I’ve got a treat for fans of Western novels in general, and of my Ames Archives series in particular. It’s the first in what I hope will be a new Western series, not replacing the Ames stories but augmenting them. It will add a new, earlier, far-West dimension to my novels of the Old West.
I’ve called the series “The Annals of Ash”. The first volume, which will be launched on or about January 15th, is titled “Wood, Iron, and Blood”.
The cover image is taken from “The Jerk Line“, a painting by Charles M. Russell, a contemporary of Frederic Remington. I’ve used the latter’s paintings and drawings for the covers of my Ames Archives series, so I’ll use Russell’s work for this new series, to make them visually distinct.
The blurb reads:
Sometimes wanderlust skips a generation… but when it strikes, it strikes gold.
In 1852, fourteen-year-old Jeremy Ash rises to his grandfather’s challenge and sets out on the adventure of a lifetime – the California Trail.
It’s four deadly months and 1,600 merciless miles from the Missouri River to the goldfields of the Sierra Nevada. There’s alkali water that’ll poison you; desert heat that’ll fry your brains; mountain passes that’ll crush you; swarms of biting insects that’ll drive you mad; deadly diseases that’ll plague you; and warrior tribes that may make it lethally clear they don’t want you there.
Will the California Trail kill Jeremy, like so many others before him? Or will it make a man out of him?
I set myself a number of objectives in writing this book. The foremost was that it had to be historically accurate; and to that end, I researched it very thoroughly. Literally every single incident I describe came out of the diaries, letters and histories of the pioneers. It happened to someone, somewhere, during the period under discussion. In many cases details were lacking, but the incident itself was real. I simply adapted each incident to my locations, characters and scenario, in some cases combining two or three incidents into a single narrative, at other times extracting one incident from a longer narrative to highlight it. I’ve also included a long chapter on the Great Fire of Sacramento in late 1852; it destroyed 85% of the city, but is hardly remembered at all today. I hope all those elements have helped to make the book much more authentic.
Secondly, I patterned my characters on Old Western personalities. A couple are actual historical figures. For example, the commanding officer of Fort Laramie during the period of the book was First Lieutenant Richard B. Garnett. He later resigned his commission to join the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. He was killed leading his brigade during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Finally, the geography had to be right. I’ve been infuriated to read fictional accounts of wagon trains bound for California, laboring their way through what appear to have been tropical rain forests! There weren’t any forests on the California Trail, apart from wooded mountain passes. The other obstacles it provided in such profusion were more than enough to kill thousands. It didn’t need any more!
For today’s snippet, I’ve chosen an encounter between my protagonist and the scout for the wagon train, and three Sioux warriors who’d recently captured two white woman from a different wagon train. At the time, there were no official hostilities between the Sioux and the emigrants, particularly following the Treaty of Fort Laramie concluded the previous year. However, individual Sioux were not bound to follow the agreements reached by their chiefs; and their young men would not be recognized as warriors unless and until they had succeeded on the warpath or the raiding trail. That led to more than a few small-scale encounters like this one.
On the second day, Jeremy’s turn came to accompany Rod as he scouted ahead of the train. He put on both holsters, made sure his belt and saddle guns were clean and freshly loaded, and did the same for the long-barreled Sharps rifle. As usual, only five chambers of each revolver’s cylinder were loaded. For safety, their hammers rested on the sixth, empty chamber. He put his spyglass in its leather case into a saddlebag, along with extra paper cartridges to supplement those he carried in his waist pouch, some jerky, nuts and dried fruit plus a couple of slices of pemmican for trail rations, and a quart canteen. Another, larger canteen balanced the big Dragoon Colt on the other side of his saddlehorn, and he strapped his oilskin jacket and a single blanket behind the saddle in case of need.
They rode out shortly after dawn, as the wagons behind them were finishing harnessing their teams and getting ready to start the day’s journey. Rod glanced up at the sky, then all around them at the seemingly deserted landscape. “Looks like it’s gonna be a real hot day.”
“Yes,” Jeremy agreed. “I’m guessin’ it’s real cold out here in winter, though. Everything’s so flat, there’s nothing to stop the wind. It must cut to the bone.”
“Ain’t never been here in winter, but folks who have, ’specially the Army garrisons, say it’s real bad sometimes.”
