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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A FINE LIKENESS BY SEAN MCLACHLAN

I met Sean McLacklan years ago when I first started out as a writer and was awed by his grace, his humor, and his amazing turn of a phrase. Sean travels the world and writes about his adventures for several different travel blogs and is a solid history buff, like myself. I'm so excited to introduce his full length novel "A FINE LIKENESS" and am delighted to feature him here.

A FINE LIKENESS
by Sean McLacklan

Civil War Missouri: a great setting for a novel

A Confederate guerrilla and a Union captain discover there’s something more dangerous in the woods than each other.

This is the idea behind my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, set in Missouri in 1864. That particular time and place made a perfect setting. Take that rebel guerrilla, Jimmy Rawlins, and that Union captain, Richard Addison. They exemplify the divisions that tore Missouri apart. While the majority of Missouri’s urban population was Unionist, rural Missourians generally supported the Confederacy. Jimmy is the teenaged son of a poor farmer from the Ozarks. Addison is a successful shopkeeper in Columbia, a small city in central Missouri.

Their two different worlds had been clashing since before the war, when during Bleeding Kansas, proslavery bushwhackers invaded Kansas to kill abolitionists, and abolitionist Jayhawkers rode into Missouri to kill slave owners and free their slaves. Once the war started in earnest in 1861, the Union army quickly took control of Missouri, but the countryside remained in rebellion. The bushwhackers now turned their wrath against Union troops and Jimmy, an impressionable young man, joined them. Addison, like many Missourians, wanted nothing more than to stay home, yet as the war laid waste to the countryside, he realized he needed to do his part.

In 1864, after almost three years of Union occupation, the Confederate army returned. Marching north from Arkansas, they swept aside the scattered Union forces and approached Columbia. Jimmy and his fellow bushwhackers busied themselves with attacking Union outposts, cutting telegraph wire, and burning bridges in support of the Confederate invasion.

Enter Bloody Bill Anderson, the deadliest of the bushwhackers and a real historical figure. In 1864 he burned, shot, and scalped his way through central Missouri in an orgy of killing that shocked even some die-hard bushwhackers. Various guerrilla bands joined him, including Jimmy and his young friends.

And this is where the tale really becomes fictional. Bloody Bill is part of an occult conspiracy sacrifice a Union prisoner in a hellish ritual to raise the Confederate dead. Jimmy discovers Bloody Bill’s plans and has to choose between his conscience and his loyalty to the rebel Cause. Meanwhile Captain Addison gains the support of rival occultists who want to stamp out the evil arising in the woods of Missouri.

As anyone who reads Minnette Meador’s novels knows, history is a rich mine for story ideas. I found Civil War Missouri to be the mother lode. The conflicts of North vs. South, urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, and Order vs. Chaos create a rich backdrop of narrative tension. Add in Bloody Bill Anderson, a real person who looks like he just stepped from central casting for a slasher flick, and you have the beginnings of a story.

A Fine Likeness is available at Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, and Amazon FR. In the next couple of days it will appear on Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. A print edition is coming in early December. Drop by my Civil War blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook page to learn more about me, my novel, and my history and travel writing.


Sean McLachlan, freelance author and blogger
gadling.com
civilwarhorror.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @WriterSean
A Fine Likeness: Civil War novel
American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics (Osprey, 2009)







EXCERPT


CHAPTER ONE

September 19, 1864
The road between Rocheport and Columbia
Boone County, Missouri

Jimmy Rawlins gripped his rifle and hoped his friends couldn’t see his hands shake. Peering through the underbrush, he scanned the dirt road’s gentle curve as it disappeared around an outcropping of rock topped by a tall oak. That was the way to Rocheport, the way the supply wagon would come.

He darted a glance to either side to check if everyone was in position, hidden in the thick forest that pressed in on the road like a green wall. Elijah Bogan lay underneath a dense shrub to his left, a pale blonde boy of seventeen with a broken-toothed grin on his face and a Colt six-shooter in his hand. He was close enough that Jimmy could have touched him, but barely a third of his body was visible through the leaves. Jimmy knew Hugh and Albert Milligan lay further away but couldn’t see them at all.

To his right, Morgan Whiteside nestled against a spreading black oak, his dark features set in concentration as he aimed down the double barrels of his shotgun. Past him crouched the Kid, barely a shadow in the dim half-light of the forest.

