Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Special: The Beard of His Chin

The mud coach lurched, its iron-rimmed wheels slipping into a rut in the hard-frozen trail, and throwing Devereaux roughly against the wall of the coach. “Dammit, Adan!” he complained, hauling himself upright on the battered, barely-padded seat and shoving his head out the window.

Adan, perched atop the coach, gave him a smug glance. “You keep sticking your head out here, you’re gonna be all wet by the time we get to the Green. Get back in there.” The cigarillo smouldering on Adan’s lip glowed brightly through the swirling snow and the blue twilight. Sharp, sweet smoke wafted across Dev's nostrils, sweet in the cold, almost painfully crisp air. Adan went on, “Don’t want to mess your beard up, do ya?”

“To hell with my beard.” Dev scowled up at him. “I feel like damn baggage riding in here.”

Adan’s lightly whiskered face broke into a sympathetic smile, and his tone softened. “I know you do, Frank.” He gestured with his head and clicked his tongue, urging the pair of horses to quicken their pace. “We’re almost there. You can ride up top on the way back and get yourself as mussed up as you want. Just stay nice until we’re done.” Snow clung to Adan’s broad shoulders, clotted in the brim of his hat and fell in fluffy clumps into the thick, whiskey-colored tangles of his shaggy hair. Dev’s heart squeezed with a surge of affection despite his discomfiture.

He’s right. He’s going to need to dry off before we start back. Dev grunted and ducked his head back inside the coach’s window, leaving the leather curtain open. He felt awkward and nervous, and the cold air blowing across his face was cleansing. He drew in a deep breath of it, feeling it calm him. Adan’s deep, gentle voice went on, soothing him and  giving him something to focus on other than his own self-consciousness.

“It was sure nice of Monahan and Bari to bring the coach out, eh?” Adan said lightly. “And to stay on for us till we get back to our post.”

“It was.” Dev nodded. “It sure was nice of you and them to volunteer me for this horseshit, too. I notice you didn’t offer to do it yourself.”

“Aw, c’mon, Frank.” Dev could hear Adan grinning around his words. “You know there isn’t anyone within a hundred miles better for this job than you.”

Dev settled back in the seat. “I’m fatter and hairier than anyone else, you mean.” His lip tugged up with a self-satisfied smirk as he heard Adan guffaw rudely.

“That’s not what I meant, Frank.” Traces of mirth were still clinging to Adan’s words. “Look, we’re almost there. Try not to do a lot of cussin’, will you?” The coach slowed to a stop as Adan drove the coach behind Sheriff Holt’s jailhouse. “And could you at least smile?”

Dev hauled himself out of the coach, stepping down into the soft blanket of fresh snow and reaching up to take the burlap sack Adan was handing down to him. He grimaced, feeling his beard pull and itch, before giving Adan a wide grin. “This white shoe polish you put in my beard is gonna snatch my face bald before we’re done.”

Adan swung down, shouldering a second sack. His blue eyes, full of mischief and excitement, shone in the light from the rising moon. He reached into the coach, snatched out the red and white stocking cap Mrs. Lynch had made, and pulled it down over Dev’s heavily shoe-polished and powdered hair. “You look great, Frank,” he laughed, giving Dev’s beefy shoulder a squeeze. “This is gonna be fun.”

“I know it is.” Dev adjusted the weight of the sack on his shoulder, putting a finger to the side of his nose and winking conspiratorially.

“Oh, that’s perfect. Let’s head over to the schoolhouse.”

“Alright...but just wait a moment.” Dev stood still, listening to the silence of falling snow and watching the rising moon glinting like silver and magic on the pristine white around them. The ridiculous red cloak Mrs. Lynch had made for him was warm, and the weight of candy and fruit and toys in the sack felt even warmer. And Adan, brawny, rugged, cigarello-puffing Adan, stood with cheeks reddened with cold and his breath puffing in curling silver mist. Dev wanted to remember this moment, wanted to remember the snow and the yellow lights in the windows of the schoolhouse down the street and the boyish fun twinking in Adan’s blue eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Adan's voice was a quiet rumble.

