what would we say to convince him?”
“I don’t know,” Jim replied. Yes, this was another dimension. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, I guess.” And yet another random thought occurred to him; his own instinctive dislike of Sergeant Owen. “Toby, do you remember that treacherous Englishman, Vibart-Jones – the one involved in the Wilkinson letters, and the matter of the Spanish treasure at San Saba? I am given to wonder if he has turned up again, in disguise. The man was an actor, after all. And at a squint, Sergeant Owen looks enough like him, and the age is right…”
“No, James,” Toby shook his head, very definitely. “They are not the same man, even though there is a likeness.”
“How can you be so certain?” Jim was diverted, but not convinced. Toby considered gravely, before replying. “Two things, James; things which no man can disguise through art or effort for very long. First, the lobes of Sergeant Owen’s ears are not attached to his head, but droop, separately, to the width of my thumb. Vibart the English spy – the lobes of his ears were narrow and attached. And have you not noticed how a man favors one hand over the other, for holding a pistol, a knife, a pen? Vibart the English spy favored his left hand. You and I, and Sergeant Owen, all favor our right hand. Sergeant Owen is not Vibart. He is who he claims to be, a soldier of long service in many lands. I would say we can trust him with our lives. Perhaps not with the good name and virtue of our sisters, though.” Toby added, with a grin.

02. July 2017 · Comments Off on Another Jim and Toby Adventure! · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West

(Yes, I am writing a number of them simultaneously – for the next book of adventures, to be called “Lone Star Glory”. This is the set-up for one of them, to be entitled – Three Learned Men of Science.)

Three Learned Men of Science

“I have just gotten a letter from the president’s office, boys,” Jack Hays announced, on the afternoon that Jim and Toby returned from sorting out the murderous business of the Yoakum establishment at Pine Bayou. “So don’t get too comfortable. In a couple of days, you have to set out and meet a party of gentlemen at Copano and be their escort for the time that they are in Texas – no matter how long they choose to stay, or where they choose to go.”
“What does Dr. Jones have for us this time, Jack? And why do these gentlemen need the tender offices of your stiletto-men as wet-nurses?” Jim Reade hung his hat on one of the set of pegs by the door, and dropped into the nearest battered leather chair. Toby, hatless, settled with a barely-stifled groan of exhaustion onto the bearskin hearth-rug. The return from Pine Bayou had been broken by a short stay in Galveston, where Mrs. Reade had plied the two with the best food that her cook, Fat Nella, had to offer, and the very worst that she concocted with her own hands as a measure of affection for her son and his blood-brother.
“Because these gentlemen are foreigners, for one,” Jack chuckled. “And scientific representatives of his most royal majesty Prince Frederick William of Prussia, who according to Dr. Jones, intends to invest in Texas, through the medium of a consortium of noblemen. But before he sinks his noble cash in the venture, the Prince has sent three of his scientific advisors to survey the lay of the land, as it were. They will arrive with their retinue soon in Galveston, and come by coastal sloop to Copano to begin their survey.”
“We could have just stayed in Galveston and met them at the docks,” Jim stifled a yawn. Yes, and prolonged the stay with his parents, although he didn’t think he could endure much more of his mother’s disastrous attempts at baking turnovers, sweet biscuits and cakes.
“Indeed, but I did not know of their arrival before three days ago,” Jack unfolded the letter and spoke in his most reasonable and heartening tones. “And you can take a few days – but no more than three – before meeting these scientific gentlemen. You will know them, because they will be foreigners, of course. And my orders are that you should accompany them where they wish to go – and to keep them from serious trouble. There is money for the Republic involved – a thing that we are desperately short of – if they produce a favorable report.”
“Yes, we haven’t been paid in money in months,” Toby contributed from his comfortable position on the hearth-rug. “Over and above our expenses. Not that I keep count of your white man conventions.”
“At some point, all accounts will be squared,” Jack replied, ignoring the snort of skeptical derision from the hearthrug. “As men of intelligent creativity, I know that you can manage it. Prince Frederick William – or his secretary – was thoughtful enough to send their names and qualifications in his letter to Dr. Jones.”
“Give it to us now,” Jim sighed. “So that we can become accustomed to the notion of being bear-leaders to the servants of a foreign prince.”
“All right, then,” Jack’s grin broadened. “The senior of our scientific trio is the eminent botanist, Herr Professor Manfred von Brockdorff, who rejoices in the title of Graf von Brockdorff. The equally eminent geologist Dietmar Kraus is not a noble – a mere professor. And Herr Doctor Theodore Maier is a real medical doctor and surgeon, seconded from service with the Prussian army.”
“Well … they sound like a much better class of folk than the Yoakums,” Jim remarked, after taking all this in. “And they can’t possibly be any more difficult than thieves, murderers, and dog-stealers.”
“We would hope, brother,” Toby answered, but not as if he really had any real conviction.

