MORE THAN JUST LUCKY
Back when I lived in Nevada, I was not only an import who was a history major, I landed the spot of graduate assistant to the professor who taught the required Nevada history courses. I graded all the papers and tests. Because they were required, the classes topped out at 135 students for registration, though we tended to have less than 100 who were still with us for the final exam. Never figured out whether they thought they could avoid this particular CORE class at the university, gave up on a degree program, or transferred out-of-state to a place where either state history wasn’t required, or it was a state they found more interesting.
Personally, I’m from Ohio and I found Nevada history far more interesting because my interest was in the Old West and my fondness was for mining towns. Nevada had a lot of them.
Unfortunately, not at my end of the state. I was stuck in Las Vegas, a fairly new (by my historical terms) town and one that had been a railroad town until the Mafia kicked up the quality of gambling establishments in the mid-20th century. My interests were firmly in the 19th century and the mining towns further north. Virginia City, plunked down on the side of Mount Davidson, was my favorite. Mark Twain’s journalistic career had started there, he’d first answered to that pseudonym when a reporter at The Territorial Enterprise. But that wasn’t what I loved about Virginia, as the locals had begun calling it back in those early Comstock days that birthed the city. I liked that when there (and I managed to visit more than once) the only things I felt would seem out of place to a time traveler from Twain’s era, was the clothing visitors wore, that there was electricity, the mines were closed, and the Virginia and Truckee Railroad (the V&T) now traveled only as far as Gold Hill, a mile down the mountain, before circling back. Once it went all the way to Reno, which, if you follow the old V&T rail route through Carson City, is less than 50 miles away. If you don’t follow the tracks and head out over the mountain ridge it’s even closer. Obviously, my driving route always took me through Carson City (as I usually stayed in Reno) because I’m a traditionalist.
Always knew I wanted to write a story that incorporated Virginia City, and would get additional gold stars if I found a way to work the V&T into it, but it wasn’t until a long, lean, cool drink of water with Robert Redford hair (back in his Sundance Kid days) and darker, distinctively arched eyebrows ambled into my muse’s office that things took off. Said his name was Thorton.
I know there are a lot of romance writers out there who begin with the heroine and think she’s the one the story revolves around, but for me it’s always the hero. He has to be a guy that I fall for so hard, I keep writing just to hang out with him.
Thorton also benefited from other things I’d picked up in my history classes – one in particular where the professor had us read Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger. It was about a boy who lived on the streets in New York and was set on improving himself. Thorton needed that sort of backstory, but he didn’t need to be in NYC. He needed to hail from Chicago because that was where Allan Pinkerton opened the doors of the first truly successful American detective agency in 1856. I wanted Thorton to have a childhood rather like one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.
But that was all backstory to eke out in bits and pieces during the story. The tale had to open with him being mysteriously enticing, but that meant I needed a year to ground things in. I just so happens that in 1877 there were a lot of things that caught my eye.
“Go West, young man” is the phrase misquoted as originating in 1861 with Horace Greeley (he borrowed it from John Soule’s 1851 editorial), but since I planned to start in Virginia City, my characters already were west. I decided to put them on the V&T, let them make connections with the transcontinental rails, and journey EAST! Sent them first to another favorite spot – a rail town actually – Cheyenne in Wyoming Territory before landing them in Chicago for the real fireworks. That’s what I saw plunking Thorton back in his childhood stomping grounds as.
There was one more element that I wanted to incorporate though. For my graduate work, I did a 60-page paper on dime novels and fell in love with those written by the prolific and (if one can believe the yellow edition of his biography) daring and dashing Colonel Prentiss Ingraham’s tales. Ingraham is partial to characters with disguises and fake names. Ergo, I wanted disguises and fake names used in my story, but I had to make the use of them logical. That meant having characters remaking themselves to move up in society, burying pasts, or attempting to have a different sort of life despite obstacles.
And Thorton was in the thick of it.
Here’s how he walked onto the page:
Richard Thorton left the smoky confines of the Delta Saloon and moved softly along the wooden walkway. His footsteps were hushed, not from a desire to cloak his movements, but from long standing habit.
Above him the waning moon hung in a pretty curve, currently unbothered by the dusting of cirrus clouds in the night sky. It offered little light, but Thorton knew his way. A fellow who had spent time prowling the hellish cavernous mines in the bowels of Mount Davidson didn’t need much to guide his step.
