Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gone To Green - Chapter 1

Gone To Green
Abingdon Press (August 2009)

Chapter 1

Post Media Company announced yesterday that its multimedia division will offer newspaper readers information around the clock, relying on the latest technology and innovation. For more information, see our Web site.

—The Dayton Post

I glanced down at the floorboard and noticed it was Thursday.

Somewhere in the last dozen years or so, I had gotten into the habit of figuring out what day of the week it was by checking the number of coffee mugs rolling around. At least I don’t keep tuna sandwiches and an ancient typewriter in the backseat, the way a guy in sports does.

Hurrying into the building, I flashed my security badge at the guard, who reluctantly lifted his head from his Word Jumble puzzle to glance and nod. Let it never be said he didn’t get his money’s worth out of the daily paper—especially since free papers are one of the perks of working at The Dayton Post. He saw me every day, several times a day, but still made me show my badge.

When I hit the front door of the newsroom, I dashed to my desk. I spend a lot of time dashing, especially in the morning when I slide into my cubicle just in time to make eye contact with my staff before the news-planning meeting.

As city editor, I’m in the middle of things, right where I like to be—most of the time. If it weren’t for night meetings and procrastinating reporters, this job wouldn’t be half bad.

I learned long ago to shape my personal life around my work. That means only occasionally grumbling about the nights and weekends. I’m still a little annoyed about Christmas—I always get stuck working because I’m the one without kids. The schedule’s already posted for five months from now, and there I sit: Lois Barker, holiday editor.

“How’s it shaping up, Scoop?”

Ed stood in the same spot he stands each morning when I hit the door, waiting to ask what we have for tomorrow’s paper. He’s the managing editor and has been for a decade. His old-fashioned nickname helps make up for all the annoying jokes I get about my name being Lois and working on the city desk: “How’s Clark Kent?” “Feeling mild-mannered today?” “Seen any speeding bullets?”

Ed probably should be the editor by now, but corporate sent in Zach about eighteen months ago—a young, suit kind of bean-counter editor who spends most of his time in accounting meetings.

Zach’s a nice enough guy, but he and Ed don’t exactly mesh. Ed thinks Zach is all stick and no carrot. “Looking good, Ed. Anything special you want us to chase?”

“Just make sure you scrape something up with a little juice to it. And, hey, are you up for some lunch today . . . maybe that sandwich shop down by the library?”

My inner radar spiked into the Red Zone. First of all, it was pork chop day at Buddy’s, our favorite spot, just around the corner. Next, Ed and I and a handful of other editors ate lunch together on a regular basis but never made it this formal. Usually we casually gathered at the back door of the newsroom and walked downtown after the noon news on TV.

To set something up in advance was close to an engraved invitation. To choose the mediocre sandwich shop meant he wanted to talk in private.

I frowned. “Sure, I’m good for lunch, but what’s up?”

Ed glanced around. In a newsroom someone always lurked with a question, a joke, or to eavesdrop. “I’ve got some news, but it’ll have to wait.”

During the news meeting, I watched Ed closely and wondered what he had on his mind. He had been antsy lately— not happy with changes in the paper.

“I don’t have anything against corporations owning newspapers,” he told me recently, “but I don’t like it when they start running newspapers.” He was particularly unsettled about the new focus on the Internet and technology. “I didn’t get into this business to do podcasts.”

Ed threw in a couple of good story ideas during the planning discussion to make sure Zach knew he was paying attention. My best friend Marti, the features editor, tried to keep her top reporter from getting pulled off onto a daily story, and Diane, the business editor, talked in riddles, as though that would somehow impress Zach.

Diane desperately wants to move up and knows Zach can help her get a plum assignment. Thankfully, she hasn’t realized it’s actually me Zach plans to move up and out. He’s supposedly grooming me to be a top editor, not only because he likes me, but because he gets some sort of company points for his promotable employees.

“He gets management stars,” Marti said when I told her about my career conversation with Zach a while back. “Or he gets to order a prize out of a catalog with lots of corporate merchandise in it. Maybe you can talk him out of a baseball cap to show off that ponytail of yours.”

Admittedly, I’m intrigued by Zach’s plans for me. At age thirty-six and still single, it’s probably time for me to consider a change.

After we finished the news meeting, Ed herded me out of the conference room. “Let’s beat the lunch crowd.” It wasn’t even 11:30 yet.

“Give me a minute,” I said. “Let me get a couple of reporters going on their assignments.”

“Hurry up,” he said and looked at his watch.

It’s a professional habit, but I try to figure things out before people tell me. Ed’s secret was killing me. As soon as we hit the door, I tossed my ideas at him. “It’s the ad director, isn’t it? He really did get fired from his last paper.” “Tony’s applying for that sports desk position in Atlanta, right?” “Zach’s mad at me about that drowning story we missed, isn’t he?” Ed wouldn’t even look at me. “I can’t take this any more! What’s up?”

“I’ve got something to tell you, something big.”

“You’re scaring me. Tell me.”

“I’m going to tell you all of it, but first you have to promise you won’t tell anyone, and I mean anyone—not Marti, not your next-door neighbor, not your aunt in Cleveland. This has to stay between us.”

Torn between irritation that he seemed to think I’d put this on the Associated Press wire and worry about the bomb he was about to drop, I stopped on the sidewalk. For once, I did not say anything.

He looked at me and smiled big. “I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Scoop, I did it! I bought my own newspaper.”

“Ed!” I squealed and gave him a quick hug. “Where? When? How? What will I do without you?” I peppered him with the standard journalistic questions and felt that sad, jealous thrill you get when something exciting happens to a good friend.

“Let’s get moving, so I can tell you everything without a bunch of ears around.”

We started walking, and I tried to smile. “Where? Details, details!”

The Green News-Item. Green, Louisiana—great little town, about seven thousand people. Lots of potential—a big, beautiful lake, a courthouse square downtown, major highway on the drawing board.”

“Louisiana? You’re kidding me. You said you’d go to Oregon or Florida or somewhere like that. Have you ever even been to Louisiana? I mean other than that editors’ convention we went to in New Orleans that time?”

“Have now, and I like the feel of the place, Scoop. I realized I didn’t want one of those cute places we talked about. This place definitely isn’t cute. Besides, if it were, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the paper.”

He sort of laughed and groaned at the same time. “This is a family sale. They want to keep Grandpa’s paper out of the hands of the government and Wall Street. It’s a twiceweekly: a twice-weekly—bigger than a puny weekly—but an honest-to-goodness newspaper, circulation 4,930, distributed throughout the county … I mean, parish. You know, they have parishes in Louisiana. Green, Louisiana. Bouef Parish. Spelled B-o-u-e-f and pronounced Beff, like Jeff. Weird.”

He laughed again.

I had never seen Ed so excited. “They like the looks of me, and I like the looks of them. Most of the family’s out of state, too, so I won’t have them breathing down my neck. It’ll be my paper to do whatever I want with.”

As he talked, I thought about what this meant in my life. What would I do without Ed? Whose shoulder would I cry on about being thirty-six and single? Ed is my mentor, friend, and confidante for every piece of good gossip I’ve picked up in the past decade and a half. The newsroom without him would be like the horrible Thanksgiving when I covered that tornado in Preble County and ate my holiday lunch at a gas station—lousy, just plain lousy.

We turned onto Calhoun Boulevard and headed into the Sandwich Express. I felt a twinge of shame at my selfishness. Ed had wanted to buy his own paper for years now, saving, always reading Editor & Publisher to see what was on the market, scouting, working the grapevine. He wanted to put miles between himself and his ex, and he was unhappy with the new corporate policies and his thousand extra duties.

“A twice-weekly,” I said. “Busy enough to be a challenge but not the hard work of a daily. In a nice little town. Green, did you say? Sounds like some tree-hugger kind of place.” I babbled, collecting my thoughts.

“Very un-tree-huggerish,” Ed said. He smiled and shook his head. “But plenty of nice trees.”

“Wow. I’m shocked. You actually did it, Ed.”

Then I asked the hardest question. “When?”

“I plan to tell Zach this afternoon that I’ll stay till after prep football season—give us time to wrap up the projects we’ve got going. I don’t know if he’ll want me around that long, though. Lame duck and all. I need to get down there before the end of the year. There’s a lot of paperwork and stuff to be done, plus I need to find a place to live.”

“Till after prep football season? That’s less than two months. Ed, what am I going to do without you?”

“You’ll do great, Lois. You’ll be out of here within a year anyway. Zach’s got you pegged to move onward and upward. I’ll be sitting in my dusty office reading about your successes on some corporate PR website. And you can come visit. I may ask you to train my staff—all twelve of them, and that’s twelve in the whole building, including the maintenance guy.”

My roast beef sandwich sat heavy in my gut, a reminder I need to eat healthier if I’m going to keep the trim figure I’m so proud of. I asked Ed for one of his antacids. He gobbled them by the truckload and complained about losing his appetite in his old age. Between the coffee and the cigarettes, his heartburn was legendary.

“Ed, you know I’m happy for you . . . I really am. I’m going to miss you, though.”

We headed back to the newsroom and the official news of the day. Suddenly, my cubicle seemed a little too small and a little too cluttered. The stack of special projects I was most proud of looked yellow and smelled musty. The ivy had more brown leaves than green. My office coffee cup had grown a new layer of mold.

Two fresh memos from Zach were in my mailbox. “Please tell your reporters to quit parking in the visitor lot,” and “The city desk needs to increase the number of stories geared to younger readers.” As I studied the second note, it pained me to realize I was no longer in the coveted younger reader category.

Ed took the next week off to handle details. “Gone fishing,” he wrote on a note posted on his office door. “Back soon.”

I moped while he was gone. “Must be a stomach bug,” I told Marti, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I hated to mislead her, but there’s always a bug going around the newsroom, so it was a fail-safe excuse.

When Ed returned, he hit the highlights of his week over a cup of coffee in the break room. “I made a quick trip to Green and sealed the deal with the owners. The sale remains confidential until I officially take ownership in ninety days. Then the current owners—McCuller is their name—will make some sort of official announcement.”

That would be one of those announcements that newspapers hate when other people make, but love it when they do. I rolled my eyes, oddly annoyed.

“I used some investment money and that little inheritance from my folks,” he said, “to get things going. And then I took out a whopping line of credit at the local bank. I have a year to start paying for this baby or bail out. Kind of scary.”

“Sounds exciting,” I said, trying to encourage him, even though it sounded very scary to me.

