Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Buffalo Hunters

Most of the time I think of myself as a TOB (Tough Old Broad), but real life keeps proving me wrong. Much of the research for my Native American romance, Dancing on Coals, was disturbing, and the particulars of the scalp hunting industry were downright upsetting.

Recently I had an idea for a story that would touch on buffalo hunting as background for one character. What I knew about the whole thing just off hand wasn’t particularly pleasant, and delving deeper didn’t change that but did give me some insight. For me, writing romances set in the Nineteenth Century West is always a balance between the love stories, which are a truth of the human condition in all times, and what we know was often a brutal and unromantic environment. Buffalo hunting was decidedly on the brutal side.

As an organized profession buffalo hunting got off the ground in a big way as the railroads expanded. The railroads hired hunters to provide meat for their crews. After the Civil War, the industry took off as demand for buffalo robes rose all over the country. I remember my Canadian relatives in Ontario showing me an old buffalo robe when I was a girl. Other uses developed, such as making drive belts for machines out of the tough leather.

Railroad workers were paid $35 a month (whites, not Chinese) at the time, so it’s easy to see the lure for a man to take up buffalo hunting when hides sold for $2 (1870) to $3 (late 70's) each and a good hunter could kill 250 animals a day (and needed at least two skinners working with him). It was a year-round profession, and men would bring as many as 2,000 hides at a time to hide yards in places like Dodge City, Kansas, and Fort Worth, Texas.

Reading about it doesn’t give me any urge to pin posthumous skill medals on those hunters. William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody got his nickname for his large daily kills, but Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, and Wild Bill Hickok are all said to have earned a living hunting buffalo at one time or another. The nature of this herd animal is such that the hunter could set up a stand (put his Sharps .55 on a tripod in a fixed location), kill the leader of a group, and the others would mill in confusion instead of running away.

The hides were taken and the meat left to rot where the bison fell, except for the tongue, which brought an extra 25 cents because it was considered a delicacy and popular in restaurants. A secondary industry of collecting bones and grinding them for fertilizer also grew out of the slaughter.

The Government’s fine hand was in all this too, of course. Killing off the buffalo was promoted as a way to starve the Plains Tribes into submission (and it did), and therefore the extinction of the bison was officially encouraged and any preservation efforts discouraged. There were an estimated 50 million bison on the Plains before “civilization” arrived, and less than 2,000 alive in 1884 at the end of the buffalo hunting era.

Today there are several buffalo ranches here in Colorado that I drive by on a regular basis, and the estimate I saw was that the descendants of those 2,000 survivors now number over 300,000 nationwide. Some small part of me wonders why no one decided to cultivate the bison that were already there in the good old days instead of flooding the Plains with cattle, but then I have a reality check and remember that the barbed wire fence that confines a cow doesn’t impress a buffalo. The fences around the buffalo ranches are impressive things that remind one of movies about gulags, only more formidable. I’ve heard that “cowboys” who herd buffalo carry shotguns as necessary tools, but never checked to see if that’s a tall tale or has some factual basis.

One of the things that amazes me is how much I have to find out about certain subjects when in the end I'm only going to include a sentence or paragraph about it in a novel, but that seems to be the way it goes.

P.S. The guy in the photo looks like he's wearing a bowler, doesn't he? But I think those are cowboy boots.

Monday, May 28, 2012


My contemporary western romance with a touch of suspense, BE MY GUEST, is set in and near Post, Texas. Please let me tell you a bit about this fascinating West Texas town.

In the early 1890s, Charles William Post developed a popular caffeine-free coffee substitute called Postum and later made a fortune on breakfast cereals such as Grape Nuts and Post Toasties. As Post's wealth grew, his interests began to expand into other areas. One project that had always intrigued him was the creation of a planned community of model homes and industry. His success in the prepared foods industry provided the financial resources to make this dream a reality.

C.W. Post initially chose a site on the high plains of the Llano Estacado for his projected settlement. Construction of Post City began at the original site until surveyors discovered that the town was 11 miles  from the geographical center of Garza County. Texas State law required a county seat to be located no more than 5 miles from the center of a county, and thus the chosen site could not serve as county seat. Post ordered work to stop and he shifted resources to a site located nearer the center of the county.