“Nothing.” Dev said, and meant it. He jerked his head towards the schoolhouse. “Let’s go.” His hand shot out and gave Adan’s bicep a gentle shove before headed up the street. “Ho, ho, ho.”

There’s our Saint Nicholas.”

“Some kid pisses on my lap...” Dev said, trying to sound stern and failing. “...we’re trading pants.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Behind the Scenes:The Artwork of The Five Dollar Mail

 When I get artwork for FDM, most of the time, our artists are not readers and are not familiar with the characters. So I have to send them "character packets" that contain clothing notes, relevant passages from the book, a written description of the character, and a page of headshots from Google Images of people that have a general look of someone I might cast if, say, this were a tv show or movie. So I've included a few examples of the sorts of stuff I send to artists.

I do have sheets for each character, but I don't want to swamp this post with so many pictures it makes it hard to load. So I just snatched some out what was on this particular computer and went with it.

I specifically tell the artists not to make them look like any recognizable actor or model. The photos are to give a general idea of the type of look for each character.

 I don't imagine I have to tell you who these redheaded stunners are modeling for.

The problem with Lily is that in general, women are not really allowed to be plain-featured on TV. We know a girl on TV or in a move is plain featured because they take some beautiful girl and throw a pair of glasses on her, something that annoys the crap out of me.

Sometimes we have to go with what we can scrape together that might work well enough. It is what it is, I guess.

Here's a sheet of women's work clothing that we used for Lily.  I love that we have Ma Ingalls here on this sheet. I suspect that woman in the middle pic is boiling cane sugar down.     

Not really the sort of pics I wanted to use for Luis. Luis is a very specific sort of look and I really was coming up empty handed on it. Underweight Hispanic kid in his early to mid teens. Kind of hard to do a Google search on something like that.

Someone sent me one of these kids as a suggestion and I just went with it.   

I'm a whole lot happier with these guys. Fortunately, it's not hard to find pictures of pretty young men with blond hair. I'd be fine with any of these guys playing Jesse.

I had a similar problem with Wash as I did with Lily. All the guys I could find that might make an okay Wash were actually far too good looking. He's not unattractive, but it's certainly not the first thing someone would notice about him. His is the type of attraction that has to grow on a person a bit.

Anyways, I was looking for someone with a strong, open face, tousled hair, and a bit of a weathered look. Again, it is what it is. I thought all the artists that took a crack at him did a great job, despite my non-committal descriptions of him.

I think part of my problem is that I see these people so clearly in my head they are as familiar to me as my own face. All the artwork that's come back is different from that and from each other, and I love that. I love seeing different interpretations. But when I'm looking at actors or models to express my own interpretation, I have a hard time. 

Some of these have actually been updated and are no longer in use. Without looking into the laptop, I don't know off the top of my head. But all of these have been in use at one point or another. 

I do have more of these things. If you enjoyed this, let me know and I round up the others and throw them out there for you.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pony Express Mythbusters

Everyone’s  heard of the Pony Express, but judging from what I’ve heard from talking to people (and seen in movies and whatnot), few people really know much about it. So, in no particular order, I will present you a snopes-style rundown on common misconceptions I have heard over the years.

MYTH: Let's start with this poster right here:

BUSTED:It’s true that they hired a lot of lightweight guys to ride mail. It’s not true that they were all children, or that they were all orphans. That poster is believed to have been made up after the fact, as part of the huge, romanticized pseudo-history that has grown up around the Pony.

There were grown men riding for the Express, and men and boys with families. I have no doubt some of them were small, painfully young orphans. But not because that’s all that were hired. Luis is my nod to that part of the mythos. Tommy, Jesse, and Storm are my interpretation of what might be closer to reality.

MYTH: The Pony Express delivered mail all over the US.

BUSTED: Nope. It ran from Saint Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, in a more or less straight line.  If that doesn’t sound like a big area, remember that’s 2000 miles and done entirely on horseback through some of the roughest terrain in the country.

Also remember that when you are watching some old movie that has an express rider running through, say, Texas. Which I have unfortunately seen.

