This week’s guest author is Mary Ellen Dennis and I have to say she has some of the most lovely covers I’ve seen. *s*
Here then is Mary Ellen…
My name is Mary Ellen Dennis and I’m addicted to writing books. Reading them, too. Writing and reading and true love and chocolate—life doesn’t get much better than that. Well, maybe I should add watching The Princess Bride while munching crème donuts.
When I was in grade school one of our assignments was to read a poem in front of the class. Someone read “Trees” (“I think that I will never SEE a poem as lovely as a TREE”) and someone recited “Jack and Jill”—or was it “Humpty Dumpty”? I read Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” (I love horses).
Why yes, I was an overachiever, why do you ask?
My excerpt is from Heaven’s Thunder: A Colorado Saga, which came out this month. Heaven’s Thunder, circa 1893 to 1923, encompasses the Cripple Creek gold rush, the Ludlow Massacre (coal strike against John D. Rockefeller), and the rise of Denver’s KKK, with an emphasis on Colorado’s silent film industry. My excerpt is from the Ludlow portion of the book.
Mike sat on the steps. “The miners come from everywhere in the world, Miss Lytton, lured here by the promise of instant prosperity.”
“Please call me Kate. I do believe I feel a bit chilled. You may stand up and put your arms around me.”
He stood, shrugged off his jacket and draped it across her shoulders.
Kate smelled tobacco in the threads. “Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
“You heard me. If you’ve tried to frighten me away with your words, it didn’t work. It’s difficult to believe all you’ve said, but I’ll make sure my father visits a company house and takes me along. And I’ll kiss you if you don’t kiss me first.”
“Are you crazy?”
“My grandfather says if you want something badly enough, you must reach out and grab it.”
“For fair trade. I want to kiss you. Don’t you want to kiss me?”
“Because of my dress?”
“Because of your name. You’ll say I’m unfair and you’re not responsible for your name.”
“Are you married, Mike?”
“I don’t have time for courting.”
“You don’t have to court me. I knew how I felt the moment you entered Rosalind’s parlor.”
“Tomorrow I leave forLudlow. The miners plan to strike. They’ll abandon their company houses and camp on the grounds, close to the mines.”
“That’s tomorrow. It’s still tonight.”
“Whatever you’re feeling now, you’ll feel for someone else next week.”
“No, I won’t.” Warmed by her confession, she placed his jacket across the railing, walked down the steps, and nudged a flower with the toe of her slipper.
He followed. “I can’t figure you out, Miss Lytton. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
“I’ve never met me before, either. Very well, I shall be a proper lady and visit you in Ludlow.” She paused at the sound of his laughter. “What’s so damn funny?”
“It’s so damn tempting. I’d have a photographer handy. Kate Lytton in the midst of a union camp. Your father would shit bullets. Sorry, didn’t mean to cuss. You’re very sweet, but you can’t possibly understand what’s involved in a strike. Do you think it’s noble? Romantic? There will be a city of tents and at least a thousand people. Cold weather and mud. Lice. At best, the sanitary conditions will be inadequate, the food limited. The possibility of death—”
“You’ll be there. I want to be with you. I love you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Yes, I do. You said you had no time for courting. I accept that. But I won’t wait three months or six to tell you how I feel. Won’t you please kiss me before I throw myself into your arms and embarrass the both of us?”
“Because we feel a physical attraction for each other, that doesn’t mean it’s love.”
He shook his head. “I’ve never been in love. I’ve never even talked about it. Frankly, I can’t believe we’re having this discussion. I’m leaving. Good-bye.”
“No!” She stumbled forward, reached out and captured his upper arm.
Angry, Mike turned, the sudden motion causing her to release his arm. But his scathing words died unborn when he saw her flushed face and wounded eyes. Powerless, he kissed her.
He had meant to embrace her quickly and bolt through the night, but her lips parted and her body yielded. She smelled clean. How long had it been since he’d held a woman? He couldn’t remember.
Kate ended the kiss and stared into Mike’s smoky eyes. Miffed by his indifference, she had simply wanted revenge—at first. But her impulsive love declaration had been the truth.
Father would go through the roof, she thought. Mother would faint. I don’t care. Mike leaves for Ludlow tomorrow. I have no time for flirting or secret assignations. I have no time to play the proper lady.
God, her breasts, thought Mike. Beneath the blue gown’s material, they were full and up-tilted. He didn’t have time for this nonsense. He was a union man. He had come to the party tonight for the purpose of securing donations, and she had caused him to forget his mission. The union. He needed to concentrate on the union.