Caprock Escarpment near Post 

The new site is the present-day location of Post, Texas. Post is located at the edge of the Caprock escarpment of the Llano Estacado, the southeastern edge of the Great Plains. Post is at the junction of U.S. highways 84 and 380, east of the Caprock escarpment near the west central part of Garza County.

Statue of Post in front of Garza County Courthouse

He purchased 200,000 acres of ranchland and established the Double U. Company to manage the town's construction. The company built trim houses and numerous structures, which included the Algerita Hotel, a gin, and a textile plant. They planted trees along every street and prohibited alcoholic beverages and brothels. The Double U. Company rented and sold farms and houses to settlers. A post office began in a tent during the year of Post City's founding. Two years later the town had a school, a bank, and a newspaper, the Post City Post. The railroad reached the town in 1910.

Garza County Historical
From 1910 to 1913, Post experimented with attempts at rainmaking. Explosives were detonated in the atmosphere at timed intervals. Precipitation records, however, showed that the efforts failed.

The town changed its name to Post when it incorporated in 1914, the year of C. W. Post's death. By then Post had a population of 1,000, ten retail businesses, a dentist, a doctor, a sanitarium, and Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.

The Post estate pledged $75,000 and the town raised $35,000 in 1916 to bid unsuccessfully to become the site of the proposed West Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, later known as Texas Tech University. Thank heavens, because I grew up in Lubbock, the actual site of Texas Tech University. (And also where Celia Yeary, my husband, and I attended university.)

After an unusual beginning, Post TX is
now a typical West Texas town

In case you’re yawning and thinking who cares, I hope you will stay with me. I have long been fascinated that C. W. Post founded this town. My husband and I have driven through Post what seems like a million times in trips to and from Lubbock to visit relatives. I decided it was the perfect setting for BE MY GUEST.

Deceptively sleepy Double Mountain Fork of the
Brazos River becomes a torrent in downpours

In a heavy rain, this area quickly floods as water rushes to the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River. That’s what happens in BE MY GUEST, when Aurora O’Shaughnessy is quickly marooned with rancher Will Harrison at his ranch for 36 hours. That is long enough for Will to decide to keep her in his life as long as possible. Like forever. Aurora is on the move to Colorado, though, and takes convincing. This excerpt from BE MY GUEST actually takes place at the next county seat over in Snyder, Texas:

