14. April 2013 · Comments Off on You Ask How That New Book is Going · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Literary Good Stuff, Old West

Pretty well, actually – I finished a chapter Saturday afternoon, and tallied up what I have so far; a little over 300 pages, but only about another three plot twists and set-piece scenes to go. I’ll do my best to bring it at or around 400 pages. A severe re-read and edit will probably shave it down some, at least I hope so. Brevity is the soul of wit and economical story-telling and characterization is a goal devoutly to be aimed for. It has not escaped my notice that Truckee is my shortest book, and also my best-seller over time. Back to basics, eh? Truckee covered the space of a single year, and had a fairly simple, straight-forward plot and a relatively small cast. My subsequent books were a lot more complicated, but it’s pretty clear that elephantiasis of the narrative is not widely appreciated, although there are exceptions. I will do my best to restrain myself.

This next book is supposed to focus on the next generation of the characters from the Adelsverein Trilogy; Dolph and his English Isobel, of Sam and Lottie Becker, and Lottie’s suitor, Seb Bertrand – all of whom were babies, children or just very young adults by a point halfway through the Trilogy. Time for them to pick up the chore of carrying on the plot, in and around the Centennial year of 1876 – although some of the older characters, heroes and heroines of the earlier narrative make occasional appearances now.

1876; a little more than ten years after the end of the Civil War, which I think was a great scar across the American psyche – as 1914-18 was for Europe. Everything was different, afterwards, although many of those things that made the difference so marked had already been put in train before that marking point. Many who had been rich, or even just well-to-do before the war were impoverished afterwards. But many who had been impoverished before were well-to-do or rich after it through mining, wholesale ranching, transportation, manufacturing and developing new and useful technologies. That very technology made the post-war world a different place; the telegraph brought far places closer, the railway brought them closer still. Before the war, it was pork which had been the favorite meat on American tables; ham, salt pork, bacon. Afterwards, beef from western ranches and shipped to the stockyards and slaughterhouses in the mid-West began to predominate.

Before the war, it was a wagon-journey of six months to get to California from the mid-West, or a long, bone-cracking stagecoach ride of twenty-four days. When the transcontinental railroad was completed – a traveler could go from Council Bluffs to Sacramento in about a week, and in relative comfort. Should the traveler possess a parlor car and sufficient funds and connections, the journey could even be done in considerable luxury – instead of the dangerous and difficult trek it had been a mere three decades before. I worked in this transition for the last chapter of Truckee; an elderly man who had been a small boy on the emigrant trail in 1844 traveled east over the route that his family had followed – and noted that it wasn’t have the labor and adventure it had once been. The steam engine brought Europe closer to the US; now it was possible to travel relatively easily, and comfortably. Regularly scheduled steamship packet lines transformed a miserable, cramped journey of a month or six weeks (or even more) to barely a week from New York to Hamburg, or Southampton. I pointed up this transition again, in the Trilogy, comparing the hardships suffered by Magda’s family on their journey from Germany on a on a sailing ship – and how, thirty years later, it was only a week on a steam packet from New York to Hamburg. And in the new book, there is a chapter of the Richter and Becker clans traveling across Texas in their own parlor car; think of the change this represented to those who lived long enough to see and experience it! But there was a shadow over all of this; the shadow of the war.

Another author in the IAG has reminded me of this – that someone visiting the United States ten years later would have noted effects of it, most especially in the South. There would have been the ghosts of the dead from a thousand battles haunting the living with their memories; the badly scarred and disfigured, the chronically ill – and the chronically criminal. Even more visible were those amputees with their crutches and empty sleeves, the widows wearing black, and the young women who never married at all because the boy they loved was buried in the Wilderness, at Gettysburg, or Shiloh. Progress came at a price; and although one can’t say one caused the other, it made the handy demarcation point of a life that for most Americans had been rural and agrarian.

And that’s what I am working around, in The Quivera Trail … then there is the difference between England and Texas, which one has to admit, is still pretty market. There is a reason that I am describing it to readers as ‘Mrs. Gaskell meets Shane.’

05. April 2013 · Comments Off on The Most One-Sided Western Gunfight · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West

This affray did not happen in Texas, but in New Mexico in 1884. It did have all the classic Western elements; rowdy cowboys, a small town fed to the back teeth with their destructive and abusive antics, and a single local lawman determined to up hold the rule of law and order. Here, however, ends any resemblance to High Noon, Tombstone, Stagecoach, Shane or any other classic Western movie. In this case, the single resolute lawman stands out in the annals of Western law enforcement for several reasons; first for sheer, stubborn crazy-brave courage, secondly for being barely 19 years old at the time, a tough little banty-rooster of a guy barely five-seven in boots… and thirdly for being native Hispanic in a time and in a place where anti-Mexican bigotry fell very severely on the non-Anglo population of any what class or income.

His name was Elfego Baca – and there was one more difference to him. Although he had been born in Socorro, New Mexico Territory, he had spent most of his life in Topeka, Kansas, where his parents had sought work and an education for their children. This resulted in Elfego Baca being more fluent in English than Spanish at the time of his returning to Socorro and working as a clerk in a general mercantile owned by his brother-in-law. He had another notable skill; facility with a six-gun. Very much later in life he claimed he had been taught to shoot by Billy the Kid … either William McCarty-Antrim-Bonny, or some other adolescent shootist with the same moniker in New Mexico Territory around that time.
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29. March 2013 · Comments Off on The Mason County Hoodoo War – Part 3 · Categories: History, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

Scott Cooley, who lived for revenge on those who had a part in the murder of his foster-father, Tim Williamson, made a kind of headquarters with his violent and disreputable friends in Loyal Valley. George Gladden had a place there – he, like many other participants in the feud – was a small rancher with a reputation as being handy with a gun. A few weeks after the murder of Deputy Whorle, Cooley’s gang targeted Peter Bader, who was reported to have been in the lynch mob who ambushed Tim Williamson on the road between the Lehmburg ranch and Mason, and had fired the final shot killing Tim Williamson. Unfortunately, Cooley and Johnny Ringo hit Peter Bader’s brother Carl, instead – gunning him down in his own field where he had been working. Whether this was deliberate or a case of mistaken identity is a matter undecided – but by committing this murder, Cooley had thrown a rock into a hornets’ nest. The Clark faction responded by attempting to draw out the Cooley gang to Mason. Sheriff Clark convinced – or hired – a local gambler named Jim Cheney to try and talk the Cooley gang into coming to Mason.

Cheney was only able to find George Gladden and Mose Baird; whatever he said to them convinced them to set out on the road between Loyal Valley and Mason. The two of them had just reached John Keller’s general store on the river-crossing just east of Mason – and there they spotted Sheriff Clark waiting, just outside the store. Clark’s men opened fire on the two from behind a stone wall. Both of them badly wounded, they still managed to escape a little way up the road, with the ambushers in hot pursuit. But Mose Baird died of his wounds and Peter Bader – whose brother had been murdered by Cooley and Johnny Ringo – wanted to finish off George Gladden. John Keller, the storekeeper, refused to countenance this, and store he’d kill anyone who’d shoot the wounded man. Peter Bader contented himself by merely cutting a gold ring from the hand of the dead Mose Baird. Perhaps this brief incident best illuminates the bitterness of the Hoodoo war; that some men on either side fully embraced savagery, while others drew back, horrified.

By late September, the situation had degenerated to the point where a company of Rangers was dispatched to Mason, under the command of Major John B. Jones, to restore order. By that time, there was none to speak of in Mason County. Sheriff Clark and a good number of his allies had forted up in Keller’s store, after rumors that Cooley’s band was intent on burning out the German settlers of Mason. Cooley and his band were already in Mason, too. They had tried to intimidate an Irish storekeeper, David Doole, into helping him. Armed with a shotgun, Doole refused; he was on good terms with many of the local Germans. Rebuffed, Cooley and his friends holed up a short distance down the street in Tom Gamel’s saloon on the west side of town – that Tom Gamel, who had been part of that first rustler-hunting posse early in the year, and who had broken with Clark and recruited friends of his own. In the meantime, Johnny Ringo and another of Cooley’s band paid a visit on Jim Cheney, who had led George Gladden and Mose Baird into the ambush at Keller’s store. Cheney invited them to share breakfast with him, apparently certain that his part in the matter wasn’t known. Johnny Ringo shot him down.

Gunfire also erupted in the streets of Mason: Dan Hoerster, the elected brands inspector, his brother-in-law, and third man were shot at, while riding down Main Street towards Gamel’s saloon, although they had been warned of the presence of the Cooley gang. Dan Hoerster fell, and the other two took refuge in the local hotel and fired back, to the horror of guests. Major Jones and his Ranger company arrived in the aftermath of this latest outrage, and began searching for Cooley and his friends. The major had his own problems; he had no cooperation from either side, with Anglo against German, each convinced that he was sympathetic to the other side. Worse still, a number of his own Rangers were former comrades of Scott Cooley – and finally the major called them to order and issued an ultimatum. Any who couldn’t find it in themselves to hunt for Cooley would be granted an honorable discharge from service. Three of the Rangers accepted the offer. The hunt for Cooley and the others continued – and in December, Cooley and Johnny Ringo were taken captive by the sheriff of neighboring Burnet County. Hearing that friends of theirs might break them out of the Burnet County Jail, the sheriff wisely sent them to custody in another and more secure jurisdiction.