A week later, the coastal sloop Eliza arrived and tied up at one of the three wharves at Copano. Jim and Toby had brought a handful of three horses and a pair of pack mules, staying in the house of Joseph Plummer while they waited the arrival of the Eliza. There was much excitement among the regular residents of the tiny hamlet, upon hearing that Jim and Toby were there to escort some important foreign visitors.
“A titled gentleman, you don’t say?” exclaimed the Widow Jackson, a handsome matron of about forty, who kept a tiny boarding establishment in her cottage of shell concrete, which had a view of Copano Bay from a garden planted thick with flowering cosmos, potatoes and herbs. “Well, I never!”
“You would if he offered, like a gentleman,” Joe Plummer added with a leer and the Widow Jackson ruffled like an angry hen, told him to keep a civil tongue in his head and flounced away to speak to Mrs. Plummer, although she cast indignant glances over her shoulder now and again. Joe Plummer chuckled coarsely, and remarked in a lower voice,
“Becky Jackson is tired of the single life, and on the prowl for another husband. I’d say beware, but you two fellows are a mite young for her taste. She wants an older man, one with a sizeable … property and a solid profession. Better tell your foreign fellows to steer clear, or she’ll have them in her man-trap before you can blink.”
Toby and Jim exchanged glances; Toby’s expression one of amusement, and Jim’s of mild horror.
“It might not be so bad,” Toby ventured, in judicial consideration. “Is she a good cook?”
“One of the best, I’d have to admit,” Joe Plummer admitted. “And pleasant-tempered, mostly. Old Ezra – her last husband – he had a good appetite for her vittles; everyone at his funeral say he was laid out with a smile on his face and a gut almost too big for the coffin.”

But there was no smile on the faces of anyone, when the Eliza tied up, that afternoon. And as far as Jim could see, the deck was piled high with bundles, crates and trunks – surely too much for the five men who strode off the sloop as soon as the gangplank was secured. There was a sixth man also – who seemed to be giving directions to the sailors and deckhands ready to unload the sloop.
“We may need more than two mules, brother,” Toby whispered. “If all that is theirs – and I do not see any other passengers.”
“We’ll work out something,” Jim murmured in an aside, as three men were in hearing distance and bearing down, with the other two lurking in the background. Those two – both young, fit, and under arms had a soldierly bearing about them. Jim rather wished that he had brought some of the other stiletto-men with him, even someone like Creed Taylor or Albert Biddle. Jack himself would have been a solid addition to the reception committee. Instead, he braced his shoulders and addressed his remarks to the tallest and most important-appearing of the gentlemen bearing down upon him.
“If I am addressing the Graf von Brockdorff – I welcome you again to Texas, sir. Jim Reade, Esquire, and Toby Shaw of the Delaware Nation. We have been sent by my commander, Captain Hays and President Anson Jones of the Republic of Texas to assist you as might be needed…”
“Reade?” the gentleman demanded; a burly and choleric sort, with a countenance scarred with several straight slashes which suggested he had fought with bladed weapons on a regular basis. “Hah – are those all the horses you have brought? Clearly, we will need more than that. Brockdorff – at your service.” He crushed Jim’s hand, nodded briskly towards Toby, who was doing his best to be at one with the immediate surroundings. “We will require a place to stay, while our belongings are unloaded. My servant Achterberg will see to that. My compatriots; Professor Kraus, Doctor Meier … Achterberg!” he bellowed over his shoulder, and Jim started. That was an authoritative and noble bellow if he had ever heard one. “Fuchs! Haun! Attend!”
The other gentlemen of science stood half a pace back at Brockdorff’s elbow, and Jim was aware of a sinking feeling as he introduced himself.
“Maier,” said the first; a thin and youngish man, but wearing thick glasses, which magnified watery blue eyes.
“Certainly,” Jim replied. A medical doctor, and a near-sighted one. Well – this would turn out well.
“Herr Professor Kraus,” announced the third man, in an over-loud voice. He was of middle-age, slender and lanky. His handshake was strong, his fingers callused like a working man’s. “I am greatly anticipating the pleasure of exploring the particular geology of your sedimentary formations.” A heavy coat hung on him like clothing on a scarecrow, the pockets of it weighted down with heavy objects. One of them, Jim noticed, was a large hearing trumpet. “Pleased,” Jim replied, wondering if this meant that Professor Kraus meant that he was going to search Jim’s coat pockets or something
“You will have to speak up,” Professor Maier said, when Jim introduced himself to the professor. “Kraus is very hard of hearing.”
“Never eat herring, gives me gas,” Professor Kraus announced. “Please to meet you, young man, although I didn’t catch your name. Where then are we to stay, Brockdorff, while our supplies and equipment are being unloaded?”
“We have made arrangements for your party at the boarding house of Mrs. Jackson – a very respectable widow,” Jim replied; as hers was the only house with sufficient room for guests to actually sleep in beds, rather than in a pallet on the floor of the verandah. “We did not expect … such a large party, sirs…”
“Avoid parties,” Professor Kraus grunted. “Waste of time, flouncing around when I have work to do.”
“We reduced our necessary entourage to the minimum,” von Brockdorff replied, vaguely perplexed. “Only Achterberg and the two soldiers as guards…”
Twice as many has had been expected, Jim thought – although Jack had said something about an entourage. He had definitely not mentioned the steadily growing pile of trunks, crates and bales. A scientific expedition; and he would have thought that such would have started with little, and concluded with much. As it was, this expedition was commencing with much – and what it would conclude with was anyone’s guess.
“We’ll make arrangements,” Jim answered, determinedly cheerful, although he murmured in an aside to Toby, “We’ll have to hire a wagon and teams, then. Who in Copano has such for hire?”

