Thursday, April 28, 2016

COMING SOON: The Romance of Certain Old Bones

Hello internet! It is with pride and trepidation that I announce the imminent arrival of my new Trace & Boz novella, "The Romance of Certain Old Bones," which will make its official debut at Planet Comicon, Kansas City, May 20-22, 2016.

I will have paperback first-editions for sale, with cover art by Chelsea Mann. Ebook edition will launch shortly after the convention.

In the meantime, here's the first two chapters to whet your whistle! This should tide y'all over until the second Trace novel comes out next spring.

The Romance of Certain Old Bones

by Holly Messinger (c)2016

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
declare, if thou hast understanding. – Job 38:4.

Dakota Territory, June 1875

The Aberdeen brothers were the last to leave Yankton. They had traded their wagon for picks and cradles and a mule, their oxen for a couple of mustang ponies, and they rode off into the setting sun at a pace that suggested they were eager to find their fortune… or hoping to avoid pursuit.

Jacob Tracy supposed it was a bit of both. The Aberdeens had invited him along, promising an equal share of any gold they found. There was a very real possibility of striking it rich—General Custer’s expedition had confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills the year before—but Jacob thought it more likely the boys would get rousted out by federal troops, if they were lucky. Scalped, if they weren’t.

Still, he wasn’t the brothers’ keeper. The other five families in their small wagon party had already resupplied and struck out to find their fates in the territories. Jacob pocketed the last of his fee from the Aberdeens and headed for the livery where he’d left his horse, and where the last of the drovers, John Bosley, was waiting for his pay.

Bosley was a hard, rangy colored man, a few years older than Jacob and no less weathered. Jacob didn’t know him well—he’d hired him in St. Louis on the word of a mutual friend—but three months on the trail had proved him a worthy companion. He was good with horses, frugal with supplies, and didn’t pry into the business of others. He had once let slip that he’d served in the Tenth Cavalry, but that was about the only personal fact Jacob knew about him. And that was fine; Jacob didn’t much talk about his own past either.

Bosley was talking with the livery owner, an older Negro with a bad limp, when Jacob walked into the stable. They were leaning on a rail, relaxed and sociable, but the livery owner straightened and sobered at the approach of a white man. Bosley drew himself up, too, but he met Jacob’s eyes on a level. Given that Jacob was six foot two, that was saying something.

"Hey Boss," Bosley said easily, and then to the livery owner, "This is him. Mister Tracy. The big red quarter horse is his.”

There was something in this introduction that conveyed, He’s all right, for a cracker, and the liveryman’s face relaxed subtly. He shook the hand Jacob offered. "Redman Davis, at your service.”

"Pleasure,” Jacob said, and handed over a couple of gold eagles. "That’s for our two horses and tack. He tell you about that shoe?”

The livery owner nodded. "I’ll see to it, sir. Have it right for you in the morning.”

"No rush,” Jacob said. "We’ll probably be here a couple days. Where’s a good place for dinner?”

"You’ll want the Republican Hotel, sir. Best steak dinner around here.”

"What about you?” Jacob said to Bosley.

"There’s a saloon down the street that’ll suit me,” Bosley said, which Jacob took to mean the saloon was run by a Negro proprietor, or at least would serve black customers.

They had been eating together every night for weeks, of course—all the drovers and bullwhackers hunkered down around the same fire, spooning out hunks of cornbread from the same skillet, even sharing canteens, sometimes. There was no time for social distinctions on the trail, and Jacob made sure the men he hired knew it. But in town, particularly a frontier town, walking into the wrong establishment could get a nigger killed, if some good white citizen decided to get ornery about it.

But there was no law against a white man going into one of their places. And Bosley was too self-possessed to raise an eyebrow when Jacob said, "Mind if I join you?”


The steak dinner might not’ve been the best in town, but it was pretty damn good. And the clientele at Simpson’s saloon was mostly white but with a few black faces sprinkled in. There were few Negroes in the Territories, and plenty of Territory to go around, so they were mostly left alone. Not like the Indians, say, or the Chinese.

Jacob pushed the rest of Bosley’s pay across the table in a leather purse. "Count it if you want,” he said, but Bosley just nodded once and made the purse vanish. "And if you got a notion to make more, I’m thinkin I might scout for another job around here. Odds are we can pick up another party headed for Montana or Oregon.”