With the apprehension of Cooley, the violence tapered off, although there was one last vengeance murder; that of Peter Bader. He had been hiding out in Llano County, but early in January of 1876, George Gladden and John Baird ambushed him on the road between Llano and Castell. With grim satisfaction, John Baird cut his brother Mose’s gold ring off Peter Bader’s hand.

By the end of that year, the Hoodoo War was over, save in memories and nightmares for those who had participated in it or were merely witnesses. Those participants with the bloodiest hands found it expedient to leave Mason County for good. Sherriff Clark, indicted on charges of complicity in the disappearance of suspected Cooley gang members, resigned his position after the charges were dropped and vanished without a trace. Johnny Ringo, charged and acquitted in the murder of Jim Chaney, and John Baird also both departed at speed, and turned up in New Mexico, where they both came to violent and unhappy ends. Scott Cooley, who had suffered a mysterious and chronic illness which medical authorities of the time called ‘brain fever’ died very suddenly from a bout of it, in the fall of that year. The only man convicted by a court of law in any of the Hoodoo War murders was George Gladden, sentenced to prison for the murder of Peter Bader.

And there it all ended, although many prominent and otherwise respectable men had doubtless been part of the masked lynch mobs. The Mason County courthouse burned, early in 1877, destroying just about all the written records associated with the feud. A long-time Mason resident and descendent of early settlers told me that upon the burning of all the records, the city fathers decided mutually to draw a line under the whole matter and call it a day. I am fairly certain, though – that no rustler or honest rancher – took a casual attitude towards absconding with Mason County cattle for a long time afterwards.

22. March 2013 · Comments Off on Part 2 – The Mason County Hoo-Doo War · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West · Tags:

The Hoo-Doo war eventually became so bitter and vicious that all sides involved in it splintered into factions – even the company of Texas Rangers eventually dispatched to quell the range war split over it. The one survivor of the Baccus lynching still in custody, one Tom Turley, was returned to jail when he recovered, but very shortly, he was joined there by one of Sheriff Clark’s original cattle-thief hunting posse; Caleb Hall, now accused of being a cattle thief as well. A second posse member, Tom Gamel, now claimed that the notion of lynching the Baccus gang was first bruited about by the members of Clark’s posse – and he, for one, had been strongly against it. Rumors began flying around Mason that another lynching might be in the works – of Turley, Hall and Gamel themselves. Turley and Hall promptly escaped the jail and Mason County entirely, never to return. Tom Gamel stood his ground, recruiting about thirty friends – cattlemen and ranchers from the local area. He and his friends rode into Mason one day late in March. Not prepared for receiving so many presumably hostile guests, Sheriff Clark skedaddled. Gamel and his friends lingered in town for a couple of days, stewing for a fight … which nearly happened when Sheriff Clark returned with sixty well-armed local German friends. But the two sides declared a truce – and an end to mob justice. More »

14. March 2013 · Comments Off on The Haunting of Mason County · Categories: History, Old West · Tags:

The so-called Mason County Hoo-Doo War was one of those particularly impenetrable frontier feuds which mixed up all the classic western feud elements into one bloody and protracted mess; legal possession of land provided one element, there was also a clash between cattle ranchers with local farmers and townsmen, wrangling over the ownership of cattle – branded and otherwise – an element of ethnic resentment between German and native-born American or Anglo settlers, the passions of Unionist and Confederate partisans still at a simmer in the aftermath of the Civil War, and finally, that Mason County was situated on the far frontier, where enforcement of the law was a sketchy and erratically enforced thing.

Mason County is in the high Edwards Plateau, north of Kerrville; it was part of the Adelsverein land grant, originally taken up by a consortium of German nobles who wished to follow in the footsteps of Stephen Austin and Greene DeWitt in luring settlers to Texas in the 1840s. The Adelsverein scheme fell through, but not before more bringing more than 7,000 German immigrants to the Hill Country. Although the land grant was later invalidated by the State Legislature, the ownership rights of individual settlers was upheld, and as it eventually turned out much of the best land in the Hill Country was owned by those German settlers. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that during the Civil War many of those same Germans were pro-Union Abolitionists. In the resulting mini-civil war in the Hill Country, it was bitterly said that more Germans were murdered by pro-Confederate forces (legal and extra-legal) during 1861-65 than ever were killed by raiding Comanche Indians, before or after. Such wartime terrors and injustices could not be forgotten or forgiven easily, even though the post-war Reconstruction government tended to favor Unionists.

The post-war boom in Texas cattle provided yet another point of friction between Anglo and German. The cattle trails to the north ran through Mason County. Not infrequently herds of cattle assembled in the Hill Country, before commencing the long walk north on the Chisholm or Goodnight trails, and the cowboys who shepherded them were often not scrupulous about including straying mavericks as they passed through Mason County. Added to that mix, a large number of the frankly larcenous who took advantage of lax law enforcement to collect wandering cattle, legally branded or not … and the German small ranchers and farmers whose stock grazed in the unfenced pastures often had good reason to resent Anglo cattlemen, and to be suspicious of outsiders. Brands were easily changed, and when it came to an unbranded calf, possession was nine-tenths of the law. The German settlers in Mason were infuriated by the constant loss of their cattle, and the inability of anyone to do anything about it. In 1872, they elected a no-nonsense sheriff, who promised a hard line against the epidemic of cattle rustling; an Anglo named John Clark, backed up by a local German, John Wohrle as deputy sheriff and another, Dan Hoerster as inspector of brands. John Clark was well-liked and well-trusted by the local German citizens; he may have been a veteran of the Union Army. Over the next two years, he took a very hard line against neighboring ranch owners whom he considered to have made free with Mason County cattle – a hard line which lead to resentment among the Anglo ranchers and those cowhands who worked for them.

Early in 1875, a locally-raised posse made a sweep of the ranges northwest of Mason – and found a large herd in the possession of a party of men led by the Baccus brothers, Pete and Elijah. Curiously, the cattle in question bore the brands of practically everyone else but the Baccus brothers. The posse arrested them all, and brought them back to Mason for trial, while Sherriff Clark and another posse pursued another party of rustlers and another herd of stolen cattle. They retrieved the cattle, but the rustlers had vamoosed.

At this point things began to get bloody. The body of a dead man was found beside the road between Llano and Mason, with a note pinned to it; ‘Here lies a noted cow thief.’ Three days later a mob of men wearing masks broke into Wohrle’s home and forced him to give up the keys to the jail, where the Baccus brothers and the others arrested were waiting trial. Sherriff Clark and Ranger Captain Dan Roberts – buying grain for his company’s horses – hurried to the jail together, but there were too many in the mob. Helplessly, Clark and Roberts watched the mob carry away the Baccus brothers and three other men. It took time for them to gather aid and follow. They caught up to the mob just as four of their captives were being hung. In the exchange of gunfire the mob scattered, and Sheriff Clark cut down the prisoners. The Baccus brothers were already dead; two others were so gravely that one died within hours. The fifth man had been able to escape, although his hands were bound. And thus began the Hoo-Doo War.

(To be continued. Crossposted at my book blog and at www.chicagoboyz.net)

12. February 2013 · Comments Off on A Bleg to Benefit My Little Doggie · Categories: Critters, Literary Good Stuff, Local, Old West

Connor, the middle-aged Malti-poo is at the veterinarians office today, to sort out why he has been throwing up for the last day and a half, has no appetite and is terribly lethargic. The bill for his treatment will be an unexpected expense for me … so anyone going to my book blog and purchasing copies of To Truckee’s Trail, Daughter of Texas, Deep in the Heart, or the Adelsverein Trilogy in the separate volumes will help me to square matters with the vet, and put Connor back where he belongs, sleeping peacefully under my desk.

23. January 2013 · Comments Off on Bass Reeves and the Last of the Lawless West · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff, Old West

In the year of the Centennial of the United States, the last of the West left relatively unscathed by the forces of law and order was that part of present-day Oklahoma set aside as homeland for the native Indian tribes. This was a 70,000 square mile territory in which anything went … and usually did. Among what was called the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) there were native law enforcement officers, who upheld the law among their own. But they had no jurisdiction over interlopers of any color, or tribal members who committed crimes in company with or against an outsider, and the Territory was Liberty Hall and a refuge for every kind of horse thief, cattle rustler, bank and train robber, murderer and scalawag roaming the post-Civil War west. Just about every notorious career criminal at large for the remainder of the 19th century took refuge in the Oklahoma Territory at one time or another, including the James and Dalton gangs.