“Why, bless my soul – I do!” exclaimed a beaming Widow Jackson. “And my son, young Corb to drive it! I’m sure we can come to some proper arrangement – you leave that to me, young Mister Reade. Oh, my stars!” she looked down from the gate. “These furriner gents don’t travel light, do they? I’ll have to rustle up a place for them sojers of theirs to sleep.” She bustled away, leaving Jim and Toby to look at each other.
“That is one thing accomplished then, James.” Toby ventured. “So – have we any sense of where the gentlemen wish to travel?”
“North to the frontier,” Jim sighed. “And then east as far as the pine woods, then down the Brazos towards Galveston. It’s to be a wandering journey, allowing them to survey the land and make collections of plants and what-not. Von Brockdorff is also an accomplished artist and draftsman; he says he is to make a detailed record to guide Prince Frederick William and his friends. They plan a leisurely two or three months at this. I had better start drafting my first report to Jack and let him know the plan.”

(to be continued. Of course.)

15. June 2017 · Comments Off on Another Lone Star Sons Adventure! · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Part two of Into the Wild, which when I finish this and five or six more like it will make up the next collection of Jim Reade and Toby Shaw adventures – Lone Star Glory

Part 2 of Into the Wild

The room was an office of sorts; a fairly workmanlike one, with several crude desks, lined with shelves of books and boxes of documents along the inner walls, and a small table and several chairs by the window. There were four men in the office, one of whom Jim knew instantly to be important, because he was Jack’s higher commander; Governor Wood. Of the other three, two were in uniform – again, the blue of the federal Army, but only the older of the pair was anyone to command respect. The younger lingered by the doorway with Sgt. Grayson, for the older officer and the gent in the expensive waistcoat had commanded the scattering of chairs by the window.
“Colonel Hays,” the older officer rose and extended his hand – a fit-appearing gentleman in middle years, his hair and impressive mustache and side-whiskers only lightly touched with grey. “My pleasure – Joe Harrell. We met briefly after Saltillo, although you had so much on your plate at that time, with the press of war to prosecute and your Rangers to command, that I will not hold it against you should you not recollect that previous occasion.”
“But I do recall you – and with appreciation,” Jack returned the courtesy. “You did us good service, my Rangers and I, after Saltillo. You were a god-send for my fellows… forgive me, I recall what men were able to do for my people, but not the rank or the office they held when doing it.”
“Supply Corps,” General Harrell returned, with good humor. “A necessary, yet underrated department. A matter of ledgers, lists, and registers, of figures and supplies. But hey – the great Napoleon himself observed that an Army marches on its stomach.”
“And is this a matter of concern to the Supply Corps?” Jack went to the point of this meeting without any fanfare, and Governor Wood sighed.
“Brass tacks,” he observed with a glance ceilingward. “That’s what I have always liked about you, Jack – a disinclination to waste time getting down to them.”
“The matter upon which you and your agents have been summoned is actually a matter of national pride; only peripherally a matter most personal to me,” answered the gentleman in the expensively ornate waistcoat. “Randall Burke, of Kentucky, Colonel Hays. I do have an interest regarding the whereabouts – or even the survival of Captain O’Neill.” The gentleman’s florid countenance turned briefly mournful. “Before his untimely disappearance, he was – he is engaged to my daughter, Rebecca. Gentlemen, if you have no daughters, you have no idea of the wiles which they can wind around your heart. My darling Rebecca has been waging a campaign of the kind which no mortal father can stand long against – find her beloved, she implores me; find him and restore him to her, or her heart will break. ‘Papa’ she begged me, ‘you have influential friends, important friends, you can surely exchange favors.’” Senator Burke offered a small and very wry smile. “I do not ordinarily trade on my office for personal consideration, gentlemen – but I must admit that if Captain O’Neill’s aged mother, a sister or an affianced other than my Rebecca had come and begged me to do what I could … I fear that I would be making the same request of you that I am making now. Find Captain O’Neill. General Harrell is among my oldest friends; he was in a position to facilitate this meeting and sponsor my request of you.”