They rode on in companionable silence for a few hours, getting a couple of miles ahead of the wagons, making sure that there were no obstacles blocking the trail or anything that should be investigated. “Keep an eye out for smoke,” Rod advised. “On a hot, dry day like this, grass fires can be a real problem, and if the wind picks up they move real fast. Iffen the flames get in among a wagon train, they can destroy it an’ kill or hurt people an’ teams who can’t get clear. Ain’t never seen it my own self, but I’ve heard a few stories.”
“I’d just as soon not see it at all,” Jeremy confessed.
Shortly after eleven that morning, Rod stiffened slightly as something caught his eye. “There’s a slight haze on the horizon there,” he said, rising to stand in his stirrups, shading his eyes with his hand, peering ahead of them. “Might be a small fire.” Jeremy took out his spyglass and offered it to him. “Thanks,” he acknowledged as he extended it, and peered through the lens. “Hard to say. The smoke ain’t gettin’ any darker, so iffen it was a fire, it looks like it’s burned out or been put out.”
Jeremy looked through the spyglass in his turn. “I don’t – hey, wait a minute! Just about in line between the smoke and us, quite close, I thought I saw something red flicker for a moment. It looked like it was moving above those bushes.” He pointed towards the river, returning the spyglass to its case and the case to his saddlebag. He didn’t need magnification at that short distance.
Rod peered. “I don’t – yeah, there it is. Looks like… I dunno… oh, hello there!” A Sioux warrior moved out from behind the bushes, only a quarter of a mile from them. He was carrying a lance upright in his hand, its head decorated with two bird feathers dyed red, and had a round shield slung over his back. “You musta seen those feathers in a gap between the bushes. Your eyes are sharp.”
The warrior saw them and stopped his horse, staring straight at them. Behind him, two more horses came into view, each with a man sitting astride them. Behind the horses walked two female figures in ragged, tattered long dresses, not usually worn by Indians. Judging from their height, one was adult, one much smaller, a child or adolescent. Both had cloths covering their heads and faces to protect against the bright sun. They walked hunched over, as if fearing a blow.
“What the hell?” Rod said in surprise. “The Sioux don’t take women on huntin’ parties, and them clothes ain’t what they normally wear. Let’s get closer.” They started forward at a steady walk, drawing nearer to the Indians. After a moment, the leading warrior kneed his horse into motion, crossing their path but ignoring them, looking straight ahead.
The adult woman looked up and saw them. She froze for a moment, then reached up to her head covering and pulled at it. Several locks of her hair escaped, fluttering in the breeze. Jeremy caught his breath as he realized it was blonde. It could not possibly belong to any Indian. He exclaimed, “Hey, look at that!” His hand came up to point. “She’s a white woman!”
The lead warrior noticed the movement. He twisted in his saddle and saw what the woman had done. Bellowing in sudden fury at his prisoners being exposed, he wrenched his horse around, lowered his lance, and charged at the approaching riders. Behind him his two companions grabbed for their weapons as they turned their horses to follow him. One carried a bow and arrows, the other a muzzle-loading long gun. All three had tomahawks and knives at their waists.
“Spread out!” Rod shouted as he reached for his saddle revolver.
Jeremy turned his horse slightly to the left as his heart lurched in his chest, suddenly pounding like a sledgehammer. He made a snap decision. It would take too long to remove the long, unwieldy Sharps rifle from its buckskin cover. He allowed it to fall from his arm to the ground as he dug in his heels, spurring his horse towards the charging Indians. His now-free left hand took the reins as his right drew the heavy Dragoon Colt from his saddle holster.
As he did so, he saw the Indian with the long gun aim at them. It boomed, and a cloud of powder smoke obscured its muzzle. The warrior could not have aimed accurately from the back of a running horse, but by sheer chance his bullet slammed into the head of Rod’s mount, killing it instantly. He heard Rod yell as he was pitchforked out of the saddle of the collapsing animal. His right shoulder plowed hard into the ground, and his shout changed to a scream of agony.
There was no time to be scared. Jeremy focused on the brave with the lance, now perilously close. He eared back the hammer of the big Colt and let fly. He had no idea where his first round went, so he cocked the hammer again. This time his round hit the onrushing man in his left shoulder. The Indian rocked back with a cry of pain. He tried to keep his horse straight, but he couldn’t help an involuntary tug at the reins as he was hit, turning it, dragging his lance off-target. Jeremy swept past him as the other two Sioux closed in.
