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Monday, November 30, 2020

The First Unconventional Christmas Carol Service

The First Unconventional Christmas Carol Service

C. A. Asbrey

We often think that a Christmas Eve carol service is traditional, even if we think about it at all. However, it's one of the many things brought to us in the Victorian era as they reinvented the way we celebrate Christmas from the lengthy festival, to one which fitted in more with the needs of the industrial revolution. December and January gave rural workers much-needed down time in which they caught up on repairs during the shorter periods of daylight. This allowed time to visit, celebrate, and unwind after a busy year. Factory workers were not dependent on daylight or seasonal vagaries. They could work every day, so the availability of people able to celebrate the long holiday diminished. The Georgian Christmas extended from St. Nicholas Day on December 6th to twelfth night on January 6th. Victorian society did not have time for such lengthy festivities. Many workplaces didn't even give workers a day off until compelled to by law in 1833 in the UK, and 1870 in the USA. 

The festive season was compressed into Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (for people in the UK). Boxing Day was the day in which many people flocked to see sports, boxing, and races. The rich traditionally ate cold-cuts to allow the servants, who had pandered to their every need the day before, a day to visit their own families. They were also given a Christmas Box, which despite the name, didn't actually consist of a box. It was a gift which could contain things like money, or fabric to make themselves a new outfit for work. Especially traditional, was the practice of giving the postman money or alcohol as a Christmas box. It was expected and taken as a given. An attempt to crack down on Christmas boxes in 1852 by the then Postmaster General, Lord Hardwicke, caused uproar throughout the UK. Documentation and petitions showed that on a good route the Christmas box could add as much as £8,000 (£641,000 today)to the postman's earnings. To put that into perspective a labourer would have to work for 109 years to mass such a sum. In regional cities it was more in the region of £425 (£34,000 today). As you can see the postal workers were not about to give that up without a fight. There were even threats to assassinate the postmaster general. But he held firm and they were forbidden - until the next year when Lord Hardwick was replaced. The new postmaster general reinstated the tradition in 1853.        

The new lifestyle, meant that Christmas Eve was often a drunken affair. People could take advantage of a day off to overindulge. Church services were largely held on Christmas Day itself. Carols weren't originally dedicated to Christmas music. They were the songs which accompanied folk dances, very secular, often indecorous, and were normally sung in the pub. The word originally meant to 'dance in a ring.' It was a man called Edward Whitebenson who decided that he was tired of drunk people singing carols in the pubs on Christmas Eve, and resolved to tempt the revellers into church instead. At least that's the famous story. He was the Bishop of Truro, Cornwall, and in a diocese so new that the cathedral hadn't even been built yet. He held his services in a shed. It took an unconventional man to reach out to the public houses. It echoed the midnight vigils long held in many churches over Christmas, but it seems Whitebenson wanted to make it more like the celebrations spilling out from the pubs. That meant mopping up the inebriated celebrants wobbling from the pubs at closing time. 

While his motivations for creating the new service haven't been written down, a great deal more has been put on paper by many members of his family. And what a story they tell. Whitebenson later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, but his family was steeped in the kind of activities, and scandals, for which monied Victorian upper classes became famous. His wife, Mary, nicknamed Ben, catalogued her affairs with thirty-nine women, or 'swarmings' as she called them. Once her husband died she moved in with, Lucy Tait, the daughter of the man who had been Archbishop of Canterbury before her husband.      

Edward Whitebenson

He had married his wife when she was only eighteen, and they had accomplished, and literary, children. Martin died at the age of 17 of meningitis, and Hugh left his father's church to become a Catholic priest. Their son, Arthur wrote the words to Elgar's 'Land of Hope and Glory'. He famously declared that the nearest he ever came to having a relationship with a woman was a kiss on the forehead. Fred Benson was a figure skater, and was the E.F. Benson who penned the Map and Lucia series of novels. Fred shared a villa in Capri with the famous pianist, John Ellingham Brooks.  

Their daughter, Margaret was an Egyptologist and an early proponent of Gay Rights. Her partner was Janet Gourley, but her mother's affair with Lucy Tait made Margaret so jealous she went for her mother with a carving knife. Their other daughter, Nellie, took up with the composer Ethel Smyth. The complication there was that Ethel had been Mary Whitebenson's lover. Mary is said to have worked hard to accept the relationship with good grace.   