The situation was exacerbated as stagecoach and railway lines etched thoroughfares across the territory. The settlements around stage stations and depots leaked disreputable characters into the population. Emancipated slaves from outside the territory or formerly property of the wealthier tribes, also chose to settle in the territory, but they fell under the distant jurisdiction of the US Court … in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Herds of Texas cattle crossing the territory on their way to railheads in Kansas contributed a lawless element, as well as temptation for horse thieves and cattle rustlers. Lastly, the borders of the Territory were violated by land-hungry squatters. Officers of the law were stretched as thin as a pat of butter spread on an acre of toast; and by 1875 the situation was intolerable to legal and law-abiding settlers along the border, and to the Civilized Tribes within it.

The man – and those whom he appointed to serve under his authority – who came to the rescue of the embattled and crime-plagued citizens like a 19th century super-hero appeared that very year. Isaac Charles Parker did not materialize from a phone-booth or a secret underground lair, but by means of accepting an appointment as judge for the Western District of Arkansas. He was in his mid-thirties, a legalist of impeachable moral character, long experience in Federal administration and government, and deep sympathies for the situation of the Indians. He was also a demon for hard work, which he commenced barely a week after he arrived in Fort Smith. In his first two-month session of his court, he heard 91 cases. Of those convicted, six were condemned to death. The sentences carried out publically and en masse – as an encouragement to those considering capital crimes to re-consider their career options. In short order, Judge Parker earned the nickname of “The Hanging Judge.” He spent the next twenty-one years on the bench in Fort Smith, the scourge of evildoers, criminals and scoundrels and and the highest law of the land. Only a presidential pardon could set aside a Parker court death sentence.

Besides conducting his court with efficiency and dispatch, Judge Parker took other steps in establishing the rule of law rather than the gun. His chief marshal, James Fagan, was authorized to hire two hundred deputy marshals, more than any other state or territory. Parker’s marshals out in teams, with a wagon for supplies and captured criminals, a cook and a small posse of assistants. Generally, they avoided actually killing a wanted man; a live criminal arrested and brought back to Fort Smith meant payment of $2.00 a head. The only payment for a corpse was if there had been a dead-or-alive reward posted by a civil authority or an express company –a rare circumstance, but not entirely unknown. And so it went, nearly until the end of the 19th century.

One of Parker’s law enforcement hires was the first black deputy US marshall west of the Mississippi; Bass Reeves, who stood 6’2 in his socks. Bass Reeves had been born into slavery in Paris, Texas, owned by one George Reeves, who had Bass Reeves as his personal attendant when he went to fight in the Civil War. Sometime during the war, Bass Reeves took his leave of his master, and fled into the Indian Territory, where he spent the rest of the war sheltering among the pro-Union and abolitionist Cherokee. Officially freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, he settled as a farmer and horse-breeder in the town of Van Buren, Arkansas. He married, raised a family – and had a good reputation as a scout and tracker, knew the customs of the Territory Indians as well as speaking several of their languages, although he was himself illiterate. He was also an excellent shot with pistol and rifle… with either hand. He was also soft-spoken, courteous to all, a dapper dresser, although he often put off his usual clothes, polished boots and fine black felt hat. He was no mean actor, for he went undercover often. Like a one-man Mountie company, he always got his man … or at least, almost always. On one occasion, he posed as a poor ragged fugitive from a posse to spend the night at a lonely cabin where pair of outlaw brothers wanted by the authorities in Fort Smith was hiding out with their mama. Bass pretended to take their suggestion that they fall in together. That night after the brothers fell asleep, he handcuffed them both, without waking them up. In the morning, he marched them off to the camp where his posse was waiting for him … accompanied for the first couple of miles by the outlaw brothers’ outraged mother, cursing him up one side and down the other.
Reeves, like Judge Parker also had a flinty and Calvinistic sense of duty; one of Reeves’ famous hunts was for his own son, who had killed his wife in a fit of jealous temper. None of the other deputies wanted to take up the warrant – but Reeves did. Over his career in law enforcement, he was supposed to have brought in 3,000 fugitives from justice. When the state and municipal authorities took over responsibility for local law enforcement in 1907, Reeves took a position as a patrolman in the Muskogee Police department – and for the two years that he served, there were supposed to have been no crimes at all on his beat. He died in 1910. There was a local and low movie made two or three years ago about him, of which I can only find bare traces on IMDB. Pity he couldn’t have big-studio interest, but there you go.

(In my next book, The Quivera Trail, the most obvious villains turn out to be a clan of cattle thieves from the Territory, on a murderous vendetta against Dolph Becker and the men of the new RB ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Stay tuned…)

17. January 2013 · Comments Off on A Brief Memoir of Guns · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, History, Home Front, Memoir, Military, Old West · Tags: , ,

Oddly enough – guns were not a terribly real presence in the household – or even the neighborhood where I grew up. Dad, and our near friends and neighbors didn’t hunt, and as near as I can recall, none of them were obsessed collectors. I never even saw a firearm, in use on on display – save in the holsters of law enforcement personnel – all the time that I was growing up. The use of firearms of any sort was an issue so far off the table that it wasn’t even in the same room. Oh, my brother JP had cap pistols, and Dad did possess two sidearms – a pistol, which may have been a Luger, and with which he nailed a particularly annoying gopher one evening with a clean shot through the nasty little buggers’ head – and a Navy Colt (actual model unspecified), which was rather more of a relic than a useful firearm. I saw it once and once only.

Dad kept those firearms in some secure place in the house; I do not know where, never wondered and none of us children were never motivated enough to search for them. We just were not that curious about guns, even though the Colt had a story behind it. Mom and Dad had found it secreted away between some rocks on the beach, in a battered old-fashioned leather holster, I think about the time that they were living in Laguna Beach when Dad had just gotten back from a tour of Army service in Korea – or possibly this happened when we were all living in GI-Bill student housing in Santa Barbara. From what Mom had said, some six or eight months before they found it, there had been a robbery of a local gun collector. They didn’t hear about the robbery for months or possibly years afterwards – so, they kept it. I don’t imagine Dad ever attempted to fire it, although being a tidy and logical person, he might have cleaned it up before putting it away.

Being a west-coast suburban sort of person, and since Dad and none of his friends were hunters – guns just were not a presence in real life, save in holsters on the hips of law enforcement personnel. As strange as it may sound to a European, or to someone from an American inner-city sink, it is entirely possible to live for decades without ever seeing anyone but a law enforcement officer carry a weapon, or witness an act of gun violence or the aftermath thereof. Just chalk that up to being a middle-class person with absolutely no inclination to walk on the wild side … of anything. It is possible that any number of my friends and neighbors at the time, or since then, had a side-arm or long gun which they kept quietly in a closet, or in the glove box of their car. Taking it out and waving it about was just not the done thing.

In point of fact – I never even handled a weapon personally until well into my military service; first an M-16, which I had to qualify on sometime in the early 1980s, and then again with a Beretta pistol in the early 1990s, upon being suddenly faced with a TDY to Saudi Arabia, better known as the Magic Kingdom. American military personnel with orders there had to be qualified to handle that sidearm. Fortunately, the orders fell through once the powers who issued them realized that I was not the flight-qualified documentary photog they were looking for.

And then I finished up settling in Texas, and turning to writing historical fiction, in which guns of various sorts do play a part. Again, although Texas is supposed to be the wild, wild, gun-loving west, personal weapons generally they aren’t any more visible here then they were back when I was a kid … although I do believe more of my friends and acquaintances here do have them – mostly as collectors and historical enthusiasts. Again, usually only the law enforcement officers carry openly … unless it is a historical reenactment event, and then it’s katy-bar-the-door. Through the offices of another blogger, I did manage to get a brief course in the use and maintenance of an early Colt revolver, and through the good offices of another friend, we enjoyed an afternoon of black-power shooting on a ranch near Beeville. But all of that – and a bit of ghost-writing about early revolvers is about all that I have ever had to do with guns. I should hate to think that I might need more than this – because it will truly mean that my world has changed, and not for the better.

(Crossposted at my book blog)

04. December 2012 · Comments Off on Becoming at One With Texas · Categories: Fun and Games, General Nonsense, Local, Old West · Tags: , , , ,

It was a gradual process … the place grows on you, even back before it became clear that it was one of the states – out of these occasionally United States – which has a good chance of emerging comparatively unscathed from impending economic disaster. I don’t know why Texas should be so fortunate among states and nations, but perhaps it is because of a part-time Legislature. Yes, this might tend to discourage professional busy-bodies from taking up a full-time career dictating the teensiest minutia of every scrap of our lives, from the number of flushes our toilets need to the wattage of the light-bulb in our porch light and the knotty question of whether a puddle in the back forty qualifies as a seasonal body of water. The Texas Lege can only assemble every two years for a set period of time to consider these and other weighty matters, and so must find other and more remunerative means of earning a living and staying out of their constituents hair. There was an adage to the effect that work expands to fill the time you have available for it – very likely it works the same way for legislative bodies. Perhaps limiting the time available to them forces legislators to prioritize and focus their potential mischief on only the most necessary tasks. Still, what a thought, that Texas might be the last best place to survive the impending economic and political meltdown – who would have thought, eh?