The brave with the bow had nocked an arrow at full gallop. He drew and released it as he rushed closer. Jeremy ducked, and felt a tug on his right sleeve and a sudden burning pain on the outside of his bicep as the arrow flew past. He tried to ignore it as he fired his third and fourth rounds, missing with both of them. He furiously told himself, Slow down! Concentrate! as he lined his sights more carefully. His fifth shot smashed into the warrior’s chest as he nocked a second arrow. He cried out as he jerked, rolled backwards off his horse and crashed to the ground.
The Indian with the now-empty rifle had laid it across his legs and his horse’s back and dragged a tomahawk from his belt. Screaming a war cry, he hurled his horse towards him. Jeremy realized with a shock, The gun’s empty! as the Dragoon’s hammer fell a sixth time, producing only a dull click. He had no time to draw another pistol – the enemy warrior was too close – so he instinctively drew back his arm and hurled the gun at him. The big revolver spun through the air and struck the Indian full in the face, its long protruding hammer spur gouging into his left eye. The Sioux shouted in pain, his left hand going to his face as he lashed out blindly with the tomahawk. Jeremy leaned far over to his left as it came around, and felt and heard the wind of its passing as the very tip of its blade nicked the point of his right shoulder, just above where the arrow had sliced his skin. He swore aloud as he felt the burn, but then he was past and clear.
He dragged at the reins, hauling his horse around in a rump-scraping turn. He reached for his crossdraw holster, flipped the rawhide thong off the hammer spur of the Navy Colt and drew it, then spurred his horse back towards the fight.
The lance-carrier had by now turned his horse and was kicking it into a gallop once more, coming back at him. The warrior he’d hit in the face with the thrown revolver was turning his mount as well, although slowed by his injury. He’d dropped his rifle, and was holding his left hand to his injured eye. He was nearer than the lance-armed warrior, so Jeremy dealt with him first. He lined the Colt and triggered two rapid shots. The first hit the Sioux in the shoulder, the second – fired from barely ten feet away as Jeremy charged closer – went through his left hand, still clutching his injured eye, and into his brain. The brave’s whole body spasmed as if struck by a bolt of lightning, then went limp. He tumbled bonelessly from the blanket covering his horse’s back.
Jeremy charged past the falling man’s horse, so close his leg brushed against it, and looked ahead. The lance-bearing warrior was having trouble controlling his steed, because his left arm hung useless at his side. He was trying to hold reins and war lance at the same time in his right hand, but it wasn’t working very well. He was using his knees to try to direct his mount’s movements. Beyond him Jeremy could see Rod moving weakly as he lay on the ground, trying to reach across his body with his left hand to draw a revolver. He was clearly unable to use his right arm.
Jeremy made another snap decision. Don’t get closer. He may be hurt, but he can still get lucky. He dragged his horse to a standstill and leveled his arm, aiming carefully. He fired all three remaining rounds in the Colt, each one slamming into the oncoming warrior’s chest in a six-inch cluster. The Sioux swayed, gritting his teeth, trying desperately to stay in the saddle as blood appeared on his body and began to trickle down. He must have known he was dying, but he still tried with might and main to close with his enemy. Jeremy had to swing his horse out of the way as the warrior rushed past, sagging, swaying, head lolling, his breath rasping audibly in his throat.
He holstered the Navy Colt and drew a second from his strongside holster as he spun his horse around and spurred it after the man. The Sioux saw the women a little way ahead of him. He lowered the lance to aim it at the older one, but Jeremy was too close. He caught up with the reeling brave and coldly, precisely, put a bullet through his head from behind and to one side, at a range of no more than three or four feet from the muzzle. The Indian toppled sideways to the ground. His horse staggered as the body became tangled in its rear legs, then kicked itself free and ran onward into the bushes.
Jeremy reined in his horse next to the women. “Are you all right?” he snapped.
The blonde woman said shakily, “Yes. Thank you so much! We were –”
“In a moment. I’ve got to check those other two, and make sure my pard’s all right. Follow me, fast as you can!”
Jeremy spun his horse again and rode back to where Rod was lying. As he passed them, he checked the bodies of the other two braves. Both were lying still, not breathing. He holstered his gun as he came up to Rod, and swung down from the saddle. “Are you all right?” he demanded as his boot struck the ground. “Were you hit?”