Cover Model Jimmy Thomas poses as if
he's in my photo of Texas wildflowers

The clock on the dashboard displayed one o'clock when Aurora found herself free to concentrate on lunch in Snyder. Clouds gathered and rumbled with thunder over the West Texas town. Aurora's empty stomach rumbled with them. After a hazardous morning, fatigue overshadowed her usually cheerful nature. She passed by the fast food places before she spotted the family restaurant recommended to her by the Texas State Trooper a few minutes ago.
    Cars and trucks filled the parking lot. What a lucky break, she thought, when she spotted illuminated taillights and a car backed out of the prime parking slot at the entrance. Aurora saw the lone man in the dusty red pickup truck facing her, waiting for the space. He sat in the very same type and color truck used by two ruffians who had terrorized her earlier in the morning. Although she knew this man could not be one of those two men, an unreasonable anger bubbled up in her directed toward all cowboys, especially those in red trucks.
    Her normally pleasant nature turned aggressive and she zipped the Mustang into the vacated park before the less maneuverable truck could occupy the space. The man honked the truck horn at her as she got out of her car. She just smiled and blew him a saucy kiss as she hurried into the restaurant. After all, any real gentleman would have let a lady have the only space in the first place, she told her nagging conscience.
    Her conscience would not be quieted so easily. She must be in shock from her morning encounter. Never had she acted so rudely. Regretting her impetuous actions already, she thanked goodness the exchange occurred with a stranger and not someone she might meet again.
    Seated in the corner booth, Aurora ordered a hamburger, French fries, and a large Dr Pepper. While she waited for her food, she reviewed the items listed under the town of Snyder in her Texas guidebook. Suddenly, she sensed someone standing beside her booth. As she looked up--and up--a huge cowboy with most of his left leg in a cast leaned his crutches against the side of the booth. He slid onto the seat beside her, which pinned her in the booth with him.
Aurora (Photo
courtesy of
Beth Trissel)
    Aurora scooted to the right as far as possible. "Hey, who do cyou think you are? This is my booth, and no one invited you to share it with me!"
    "Your car's sitting in my parking space, so I'll sit in your booth," he said calmly as he removed his Stetson and ran his fingers through sandy brown hair. He turned in his seat to hang the hat on the hook at the end of the booth by his crutches.
    Aurora blushed when she realized this must be the man whose parking space she mischievously stole. Oh no, how terrible. He must have had to park a long way from the door and hobble in on those crutches. How embarrassing. The one time in her life she acted rudely, her victim turned out to be a man handicapped by a leg cast and crutches. Still, he had his nerve sitting beside her without so much as a "may I."
    Her chin came up defensively. "Okay, I apologize. If you used one of those disability placards on your rear view mirror, people would know you have a problem."
    "Lady, my problem is that you stole my parking space," Will Harrison said coolly. He lifted his left leg so that the cast-encased foot rested on the seat facing them, then swiveled to gaze at her.
    Aurora smelled the cowboy's after-shave mixed with the clean scent of his breath when he turned his face toward her. His stone gray eyes met hers. She saw anger drain from his eyes, replaced by stunned amazement. He leaned toward her.
    Her awakened senses rocketed into response. Each thread on the sleeve of his blue chambray shirt seared where it touched her arm. For a moment Aurora had the astonishing thought that this cowboy might lean further forward and kiss her right here in public. Equally astonishing, but fleeting, came the thought that she wouldn't mind a kiss from this man. Her tongue flicked across her lips and she gave herself a mental shake, unable to turn away from his mesmerizing gaze.
    What can you be thinking? You have absolutely no business falling for some good-looking cowboy out here in the middle of nowhere. Get a grip on yourself.
    Her heart quelled the voice of reason within her mind. Aurora’s her stomach somersaulted from butterflies to flip-flops as she stared into the cowboy's wide gray eyes. She broke his gaze and peered at her folded hands a second before she threw them up in capitulation.
    "Okay, Okay. I just don't know what came over me. I know you saw the parking space first, but I'm on Bubba-overload. Look, it's a long story, but it's been a real killer morning. Once again, I apologize and plead temporary insanity" She placed her hands palms down on the table.
Rancher Will Harrison
(Yes, it's really Jimmy
Thomas again)
    His gaze raked over her, and one eyebrow elevated. "Well, well. I'm almost convinced there's remorse here. Almost--but not quite. Would you like to explain to me what 'Bubba-overload' is and what it has to do with me?"  
    "Listen, I apologized. Let's just drop it. Okay?"  Surprised at the petulant tone in her voice, she adjusted the dark green scarf that held the hair back from her face
    The man peered at her steadily, his voice polite but firm when he spoke. "No, ma'am, we can't drop it. I think I deserve an explanation after that 'Bubba' line. It sounded very much like an insult to me."