So you can probably see that such an unconventional family life would lead a man like Edward Whitebenson to make an unconventional decision. Bringing the rowdy songs of the bar room into a church had previously been unthinkable in a world where appearances were everything - no matter what went on behind the scenes. Drunken pub songs had no place in church, to many upright Victorian minds at the time. But what a success it was!

Arthur Benson wrote, "My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve - nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church." It wasn't long before other churches followed suit, and people loved the new service.

The service took place on Christmas Eve in 1880, but what about the songs themselves? They all have various versions, some local, some very secular, others, more religious. The very old ones have various lyrics which have a hidden meaning. Some were a political satire, the meaning largely lost to us, but a way for the poor people to poke fun at the local gentry without getting into too much trouble. Others had pagan fertility roots, and the rest were just plain bawdy. 

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas wasn't a king, and wasn't even called Wenceslas (unless you speak old Czech). He was called Vaclav, a duke, known for doing good and charitable deeds, but he didn't walk the snow at night looking for poor people to help. His mother had been a pagan, and his grandmother a Christian. In a typical power-struggle of the time, his mother had his paternal grandmother assassinated - strangled with her veil. When he turned eighteen he took control of his lands, banished his mother and established a system of law and order, defended the area from attack, and generally became a very popular leader. Typical of the Game-of-Thrones-style of government which prevailed in the tenth century, Vaclav's brother Boleslav had Vaclav killed. The words we know today were written by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in 1847, and he had his own reasons for altering the story. He was trying to prove that the Czech language and culture was older, and more homogenized than it actually was, to legitimise Czech nationalism. He created many false manuscripts to that end. The work found its way to England where JM Neale put the translated words to the tune of a 13th century spring carol  from Sweden, 'Tempus Adest Floridum' ('It is time for flowering').     

The Twelve Days of Christmas

There is an apocryphal tale relating to this song that the individual gifts all relate to various Catholic symbols, and that the song was a way of allowing the persecuted Catholics to follow their faith in code. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true. Not only is the symbolism not specific to Catholicism, but there are versions of the song going back to at least 1625. The oldest version is titled both 'The New Dial', and 'In those Twelve Days'. The twelve days started on Christmas day, and ended on Epiphany on January 6th.

It is an example of a very old kind of folk music called a cumulative song, which are sung in groups as a kind of game, adding lines for the next in turn to remember as a kind of challenge. These are an extremely old form of entertainment, and the oldest recorded example of a children's song is a cumulative song, 'Chad Gadya'. It's a Sephardic Jewish Passover song which has versions in Aramaic, the language in use by Jews at the time of Jesus Christ. You may be interested to know that over the twelve days of Christmas a staggering total of 364 gifts are delivered by the singer's true love.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Look at any hymn book and your see that the lyrics were written by Wesley, tune by Mendelssohn. Except they weren't. Wesley was said to be most displeased when George Whitefield changed the words to the carol he penned a full twenty years earlier, and was quoted as saying he didn't want to be, "accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men." Wesley was said to have been inspired by the sound of church bells as he walked to church on Christmas day. That's what the 'welken rings' he referred to in the first line mean in the original lyrics.

"Hark how all the welkin rings

Glory to the King of Kings

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled." 

Mendelssohn never even heard the hymn. The music he wrote in 1850 was to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the invention of Gutenberg's printing press. As the anniversary passed, people stopped singing the song. Mendelssohn wrote that he didn't mind if new words were put to the song as long as they weren't religious. He was already dead by the time someone matched Whitefield's altered lyrics to the song the composer asked to be kept secular. Next time you sing it, you may want to remember that you are going against the express wishes of the lyricist and composer. 

Deck the Halls

This is a prime example of the Christmas Carol originally being an bawdy folk song. The actual song is very old, the tune dating back to at least the sixteenth century, and is known in Welsh as Nos Galen (not to be confused with the Nos Galen Road Race, which commemorates the legendary Welsh athlete Guto Nyth Brân[1700-1730]). 

The original lyrics, when translated from the  original Welsh, celebrate fleshly desire rather than religious fervour.

"Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la 
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la
Oh! how blessed are the blisses, Words of love, and mutual kisses, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la" 

Scottish musician, Thomas Oliphant, took the ballad and sanitised it for prim Victorian sensibilities. It's important to note that the Welsh weren't any more bawdy than anyone else in the British Isles. Other traditional songs have similar indecorous roots, tying Christmas right in with it's Saturnalian and Yule roots, alongside the Pagan Celtic fertility symbols. The Romans would exchange boughs of holy and ivy, and the Anglo-Saxons lit a Yule log, and left it to burn itself out for days. The type of wood had sacred significance too. In England it was Oak (very scared to the Druids, and related to strength and wisdom), in Scotland it was the sacred Birch (reputed to ward off evil), and in France it was cherry (immortality, and related to love and future fertility, and scattered with wine before being set alight). It was considered bad luck if it went out early. It's important to remember that people didn't want to give up what was sacred to them easily when Christianity came to Britain. Many ancient churches are built directly on top of the ancient sacred groves, and the existing symbols were co-opted with adjusted significance. When you are singing "The Holy and the Ivy" the original meaning was to celebrate the magical properties of evergreens. It's an act of sympathetic magic to invite back the fertility of spring. The thorns of the holly were a phallic symbol of male fertility, while the ivy represented the female.

Mistletoe was sacred to the druids, as well as having significance to the Romans and Greeks, but it's the northern Europeans who resolutely held onto it in their winter celebrations. It's semen-like sap coming from crushed berries, along with the almost-miraculous way it self-seeded on already-sacred trees, means isn't hard to connect to fertility rites. And from there, it's not too big a leap to the kissing traditions which come from many countries.

It's worth noting that the American mistletoe is different to the European version, and that the European plant was used medicinally in ancient times, and still is. Those druids may have been on to something. It's now used to treat seizures, to lower the heart rate, and to treat certain types of cancer. It is a poisonous plant, so unless it's prescribed for you, please only use it for a traditional smooch as you enjoy your Christmas celebrations.

Merry Christmas and happy everything - no matter what you celebrate!


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Father of the Yukon – Jack McQuesten

      The Yukon River is the third longest river in North America. It flows northwest from the Coastal Range mountains of northern British Columbia, Canada, through the Yukon Territory and Alaska to the Bering Sea. Long before ships carried loads of gold to Seattle and San Francisco in 1897, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush, trappers, miners and traders inhabited areas around the Yukon River and there was a lot of movement back and forth between Canada and Alaska Territory. One of the most prominent of these early settlers was Jack McQuesten, the Father of the Yukon.

Jack McQuesten

      Leroy Napoleon (Jack) McQuesten was born in New England in 1836, but grew up on a farm in Illinois. At age 13, he accompanied family members on a quest for riches in the 1849 California Gold Rush. Even as a young man, he was an imposing figure, standing well over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds.

     By 1858, Jack had trekked north to British Columbia, Canada, where he became a voyager for the Hudson‘s Bay Company. A few years later he left and established a fur trade of his own, and by 1863 he was mining for gold on the Frasier River.

     In 1871, McQuesten learned that the United States had purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Two years later, the Hudson’s Bay Company (which Russia had permitted to operate in Alaska) was forced to leave, and the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) assumed the property they left behind. The ACC established trading posts all over the Alaska Territory. He and a group pf cohorts went to Alaska, where they prospected for gold and became involved in the prosperous fur trade.

     At the request of an indigenous chief, McQuesten established a trading post in 1874. The post, which he named Fort Reliance was located in Canada on the east bank of the Yukon River, seven miles downstream of the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. Fort Reliance became the center of the fur trade and mining activities in the upper Yukon River and remained so for more than a decade.

McQuesten's Family

In 1878, McQuesten married Satejdenalno, an indigenous woman who became known as Katherine or Kate. She was from the Kokrines village, and had attended the Russian mission school. Fluent in Koyukon, Russian, and English, she often acted as an intermediary for her husband and his partners when communicating with the local indigenous people. 


