I’ve blogged about my dad(The Chief) before…the fact he was a cop, the fact he liked me better than my sister *snort*. Mainly because she didn’t like cowboys and I did, she didn’t like getting dirty and I did, she would never have considered playing with BOYS when she was younger, whereas I did the whole digging to China adventure one summer and it was all boys except for Francis Campbell and myself… and Francis was more the lookout type than the dig and shovel type.
My dad loved Westerns. He loved Randolph Scott and John Wayne, he loved The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy and The Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Jim Bowie (he wasn’t a cowboy, but the Chief thought his knife was cool). Everything stopped if Roy Rogers was on…not the goofy half hour show with him yodling with Dale, but the two hour Saturday afternoon movies. Why don’t they rerun THOSE anymore? There were times he would skulk into my room and wake me up to tell me a Cowboy movie was on TV, the mother had gone to bed, and the two of us skulked down to the living room to watch. By the time it was over, of course, the mother was awake from the hootin’ and hollerin’ when the bad guys got shot, but by then we didn’t care. We were the first ones on the block to get a colour TV when they came out. Why? Because he’d heard Bonanza was going to be the first TV show broadcast in full colour.
Big screen westerns were popular back then too. I don’t know how many times we saw Shane and Stagecoach and 3:10 to Yuma. Even when I hit my teen years I’d still pony up with the popcorn and watch Westerns with him. By then I had a TV in my room and we would check the guide and if a Western was coming on, we’d pass a wink over the table and he’d show up five minutes before it started and while my mother and sister watched skating or ballet, we’d be hootin and hollerin for Glen Ford to catch the bad guy.
I thought about my dad the other day when my son’s house was broken into. It brought back another memory from when I was a kid when my dad helped catch a gang of pretty bad thieves. The leader sent out some of his gang to try to discourage my dad from testifying. They tried to burn down our house with my sister, mother, and me in it. Thankfully they were not Mensa members and the attempt failed but I remember the Chief coming home and hugging us all so hard I heard bones crunch.
When I started writing, I sort of kept it quiet for the three or four years I was getting rejections. I thought at the time there was nothing worse than having someone ask: And what do you do? I’m a writer. Oh really, do you have anything published? Well…er…no.
So I waited until I had the letter from Avon in my hand saying they were interested in China Rose. Ironically enough, I was in the hospital having knee surgery at the time. Stupid brought the letter from home and I couldn’t even leap up and down. When my mother and sister came to visit that afternoon, I was tongue tied. I didn’t quite know how to tell them that I’d kept a secret from them for the past four years. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the two most fearsome and critical people I knew were in sitting there in the hospital room, looking around as if some foreign germ was going to leap on them from afar, piling the bed with cabbage rolls and strawberry tarts because of course hospital food was NOT to be eaten…I didn’t know how to even start the sentence. Oh, by the way…I wrote a book…
Actually, that’s exactly what I ended up doing. They were getting up to leave, were squabbling over the price of parking, and were almost out the door when I said: Oh, by the way….I wrote a book and it’s being published.
My mother smiled and said “That’s nice” and continued out the door. My sister gave me one of those Don’t-even-think-you-can-one-up-me looks that only older sisters can deliver with the perfect amount of cool venom, and she walked out too. I laid there in the hosp bed staring at the door for a full minute, I swear, before the two of them poked their heads back through the doorway with a “What did you say?”
Later that evening my dad came. He was on duty, so came straight from work. He was so excited he went to the wrong hospital first and threatened them with the SWAT team if they didn’t produce his missing daughter. Luckily one of the nurses suggested gently that he might have come to Wellesley General instead of Wellesley Orthopedic, which removed the SWAT threat, but had him driving the few blocks with full sirens blaring. I heard him coming down the hall from the elevator, big boots, big footsteps, big blustery voice “Came to see my daughter, the writer!”
First question he asked me, after I got the bone-crunching hug was: “Did you write a Western?”