    This man obviously had his hackles up and wanted a full explanation. After her morning's adventures, she found herself impatient with this cowboy, even though her mind recognized his request sounded reasonable. Finally, Aurora swiveled at her waist to face him as much as the limited space allowed. "Oh, well, if you insist. You wore that western hat and were in a pickup truck. At a glance, you looked like the typical red-necked Bubba. All you lacked was a big wad of tobacco bulging in your cheek."
    She raised her hand and shook a finger at the man as if he were a delinquent school boy. "Listen, I've had my fill, and then some, with you guys. You follow me, whistle at me, lean out a truck window to sing to me, shout, or wave to me. I even receive various very rude gestures and get mooned. Believe it or not, I do nothing either to initiate or encourage any of this behavior."
    A skeptical smile appeared and he raised his eyebrows. A flush of color heated her face at the memory of her behavior in the parking lot. She held up one hand to stop any comment he might make before she continued.
    "Oh, I know, I acted brashly with you outside just now. Let me assure you, that's entirely unlike me. In fact, it's truly a first. I've never, ever done anything like that before."
    She shook her head in wonder. "I don't know what came over me. As I said, it must have been temporary insanity due to Bubba-overload."
    She pinched the fabric on the leg of the neatly creased blue denim jeans she wore. "Look at me. My jeans aren't skin-tight. They’re not painted on me."  With a tug at the hem of her hunter-green knit top, she added,  "My shirt isn't too tight, it has three-quarter sleeves, and the neck isn't low or revealing."
    Aurora moved her knees and elevated a foot to display canvas shoes. "I'm wearing my little Keds, not flashy pumps with stiletto heels. All in all, I think I'm dressed very sedately and not at all in a provocative way."
    The cowboy slid his glance slowly up and down her then back to her face before he smiled a slow, lazy smile that lit up his eyes and brought a dimple to his cheek. He reached over to grasp her untouched water glass and took a drink from it, his eyes returning to her face as he sipped the icy water.
    Her own mouth opened as she watched his mouth against the rim of the glass. The tip of her pink tongue slid against her upper lip as the water slid into his mouth. She could almost feel his lips as they received the liquid. To hide the rising turbulence in the pit of her stomach, Aurora glared at him. In vain she tried to avoid thoughts of his stare or the dimple that appeared with his smile.
    She forced herself to concentrate on her defense. "Um, I just drive along in my little blue Ford Mustang, enjoying the scenery and minding my own business. I do nothing to call attention to myself. I even try to be a good sport about the immature behavior some guys display."
    She took a deep breath. "I try to take it all in stride and just keep on schedule but"--Aurora slammed her hands against the top of the table--"this morning, two very frightening Bubbas tried to run me off the highway and hijack me or my car."
    His eyes widened and his mouth gaped, but she continued, "I'm only here because a State Trooper happened by in time to interrupt my abduction. Frankly, that scared the life out of me. The longer I thought about it, though, the angrier I became. By the time I got to this restaurant, I had completely lost my cool."
    Aurora took a deep breath and gazed at her hands. She recalled the fright that consumed her when she realized the two men followed her. Only quick thinking on her part prevented the two ruffians from succeeding at their attempt to run her off the road and get her out of her car. She shuddered to think what might have happened if not for the State Trooper. And never, never would she forget the faces of those two men!
    She waved her hands in a fluttery motion. "When I saw you in a truck the same color as the one that ran me off the road...well...I guess I just went bananas, berserk, crazy. That's why I'm pleading temporary insanity." Aurora leaned back and crossed her arms in front of her.
    At this moment the waitress appeared with their food. Aurora stared in amazement as the waitress set the burger, fries and Dr Pepper in front of her and a duplicate of the order in front of the man beside her.
    The waitress flashed what she probably thought of as her most seductive smile at the man. In a low, honeyed voice, she asked,  "Anything else today, Will?"
    He seemed unaware of the invitation in her voice or the hopeful sparkle in her eyes. "Not right now, Norma Sue, thanks. Go ahead and leave the check now and save yourself time."
    When the disappointed waitress left, Aurora appraised Will. How could he fail to notice the waitress’ blatant invitation?  Had he any idea how attractive he was?  Hold on, this guy might be too good to be true.
    Aurora gazed over he shoulder at the departing waitress. "How on earth did she know what to bring you?  When did you give her your order?"
    "When I came in." He leaned across her to get the salt and pepper. Will paused to flash her a truly breathtaking smile and the bottom fell out of her stomach again. "I also told her you would pick up the check.”