“There’s tons of paperwork. I met with my lawyer here in Dayton and my CPA and got all the particulars taken care of and filed for my retirement pay. I hope Zach will cut me loose—with pay, of course.” He laughed. “I’m ready to let my new life begin.”

Those were the last words Ed spoke before he passed out right there in the break room.

Within two months, he had left the newsroom all right. My gruff, sloppy, smart, hand-holding friend had died of leukemia. Not one of us had seen it coming.

The weeks of his illness were excruciating for all of us, filled with sadness for our friend and fear for ourselves at how quickly life could turn. I stopped by his house to see him as often as I could, but was ashamed that my visits were mostly hit-and-run efforts.

“Hey, how are things down in Green?” I asked one day, but he changed the subject. I didn’t have the heart to try again and ignored the copies of the paper by his couch. Somebody down there must have put him on the mail circulation list; he was too weak to travel.

I was among a handful of people, including Zach, who spoke at the funeral. Somehow I felt Zach had earned that privilege, even though Marti and a few others grumbled about a corporate newcomer charging into our private time. When it mattered most, Zach had treated Ed right.

My comments seemed a bit lightweight—corny stories like the time Ed put a banana on my telephone and called me, so I would pick the fruit up, thinking it was the receiver. I kept my comments short.

“No cry fest and no superhero stuff,” Ed told me in one of my final visits with him.

At the service, I surprised myself and several other people by saying a short prayer. “Thank you, God, for the impact of Ed’s life. Have mercy on all of us in the days ahead that we might be the people we were meant to be. Amen.”

My colleagues and I awkwardly walked away from the grave. We were good at writing about emotion, but we didn’t quite know how to handle it in this first-person version.

I cried all the way back to the newsroom, having designated myself the editor to make sure the Sunday paper got out. Sadness washed over me. Ed had never gotten the chance to live his new adventure, to try out his newspaper, to get out of Dayton and into Green, Louisiana.

His obit had missed the lead. Instead of going on and on about his distinguished career in journalism and how he was nearing retirement and loved to fish, it should have highlighted the new life he had planned. Ed wasn’t wrapping up a career. He was about to embark on a Louisiana journey.

As I hit “send” on a story, I saw Zach strolling toward me. Since he usually only phoned in on Saturdays, his appearance surprised me. Sitting on the corner of my desk, he chitchatted about the next day’s edition and picked up a paper clip, moving it back and forth between his fingers.

“I appreciated what you said at the funeral, Lois,” he said, laying down the paper clip. “I really wish I’d known Ed better, like you did. You did a great job capturing his personality—made me wish I’d taken more time to know what made him tick.”

Zach absently rummaged through my candy jar. “Moving around like I have these past few years,” he said, “I just haven’t gotten to know people deeply the way you knew Ed.”

Embarrassed and feeling like I might cry again, I concentrated on my computer screen and deleted old e-mails to avoid eye contact.

“You know, Ed thought the world of you,” Zach said. “Told me often how talented you are and how you’d be running your own paper one day. You know that, right?”

I sort of laughed, self-conscious and a little proud. “Oh, Ed liked me because we had worked together forever. He taught me so much.”

“Well, I agree with Ed. I want to offer you his job—the managing editor’s job.” My eyes widened. I closed my computer screen and slowly rolled my chair back. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’d like you to be the next M.E. I’ve already run it by corporate and gotten their okay.”

Rumors had swirled in the newsroom about who would take Ed’s place, but this had been one game I’d not let myself get drawn into, mostly because I knew it would mean Ed was truly gone.

Part of me was excited at the idea of a promotion. The other part was annoyed that Zach’s plans had been put into motion before he talked to me and that corporate had already signed off on my life.

“Well?” Zach said. “Is that a yes?”

I realized I hadn’t given him an answer. I picked up my pencil and doodled on my ever-present reporter’s notebook. The ambition in me fought with the fatigue and uncertainty these past weeks had unleashed. Ambition won.

“Thanks, Zach. That sounds great. Thanks. Sure. I’d love to be the M.E.” I tried to sound enthusiastic.

“Fantastic!” He leaned over my desk to shake my hand. “I look forward to working more closely with you. I’ll iron out the details with HR, and we’ll tell the staff within the next week or so.”

“Sounds good to me. Thanks again. I guess I’ll head on home. I’m pretty tired.” A great need to escape engulfed me.

My neat little condo with one puny pink geranium on the patio was about all I could handle at that moment. I walked straight to the bedroom and flopped down on my dark green comforter. I was too beat to think about how my life was about to change.

I briefly considered setting my alarm for church the next day, a habit I had long ago given up. I needed the inspiration, but I could not bring myself to do it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Frontiersman’s Daughter - Chapter 1

The Frontiersman’s Daughter

Revell (September 1, 2009)

Kentucke, Indian Territory, 1777

In the fading lavender twilight, at the edge of a clearing, stood half a dozen Shawnee warriors. They looked to the small log cabin nestled in the bosom of the greening ridge, as earthy and unassuming as the ground it sat upon. If not for the cabin’s breathtaking view of the river and rolling hills, arguably the finest in the territory, most passersby would easily dismiss such a place, provided they found it at all. The Indians regarded it with studied intent, taking in the sagging front porch, the willow baskets and butter churn to one side, and the vacant rocking chair still astir from the hurry of a moment before. Six brown bodies gleamed with bear grease, each perfectly still, their only movement that of sharp, dark eyes.

Inside the cabin, Ezekial Click handed a rifle to his son, Ransom, before opening the door and stepping onto the porch. His wife, Sara, took up a second gun just inside. A sudden breath of wind sent the spent blossoms of a lone dogwood tree scurrying across the clearing. From the porch, Click began speaking in the Shawnee tongue. Slowly. Respectfully. A smattering of Shawnee followed—forceful yet oddly, even hauntingly, melodic.

Sara and Ransom darted a glance out the door, troubled by every word, yet the unintelligible banter continued. At last, silence came. And then, in plain English, one brave shouted, “Click, show us your pretty daughter!”

Within the cabin, all eyes fastened on the girl hovering on the loft steps. At thirteen, Lael Click was just a slip of a thing, but her oval face showed a woman’s composure. Her pale green eyes fastened on her father’s back just beyond the yawning door frame.

She put one cautious foot to the floor, then tread the worn pine boards until she stood in her father’s shadow. She dared not look at her mother. Without further prompting she stepped forward into a dying shaft of sunlight. A sudden breeze caught the hem of her thin indigo shift and it ballooned, exposing two bare brown feet.

The same brave shouted, “Let down your hair!” She hesitated, hearing her mother’s sharp intake of breath. With trembling hands she reached for the horn combs that held back the weight of fair hair. Her mane tumbled nearly to her feet, as tangled and luxuriant as wild honeysuckle vine.

Woven in with the evening shadows was a chorus of tree frogs and katydids and the scent of soil and spring, but Lael noticed none of these things. Beside her, her father stood stoically and she fought to do the same, remembering his oft-repeated words of warning: Never give way to fear in an Indian’s sight.

Softly she expelled a ragged breath, watching as each warrior turned away. Only the tallest tarried, his eyes lingering on her as she swept up her hair with unsteady hands and subdued it with the combs.

At last they were gone, slipping away into the wall of woods. Invisible but ever present. Silent. Perhaps deadly.


Evening was a somber affair, as if the Shawnee themselves had stayed for supper. To Lael, the cold cornbread and buttermilk that filled their wooden bowls seemed as tasteless as the cabin’s chinking. Somehow she managed a sip of cider and a half-hearted bite now and then. Across from her, her mother managed neither. Only her younger brother Ransom ate, taking his portion and her own, as if oblivious to all the trouble.

Looking up, she saw a hint of a smile on her father’s face. Was he trying to put her at ease? Not possible. He sat facing the cabin door, his loaded rifle lounging against the table like an uninvited guest. Despite his defensive stance, he seemed not at all anxious like her ma but so calm she could almost believe the Indians had simply paid them a social call and they could go on about their business as if nothing had happened.

He took out his hunting knife, sliced a second sliver of cornbread, then stood. Lael watched his long shadow fall across the table and caught his quick wink as he turned away. Swallowing a smile, she concentrated on the cabin’s rafters and the ropes strung like spider webs above their heads. The sight of her favorite coverlet brought some comfort, its pattern made bright with dogwood blossoms and running vines. Here and there hung linsey dresses, a pair of winter boots, some woolen leggins, strings of dried apples and leather-britches beans, bunches of tobacco, and other sundry articles. Opposite was the loft where she and Ransom slept.

The cabin door creaked then closed as Pa disappeared onto the porch, leaving her to gather up the dirty dishes while her mother made mountain tea. Lael watched her add sassafras roots to the kettle, her bony hands shaking.

“Ma, I don’t care for any tea tonight,” she said.

“Very well. Cover the coals, then.”

Lael took a small shovel and buried the red embers with a small mountain of ash to better start a fire come morning. When she turned around, her ma had disappeared behind the tattered quilt that divided the main cabin from their corner bedroom. Ransom soon followed suit, climbing the loft ladder to play quietly with a small army of wooden soldiers garrisoned under the trundle bed.

Left alone, she couldn’t stay still, so taut in mind and body she felt she might snap. Soon every last dish and remaining crumb were cleaned up and put away. With Ma looking as though she might fall to pieces, Lael’s resolve to stay grounded only strengthened. Yet she found herself doing foolish things like snuffing out the candles before their time and pouring the dirty dishwater through a crack in the floor rather than risk setting foot outside.

The clock on the mantle sounded overloud in the strained silence, reminding her the day was done. Soon she’d have to settle in for the night. But where was Pa? She took in the open door, dangerously ajar, and the fireflies dancing in the mounting gloom. She sighed, pushed back a wisp of hair, and took a timid step toward the porch.

How far could an Indian arrow fly?

Peering around the door frame she found Pa sitting in the same place she’d found him years ago that raw November morning after his escape from the Shawnee. They had long thought him dead, and indeed all remnants of his life as a white man seemed to have been stamped out of him. His caped hunting shirt was smeared with bear grease, his deerskin leggins soiled beyond redemption. Except for an eagle-feathered scalp lock, his head was plucked completely clean of the hair that had been as fair as her own. Savage as he was, she’d hardly recognized him. Only his eyes reminded her of the man she once knew, their depths a wild, unsurrendered blue.

