Patrick E. McLeanAuthor: Patrick E. McLean
23 May 2022

Patrick E. McLean

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Short fiction every week and serial novel "A Town Called Nowhere"

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    A Defense of Writing Longhand

    I wrote this essay 12 years ago. And there are a lot of things that I used to believe that I don’t believe anymore. But the substance of this essay has become more and more true for me with each passing year. Longhand has become the most productive way for me to write. And in the increasing noise and hysteria of our digital age, it has become, for me, a blessing.

    Once again I find myself about 50,000 words into a substantial work. And now more than ever, I feel that my best drafts are written with a pen and paper. So here it is again, my Defense of Writing Longhand.

    I like technology. A lot. But I'm not too sure how technology feels about me. It may be my faithful friend and boon companion — then again, it may just be pretending to be my friend so it can date my sister. Especially when it comes to writing.

    I'm writing a book. And for all the romance and immensity that phrase can contain, writing a book is also simply a production process. I am in the process of assembling 75,000 to 100,000 words. And, after writing 50,000 of them, I've become convinced that the first draft is the hardest part. Hemingway famously said that the first draft of everything is s**t. For what it's worth, I agree. So, my question, becomes: What's the easiest way to get through the hardest part.

    And to my surprise, the easiest way turns out to be writing longhand. Not printing, mind you, but composing with a long, flowing, and delightfully irregular script that fills the page like a river of words. I sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and a thousand words roll out in a flash. And not only does it often take less time than typing, I think I write better longhand.

    Now realize, I am not a hunt and peck typist. I type very fast. And when I type on one of those thin little laptop keyboards that have about 3 millimeters of travel, my typing speed approaches the absurd—like Glenn Gould, the wonderfully talented and eccentric pianist who remanufactured his piano, shortening the action on his keys so that he could play Bach faster. Beautiful, yet a little insane.

    But there is obviously more to writing than typing. What I'm really doing is composing. Composition requires focus. It is, like most acts of creation, monotasking. And as much as I love technology, it drives us to distraction.

    A pen and paper has but one functionality. It captures the marks I make so that they can be referred to at a later time. It doesn't ring, it doesn't bother me with an incoming chat or IM. It never asks me to plug it in so it can get more power. It doesn't crash, it never needs an upgrade, and it is unlikely that someone will snatch my pad and bolt from a coffee shop with it when I turn my back.

    Sure paper is perishable. But it is predictably perishable. Data turns to noise in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Like hard drive crashes. And if an IT person tells you that there is a way to archive a digital file, not touch it for 500 years, and guarantee that it will remain usable—that person is lying to you. If you think I'm wrong, I'll email you some WordStar and AppleWorks documents just as soon as I can figure out how to get them off my five and a quarter inch floppies.

    But I can go the National Archives right now and read a copy of the Magna Carta that was handwritten 793 years ago. No format or version issues here. (It's fitting for this essay that Magna Carta literally means "Great Paper".)

    But, to paraphrase Emerson, all of this is small account compared to what lies within us. And that is the struggle to organize and communicate our thoughts clearly with the beautiful, yet horribly imprecise instrument of language. And it is in this struggle, I believe, that the beauty and power of writing longhand is discovered.

    In a way, the problem with writing is the same problem of hitting a golf ball. Both the page and the ball just sit there. And when you write you have (theoretically) a lifetime to rewrite it until you get it right.

    But all that time is simply a field day for the critical part of your brain. Just the time it needs to jump in and muck everything up. This part of the brain needs something to criticize. After all, that's its job. But the critical function is not creative. Be critical about anything. No matter how absurd you are being, you will find ammo to support you. Try running Hamlet through a Microsoft Grammar check. Try running Hamlet and leaving all the scenes in.

    The point is, there's no possible way to get it right if you don't first get it down. And as much as I know this—I mean know it in my bones, as a carpenter knows his measuring tape—it still doesn't help.The critical part of my brain is telling me, right now, that this sentence is horrible. That the entire device of anthropomorphizing the critcal side of my nature in this essay is a bad idea. And that I just misspelled critical. And I shouldn't have started two sentences in a row with "and".