So, Texas took us over, bit by bit – although it wasn’t without a struggle, especially when enduring the ghastly heat of summer, which occasionally felt as if it were lasting all year. Or when there was a highway alert because … er, there were stray cows on the roadway … Or when I could not get just-introduced men in a social setting to not straightaway start addressing me as ‘darlin’’. There were charms, insidious ones – the Hill Country, and sweeps of wildflowers in spring, breakfast tacos (the breakfast food of the gods, I swear), the many splendors of the HEB grocery chain, real Texas BBQ … oh, the list goes on and on. I suppose the first sign that assimilation had begun was when my father began to say that Blondie and I sounded a little more Southern in our speech – there was, he swore, a faint interrogatory lift in tone at the end of certain sentences, which had not been there previously. Blondie began to like country-western music, I began to giggle at Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” … and upon finally retiring from the military I had to get a Texas driver’s license. And then I began to write historical fiction … and well, it was all over, then. Assimilation was complete, or nearly so.

I do like to dress up in a slightly western-fashion when I do a book event now; a long skirt, western-style shirt and vest – and I have let my hair grow long again, so that I can do it up in a roll with a curved Spanish comb in it – and I have been looking around for a pair of Western boots to complete the look. I’ve substituted a pair of high-laced old-fashioned ladies’ boots for now – but a pair of cowboy boots would really complete the look. But not just any boots – being thrifty but with high standards means that I’d like I. Magnin style at a Walmart price, so we’ve been checking out the various thrift and resale stores for a pair of good and broken-in (yet not broken down!) boots. We almost thought we’d found them at a little boutique in Boerne last week, but I couldn’t get one pair on, and the other was too big … for me, but not for Blondie. So, she has herself a pair of Tony Lama’s now, and for me, it is just a matter of time.

Assimilation complete. I got here to Texas as fast as I could.

24. November 2012 · Comments Off on The Legend of Sally Skull · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West · Tags: , , ,

It was said of Texas that it was a splendid place for men and dogs, but hell for women and horses. Every now and again though, there were women who embraced the adventure with the same verve and energy that their menfolk did; and one of them was a rancher, freight-boss and horse trader in the years before the Civil War. She is still popularly known as Sally Skull to local historians. There were many legends attached to her life, some of them even backed up by public records. Her full given name was actually Sarah Jane Newman Robinson Scull Doyle Wadkins Horsdorff. She married – or at least co-habited – five times. Apparently, she was more a woman than any one of her husbands could handle for long.

Sarah Jane, later to be called Sally was the daughter of Rachel Rabb Newman – the only daughter of William Rabb, who brought his extended family to take up a land grant in Stephen F. Austin’s colony in 1823; an original ‘Old 300’ settler. (In Texas, this is the equivalent of having come on the Mayflower to New England, or with William the Conqueror to England.) Rabb and his sons and daughter, with their spouses and children – including the six-year old Sally – settled onto properties on the Colorado River near present-day La Grange. Texas was even then a wild and woolly place, and several stories about those years hint at how the frontier formed Sally the legend – well, that and the example of her mother, a formidable woman in her own right. One story tells that Rachael and her children were safely forted up in their cabin, with hostile Indians trying to break in through the only opening … the chimney. Rachel threw one of her feather pillows onto the hearth and set fire to it, setting a cloud of choking smoke up the chimney. Another time – or possibly the same occasion – an Indian raider was trying gain entry by lifting the loose-fitting plank door off it’s hinges. When the Indian wedged his foot into the opening underneath the door, Rachel deftly whacked off his toes with one swipe of an ax.
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05. November 2012 · Comments Off on Home Stretch · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, History, Literary Good Stuff, Old West, Politics

Alas and alack, I haven’t paid attention to this blog since Friday – all my attention and care was given over to getting the various bits and elements for the German-language version of Adelsverein-The Gathering all worked out. Including having my little brother the graphic artist having to re-do the cover, since the German translation worked out to fifteen pages more than the English version – and that without the dedication and the historical notes included. What can I say? I guess it’s the effect of all so many words being longer. For the next books, I will expect this. So, I was wrestling with formats and fonts and tweaking the spacing … and Blondie and I already went and voted on the first day of early voting in Texas anyway. As far as we are concerned, it’s over but the shouting.

Of which there is likely to be a lot, especially if the slightly-less-than Fresh Prince of Chicago goes down in a landslide of votes for Romney Ryan … which just might happen, if the enthusiasm at Romney-Ryan rallies is as unfettered as reported, and attendees at Obama Biden events are as dispirited. There will be a lot of disappointed people who are assuming that another four years is in the bag. And they will not be happy. Still, it will be interesting, in the way of that old supposed Chinese curse. Blondie and I are going to split watching election coverage between Fox, and NBC.

So, that’s how that stands: the print version of Adelsverein – Book One: The Gathering will be up on Amazon in about two weeks, and now we find out if there really are a lot of far-west adventure fans in Germany. I am assured that there are by the gentleman who staked a lot of his own time in translating for a share of the hoped-for future profits. But then perhaps we are both gamblers. And times always were interesting…

07. October 2012 · Comments Off on Back Roads in the Hill Country · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Literary Good Stuff, Local, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

Having reason to head up to Fredericksburg last Saturday, we decided to explore doing it by the back roads; honestly, I would rather – unless in a tearing hurry – travel across Texas by the secondary roads. (Unless it is in the dark, or in the rain, and when the deer are especially depressed and suicidal.) We decided to travel north on the old Bulverde road, and stop and take pictures of anything interesting – and of course, one of the first things we pulled over to stop for was a very charming vista of a turn-of-the-last century cottage painted yellow with aqua-blue trim, surrounded by oak trees, a mown field of grass, and backed with a couple of stone buildings. The nearest stone building still had a roof – the farthest didn’t. I took some pictures from the roadside, and then my daughter noticed that there was a driveway, and a sign; obviously the place was some kind of enterprise more or less open to the public. We’re the public … so we pulled in. From the circular parking lot we could see the screened porch on the back of the cottage, and a round table and four chairs under the huge ancient oak tree at the back – and in a moment the owner came out to join us. Essentially, we had a tour of the old buildings; it’s what remains of the old Pieper farmstead, which was established round and about 1850. (It’s now an event venue, and the cottage is a bed and breakfast.)
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05. October 2012 · Comments Off on New Chapter – From The Quivera Trail · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff, Old West

(This months’ installment of the current work in progress: Isobel and her maid, Jane, have arrived at the Becker ranch, near Comfort, in the Hill Country of Texas. But Jane fell ill with malaria, and could not go with Isobel and Dolph to establish a new RB ranch in the Panhandle region, which with the end of the Indian Wars, is now open to ambitious and hardworking cattlemen. What will Jane do? Sam Becker has a plan…)

The dreams tormented Jane, although in her moments of waking she could not remember what it was that terrified her so, other than an oppressive sense of being watched and pursued by her stepfather down the endless halls and staircases of Acton. She dreamed also of Lady Caroline dancing in the ballroom; her person and her gown curiously transformed into glass and shattering into a thousand animated pieces on the hard floor, while Jane herself attempted to sweep up every particle, chasing the moving pieces of Lady Caroline with a broom and dustpan, and Auntie Lydia looked down at her from an enormous height and scolded her, saying, “Oh, dear – that will never do, child. You must try harder if you want to advance in service.” At other times, she dreamed that she was buried in snow, shivering so violently that she thought her own bones would break with the force of it – and then she was hot, and so thirsty … but the water often tasted so bitter that she thought it must be poison and wanted to spit it out, but someone made her to drink it.

At the end of that interminable period of torment and fever, the nightmares dissolved, like the ice melting at the end of winter. One early morning, Jane opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling over her head, in a room that she didn’t recognize. Not the servant’s quarters at Acton Hall, or her parent’s tiny village house house … or any of the various small rooms she had slept in since her ladyship married. The last coherent memory she had was of her lady, and Mr. Becker and their party leaving San Antonio. Ah, she thought. This must be their house in the hills … but how long have I been here? Where was her ladyship? Surely, they would not have gone on without me? How would her ladyship manage without me? Suddenly apprehensive, Jane levered herself to sit up, pushing the bedcovers from her. Her head spun, and she held still until it steadied. She swung her feet to the floor, and sat for a moment on the edge of the bedstead to catch her breath. There was her own little trunk at the foot of the bed, her carpetbag sitting on top of it. Someone had thought to hang two or three of her dresses from the pegs in a little niche beside the tall window which served as a wardrobe, so that the wrinkles would not be so marked. And she was even wearing her own nightgown.
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14. August 2012 · Comments Off on Comfort and More · Categories: Domestic, History, Local, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

We were in Comfort this last Saturday … no, that doesn’t mean we were comfortable, exactly – just that we were in Comfort, Texas – a nice little town about an hour’s drive north from San Antonio, a lovely little Hill Country town situated where the Guadalupe River is crossed by the IH-10. In the larger world, Comfort is known for being the final burial place of a number of German Unionists, who either died in a vicious fire-fight on the Nueces River in August of 1862 or were murdered shortly afterwards. I was there because … well, this is the community in which a number of my books are set, and the ‘middle’ book of the Trilogy covers this tragic period. So, when another writer and enthusiastic local historian told me at the Meusebach Birthday celebration that I really ought to get in with this one … and we swapped copies of our books … well, I really must do things like this, meet people, talk to fans, and sell some books. It’s not a chore to actually be there and do that, but setting it up is sometimes a bit of a job and full marks to Blondie for taking the bull by the horns.