"Maybe worth it,” Bosley allowed. "You been to Oregon?”

"Not yet. But I been through the Pass a few times. Ran cattle for a rancher out in Wyoming, til a few years ago. And I’d be glad to have you along, if it works out. Fifty-fifty.”

Bosley gave him a long measuring look, weighing the proposal and the white man who made it. That was one thing Jacob liked about him—that boldness, that pragmatism that bordered on fatalism. "Get out to the coast by October… then what? Stay the winter there?”

"Ride down to Sacramento, get on the train to cross the Rockies. Be back in St. Louis by Christmas, dependin on the weather.”

Bosley sucked his teeth. "Or there’s security.”

"For the railroad?”

"For the prospectors.” He nodded across the room. "Or whatever those dudes are here for.”

Jacob followed his gaze. The dudes in question stood by the bar, dressed in practical dusters and slouch hats, but a little too neat and self-conscious to pass for seasoned locals. Jacob’s eye instinctively picked out the man in charge, fair-haired and poker-assed, with a neat Van Dyke beard.

Priest? Jacob thought first. No—scholar, though. He knew fanaticism when he saw it. The fellow’s tight-wound intensity was enough to intimidate the younger, taller man to whom he was speaking. The youngster was even more of a greenhorn, with the stooped shoulders and rabbity eyes of a chronic worrier.

"Heard ’em talkin out in the lobby,” Bosley said. "Seems they were out here last year, found some strike they’re eager to work, but they’re worried bout some other dudes beatin ’em to it, or stealin their find. The little banty-rooster there’s tryin to hire some local guns to guard their passage.”

"Passage to where?”

Bosley took a swallow of his beer. "Badlands. Hell Creek.”

“Off the Yellowstone?”

Bosley nodded once.

“That’s right through Sioux territory.”

Bosley nodded again.

"That don’t scare you?”

"Nothin scares me no more,” Bosley said, in a tone that suggested he’d already seen the worst.

And because Jacob felt the same, he got up and went over to the bar.

"—utterly unacceptable, Mr. Ryan,” the older man was saying, while the young beanpole squirmed. "I warned you these yokels would take advantage of us. You should have haggled him down.”

"I tried, professor, but he wouldn’t budge.” Ryan spoke with the whine of the perpetually put-upon. "Supplies are at a premium because of the prospecting rush and the traders are gouging everyone. We should have outfitted in Omaha, like I told you.”

"Coffee,” Jacob said to the bartender. "Sugar.”

"—taken us three times as long to get here,” the professor snapped, "as I made clear to you in Omaha. I shall have to deal with this Willoughby myself, since you seem incapable of completing the simple task I set to you.”

"You’re welcome to try,” Ryan muttered, "but this late in the season there’s not gonna be much available.”

"Excuses,” the older man said. There was no particular vitriol in his manner, just a sour triumph, as if he’d anticipated this outcome. "It’s always excuses with you, Ryan. More and more I doubt your sincerity in following this course of study—”

"He’s right, though,” Jacob interrupted, and the professor looked around, distracted from his recreational flaying, speechless for the moment. "Excuse my overhearin, but you gentlemen are gonna get hustled by the locals, unless you find a middleman who speaks their language. And I’d stay away from that Willoughby character, unless you want horses lame in all four feet and wind-broke besides. Davis is the man you want, over on third street. He’s a smaller operation but he takes better care of his stock.”

"And no doubt you get a tip from the referral,” the professor said.

"Not a cent. But I know horseflesh, and Davis is the only man I felt right about leavin my mount with. Thanks,” Jacob said to the bartender as his coffee arrived. He took a sip and asked, "You boys from Boston?”

"I am a professor of natural sciences at Yale,” that fellow said, pokering up further. He was no older than Jacob, mid-thirties at most, but determined to project authority. "Dare I hope you have heard of it?”

"I’ve heard of it,” Jacob said. ”Though I was educated near St. Louis myself, and the Benedictines weren’t too concerned with the natural sciences.” That got the professor’s attention, as Jacob had guessed it might, so he added, "Vires idoneos requires, certior fio.” —I hear you need a few worthy men.

Ryan frowned, but the professor’s smile was dry and appreciative. "And might you be such a ‘worthy man,’ sir?”

"I like to think so,” Jacob said.