Tonight he was watching the woods, his gun across his knees, and his demeanor told her he shouldn’t be disturbed. Without a word she turned and climbed to the loft where she found Ransom asleep. There, in the lonesome light of a tallow candle, she shook her hair free of the horn combs a second time.

The shears she’d kept hidden since the Shawnee departed seemed cold and heavy in her hand, but her unbound hair was warm and soft as melted butter. She brought the two together, then hesitated. Looking down, she imagined the strands lying like discarded ribbon at her feet.

A sudden noise below made her jerk the scissors out of sight. Pa had come in to collect his pipe. Her sudden movement seemed to catch his eye.

“You’d best be abed, Daughter,” he called over his shoulder, his tone a trifle scolding.

She sank down on the corn-husk tick, losing the last of her resolve, and tucked the scissors away. If she changed her mind come morning, they’d be near. Catlike, she climbed over the slumbering body in the trundle bed beneath her, surprised that a seven-year-old boy could snore so loud.

The night was black as the inside of an iron skillet and nearly as hot. She lay atop the rustling tick, eyes open, craving sleep. The night sounds outside the loft window were reassuringly familiar, as was her brother’s rhythmic breathing. All was the same as it had ever been but different. The coming of the Indians had changed everything.

In just a few moments’ time the Shawnee had thrown open the door to Pa’s past, and now there would be no shutting it. She, for one, didn’t like looking back.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Surrender The Wind - Prologue

Surrender The Wind

Abingdon Press (August 2009)


On a cool autumn twilight, Seth Braxton rode his horse through a grove of dark-green hemlocks in a primeval Virginia forest, distressed that he might not make it to Yorktown in time. He ran his hand down his horse’s broad neck to calm him, slid from the saddle, and led his mount under the deep umbra of an enormous evergreen. Golden-brown pine needles shimmered in the feeble light and fell. In response to his master’s touch, the horse lifted its head, shook a dusty mane, and snorted.

“Steady, Saber. I’ll be back to get you.” Seth spoke softly and stroked the velvet muzzle. “Soon, you’ll have plenty of oats to eat and green meadows to run in.”

He threw a cautious glance at the hillside ahead of him, drew his musket from a leather holster attached to the saddle, and pulled the strap over his left shoulder. Out of the shadows and into bars of sunlight, he stepped away to join his troop of ragtag patriots. Through the dense woodland, they climbed the hill to the summit.

Sweat broke over Seth’s face and trickled down his neck and into his coarse linen hunting shirt. He wiped his slick palms along the sides of his dusty buckskin breeches and pulled his slouch hat closer to his eyes to block the glare of sun that peeked through the trees. A lock of dark hair, which had a hint of bronze within its blackness, fell over his brow, and he flicked it back with a jerk of his head. Tense, he flexed his hand, closed it tight around the barrel of his musket, and listened for the slightest noise—the soft creak of a saddle or the neigh of a horse. His keen blue eyes scanned the breaks in the trees, and his strong jaw tightened.

Shadows quivered along the ground, lengthened against tree trunks, then crept over ancient rocks. Within the forest, blue jays squawked. Splashes of blood-red uniforms interspersed amid muted green grew out of earthy hues.

A column of British infantry, led by an officer on horseback, moved around the bend. His scarlet coat, decked with ivory lapels and silver buttons, gleamed in the sunlight, his powdered wig snow white. An entourage of other lower-ranking officers accompanied him alongside the rank and file.

Without hesitation, Seth cocked the hammer of his musket to the second notch and pressed the stock into his shoulder. “Wait.” Daniel Whitmann, a young Presbyterian minister, pulled out his handkerchief, mopped the sweat off his face, and shoved the rag back into his pocket. “Wait until more are on the road. Wait for the signal to fire.”

Seth acknowledged the preacher with a glance. “Pray for us, Reverend, and for them as well. Some of us are about to face our Maker.”

Whitmann moved his weapon forward. “God shall not leave us, Seth. May the Almighty’s will be done this day.”

Seth fixed his eye on the target that moved below. He aimed his long barrel at the heart of the first redcoat in line. No fervor for battle rose within him, only a heartsick repulsion that he would take a boy’s life, a lad who should be at home tending his father’s business or at school with his mind in books. The boy lifted a weary hand and rubbed his eyes. The officer nudged his horse back and rode alongside the boy. “Stay alert, there!” The boy flinched, stiffened, and riveted his eyes ahead.

A muscle in Seth’s face twitched. He did not like the way the officer cruelly ordered the boy. With a steady arm, he narrowed one eye and made his mark with the other. He moved his tongue over his lower lip and tried to control a heated rush of nerves. He glanced to the right, his breath held tight in his chest, and waited for the signal to fire. His captain raised his hand, hesitated, then let it fall.

Flints snapped. Ochre flashed. Hissing reports sliced the air. The British surged to the roadside in disorder. Their leader threatened and harangued his men with drawn sword. He ordered them to advance, kicked laggards, and shoved his horse against his men, while bullets pelted from the patriots’ muskets.

Seth squeezed the trigger. His musket ball struck the officer’s chest. Blood gushed over the white waistcoat and spurted from the corner of the Englishman’s mouth. He slid down in the saddle and tumbled off his horse, dead.

“Fall back!” Redcoats scattered at the order, surged to the roadside, slammed backward by the force of the attack. The fallen, but not yet dead, squirmed in the dust and cried out. A redcoat climbed the embankment, slipped, and hauled back up. His bayonet caught the sunlight and Seth’s attention. The soldier headed straight for Whitmann.

His hands fumbled with his musket, and Whitmann managed to fire. The musket ball struck the redcoat through the chest. A dazed look flooded the preacher’s face.

Seth grabbed Whitmann by the shoulder and jerked him away. “Don’t think on it, Reverend.”

He shoved the heartsick minister behind him. A troop of grenadiers hurried around the bend in the road, their bayonets rigid on the tips of their long rifles. They faced about, poured a volley into the hilltop, and killed several patriots.

A musket ball whizzed past Seth’s head and smacked into the tree behind him. Bark splintered, and countless wooden needles launched into the air. His breath caught in his throat, and he pitched backward. Blood trickled from his temple, hot against his skin. He rolled onto his side, scrambled to a crouched position, and slipped behind a tree. Beside him, Whitmann lay dead, his bloody hand pressed against the wound, the other clutched around the shaft of his rifle, with his eyes opened toward heaven.

“Retreat! Retreat!” The command from a patriot leader reached Seth above the clamor of musket fire. With the other colonials, he ran into the woods. His heart pounded against his ribs. His breathing was hurried.

He glanced back over his shoulder and saw that he must run for his life. Redcoats stampeded after him through the misty Virginia wilds. His fellow patriots scurried up the hill ahead of him and slipped over the peak. With unaffected energy, he mounted the slope to follow them and ran as fast as his legs could carry him over the sleek covering of dead leaves. He had to catch up. Exhausted, he forced his body to move, crested the hill, and hastened over it, down into the holler of evergreens.

Without a moment to lose, Seth leapt into the saddle of his horse, dug in his heels, and urged Saber forward. The crack of a pistol echoed, and a redcoat’s bullet struck. Against the pull of the reins, the terrified horse twisted and fell sideways. Flung from the saddle, Seth hit the ground hard, and his breath was knocked from his body. For a tense moment, he struggled to fill his lungs and crawl back to his fallen horse. His heart sank when he saw the mortal wound that had ripped into Saber’s hide. Desperate for revenge, Seth grabbed his weapon and scrambled to his feet. But the click of a flintlock’s hammer stopped him short.

“Drop your weapon, rebel.” A redcoat stood a stone’s throw away, his long rifle poised against his shoulder.

Seth opened his hand and let his musket fall into the leaves. Soldiers hurried forward and confiscated his knife and musket, shot and powder horn. Saber moaned, and from the corner of Seth’s eye, he saw his faithful mount struggle to rise.

The redcoat that held him at gunpoint glanced at the suffering horse, and a cruel light spread across his face. Helpless, Seth watched the redcoat take the musket from a soldier and aim. The forest grew silent, and Seth’s quickened heartbeat pulsed in his jugular. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. Then his musket ended his horse’s misery.

At the blast, Seth jerked. He stepped back from the putrid smell of rum and sweat, from the pocked face that glistened with grime, and from the eyes that blazed with sordid pleasure. A firm voice gave orders to make way as an officer on horseback cantered toward him. The Englishman dismounted, took Seth’s musket from the rum-smelling buffoon, and turned it within his hands.

“Iron. Smoothbore barrel. Maker’s mark.” The officer examined the craftsmanship of the wood and forged brass. “Walnut full stock. Board of Ordnance Crown acceptance mark on the tang. Regulation Longland, I’d say. A quality piece by American standards.”

Seth bit his lower lip and clenched his fists. “I cannot kill any of your men. It’s not loaded. You have my shot and powder. Return them to me.”

The officer handed the musket over to an Iroquois scout. “A gift. Show it to your people. Tell them the king of England wished you to have it.”

“We captured a rebel.” The redcoat who shot Seth’s horse threw his shoulders back.

Colonel Robert Hawkings stood nose-to-nose with the soldier. “You think yourself worthy of some reward? One prisoner is something to boast about?”

Corporal John Perkins nodded. “Better than none at all, sir.”

“Out of my sight, you foul-smelling oaf.”

Perkins shrank back, red-faced. Hawkings planted himself in front of Seth and met his eyes. “Your colonials killed several of my men, including our major. Not only are you a rebel, but a murderer as well. You’ll hang for it.”

Seth stared straight into his enemy’s eyes. “It would be better to suffer the noose than be under the bootheels of tyrants.”

Blue veins on Hawkings’s neck swelled and he struck Seth across the face. Seth’s head jerked from the force of the blow. Slowly, he turned back and spat out the blood that flooded his mouth.

Nearby a younger officer watched. His expression burned with arrogant pride. Seth noticed the tear in the man’s jacket and saw a stream of blood had stained the white linen beneath it.

To the rear, another man stepped forward.

“Colonel Hawkings, trade this prisoner for one of our own.” He spoke in a quiet, controlled tone.

Hawkings’s brows arched, and he spun halfway on his heels. “Captain Bray, you have no satisfaction in seeing a traitor hang?”

“Hanging is for those who have been tried and sentenced. This man has not had that afforded him.”

“He deserves nothing in that regard.”

“Our government has given prisoners of war the rights of belligerents, sir. They’re not to be executed.”

“You doubt my authority in this matter?” Hawkings said.

Bray’s frown deepened. “No, sir, only your better judg-ment.”