“Understood,” Jack Hays nodded. “But I still wonder, gentlemen – since he wasn’t our concern when he was – er, misplaced somewhere in the new western territories, why should you come to us, ask my fellows for their assistance? I might have thought this was the business of the US Army.”
“And so it would have been,” General Harrell replied warmly. “But it seems there is a potential complication, one which might prove embarrassing to … to whomever. And that is why outsiders such as your compatriots are involved. The matter is of the utmost delicacy.” He cast a significant look at Governor Wood.
“Jack – I’ll be in my own office,” Governor Wood nodded. “If you wish to speak with me when the gentlemen are finished briefing you on this particular … engagement.” The Governor absented himself from the dusty office with efficient dispatch, although Jim wondered why – if this was such a matter of delicacy, why Sergeant Grayson and the unnamed young officer remained, hovering at the door as if they were hounds bidden to stay, yet uncertain of their welcome within the circle. Jack claimed the last chair, and eyed General Harrell and Senator Burke as they resumed their seats.
“So – how exactly did you come to lose track of your heroic young captain? You may speak freely, as Captain Reade and Mr. Shaw will be the Texas men of my department dispatched on this errand. And what is the exact nature of this delicate matter?”
“Sergeant Grayson is the one most able to answer that question,” General Harrell replied, “As he was part of Captain O’Neill’s exploration party, and the senior NCO remaining. Sergeant – would you explain the situation?”
“Gladly, sah!” Sergeant Grayson stepped forward, assuming an attitude of formal parade-rest before the half-circle of chairs, and fixing his eyes on the farther wall – a thing which Jim found vaguely irritating. It was as if the man were performing in a pantomime. “We set out early in the spring of last year from Shreveport, our mission being to follow the old trail to Santa Fe, and then to strike northwesterly from there, to map the uncharted wastelands, and search out a certain river – a river of significant size, which was reported by Spanish explorers many years ago. It was the conviction of Captain O’Neill that this river, if navigable by craft of any size, might provide a most expeditious route to California… The great Colorado, they call it. Means “Red” so I am told.”
“Did you locate this river, then?” Jack cut into the flow of words. “And at what point was Captain O’Neill lost to your part?”
“Indeed we did, sah!” Sergeant Grayson answered warmly. “And the portion of it which we explored – so sublime a sight as may hardly be imagined! Grooved deep into the earth, attended by mighty rock towers and cliffs striped in red, orange, gold – the colors of flame, in the sunlight of a dying day. I have seen many splendors on this earth, gentleman, but that grand river, cradled in its mighty red canyon …” he shook his head. “Captain O’Neill waxed even more poetic. He was like a boy in a toy-shop, sah, marveling at everything. Nothing would content him than to essay a venture down to the water-edge with a corporal and two private soldiers of our party, leaving me in charge of the remainder. They carried a patent collapsible boat with them, intending to venture a little way down the river. We were to be collecting geological and botanical specimens, y’see, while we waited on Captain O’Neill’s return in a fortnight.”
“That was perilous, to so split your party in that fashion,” Jack remarked, with veiled disapproval. “Especially when you are uncertain of the friendliness of the local Indian folk.”
“Not so,” Sergeant Grayson demurred. “The natives were of a nature inclined to be friendly; farming folk in the main. They make fine baskets and pottery, grow crops of maize and orchard fruit as fine as any Christian. Although they would make bonny warriors if rightly provoked, they do not live for it, as do the Comanche, and export war wholesale.”
“Well, that’s some comfort,” General Harrell remarked, in some relief. “Hear that, young Joe? No chances of death or glory against the wild Comanche for you this journey! Just bring back your old playfellows’ dearest, and that should be sufficient reward.”
“I heard, sir,” the young officer answered, with easy familiarity. “I suppose Becky will weep all over me in that case – and I will be forgiven for teasing her so mercilessly when we were children.”