BE MY GUEST is available for 99 cents from Smashwords at:

and from Amazon Kindle at:

Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Trail to El Paso

  The working title for Under A Texas Star was El Paso Trail. My son still prefers the old name, but you can’t argue that the new name isn’t sexier.

Marly Landers and Ranger Jase Strachan are both headed for El Paso when they meet. Marly is after the man who cheated the people of her home town of Cherryville, Kansas. Jase is after a con man who cheated the wrong people in his home state of Texas. Of course, their quarries are one and the same man. The destination isn’t nearly important as how they get there, but they do get to El Paso eventually and I had to get a mental picture of the town before I wrote about it.

In 1581 Spanish conquistadores found their way across the Rio Bravo del Norte (aka the Rio Grande) from what would become Estados Únidos Mexicanos into what is now the United States of America. They named the passage El Paso del Rio del Norte (the pass through the river of the north). Of course, the Europeans were “discovering” an area that had already been home to native cultures. Archeological evidence supports thousands of years of human settlement within the El Paso region.

The first European settlement that would be called El Paso was south of the river – present day Ciudad Juárez. Apaches discouraged European invasion north of the river for as long as they could, but eventually farms and missions migrated north. In 1682, the Tigua Indians, fleeing the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico, together with their Spanish masters, built the mission Nuestra Señora del Carmen, in what is now a suburb of El Paso. In Under A Texas Star, Marly skips town and goes to a village surrounded by farms and vineyards that had, up to the year before, been Tigua land. In 1874, the State of Texas passed a law that turned over 500 parcels of Tigua-owned land to American settlers.

One of the key aspects for my book is that El Paso served as a major stop for the famous Butterfield Overland Mail Coach. That, and its easy access to Mexico via the Camino Real, made it an ideal destination for Charlie Meese, the fugitive Marly and Jase are tracking. At the time the story takes place, El Paso has only just been incorporated as a city. Jase notes that it has grown a lot since he was last there. To get a sense of that for myself, I looked up old maps of El Paso so I'd know where my fictional landmarks would fit among the historical ones - or at least which way was what.

  After breakfast, Jase arranged for them to have baths at one of the more reasonably priced hotels. Jase took the privilege of having the first bath, giving her the chore of taking their trail clothes to the Chinese laundry. Since he trusted her to go out on her own, Marly deduced that El Paso wasn't as dangerous as she thought―at least not by daylight.
  It might as well have been a foreign country. El Paso was nothing like anywhere Marly had been before. There were at least as many people speaking Spanish as English, and a fair number speaking other languages like German, French and Chinese. The railway was coming and the city was already showing signs of things to come.
  The El Hombre was just off the Camino Real that had linked Santa Fe and Mexico City since the first Spanish colonists settled in the area. Just down the street and across the river lay Mexico. Marly put a visit to the border on her to-do list, along with finding the post office, dealing with Meese and settling her account with Jase. However, first she had to find the laundry.

Some day I’ll have to take Marly and Jase back there when the railway comes through. That’s when El Paso really exploded - in population and lawlessness. In fact, that’s the El Paso I was originally headed to until research set me right. Ah well, it gives me something to play with later.,_Texas

Alison Bruce is the author of Under A Texas Star (western romance) and Deadly Legacy (mystery). Find her at:

Monday, May 21, 2012

What's in a Hat?

I couldn’t find a definite answer as to when the ‘Cowboy’ hat was given its name. Hats with tall crowns, which provide insulation, and wide brims, which provide shade, have been worn for centuries, and the “Stetson” design has changed very little since the first hat hit the market in 1865 by J.B. Stetson.  Actually the bowler hat was the one commonly wore in the early days of the west, and had been proclaimed as the ‘hat that won the west’ before the Stetson—or Cowboy hat. 

John Batterson Stetson manufactured a hat in 1865 that he marketed to the ‘cowboy’ as the ‘Boss of the Plains’. These hats were light weight and water-proof and depending on the construction, cost anywhere from five to thirty-dollars—the expensive ones being made of pure beaver felt.  J.B. also carried the ‘charisma’ and ‘charm’ of the west back east by retelling tales of his hats, and soon the ‘Boss of the Plains’ was as popular with city dwellers as it was cowboys. 

The Stetson received even more acclaim when one was discovered amongst the sunken wreckage of the USS Maine in 1912. Once cleaned, the hat that had been submerged in seawater for over 14 years was relatively undamaged. 