“Stand back. I’ll shoot this rebel myself.”

Hawkings drew his pistol, pointed it at Seth’s head and cocked the hammer. Stunned, Seth’s breath caught in his throat. His body stiffened in a cold sweat.

Bray lunged and cuffed Hawkings’s wrist. “He’s unarmed.”

Hawkings shoved Bray back. “Take your hands off me. You dare defy me?”

“We are Englishmen and Christians. Let us abide by the rules of just conduct.”

Hawkings grabbed Bray’s coat and yanked his face close. “I am the officer in charge. I can do anything I wish.”

“Shooting an unarmed man is murder,” Bray said.

Hawkings paused. His expression grew grave as though he considered the word murder with great care. A moment later, he lowered his pistol. “Murder, you say? Well, I’ve had enough blood this day. I know my officers shall agree this man is guilty and that hanging is a more just and merciful punishment. Perkins, secure this rebel under that tree, the one I mean for him to swing from at dawn. Let him listen to its branches creak all night. Perhaps that will humble his rebellious heart.”

Hawkings strode off. Perkins grabbed hold of Seth and tied his wrists together. Seth lowered his eyes, stared at the ground, and refused to give Bray any sign he was grateful he had stood up for him.

“If I were you, I’d mind my place, Bray.”

Seth lifted his eyes to see Bray turn to the man who taunted him.

“Have you no honor, Captain Darden?” Bray said. “A man must speak up for justice.”

Darden pulled away from the tree he leaned against. “If you do not take care to show respect to Colonel Hawkings, you’ll regret your interference. You should know what meddling could do, after what happened at Ten Width.”

Seth let out a breath and frowned. What did these men know of Ten Width, his grandfather’s estate in England? Yanked forward, he caught Darden’s stare. Within the depths of his palegray eyes burned hatred. A corner of Darden’s mouth curled and twitched. To stay silent, Seth bit down hard on the tip of his tongue.

They led him to the oak, where he struggled with the understanding he’d die young at twenty-six. Under the shadow of the tree’s colossal branches, he cried inwardly, Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die.

Seth’s burdened heart hoped heaven heard him, but his weakened flesh doubted.


The sky hung inky-black, burdened with stars. The moon, umber and maize, cast its light over twisting leaves. With a heavy heart, Seth gazed at the vaulted heavens and made out the constellation Lyra. “Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night?” he murmured, his eyes gathering together the stars that made its shape. What lay beyond those heavenly places? Was he prepared to meet his end?

He had lived in the Virginia wilderness, fighting alongside a handful of patriots from the Potomac Militia after a gutwrenching farewell to his father, Colonel Nathan Braxton, and his younger sister, Caroline. Caroline was but a child then, and the war-torn colonies were no place for a motherless girl. He thought of her, with brotherly longing, far away in England, glad she was at least safe, fed, and clothed, living in their grandfather’s house.

A frown quivered at the corners of his mouth. She had no idea her brother was a prisoner of the British army, assigned a traitor’s death.

When the soldiers settled down before the fire and stretched out on the ground to sleep, Seth laid his head against the rough bark of the oak. A thread of blood that had seeped from the wound on his temple felt cold against his skin. Though his death was promised on the morrow, something stronger rallied his courage. He refused to accept such a fate and opened his eyes to study his surroundings. The campfire was low and gave little light. Behind him, the forest brooded in darkness.

He thought of ways he might escape and, with much tenacity, he loosened the ropes that dug at his wrists. That’s all there was to it—break the bindings and with care and caution vanish into the dark.

He twisted and turned his hands and strained hard against the cords. A slight change happened, but not enough to free him. He repeated the process again with added determination. Through the gloom, he saw Bray walk toward him. He relaxed his struggle, so as not to give away his plan.

“I’m sorry you are to die tomorrow.” Bray crouched in front of him. “I did what I could to prevent it.”

Seth pressed his mouth hard, and turned his head the other way. “What is one rebel more or less to you?”

“A human life is precious.”

“Not in war.”

“Are you thirsty?” Bray yanked the stopper free on his canteen.

Seth nodded. Bray put the opening to Seth’s mouth. The water tasted cold and sweet, and he was grateful for it.

“I’d give you something to eat, but we have nothing. Well, nothing you would want. Our men were starving, and your horse . . . I’m sorry.”

Seth pushed down his rage and swallowed hard.

Bray pinched his brows together. “Tell me your name.”

Seth hesitated, then replied in a short breath. “Braxton.”

“Braxton? An English name.”

“It was once.”

“Have you family in England?”

“My grandfather and sister live in Devonshire in some ruin of a place, where he eats his beef and subjects her to his politics.”

Bray made no sign of offense at Seth’s bitter remarks. “Is Caroline Braxton your sister?”

A jolt gripped Seth at his sister’s name. “You know her?”

“I do. She told me she had family in Virginia.”

“Is she well?”

“The last I knew, she was well.”

“At least I’ve been afforded some comfort before I die.”

“You’ll not hang,” Bray whispered. “I owe it to Caroline to help you.”

Bray drew his knife and slipped the blade between the cords and Seth’s flesh. Seth strained to pull the ropes open to give Bray room to slice. Soon the bindings broke and he rubbed his bruised skin.

“They’ll hang you instead of me,” he said.

“Trust me, I’m safe.” Bray glanced back at the sentry and set the knife back in its sheath. “There is more to tell, but we have no time. Perhaps we’ll meet again someday.”

With the cloak of darkness to cover him, Seth slipped away. Moonlight marked his path. He went heel-to-toe and stepped through the tangled maze of leaf and root. He traveled several miles before the faint rim of the land leveled off into green fields. To the east, toward the bay and river, seams of fog wove through the bottomlands. Through the trampled battlefield, Seth trudged and paused to glance at the outworks the British had abandoned—the empty trenches and redoubts.

When he reached the heart of the encampment, he moved on toward a farmhouse. He entered through the front door into a sparsely lit room, where lay row upon row of injured patriots. He made inquiries among the men and learned from a wounded solider that his father had fallen in the early hours before Cornwallis surrendered.

With bleary eyes, and his head wrapped in a bloody bandage, the lieutenant smiled up at Seth. “I know Major Braxton. I saw him fall not five yards from where I stood. He fought bravely. I cannot say, lad, whether he is living or dead.”

At these words, Seth’s hopes sank and he leaned down. “Do you know where I might find him?”

“Could be among us wounded.”

Seth thanked him and went on to look for his father. After a desperate search, he found Nathan’s body, battered and bloody from battle. He lifted the blanket that covered him. Blood stained the linen shirt, waistcoat, and navy-blue jacket. In his father’s hand, he saw the glimmer of a gold locket. He knew it kept safe his mother’s portrait. He took it and shoved it into his pocket.

He curled his hands into fists and dug his fingers into his palms to steel himself against the pain. Grief broke through, clawed at his heart, and pummeled him. He silently wept and lifted his father’s body into his arms.

“Grandfather will never understand the man you were,” he whispered against his father’s cold cheek.

He laid him back. His hand trembled, along with his heart, when he touched his father’s eyes and closed them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kathryn's Fountain - Prologue

Kathryn's Fountain

Cladach Publishing (November 8, 2008)

DO YOU BELIEVE in miracles?”

Kathryn’s intense blue eyes were locked on mine. Without taking her gaze from me, she reached for the handkerchief that was always stashed beside her in the wheelchair and wiped her wet, arthritic hands. She replaced the handkerchief and waited for my reply.

When I had arrived moments earlier for one of my regular visits to Victorian Manor, I’d found her as usual in the garden by the fountain. She had just returned the day before from an extended hospitalization; she’d been treated for pneumonia and other pulmonary complications. It didn’t surprise me that she looked weak and frail as she leaned over the side of the fountain, a little lady almost lost in her large wheelchair. Her white hair seemed to glow; her face, etched with wrinkles, was lightly dusted with makeup.

I paused to consider. She wasn’t looking for a theological answer. She had been building up the courage to ask the question; I’d seen that as she swished her hand around and around in the fountain. Her question wasn’t really a question. She was probing, getting a sense of whether it was safe to say what she wanted to say. Could she trust me?

I leaned forward in the wrought iron chair, put my elbows on my knees, and folded my hands. “Yes, I believe in miracles.”

She shook her head. “Not just the miracles of the Bible; I know a preacher should believe in those. I mean . . .” She paused, nervously stuffing the handkerchief more deeply into the space between her hip and the chair. “Do you believe that miracles happen today?”

“Yes,” I said.

She gripped both armrests and leaned forward; her blue eyes sparkled with intensity. In a voice not much louder than a whisper, she said, “Then I have a story to tell you.”

And so began the unfolding of a tale that took several visits to be told. It is one of the most amazing accounts I have ever heard, in years of ministry, before or since.

At that time, I was new at the church, and was eager to extend pastoral care to anyone who needed it. I had been told about Kathryn Williams by various members of the congregation in the first weeks after my arrival. She had been at the church “forever,” as one parishioner had put it. No one could remember when she hadn’t been there, and no one could think of a position in the church she hadn’t held. If Protestants had saints, Kathryn would have been on the fast track to sainthood.

The church was the only family Kathryn had. Her husband had been killed in a car accident twenty-four years earlier, and they had no children. Now she was in her eighties and unable to live on her own.

Victorian Manor was a pleasant enough place, with ivy climbing on the brickwork, tall windows, and a slate roof edged with ornate white trim. Originally the stately home of a wealthy financier, it had been refashioned by its current owners into a cozy, assisted-living facility. The husband, Jake, from what I could observe, bought into his wife Ruth’s dream of having such a home for the elderly and filled the role of slightly reluctant custodian.

Each of the ten residents had a private room. An elevator, added tastefully to the exterior of the building, made the three-story home handicapped-accessible. Those residents who were able shared meals around a large table set with fresh linens, delicate china, and real silverware from Ruth’s grandmother. African violets brightened the dining room windowsills. Antiques, many brought in by the residents as childhood memorabilia, occupied walls, shelves, and corners.