MYTH: It ran all during the days of the Wild West.

BUSTED: It ran for 18 months, and not even for all of that due to the Indian Wars out around the western reach of the trail. This blog has been running far, far longer than the actual service that it’s about. By the same token, there was a television series that ran during the late eighties/early nineties by the name of “The Young Riders” that was about the Pony Express and it ran longer than the actual Pony Express ran.

It’s a good series, but only season one is readily available, Still, you will like it if you like FDM. 

THIS JUST IN, Y'ALL: Evidently seasons two and three are now available! Which rocks! I'm glad I wrote this article, or I'd have never know about that!

MYTH: Everyone sent mail via Pony Express.

BUSTED: Not unless Aunt Ruby’s pecan pie recipe REALLY had to get across the country in a couple weeks time. Because it really did cost five dollars to mail a half ounce letter. Which, by the standards of 1860, really was “obscenely expensive.” Heck, five bucks is steep to mail a letter now.  A dollar in 1860 would be the equivalent of a little less than thirty bucks, in terms of what it would buy. So we’re looking at about 150 bucks to mail a thin little piece of ultra thin paper.

It was high end specialty mail, mail that absolutely, positively had to be there by ten days. The saddle had four smallish pouches on it, called mochilla,8and those were locked. There was no big mail bag involved. At least, not on the Express, there wasn’t. The great big mail bag was on the stagecoach. So the vast bulk of all mail wasn’t delivered by the Pony. It was delivered by the likes of Saint and Wash.

MYTH: Riders took a single horse and didn’t stop riding at a breakneck speed until they got where they were going.

BUSTED: They’d kill an awful lot of rather expensive horses like that. It used to amuse me that on Young Riders, one of the riders had a prize horse named Katy, and he was always seen riding her while he was making a run. That would not have happened. The horses were actually switched out every ten or fifteen miles or so for a fresh, rested one, at relay stations set up all along the route. That’s why there is no crew at Church Buttes and Dev works alone. He’s simply tending the horses at a relay station, not manning a full home station like the one at Green River. The spotted Indian pony out in front of the jailhouse in Green River, in the first chapter in which Bender appears, was not Storm’s horse Yellow Sky. Storm does not take Yellow Sky on runs, because he’s not a company horse and would get swapped for a fresh ride ten miles out.

And as for the “breakneck speed” idea...well  riders couldn’t afford to lollygag around much...but they’d stay on schedule if they kept more or less to a brisk pace. They didn’t have to break the sound barrier to stay on schedule. I have read accounts of riders falling into rivers and having to chase down horses and having unexpected calamity befall them on the trail, and still manage to stay on schedule. I have also read accounts, though, that the idea was to never let the mochilla stop moving. So yes, they did a considerable amount of rushing, but not the racehorse level of constant, unrelieved running the mythos would have you believe. 

MYTH: Riders were always getting shot full of arrows and killed on their rides.

BUSTED: That's completely unsubstantiated. What history does provide evidence for is the idea that it really was more dangerous in the stations than it was on the trail. 

MYTH: The horses that pull the coaches....

BUSTED: Yeah, actually if FDM were obsessively factual, those would be oxen. As a writer, I didn't want to use oxen, I wanted to use horses. I've tried to make FDM historically accurate, but that's my one big inaccurate indulgence. Sorry. You got me. 

Honestly, I don't have to make much up to give you a good Pony Express story. It's a fascinating history, and there's many good books our there you should check out if you're interested at all. A couple of my favorites are : 

Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett

The Saga of the Pony Express by Joseph j. Di Certo

Saddles and Spurs by Raymond W. and Mary Lund Settle

The Pony Express A Photographic History by Bill and Jan Moeller 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Back When It Cost Five Dollars to Mail Supthin' Important

Howdy all, 

The proof copy of Book 2 came back and is ready for me to work on, and with it being Thanksgiving tomorrow (and my awesome family converging on me and my very awesome sunroom), I'm gonna do sort of an "antique post" (remember those?) this week. I have been taking some pictures when and where I can for this very occasion. 