Augh. No. Believe it or not I *had* written a Western but it had been rejected and I was told it was too violent, too graphic for the romance market. (sound familiar?) He accepted the news with the same look on his face that he had when I pointed out that Lone Ranger and Tonto always seemed to be riding around the same cluster of rocks.
He was my rock and I loved him dearly. Some years later when I had my son, I walked in on the two of them one day in the family room and yup, they were sitting there hootin’ and hollerin’ watching a Western. I had just finished handing in a book and was looking for ideas for the next one, and there it was right in front of me. A hootin and hollerin Western.
Some readers may think there are a lot of cliches in Under The Desert Moon…and that’s because there are. I deliberately put every nifty cliche from every Western I could think of in there…the schoolmarm with the glasses who transforms into a tough little beauty, the stagecoach ride through Indian territory, the Indian sidekick, the mysterious gunslinger, the blowsy saloon hall singer, the jail breakout, the big shootout…even Billy the Kid. It’s all there and I had a blast writing it. The first person who read it was my dad, who NEVER read books. NEVER. Reading the sports section of the paper was his limit, so when I gave him the book I figured just the knowledge it was a Western would be enough. Another deterrent would have been the cover. Under The Desert Moon was cursed with the infamous Forty F**king Flowers cover (I blogged about it a while back) Big blotches of pink exploding flowers all over it. The saving grace was the artwork on the inside stepback. It was splendid. A gunslinger and his gal. But he read it. Pink exploding cover to pink exploding cover and when he finished it and talked about it, he was grinning ear to ear, proud as punch. His only comment, delivered with a fatherly sort of frown, was that maybe I shouldn’t have put so many “sexy parts” cuz he was a bit embarrassed reading that, but the criticism was fleeting and he was all grins about the rest of it. Especially since I had dedicated it to him, but really, there was never any question it was for him and for me and for a childhood spent hootin and hollering for the good guys.
I miss him terribly. I still watch the old Westerns when they come on AMC and I still see him sitting beside me, leaning forward on the edge of the chair as if he didn’t know, after the tenth watching of the same movie, if the good guys were going to win over the bad guys.
Shortly after I finished writing Under The Desert Moon, the movie Silverado came out. It was a spoof of sorts, and included every cliche from every Western the writers could think of, even a Billy the Kid character. When Romantic Times reviewed Under the Desert Moon, Kathe Robin called it ” the ‘Silverado’ of Western romances”. I gave out such a hoot when I read that! She GOT it. She really GOT it. And of all the great reviews I’ve had over the years for all of my books, that one stands out as being one of my top two.
So here then is an excerpt from Under The Desert Moon.
Aubrey approached the shoulder-high wicket and managed to calm herself during the few moments it took for the clerk to notice her.
“I already have one,” she said. “For Santa Fe. Is the stage on time?”
“Your ticket paid for?”
“Eh?” The clerk lifted his head and peered through his pince-nez. “Ohhh yeah, I remember you now. The schoolmarm. You jest missed the other coach and bought your ticket then to beat the rush.” He paused and snorted derisively. “Welcome to the rush. Just you and her ladyship so far … that is, if’n she can make up her mind one way or t’other. Seems she wants a coach all to herself. Fancy that.”
Aubrey looked around the small office, puzzled by the empty benches along the walls. The previous week, the seats had been full of impatient travelers, with more waiting in line, clamoring for passage on any coaches heading west.
“Comanche,” the clerk explained. “Rumor has it they’re out on the warpath again, jest the kind of news what gives folks a hankerin’ to stay to home. You might want to share some of that wisdom yourself, Missy, and wait until the army has a chance to cool them down some.”
“I … can’t wait. I have to be in Santa Fe as soon as possible. Is the stage not running?”
“Oh, it’s runnin’,” the clerk assured her. “Jest can’t say for certain when. Seems the driver had some trouble comin’ in from Little River.”