    But when I write longhand, the experience is different. I think it is because that critical part of my brain is busy picking apart my handwriting (which truly is horrible) instead of my prose. It tells me that my handwriting is atrocious. And it gets the satisfaction of being right. But who cares? While it's busy with that, the words are just rushing out. And they're not henpecked or second-guessed before they've had time to cool. They exist in a flawed, but pure state. This kind of prose has a feral power that seems to be lacking from the things I type. Maybe that's not it; maybe it's just harder to get my head in that effortless writing space when I use a keyboard. But whatever the case is, writing longhand makes it easier for me to reach a writer's high.

    And if you're still not sold on the idea that writing longhand might help you write better, consider this: Until the 20th century, books were written by hand. I would argue that the best writing in history was composed by hand. The entire process is much easier now. But, would you like to argue that the increase in the power of our technology has led to a corresponding increase in the quality of our writing? Not me. I'm too busy scribing away.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at patrickemclean.substack.com/subscribe

  • Posted on 09 Feb 2022

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    Nowhere Ch 5 - Welcome to the Morning Star

    Archie rode uphill through the town, towards the elegant, yet out-of-place Victorian house on the hill. When those in the street and on the porches gawked at his unusual appearance he took pleasure in tipping his pith helmet to them.

    He passed the Morning Star Saloon on his right, and tucked in behind it, found the mine. Convenient for the miners, thought Archie. And if he knew the breed, he doubted they would have any pay left over after drinking. The mine entrance was sunk into an unusual mound, perhaps thirty-five feet tall. Men were using mules to haul a heavy ore cart from the timber-framed opening in the hill.

    Archie decided that his first step would be to survey the composition of the mound. If it was stable enough the engine could be installed on top, otherwise, the earth would have to be removed and a platform constructed. What a magnificent sight it would be if his engine was the tallest thing in town!

    300 yards up the hill, he hitched his horse to the wrought iron fence that surrounded Jean DuMont’s house. Wrought iron? Ye gods, what expense in this wasteland.

    By the glass in the front door, Archie could see that he was covered with the dust and grime of travel. He removed his helmet and could see a sharp line where the relatively clean skin began. He attempted to brush some of the dirt from his forehead, then realized the foolishness of it. He stood tall and knocked on the door.

    His rap on the door was answered with frantic steps. The speed at which someone was approaching confused Archie. It had been a simple knock.

    The door swung open quickly and a severe-looking woman in a nurse’s uniform whispered. “Who are you? What are you doing! Don’t you know that the Monsieur isn’t to have visitors?”

    Taken aback, Archie asked, “Which one of those would you like me to answer first?”

    “None of them. Go away.”

    “My name is Archimedes Croryton and at Monsieur DuMont’s request I have spent some $30,000 of his dollars and traveled the better part of 2,500 miles to bring him pumps and an engine to clear his mine of groundwater.”

    “The mine? The mine!” She said, “Why didn’t you say so? You must see Mr. Pulaski, the Foreman!” then she started closing the door. Archie placed his boot against the jamb, and said, “I really think he will want to see me.”

    “Monsieur is not well!”

    From inside the house came an angry bark. “Esther! Who is it?” This was followed by a phlegmy coughing fit.

    “Go away,” Esther said, the anger in her eyes now replaced with pleading.

    Archie was unmoved. “His letter was quite clear. I am to present myself immediately upon arrival.”

    “Who is it!” Came the old voice again. “Is there something wrong at the mine?”

    Reluctantly, Esther opened the door, glaring at Archie as he entered. To the right of the door, Jean DuMont was getting up from a chair with some difficulty. He clutched a handkerchief to his mouth and coughed loudly, angrily as if he were yelling at disease itself. But in his manner, he attempted to play it off as if it were nothing.