The cowboy hat was, and still is, easy to personalize. Felt hats can be shaped by the use of steam and left to cool. There was a time when the shape and creases of the hat signified where the wearer was from— the North, South, East or West, often down to the exact ranch. Crease styles in the crown have their own names. The Cattleman is creased down the center with two indentions on each side. The Bullrider is more of a square, flat top with a crease all the way around the edges, and the Carlsbad, or ‘Gus’ crease (renamed due to its popularity following the Lonesome Dove series) has a high back crown with a front crease angling downward. There are many others:

John Wayne was the first to name the Stetson ‘the hat that won the west’, and the Texas Rangers were the first to adopt it as their official headgear. (The Canadian Royal Mounted Police also use them.)

So, with all that said, what’s in a cowboy hat? 

Well, inside most original Stetsons (and many since then) was/is a memorial bow to past ‘hatters’. On the back of the hat band inside the rim there is a symbol that appears to look somewhat like a Skull and Crossbones.  In the early days felt was treated with a form of mercury that was highly toxic. After several years of making hats, early hat makers were known to come down with uncontrollable and often violent twitches. A result of the mercury their bodies had absorbed.  Hence the term ‘Mad Hatters’ or ‘Mad as a Hatter’. 

There you have it. 

My brother-in-law, a cowboy his entire life, bought my youngest son a Cowboy hat years ago for his birthday. About ten at the time, my son was so enthralled with the hat, he plunked it on his head without allowing my brother-in-law to ‘shape’ it. Therefore, my brother-in-law teasingly referred to it as a George Strait-out-of-the-box hat. 

I used that line in my next release, Sing to Me, Cowboy. This book is part of the Honky Tonk Hearts series from The Wild Rose Press and will be released on May, 23rd. Here’s a short excerpt: 

“Hey? Are you all right?”
The shiver that zipped up her spine caught in her throat with the power to strangle the life out of her. There are certain voices one never forgets—and a first love ranked very near number one.
Heather fought for air. It couldn’t possibly be him. He was in Nashville, where all the famous singers hung out.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
Her hands trembled as air finally entered her lungs. Could this night get any worse? Could her life get any worse?
Pushing off her knees, she straightened her spine, and wasn’t surprised the strangling sensation came back full force. Her heart—as if it wasn’t already racing—shifted into overdrive.
It was him.
Lance Dugan. From his George Strait-out-of-the-box-hat to his un-scuffed Justin boots.
The last person she’d ever expected to see. The last person she’d want to see in the shape she was right now.
Inhaling until her lungs threatened to burst, she squared her shoulders and wished she was back in her car, sweating to death, being eaten by wild beasts, anything but standing face to face with him.

--Don't try on another man’s hat. It’s almost as bad as getting on his horse.” –

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Badlands of South Dakota

You haven’t truly seen “the west” until you’ve seen the Badlands.

Why do I say this? I am no expert, but to me, this area had a surreal quality about it. A weather-beaten aged beauty. Lots of dust, and those varying shades of rust, brown, gold I’d always envisioned “the west” to be. I could picture horse herds here more than anywhere else, and bands of Indians (er, Native Americans) roaming the prairie.

On a drawn-out trip out west to visit family in Montana in 2002, my husband, daughter and I decided to hit a few landmarks along the way in South Dakota, plus Yellowstone. The Corn Palace was one, since I’d run across that oddity (to us) on some type of “Don’t Miss” travel tips. Wall Drugs was another, of course, due to all the signs we’d seen. Mount Rushmore, of course—and I was stunned that we could glimpse part of the massive stone heads from the highway. That was a majestic sight. But we all loved seeing the Badlands.

And I mean big time “l-o-v-e-d” as in “we HAVE to stop here on the way home again” love.

Why? We couldn’t explain that. Sure, they have a ‘rugged beauty’ and ‘striking geologic deposits’ according to the National Park website. It’s nice to know that ‘ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse and saber-toothed cat once roamed here.’ Yes, it’s astonishing that it covers almost a quarter of a million acres, that it includes mixed-grass prairie. And that ‘bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets live there today.’ Great.