I've spent quite a bit of time in the South Carolina State Museum. South Carolina has had a pretty cool history, so the museum's got some nifty stuff in it. And while it's not "American West" type stuff, it's still stuff that would have been around and in use pretty much anywhere. For instance, I rounded a corner and found myself starting delightedly at Doc Plunkett's "Doctor's Carriage", exactly how it looked in my mind the rainy night when Rosie rode with him back out to the Green River station.

SC State Museum has some very cool life-sized dioramas. I absolutely love the old mercantile. I can practically hear Mr. Thomasin yelling at Rob Yarl in here. All that's missing are the plate glass windows Fiona loves so much. I like to imagine they make up the fourth wall.

I know I shot some nice pics of the classroom when I was up in Brattonsville and posted them some time back, and while I love that classroom, it's just not rustic enough. This scene is exactly what I am picturing when I am imagining Rosie's schoolroom. The desks are very plain, and the desktops are attached to the seats in front of them. They're missing the cutout hole for the inkwell I see in my mind...but other than that, this is pretty much it.

You can see it a little more clearly here. This is how Rosie knows when Jeb leans forward on his elbows in a attempt to sneak her braids into the inkwell. His weight on his desktop transfers to the back of her seat.
Lookie what I found out behind the schoolhouse.

For those of you who have never seen an outhouse, here one is in all it's glory. Having grown up in a very rural part of South Carolina, and having a great grandparents who were poor country farmers who raised ten kids in a bungalow they built themselves, I've actually seen one of these beauties as a functioning piece of country life as opposed to a replica built by a scenic crew. It looked more or less like this, only it was far more weathered. There was eventually a toilet in the house, but my great grandfather evidently thought that was far too prissy and used the outdoor crapper till the day he died. Or maybe he just liked the solitude of it. He did have ten kids, after all.

Anyways, snakes really do like to hang out in such places, and you can see where a few well-placed scores on the underside of the wooden seat with a hacksaw could make it give way under the weight of, say, Levi Yarl.

Okay, these weren't taken at SC State Museum. They were taken at Fort McAllister in Georgia. If you ever find yourself in Bryan County, you should really try to visit there. It's a earthen fort, so it basically looks like a bunch of hobbit holes. This fort was so hard to capture that after the Union army shelled it for days using some of the biggest guns the Union had, the only thing they managed to accomplish was to blow up Tom, the fort's cat.

I'm sure that probably pissed off the Confederate dudes stationed there, so at least it wasn't a total loss. I guess. They at least managed to upset some rebel boys. Can you imagine having to go back and tell your commanding officer that you blew that much ordinance, and all you'd manage to do was kill a poor little kitty cat? The fort was eventually taken, but not on that day and not without a spectacular fight. You should google it and read up. Some great stories about this fort. I am absolutely in love with Fort McAllister.

Anyways, enough about the cat and the fort. This is what a Civil War-era smithy looked like. Seeing as how this was in a military fort, this is probably what the smithy in Fort Bridger (which was, I am sure, nowhere near as cool as Fort McAllister) would look like. It might not be set in the American West, but hey, this was the technology of the time, and people needed horses shod and firearms repaired no matter where they were.

I'll be working on the final proof of the second book for the next week or two, so I may opt to put the story on hold for a week or two till I finish that. I don't know, it's going to depend on how my workload pans out. I find it very hard to write while I am reading, and when I try to force it, I find my writing really suffers in quality. So I'll do what I can. 

In the meantime, have a Happy Thanksgiving holiday, however you spend it! 


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Special: Where Are You? Part Three

Jesse didn’t know why he felt so skittish. Logically, there was no real reason to be spooked and he knew it. He’d been in downright scary situations, so the idea that being in a darkened house would be giving him this much gooseflesh embarrassed and annoyed him.

Beside him, the dog bumped against this legs, whacking him periodically with its ever-wagging tail. The animal’s enthusiasm went a long way towards calming his nerves. If something were amiss, the dog would surely know it before he did.

The steps creaked beneath his boots, echoing in the long-empty space. He held the lamp out at his side, so the waving flame within would not blind him. It threw long, flickering shadows across the dusty floor.