With a groan, he ran his fingers across her bodice, felt her nipples harden, heard her indrawn breath.
“Gazebo,” she gasped. “Back of the house, hidden by trees. No, please, don’t touch me there again. I’ve never . . . I just want to talk.”
He scooped her up into his arms and carried her around the side of the house, toward the trees. Seated on the gazebo floor, she snuggled against his chest. He talked, kissed her, talked some more. He told her about his childhood inGreece, his family, his years inAmerica.
She listened, waiting for his next kiss.
“Promise you won’t come toLudlow,” he said.
“I promise, Mike, but you must promise to visit me in Denver.”
Kate reached Ludlow on the twenty-third of September, 1913, in time to watch strikers and their families arrive at the tent colony. They hunched over their household goods, trying to avoid the wind-driven rain. Rented horses dragged wagons through the mud. When they came to a hill, men, women and children all got out and pushed, straining against the wheels.
Next to Kate stood Don McGregor, a reporter for the Denver Express.
“Prosperity,” he said. “Hah! Straw bedding. A small pile of kitchen utensils. Those pots and pans are so decrepit, they’d earn the scorn of any secondhand dealer onLarimer Street. No books. Not one single article worth protecting from the rain.” He studied her face. “You look familiar. Do I know you?”
I’ve been on the society pages of your newspaper a dozen times. “We’ve never met, Mr. McGregor, but I’ve read your articles. My name’s Katherine Lyt . . . ship.”
Dear God, she’d almost blurted out Katherine Lytton. She could see her father’s face if he read about his daughter in a Don McGregor piece.
Why had she traveled to Ludlow? Admittedly, she missed Mike Loutra, although he couldn’t possibly be as wonderful as she remembered. Nobody could. Furthermore, Mike had told her not to come.
She was supposed to be on her way to New York, visiting her Aunt Elizabeth. Her aunt had tickets for The Sunshine Girl, a new Broadway musical starring the celebrated dance couple,Vernon and Irene Castle. Kate was an avid baseball fan, andElizabeth had suggested that, during the first week of October, Kate might attend a World Series game.
“Welcome to Ludlow, Miss Lightship.” McGregor arched an eyebrow. “And what, may I ask, are you doing here?”
He was staring at her mud-spattered harem skirt and her blue velvet coat, trimmed with ermine. Her valise was of the softest leather, and her hat was the same blue straw she had worn to Rosalind’s party, although the feathers were quite ruined by the rain.
She should return to theLudlowstation, take the first train back toDenver, continue on toNew York City. But first she wanted to see Mike again, visit him in this horrible place, so she could erase his image from her mind and get on with her life.
“What I’m doing here is none of your business.” Leaving McGregor, Kate wended her way to the large central tent, where she found Mike doling out hot coffee to the miners as they straggled inside.
He looked tired. Yet above the dark smudges of fatigue, his gray eyes were soft with compassion. Though he stood inside the tent, his hair had captured the sun’s rays. What sun?
“If there’s enough coffee, I’d appreciate a cup,” she said, dropping her valise and taking off her wet hat.
He stood motionless, coffee pot suspended.
“I realize you can’t kiss me hello, Mike, but—”
“You promised you’d stay inDenver, Kate.”
“I guess you can’t trust the word of a Lytton,” she teased. Then, more seriously, “I tried to tell everybody what you said about the mining towns and strikers, but they wouldn’t believe me. They didn’t want to believe. They’d read the coal company magazines, heard the optimistic words in the mine owners’ speeches and—”
“Go home, Kate. I mean it.”
“I wanted to come sooner but I caught my sister’s cough. Isn’t there something I can do?”
“Have you ever bandaged a wound? Have you ever cooked a meal?”
“I can learn.” I’ll leave tomorrow, she thought, but first I’ll prove that I can help. “Where’s Mother Jones?”
Mike extended his coffee pot toward the spry eighty-three-year-old woman, who wore rimless glasses, a long black skirt and a white shirtwaist. Her head bobbed up and down as she led a group in song: “The union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah.”
Mother Jones was surrounded by painted placards. One read: DO YOU HEAR THE CHILDREN GROANING, O COLORADO!
Another proclaimed: WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF YOUR GATLING GUNS, WE HAVE TO DIE ANYWAY!
A third: WE REPRESENT CF&I’S PROSPERITY SLAVES!