My favorite spot, though, was the small garden. Ivy covered most of the wrought iron fence that enclosed it, muting the city noises and obscuring the view of the sidewalk and street. The ivy was kept trimmed back at the gate to allow a glimpse of people and cars racing by, in sharp contrast to the unhurried calm that pervaded the garden. A maple tree dominated the garden, large with sprawling branches and probably as old as Victorian Manor itself. Tucked around its trunk and spreading out two or three feet like a Christmas tree skirt were red and white impatiens. An equally large oak tree near the fence lended half its branches to providing shade to the passersby on the sidewalk outside the garden. A crimson Japanese maple no more than four feet high gave a splash of color to the far back corner of the garden. A rhododendron, with its dried remnants of spring’s blossoms, occupied the other back corner. Lily of the valley lined the fence opposite the gate while hostas of various sizes, some with variegated leaves, lined the back fence. Red bricks formed a small patio tucked up against the house. A brick path meandered through the garden. The plants and bricks left little room for grass.

A large, three-tiered fountain near the gate was the centerpiece of the miniature paradise. Next to the fountain stood a small wrought-iron, round table with four matching chairs, all painted white. Here Kathryn and I had our conversations during that unusually hot, muggy summer when I assured her that I believed in miracles.

As I listened to Kathryn’s story, a hummingbird flitted about a feeder filled with sugar water, then moved in for a drink, ignoring the little perch, apparently preferring to stay airborne as it sipped. The coo of a mourning dove wafted through the garden. A cricket sang from somewhere near the base of the fountain, likely hiding in a dark crack between bricks in the patio. A robin sang from a branch in the maple tree.

Kathryn’s story tested my faith. During subsequent visits beside the fountain I had opportunities to ask questions. She filled in details and fleshed out portions of the story that didn’t come to her at the first telling.

I’ll share Kathryn’s story with you now, as best I can. My hope is that it will have a lasting impact on your life, as it has had on mine.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Montana Rose - Chapter 1

Montana Rose

Barbour Publishing, Inc (July 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Montana Territory, 1875

Cassie wanted to scream, “Put down that shovel!”

As if yelling at the red-headed gravedigger would bring Griff back to life. A gust of wind blew Cassie Griffin’s dark hair across her face, blinding her.

For one sightless moment it was as if the wind showed her perfectly what the future held for her.


Hovering in a wooded area, concealed behind a clump of quaking aspens that had gone yellow in the fall weather, she watched the hole grow as the man dug his way down into the rocky Montana earth.

Muriel, the kind storekeeper who had taken Cassie in, stood beside the ever-deepening grave. If Cassie started yelling, Muriel would start her motherly clucking again and force Cassie to return to town and go back to bed. She’d been so kind since Cassie had ridden in shouting for help.

In a detached sort of way, Cassie knew Muriel had been caring for her, coddling Cassie to get her through the day. But Cassie had gone numb since Muriel’s husband, Seth, had come back in with the news that Griff was dead. Cassie listened and answered and obeyed, but she hadn’t been able to feel anything. Until now. Now she could feel rage aimed straight at that man preparing the hole for her beloved Griff.

“I’m sorry, little one.” Cassie ran her hand over her rounded stomach. “You’ll never know your daddy now.” Her belly moved as if the baby heard Cassie and understood.

The fact that her husband was dead was Cassie’s fault. She should have gone for the doctor sooner. Griff ordered her not to, but first Griff had been worried about the cost. He’d shocked Cassie by telling her they couldn’t afford to send for the doctor. Griff had scolded Cassie if she ever asked questions about money. So she’d learned it wasn’t a wife’s place. But she’d known her parents were wealthy. Cassie had brought all their wealth into the marriage. How could they not afford a few bits for a doctor? Even as he lay sick, she’d known better than to question him about it.

Later, Griff had been out of his head with fever. She stayed with him as he’d ordered, but she should have doctored Griff better. She should have saved him somehow. Instead she’d stood by and watched her husband die inch by inch while she did nothing.

Cassie stepped closer. Another few steps and she’d be in the open. She could stop them. She could make them stop digging. Refuse to allow such a travesty when it couldn’t be true that Griff was dead.

Don’t put him in the ground! Inside her head she was screaming, denying, terrified. She had to stop this.

Before she could move she heard Muriel.

“In the West, nothing’ll get you killed faster’n stupid.” Whipcord lean, with a weathered face from long years in the harsh Montana weather, Muriel plunked her fists on her nonexistent hips.

Seth, clean-shaven once a week and overdue, stood alongside his wife, watching the proceedings, his arms crossed over his paunchy stomach. “How ’bout lazy? In the West, lazy’ll do you in faster’n stupid every time.”

“Well, I reckon Lester Griffin was both, right enough.” Muriel nodded her head.

Cassie understood the words, “lazy” and “stupid.” They were talking about Griff? She was too shocked to take in their meaning.

“Now, Muriel.” Red, the gravedigger, shoveled as he talked. “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”

On a day when Cassie didn’t feel like she knew anything, she remembered the gravedigger’s name because of his bright red hair.

One of the last coherent orders Griff had given her was, “Pay Red two bits to dig my grave, and not a penny more.”

Griff had known he was dying. Mostly delirious with fever, his mind would clear occasionally and he’d give orders: about the funeral, what he was to be buried in, what Cassie was to wear, strict orders not to be her usual foolish self and overpay for the grave digging. And not to shame him with her public behavior.

“Well honestly, it’s a wonder he wasn’t dead long before this.” Muriel crossed her arms and dared either man to disagree.

“It’s not Christian to see the bad in others.” Red dug relentlessly, the gritty slice of the shovel making a hole to swallow up Cassie’s husband. “And especially not at a time like this.”

It was just after noon on Sunday, and the funeral would be held as soon as the grave was dug.

Cassie looked down at her dress, her dark blue silk. It was a mess. She’d worn it all week, not giving herself a second to change while she cared for Griff. Then she’d left it on as she rode for town. She’d even slept in it last night. . .or rather she’d lain in bed with it on. She hadn’t slept, more than snatches, in a week. Ever since Griff’s fever started.

She needed to change to her black silk for the funeral.

Cassie wanted to hate Muriel for her words, but Muriel had mothered her, filling such a desperate void in Cassie that she couldn’t bear to blame Muriel for this rage whipping inside of Cassie’s head, pushing her to scream.

“Well, he was a poor excuse for a man and no amount of Christian charity’ll change that.” Muriel clucked and shook her head. “He lived on the labor of others ’n spent money he didn’t have.”

“It’s that snooty, fancy-dressed wife of his who drove him to an early grave,” Seth humphed. Cassie saw Seth’s shoulders quiver as he chuckled. “Of course, many’s the man who’d gladly die trying to keep that pretty little China Doll happy.”

Cassie heard Griff’s nickname for her. She ran her hands down her blue silk that lay modestly loose over her round belly. Fancy-dressed was right. Cassie admitted that. But she hadn’t needed all new dresses just because of the baby. Griff had insisted it was proper that the dresses be ordered. But however she’d come to dress so beautifully in silks and satins, there was no denying she dressed more expensively than anyone she’d met in Montana Territory. Not that she’d met many people.

But snooty? How could Seth say that? They were slandering her and, far worse, insulting Griff. She needed to defend her husband, but Griff hated emotional displays. How could she fight them without showing all the rage that boiled inside her? As the hole grew, something started to grow in Cassie that overcame her grief and fear.

Rage. Hate.

That shovel rose and fell. Dirt flew in a tidy pile and she hated Red for keeping to the task. She wanted to run at Red, screaming and clawing, and force Red to give Griff back to her. But she feared unleashing the anger roiling inside her. Griff had taught her to control all those childish impulses. Right now though, her control slipped.


“A time or two I’ve seen someone who looks to be snooty who was really just shy. . .or scared,” Muriel said.

Red kept digging, determined not to join in with this gossip. But not joining in wasn’t enough. He needed to make them stop. Instead, he kept digging as he thought about poor Cassie. She’d already been tucked into Muriel’s back room when he’d come to town yesterday, but he’d seen Seth bring Lester Griffin’s body in. He couldn’t imagine what that little woman had been through.

“When’s the last time she came into our store?” Seth asked. “Most times she didn’t even come to town. She was too good to soil her feet in Divide. And you can’t argue about fancy-dressed. Griff ordered all her dresses ready-made, sent out from the East.”

Everything about Cassie Griffin made Red think of the more civilized East. She never had a hair out of place or a speck of dirt under her fingernails. Red had seen their home, too. The fanciest building in Montana, some said. Board siding instead of logs. Three floors and so many frills and flourishes the building alone had made Lester Griffin a laughingstock. The Griffins came into the area with a fortune, but they’d gone through it fast.

“That’s right,” Muriel snipped. “Griff ordered them. A spoiled woman would pick out her own dresses and shoes and finery, not leave it to her man.”

Seth shook his head. “I declare, Muriel, you could find the good in a rattlesnake.”

Red’s shovel slammed deep in the rocky soil. “Cassie isn’t a rattlesnake.” He stood up straight and glared at Seth.

His reaction surprised him. Red didn’t let much upset him. But calling Cassie a snake made Red mad to the bone. He glanced over and saw Muriel focusing on him as she brushed back wisps of gray hair that the wind had scattered from her usual tidy bun. She stared at him, taking a good long look.

Seth, a tough old mule-skinner with a marshmallow heart, didn’t seem to notice. “This funeral’ll draw trouble. You just see if it don’t. Every man in the territory’ll come a’running to marry with such a pretty widow woman. Any woman would bring men down on her as hard and fast as a Montana blizzard, but one as pretty as Cassie Griffin?” Seth blew a tuneless whistle through his teeth. “There’ll be a stampede for sure, and none of ’em are gonna wait no decent length of time to ask for her hand.”

Red looked away from Muriel because he didn’t like what was in her eyes. He was through the tough layer of sod and the hole was getting deep fast. He tried to sound casual even though he felt a sharp pang of regret—and not just a little bit of jealousy—when he said, “Doubt she’ll still be single by the time the sun sets.”

Muriel had a strange lilt to her voice when she said, “A woman is rare out here, but a young, beautiful woman like Cassie is a prize indeed.”

Red looked up at her, trying to figure out why saying that made her so all-fired cheerful.

Seth slung his beefy arm around Muriel with rough affection. “I’ve seen the loneliness that drives these men to want a wife. It’s a rugged life, Muriel. Having you with me makes all the difference.”

Red understood the loneliness. He lived with it every day.

“She’s a fragile little thing. Tiny even with Griff’s child in her belly. She needs a man to take care of her.” Muriel’s concern sounded just the littlest bit false. Not that Muriel wasn’t genuinely concerned. Just that there was a sly tone to it, aimed straight at Red.

Red thought of Cassie’s flawless white skin and shining black hair. She had huge, remote brown eyes, with lashes long enough to wave in the breeze, and the sweetest pink lips that never curved in a smile nor opened to wish a man good day.