     McQuesten belonged to the Yukon Order of Pioneers. This was a fraternal organization established to provide for the welfare of its members and for local policing and adjudication in the absence of government authorities and formal law. Later, McQuesten helped to found a similar brotherhood, the Alaskan Order of Yukon Pioneers, and was its first elected president. Their motto was the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."  

Remains of Fort Reliance Chimney

     Fort Reliance also served as the compass for the region. Two examples remain today. The mouth of the Fortymile River and settlement there is 40 miles downstream from Fort Reliance. The mouth of the Sixtymile River is 60 miles upstream from Fort Reliance. Gold was discovered at Forty Mile in 1886, and it became the first major frontier settlement.

     By then, Fort Reliance was in decline. McQuesten and two partners built a store at Forty Mile in 1887. The three men grubstaked prospectors, giving them credit on their supplies until they could mine enough gold to pay off their bills.

McQuesten's store in Circle City, Alaska

     When gold was discovered downriver at Birch Creek in 1892, McQuesten grubstaked half the miners who set off to check out the new area. When the prospectors proved  the area even richer than Forty Mile, McQuesten followed in 1894 and set up a successful store at Circle City, Alaska. 

     Yukon Jack, the 100-proof Canadian whiskey, was named after Jack McQuesten. He met Jack London in 1897 and their meeting is believed to have inspired some of London’s novels that were set in the northland. 

     Predicting food shortages as a result of the influx of prospectors after the Klondike gold strike, McQuesten moved his family to California in 1897. He died there in 1909.

     In Yukon Places and Names, R.C. Coutts wrote (p.175): “His name was a byword for integrity and honesty. His trust in his fellow man was unbounded and seldom wrong. Nowhere in the literature of the Yukon is it possible to find a critical or unkind word about him. It is rare anywhere to find a man as highly regarded during his own lifetime as was Jack McQuesten.”

     Is there a better way to be remembered?

     McQuesten makes an appearance in my novel, The Claim. The Jack referred to in the excerpt below is Jack McQuesten.


     “I’m goin’ to get me a room for the night.” Will turned toward the door.

     Erik started. “You’re not going to camp with me on the riverbank?”

     “Naw. Men up here are honest. No need to police your gear and the skows are tied up secure.” Will grinned. “This here is the Paris of Alaska. With some of that money ya paid me, I intend to have myself a spree before we head back to Forty Mile.”

     Erik’s brow furrowed. “A what?”

     “Spree.” Jack said. “Miners let off steam by going to all the saloons buying drinks and cigars for everyone. They don’t get to town often so they’re wound tight as a tick.” He frowned. “When they get out of hand, they can bust up a place pretty bad.”

     Erik swallowed his reproach. He’d met men up here with Oxford degrees, and the long summer days and winter nights made customs of Outside society seem absurd. Will had taught him not to pass judgement.

     “Ya want to join me?” Another grin spread across Will’s face.

     “No, I’m going to turn in early.”

     Will shook his head. “Then, I’ll see ya in the mornin’.”

     Jack turned to Erik. “Now let’s talk turkey.” 


Monday, November 23, 2020

Viking Magic - Plus Excerpt of the hero of "The Viking & the Pictish Princess" using such magic

The Vikings believed in magic. I used one of their beliefs in my "Viking and the Pictish Princess," the idea of a cursing pole.

Called a Nithing pole (in old Norse this means Scorn Pole), this was a long staff or pole, set into the earth and topped with a horse's head. It was meant to bring bad luck, and along with runes, was intended to create malice and trouble.

Such rituals and poles are recorded in the Viking Sagas, as in Egil's Saga. You can see what he did in this excerpt on Wikipedia

My Viking warrior Olaf also uses a Nithing pole. Instead of a horse's head he uses a deer's head, to placate the spirits and gods of the Pictish kingdom that he and his new wife are striving to protect from invaders and rival ruler Constantine. 


Up on the moor, beside the old ring of stones and facing

east, he had set up a cursing pole to anger and offend the spirits

of Constantine’s land, to give himself and his folk good

luck and to force bad luck onto Mongfind and her ilk. He had

slammed the newly felled and trimmed ash sapling into the

earth and snow, driving it down in his fury and frustration,

and topped the pole with the head of the roe deer, as sacrifice

to Loki, to Odin and to any Pictish god who would heed a Viking.

