The Platte River Waltz is a work of historical fiction recounting a young couple’s emigration from the Missouri territories to the gold fields of California. Below are some representative scenes from the book. I hope you enjoy them.
Included just as narrative description, this excerpt from Chapter 33 describes the descent from the peaks of the Sierras on to the Pacific slope:
A cold fog lay like a counterpane on the ground as the emigrants moved upriver beyond the pleasant glade. It lay close to the water and leaked tendrils that clung so thickly to the feet a person felt they would trip on it. The river broadened and had to be crossed two more times before the noon stop. Water rose to the thighs in places; tripping on stones in the water was common. The stream was clear as could be but the blanket of fog concealed the surface. There was no hope of drying out as the sun was at best only a translucent disk lurking behind the heavy overcast. The misery of clammy, chafing clothing put the pleasant memory of their previous campsite out of memory.
They made a steady ascent for about five miles with somber, barren granite cliffs overhead, glimpsed through the canopy of yellowing foliage when the fog parted sufficiently to reveal the overhanging peaks. Dirty patches of snow clung in the clefts where the sun did not reach. Water spilled down the faces, cascading founts of melted ice and snow. It collected in shallow swales, soaking the earth to a spongy bog before trickling into the stream.
Eventually, the river veered to the north side of a broad valley taking most of the fog with it. The somber peaks retreated and the river followed, as though finding comfort in the shadow of the dark granite bluff. To the left a pine forest descended to the valley floor, then surrendered to deciduous trees and grassland, tawny in its autumn coat. Small stands of pine dotted the broad ascent of the notch between the peaks. It was good to leave the gloom of the river’s gorge and come into the expanse. The feeling relieved the eyes somehow. The vale was probably two miles at its widest and looked to be twice that in length before it crested the horizon. They would have to wait to see how much more was to be revealed. Over the summit the vista was a seemingly endless procession of mountains, escarpments, cliffs, and rolling, lofty hills all forested to the timberline, bathed in dazzling shafts of sunlight. Most of the high peaks were creamed with fields of snow. The scale of nature’s tableau was spellbinding, overwhelming, and altogether frightening. There was still many a hard march before them. They beheld an enemy, as splendid in livery as any army legion’s martial garb. This was no foe they could challenge. Their only hope was to march before it, praying their passage did not stir its slumbering power. They moved up the easy grade toward the near horizon.
As if a reminder of the land’s majesty, they passed fir and spruce trees, towering spires of wood rising nakedly to perhaps a hundred feet or more before the first branches appeared. Clustered around these giants were their progeny, even these youngsters larger than any trees they had known back East. Their saws and axes became puny toys, capable of toppling only the youngest generations. They would not dare to attempt even this sacrilege, lest nature take note and deign to punish their transgression.
Another harbinger lay at the feet of the trees where the sun did not penetrate. A cheesy, pocked blanket of the white stuff, maybe half a foot in depth lingered where it hid from the warming sun. The last of the fog wove its way amongst the stands as if afraid to leave the shadows. Storms had visited this valley, and recently. Involuntarily, the emigrants looked to the sky as if in dread of the next tempest; one that would bury them and their dreams until spring released their remains.
“My God! It’s so grand,” marveled Elizabeth. For a person who had walked over nearly half a continent, she was surprised she could still be amazed by the natural world, having held the view she had seen all there was to see.
From Chapter 18, Reverend Clark defends his wife’s honor from some camp followers:
Dayton Clark moved his bulk in front of Sweeney. Alone, if necessary, he would defend his wife’s honor. If he defended his fellows as part of the bargain, so much to the good. With arms crossed over his chest and his feet spread for balance he defied the bareheaded trapper.
With his cronies behind him, Sweeney advanced upon the preacher man. He resembled nothing so much as a malevolent troll, squat and dangerous. His place, having already been diminished by Thibeault’s earlier humiliation, required reconstitution. He couldn’t afford to let some bumpkin preacher challenge him, no matter how imposing the man’s presence. He had humbled bigger and meaner men in his day. Sweeney’s mind turned over ways to insult a preacher. This would be too easy.