Red thought on what he’d say to draw a smile and a kind word from her. Such thoughts could keep a man lying awake at night. Red knew that for a fact. Oh yes, Cassie was a living, breathing test from the devil himself.

“China Doll’s the perfect name for her,” Muriel added.

Red had heard that Griff called his wife China Doll. Griff never said that in front of anyone. He always called her Mrs. Griffin, real proper and formal-like. But he’d been overheard speaking to her in private, and he’d called her China Doll. The whole town had taken to calling her that.

Red had seen such a doll in a store window when he was a youngster in Indiana. That doll, even to a roughhousing little boy, was so beautiful it always earned a long, careful look. But the white glass face was cold. and her expression serious, rather than giving the poor toy a painted on smile. It was frighteningly fragile. Rather than being fun, Red thought a China doll would be a sad thing to own and, in the end, a burden to keep unbroken and clean. All of those things described Cassandra Griffin right down to the ground. Knowing all of that didn’t stop him from wanting her.

Cassie got to him. She had ever since the first time he’d seen her nearly two years ago. And now she was available. Someone would have to marry her to keep her alive. Women didn’t live without men in the unsettled West. Life was too hard. The only unattached women around worked above the Golden Butte Saloon and, although they survived, Red didn’t consider their sad existence living.

“You’re established on the ranch these days, Red. Your bank account’s healthy.” Muriel crouched down so she was eye level with Red, who was digging himself down fast. “Maybe it’s time you took a wife.”

Red froze and looked up at his friend. Muriel was a motherly woman, though she had no children. And like a mother, she seemed comfortable meddling in his life.

Red realized he was staring and went back to the grave, tempted to toss a shovel full of dirt on Muriel’s wily face. He wouldn’t throw it hard. He just wanted to distract her.

When he was sure his voice would work, he said, “Cassie isn’t for me, Muriel. And it isn’t because of what it would cost to keep her. If she was my wife, she’d live within my means and that would be that.”

Red had already imagined—in his unruly mind—how stern he’d be when she asked for finery. “You’ll have to sew it yourself or go without.” He even pictured himself shaking a scolding finger right under her turned-up nose. She’d mind him.

He’d imagined it many times, many, many times. And long before Griff died, which was so improper Red felt shame. He’d tried to control his willful thoughts. But a man couldn’t stop himself from thinking a thought until he’d started, now could he? So he’d started a thousand times and then he stopped himself. . .mostly. He’d be kind and patient but he wouldn’t bend. He’d say, “Cass honey, you—”

Red jerked his thoughts away from the old, sinful daydream about another man’s wife. Calmly, he answered Muriel, “She isn’t for me because I would never marry a non-believer.”

With a wry smile, Seth caught on and threw in on Muriel’s side—the traitor. “A woman is a mighty scarce critter out here, Red. It don’t make sense to put too many conditions on the ones there are.”

“I know.” Red talked to himself as much as to them. He hung on to right and wrong. He clung to God’s will. “But one point I’ll never compromise on is marrying a woman who doesn’t share my faith.”

“Now, Red,” Muriel chided, “you shouldn’t judge that little girl like that. How do you know she’s not a believer?”

“I’m not judging her, Muriel.” Which Red realized was absolutely not true. “Okay, I don’t know what faith she holds. But I do know that the Griffins have never darkened the doorstep of my church.”

Neither Seth nor Muriel could argue with that, although Muriel had a mulish look that told him she wanted to.

“We’d best get back.” Seth laid a beefy hand on Muriel’s strong shoulder. “I think Mrs. Griffin is going to need some help getting ready for the funeral.”

“She’s in shock, I reckon,” Muriel said. “She hasn’t spoken more’n a dozen words since she rode in yesterday.”

“She was clear enough on what dress I needed to fetch.” Seth shook his head in disgust. “And she knew the reticule she wanted and the shoes and hairpins. I felt like a lady’s maid.”

“I’ve never seen a woman so shaken.” Muriel’s eyes softened. “The bridle was on wrong. She was riding bareback. It’s a wonder she was able to stick on that horse.”

Red didn’t want to hear anymore about how desperately in need of help Cassie was.

Muriel had been teasing him up until now, but suddenly she was dead serious. “You know what the men around here are like, Red. You know the kind of life she’s got ahead of her. There are just some things a decent man can’t let happen to a woman. Libby’s boys are off hauling freight or I’d talk to them. They’d make good husbands.”

Muriel was right, they would be good. Something burned hot and angry inside of Red when he thought of those decent, Christian men claiming Cassie.

It was even worse when Red thought of her marrying one of the rough and ready men who lived in the rugged mountains and valleys around the little town of Divide, which rested up against the great peaks of the Montana Rockies. It was almost more than he could stand to imagine her with one of them.

But, he also knew a sin when he saw it tempting him, and he refused to let Muriel change his mind. She badgered him a while longer but finally gave up.

He was glad when Seth and Muriel left him alone to finish his digging. Until he looked up and saw Cassie as if he’d conjured her with his daydreams.

But this was no sweet, fragile China Doll. She charged straight toward him, her hands fisted, her eyes on fire.

“Uh. . .hi, Miz Griffin.” He vaulted out of the shoulder-deep hole and faced her. The look on her face was enough to make him want to turn tail and run.

She swept toward him, a low sound coming from her throat that a wildcat might make just before it pounced.

She’d heard it. All of it.

God forgive me for being part of that gossip, hurting her when she’s already so badly hurt.

Whatever she wanted to say, whatever pain she wanted to inflict, he vowed to God that he’d stand here and take it as his due. Her eyes were so alive with fury and focused right on him. How many times had his unruly mind conjured up the image of Cassie focusing on him? But this wasn’t the look he’d imagined in his daydreams. In fact, a tremor of fear ran up his backbone.

His grip tightened on his shovel, not to use as a weapon to defend himself but to keep her from grabbing it and taking a swing.

“Stop it.” Her fists were clenched as if to beat on him. “Stop saying those awful things.” Red saw more life in her eyes than he ever had before. She was always quiet and reserved and distant. “Give him back. I want him back!” She moved so fast toward him that, just as she reached his side, she tripped over her skirt and fell. A terrified shriek cut off her irate words.

“Cassie!” Red dropped the shovel and caught her just as she’d have tumbled into the open grave.

She swung and landed a fist right on his chin.

His head snapped back. She had pretty good power behind her fists for a little thing. Figuring he deserved it, he held on, stepping well away from the hole in the ground. He pulled her against him as she pummeled and emitted short, sharp, frenzied screams of rage. Punching his shoulders, chest, face. He took his beating like a man. He’d earned this by causing her more pain when she’d already been dealt more than she could bear. Of course he’d tried to stop it. But he’d failed now, hadn’t he?

“I’m sorry.” He spoke low, hoping to penetrate her anger. He could barely hear himself over her shouting. “I’m so sorry about Griff, Cassie. And I’m sorry you heard us speaking ill. We were wrong. So wrong. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” His voice kept crooning as he held her, letting her wale away on him until her squeaks and her harmless blows slowed and then ceased, most likely from exhaustion, not because she’d quit hating him.

Her hands dropped suddenly. Her head fell against his chest. Her knees buckled and Red swung her up into his arms.

He looked down at her, wondering if she’d fainted dead away.

In his arms, he held perfection.

She fit against him as if his body and his heart had been created just for her. A soul-deep ache nearly buckled his own knees as he looked at her now-closed eyes. Those lashes so long they’d tangle in a breeze rested on her ashen face, tinged with one bright spot of fury raised red on her cheeks.

“I’m so sorry I hurt you. Please forgive me.” His words were both a prayer to God and a request to poor, sweet Cassie. He held her close, murmuring, apologizing.

At last her eyes fluttered open. The anger was there but not the violence. “Let me go!”

He slowly lowered her feet to the ground, keeping an arm around her waist until he was sure her legs would hold her. She stepped out of his arms as quickly as possible and gave him a look of such hatred it was more painful than the blows she’d landed. Far more painful.

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cassie honey.” Red wanted to kick himself. He shouldn’t have called her such. It was improper.

She didn’t seem to notice he was even alive. Instead, her gaze slid to that grave, that open rectangle waiting to receive Cassie’s husband. . .or what was left of him. And the hatred faded to misery, agony, and worst of all, fear.

A suppressed cry of pain told Red, as if Cassie had spoken aloud, that she wished she could join her husband in that awful hole.

Her head hanging low, her shoulders slumped, both arms wrapped around her rounded belly, she turned and walked back the way she came. Each step seemed to take all her effort as if her feet weighed a hundred pounds each.

Wondering if he should accompany her back to Muriel’s, instead he did nothing but watch. There was nothing really he could do. That worthless husband of hers was dead and he’d left his wife with one nasty mess to clean up. And Red couldn’t be the one to step in and fix it. Not if he wanted to live the life God had planned for him.

She walked into the swaying stand of aspens. They were thin enough that if he moved a bit to the side, he could keep his eye on her. Stepping farther and farther sideways to look around the trees—because he was physically unable to take his eyes off her—he saw her get safely to the store.

Just then his foot slipped off the edge of the grave. He caught himself before he fell headlong into the six feet of missing earth.

Red heard the door of Bates General Store close with a sharp bang, and Cassie went inside and left him alone in the sun and wind with a deep hole to dig and too much time to think. He grabbed his shovel and jumped down, getting back at it.

He knew he was doing the right thing by refusing to marry Cassie Griffin.

A sudden gust caught a shovelful of dirt and blew it in Red’s face. Along with the dirt that now coated him, he caught a strong whiff of the stable he’d cleaned last night. Cassie would think Red and the Western men he wanted to protect her from were one and the same. And she’d be right, up to a point. The dirt and the smell, the humble clothes, and the sod house—this was who he was, and he didn’t apologize for that to any man. . .or any woman.

Red knew there was only one way for him to serve God in this matter. He had to keep clear of Cassie Griffin.

The China Doll wasn’t for him.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Night Watchman - Chapter 1

Night Watchman

Multnomah Books (May 5, 2009)

The two men stalking me emerged from the shadows and then trailed me though the parking lot.

They lagged behind me about fifty feet. I slowed my pace, not that I wasn’t as slow as a tree slug already, to see if they would overtake me or hang back.

They hung back. Not good.

Any human at a normal pace should have passed me by now. I could feel their eyes punching holes in me, waiting for the right time to move.