Fortunately, that phase of his life was over. Unfortunately, he was headed back to the life he’d left. One that would likely put him toes up in some godforsaken boothill, unmourned and forgotten. Nothing had changed despite his attempt to change his destiny.
Hell, might as well admit that he was one seriously damned fool and always had been. Considering where his footsteps were leading him, he had ambled passed damned a long way back and now had a full head of steam up set to barrel into trouble. McBride’s telegram had guaranteed that. He was just anticipating the moment now by strolling south on C Street into Virginia City’s Barbary Coast, the most disreputable part of town. If trouble was looking for him, he might as well make himself easy to find.
Considering such a philosophical attitude deserved a reward, Thorton retrieved a cheroot from the inner pocket of his waistcoat, then paused in the shadows to light it, cupping his hands around the match as it flared. He’d barely inhaled a few times, enjoying the taste of cured tobacco, when he heard a rustle of fabric and a woman skipped lightly from the shadows a block further on before spinning to smile coquettishly at the man following her.
Despite the amber glow at the tip of his cheroot, she hadn’t seen him beneath the sheltering porch of the adjacent board walk, which was reassuring considering he had dressed to blend in with the night. His landlady had been impressed with his kit, telling him that in the varied shades of gray he was a “sartorially elegant shadow.” Which was a much kinder phrase than “old Scratch’s spawn,” which others had named him—as if the naturally arrogant arch of his dark brows marked his origins. Still, all it would take was one alert lawman to recognize his old calling card—the red feather stuck in the band of his wide brimmed, low crowned black hat—and a different brand of trouble would find him.
He might have shrugged back into the storm colored shirt and dark satin waistcoat his alter ego fancied, but he hadn’t worn his gun belt. Hadn’t touched it in months. As if leaving it in the dresser drawer made much difference. At the slightest noise, his hand still moved as if it could brush against the comforting feel of cool steel at his hip. Even now he moved differently than men of peace. From habit, he was ever vigilant, his eyes moving from one group of shadows to the next, watching for the predators who moved and dressed as he did.
He’d already been antsy when Clement McBride’s telegram had arrived. He might not have enjoyed living by the gun, but judging by his experience in the mines, he hadn’t enjoyed living by good honest toil either—if being a human watchdog counted as toil, honest or otherwise.
The moon had totally deserted the street now, the finely drawn sickle shape slipping to hide behind a chance-met cloud. Its withdrawal kept the shadows murky between the clapboard houses, a quite appropriate state for this stretch of C Street, Thorton thought, where the bars were dim, the women were disreputable, and the men were dangerous. Thorton had scrupulously avoided patronizing the area. Not so much because he disapproved of the inhabitants, but because he felt far too much at home with them.
The couple up ahead were typical of the area. The woman’s clothing in artistic disarray, the man oblivious to anything but her displayed charms. And drunk by the uncoordinated way he moved and the slurred words he uttered.
The fellow was a bit of a dandy, likely an Eastern drummer in town for more than just business. Before the moon had slunk away, Thorton had noticed the gent sported a derby pushed to the back of his head, favored plaid suits, and had a stiff celluloid collar beginning to curl free from his shirt.
From the way he appeared to know his way around the female form, he was nothing less than a corset drummer.
Which meant he wasn’t going to get the type of business he was after on this stretch of C Street. He was going to get what he probably deserved.
The dove leaned back against a porch post, arching her back, presenting her merchandise. The mark went into her arms willingly, burying his face against her neck. He never saw the two men who slipped from a darkened doorway in response to a motion of her hand.
“Come on, handsome,” she purred, linking the drummer’s arm with hers before leading the poor sap into the narrow passageway between two clapboard buildings. The lurking thugs waited a moment or two longer, then followed the couple into the alley.
Thorton took a final draw on his cheroot and tossed the remainder into the road. It wasn’t his fight but his hand dropped automatically to his side for the comforting feel of his gun. It wasn’t there. Damn the man he kept longing to be. That idiot was going to get his lesser self killed real fast.
The thought alone drew a sardonic grin to his lips. What the hell did he have to lose? Better he get himself killed being foolhardy in Virginia than let McBride murder him through one of his convoluted crusades in some other godforsaken place.
Thorton moved in closer.
(LUCKY by Beth Henderson, copyright 2009)