The stage from Stockton to El Paso had its usual mixed bag of travellers. Robinson, the young newspaperman who talked too much and Hyde, the gentleman who wore two guns but didn't talk much at all. Then there was an ex-slave, a businessman, a young married couple and Cullen, a salesman of ladies underclothes.
Most of them were concerned about the Comanche warrior, Black Dog, who was out on the warpath and armed with new Winchesters. How had the Indian got so many new guns ? And why should a salesman like Cullen know so much about the West ? But before these questions could be answered the lead would fly.
This story started life as a roleplaying adventure for some friends of mine. It was just a one-off, intended soley for one evening's
entertainment (for more on roleplaying and one-offs, as well as the actual scenario, go to the Role Playing
section of this site). It was a straightforward idea along the same lines as 'Stagecoach' ie: a mixed group of passengers travel
together and face peril on the way. I added a little intrigue in the form of a missing treasure map, and sat back to see what happened. The
scenario went well and was enjoyed by all. After that, it was obviously good material for a book so I wrote it up a few months later.
I had to make a few changes to make it work. The scenario was played as a cliche, with Injuns ! massing on the horizon etc. However, what is fine as a joke shared among friends would have looked ridiculous and possibly offensive in a novel. The simple plot line of Indian attacks would not have been enough to sustain a novel anyway, so I put the emphasis on the subplot about the stolen map, leaving the Indians as an extra hazard and less of the main focus. I also built up the character of Jack Wybourn, the villian of the piece, who is partially responsible for putting the Comanches on the warpath. Cullen's Quest is a book about white men fighting amongst themselves, rather than a 'good cowboys vs bad indians' story.
So if other people played the characters, how much of it is my work ? The basic outlines of the four main characters (stagecoach driver, silent gunman, enthusiastic newspaperman and jovial salesman) were on the notes I gave to the players for the game. Several months passed between one evening playing the game and many weeks writing the book, so I couldn't actually remember too much of the fine details. However, a few of the player's characteristics got infused into the characters in the book. Hyde is good at the disencouraging stare, Robinson is tall and can be very enthusiastic, Spragg likes driving things, and Cullen is good at telling jokes and stories.(I refuse to make any further comments on the grounds that I might incriminate myself, and besides, these are my friends I'm talking about).
Other characteristics came from other sources. The character of Robinson has a verbal tic of saying 'yeah' a great deal. This was inspired by someone
whom I worked with for a while. He used the word to an astonishing degree; I kept count when he was making a phone call once, and I think
his best was five occurances of 'yeah' in two sentences. I couldn't use it anything like that often in the book, which would have been
irritating. The editor removed quite a few anyway, but some were reinstated on my insistence.
The other character whose speech gave me some trouble was Jefferson, the former slave. I wanted his dialogue to be distinct and clearly different to that of the other characters. Gone With the Wind has plenty of lines written in the heavy Southern dialect used by uneducated slaves like Jefferson. However, the language is difficult to read, and might cause offence in a modern novel. I had to find a compromise to give Jefferson's speech the right flavour without getting bogged down in 'Bless de Lawd' cliche. In the end, the editor altered some of his lines to more conventional English. I was happy enough with this though I do wish it had been done more consistently. If Jefferson refers to himself as 'Ah' on some occasions, and as 'I' on others, it probably isn't my fault.
The only other regret I had about the characters was in naming the young married couple 'Schmidt'. It was all very well in a scenario, but Schmidt is not the easiest word to type consistently, and errors aren't easy to spot. (I didn't have a working spell checker at that point). The Schmidts didn't do much in the scenario, but I found them becoming more interesting in the book. Mary became rather enjoyable to write, and developed an impulsive nature. In the end, she picks up a gun and fights with the best of them while her husband contributes nothing but chaos to the fight. In the scenario, it was Hyde who made a bad dice roll and accidentally shot one of the coach horses. I attributed it to Don Schmidt for the book but kept the incident.