The plan was that a number of other local authors, some of whom had books about the Germans in the Hill Country, the Civil War in the west, or about the Nueces Fight and the subsequent execution of a number of Hill Country Unionists would have table space to sell their books at a picnic luncheon in the Comfort City park which would follow the commemoration ceremony and wreath-laying at the monument. After the the luncheon, there would be a symposium in the parish hall of the Lutheran Church … and we could set up again to vend books, through the good offices of the Comfort Historical Association … for a simple donation of 20% of total sales to them when all was done for the day. We headed up to Comfort, located the park without much problem, and set up on our portion of table, which was just large enough and under the shade of the park pavilion.
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03. August 2012 · Comments Off on True to the Union – Conclusion · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West, War · Tags: , ,

Late in the fall of 1862, under the mistaken assumption that they had been offered a thirty-day amnesty by the Governor of Texas and allowed to depart Texas unmolested rather than take the loyalty oath, a party of Unionists gathered together at Turtle Creek in Kerr County. They elected a settler from Comfort named Fritz Tegener as their leader, and Henry Schwethelm as second. Their number included Phillip Braubach, who had served as the sheriff of Gillespie County, and Captain John Sansom, a Texas Ranger before and after the war, and also the sheriff of Kendall County, two sons of Edwin Degener, a prominent free-thinker from Sisterdale, Heinrich Steves, whose large family had helped establish Comfort, and the Boerner brothers, one of whom had married a Steves daughter. Heinrich Stieler was also one of them; he was Henry Schwethelm’s brother-in-law and son of Gottlieb Stieler, an early settler whose family later established a ranch between Comfort and Fredericksburg which still exists today.

The Unionists in the group were bound by ties of kinship, by community as well as personal loyalty. There were sixty-eight of them: all German, save four Anglos (including Sansom) and one Mexican. They intended to travel on horseback westward towards the Mexican border; most meant to go from there to the United States and join the Union Army. Having a three-day head start and no heavy baggage wagons to contend with, they should have been well over the Nueces and into Mexico but for their belief in the non-existent amnesty … and so they made their way across country in a fairly leisurely manner. Duff was enraged when he heard of their departure. To his mind, they were deserters in time of war and deserving of death. He sent word to Lt. C.D. McRae in San Antonio that Tegener’s party was to be pursued at all cost; implicit in his orders was an understanding that he didn’t want to hear much about survivors. McRae led out a company of more than ninety men after the Unionists and prepared to follow Duff’s orders to the letter.

On the evening of August 9th, 1862, Tegener’s party camped in thin cedar woods, not far from the Rio Grande, between present-day Brackettville and Laguna. The built campfires and set out four sentries a good way from the camp. Sometime early the next morning, McRae’s scouts encountered Tegener’s guards, and the exchange of shots alerted the Unionists. There followed a short and confusing firefight. Some sources claim that McRae’s company had overridden the sleeping Unionists and caught them by surprise in their bedrolls. Other accounts have it that nearly half of Tegener’s party had decided to give it up as a bad job, and go back to the Hill Country to defend their families … or scattered when it seemed clear that Tegener had chosen a bad defensive position. John Sansom, certainly no coward and not unaccustomed to dirty fighting was one of the survivors; he urged Hugo Degener to come away with him, but the younger man refused. Most of those who stood and fought were killed outright. Eleven of the wounded were executed upon capture, to the horror of one of McRae’s volunteers who left an account; one survivor was taken to San Antonio and executed there. Others were hunted down and executed a week later by McRae’s troopers as they tried to cross the Rio Grande. The survivors scattered, including Sansom and Schwethelm; who both made it safely over the border. Others fled back to the Hill Country, bringing news of the fight to the families of the dead.

Captain Duff refused to allow the families of the dead to retrieve the bodies. Minna Stieler, the sixteen-year old sister of Heinrich Stieler, and her mother managed to get permission to go to where the bodies of her brother and another comrade had been left unburied, and cover them with brush and stones, the ground being too hard to dig a grave, and the bodies too far decayed to remove. The other remains lay unburied for three years. Exactly three years to the day after the Nueces Fight, Henry Schwethelm returned with a party of kinfolk and friends from Comfort, and gathered up the scattered bones. They brought them to Comfort, and buried them in a mass grave, on a low hillside on what then would have been the outskirts of town.

The stone obelisk is plain and stark, shaded by a massive oak tree: panels on three sides list the names of the 36 dead of Tegener’s party, all of whom were True to the Union.

(Crossposted at my book blog, and at www.chicagoboyz.net)

01. August 2012 · Comments Off on The Nueces Fight and ‘True to the Union’ · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West, War · Tags: , , ,

As I am going up to Comfort on the 11th, to take part in the 150th anniversary observences of the Nueces Fight, and since it has been a while since I wrote about this — herewith some background.)

Who would have thought that deep in the heart of a staunchly Confederate state, there would have been a large population of Unionists? But there was; and not only did they vote against Secession, but the governor of Texas himself was a Unionist. He was none other than Sam Houston himself, the hero of San Jacinto, who more than any other Texas man of note had politicked and maneuvered for ten long years so that Texas could join the United States. In the end, Texas seceded; instead of going it alone again, the secession party joined the Confederacy with what some observers considered to be reckless enthusiasm – especially considering the perilous position of those settlements on the far frontier. Those settlements had been protected from marauding Comanche, Apache and Kiowa by the efforts of US troops – and who would guard them now? When the Texas legislature passed a law requiring all public officials to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, Sam Houston resigned rather than take it. Being then of a good age, of long and devoted service to the people of Texas and held in deep respect even by citizens who didn’t agree with his stand, Sam Houston retired without incident to his home near Huntsville.

Other staunch Unionists in Texas were not able to refuse the demands of the Confederacy as easily as wily old General Sam. Among those who felt the wrath of the Confederacy most keenly were the German settlers of the Hill Country. Most of those settlers had come from Europe in the late 1840s; others had settled in San Antonio, Galveston and Indianola. In many cases they were the mercantile elite, as well as providing a solid leavening of skilled doctors, engineers, scientists, artists, teachers and writers in those communities. They were also Abolitionists; and in an increasingly perilous position as the split between free-soil states and those which permitted chattel slavery widened during the 1850s. Once Texas went Confederate, they were in even more danger, although they did not at first appear to realize this. Those citizens and counties which favored the Union and abolition could not easily separate, as West Virginia had from Virginia: they were stuck. The war began and ground on … and the breaking point came early in 1862 with passage of a conscription law. Every white male between the age of eighteen and thirty-five was liable for military service. This outraged those who had been opposed to slavery and secession, to the point of riots, evasion and covert resistance. Texas abolitionists and Unionists would be forced to fight in defense of an institution they despised, and for a political body they had opposed. Only a bare handful of men from Gillespie, Kendall and Kerr counties volunteered for service in the Confederate Army throughout 1861 and 1862, although good few more were perfectly willing to serve as state troops protecting the frontier, or in local volunteer companies of Rangers. Anyone who wanted a fight could take on the Indians, without the trouble of going east for military glory.

Before very long, the distinct un-enthusiasm in the Hill Country for the Confederacy and all its works and ways became a matter of deep concern to military and governing authorities. In a way, it was a clash of mind-sets: the German immigrants were innocently certain that the freedom of speech and political thought which they had always enjoyed since coming to Texas were still viable. The pro-Confederate authorities saw such thought and speech as disloyalty, clear evidence of potentially dangerous spies and saboteurs … and acted accordingly. In the spring of 1862, Gillespie and Kerr County was put under harsh martial law. All men over the age of 16 were ordered to register with the local provost marshal and take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Few did so – and many never heard of the order, until the state troopers arrived to enforce it, under the command of a peppery, short-tempered former teamster; Captain James Duff.

By summer, Captain Duff ordered the arrest of any man who had not taken the loyalty oath. His troopers waged a savage campaign; flogging men they had arrested until they told his troopers what they wanted to hear, wrecking settler’s homes, arresting whole families, and confiscating foodstuffs and livestock. Men of draft age took to hiding out in the brush near their homes, while their families smuggled food to them. Frequently parties of Duff’s men assigned to arrest certain men returned empty-handed, with the subject of the arrest warrant left dangling on a rope from a handy tree on the return journey. Four out of six men arrested near Spring Branch in the Pedernales Valley and taken to be interned with other Unionists were summarily lynched when two of them escaped while their guards were asleep. A state trooper serving in the Fredericksburg area at that time remarked, “Hanging is getting to be as common as hunting.” Suspicion followed by repression bred resentment and defiance, which bred violence… and resistance.