Man’s magic, for sure, but is it good to hold such secrets from my


It had to be, he decided. Eithne, these days, often looked

drawn and troubled. She had enough pain with her sister’s



As a strange writer's coincidence I wanted a Norse name for a small black horse, one that would roughly translate as "Sooty". I searched on the Internet and found a name: Saehrimnir, meaning sooty sea-beast. This fit nicely with Scottish and Pictish beliefs concerning water-horses and Kelpies.


Lindsay Townsend

That Old Literary Trope, the Doppelganger Switcharoo

 By Patti Sherry-Crews

Look-a-likes trading places. I’ve been hooked on that trope since as a child I watched the 1930’s classic Prince and the Pauper starring Errol Flynn. The movie about a poor boy trading places with the Tudor prince was based on the novel by Mark Twain. It was Twain’s first attempt at historical fiction.

Other favorite novels of mine employing this device are A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier, and more recently the Likeness by Tana French. The idea of switching lives with someone so alike you that you fool everyone, but then have to navigate a new social circle and pretend familiarity events not of your experience is ripe with anxiety, adventure, and unintentional humor.

When I wrote my historical western romance, Den of Thieves, I gave this plot device a shot. Wynne Palmatier is a mild-mannered shopkeeper, but when his notorious outlaw twin brother, Ennis, is captured, the Pinkerton Agency seize this opportunity by sending Wynne into the den of thieves to infiltrate the gang. 

Before setting off, Wynne has a long jail-side chat with Ennis. He learns the lay of the land and details of the other gang members. He learns everything he needs to know about his brother to successfully insert himself into the outlaw gang. Or does he? 

Bad twin, Ennis, can’t help but set traps to trip up his always perfect twin. What would happen if he left out crucial information such as there are also two women living at the hideout—and one of them is his wife.

We read as Wynne scrapes by, faking his way, having to do things that go against this law-abiding nature, and even falls in love. The experience alters our hero, who discovers his inner alpha male.

The story, full of twists and turns, is set against the aftermath of two major events that transformed the west: the Civil War and the great blizzard of 1887. People drifted west, including battle-scarred men. The Great Blizzard changed ranching from open range to enclosed fields, and as a consequence many a cowboy found himself out of work and in desperate circumstances. This soup of hard men was a recipe for the formation of outlaw gangs. 

Den of Thieves takes place in the waning days of the outlaw gangs. Newspapers, the telegraph system, and the railroad made a life on the run less desirable. My outlaw gang has seen better days by the time Wynne joins them.

Excerpt from Den of Thieves in which Wynne, who has managed to put names to faces, describes how he got out of jail to the gang. Except who are these two women?

He took in his surroundings with quick glances. Two room cabin. Rough log walls with chinking, a cast iron stove in the corner with a basket of what looked like dried cow or buffalo chips and some kindling for fuel, coats and hats hung from pegs near the door, a bear skin hung across one wall with traps hanging near it, a crudely made bench stood under the window, and the sturdy table with mismatched chairs they sat at, standing in the center of the room. Assorted crockery, tins, and mason jars lined wooden shelves set in the wall near the stove. Everything out in the open, which was good, as he didn’t want to give away how strange the surroundings were to him.

The woman at the stove, turned to face him full on. “What happened to you?”

“I just started to tell the others. I was thrown in jail. I managed to escape out a window, but I injured my—”

“That’s not what I mean,” she snapped.

“What do you mean?”

She studied him through eyelids narrowed to slits. “You’re not the same man who left here.”

His stomach flip-flopped. He put both hands on the table and stared back at her, any thoughts having flown out his head.

She waved a ladle in his direction. “You put on some weight, I notice.”

Cord snickered. “That’s what it is! A little more of Ennis came back than the one that left. I knew something wasn’t right.” He pulled out a chair across from him and sat down.

Wynne’s chest expanded, taking in the air he’d forgotten to breathe. “You know how it is. Weeks spent eating the sheriff’s wife’s food—which is not as fine as the grub I get here, by the way—laying around in a bunk all day and night. I guess it shows in my middle.”

She turned away and said under her breath, “You keep right on and somebody’s going to need to make some alterations to their clothing.”