“It depends,” General Harrell smiled. “Colonel Hays – my son, Lieutenant Harrell. He is newly-graduated, and will be a part of your expedition at his insistence. Captain O’Neill was an upper-classman, and much reverenced among the junior cadets. His orders, and those for Sergeant Grayson are all cut and approved. I hope that you will forgive my presumption,” he added, looking searchingly at Jack, Jim and Toby. “But for reasons of security, I prefer to involve only family and those connections of proven discretion, in addition to your people, Colonel Hays. There is one other, who will be a part of this expedition, although he is not privy to the entire story … continue, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, sah!” Sergeant Grayson fixed his gaze on the opposite wall. Jim was quite certain this was not for any intrinsic beauty of the wall itself, as it was an uninspiring collection of rough shelves, and a tattered map of Texas tacked to that part not covered with shelves and stacked with ledgers. Jim murmured an aside to his blood-brother, “So we are getting to the part about how they were able to lose their hero – and how that came to be a potential embarrassment to the Federal Army.”
“We waited for seventeen days,” Sergeant Grayson continued, still staring at the wall. “I was disinclined, sah, to split our party even further, in sending out a small detachment to search for Captain O’Neill. He was a man of his word; if he said he would return in a fortnight, then he would return in a fortnight. If he did not, he said that I should use my best judgement in that eventuality. The Captain reposed a great deal of trust in me,” Sergeant Grayson added with a touch of modest pride. “Since I have soldiered, man and boy for more than thirty years and under three flags, counting this one.”
“Likely you have forgotten more of the trade than many have ever learned,” General Harrell agreed. “As a Living Rule of the art of soldiering. I cannot say that such trust was misplaced.”
“Thank you, sah,” Sergeant Grayson unbent sufficiently to look directly at his small audience, and Jack cleared his throat. “And on the seventeenth day,” he asked, quietly.
Sergeant Grayson’s gaze snapped back to the wall. “On the seventeenth day, Corporal Mayhew staggered into our camp in a most piteous condition. The corporal was one of the party accompanying the Captain. He was nearly dead from exposure, hunger, and thirst, besides having half his ribs stove in. But he was able to tell us of what happened; on the eighth day of their explorations of the river, the boat was taken by a sudden swift current, and smashed on the rocks. Private MacLean and Private Josephson drowned in deep water, their bodies carried away in the current. Captain O’Neill’s leg was broken, most painfully, and he had an almighty crack to the skull. He could not walk, and was unconscious for some time. Mayhew was hurt only a little less severely, but he managed to pull Captain O’Neill to safety, in a little cove sheltered by a cliff overhang. He left the Captain comfortably settled in that shelter, with a water-bottle, and what he could retrieve of the supplies. He gathered wood, built a small fire, administered what doctoring he could render and went to fetch aid from our main camp. He was four or five days at that … venturing back along the riverbank, and climbing back up along the path they had followed going down. He was …” Sergeant Grayson’s harsh voice roughened. “In no very good condition, sah. He was crawling on hands and knees at the last, and only lived a day or so – just long enough to tell us of what had happened.”
“A brave young man,” Senator Burke remarked, much moved, although he must have heard the story at least once before. “And a credit to the uniform, and to his commander.”
“No, sah, in a spirit of honesty, I would beg to disagree,” Sergeant Grayson continued his rigid examination of the wall. “He was addicted to strong drink and consorting w’ women of the disreputable class. I did not think he was of the stuff that the best are made of – but he did well enough, for all o’ that, and died doing his duty.”
“Nothing in his life became him so much as his manner of leaving it, eh?” Senator Burke commented, and Sergeant Grayson appeared even grimmer than before.
“Aye so. Well, he was thorough enough – poor lad – when it came to marking his trail. We followed it easily, but upon finding the cove and cave where Captain O’Neill had been – there was nothing save the ashes of a dead fire – and a few scraps of the rubberized canvas from the remains of the boat. That was how we were certain of the place, sah; the bits of the boat, y’see. The Captain was gone. “We searched the nearby riverbanks as carefully as we could on foot, having lost use of the boat.” Sergeant Grayson’s eyes returned to the tattered map on the wall opposite. “And found no other trace of the Captain, although we found and buried Private Josephson alongside Corporal Mayhew. Having done so, we made all speed to return east and file reports, along with the maps and samples, and considered the expedition completed.”