I don’t know about the other animals, but we saw prairie dogs. Hundreds of ’em. I could have watched them pop in and out of their holes for hours. Cute little buggers.

First of all, a disclaimer. I live in a state known for its “leafies” – oak, maple, elm, birch, ash, pine plus plenty more, and that’s just in my neighborhood. Michigan is known for its forests and Great Lakes, plus all the small lakes in the Mitten and the UP. Green and blue are the primary colors (and I’m not talking green and white for Michigan State or blue and maize for UM). The prairie, as I first caught sight of it when we crossed from Minnesota farmland into South Dakota farmland, was fairly green, mostly brown. Wide open spaces, as the song goes, cottonwoods (I think) that usually grew near creeks or rivers. You could see rain clouds in the distance and never get wet. Very odd to us. Even the trees looked different.

So at first we didn’t notice a whole lot, driving the expressway – being from Michigan, a car ride can be pretty much "same old, same old" boring. Then we turned off to where we’d scoped out Google maps ahead of time. No trees here. Like none. Just a few scattered houses in dry, brown land. I have to say it was the middle of a hot summer, too. Anything above 85 is hot to us. It must have been 90+. And don’t tell me it’s a dry heat. Hot is hot. We drove down a two-lane country road and suddenly the world dropped off.

That’s the Badlands to me.

We stopped the car, although the road curved along the rim’s edge – maybe for a ways, we didn’t know. Or care. We all piled out. Stood on that rim, my husband and daughter closer than I ever could get to the edge. And just stared. Awestruck. The rock formations, the little gullies, the striations in the soil and the way the sunlight hit them just right, giving the browns, gold and rust hues a tinge of purple, blue, rose, even a faint gray brown. It was marvelous. No photograph can do it justice.

I can’t even describe it here all that well. But my imagination lit up, and whether or not any cowboys drove their cattle along the rim or the Indians meandered around the gullies at the bottom, I had a sense of the true magic of “the west.” Yes, the Rockies are just as magnificent. I’m sure there are other canyons that are just as wonderful. I guess it struck me so hard because this was my first visit past the Mississippi River. I’m still a greenhorn. I haven’t seen Wyoming’s Wind River range, or Colorado’s Pike's Peak, or Utah’s Green River area, or Nevada’s desert, or even Idaho and Arizona. We saw plenty of cowboy gear at Wall Drugs. Hats, boots, scarves, chaps, belts, weapons and spurs, you name it.

There was no fence along the rim. A sign here and there, maybe, warning of a sheer drop off and the danger in trying to climb down. On our drive back home from Montana, we chose a spot where we could drive through a larger area (off 240, or whatever they call the roads there) and that was even better. Again, hard to explain the scenery. We parked and walked along part of the gully bottom, saw the interesting types of “greenery” – not sure if they were grasses, or cacti, or some type of heather or what have you – and my husband and daughter climbed to a rocky hill (I’m too chicken and dislike heights) so I could take photos.

Alas, I haven’t scanned those in yet to my computer. But we sure enjoyed our visit out west. To me, the Badlands epitomize what “the wilder west” might have looked like when I thought of “the Hole in the Wall” and other remote spots for black-hat bad guys to hide.

The Badlands do not figure in my book, Double Crossing, which is set for the most part on the transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. But it did win the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel! That's a great honor.

Check out the 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads!

2012 Spur Award Winner for Best First Novel from
Western Writers of America


Astraea Press, AmazonBarnes & Noble, Smashwords

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Deseret, Land of the Honeybee

Part of my first book, Darlin’ Druid, is set in Utah, c. 1872. This required a lot of research, especially because I’ve never been able to visit the Beehive State in person. Today I’d like to share a smidgen of what I learned from books, internet sites and the Utah State Historical Society.

When Brigham Young first looked upon the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, he is supposed to have said “This is the place.” It’s hard to imagine why he chose such a dry, inhospitable spot for his people to settle, but history has proven him right. Within a few decades, the Mormons turned that dry valley into fruitful farm land and Salt Lake City into a thriving community. 