“I expect now I’m out of jail that won’t be somebody’s concern.” That remark of hers was needlessly mean, he thought, sucking in his gut even though it was hidden under the table at the moment.

Fritzy leaned across the table, an eager expression on his face. “How’d you escape? Did you kill the sheriff?”

The tall blonde ladled out stew into blue enamel plates as the other woman placed them on the table in front of the men. He studied her again. A slip of a girl. Her mint green dress, trimmed with ribbon and lace was of good quality and accented her fine figure. Her hands trembled when she put the food before him. He smiled at her and was pleased when she returned his with a shy one of her own that faded almost as soon as it appeared.

“No, I didn’t kill anyone, Fritzy. The guard was a young greenhorn. He forgot to lock the cell—”

Cord sat up straight. “What damn fool forgets to lock the cell?”

“Like I said he was green. I don’t even think he was a regular guard. Maybe just filling in for the regular one. I never saw him before that day as a matter of fact. Anyway, he picked up my empty dinner dishes, and I guess with his hands full—and he was real nervous! You could see how scared he was of me—anyway, between one thing and another he didn’t turn the key proper in the lock.”

“But you said you got injured in the escape,” Cord said around a mouthful of stew. “Sounds like you just walked out. What’dya do trip over the door jamb and stub your toe?”

That got a snort of laughter out of the big blonde.

“I walked out of the cell, but then I had to get down from the second floor of the jail, and there was another guard posted outside—”

Cord knitted his brows. “How’d you know that?”

Distrustful sonofagun. “I knew that because I’d seen him sitting there and heard the other guard talking to him when he brought my meals to me. Now, if I can continue my story without interruption...I couldn’t take the chance there wasn’t a guard sitting there, so I jumped out a window into an alley.”

The pretty brunette, forgetting her shyness, looked at him with her big, saucer eyes. “Did you get hurt bad?”

“It did hurt some. I think I broke a rib or two when I half landed on a barrel.”

Her hand flew to her mouth, a gesture that warmed his heart.

“That seems unlikely to me,” said Cord.

“What part exactly sounds unlikely to you, Cord?” He could feel beads of sweat breaking out above his lips. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the Captain regarding him with his chin tilted back, looking down his nose at him.

Cord squinted one eye. “Well, it just seems to me that a second story window is quite a height to jump from.”

He made a fist under the table to try and steady his nerves. “Did I say jump? I meant it was more like I lowered myself down. I was aiming to land on the barrel below but missed my mark some.”

Cord seemed satisfied with that answer but pointed over at him with his fork. “Where’d you get them guns?”

Somehow after the arrest Ennis’ guns had gone missing, so the sheriff provided him with a pair of Colt revolvers. Nothing fancy, but the Peacemaker was a reliable choice.

He patted his holster. “Stole them. I went to the livery to get my horse back, and I had to knock the feller there on the head.”

“Did you kill him?” Fritzy asked in a voice straining with excitement.

“No, I didn’t kill him. I expect he recovered just fine, but I did relieve him of his guns.”

The little brunette twisted her hands in her apron. “You were very daring!”

A loud thwack got his attention. The other woman had slammed down a cutting board with a loaf of bread on it, and she was looking daggers at him.

“Ah, bread! That smells good,” he said.

The blonde inclined her head toward the brunette. “Don’t set your expectations too high. Lucy baked it. Little Miss Lucy with her head in the clouds all the time.”

The brunette’s face fell. Lucy. I want to know more about you, sweetheart. She dropped her head and from lowered eyes looked from man to man as if waiting for support.

He broke off a hunk of bread and stuffed it in his mouth. It was doughy and undercooked on the inside and the crust was overdone. “Hmmm, that’s good bread. Thank you, Lucy.” Next time he’d dunk it in his stew first. Bread’s a tricky thing, he understood. Hard to get the heat right in these old stoves. His grandma had one like that.

The big blonde looked like she wanted to slap someone. Lucy took a step away into the shadows.

Fortunately, Asa changed the subject. “What I’m wondering is didn’t the law come after you the minute they saw you missing?”

Unfortunately, the subject had returned back to the story of his escape, which he hoped to leave off telling. “I expect they did, but I assure you I was long gone by the time they figured it out.”

