The Tale of the Prophets’ Massacre: An Excerpt from Night’s Tooth, Coming Late August 2019

Happy August, everyone! To celebrate my upcoming novella’s release, I’d love to share a taste of it here with you. I’ve selected a moment inspired by the journal of one of La Crosse’s founders, Nathan Myrick. Here’s the original excerpt:

“In October of that year [1844] quite a colony of Mormons came up from Nauvoo [Illinois] and landed at La Crosse…. They built twenty-five or thirty log houses and made themselves quite comfortable….The pay was drawn by the elders in provisions to support the families of the settlement. Just as the river opened in the spring [1845], the men all came down from Black River, and the men stopped cutting…. News got out they were all going to leave. I went down to the settlement to see the elders and adjust matters…. That night they set fire to most of their houses and embarked in their flat-boats, and left by the light of their burning houses for Nauvoo.”

Naythan Myrick, A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin 1841-1900

This moment of Mormons fleeing in the midst of fire and smoke got my wheels turning, and I decided to put that moment to use in this moment of altered history. Enjoy!

~*~

Well.

No one’s going to say the Bent Nail don’t live up to the title.

After all the straight streets and prim houses, Sumac finds the uneven floorboards and slap on the walls a welcome sight. Hazy smoke from the potbelly stove near the bar table on one side of the room mingles with the smells of cheap brews, raw meat, and human sweat. It’s enough to make even the biggest hunters like Sumac dizzy. He braces himself in the doorway for a moment to let his senses adjust.

Talk pauses.

Half a dozen human men—railyard foremen, like as not—huddle together at one end of the bar, waggling their mustaches over the rims of their glasses, showering the bar with whiskey. The bar dog gawks at Sumac from amongst the wood-carved mermaids and glass bottles, his hand in some mechanized motion of wiping the bar table with a stained apron. Cold from outside snaps like so many ghost-jaws at the lantern flames at the far back marking the stairs to the second floor. A few strumpets lounge on those stairs for easy selling. Who wants to sleep in a cold bed?

The wall opposite the bar’s got a crooked stone fireplace surrounded by crooked benches like as not built from ties the railroad deemed unworthy of its locomotives. Two worthless barrel boarders, one young and one old, lay on those benches with their hats over their eyes, sleeping.

Sumac sniffs the room with superior disgust. Yes indeed, a slum like this is where all humanity belonged.

Not those golden boys, though. They sit at a table in the middle of the saloon with their cards and cigars like they own the place. Sheriff Jensen was right: they’re all too pretty to be trusted, what with their clean leather coats and matching haircuts. Any real hunter’s going to have a scar or three, a coat stained by seasons and life, boots caked with dirt and blood. This pack’s all preened for some sort of show.

The golden boys give Sumac the once-over with their violet eyes. Something shimmers on one—the gold earring of the pack leader. He bares his teeth and says, “What are you looking at?”

Territorial, that one.

Sumac shrugs and saunters over to the bar table. “Beer.” He listens as the golden boys return to their game, yip and snap over their cards.

The bar dog sets the glass down. “Visiting kin?” The words croak like they don’t want to come out. It’s a man’s face in front of Sumac, but inside’s a boy never quite grown up.

Kin.

Damn violet eyes. Sumac can’t help it if most of his sort has’em. “Nope,” he says, and takes a long, slow drink.

Crescents of sweat emerge beneath the bar dog’s armpits. “Must’ve been traveling, then, your pa.”

Sumac peers over the rim of his glass.

“Twenty-five years, or thereabouts?” The bar dog scratches the side of his neck. A scar’s there, jagged and angry: a bullet’s scar. “You’re the spittin’ image of’im.”

Sumac sets his glass down. He takes out a few Confederate buttons and the old apple peeler one of Mick’s bastards tried wielding for a weapon. “Sure,” he says, and looks at the human. Hard.

A faint smell of urine stings the air between them. It leaves the moment that fool bar dog moseys down to the foremen at the other end of the bar. One asks if he’s okay.

“Just caught myself rememberin’ somethin’ nasty, is all,” says the bar dog. “The Prophets’ Massacre.”

By the sounds of the card game the golden boys have paused a hand to hear the tale.

Sumac? He don’t look up. He just goes right on whittling the shanks of the Confederate buttons, biding his time while the bar dog speaks…

“The Mormons were here then, just a short while, back in ’44, but you don’t hear tell of the other ones who came along. Called themselves Stags of the Prophet, led by some holy man who promised all these crazy things, showed off this magic trick of turnin’ himself into a deer.”

An old strumpet laughs. “My pappy didn’t get scooped in to that. He saw the stag they used all chained up in a tent.”

“Chained up nuthin’!” The old barrel boarder coughs himself upright, words slurring. Drunk or tired or both, he spits into the fire and goes on, “I saw those crazy fools. Devil men, they were, pullin’ gold out of trees and wine from the flowers. And that holy man did change. I was there.”

The strumpets all cackle, the foremen banging their glasses for more.

But the golden boys? Silent. The young barrel boarder? Snoring.

Sumac? He’s checking his handiwork on that shank. Good and sharp. A handful of tacks can be mighty useful in a chase, especially when the runner’s got paws.

The bar dog’s wiping the table again like the memory’s spilling all over, staining it. “Mormons don’t much care for the Stags’ magic show, especially when the women folk get all interested.” He pauses, shudders. “Thought all of Prairie La Crosse’d burn that day. The whole land went wild in their fight, guns and fire beneath the full moon, people screamin’ like animals, animals screamin’ like people, cougars and wolves and bears all just, just crazed for hell’s blood…” He stops wiping the table.

Sumac knows the human’s fixed on him now.

“Then out of the burning tents I see your pa, walkin’ like there ain’t no fire or hell-screamin’, goin’ straight for the Stags’ holy man—holy deer, whatever he really was, but in that moment he was a buck, thirty points easy, and sure he weren’t a stupid buck, Gabby, because he charged right for that fella’s pa. And that man grabbed the buck like he weren’t nuthin’, and dragged him by the antlers into the smoke and embers at the edge of town. I heard gruntin’ and cryin’ for a time…and then it went quiet. The Stags fled, and the Mormons, they hopped their scows and took off down the river while we put out their damn fires.”

Well. Sumac never knew he could leave such a memorable impression on a young human like that.

Thoughts, comments? I’d love to hear’em! Night’s Tooth, a new Tale of the River Vine set in my Fallen Princeborn universe, is now available as an e-book. I hope you’ll check it out!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

For the love of #westerns: one #indieauthor #writes her #fantasy world into a #timeless #genre.

Once Upon a Time in the West

I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.

Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…

Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)

But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?

Hardly.

Countless storytellers–be they writers, filmmakers, or game developers–refuse to leave the Wild West alone. Type “western” into the books’ search engine on Amazon, and thousands of results pop up. Western films have been regularly produced for audiences since 1903. That’s over a century’s worth of western storytelling produced by the United States; the number skyrockets when you look around the globe. And just last year, the best-selling video game was, of all things, a western.

What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?

I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.

A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).

The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:

The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood. 

quoted in Jeremy Anderberg’s “21 Western Novels Every Man Should Read”

This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.

The Magnificent Seven

Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)

“I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences.”

– Daniel Boone

Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!

In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….

That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–

Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.

(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)

Speaking of settings…

*

*

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A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.

Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.

True Grit

Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.

Pale Rider

La Crosse was such a place, once upon a time.

I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?

Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.

La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1867

No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.

As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.

I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!

The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.

Then it hit me.

Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…

Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.

Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.

It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…

Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.

~*~

Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)

~Stay Tuned Next Week~

I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!