Morgan looked at Jimmy’s hands and grinned. Jimmy gripped his rifle tighter to stop them shaking as Morgan nudged him and made a startled face, shaking all over like he’d seen a ghost. Jimmy frowned and looked back down the sights of his rifle, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the bright midday glare of the open road.

Calm down, Jimmy told himself. Waiting is the worst part. Think of something nice. See that rock by the bend? Looks like the one you and Eliza used to sit on down by Squaw Creek. Wish I was there now. Quiet, you got your duty. You’re no slouch, not like that Henry Gibbs who’s always sparking Eliza with his fine ways and nice horses. Henry Gibbs never did a damn thing for the South. What’s his business kissing Eliza at the corn shucking? Sh. Quiet now. Don’t get mad. Got to be calm in a fight, not mad.

A thin brown haze smudged the blue sky beyond the bend.

The wagon? Riders too, by the looks of it. If it’s too many don’t risk it. Morgan will call you yellow but he knows you ain’t. Aw, but why do my hands always shake?

An open-topped wagon rattled around the bend, flanked by five riders wearing blue. The riders carried muskets and peered into the underbrush.

Let ‘em get close. The boys will wait for your shot. They respect you. They voted you captain because you’re the toughest (except for Morgan) and the smartest (except for Elijah) and at nineteen you’re the oldest.

Well, nineteen next month.


The driver sat stoop-shouldered in his seat, sweat staining his blue uniform black, a forage cap shading his eyes from the heavy sun. He let the horses have their reins, not bothering to hurry them. The creak of wagon wheels and the soft clop of hooves on dirt grew louder in Jimmy’s ears, as did the rising whir of the cicadas sounding out from the forest. Jimmy aimed for the driver’s head. The sight on his rifle tracked the man’s slow progress along the road. Jimmy’s hands no longer shook.

Just a few more feet. You’re fine. Do it just like last time. But you almost got killed last time. Sh. None of that. Think of something nice. Eliza sitting on that rock and dipping them pretty white legs in Squaw Creek. Eliza and Henry kissing at the corn shucking. That yellow, sneaking son of a. . . Sh. All serene.

Jimmy squeezed the trigger and a loud crack jabbed his eardrums. Through a gritty plume of smoke he saw blood erupt from the driver’s neck. The man jerked to the side, fell off his seat, and got crushed under the wheel of his own wagon.

“Bushwhackers!” one of the riders shouted.

The forest lit up with the flashes of rifles and pistols. One rider toppled off his saddle with a bullet in his forehead. Morgan leapt to his feet with a rebel yell and set off his shotgun. The blast from the first barrel hit a soldier and his mount. The horse reared, screaming, and Morgan let loose with the second barrel, horse and rider toppling over. Bullets grazed two other horsemen and they flinched in their saddles.

The sole rider who hadn’t been hit raised his rifle and cocked it with his thumb. Jimmy threw down his own rifle and drew a pair of pistols.

Morgan bellowed and ran into the road, blazing away with a revolver at the man about to fire. The rider’s shot went wild as Morgan hit his arm. The soldier ducked in his saddle and yanked on the reins with his good hand, hollering as Morgan shot him in the side. He dug his spurs into his horse’s flanks and galloped down the road. His two comrades sped after him.

Jimmy leapt out into the open and fired at the receding figures. His friends did the same. Once or twice a rider jerked in his seat, but all managed to keep a hold of their mounts and get back around the bend, fleeing for their camp at Rocheport.

“Daaang!” Morgan shouted. “You see them Feds run? They’ll be to California by sundown!”

“They’ll think twice before using this road again,” laughed the Kid as he grabbed the reins of the wagon team and calmed the horses.

The horse Morgan had shot lay on its side pawing the ground, breathing in great gusts as it tried to get up. Jimmy leveled his pistol and approached, a sharp eye on the Union soldier lying slack jawed beside it. Jimmy gave the man a kick. He felt limp, unresisting. The horse made another attempt to rise but slammed back down into the dust, its coat spattered with blood where half a dozen pellets had pierced it.

“Sorry partner,” Jimmy whispered.

He aimed his pistol and closed his eyes. The crack of the shot wasn’t loud enough to drown out the sound of the horse’s head thudding into the dirt.

Jimmy let out the breath he’d been holding and turned around before opening his eyes. He swallowed to steady his voice and called out to a pair of lanky boys who’d emerged from the woods, looking as alike as two halves of a split log.