Asa persisted. “How do you know that? They could have followed you and might be at our door before this stew is cold.”

The Captain’s eyes went wide and he began to tremble.

Asa turned to him. “Don’t fret Captain. I’m just saying that, that’s all. Nobody’s at the door... Yet. But, if you led the law to us, I swear—”

 He laid down his fork for emphasis. “Have you ever known me for a fool?”

“Well, no, I….” Asa looked away and tugged at his long mustache.

“But, he’s got a point,” said the Captain, still shaken. “If they’ve got a good tracker….”

“They don’t. And I was very careful to not leave a trail.”

Fritzy leaned in all keen, curls quivering. “I bet you were. What kind of things did you do to put them off your trail.”

Wynne popped a hunk of bread in his mouth to buy some time. All eyes were trained on him. What the heck do trackers look for?

“Well, to start off I headed west out of town instead of the direction I needed to go and stayed on a well-traveled road where there were many tracks coming and going. Then I circled back riding down a stream bed. When I could I followed in the footsteps of others, and—”

“Enough!” Everyone jumped when the blonde pounded her fist on the table, brown eyes flashing. “It’s like listening to a child recount his day. Ennis got himself out of trouble the way he always manages to escape the consequences of his actions. It’s in his nature to wiggle out of a fix. No need to make a hero out of him. You don’t tell a hen how clever she is every time it lays an egg, because it’s just what it does by nature.”

Den of Thieves is available as a single title, or you can find it and in the collection Gambling on a Cowboy, featuring six full length novels for only $0.99.

Available on Amazon

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Book review: Jason's Angel by Cheryl Pierson


Two wounded Union soldiers will die without proper treatment. Sabrina Patrick realizes they won't get it at the Confederate army hospital where she helps nurse the wounded men. She does the unthinkable and takes them to her home.

Jason McCain’s pain is eased by the feel of clean sheets, a soft bed, and a touch that surely must belong to an angel. But what reason could an angel have for bringing him and his brother here? 

My review:

After reading several fictionalized story accounts of real historic events in the Civil War, I wanted to find some romance stories in the same time period.  I grabbed this one to start with because it was a short novella and it sounded right up my alley.

Loved Sabrina's heart and compassion and strength to do the right thing, even if it was hard.  Loved Jason's survival drive and honesty and the way he saw Sabrina.

If you have just a little bit of time and want to have a fast, light-weight, cute and sweet read, this fits the bill!

Purchase link:

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Gambling On A Cowboy and the Rise of the Pinkerton Agency