Since I wasn’t up for dealing with any problems, I stepped it out as best I could. With a new-and-improved plastic pelvis and hip, along with tenmonths of physical therapy, I should be able to hobble a little faster. No such luck.The cane and gimpy leg would only go so fast. Grandma Moses on a pogo stick could hop circles
around me.

Using the rearview mirrors on the cars parked along Lake Avenue, I kept tabs on my new friends without being too obvious, a little trick I picked up when I worked undercover.No need to give them more of an advantage than they already had.

The big one, a black kidmaybe twenty years old, wore a white wife-beater muscle shirt and black jean shorts. Mini-dreads jetted from his head like a frayed ball of yarn.The other kid, probably the same age, was an anemic white with a tattoo sprawled on his neck and a shaved head that glistened under the streetlights.

With each glance I caught, they feigned like they were talking to each other, but I could sense they were planning to pounce. And why not? I was an easy mark—a crippled guy negotiating the Orlando streets alone at night. One more block to go until I was at work.

Eleven months ago I would have enjoyed this game of cat and mouse. But then I would have been the cat, a big hungry one ready to swallow those thugs like the rodents they were. I hoped they were just playing a game.

I stole a furtive glance behind me, and my tails were nowhere in sight. I stopped and shifted all the way around.Gone.Must have headed up an alley.Maybe I was just losingmy mind.Hadn’t been out much lately.

I used to love the Orlando nightlife, the clubs and things to do; the pulse of the city at night energized me. It had changed so much in a short amount of time. Faster, meaner, a stranger to me. Like I was living on a different planet. I had grown up here, not long after Mickey scurried in, back when Orlando was more of a cowtown.

Now it’s a big city plagued with big-city problems.

As I approached the corner of Lake and East Jackson,Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber raced around the corner right in front of me, both out of breath.They must have sprinted down the alley behind the store to cut me off just before I reached the intersection.

This wouldn’t end pretty.

“Hey, old man.”The ugly white kid checked up and down the street, like felons do when they’re preparing to do something monumentally stupid.

His buddy invaded my personal space on my left. “How about some spare change?” he said with an accent, maybe Haitian.

“Don’t have any change.” I eyed possible escape routes, though escape wasn’t likely in my condition. And I couldn’t count on anyone to help me, or even to notice, for that matter.On this corner, in a city of over two hundred thousand people, I was on my own…as usual.

“Then give up your wallet, or I bust your head like your leg is.”

The black kid pressed in on me.

“Okay. Okay.” I held upmy right hand while leaning more on the cane with my left. “I’ll give you my wallet. Just don’t hurt me.”

“Hurry up!” The white kid spit as he spoke, clenching his fists at his sides. “I ain’t got all night.”He was the alpha dog of the two.

If they were going to attack, he would lead.He needed to be tamed.

I reached back with my right hand, brushed past my wallet in my back pocket, and slipped my hand up into my waistband. I let go of the cane.The brass handle clanked as it bounced off the concrete, echoing around us.Huey and Dewey beaded in on it, drawing their attention down for the second I needed.

I unsnapped my Glock 9mm from its holster, then drew it to eye level, settingmy night sights on the white kid’s forehead. A stupefied look crossed his face, which must be a regular event for him. He wasn’t so alpha dog now.

“The leg’s busted, scumbag, but my finger works fine.” I gritted my teeth and leaned forward. “You wanna test it out?”

Both raised their hands. “We’re just playin’ around,man.”The black kid glanced toward his partner, who peered down the barrel of my pistol.

“I’m not. You got ten seconds to run before I call the cops.Ten. Nine.” They were half a block away before I hit five.

Retired cops can legally carry guns, even if they’re medically retired. At least I had that going for me. If not, I’d have been a quick lunch for those creeps. I thought about calling Dispatch and reporting it, but something told me my new friends would think twice for a while before robbing someone again, and I didn’t relish the idea of being listed as a victim again on an incident report with my old department.

I slid the pistol into its holster at my back, then snapped it in. I combed my fingers through my hair. The May air was thick and still. The adrenaline surge from the game with my buddies wasn’t all bad. For the first time in a while, I felt alive, energized.Too bad it would die down soon.

My cane lay on the sidewalk, which shouldn’t have been a big deal. But everything was a big deal these days.

As I stood without support, I felt like I was balancing on a dry, cracked twig ready to snap at any moment, sending me crashing to the concrete.My own legs were under someone else’s spell, because they certainly didn’t obey me anymore. I used to be able to roundhouse kick a heavy bag so hard it would bend in half. Now I had to mentally prepare to bend over and pick up my cane so I wouldn’t fall on my face like an idiot…or worse, a helpless child.

I shouldn’t have been too worried, though. Me and my physical terrorist—Imean, therapist—Helga, had been working on this. Her name really wasn’t Helga, but I liked to call her that. A linebacker- sized woman with viselike man hands, sweet Helga and I would rendezvous three times a week—whether I wanted to or not. (If I didn’t go to my therapy and doctors’ appointments, I didn’t get my medical retirement checks.) I imagine Helga’s former job was as an interrogator in a Russian gulag somewhere deep in Siberia, slapping, twisting, and pounding confessions from the prisoners.

I’ve cried out for mercy more than once on her medieval torture table.

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled as we practiced. I eased down, shifting all my weight onto my left foot while rolling my right foot on its heel, stretching it out. Throbbing bolts of pain fired up my leg then my spine, like multiple shots from a Taser. I wobbled as my fingers brushed the cane, as if I were petting the head of a snake. My middle finger caught the lip of the hawk-bill handle, then drew it into my hand. I stabbed the tip into the concrete and pressed myself up.What a production.

As I righted myself, I took a second to compose, the nerve endings in my lower half signaling their dismay and rebellion. I checked my watch. If I was gonna make my shift as the night watchman at Coral Bay Condominiums, I’d have to hustle. I’d hate to lose my new job. But then again, I didn’t have much respect for someone who’s never lost anything.

My name is Ray Quinn. Eleven months ago, I lost everything.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mohamed's Moon - Chapter 1

Mohamed's Moon

Realms (May 5, 2009)

Chapter 1

Sun sparkles on the Nile in flecks of gold, shimmering like the mask of Tutankhamen. The decaying wood boat—a felucca—is as ancient as the flow that passes beneath its hull, its sail a quilt-work of patches struggling to catch the wind. The craft creaks with the prodding of the rudder, bringing it about to tack across the current, cutting toward land with wind and water breaking against its bow. All along the shore a pattern emerges: villages sandwiched between checkerboard squares of cornfields, sugarcane, and cotton bolls. In the distance a barefoot girl herds sheep, goading them with a stick. At the sound of their bleating, a water buffalo foraging in the marsh lifts its head, causing the birds on its back to take flight. A dark-robed woman stoops to wash her dishes in the canal. Purple lilies clog the water in which a small boy also swims.

The cluster of yellow mud-brick homes erupts out of the ground like an accident of nature, a blemish marring the earth's smooth surface. There are fewer than a hundred, each composed of mud and straw—the same kind of brick the children of Israel made for their Egyptian taskmasters. Four thousand years later, little has changed.

Those living here are the poorest of the poor, indigent souls gathered from Egypt's overpopulated metropolitan centers and relocated to work small parcels of land as part of a government-sponsored program to stem the growth of poverty. It's the dearth that catches your eye, an abject sense of hopelessness that has sent most of the young men back into the cities to find work and thrust those who stayed behind into deeper and more odious schools of fundamentalist Islam.


Zainab crouched at the stove, holding back the black tarha that covered her hair. She reached down and shoveled a handful of dung into the arched opening, stoking the fire. The stove, like a giant clay egg cut in half, was set against the outside wall of the dwelling. She blew the smoldering tinder until it erupted into flame, fanning the fumes away from her watering eyes while lifting the hem of her black galabia as she stepped back, hoping to keep the smoke from saturating her freshly washed garment.

She had bathed and, in the custom of Saidi women, darkened her eyes and hennaed her hair just as Nefertiti once did, though it was hard to look beautiful draped in a shroud of black. She fingered her earrings and necklace, pleased at the way the glossy dark stones shone in the light. Mere baubles perhaps, but Khalaf had given them to her, so their value was intrinsic.

He had been away more than a month, attending school. She hadn't been able to talk to him, but at least his brother, Sayyid—she cringed, then checked herself—had been kind enough to send word that today would be a day of celebration. It had to mean Khalaf was coming home. She brought a hand up, feeling the scarf at the back of her head. She wanted him to see her with her hair down, her raven-dark tresses lustrous and full, but that would have to wait.

She went inside to prepare a meal of lettuce and tomatoes with chicken and a dish called molohaya made of greens served with rice. It was an extravagance. Most days they drank milk for breakfast and in the evening ate eggs or beans. She'd saved every extra piaster while her husband was away, walking fifteen miles in the hot Egyptian sun to sell half of the beans she'd grown just so they'd be able to dine on chicken tonight. Khalaf would be pleased.

She turned toward the door. A beam of yellow light streamed into the room, revealing specks of cosmic dust floating through the air. She brought her hands to her hips, nodding. Everything was ready. She'd swept the straw mat and the hard dirt floor. The few unfinished boards that composed the low table where they would recline were set with ceramic dishware and cups. Even the cushion of their only other piece of furniture, the long low bench that rested against the wall, had been taken outside and the dust beaten from its seams.

Not counting the latrine, which was just a stall surrounding a hole in the ground that fed into a communal septic system, the house boasted only three rooms. One room served as the kitchen, living room, and dining room. The other two were small bedrooms. The one she shared with her husband, Khalaf, was barely wide enough for the dingy mattress that lay on the dirt floor leaking tufts of cotton. The other was for their son, who slept on a straw mat with only a frayed wool blanket to keep him warm.

She wiped her hands on her robe, satisfied that everything was in order. If Sayyid was right and Khalaf had news to celebrate, he would be in good spirits, and with a special dinner to complete the mood, perhaps she would have a chance to tell him.

She thought of the letter hidden safely under her mattress. Maybe she'd get to visit her friend in America and . . . best not to think about that. Please, Isa, make it so.

She reached for the clay pitcher on the table and poured water into a metal pot. Returning to the stove outside, she slipped the pot into the arched opening where it could boil. Khalaf liked his shai dark and sweet, and for that, the water had to be hot.