“Ah, then – that is how they lost him,” Jim murmured to his blood-brother, as they watched this with interest. “In a delirium, fallen into the river, and carried away. No doubt of it.”
“But I do not understand the requirement for secrecy,” Jack cleared his throat. “Sad enough to lose a man in that manner – injured and alone in the wilderness, and of course his loved ones would grieve his loss, but I simply do not see this as a matter of …”
“There’s more to this,” General Harrell held up a hand. “Thank you, Sergeant – I’ll carry on from here. You will see the need for discretion when I am finished. The following spring, there was a small story in the weekly St. Louis Register which excited much comment; a tale by a pair of Mormon missionaries searching for converts among the heathen – a tale of a white man living among a tribe settled along the river … which from our calculations was not far from where Captain O’Neill and his party came to grief. It struck me as a curious coincidence and I made further inquiries. The original story was printed in the California Star – the proprietor is a Mormon, you see, and would know of such incidents involving his coreligionists. Two weeks ago, a messenger returned from California with urgent dispatches – and a fuller accounting of the missionaries visit to the Havasuopii village, including a physical description of the white man. He was tall, with sandy-colored hair, and walked with a bad limp.”
“There must be any number of white renegades and mountain men – even captives taken as children,” Jack pointed out. Jim nodded; he knew of at least a dozen such – captured as children raised as Indians, and adopted into their tribe. “What of your missing Private McLean? He was reported drowned as well – but perhaps…”
“McLean was a dark Scot, near as dark as an Indian himself,” Sergeant Grayson interjected. “And no’ what you would call tall. But I take your point, Colonel, sah – about renegades and such. But the description of this man also made note of a peculiar scar on his forehead. The Captain had such a scar, gotten in the fighting at Monterrey.”
“You see, Colonel,” General Harrell sighed heavily. “It very well might be O’Neill. And if it is – it means that an officer of this Army has deserted his duties, his loved ones – his very life among civilized people. The embarrassment to the Army, to our government, after having proclaimed him a hero, honored and decorated will be enormous, if word got out. Tt may be also that he was deprived of his memory through that blow to the head, in which case he must be returned to us, that he might be restored to family and career. In either case, we simply must resolve this matter and mystery, and do so without causing an embarrassing scandal. I know that you and your people can be trusted to be discrete; such discretion is not only the better part of valor, it is also the better part of diplomacy. Only those of us within this room know the full import of this mission.”
There was silence in the musty office for a long moment, while motes of dust danced in the slanted sunlight coming through the glazed window. Finally, Jack spoke.
“You fellows have taken in all that? Good.” He fixed General Harrell and the Senator with his sternest gaze. “Jim Reade and Toby Shaw are two of the best I have – you just say the word, and when you want them to leave.”
“Excellent, Colonel!” General Harrell beamed. “Then in two weeks, from Camp Verde – where the fifth of this venture will join you. Ned Beale – he’s a Navy man, but knows the west about as well as any of us landlubbers. There will be your lads, my son and Sergeant Grayson – only you four know the real purpose of this mission!”
“Pardon me for inquiring,” Jim spoke in his normal voice for almost the first time in this interview. “But – why Camp Verde? We can just as well depart from here. I have my own trash and traps, Mr. Shaw has his; we are in expectation of heading off into whichever direction Colonel Jack sends us on a moment’s notice.”
“Because that is where you will collect up the camels!” General Harrell replied, with a mighty laugh at the expression which had descended on all their faces – Sergeant Grayson’s excepted. Jim could only think that he had become well-accustomed to insane requirements while in service to his variable flags.