 The early pioneers had few material resources. Thus, they had to rely on their own ingenuity and hard work – their industry – to survive. Think of a colony of bees working together, building a new hive, and you’ll know why the beehive became the emblem for the provisional State of Deseret in 1848. The symbol was retained along with the word "industry" on the state seal and flag after Utah was granted statehood in 1896. “Deseret” is reportedly a word for honey bee in the Book of Mormon. The honey bee was named official state insect in 1983, thanks to the lobbying efforts of a fifth grade class.

Crofutt’s Trans-Continental Tourist Guide, 1872 edition, describes Salt Lake City: “This is one of the most beautiful and pleasantly located of cities.” Situated at the foot of a spur of the Wasatch Mountains to the east, and extending onto the uplands that unite valley and mountains, the city boasts a dramatic setting that impressed the writer of the tourist guide. “The lofty  range of the Wasatch forms the background, lifting its rugged peaks above the clouds. Piles of snow can be seen in the gorges where the warm sunlight has not the power to melt it.”

From those snowy gorges, the Mormons drew life-giving water via a clever irrigation system, allowing them to turn the desert valley into rich farm land. They brought water to Salt Lake City in the same way, laying out irrigation channels along the streets, which naturalist John Muir describes this way: "The streets are remarkably wide and the buildings low, making them appear yet wider than they really are. Trees are planted along the sidewalks -- elms, poplars, maples, and a few catalpus and hawthorn . . . ." Muir goes on to complain about the irregular size of trees and buildings, and disapproved the Latter Day Saints' stand on polygamy. Yet, from his description, it's plain to see the Saints planned their city with an eye for beauty as well as practicality.

The following is an excerpt from Darlin’ Druid in which my heroine, Jessie, marvels at her surroundings while out for a Sunday afternoon stroll.

A short while later, she paused beneath a leafy elm tree and fished a handkerchief from her reticule. As she had many times before, she blessed the city’s Mormon founders for planting so many trees along the broad streets. Their shade was a godsend in this heat.

Patting the dew from her forehead and upper lip, she smiled at a group of youngsters frolicking in a small peach orchard across the street. The city abounded with fruit trees – apple, plum, but most of all peach – and a variety of grapevines. Most every gray adobe or white clapboard house also displayed a vegetable plot and flower garden. All thanks to the Mormons’ ingenious irrigation system, a necessity in this hot, dry valley.

There were even lilac bushes. Although long since done blooming for the year, they still reminded Jessie of home. Her mother had loved lilacs, and she’d planted several bushes around their cottage. Every spring their radiant purple blooms had filled the air with a heavenly scent – before the fire had swept them away along with the house and everything else, leaving only destruction behind. And nightmares.

Salt Lake City in the old days (photos from Utah State Historical Society) 

First South, 1872, with Salt Lake Theatre on the left. Built in 1861, the theatre staged plays, hosted dances and concerts. Brigham Young often attended.   One guest said, "At the time of its erection, it was not surpassed in magnitude, completeness and equipment by any other existing house." Each event opened with prayer; no smoking or drinking allowed. *Notice trees lining the street.     

Temple Square, 1882, showing left to right, partially completed Temple, Assembly Hall, and the Tabernacle.

One of the city's largest hotels was the Salt Lake House, where Jessie dines with an admirer. Run by a Mr. Townsend, a Mormon convert from Maine, the hotel stood on Main Street. Notice the stagecoach out front.

Businesses and wagons loaded with goods. By 1870, a number of gentile (non-Mormon) businesses were in operation.

Most Mormon merchants belonged to Zion's Co-operatice Mercantile Institution (Z.C.M.I.) and displayed the sign of the all-seeing eye.

Modern Salt Lake City
                    The Great Salt Lake in daylight                   . . . . And at sunrise

Next month I will dig into mining and railroading in Utah. Hint: Nevada and Colorado weren’t the only western states to experience silver booms.
Mormons and Gentiles, a History of Salt Lake City by Thomas G. Alexander & James B. Allen
History of Utah,1540-1886 by Hubert Howe Bancroft
Utah, the Land of Blossoming Valleys by George Wharton James
Steep Trails  by John Muir