    Archie had heard the rattling death sentence of that cough before. Tuberculosis. With the spirit of a true gentleman, Archie ignored the unpleasant noise, bowed his head and said, “Archimedes Croryton, at your service, sir.”

    The older man’s eyes twinkled and his grey face lifted in a smile. He asked “have you brought it? The means to drain my sump of a mine?”

    “Indeed sir, I have,” said Archie, and DuMont shook his hand heartily.

    DuMont said to Esther, “This is him! The boy wonder that Stevens found in Boston!” Esther shook her head and walked away.

    “Nevermind her. She’s professionally nasty. Keeps the riff-raff away. Come, sit. Refresh yourself.”

    They talked for the better part of a half an hour. DuMont had real enthusiasm, but he tired quickly, coughing and wheezing as he struggled to breathe. Esther hovered behind the old man, flitting in and out of the room, attending to his needs, but always, always, glaring at Archie. As if her glare alone could drive him from the house.

    As Archie sketched a diagram of the pumping mechanism he had designed, DuMont beckoned Esther for his medicine. She decanted him a glass of grain alcohol which had opium poppies floating in it. When he saw Archie’s curious glance he explained, “for my cough.” After he swallowed it, he did breathe easier and coughed less. But his energy quickly deserted him, and he collapsed into his wicker chair by the window.

    “You must forgive me, Mr. Croryton. I no longer have the vigor I enjoyed in my youth. I am not well man, but I caution you, my mind is as sharp as ever. And I can see that my agent’s confidence in you was not misplaced.” He rose and went to his desk where he wrote a note, blotted it, and folded it. “Take this to Mr. Pulaski and he will give you everything you need to complete your work. But a word of caution. Trust in him, not a whit. Nor any of those other,” he paused for a coughing fit, “those other jackals in my employ. They are cheating me. Attempting to rob me blind. They think my mind and my eyes have gone because of the weakness in my lungs. But I know. Do you understand, *I know*. And I will have my revenge on all of them in the end.”

    Uneasily, Archie said, “I know not what to make of your troubles, sir. But I will build your pumping engine. I will clear your mine. And if I can be of service in any other way…”

    DuMont was wracked by a coughing fit, but his eyes never left Archie’s. The stare was an accusation Archie did not quite understand. When he had recovered himself, he said, “Welcome to the Morning Star Mine.”

    As Archie exited, DuMont collapsed into his chair and Esther hurried to him with another glass of laudanum, hissing at Archie, “show yourself out.”

    ~ ~ ~

    Beside the Morning Star Mine men were cutting timbers with a horse-powered sawmill. Four teams of horses walked a well-trampled circle around a central spindle. Archie followed the main drive belt as it came off the top of the spindle, then through several transfer spindles across the top of the barely roofed pavilion and then around the smallest wheel. The smallest wheel turned a spindle that led to a cage and peg gear that turned a horizontal shaft. Around that shaft, a circular saw blade now spun with blinding speed. As two men rolled a log onto a cast iron sled, Archie estimated the efficiency and effectiveness of the gearing.

    While the blade was turning with great speed, Archie wondered if it had enough torque to get its job done. As the men pushed the carry sled forward, the log touched the blade and sawdust fountained through the air. The word parted easily enough at first, but halfway through the saw bound and the leather belt slipped and screeched hideously against the wooden spindle. The men stopped the horses and heaved against the heavy sled trying to back the log off the blade so that the mill could be restarted.

    “You. What want?” Set a voice with an Eastern European accent.

    Archie turned to see a man in filthy denim, wearing a mine lamp on his forehead that was still burning. Behind him, men were unloading an ore cart.

    “Are you Mr. Pulaski?"

    "He's down mine, come back later."

    "I rather think you should go fetch him. Mr. DuMont sent me."

    “Old snake, what new?”

    “A curious term for your employer. I have 30 wagons of equipment due any moment and I need a place to put them.”

    “Who are you?”