My entry into this compilation of cowboy stories features a gambler who spent his miliary career as a spy for the Union. He enlisted as one of the Confederacy, which turned many a person against him, since he had grown up in Pennsylvania, which was firmly within the Union camp. They couldn't understand why James turned his back on his country, to join forces with the opposition. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of hurt, which he is trying to overcome, now that the war has ended.
The Civil War was the most different war America ever fought, since there was no clear-cut way to tell friend from foe. No bright red uniforms, no British or French accents. Everyone was an American. They looked the same and sounded the same. The ability of a man from the north to infiltrate into southern society was relatively easy to accomplish. But easy or not, a spy needed a network to operate within, and have the ability to pass information along via a channel to the north.
Since there was no central military intelligence organization at the time, the Union generals formed their own operations. General George B. McClellan hired an already prominent detective, Allan Pinkerton, to create an espionage agency. At the time, Pinkerton was head of a well-known detective agency in Chicago, and had supplied McClellan with information during the early months of the war, so McClellan had reason to rely on Pinkerton to set up an agency in early 1861. Pinkerton assembled a group of spies to infiltrate the southern forces in Richmond. One of these gentlemen was Timothy Webster.
Webster came to America from England in 1830 with his parents, and settled in Princeton, NJ. He was eight years old at the time. He joined the police force in New York City as an adult, where he had occasion to meet Allan Pinkerton. He then joined the Pinkerton establishment in 1856. In 1861, Pinkerton sent Webster south with another spy, a female named Hattie Lawton. They posed as a married couple and infiltrated a pro-Southern group where they were privy to details on the south’s activities and plans. Through this pair, a plot to assassinate President Lincoln at his inauguration was uncovered and thwarted. Webster also managed to gain the attention of the Confederate Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, who recruited him to act as a courier of Confederate missives between Baltimore and Richmond, so he became, in effect, the first double agent in America. He copied the letters and passed them to his Union affiliates at Pinkerton.
Webster continued to work for Pinkerton through 1862, remaining in Richmond, where he fell ill. Pinkerton sent two other men to find Webster, who had ceased sending reports north. The two men were recognized as Union spies, and captured. One of them gave up the goods on Webster, who by this time had worked his way into the Confederacy. They were very embarrassed when his true leanings were uncovered and the court-martial was swift. The two men who exposed him were released, but Webster was arrested, tried, and court martialed. Hattie Lawson was also imprisoned but later released.
"The Court having maturely considered the evidence adduced, and two-thirds concurring therein, they find the prisoner guilty of the charge." "Whereupon, two-thirds the Court concurring, it was adjustment that the accused 'Suffer death by hanging.' "
When Pinkerton heard of the capture and the death sentence, he asked President Lincoln to send a message to the Confederacy that if Webster was sent to his death, the north would reciprocate by hanging one of the Confederate spies they had in their jails. Undeterred, the Confederacy hanged Webster, but he did not go down without a fight. The first rope was faulty and only partially hung him. The stunned man was quickly walked up the gallows a second time. It took two tries of hanging by a rope before his life was finally extinguished.
Pinkerton would later say, "No braver nor truer man died during the War of the Rebellion than Timothy Webster."
Lincoln removed General McClellan from his command in November, 1862, and Pinkerton resigned in solidarity, where he returned to his detective agency in Chicago.
In the 1870s, Franklin Gowan, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, hired the agency to investigate the labor unions cropping up among the railroad employees. And famously, in 1874, agents were hired to track outlaws Jesse James, The Reno Gang and The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s gang, which launched the agency into fame. Pinkerton agents were hired as muscle when transporting money and high quality merchandise throughout the west, which made them prime targets for outlaws. They were well paid and well-armed men.
As America evolved, so did the Pinkerton Agency. In the 1960s, the word “detective” disappeared from the company logo, as they performed more protective services. Today, the focus is on threat intelligence, risk management, and executive protection. In 1999, the firm was purchased by a Swedish security company, for $384 million.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Writer's Retreat

 I'm writing this the day before I post it, from a cabin in a clearing in the countryside.   Rain is pattering on the roof -- a sound that I love, but that I don't often experience, living on the 5th floor of a 21-story apartment building.  The leaves are off the trees, but yesterday I went hiking in the woods with a group of other writers, playing word games as we went.  We passed a lovely stream towards the end, and paused to listen to the sounds it made.

Do you remember Highlights for Children?   Maybe you read it as a child, or maybe your children read it.  The Highlights Foundation has a wonderful retreat center, where they run various programs for authors and illustrators of children's books.  But they also run Unretreats, where writers of any genre can rent a cabin or a room in the main lodge, with private and communal writing spaces, and three meals a day.  Right now, because of the pandemic, their workshops are online, and the Unretreats are carefully planned for maximum safety.  We're all staying and writing in separate accomodations, wearing masks (even when hiking!), and eating either out of doors, or with clear plastic barriers making an X through each table of four.

I'm here with writers I know (Finola Austin, author of Bronte's Mistress, and Kris Waldherr, author of The Lost History of Dreams) and writers I don't, both published and as yet unpublished.  There are folks who write literary fiction, fantasy, adventure, memoir, and folks who write middle grades and YA.  The conversation's been great, though limited by current circumstances -- it's not as easy to circulate and meet new people these days.  


But maybe the most wonderful thing about a writer's retreat, besides the shared purpose, is the focus.  Have I searched the Internet, texted my husband, phoned my mother?   Sure.  But mostly, I've written, and planned, and untangled a project that had felt stuck for ages.   With minimal distractions (no tv in the cabins!) and no responsibilities except to write, this Unretreat at the Highlights Foundation is the best thing I've done for myself as a writer in a very long time.

I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Here's the part where I suggest that it would be really cool if you'd check out my book, Courting Anna, but it's been out for awhile and if you were inclined to, you probably already have.  Still, hope springs eternal.   --  Cate