“What? What’s that you say?” Aubrey was unceremoniously elbowed aside as a short, round-faced gentleman pressed up to the wicket. “Excuse me, my good man, but did I hear you say the coach may not be leaving today?”
The clerk tilted his head to see over the rim of his pince-nez. The newcomer had a florid complexion, caused as much by the heat out-of-doors as the rotund size of his girth. A ring of graying hair wisped out from under the brim of the derby he wore, while his mouth was all but hidden beneath an impressive bush of a moustache, the ends of which had been waxed and groomed into perfect little circles at each end.
“You got good ears, mister. I said what I said.”
“But good gracious … why are we being delayed?”
“Can’t rightly say for certain, but I heard the driver lost his gun. Ain’t nobody fool enough to head into Injun territory without a shotgun, not even Stink Finger Jim Brody.”
This seemed too much for the little man to absorb. He doffed his derby and swabbed an enormous white handkerchief across the bald dome of his head.
“A gun? We are being forced to rearrange our schedules because one of your drivers lost his gun? Can he not purchase another at the hardware store?”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. Moving with exaggerated care, he removed his pince-nez and polished the lenses slowly on his shirtfront. When they were smeared into a cleaner state, he replaced them on the bridge of his nose and peered belligerently at his customer.
“Mister … where are you from?”
“And jest what might you be carrying in them tinker’s cases you got with you?”
“I … er, have a quality line of products which have met with great success throughout the Eastern states.”
“You ever been west of theMississippi?”
“Why, er, no. No, I haven’t had the pleasure until now.”
“Never would have guessed it,” the clerk snorted.
The salesman stiffened. “See here, my good man, if this is an attempt to extort more money—”
The ticket agent sighed and shook his head. “I said the driver lost his shotgun, mister. Every stage that leaves this here depot leaves with two men ridin’ up top in the driver’s box, or it don’t leave at all. One does the drivin’, the other rides shotgun. Man loses his shotgun, he ain’t about to give a hang one way or t’other about schedules, quality products, or”—he glared pointedly at Aubrey—“a bunch of snot-nosed Mex kids missin’ out on their ABC’s. You savvy what I’m sayin’, mister?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, I see.” The square of linen swept across the shiny pate again. “But I simply must get to Santa Fe before the month’s end. I simply must.”
“Nothin’ I can do about it, mister. Not till I hear one way or t’other from Jim Brody. Why hell, he might be over to the hardware store right now tryin’ to find himself another gun.” The clerk chuckled at his own joke. “On the other hand, he’s more’n likely over to the Silver Dollar Saloon sippin’ his way through a pint of good whiskey.”
Darby Greaves, seeming to have ignored the exchange until then, straightened from where he lounged against the wall. “A commendable idea, all things considered. Magenta, my love, what do you say we step over to the Silver Dollar ourselves and see if we cannot work on finding you an engagement closer to civilization.”
Magenta’s expression did not change and no one else overheard the response that came through her almost motionless lips. “Take one step toward that saloon, Darby Greaves, and I will personally shoot out both your kneecaps,” she hissed. “They are paying me five thousand dollars to sing in the new opera hall in Santa Fe and you are not—I repeat, you are not going to piss away an opportunity like this from the bottom of a whiskey bottle!”
“The opportunity, as I see it,” he replied nonplussed, “is to get yourself scalped … or worse. Didn’t you hear him say the Comanche are on the warpath?”
“Good God, this is 1877. There are no more Comanche; they’re all either dead or confined to reservations, and I’ll be damned if a few unfounded rumors ruin my one big chance at success.”
With a practiced toss of her bouncing gold curls, Magenta swept across the cramped room, her voluminous skirts raising a small cloud of dust in her wake. At the wicket, she leaned forward, allowing the startled clerk an unimpeded view down the dusky cleft of her cleavage.
“Now then, Mr.—?”
“Gibbon,” the clerk croaked. “Sidney Gibbon.”
“Mr. Gibbon … surely there must be something we can do to clear up this unfortunate situation.”