06. June 2017 · Comments Off on The Start of Another Lone Star Sons Aventure · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West, Uncategorized

(And I promise that I will finish this one!)

Into the Wilds

“I came as soon as I received your message,” Toby Shaw arrived at the Bullock House in Austin where Jack Hays and Jim Reade had taken rooms while they awaited the arrival of Jim’s trusted fellow ‘stiletto man’ on before the meeting with Governor Wood. The stage from Fort Belknap delivered Toby promptly on the third day after their arrival; Toby resplendent in a well-cut suit, fashionable cravat, and white shirt – his long braids the only jarring note in his otherwise conventional appearance. “What is so important regarding this task that we are both bidden to Austin?”

“I have no idea,” Jim answered. “Colonel Hays has been remarkably close-mouthed on that score … as always.”

“Part of my ingratiating personal charm,” Jack replied, with a hearty handshake. “Sit down, sit down … and I have no notion of the purpose myself. I know – difficult to credit. But I’ve been away for months, and had a war with Mexico to win, so I’ve lost touch with the day to day of things. I’ve organized a private supper, so that we can catch up – and not set gossiping tongues to wagging. Since it is the Governor himself driving this … I can only speculate that it is something to do with the United States.”

“Of which we are now one, since Annexation,” Jim pointed out. “And with the US Army to see to our security – what purpose do we have now? Toby and I, and your handful of other stiletto fellows?”

“Oh, there are purposes,” Jack replied. “One or two, still left to us as Rangers. I believe that the governor will be prompt in relieving all our curiosity tomorrow morning. We are bidden to a private conference at nine of the clock at the capitol building, and not to breath a word to anyone of this. It appears to be an extremely sensitive matter.”

“Aren’t all of them?” Jim raised an eyebrow. Jack laughed, and then his expression turned melancholy.

“Most of them, I think. I fear that the feats performed by my stiletto-men Rangers will never be made public; only recorded in certain dusty archives and locked in a sturdy iron safe for all eternity.”

“Well, we didn’t get into it for the glory, did we, Toby?” Jim shrugged philosophically. “We did it for … because it was in the cause of justice.” His blood-brother laughed, replying, “Justice, in the way of your courts, James-Reade-Esquire? We perform our tasks because it is right to do. If the Great Spirit alone knows – why then, what does it matter to us?”

“Well-said, boys,” Jack regarded the two with approval, and Jim thought that he looked … well, wearier and older. The brief sharp war with Mexico had aged their commander. A fair number of his old Ranger comrades had fallen in that field; Addison Gillespie and Sam Walker dead on campaign, and one of his oldest Ranger associates sidelined by wounds and walking away when his final enlistment was done. But it was as if Jack intuited that thought of Jim’s – for he smiled immediately, and exclaimed,

“I know the cooking at Bullock’s isn’t a patch on the market ladies in Bexar with their pots of good red stew – but I have an appetite tonight! Shall we swap stretchers about what we all have been up to since the last time we met?”

“I thought you would never ask,” Jim answered – and so the evening passed agreeably enough, especially since Jack produced a bottle of good bourbon whiskey – “From Kentucky, a gift from a good friend!” Jack insisted, although Jim had suspicions, since the bottle was absent any label. And Toby foreswore any of it, unless well-diluted with water, saying only that although he was not of the temperance persuasion, and not adverse entirely towards a jolly evening with old friends, he did not care to partake of liquor at full-strength.

 

In the morning, Jack, Toby and Jim strolled the short way up Congress Street to the frame capitol building which edifice crowned the top of the hill – a commanding height in Austin, which had been built in a fair and parklike meadow, dotted by copses of noble oak and cypress trees, and threaded through with creeks of clear water. Now the heights to north and south of the great silver sweep of the Colorado River looked down upon a city invigorated by the peace which followed on the successful prosecution of a war, and the consummation of a marriage between an independent Texas and the United States; a marriage which canny old General Sam Houston had labored to arrange for ten long and bitter years. Still, Jim slightly regretted the surrender of a state of independency. It meant that the Rangers were no longer needed; now the US Army, dressed in their fine blue coats and commanded by gold-braid-hung officers would be responsible for the frontier … and for those matters of security which had been Jack’s particular responsibility. Perhaps his term as one of Jack’s stiletto-men was also at an end, a matter about which he was in two minds. His father was old – still vigorous in the practice of law, and their joint practice in Galveston gave every sign of being lively and prosperous, could Jim only pay considerable more of his time and energies to it.