(To be continued …)

24. July 2012 · Comments Off on Nat Love – Cowboy Rock Star · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Literary Good Stuff, Old West · Tags: , , , ,

Nat Love, who was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854, went west to Dodge City after the Civil War and cadged work as a wrangler and cowboy. He was already a pretty good rider and bronco-buster, and in a very short time had picked up the other requisite skills – with a six-shooter and lasso, earning the nick-name ‘Deadwood Dick’ through a contest of cowboying skills at a 4th of July celebration in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He not only won the roping contest, but the the grand prize pot of $200 in the shooting contest. He was a hit with the audience, as well as with his fellow cattle drovers. He cut a striking figure in his star cowboy days; lean, slim-hipped and cocky, with a mop of long black hair to his shoulders, and a wide-brimmed sombrero with the front turned rakishly up – a Jimi Hendrix of the 19th century rodeo.

As a teenager, Nat Love worked the legendary long-trail cattle drives; when Texas cattle ranchers faced with a glut of native long-horned cattle and no other means of making money in the desperate years following the Civil War thought to trail them north to where the transcontinental railroad was slowly creeping across the upper Plains. There, in the open prairies of Kansas, there was no hazard of infecting local farmers’ cattle with tick fever, and for ten years, millions of Texas cows walked north to the stockyards of Abilene, Hays City, Wichita and Dodge City. For a few years he was employed on the Duval ranch, in the western part of the Texas Panhandle – near Palo Duro, the sheltered canyonlands that were last heartland of the wild Comanche.

His autobiography contained many stories of derring-do familiar to aficionados of classic Westerns; accounts of chasing bandits and Indians who had absconded with the best part of a herd of longhorns. On one memorable occasion, when under the influence of something stronger than lemon sarsaparilla, Nat Love tried to lasso and drag away one of the cannons that sat in the open compound at Fort Dodge; he told the astonished soldiers that he wanted to take it back to Texas to fight Indians with. He was one of those who also were enshrined in cowboy legend by riding his horse into a drinking establishment (a Mexican cantina, location unspecified) and grandly ordering drinks for himself … and his horse. He had cleared the way for himself and horse with a splatter of wild shots from his revolver – which rather excited some wholly understandable hostility from the local citizens, and so he had to depart at speed before having a chance to enjoy his drink. He even claimed to have been captured by Pima Indians while working at a ranch in Arizona. In the best tradition of adventure novels, he was thought so much of that he was adopted into the tribe and only made his escape a year later, presumably leaving several broken hearts behind him.

Even if his life as a cowboy had not been all that eventful … and many of his adventures remembered with advantages … it was still a life better suited to a young man. The work itself was physically hard, most of it in the out-of-doors, and not that well-paid. Most working cowboys only did it for a couple of years until something better came along. So after two decades, Nat Love wisely took up a second career. He became a Pullman porter on the railroad; apparently being just as well-respected by his employers and fellows as in his first career … and with more remunerative and regular paychecks. He died of respectable old age in the 1920s, after completing an autobiography which related his gloriously rowdy days as a cowboy.

I read a good few chapters of his autobiography – he comes across as a very appealing person; unusual in his charm and swagger, but not for his color; something like one in seven or eight cowboys were black, one in seven or eight Mexican. An actor like a young Will Smith could have played him, in his younger days. There will be a character very like Nat Love in the next book – I promise.

11. May 2012 · Comments Off on Such a Disagreeable Man · Categories: History, Old West · Tags: , , , ,

I’m sure I’m no ascetic; I’m as pleasant as can be;
You’ll always find me ready with a crushing repartee,
I’ve an irritating chuckle, I’ve a celebrated sneer, I’ve an entertaining snigger, I’ve a fascinating leer.
To ev’rybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two;
I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute — and I do. But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
Yet ev’rybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
And I can’t think why! –

From Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida

I suppose that one of the most enjoyable things about romping in the halls of historical research is getting to know people, some of whom are famous and others notorious, all of them interesting and they tickle my interest to the point where I would have very much liked to have met some of them personally. Sam Houston is one of them in Texas history that I’d have loved to meet, Jack Hays another, Angelina Eberly a third. I would have loved to have met Queen Elizabeth I of England – three of the four are complicated people, as nearly as I can judge from reading accounts of them. I just would have liked to have had the chance to form my own, independently-arrived at opinion, you see. About the only way that I can indulge this curiosity is to work them up as characters for various books – walk-on parts, usually. Assemble the various views, take a look at some known writing of theirs, consult the grave and sober historians and come up with something that I hope will be revealing, true to the historical facts, and at least a jolly good read … but now and again, in the pages of history, I those that I don’t like very much at all. Some of them are so immediately disagreeable, dislikeable and all-unpleasant that I marvel they lived long enough to make a mark in history at all.

Ah, well – the Muse of History records mercilessly and without particular favor … although she does seem to favor the literate and those with a basic grasp of favorable marketing. She will have her ways with her humble devotees.
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28. March 2012 · Comments Off on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Slade – Conclusion · Categories: History, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

But Jack Slade was not quite dead. Some stories have it that he looked up at Jules Beni and gasped, “I’ll live long enough to hang your ears from my watch chain!” The two stage drivers carried him into the station and laid him in a bunk. Almost before the smoke had cleared, a westbound stage pulled into Julesburg, carrying Slade’s immediate boss, the operations superintendent on his own tour of inspection. Accounts differ on what happened to Jules Beni upon being arrested by the outraged operations superintendent. Without provocation, Jules Beni had gunned down an unarmed man in front of witnesses. Anyway it was sliced on the frontier; it came out as cold-blooded murder. Although Jack Slade was still breathing, everyone seemed fairly certain he wouldn’t continue to do so for long. Beni was hung from an improvised gallows and half-strangled; either the rope broke and he managed a daring getaway, or the superintendent ordered him let down and extracted a promise that he would depart immediately and at speed, and stay the hell away from the division. The Pony Express had a real-time test, as one of the newly-hired riders was sent galloping hell for leather to the Army post at Fort Laramie two hundred miles away – the nearest place to find a doctor.

The Army surgeon was probably astonished to find Jack Slade still alive. Before antibiotics and sterile surgery, a non-fatal bullet wound was a serious matter, even when bones, the abdominal cavity or vital organs were not involved. Infection, sepsis, gangrene; all could kill in slow-motion and with a great deal more agony. The military doctor extracted some of the lead balls and fragments … and Jack Slade hung on well enough to be moved to his home station, and later to St. Louis for another round of surgery. He was back at work as on the division … even as Russell, Majors and Waddell sold out to Ben Holladay. Holliday was known as the stagecoach king; a businessman whose personal flamboyance was only equaled by his drive and shrewd, far-sighted sense, in running extensive stagecoach lines in California. With Holladay, Jack Slade would be on his third employer in as many years, all in more or less the same place, and performing the same duties.

Meanwhile, Jules Beni hid out with local Indian tribes and then settled on a new road ranch, some hundred miles east of Julesburg. Having done his best to kill Slade, and fled that part of the Platte Valley which was under Slade’s authority – he had spent the time since then unmolested, and growing bolder. He had a herd of cattle pastured on property that he owned within Slade’s division, and he came to get them, boasting that he was not afraid of Slade, that Slade had no power over him – and if Slade didn’t kill Jules, Jules would kill him. For some weeks, Jack Slade managed to avoid a direct encounter. He consulted with the officers at Fort Laramie regarding the threat which Jules Beni posed – not only to him personally, but to general peace, law and order in the area. He had their acquiescence, as about the only duly anointed civil authorities in the district, to do what everyone agreed best; kill Beni. He dispatched four of his own men on horseback to the area where Beni was said to be, promising a reward of $500 if he was captured alive. A day or so later, Jack Slade was traveling by coach between two stations, when two of the men whom he had sent flagged down his coach. They were greatly excited – they had captured Jules Beni after a brief exchange of bullets and blows at a neighboring ranch; they had tied him over a pack-saddle and brought him to Cold Spring station, just ahead. Presently, he was tied up to a post in the corral at the Cold Spring station, awaiting Slade’s arrival and judgement.