As Kate walked toward Mother Jones, she spied a woman with a baby at her breast. Placing her own warm coat around the nursing mother’s shoulders, exchanging it for a thin shawl, Kate murmured, “Fair trade, Grandfather.”
Hours later, after the rain had stopped and candles dotted the night-darkened colony like hundreds of grounded stars, Kate washed her hands and face with a sliver of soap. Then she searched for Mike.
She found him stretched out in back of a truck with four bald tires, and she snuggled her body against his. I’ll leave the day after tomorrow, she thought. There’s still so much to do. I’ll leave the day after tomorrow, or maybe the day after that.
“Maggie Brown,” Mike said. “The newspapers call her the unsinkable Molly Brown. She’s inEurope, but she sent word that she plans to help.” He yawned. “She’ll donate food.”
“If Molly Brown’s willing to help, so am I.”
Mike felt Kate’s smile against his neck. His sweet Americanidhes was actually here in his arms, even though she must leave first thing tomorrow morning. Christ Pantokrator! She’d never survive the rigors of a tent city.
Would the miners accept her? Kate Lytton, who spent more on clothes in one month than a coal miner earned in a year? Kate Lytton, who had never known a hungry day in her life? He’d seen her exchange her blue coat for the nursing mother’s red shawl, but she had lots of coats in her closet. Or she could buy a new coat. Oil and water didn’t mix. An immigrant Greek and Ned Lytton’s society daughter could never blend.
Mike knew that his culture measured history by the devastating rotation of epic victory or epic defeat. He also knew that, atLudlow, the call to arms was a silenced mine whistle, the battle uniform a patched pair of overalls, the camp standard a bucket of coal. In his war against industrialAmerica, Mike would have to first do battle with his own conception of the past.
Could Kate Lytton do the same?
Kate fell in love with the children.
She had been ten when her brother, Edward Steven, was born. But the long-desired heir was frail and puny while Kate was brash and sturdy, her father’s favorite. Edward Steven had no more importance in Kate’s former world than one of her mother’s pampered poodles.
The strikers’ babies didn’t have canopied cribs. They didn’t have infant tubs—or even pails—for bathing. They didn’t have toys. On Kate’s third day inLudlow, she spied a tiny girl seated in the mud. Gathering pebbles, the child threw them one by one into a dented saucepan, clapping her hands after each satisfying ping.
The little girl sang, “The you-yen fo-ev-vah, hoo-way, boys, hoo-way.”
By the first week of October, children played hide-and-seek among the neat rows of tents with their painted numbers. When the sun came out, clotheslines sagged. Flags sprouted—Greek, Italian, American, and the two-colored banner with the stitched nameLUDLOW.
And Kate remained at the colony, still vowing she’d leave “tomorrow.”
The camp was laid out on the prairie beneath twin canyons, which led up cedar-covered mesas to the mines. Behind the camp was a deep arroyo, a steel bridge, a pump station, and a covered well with rickety steps leading down in stages to foul-smelling water. South of the tents was a rise called Water Tank Hill and the curving tracks of theColoradoand Southern. Then came the railroad junction ofLudlow, with its yards and switches and coal cars.
The scabs began to arrive. With others, Kate queued up at the depot to jeer them as they got off the train.
On October seventh, John Lawson and Mother Jones were addressing the camp from the back of the union automobile. One CF&I clerk and two gunmen showed up on the road west of the tents. There were shots exchanged.
Naked, Kate thought later. She had never really understood before what the word naked meant. The strikers were on an open plain, caught between railroad tracks and the mine guards who camped within the hills. Every night searchlights danced over the grounds and shined through tent roofs. Exhausted, Kate managed to sleep, but she often dreamed about bullets puncturing the canvas, and sometimes she pictured herself and the children buried alive inside a deep dark hole.
Guards rode by on their horses, and strikers heard about the drunken boasts at Baca’s saloon. Kate’s hands blistered as she dug cellars under tent floors or shoveled rifle pits along the dry ravine. She ignored the oozing pustules and took scant notice of her pain because Mike was there. If he wasn’t always by her side, his spirit, his dedication, his belief in the cause had become her own.
“My darling Americanidhes,” he said one night while she scrubbed her dirty face. “Do you know how much I love you? InGreece the practice of love is smothered by impossible standards of modesty.”
“Are you saying I’m immodest?” Kate ran the pitiful sliver of soap over her thin arms and beneath her breasts.