The boy danced around the palm with his arms flailing, balancing the ball on his toe. He flipped it into the air and spun around to catch it on his heel and then kicked it back over his shoulder and caught it on his elbow, keeping it in artful motion without letting it touch the ground. He could continue with the ball suspended in air for hours by bouncing it off various limbs of his body. Soccer was his game. If only they would take him seriously, but that wouldn't happen until he turned thirteen and became a man, and that was still two years away. It didn't matter. One day he would be a champion, with a real ball, running down the field with the crowds chanting his name.

He let the ball drop to the ground, feigning left and right, and scooping the ball under his toes, kicked it against the palm's trunk. Score! His hands flew into the air as he did a victory dance and leaned over to snatch his ball from the ground—not a ball really, just an old sock filled with rags and enough sand to give it weight—but someday he would have a real ball and then . . . 

A cloud of blackbirds burst from the field of cane. There was a rustling, then movement. He crept to the edge of the growth, curious, but whatever, or whoever, it was remained veiled behind the curtain of green.

He pushed the cane aside. "What are you doing?" he said, staring at Layla. The shadow of the leafy stalks made her face a puzzle of light.

"Come here," she whispered, drawing him toward her with a motion of her hand.

"No. Why are you hiding?"

"Come here and I'll tell you." Her voice was subdued but also tense, like the strings of a lute stretched to the point of breaking.

"I don't want to play games. You come out. Father's not here to see you."

"We're leaving."


"Come here. We have to talk."

"Talk? Why? What's there to talk about?" The boy let his ball drop to the ground. He stepped forward and, sweeping the cane aside and pushing it behind him, held it back with his thigh.

"We have to move. They're packing right now. We have to leave within the hour." Layla's eyes glistened and filled with moisture.

The boy blinked, once, slowly, but didn't respond. He knew. His mother had overheard friends talking. He shook his head. "Then I guess you'd better go."

"My father came here because he wanted to help, but now he says we can't stay. He says we're going to Minya where there are many Christians."

"Then I won't see you again?"

"I don't know. Maybe you will. Father says he can't abandon his patients. He may come to visit, but Mother's afraid. Why do they hate us?"

The boy shook his head, his lower lip curling in a pout.

"Do you think we will marry someday?"

His eyes narrowed. Where had that come from? "Marry? We could never be married.'re a Christian."

"I know. But that doesn't mean . . . "

"Yes, it does mean! My father says you're an infidel, a blasphemer. If your father wasn't a doctor, they would've driven him out long ago. Father would never let us marry. He hates it when he sees us together."

"That's why I've been thinking . . . " She paused, adding emphasis to her words. "You and your whole family must become Christians. Then we can be married."

"You're talking like a fool, Layla. My family is Saidi. We will never be Christian."

"But your mother's a Christian."

"No, she's not!"

"Is too. I heard—"

"Liar!" The boy clenched his fists. "My dad says all Christians are liars. My mother would never become a Christian. They would kill her."

Layla reached out, took the boy by the collar, and pulled him in, kissing him on the lips. Then she pushed him back, her eyes big as saucers against her olive skin, her eyebrows raised. She shrank back into the foliage. "Sorry, I . . . I didn't . . . I just . . . excuse me. I have to go. I'll pray for you," she said and, turning away, disappeared into the dry stalks of cane.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Sacred Cipher - Prologue

The Sacred Cipher

Kregel Publications (July 31, 2009)


1889 • Alexandria, Egypt

Only three types of buyers entered the Attarine—the foolish, the fraudulent, and the forewarned. The foolish, who acted on whim instead of wisdom and expected to fleece an ignorant Egyptian native; the fraudulent, expert in identifying wellcrafted forgeries, anxious to pass them on for great profit; and the forewarned, who searched for treasure but were wise enough to employ someone who knew the ways, and the merchants, of the seductive but evil-ridden Attarine.

Spurgeon knew the risk. But treasures awaited in the twisting, narrow stone streets snaking away from the Attarine Mosque.

He had Mohammad, he had a gun, he had money—and he had God.

Peering down the darkened alley, Spurgeon worried that, maybe, he didn’t
have enough.

Mohammad entered the alley and disappeared from view. The alley was gray-on-gray, denied sunlight by overhanging, second-floor balconies adorning almost every building, their shuttered windows barely an arm’s length from each other. Joining with the dark was a riot of refuse; crazed, cadaver-like dogs; and powerfully pungent, unknown odors.

The Attarine District was home to the greatest concentration of antiquities dealers in Alexandria, both the illicit and the honorable. A person could buy almost any historical artifact along the ancient streets of the Attarine. Some were even genuine. And Charles Haddon Spurgeon was on a treasure hunt.

He held his breath; he held his heart; and he stepped into the dark.

At the first fork, Mohammed Isfahan was waiting. Spurgeon’s heart slowed its pounding pace. Mohammed confidently led the way, weaving in and out of the shoppers and the strollers who clogged the tight byways. It was early morning, before the sun began to scorch the stones, and Spurgeon was grateful for the moderate breeze off the Mediterranean. At his size, the heat sapped his strength and soaked his shirt within minutes. Though the morning was warm, Spurgeon hoped to get back into his hotel, under a fan in a shaded corner of the dining room, long before the withering heat began blowing from the Sahara. On one of his regular trips to the Middle East, Spurgeon was trolling for ancient biblical texts and Mohammed, recommended by the hotel’s concierge, promised he knew where to look.

Now fifty-six, he was England’s best-known preacher, and he grudgingly accepted the considerable influence and power he had earned as pastor of London’s famed New Park Street Church for the last thirty years. Spurgeon was the first to admit preaching was his passion.

But Spurgeon was also the first to admit that books were his weakness. He typically devoured six books per week and had written many of his own. Now, scuttling through the twilight of the dusty alley, Spurgeon sought to slake that hunger in the shops of the Attarine.

Rounding a curve in the street, Mohammed paused alongside a curtain covered doorway, pulled aside the curtain, and motioned for Spurgeon to enter. Inside the shop, not only was the atmosphere cooler, but it also carried the rich scent of old leather, soft and smooth like musty butter. Mohammed bowed reverentially as the proprietor emerged from the rear of the shop. He was a small man of an indeterminate age. What defined him were hawk-like, ebony eyes overflowing with wisdom, discerning of character, and surrounded by a brilliant white kaffiyeh. Mohammed spoke rapidly in Arabic, bowed again, and then stepped back as the proprietor approached Spurgeon.

“Salaam aleikum,” he said, bowing his head toward Spurgeon, who was startled when the man continued in perfectly cadenced English, “and peace be with you, my friend. It is an honor for my humble shop to welcome such a famous man under its roof. May I be permitted to share with you some tea and some of our little treasures?”

Wondering about the origin of the shopkeeper’s English, Spurgeon responded with a bow of his own. “Salaam aleikum, my brother. You honor me by using my language in your shop. But I must ask, how have you any knowledge of me?”

“Ah, the name of Spurgeon has found its way down many streets. I am Ibrahim El-Safti, and I am at your service. My friend, Mohammed, tells me you are interested in texts that refer to the stories of your Nazarene prophet, is that correct?”

“I would be honored to review any such texts as may be in your possession,” said Spurgeon. He took the chair and the tea that were offered by El-Safti and waited quietly as the shopkeeper sought and retrieved three books. While Spurgeon studied the books, one in Aramaic, one in Greek, and the last in an unknown language, Mohammed and the shopkeeper retired through the doorway, stepping
outside the curtain.

Spurgeon slipped into a scholar’s zone, focusing intently on the words before him. But the breeze turned, pushing aside the curtain in the door and carrying the words of Mohammed and El-Safti into the shop and up to Spurgeon’s ear—one well-trained in Arabic, among many other languages.

“What of the scroll?” Spurgeon heard Mohammed ask.

“Do not speak of that scroll in front of this infidel,” El-Safti countered, his voice stronger and more virile than it had been earlier. “You know what our tradition holds; this scroll would be of great benefit to the infidels, both the Jews and the Christians. We are to hold it in trust and keep it out of their hands at all costs.”

“You speak like an imam,” Mohammed said. “No one knows what is on that scroll; no one has been able to translate its meaning. How do we know what it contains?”

Spurgeon forgot the books in his lap. He heard a more interesting story floating on the breeze.

“If it can’t be read, is there any difference in whose hands it rests? I believe the English preacher would pay handsomely for the privilege of owning something he doesn’t understand. Ibrahim,” said Mohammed, “look at me. It could pay for your daughter’s wedding.”

“Do not tempt me, Mohammed,” El-Safti said. “That scroll has remained here for two generations, and no one has ever requested to see it. Quiet, now, and let us see what may interest the Englishman.”

Spurgeon attempted to return his attention to the books, but his eyes were pulled back to the men as they entered through the curtain. El Safti reverted to his perfectly subservient composure as he stepped before Spurgeon. The only thing out of place was an amulet — a Coptic cross with a lightning bolt flashing through on the diagonal—that slipped from the neck of his robe as he came
through the doorway.

“Do these books meet with your interest?” El-Safti asked.

Spurgeon rose from the chair and handed the books back to El-Safti. “I am disappointed to tell you, my friend, that you may have been swindled. The book in Aramaic is a fraud, and a poor one at that. The Greek, I have two copies in my library. And the third is in a language I have not seen before, but does not appear to be Semitic. Tell me, do you not possess anything more authentic?”

A moment’s silence passed through the shop. El-Safti’s pitch black eyes flickered with offense.

“My humble apologies,” El-Safti said. “Your reputation as a scholar is well earned, Dr. Spurgeon. But perhaps I do have something that you would find interesting. It is very old, but of indeterminate age.” El-Safti walked to the back of the shop. “It is an infidel’s mezuzah, nicely etched, wrapped in a very colorful piece of Moroccan silk.”

Disappointed in the books, Spurgeon’s interest increased at the mention of silk. His niece’s birthday would be upon him when he returned to England. Perhaps there was a prize here, after all.

El-Safti slipped into a small closet at the rear corner of the shop and could be heard snapping the hasp on a lock and moving a chain. Silence, then a stream of Arabic epithets, as El-Safti recoiled from the closet.

“Forgive me,” he said, his wild eyes looking first at Spurgeon and then at Mohammed. “It is gone. The scroll, it is gone.”

First fear, then unbelief, fought for dominance in El-Safti’s weathered face. His hands trembled as he wrung them together.

“Allah has punished me for my greed,” El-Safti said, slipping back into Arabic. “Mohammad, remove this infidel. And hurry back. We must think. We must find the scroll. We must find it before it is lost forever.”