Cullen's Quest features several characters who are heading out West for the first time. Robinson, the keen young newspaperman,
is following in the footsteps of men like Mark Twain and Horace Greeley who explored this strange, new world, and wrote letters back to
the stay-at-homes on the east of the Mississippi. The Schmidts have come from a small farm in Ohio and are heading out to a ranch they've
inherited. Like other emigrants before them, they have no idea of what to expect or what to take, so they take everything. It was frequently
reported that emigrant trails were littered with wardrobes, pictures and other, sometimes valuable, items that had been abandoned along the
way from overloaded wagons. Jefferson, from the deep south, is also new to the West. He is one of the slaves who had the ambition to leave
their old life behind and to search for a life of his own making. away from everything he knows. All are greenhorns and have much to learn.
Some of the differences between them and those who know the west are simple, practical matters. Robinson is unaware of the dangers of
alkaline water when he approaches a pond by the trail. He's also careless about snakes and manages to offend Spragg by climbing onto the
driver's seat without being invited. Don Schmidt has to be taught the proper way of cleaning and caring for guns.
Apart from gaps in their knowledge, the newcomers differ from the Westerners in their attitude towards the Indians. All through the nineteenth century arguments flew back and forth about the best way to deal with the 'Indian problem'. About the only thing not in dispute was that the Natives couldn't be left to roam freely wherever they wanted to. Some called for the Native Americans to be treated as a hostile force that had to be conquered and if necessary, eliminated. However, when the east coast was first being colonized by European powers, the tribes they met there were treated as foreign nations and were accepted to have certain rights. The government failed to reconcile these differing views, so the Natives were pursued as enemies to be removed from what was increasingly regarded as American soil, then treaties were made and concessions offered as a token gesture of return for the land taken. The characters in Cullen's Quest discuss the 'Indian question' in their travels. Wybourn takes the common view that the Indians don't deserve their land as they don't use it 'properly' (ie, by farming or mining). He says that the Indians are little more than wild animals and that their time is past. It was considered to be the 'Manifest Destiny' of (mostly white) Americans to take over the continent. Horace Greeley wrote in 1859:
The average Indian of the prairies is a being who does very little credit to human nature. As I passed over those magnificent river bottoms of Kansas which form the reservations of the Delaware, Potawatomies etc - the very best cornlands on earth - and saw their owners sitting around the doors of their lodges at the height of the planting season and I could not help saying 'These people must die out - there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it'.
His reference to 'subduing' the earth is typical of the Victorian era, when 'science' and 'progress' were the great keywords in thought.
Man was thought to have advanced to the point where he had Nature under control, and that the world was his to use as he wished.
The Easterners are more inclined to take the view that it is not the Indian's fault that they aren't like white men. They agree that the Indians cannot be left alone, but want to educate them and turn them into 'useful' citizens. Mary Schmidt suggests sending the Comanches to mission school, saying that it is their Christian duty to try and help. Such views are more kindly meant that Greeley's, but none of them make the suggestion that perhaps the Indians are all right as they are.
In the light of such remarks being made by the travellers, it is clear why the Comanches in Cullen's Quest are on the warpath. The western has a long history of using Native Americans as mindless enemies, attacking for no other reason except that they are Indians, and that is what Indians do. The Comanches in my book have no specific reason for attacking the stagecoach, and I was always aware that there was a danger of them becoming standard 'Injuns'. Partly to counter this, I added the plotline about Wybourn supplying them with rifles. He wants them to become a danger so the Army will be forced to move them away; the Comanches are thus victims of a white man's selfish manipulations. I also took care to portray their actions as accurately as I could, depicting their skill and courage as qualities to be admired.
The novel was accepted readily by the publishers, although they did remark that they don't usually publish books about the Indian wars. As with other books, I had been struggling for a title so I had submitted it as Trail of Bullets This had already been used so I thought for a few days before coming up with the title it has now. I didn't tell my friends that I was writing up the scenario until it was ready to go. Only then did I ask whether they minded their names being used. Two agreed immediately and the other two hesitated briefly. In the end, none of them asked to read the manuscript first. The book was published in less than six months after acceptance, making it my second book of 1999. I held a party to celebrate but my copies didn't arrive in time to be given out. Instead, I wrote limericks about them as tokens of the novel. The copies arrived a few days later.
The cover is my favourite of all the books I've had published. It's even almost accurate, although the stagecoach should be a canvas-sided celerity wagon, and the building should be adobe, not wood. ts. As a thank-you to my friends, I dedicated the book to them, the only one of my books so far to carry a dedication.
The large print edition was published in February 2001.
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