Mike grinned. “I wish I were a little bar of soap, my girl,” he sang, “tied to your bath with a string. I’d slide from you slowly, and you’d catch me again, and you’d put me wherever you like.”
Turning away from the basin of water, Kate flung herself at Mike’s chest and tickled his ribs.
“I’d wash your sweet little body, my girl,” he continued between gasps of laughter, “and foam from all my passion.”
November. The Colorado National Guard arrived. They were commanded by aDenverophthalmologist named John Chase, who had earned his spurs during theCripple Creekstrike. There was Major Pat Hamrock, coach of the state rifle team and owner of aDenversaloon, who had been part of the shameful campaign that crushed Sitting Bull. And there was Karl Linderfelt.
Linderfelt had fought in thePhilippines, perfecting his soldiering techniques during a war in which the destruction of food stores and the burning of insurgent barrios had become unofficial policy. Now, in militia uniform, he faced those insolent foreigners who occupied theLudlowtents: Wops and anarchists! He had learned, he liked to say, that you cannot go at it with kid gloves.
The occupation began as a sort of holiday. Across from the depot and a little south of theLudlowcamp, brown conical tents were planted. Soldiers dug latrines, carried water, and piled up coal.
The militia was to be an impartial force, summoned to disarm guards as well as strikers, and keep watch against the importation of scabs. TheLudlowcommunity greeted them with loud cheers.
Outside the camp, strikers relinquished the colony’s weapons. Kate counted twenty-five, maybe thirty old guns, heaped on the ground.
“Where are the rest?” John Lawson demanded.
A little boy gravely dropped a popgun on the pile.
“Damn my countrymen,” Mike grumbled.
It was dark and cold. He and Kate huddled beneath blankets inside the tent they shared.
Their tent was large enough to hold a bed, dresser and mirror, a crude cookstove, a small icebox, two stools and a warped wooden table. A telephone had been installed, its wires leading to a nearby telephone pole, since Mike was in constant communication with John Lawson.
“What’s wrong, darling?”
“The Greeks are married to their guns. Although they were supposed to turn them in to Lawson, they wouldn’t give them up. They don’t trust me, but because I’m a Cretan palikari, they allow me access to their section of the camp. I swear they’re forming a Balkan army. My countrymen have confused this miserable tent city with the Great Idea of Byzantine reclaimed. And your reporter friend, Don McGregor, isn’t helping matters.”
“He’s not a friend. What’s McGregor doing now?”
“Pumping up the military myth of the camp with his prose. He’s creating a powder keg, Katie, a goddamn powder keg.”
Three months later there was still no sign of a settlement. Winter hit hard. The ground turned slushy or slicked over with ice. Water froze in barrels. Men hunted rabbits, but the game was being pushed back deeper into the hills. Strike benefits never stretched far enough to fill thirteen hundred empty bellies, and those same bellies often growled with hunger.
Kate dreamed about steaming bowls of oatmeal, a dish she had despised as a child. Every morning, upon awakening, she found herself licking her lips and weeping softly.
Mike no longer insisted she return toDenver. He needed her. She was his strength. She had become a symbol of courage to the camp. They knew her background and it gave them hope. If Kate Lytton believed in their cause, wouldn’t others from her world commit?
Standing on the platform next to Mother Jones, Kate proudly wore the thin shawl she had traded her coat for on the day of her arrival. She stood straight and tall while Mother Jones’ high-pitched Irish voice rang through the meeting hall. “You will be free. Poverty and misery will be unknown. We will turn the jails into playgrounds for the children. We will build homes, not log kennels and shacks as you have them now. There will be no civilization as long as such conditions as that abound, and now you men and women will have to stand the fight.”
Kate sent letters to Aunt Elizabeth and her parents. She was fine, she wrote. Perhaps a bit hungry, she hinted. Just like Molly Brown, she wanted to help the strikers’ children. There was no need to try and change her mind since her actions were charitable rather than political, and the Lyttons, like the Rockefellers, had always maintained an altruistic facade. The last line was a lie, except for the altruistic facade part, which she couldn’t resist adding.
Aunt Elizabeth responded with a food donation, transported by rail. Her father sent a telegram, insisting she return home at once.
Kate’s red shawl became a camp banner. She found she had an instinct for nursing. She lost count of the number of babies she had delivered. “Do you hear the children groaning,Colorado?” she’d cry, slapping the backside of a newborn.
Check out Mary Ellen’s website: http://www.maryellendennis.com