Aubrey sighed and retreated to one of the long wooden benches. She set her carpetbag on the floor and tried not to think of what another delay would do to her plans or her nerves. She blocked out the squabble of voices behind her and stared out the fly-spotted window, but there wasn’t much to see through the thick film, and after a few moments, she found her eyes wandering to the notice board hung on the wall beside her. A mosaic of scraps of paper was pasted and nailed up for display, including one for a miracle tonic that claimed to grow hair, cure warts, and prevent personal discomforts in warm weather. A gunsmith named Bullet had printed his handbills on paper cut-outs of pistols, complete with an artistic puff of smoke. Warnings were posted to be on the alert for a pair of con artists who had been seen last in the great state of Louisiana; below that were neat rows of wanted posters, some with crudely sketched caricatures of faces, some with the ominous DEAD OR ALIVE stamped across the top.
“A fascinating overview of our society, don’t you agree?”
“I beg your pardon?” Aubrey glanced beside her and was greeted by an effusive smile beamed out from beneath a handlebar moustache.
“The notices.” The portly salesman pointed to the board. “Small pieces of life displayed for all to see.”
“Yes,” she murmured. “Quite fascinating.”
“I could not help but overhear the clerk mention you were a teacher. An admirable profession, Miss—?”
“Miss Blue.” He tipped his bowler and offered a curt bow. “Armbruster P. Shillingsworth, at your service.” He opened his mouth to say more, but a further disturbance behind them changed his intent somewhat abruptly. “Oh! Oh my!”
Two new arrivals were standing in the doorway of the stage office, their presence causing a sudden and absolute silence both inside and outside on the boardwalk. The first of the pair was tall enough and broad enough for his silhouette to block most of the flaring sunlight. He was dressed in an open-necked buckskin shirt and cord pants, neither of them too new or too clean. Brass-colored hair fell long and shaggy to his collar, the unruly waves framing a face that was weathered by sun and open air to the shade of warm teak. The eyes gazing out from beneath the wide brim of his hat were slate gray and moved casually around the airless little room, observing, assessing, dismissing his surroundings with a wry twist of his lips.
Not quite so easy for the occupants of the stage office to dismiss was the sight of the second man, a Plains Indian. He was nearly as tall as the white man and every bit as formidable, judging by the bulge of muscles that swelled beneath his buckskins. His starkly chiseled features could have been hewn from granite, for all the expression he betrayed. Straight, gleaming black hair hung to mid-chest, with several thin strands plaited into a braid that originated at his temple. His eyes were bottomless brown pools, threatening in their intensity, and not the least reluctant to challenge each stare that greeted him.
The white man crossed over to the wicket and nodded perfunctorily at the clerk. “When does the next stage leave?”
“I … well, uh—” The clerk’s nervous gaze flicked to the Indian and back again, “I was jest tellin’ these here good folks that I wasn’t too sure at all when the next coach would be headin’ out,”
“There is a scheduled departure at ten, is there not?”
“Well, ah … yes.”
“And that is a stagecoach pulled up out front, is it not?”
“I … uh, yes. Yes, it shore is.”
“Am I wrong in assuming it is still the custom of the stage line to sell seats on board their coaches?”
“Fine. How much for two seats to Fort Union?”
The clerk hesitated again, his eyes flickering now between the silent Indian and the bulging leather pouch the plainsman withdrew from his pocket. The solid chink of coin caused him to lick his lips and rub a finger nervously along the starched edge of his collar.
“Will, ah … will these seats be for you and your, ah, friend?”
The stranger’s smile was easy. His voice was deceptively soft as well, tinged with the friendly slur of the plains, but his eyes were hooded with a distinct and growing animosity, as if he knew full well the cause of the agent’s reluctance and was not about to make the going any easier for him.
He pushed back the brim of his hat with a tip of a finger and leaned his elbow on the counter. “I suppose you have a clever reason for asking, considering there are only the two of us standing here.”