“Not hit – busted my shoulder when the hoss tossed me,” the scout said, hissing in pain through his teeth. “I’ll tell a man, though, you’re a fightin’ son-of-a-gun! You took on all three at once and beat them fair and square, all on your ownsome. Ain’t many men who can say that, not against Sioux warriors. You were hit, though.” He was looking at the blood trickling down Jeremy’s right arm from the arrow wound and axe cut, staining the sleeve of his shirt.
“Twice, but not badly. Never mind that now. Let me help you up.”
He aided Rod to sit up, then rise slowly, carefully and painfully to his feet. The scout swore profanely, bringing a startled gasp from the two women as they hurried up. Rod glanced at them and said through gritted teeth, “Sorry, ma’am. Times are a man can’t help but let it out.”
“Th-that’s all right,” the adult woman said shakily.
“Who are you?” Jeremy asked as he led Rod towards a bush. “Here, sit in the shade. I’ll get you some water.”
“I’m Eliza Warren. This is my daughter Mary.” The woman took a canteen from Rod’s dead horse and followed them, uncapping it, drinking some, then giving it to her daughter. “Our wagon train was ambushed two days ago. Th-they killed my husband and stepson,” and tears began to flow from her eyes. “Those three took us captive. They… they…”
“No need to say more, ma’am,” Rod assured her. “Are you bad hurt?”
“N-nothing I won’t get over. They didn’t harm my daughter.” Both men understood clearly what she was implying.
Jeremy lowered Rod carefully into a sitting position, and Eliza handed him the canteen. As the scout drank, Jeremy sank to a squatting position and looked at them. “My name’s Jeremy Ash. This is Rod Willis. He’s the scout for our wagon train, a couple of miles back that way, and I’m his assistant for the day.” He looked at the young girl. “Hi, Mary. How old are you?”
Two startlingly green eyes peered back at him. “H-hello. I’m ten.”
“Nice to meet you, Mary. I’m rising fifteen, not much older than you. Don’t worry, nobody’s going to hurt you while Rod and I are here to look after you. The wagon train will be along soon.”
“Better reload your guns,” Rod reminded him, “in case any more Sioux heard that fuss and come lookin’ to see what caused it.”
“Yeah. I’ll try to catch their horses, so the women can ride if we have to run for it.”
The Indians’ horses were skittish and wouldn’t let him get near them, so he abandoned the effort. He picked up his fallen guns and checked them carefully. His Sharps rifle had been protected by its buckskin sleeve. However, the Dragoon Colt’s hammer spur had broken off when it hit a rock in its fall, rendering it inoperable until it could be repaired. The jagged stump showed that there might have been a fault in the metal that had snapped under the stress. Rod shook his head. “You’ll have to get that fixed at Fort Bridger or Fort Hall. Use my Dragoon for now. I won’t be needing it until my shoulder heals.”
Jeremy transferred Rod’s Dragoon – fortunately unharmed in the scout’s fall – to his saddle holster and dropped his damaged gun into a saddlebag, then reloaded the empty chambers of his belt guns. He found his hands were trembling in the aftermath of the fight. Rod grinned painfully. “Don’t worry, son. Everybody gets the shakes the first couple o’ times. You did your grandfather’s training real credit today. Tackling three Sioux warriors, alone, and you only fourteen… even though you had a gun, that was still a hell of a thing. I reckon you saved my life as well as rescuin’ these ladies. That lance-carrier would have finished me off for sure if you hadn’t kept him busy.”
Jeremy finished reloading, and slid the pistols into his holsters. “Should I ride back to the wagon train to fetch help?”
“No, don’t do that. That’d leave me alone to defend these ladies if any more Sioux arrive, and I ain’t in any shape to do that. Let’s wait until we can see the wagons, then get their attention. They can’t be far behind us now. Why don’t you gather up those Injuns’ weapons?”
Jeremy did so. The lance, bow and arrows were of Indian manufacture, while the tomahawks and belt knives were factory-made trade goods. “The lance will make a dandy memento of this fight,” he said as he examined the red-dyed feathers tied below its seven-inch razor-sharp blade. The circular shield from the lance-wielder’s back, almost two feet across, was made from the thickest part of the neck hide over a buffalo’s hump, smoked, steamed, shaped and formed on a wood frame, then covered with an outer layer of deerskin with the hair shaved off. The stylized black silhouette of an eagle with outstretched wings was painted on it. Three dangling groups of eagle feathers hung at each wingtip and over the claws of the figure.