He never got the chance. Reverend Clark could not let the affront to his wife stand. He clasped Sweeney’s throat, squeezing his windpipe and drawing the troll close. He bent over so Sweeney’s chin was scratching against the preacher’s beard.
“Thou art like a worm that crawls from the earth,” he growled at his captive.
Sweeney’s response was restricted to something between gargling and retching. Clark had hoisted him so his heels were off the ground. Sweeney’s hands twisted on the preacher’s forearm to no avail. He was a prisoner and edging toward panic as his chest burned and his vision began to fade.
Clark cast him away. Sweeney was able to remain standing but leaned over, wheezing. He blew air like a ragged bellows. Struggling for breath, he shook a wavering fist at Clark and choked out, “You son of a bitch.” His original planned insults weren’t even a memory.
Clark advanced towards him, announcing, “The evil man pours out his evil words without a thought.” As he closed, he leaned in to whisper a confidence to his recent victim.
“I’d pay to see a fight between us, it would be a good’un. This doesn’t look like a payin’ crowd, though. Maybe we can get together another time.”
Joe Sweeney wasn’t a stupid man. The life he lived and the people he lived it with wouldn’t abide stupidity. Prudence and a knowledge of his surroundings had kept him alive these many years. He had managed to prosper when others starved by paying attention to what was going on around him. Something was amiss here; and worse, he hadn’t seen it coming.
He never should have been caught off step by the preacher. He had been anticipating taking some of the strut from the self-righteous bastard when his windpipe had been squeezed and his vision had tunneled in on a pair of pitiless eyes. This Bible pounder looked like he had spent some time with his feet up on the devil’s hearth. There was more to him then met the eye.
“Reverend, please accept..” Sweeney hesitated for a moment and rumbled his throat clear. His windpipe was still recovering from Clark’s caress.
“Please accept our apologies. We might of come on a mite strong but we was just anxious to join the fun. “We’ll behave ourselves. Won’t we, fellas?”
Clement, Thibeault, Moon, and the rest wondered what was going on. The boss should have laid into the big man as soon as he was dropped. Maybe he had something up his sleeve and was asking them to go along. They all mumbled their assent.
“You almost knocked Mrs. Clark to the ground,” reminded the preacher.
Paiute Indians set the prairie afire in Chapter 29, pinning the emigrants between a shallow stream and the flames. Josh Bonner brings the fight to the Indians:
The flames licked waist high. Peering through the smoke he tried to pick his way over the burned spots. He held his left arm before his face to fend off the worst of it. Within twenty strides he broke into the clear and looked for a target. He spied an Indian, crouched down peering through the smoke for something to shoot at. The Indian saw him at the same moment, stood and drew his bow. Josh ducked back into the smoke and, stepping over dying embers, ran towards his enemy. He couldn’t risk a shot until he was close enough to make it tell. He popped out again into clear daylight. Now he was on the other side of the Indian. The Paiute had charged to where he had been. Now or never. There was another Indian sprinting to help. Josh raised the Walker and aimed quickly.
A report rang out, not Josh’s. Dirt leaped up from between the Paiute’s feet. Someone at the fort had seen the legs below the cloud of smoke. The target jumped. It probably saved his life.
Josh fired. The Colt boomed and its smoke mingled with the existing cloud. Josh couldn’t see if he had hit his mark. He didn’t think so. He turned to face the approaching Indian.
He was counting on the Indians being unfamiliar with a revolver. They would think he had only a single shot weapon and would try to get him while he reloading. The second Indian had drawn a wicked looking club and was springing towards him, his face a mask of rage. He was screaming murder but Josh heard not a sound. Time had slowed to nothing. The enemy was closing ground fast. He raised the pistol and fired.
His shot was rewarded. A spot of crimson appeared on the man’s thigh. Josh had aimed for his chest, underestimating the fall of the round. Besides, his aim was to the left. The Indian spun, dropping the club, but keeping his feet. He grabbed at the wound, stared at his bloodstained hand. He gave Josh and amazed and stunned look, then hightailed it away, hobbling on his good leg. Josh ducked back in the smoke and turned. He hadn’t forgotten the first Indian he had missed.