There was no way he was going to go back downstairs and admit to Saint and the women that his nerves were beginning to get the best of him. He braced himself and tried not to think about the ruined doorframe downstairs, the cracked place in the wood where the deadbolt had broken through on the inside. What the hell did that? What the hell could have forced that door open from the inside? What wanted to get out that bad? He shivered, and calmed himself by reaching down and scratching the dog’s roughly-furred head. Other than Doctor Klugh and his family, I mean. He felt ice creeping up his spine, felt the hair on his arms stand up. Why the hell would anyone own a house like this and not want to live in it?

Maybe because whatever wanted to get out that some point wanted to get back in?

He realized with a start that his hand was sweating around the grip of the pistol strapped to his hip and he forced his hand to relax. “Shitfire,” he whispered.

His companion whined, the pace of his tail picking up speed and enthusiasm. The dog stopped at a closed door in the hallway, breathing hard and panting as he pawed at it. The door frame was covered with deep gouges.

Jesse felt the bottom drop out of his stomach and he fought every urge he had to go back downstairs and get Saint. I go get Saint, there ain’t gonna be an end to the torment. He ain’t never gonna let me live this one down, I do that. His fear made him giddy, euphoric. He took a deep breath and slid the pistol out of its holster. Wrapping his fingers around the ornate iron knob, he slowly turned it. He felt the heavy bolt slide back into the iron mechanism, and all that was left for him to do was push the door open.

He froze, hesitating. The dog was whining loudly, scratching at the wood. He had to grip the doorknob hard to keep the door from being pushed open before he was ready. A bead of sweat rolled down his spine under his shirt, icy and tickling and making his skin crawl. The dog’s floppy brown ears were forward, flapping wildly against its face. He drew the pistol up, reasoning with himself that they were on the second floor, that the dust on the floor hadn’t been disturbed in years. You’re an idiot, Jesse Hanson. That tore-up woodwork is the work of some dog that used to live here. Maybe even this one. The dog was signalling that he wanted to play, not that there was danger and that he wanted to fight.There’s squirrels in there. Or racoons or rats. Find your balls, Farm Boy...

He pushed open the door and shone the light into the shadows beyond, hearing the faint whispers of snapping spiderwebs and disturbed dust. The dog gave a whining bark and darted past him and into the room.

The bedroom beyond was neatly laid out and filled with an even heavier layer of dust than the rest of the house. It was empty, and there was no sign that animals or birds had invaded it. He held up the lamp, looking around.

The bed was neatly made up, with a faded, dusty coverlet over it. A single rose lay in the center of it, dried and brown with age. A pair of men’s boots stood at attention near the foot, mud from a years-past jaunt still crusted in the seams. A fringed leather coat, similar to the one he wore himself and about the same size, hung on the back of the chair at a writing desk. Jesse stood in the doorway, looking around.

His eyes fell on the peeling silvered back of a mirror, turned on its hanging wire to face the wall. His breath left his body in a rush, and the air inside the room moved across his skin in a soft, icy breeze. This room’s been closed since before the Klughs even moved out. Someone died in here long ago. “’mon,” he said, softly, clicking his tongue. He looked around. The dog was not in the room, and as his confused, baffled gaze darted around in disbelief, his eyes fell on the a clay bowl down on the floor, filled with the petrified remains of jerky and bread. He stepped towards it and bent to read the inscription etched into the clay. Steuben.

I shouldn’t be in here. He’d started to shake, and as he backed from the room he could hear, as if from far away, the faint sound of a dog barking with joy and a young man laughing.

Giving the room one final look, he realized with a sense of absolute certainty that he was alone. "Bye, Steuben," he whispered. He firmly pushed the door all the way open, then headed briskly back down the stairs.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween Special: Where Are You? (Part Two)

The last of the blue-purple twilight threw the room into shadow. Lily could smell dust and old paper and the acrid damp of old fireplace ash as she gripped Saint’s arm. At least this place is well built and holding up. The roof seems like it will keep out the rain, at least. Their footfalls echoed in the stillness, making Lily cringe, filling her with the sensation that she was intruding and disturbing the tomb-like stillness of the long uninhabited house.