“Hugh, Albert, fetch your horses and ride down a ways to keep a lookout. Morgan, check that wagon. Kid, you help him. Elijah, what in hell you doing?”

“What I always do,” Elijah said as he waved his hands over the dead body of one of the riders, making strange signs with his fingers. After a moment he pulled a dirty bottle from the inside pocket of his overcoat. He uncorked it and put the opening close to the mouth of the dead man, whispering:

“Come to me, come to me, your immortal soul shall never be free.”

“Elijah,” Morgan called out as he rummaged through the wagon, “you are one sick son of a bitch.”

Elijah corked the bottle and stood up, his grin showing a broken front tooth.

“Come say that over here,” he invited.

Morgan mumbled something Jimmy couldn’t catch, lowering his head so the brim of his hat covered his eyes, and continued to search the wagon.

Jimmy shook his head and checked his pistols. Three shots gone from each. He pulled a pair of fully loaded ones from the deep pockets on the sides of his loose shirt and put them in his holsters. He put the used ones in the pockets. No time to reload them now. They needed to get any munitions they could find from the wagon and be gone. Jimmy ran to fetch his rifle as the twins rode out from the brush. Hugh headed down the road in the direction of Rocheport while his brother Albert went the other way toward Columbia.

Jimmy picked up his rifle and wiped a bit of dirt from the stock. It was a Sharps, the finest made, taken off a Kansan he’d killed a few months back. He slipped a cartridge into the breech and slung it over his shoulder as he sauntered back toward the wagon.

“We want their guns, Captain?” the Kid asked.

Jimmy smiled. He liked the Kid. Only fourteen but a fine shot and a fine rider, and the only one who called him “Captain.”

“Naw,” Jimmy replied. “Them Springfields are no good for our type of fighting, and we don’t want these here government nags neither. You keep checking that wagon.”

A second later Morgan let out a whoop and raised a barrel over his head.

“Powder!” he shouted.

“Just one barrel?” Jimmy asked, running over to him.

“Yep, but big enough to blow a blockhouse if we set it right.”

“Good, anything else?”

“Only commissary stores, Captain,” the Kid said.

“No percussion caps?”

“Nope.”

“Hey, Jimmy?” Elijah’s voice came from beneath the wagon.

Jimmy bent down.

“What you skulking down there for?” he asked.

Elijah patted the wagon driver’s corpse on the shoulder. Blood trickled from holes in the soldier’s throat and stomach.

“’Cause that’s where he is.”

“Quit fooling around and help,” Jimmy said.

Elijah waved the dirty bottle.

“Oh, I’m helping, don’t you worry on that score. But I got a question, Jimmy. I gave him this slug in his belly as he fell, so I got a claim on him despite you plugging him too. But you see, the soul comes out of the mouth, and you done given him another one. Which one should I hold the bottle up to?”

Jimmy grimaced and stood up without answering.

“It’s all right,” Elijah continued. “I’ll hold it up to the hole you made in his throat. It’s closer to the heart. Come to me, come to me, your immortal soul shall never be free.”

Morgan jumped off the wagon, the barrel of gunpowder tucked under his arm. The Kid opened a few more boxes and sacks before turning to Jimmy.

“Nothing else but hardtack and tinned beef here, captain. Grandma Wyatt will cook us up something better than that.”

Elijah crawled out from under the wagon and stood up. He grinned and held the corked bottle in front of Jimmy’s face. Jimmy flinched, then cursed under his breath. He had promised himself he wouldn’t do that.

“That makes nine,” Elijah said. “Only four more to go.”

Before Jimmy could reply a pistol shot rang out in the distance. He spun around. It had come from the direction of Columbia. Everyone drew their guns. Elijah tucked the bottle inside his shirt, drew a pair of pistols, and began to whistle.

Out of the shimmering haze a figure rode into view. In a moment they saw it was Albert. A black line appeared in the distance behind him, seeming to float in the heat rising off the road. It separated into silhouettes and resolved into a column of blue-uniformed riders.

“Into the woods!” Jimmy shouted.

Albert slowed his steed and headed into the underbrush while Jimmy and the rest hurried for the tree line.

The two Union officers in front fired their revolvers. A bullet snapped into the front of the wagon, making the team of horses rear. With a steady hand Jimmy aimed a pistol at the soldiers as the dusty road filled with the roar of gunfire.