He ducked down. The heat was still intense. He searched for a target. He found not one, but two.
Two Indian faces looked at him. They had crouched down, too. The pair stood and let arrows fly. They zipped past where he had moments ago looked them in the eye. He couldn’t take on two at once. He fled deeper into the fire. His feet were scorching through his boots. He must find the river. The pain was awful, shrieking each time his foot touched earth. His mind was consumed with blessed, cool water.
His feet splashed as he tore through the weeds. He hadn’t reached water, only boggy ground. He must keep going, must not get mired. Ten steps and the tops of his boots overtopped, flooding bliss onto his singed feet. He cried out in relief, then remembered the danger around him.
He doubted the Paiute had pursued him into the inferno but they must have an idea where he was, at least a hunch worthy of a shot. He stepped back a few paces. There was no advantage to crouching. The reeds were too tall. The heads of cattails were starting to smolder. He must move. He charged to the other bank. What would await him when he emerged from the smoke?
More Paiute awaited. He charged blindly into one as he plunged up the bank, blocking the man to the ground. Josh pointed the pistol into a terrified face. Josh felt no sympathy. This man would brain him in a moment were the tables turned.
Wait, he thought. I have, at most, four rounds left, depending on how Elizabeth loaded the weapon. The rounds can’t be wasted. Josh pounced with both feet on the man’s chest, sprang away, turned, and kicked the prostate man. The Indian emitted a half-wheeze groan, then grunted when kicked in the ribs. He made no other noise.
Josh wheeled to confront anyone coming to his rescue. His attack had been so sudden and devastating the other Indians seemed frozen in place. One, probably the leader, was mounted on a scruffy piebald pony. Figuring if he could disable their leader it would dampen their enthusiasm. He aimed the Walker at the mounted man, reconsidered his chance of striking him at this range, and lowered his bead to the pony. He fired twice.
The pony bucked, all four hooves leaving the ground. He looked like a wild horse being broken to the saddle. The Indian came up out of his roost. The horse must have died instantly. It came down and simply collapsed, pitching backward. Its rider rolled unglamorously over the animal’s rump landing on his own behind. Two other warriors near him were distracted by the spectacle.
Josh debated whether to duck back into the covering smoke, then reconsidered. He had the advantage of both surprise and the chance of swift, if perhaps fleeting victory. He charged, screaming at the top of his lungs, waving the pistol towards the two startled men. His tactic worked. They disappeared hurriedly into the smoke. One left his quiver of arrows. He was alone but knew he had not won the battle.
Josh did not pursue the two men. They were too far from him to begin with and he would be blind in the clouds of dirty white smut. He swung the pistol in a threatening manner at the dismounted man. He was too stunned to notice. Josh reentered the stream and ran back to the other bank.
He emerged to find the Indian he wounded and a companion about thirty paces to his right. The man on the ground was seated and twisted around to look at two companions who suddenly appeared behind them. One of these carried no arrows. This man pointed at Josh and yelled a warning. Instantly, the first two turned to face the returning banshee. Josh, with failing wind, charged yet again. The three fled, leaving the wounded man on the ground. His arm, the one not covering his wound, stretched beseeching to those who would abandon him.
Josh ran past him, glancing down at a face terrified and helpless. He must finish this fight now. He pursued the trio around a slight bend in the river.
One of the Indians, showing more courage than his friends, was waiting to face the attack. Josh came around the bend and spotted the man poised to let loose an arrow. Josh swung quickly to his left, away from the burn on his right. He must keep the man in sight. Josh heard the thrum of the bowstring and feared the worst.
The Indian’s aim reflected his near hysteria. The arrow took off, flying yards over Josh. Seeing his poor result, the Indian visibly wilted, certain of impending death. Josh skidded to a halt and looked down the barrel at his target, pulled the trigger. The man was lost in the flash of gunpowder for a moment, then reappeared, still standing. Josh was winded and apparently as unnerved as his enemy. He had missed. He leaped forward, intent on finishing his bloody work. The Indian dropped the bow and fled. He was fleet, making long strides to save his skin.