Coming up behind, Jesse was clearly not suffering from the same self-consciousness. His boots and the dog’s claws clattered loudly across the bare wooden planks beneath their feet. The dog was panting, happy to be inside, his gaping mouth wide in a loose, tongue-lolling grin. Saint glared over his shoulder. “Shhh!”

“Why?” Jesse whispered, looking alarmed.

Saint paused, catching himself. “I dunno.” He put a callused hand protectively over Lily’s, trapping it against his arm and giving it a firm caress as if sticking it there with imaginary glue. “I don’t know why I said that,” he sighed, speaking softly, but normally. “I guess we should check to make sure nobody else is in here.”

Lily felt her skin prickle, and she gave gripped his bicep a little tighter. “I hadn’t thought about that, Saint.” She glanced warily around the shadowy room. “The door was locked. I didn’t see any windows that looked like anyone had forced their way in.”

“He’s right.” Jesse said. “I ain’t staying in this spooky old place without makin’ sure we don’t get surprised.”

“Well.” Fiona crossed her arms and looked around, crinkling her nose. “there are other ways in here...but the air is so stale, I rather doubt anyone’s been in here.”

Jesse turned and closed the door behind him, deepening the gloom inside further. He gasped, snatching his hand away from the doorframe.

“What?” Lily instinctively stopped and turned toward her brother. “What’s wrong?”

“Splinters.” He frowned, sucking his index finger. “I woulda thought a house like this wouldn’t have...look at this door frame!”

Jesse had slid his hand along the doorframe when he’d closed the door, and had found out the hard way that its once-polished and varnished surface was now chipped and chewed into a riot of splintered ruin. While it might have been barely visible on the outside of the house, the damage was in plain view from the inside. From the doorknob down, something had scoured the doorframe and door, and in some places had actually ripped the carved wood free. A deep, gaping crack showed where the deadbolt had broken through the wood at one time.

Lily let go of Saint’s arm and hurried to inspect Jesse’s hand. “We’ll have to get some lamps lit and see if you have any slivers stuck in your skin. What on earth could have done all that damage to the door?”
“I dunno...” Saint’s hand strayed to the Colt strapped to his hip as he squinted in the dim, fading light. “And it don’t make me feel any better that whatever it was wasn’t tryin’ to get in.

“Whatever it was, it was big.” Jesse’s eyes darted around nervously. “Now I really want to make sure we’re alone here.” The dog darted into the room, tongue still lolling in his mouth as he sniffed and panted, dislodging cobwebs as he want. “Bet you’re glad he’s here now, ain’tcha Saint? Nobody sneaks up on a dog. What do you smell, boy?” He stepped quickly beside his new friend, ruffling the hair between the dog's shoulders. The dog’s tail slapped against his legs.

Outside, the sound of raindrops spattering against the tin roof of the porch started, pinging across the tin in sporadic clicks and thumps before settling into a loud, hissing rhythm. The smell of earth and ozone filled the air, teasing Lily’s nostrils as it mixed with the smell of dust and age. She shivered, drawing her shawl tightly around her shoulders and slipping her hand back into the comforting warmth of Saint’s arm.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Halloween Special: Where Are You? (Part One)

Howdy, all!

Missed you all, and glad to be back. The Halloween Special is going to be a little different this year. I'm going to publish it in a couple parts, and will probably be on an accelerated posting schedule for a short time. So when you come here and there's something new, make sure you haven't missed anything. I'm still kind of playing it by ear, and while I know I'll be posting, I don't know exactly what nights yet. 

Anyways, have fun! 


“You sure that thing ain’t a horse, Farm Boy?” Saint watched Jesse feed the enormous dog another piece of jerky, watched the huge jowls flap with enthusiasm as the dried buffalo disappeared into the animal’s salivating mouth. “What the hell kinda dog is that, anyways?”