“In that case”—the clerk swallowed hard—“the fact of it is, I can’t sell you two seats to nowheres.”
“Is the stage full?”
“No … ah, I mean … yes”
The gray eyes fixed him with a shriveling stare. “Which is it … no, or yes?”
“Fact of it is, mister, the Kansas Stage Company plain don’t allow Injuns on board their coaches.”
“Sorry?” The plainsman leaned farther over the counter, a motion which triggered the instant appearance of fine beads of sweat across the ticket agent’s upper lip. “I don’t think I quite heard you.”
The clerk cleared his throat and adjusted his pince-nez. “It ain’t my rule, mister. It’s the policy of the Kansas Stage Company, and I ain’t about to get fired for breakin’ company policy rules.”
“Come now, Mr.—?”
“Gibbon,” Magenta supplied smoothly. She had moved up behind the plainsman and was enjoying not only the clerk’s squirming discomfort, but the extremely interesting view of hard, rippling muscles where they strained the seams of the buckskin shirt. “His name is Sidney Gibbon.”
The plainsman acknowledged the inviting smile with an obliging grin of his own before he turned back to the clerk.
“Well, Mr. Sidney Gibbon, with business as poor as it is these days, shouldn’t you be thankful you have customers who are willing to pay? A less accommodating fellow might simply stop the coach outside of town and insist that you pay him. Me? I could care less where I get on board—here, or ten miles down the road—but my friend there, why he might take it in his head that you insulted him deeply. You ever insulted an Ute warrior before, Mr. Gibbon?”
The clerk shook his head. “C-Can’t say that I have, mister, and can’t say that I particularity want to, but policy is policy. Besides … I got other passengers to consider. I doubt they’d be all that partial on the idea of havin’ an Injun ride on the coach with them.”
The plainsman’s mouth curved thoughtfully. He turned toward the profusion of purple silk and dyed ostrich feathers and waited for Magenta’s eyes to drag themselves upward from the gaping neckline of his shirt. “Ma’am. You have any objections to me or my friend joining you on the stage? I know it’s a long trip at close quarters, but I can assure you that both Sun Shadow and myself are housebroken. We can act civilized when the occasion warrants it.”
Magenta smiled. “And when it doesn’t?”
It was his turn to take a slow, leisurely inspection of the bountiful flesh testing the constraints of the purple bodice. Two good handfuls apiece, he judged, enough to keep a man busy for a few hundred miles.
Magenta read the interest in his eyes and moistened her lips. “I have no objections whatsoever to your company, sir. On the contrary, I’m sure we would all feel so much safer with you on board … wouldn’t we, Darby dear?”
Greaves was staring at the Indian, as he had been since the pair had appeared in the doorway. He made no effort to conceal his contempt or his distrust for a race he considered inferior even to slaves.
“Darby dear?” Magenta said again.
“No,” he said quietly. “I have no objection.”
“There”—the plainsman spread his hands easily as he addressed Sidney Gibbon again—“you heard it yourself: no objections.”
“They ain’t the only customers,” the clerk said tightly, grasping at his last avenue of escape. “The schoolmarm and the salesman over yonder; they both paid full fares.”
The gray eyes cast around again and found the dapper little man in the derby. Before he could pose his question, the salesman bustled forward, his moustache quivering around his assurances. “No indeed, sir. I have no objections whatsoever. And the name is Shillingsworth. Armbruster P. Shillingsworth. A household name for corsets and trusses, braces and splints for all areas of the body … er … not that either you or your friend look as if you require any further bracing. No indeed.”
The plainsman sought the final vote, his gaze turning toward the window. Aubrey’s brown worsted suit and brown hat blended perfectly with the dull brown walls of the office, a blandness not aided by the fact that a haze of sunlit dust hung suspended in a cloud around her, obscuring all but a faint impression of a pale face and glinting spectacles.
Under the Desert Moon is available at Amazon