If Toby felt something of the same regrets, he gave no sign of it, as they crossed the porch of that white-washed frame building which served as the capital, and stood in the entryway. The door stood halfway open to a hallway. They were a few minutes early, by Jim’s stout hunter watch. Without hesitation, Jack thumped on the door panel with his fists, and called,

“Say, anyone at home? I’m Colonel Hays, and we have an appointment with Governor Wood.”

“At least I didn’t have my heart seat on a grand reception,” Jim remarked, and Toby – standing at several paces behind, peered over Jack’s shoulder, saying, “Maybe we should ask that soldier?”

Hearing those words, a stocky, grizzled man in US Army blue sprang from a seat at the foot of the stairs, straightening into something resembling attention, and rendering a crisp salute. His sleeves bore a satisfactory number of stripes, testifying to the utter solidity of the man and his value to the federal Army.

“Colonel Hays, sah! I was told to expect you at any moment.  The gentlemen are waiting upstairs. If you and your good gentlemen would be so kind as to follow after me. The General is a man who esteems punctuality.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Jack returned the salute with a nod, never having been much of one for military protocol and the practice thereof. “Have you any notion of what this is about, Sergeant …”

“Grayson, sah – and I do, but I have been given the strictest of orders, straight from the General, which the Senator hisself approved in the next breath.”

“I expect that it is a matter of national importance then?” Jim ventured, as they climbed the stairs, and Sergeant Grayson looked over his shoulder at them. Jim wondered why the man seemed so … familiar, and in a way that suggested a previous encounter had not been a pleasant one.

“In a manner o’ speaking. But if you ken the matter properly – there is a touch o’ the personal as well. And to more than just to the Senator. But,” Sergeant Grayson recovered his sense of discretion, a sense which warred against the propensity of non-coms to pass along interesting gossip and suppositions. “I should say no more, properly. But it is personal to me as well. Captain O’Neill was … well, he was one of the good ones.” Ah – English; Jim made a note to himself, and a reminder to conceal at all costs his instinctive dislike of the man. Grayson was an Englishman; in appearance and manner very like that English agent who had been involved in the matter of the old Casa Wilkinson … and more balefully, in the lost San Saba Treasure.

“Captain O’Neill?” Toby looked across at Jim, as they followed Jack and Sergeant Grayson up the stairs at a discreet distance. “What of this – and what to do with us, James Reade Esquire?”

“I can’t be certain,” Jim whispered back. “But if he means Captain Brendan O’Neill – and I am thinking that he must – the Captain was one of the rising bright stars in the Army, if the newspapers have it right. A favored child of fortune, as my father would put it. A graduate of West Point, although his background was hardly favorable, being the child of poor Irish immigrants. He was taken prisoner briefly in fighting in Monterray, but made a daring escape to our lines on the city outskirts. Feted all around Washington and promoted for his trouble. Then he was given command of an expedition into the western territories, even before they were turned over as part of the peace settlement.”

“Ah then,” Toby whispered, as Sergeant Grayson approached a door at the head of the stairs. “He was favored by the great chiefs to lead a war party.”

“Not a war party,” Jim corrected him. “Rather a party of exploration – to make maps of land features, find natural roads, and make friends with the Indian tribes, in the expectation of making allies among them.”

“A far-thinking notion,” Toby nodded. “Most uncharacteristic of what I have seen so far of the Yengies. What has this matter to do with us?”

“Likely because he never came back from it,” was all that Jim could say before Sergeant Grayson rapped briefly on the closed door at the top of the stairs. At a word from inside, Sergeant Grayson opened the door and announced in a stentorian voice reminiscent of a parade ground, “Colonel Hays, with…”

“Captain Reade and Mr. Shaw,” Jack stepped through the door, while Jim winced. Yes, a captaincy was a nice thing to have, but it was more for a show of authority – a courtesy title, rather than an actual rank. On the other hand, he reflected as he followed Jack and regarded the four men within, it was a small but significant thing, in their eyes.

22. August 2016 · Comments Off on A New Luna City Story · 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 on A Short Chapter from the Next Luna City Book · 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 on From The Golden Road · 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 on Tah- Dah! · 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

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The Second Chronicle of Luna City

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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?”

10. May 2016 · Comments Off on The Second Luna City Chronicle! · Categories: Book Event, Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

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!)