The dog had appeared out of the yellow and brown overgrowth of dead grasses and brambles sprawling across and choking the once-neat yard surrounding the rambling hulk of the house. It was a huge, gangly brown animal with a clumsy, loping gait, and he’d bounded over to Jesse like a he was seeing a long-lost friend. When Jesse had seen the ribs showing in deep relief beneath the dog’s short, rough pelt, his face had twisted into a frown of concern and he’d reached for the food basket. “A great, big, brown one,” he had said, immediately offering it their lunch.

“So...” Saint watched the dog gulp down a biscuit. “You know that’s got to last the four of us till tomorrow?”

“We ain’t starving, Saint. Look at him. I know what it’s like to be that hungry.”

Saint nodded, a surge of affection softening his mood. “You’re right, Farm Boy. It’s alright.” Saint hadn’t much liked the fact that his supper was gone, but the dog clearly needed it more than any of them did. He figured that now it would most certainly be following them home. And that’s if Jesse doesn’t outright put it inside the coach. He shook his head, thinking about dog hair, slobber and dirt ground into the leather seats of the Concord coach, and how the Old Man would probably make him clean the mess. Sighing heavily, he resisted the urge to roll a smoke. “We should have taken the mud coach.”

“I think not.” Fiona admonished him, pulling her green wrap around her shoulders as she stepped between the rusted and leaning wrought iron gateposts and took a few steps up the crumbling front walk. The house beyond was extravagant, with wide porches and round turrets. It had once been a masterpiece of architecture. Now it was worn and weathered, with broken windows and ruined woodwork crumbling from its once-beautiful face. “We’re bringing back Doc Plunkett’s late aunt’s fine china and crystal,” she said. “I wouldn’t dream of attempting to transport something like that in anything but a coach with thoroughbraces, would I? I’d like it all to be intact by the time we make it home.”

Probably a good thought...Saint had to concede. The bumps and jolts of the road would not damage their cargo in a Concord. But they hadn’t counted on a wobbly wheel hub and the muddy road. It had slowed them considerably, and now it would be dark soon. We most likely ain’t getting out of here till first light tomorrow. At least it’s a nice house and Jesse’s along. The last thing I wanna do is get asked any questions about spending the night away with Lily.

The dog was standing up on its hind legs, now, his tail wagging and his bony elbows resting on Jesse’s shoulders. Merda, that’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen...thank God he’s friendly, or he’d have eaten us already. He turned his gaze to the house, darkened in the deepening light, and watched Fiona make her way up the walk, the mauves of her dress and deep reds of her hair echoing the sunset light.  Lily walked past him, carrying the other food basket, and he turned to take it from her.  “You sure there ain’t nobody living here, Little Miss?”

She let him take the basket and threaded her hand through the crook of his arm, letting him lead her up the walk after Fiona. “Yes. Doc Plunkett’s aunt passed several years ago, and there’s some things in the house none of their children wanted. Mrs. Plunkett said we can have our pick of it if we bring her what’s left. She’s already gotten out what she intends to keep herself.”

“How do you know there’s anything left at all? People must’ve been by here since then.” He looked down at her and met her clear gray gaze, smiling up at him from behind her silver spectacles. “Don’t you think thieves...?”

Jesse was dusting himself off and falling into step behind them. “Would you come here if you didn’t have to? Look at this place!”

You’re here.” Saint smirked.

“I wouldn’t be if you hadn’t forced me..”

Saint gave a shrug of agreement. “That dog sounds like a bear breathing. You aren’t bringing him inside, are you?”

“Well, he doesn’t want to stay out here. And nobody lives here, so nobody’s gonna care.  Besides, it’s going to rain again.”

“My word.” Lily breathed, awe evident in her voice. “This is the finest house I think I’ve ever seen.”

Fiona was jiggling the key in the lock. “I imagine it was at one time,” she said. “Such a shame that it’s fallen into disrepair. The weather out here is brutal on a house”

Saint glanced at the sky as it rumbled above them before stepping up onto the expansive, covered porch. Rosy light flickered inside the purple clouds, rumbling ominously inside their great, heavy depths. “There’s worse places to spend the night,” he said as he hurried his step. “Let’s get inside and see what we got to work with.”