There are two versions of what happened, when Jack Slade arrived at Cold Spring Station, and inspected Jules Beni – the man who had done his best to murder him in cold blood a little over a year before. One is prosaic: Beni had been wounded in the gunfight, and died of shock and loss of blood. Slade’s men would miss out on the reward, so they tied up the corpse and insisted that he was alive – but playing possum. Slade answered, “I’ll see who’s playing possum,” and cut off one of Beni’s ears. No movement at all, and Slade continued, “That proves it, but I might just as well have the other ear.” The other version, a frontier Grand Guignol spectacle, luridly embroidered upon for years afterwards, had Jules Beni still alive, tied to the corral post and Jack Slade snarling, “You made me suffer, now I’ll try to pay you for it.” That version had Slade shooting Jules Beni at short range in non-vital places, retiring between shots for a stiff drink, and then returning for another shot. Other versions had Slade taunting the dying man by telling him to write up his will, or saying in response to Beni’s plea to see his wife one last time, “When you shot me, you gave me no chance to see my wife… so now take your medicine.” When the tormented Beni finally expired – a by-then-very-drunken Jack Slade sliced off the ears and put them in his vest-pocket. He carried at least one of the severed, dried ears for the rest of his life and his reputation as the ultimate hard man of the Central Overland was cemented into frontier legend. The following day, he surrendered to the authorities at Fort Laramie and requested investigation of the incident – they did not press charges, and he was released.

In 1862, Ben Holladay had bought out the Overland completely at a fire-sale price and renegotiated the mail contract with the government. This involved moving the stage road – with all of the stations which supported it – from the line of the North Platte, to a new route along the South Platte, through present-day Greeley, Colorado, and the mining settlements established in the Black Hills. This route bypassed Fort Laramie, shortened the total time it took to cross half a continent and removed stage-line personnel and travelers from what had become a dangerous war zone from raiding Indians. To carry this out, with minimal disruption to service represented a herculean effort on the part of Central Overland managers and superintendents. Unfortunately, the move of the route to more inhabited regions put the increased temptation of drink in the way of Jack Slade … to his misfortune. The soft-spoken and polite aspect of his demeanor was utterly vanquished when he drank. It was truly a Jekyll and Hyde personality change. When sober, Slade may have been impatient with incompetence and dishonesty in subordinates, but mild-spoken, cordial to travelers and professional to his superiors. Drunk, he became as dangerous and as uncontrollable as a coiled rattlesnake. His binges increased in frequency and in violence, even though he customarily apologized afterwards and paid the damages. In the course of a particularly violent spree late that year, however, he and some friends shot up the sulter’s store at Fort Halleck, which brought down the wrath of the Army. The Central Overland’s lawyer bargained away the charges by agreeing to dismiss Slade.

Still fit, and with a reputation as a trustworthy and reliable wagon-master, he gravitated into hauling freight to the Wyoming gold-rush town of Virginia City. In March of 1864, he was hanged in public by vigilantes there, after a particularly drunken and violent spree. There have been conflicting reasons for them having done this. Other offenders executed by the vigilantes had committed murder, been a part of an organized criminal gang. Jack Slade was no more than a violent and belligerent drunk, and perhaps more feared than others of that temperament because of his reputation – a much-exaggerated reputation that had enhanced his authority in a dangerous place at a dangerous time. But perhaps the citizens of Virginia City were tired of wrecked saloons and shot-out windows, and wanted to serve notice on the most egregious offender in that line as a means of serving notice on the others. The drunken binges were what came to minds of citizens – not the work that he had done to expedite the Pony Express and keep the stagecoaches running. What had he done for them lately? So, he was hanged by the neck until dead, barely into his thirties. His wife, who was sent for but arrived too late to see him alive, later took his body to Salt Lake City for burial as soon as the spring thaws opened up the roads out of Virginia City … ironically, Joseph Alfred Slade’s body was preserved in a tin-lined coffin filled with alcohol.

“In due time we rattled up to a stage-station, and sat down to breakfast with a half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranchmen and station employees. The most gentlemanly- appearing, quiet and affable officer we had yet found along the road in the Overland Company’s service was the person who sat at the head of the table, at my elbow. Never youth stared and shivered as I did when I heard them call him SLADE! … Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings, or all men lied about him! … He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history. It was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody- bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with.” That was what Mark Twain wrote, years afterwards in an account of a stagecoach journey to California, in 1861, upon encountering Joseph Alfred ‘Jack’ Slade, a divisional superintendent for the Central Overland, and a man who combined a horrific reputation with a perfectly soft-spoken and gentlemanly demeanor … and who in the space of four years, went from being a hard-working, responsible and respected corporate man (as these things were counted in the 19th century wild west) to being hanged by the Virginia City, Montana, Committee of Vigilance.
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03. March 2012 · Comments Off on When Buntline Was in Flower · Categories: Ain't That America?, General Nonsense, History, Old West

Ned Buntline, that is … a dime novel writer, publicist, playwright and producer … as well as publisher and popularize of popular cheap novels about the American west, published in mass quantities during the latter half of the 19th century. His name was actually Edward Zane Carroll Judson, and he had been a sailor, a brawler, an instigator of riots, an ex-convict and a prodigious drinker and public lecturer on the benefits of temperance. Presumably he knew whereof he spoke, on this subject, although the phrase ‘do as I say, not as I do’ certainly does occur to one. But this is not about E.Z.C.Judson, or his alter-ego, Ned Buntline … or even any of the Wild West personalities that he wrote about in his dime novels.

No – what he, and his scribbling ilk did in a fair part, was to popularize the far west – the frontier west as it then existed in the late 19th century – as a fountainhead of unending drama and breathtaking adventure. Granted, anyone who does this now, or in previous decades has had wonderful material to work with: eccentric characters galore, marvelous and improbable events, romance of every variety, warfare and friendship with strange and alien peoples (Indians, unreconstructed Confederates and Mormons among them). But Buntline and his less famous competitors did it first, establishing the meme almost before the dust was settled.

Of course – some of that dust was purposefully raised, in the course of telling a ripping good yarn for the price of one thin dime. They had not the luxury of being able to wait and see, to consider events steadily or see them whole. They were also not able to thoroughly fact-check the back-stories alleged by some of their most famous heroes – say, Buffalo Bill Cody, or Wild Bill Hickok, or cared very little others were out and out criminals and sociopaths. Or that others –like the small landowners and homesteaders who came out on the wrong side of something like the Johnson County War were not, and had experienced the bad fortune of being relatively voiceless in a contest where the other party had the bigger public megaphone. (And that much of their output is hideously racist by modern attitudes should go without saying.) They also were guilty of creating or flat-out exaggerating every convention imaginable regarding cowboys; who were usually plain old working men of every color, performing backbreaking and/or totally boring labor – but they did it in the open air, and from the backs of horses, which must have looked pretty good from the perspective of a factory hand or clerk back east.

Still – Buntline and his ilk set the stage for the enduring image and conventions of the Old West: timeless stories and stock characters, which were lovingly sent up in a movie like Rustler’s Rhapsody. Even so, it was vision of the Wild, Wild West which gripped our grandparents and great grandparents in print, entranced our parents at the movies … and had us glued to the television.

But you know what? The real Wild West was even more incredible than Ned Buntline ever dreamed.

10. February 2012 · Comments Off on Committee of Vigilance – 1856 – Finale · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West, World · Tags: , , ,

Three carriages entered the square, and as they halted before the jail door, the ranks of waiting men presented arms. Half a dozen men descended from the carriages – William Tell Coleman and the other leaders of the Committee. They talked for a few moments through the wicket-gate … and then they were admitted into the jail, to speak with Sheriff Scannell.
“We have come for the prisoner Casey,” Coleman told him. “We ask that he be peaceably delivered us, handcuffed at the door immediately.”
“Under existing circumstances,” replied Sheriff Scannell, “I shall make no resistance. The prison and it’s contents are yours.”
“We want only the man Casey at present,” One of the other Committee members added. “For the safety of all the rest, we hold you strictly accountable.”

Casey was taken to the Committee headquarters – later, Charles Cora was also added to the Committee’s bag. Three hundred men guarded Fort Gunnybags, another hundred the jail, while the rest were relieved for the moment. The next day, Vigilantes patrolled the streets, and warned merchants selling weapons not to sell any such … for now. James Casey and Charles Cora were allowed visitors. On Tuesday, Cora was brought before the Committee and informed that he would be tried for murder. All the forms of law would be observed, and he would be represented by a lawyer. Who was one of the Executive Committee … Cora provided a list of witnesses, who would testify in his defense, and they were all sent for; none could be found.

That evening, word arrived that James King of William had died. Sometime that evening, both Cora and Casey were convicted and sentenced.

Thursday at noon was the time set for King’s funeral to begin. The nearby Unitarian Church where it was to be held was jammed to overflowing by mid-morning, and the procession with the coffin was said to have been two miles long. Mourners stood in the streets to pay their respects … and in the street before the Vigilance Committee’s headquarters there were also men standing; men in three ranks, in the pose of attention as they had stood in the square before the county jail on Sunday morning.

Just before one o’clock, the tall windows on the second floor of the building were opened; from two of them, a pair of small wooden platforms were pushed out, and balanced on the edge of the window-sill. Above, from the flat roof of the building, a pair of heavy beams was set into place, just over the platforms; a noose of heavy rope dangled from the end of each beam. Then … silence again, although those who waited in the street below could hear the faint music of a church organ. The music seemed to be a cue of some kind. Charles Cora, his eyes covered by a white handkerchief blindfold was guided out of the window, to stand silently on the little platform. A few moments later, James Casey followed; he was not blindfolded at his request, but his nerve broke, looking down at the implacable faces below. He babbled, pleading that he was not a murderer, he had done nothing, he only responded to insult … the words fell into grim silence.