Rod looked carefully at the lance and shield. “Each feather on the shield is prob’ly for an enemy he’s killed. I’m guessin’ this man was a member of what the Sioux call their warrior societies. Did he have any animal skins or feathers or markings on his body?”
“Yes, he had what looked like a fox skin around his neck,” Jeremy recalled. “It had a small buckskin bag attached to the head, hanging down on his chest. He had black crow feathers crossways in his hair, with two eagle feathers sticking up. There were faded lines of yellow paint on his chest.”
“Then he was Kit Fox Society, prob’ly a senior member, since he’s a lance carrier an’ wore yellow. The other two were most likely junior members learning from him.”
Rod examined the muzzle-loading long gun closely as Jeremy held it so he could read the markings on its barrel and breech. “Well, I’ll be damned!” he exclaimed. “That’s an old Harpers Ferry military rifle. It’s gotta be close to fifty years old. I’d sure love to know how it got out here beyond the frontier. It might’ve been taken off a dead Army soldier or emigrant by an Indian brave. Rifles weren’t issued as trade or treaty guns, as far as I know; only smoothbore muskets. It’s still got its original flintlock – it ain’t been updated to percussion. That’s another nice memento for you.”
Jeremy ran his hand over the pattern of brass tacks hammered into the rifle’s stock, then laid it on the ground next to the other captured weapons as Rod pointed to a cloud of dust moving steadily nearer. “There’s the wagons. Get up on your hoss so they can see you, fire three shots in the air, and give them a wave-round.”
Jeremy mounted, stood upright in his stirrups, and drew his strongside Colt. Aiming into the air he fired three shots, spacing them a few seconds apart. He could see the wagon drivers hauling on the reins, startled, as they halted their vehicles, and those walking beside them pointing at him. He holstered the gun, took off his hat and waved it above his head in a slow circle, three times, left to right. A horseman riding next to Harry’s wagon, nine back from the front of the train, spurred his mount and raced towards him. A few other riders did the same from further back along the line of wagons, which remained halted.
The first horseman proved to be Mike. He skidded his horse to a standstill in a cloud of dust, jumping from the saddle. “What the hell happened?” he snapped as he hurried towards Rod.
“Sioux happened, that’s what,” Rod told him, pointing at the three dead bodies with his left hand. “Don’t touch my right arm. My shoulder got busted when one of ’em dropped my hoss and I went over its head. These two ladies were their prisoners.” He introduced them.
“Very glad to meet you, ladies,” Mike told them, straightening and doffing his hat. “When and where were you captured?”
“Back there,” the woman told him, gesturing towards the horizon. “Our wagon train was ambushed two days ago. The last few wagons got separated from the main body, and suddenly they swarmed us from out of the bushes along the river. The others didn’t come back to help. My husband and stepson… they…” She couldn’t say more through sudden tears.
Jeremy suddenly realized where she was pointing. “Rod and I saw some faint smoke out thataway,” he told Mike, “but we couldn’t figure out what it was. Could be it was those wagons, still smoldering.”
“Yeah. Ma’am, you and your daughter are safe now. I’ll have the wagons circle right here. We’re going to have to send Rod back to Fort Laramie to have the Army doctor see to his shoulder. I’ll send you back with him.”
“No – please, no!” she pleaded. “Can’t I go on with you?”
“I…” Mike must have realized there was more to her request than she was saying. “We’ll talk once the wagons are circled, ma’am. Meanwhile, let me go back and get them headed this way.” He turned back to his horse. “Rod, you’re on full pay while you heal up, that goes without sayin’. I’ll have Dick take over as scout.”
“Iffen I were you, I’d hire young Jeremy here too,” Rod said. “He knows enough to help Dick, and he’s got fightin’ spirit to spare. He got all three of those Injuns on his lonesome. I didn’t fire a shot.”
Mike’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as he looked at Jeremy. “All of them? Well, I’ll be damned! There’s precious few men can say they stood off three Sioux at close range like that. If Rod reckons you’re good enough, that’s all I need to know. How’d you like to sign on as assistant scout for the rest of the trip? I’ll pay you fifty a month, plus ten towards your keep.”
“If grandpa agrees, sure,” Jeremy managed to get out, “but I don’t know whether he might need some help with our wagons now and then.”
“We’ll talk to him. Keep an eye out for more Sioux while I start circling the wagons.”
I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did writing it. Look for it to go on sale on or about January 15th. I’ll provide a link as soon as its Amazon page is up.