In that silence, the commotion at the door of the Unitarian Church could be heard clearly; James King’s coffin was being carried out by the pall-bearers. From the steeple above, the church bell tolled a single note. Another church bell joined, and then another and another, as those men in the street presented arms. The platforms beneath the Casey and Cora dropped … and justice as it had been declared by the Vigilantes was done.

Postscript: the Committee did not disband, immediately. They went on adding members, conducting military drill, and doing business – one item of which was the formation of a list. Those on it would either leave, or be charged and tried under the ordinary rules of law. Only two more miscreants were hanged, and thirty banished officially, although it was estimated that at least eight hundred left town voluntarily. The Committee formally dissolved in August of that year, with a grand parade and an open house of “Fort Gunnybags.”
Many years later, a curious visitor to the city asked, “What has become of your Vigilance Committee?” “Toll the bell, sir – and you will see!”

08. February 2012 · Comments Off on Committee of Vigilance – 1856 – Part Two · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West

The shooting of James King – political murder disguised as a justifiable response to a personal insult – inflamed the city of San Francisco immediately. King, shot in the chest but still clinging to life was taken to his house. Meanwhile, an enormous mob gathered at the police station, and the police realized almost at once that the accused James Casey could not be kept secure. He was removed under guard to the county jail. The indignant mob was not appeased, not even when the mayor of San Francisco attempted to address the crowd, pleading for them to disperse and assuring them that the law would run its proper course and justice would be done. The crowd jeered, “What about Richardson? Where is the law in Cora’s case?” The mayor hastily retreated, as the square – already guarded by armed marshals, soon filled with armed soldiers. The angry mob dispersed, still frustrated and furious. No doubt everyone in authority in the city breathed a sigh of relief, confident that this matter would blow over. After all, they controlled the political apparatus of the city, at least one newspaper, as well as the adjudicators and enforcers of the law … little comprehending that this shooting represented the last, the very last straw.
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Ever since I finished the Adelsverein Trilogy, I’ve wanted to have a German language version out there.

I’ve had emails from fans asking about it, and talked with native German speakers who assured me that Karl May (the German equivalent of Zane Grey) has an enormous and devoted Old West fan-base. This in spite of the fact that he shuffled off the mortal coil in 1912, and only visited the US once: on that occasion, he only went as far west as Buffalo, New York – but in book-world, his characters of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were in the thick of it.

In any event, movies, television and radio dramas and comic books based on Karl May’s version of the Wild West have continued to be madly popular in Germany ever since. I have made an arrangement with a freelance translator, Chicagoboyz fan and commenter Lukas R., who has provided a sample translation of a chapter. If you are fluent in German, take a look at it (here on my book blog) and tell me what you think. If it works out as I hope, the German-language version of Adelsverein: The Gathering would be available in about a year, as an e-book and print paperback edition.

(Crossposted at my writer’s blog and at Chicagoboyz.)

(For your enjoyment – a selected chapter from Deep in the Heart – the soon-to-be-released sequel to Daughter of Texas. Advance orders for autographed copies are being taken now, through my website catalog page, here. and for the print second edition of To Truckee’s Trail. Purchased copies will be mailed out by November 15th. My books now are being published through Watercress Press, rather than Booklocker, so I am working very hard to get them switched over, and to have mybacklist available in print editions once more. For now, it’s only the Complete Trilogy, and Daughter of Texas, so any purchases directly from me will help!)

Chapter 19 – The Last of the Lone Star

In the morning, Margaret rose at the usual hour, when the sky had just begun to pale in the east, and it was yet too early for the rooster to begin setting up a ruckus in the chicken pen. She had a house full of guests, even though most of them had not spent the night. One of the last things that Hetty had done before retiring for the night was to have Mose move the dining table back into the room where it normally resided, and return all the household chairs to their usual places. Margaret viewed the now-empty hall with a sigh, for the temporary glory that it had housed on the previous day – now, to see to breakfast for those guests who had remained. That breakfast should be every bit as good as the supper on Christmas night – for Margaret would not allow any diminution of her hospitality. She tied on her kitchen apron and walked into the kitchen, where she halted just inside the door, arrested by the expressions on the faces of the three within. Hetty bristled with unspoken irritation, even as she paused in rolling out the dough for the first batch of breakfast biscuits, Mose – who stood by the stove with an empty metal hot-water canister in each of his huge hands – had a nervous and apprehensive expression on his dark and usually uncommunicative face. Carl sat at the end of the kitchen table, interrupted in the act of wolfing down a plate of bacon, sausage and hash made from the leftovers of last night’s feast. He looked nearly as nervous as Mose, and his expression – especially as Margaret appeared in the doorway – appeared to be as guilty as a small child caught in the midst of some awful mischief, mischief for which he was certain to be punished.
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30. September 2011 · Comments Off on Evening With the Authors in Lockhart · Categories: Ain't That America?, Geekery, General, Local, Old West, Veteran's Affairs, World

Yea these many months ago, I was invited by the organizers to be one of those authors in a fund-raising event to benefit the Clark Library. This is the oldest functioning public library existing in Texas; and since Texas was not generally conducive to the contemplative life and public institutions such as libraries until after the Civil War, generally – this means it is a mere infant of a library in comparison to institutions in other places. But I was thrilled to be invited, and to find out that Stephen Harrigan is one of the other authors. There were two elements in his book, Gates of the Alamo which I enjoyed terrifically when I finally read it. (Well after finishing the Trilogy, since I didn’t want to be unduly influenced in writing about an event by another fiction-writers’ take on it.) First, he took great care in setting up the scene – putting the whole revolt of the Texians in the context of Mexican politics; the soil out of which rebellion sprouted, as it were. (And he also touched on the matter of the Goliad as well.) Secondly, he had a main character who experienced the Texian rebellion against Mexico as a teenaged boy and who then lived into the 20th century. I liked the way that it was made clear that this all happened not that long ago, that it was possible for someone to have been a soldier in Sam Houston’s army, and live to see electrical street lighting, motorcars, and moving pictures.

That just appealed to me, for as another author friend pointed out – we are only a few lifetimes ago from the memories of great events. For instance – my mother, who is now in her eighties; suppose that when she was a child of eight or ten, she talked to the oldest person she knew. Suppose that in 1938, that oldest person was ninety, possibly even a hundred. That oldest person that my mother knew would have been born around 1830 to the late 1840s; such a person would clearly remember the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, possibly even the California Gold Rush and the emigrant trail, the wars with the Plains Indians. Now, suppose that the oldest person that my mother knew and talked to as a child and supposing that person as a child of eight or ten had then talked to the oldest person they knew – also of the age of eighty to ninety in the 1840s . . . that oldest person would have been born in 1750-1760. That oldest person, if born on these shores would remember the Revolution, the British Army occupying the colonies, Lexington and Concord, General Washington crossing the Delaware. All of that history, all of those memories, in just three lifetimes – three easy jumps back into time! Nothing worked better to establish how close we are to events.

Anyway, I am looking forward to this – and since my daughter and I will drive up to Lockhart around midday Saturday, and the event doesn’t even get started until early evening, we are planning to go to the Kreuz Market and prove to ourselves that it really is one of the five best BBQ places in Texas. And she wants to check out any thrift stores and estate sales going on.

(Reposted to allow comments – that old punctuation in the post title bites again)

29. August 2011 · Comments Off on Here We Go Round and Round · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Literary Good Stuff, Old West

So here, we go, all around the mulberry bush, now that the all-in-one hardbound version of the Adelsverein Trilogy is about to be launched. I had intended this as a first step . . . no, actually this was the second step in having my books come out through Watercress Press in second editions. (The first step was Watercress publishing Daughter of Texas early this spring.) I had planned to transition Truckee’s Trail, followed by the single-volume paperback versions of the Trilogy gradually over the coming months, but as it turns out, I can’t be with two publishers at once. Never mind that the Trilogy was originally done by two of them – one micro-house edited and marketed, and another, a slightly larger establishment did print and distribution . . . but anyway, the result is that Truckee and the single volumes of the Trilogy are from today only available as Nook and Kindle editions for the next month or two. Which is not that much of a hassle, since the all-in-one print edition will be available after Thursday on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the Kindle edition of Truckee has been downloaded like hotcakes for the last couple of months. Since it was my first adventure in historical fiction, it was also top on my priority list to do a second edition. There were things that desperately needed to be fixed, and the senior editor at Watercress has been just itching to get her hands on it anyway. It’s my first priority to get the second edition of it out there in print, as soon as absolutely possible, so nobody panic at not being able to get a copy, unless from one of those venders who have gotten them second-hand and have it actually in their physical inventory.

So, that’s where that stands – and, hey, all the readers who have Kindles and Nooks? Carry on – tell your friends and pass the good word.