    Archie turned and saw that the men with the sawmill were preparing to make the same mistake with greater vigor. With impatience, he said, “A man who makes improvements. Now, fetch Mister Pulaski while I repair your saw mill.”

    With all the command and disdain of someone born to the aristocracy, Archie turned and strode to his work.

    He held a hand up to stop the man about to set the horses into motion again. The man looked confused, but Archie offered him no explanation. He handed him his pith helmet as he walked by and the man took it and said nothing.

    The men on the sled turned to see why the mill hadn’t restarted and watched Archie walk up and pull a lever that disengaged the cage and peg gear. Only then did he direct his attention to the saw blade. He ran a finger along the side of the metal blade and found it abrasive and hot to the touch. Then he set his thumb against one of the teeth and made a disapproving noise.

    An angry man in suspenders with a sharp nose approached him and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

    Archie said, “When was the last time this blade was sharpened?”

    The man blinked twice in thought, then mustered his anger again, “What’s that to you in your funny suit?”

    Archie took his attention from the blade and spindle and stepped directly up to the man, saying, quietly but with real intensity, “This is no way to treat machinery you fool. If you treated your co-worker over there as poorly as you treated this mill, you would be in jail.”

    The man sputtered and struggled to find words.

    Archie said, “You will find me a small file…”

    “You can’t talk to me like that!”

    Archie continued in his quiet, but unbending way, “and a candle. Can you remember that? A small file, and a candle, repeat it back to me.”

    “I… I…”

    Another of the men intervened, saying, “The file is over on that stump. I’ll be back with your candle.”

    Archie returned to his study of the blade and shaft.

    “You, you mess with wrong Wlod. Now we see how good your name!” said the man, lifting his fists.

    If Archie had risen to the argument, there might well have been a fight, right then and there. But Archie ignored him altogether, looking about the mill yard until he spied a sledgehammer. He walked and quickly picked it up, lifting it above his head.

    Wlod jumped back in fear, thinking that Archie meant him harm, but Archie walked to the end of the rails that the sled was set upon. He hit one rail and then the other with two mighty blows that set the pavilion ringing. Then he checked the rails again, muttering to himself.

    Archie looked up, suddenly becoming conscious of the man again. He said, “Has to be perfectly parallel to the direction of travel you see.” Seeing that the man didn’t see, Archie waved him off dismissively, grabbed the file and fell to sharpening the saw teeth with a will.

    Archie gave each tooth five passes with the file then moved on to the next. By the time he had come back around to the first tooth the man had returned with the candle.

    He spun the blade and brush the candle against each side of it. Then he handed the candle back and said, "every time the blade stops, you wax it do you understand?"

    The man took the candle and looked at it, not quite understanding, but pretending that he did. Archie gave the signal to start the horses then engaged the pin and cage gear. The saw blade disappeared in a whirr of teeth. Then, with one hand, Archie pushed the cast iron sled and the saw parted the wood effortless.

    Archie looked directly at Wlod and said, "less muscle, more sharpening."

    The men, marveling at how easy their job could be said, "yes, sir."

    A barrel-chested man with a sour look on his face called Archie, "now that you fixed the saw, what do you want?"

    "Mr. Pulaski?" asked Archie and the man nodded and waved for him to come out of the sawmill so they might talk.

    Outside Archie had it in the letter. Pulaski recognized the handwriting and shook his head. "Did he tell you I was stealing?"

    Archie said, "in fact, he did."

    "The only man stealing from this mine is him! If he'd stop meddling with his frightful suspicions and distrust –"

    "Perhaps there is something to do that will allay his concerns?"

    "You think I'm a thief!" Pulaski said getting red in the face. "What would I steal? Raw ore? There's no water here. We have to send the ore to Bisbee to be crushed and washed and smelted. Do you want to go through my pockets for silver nuggets?"

    "I do not, Mr. Pulaski."

    "He's crazy! You'll see. He'll turn on you too. Faster than you think."

    "Be that as it may, Mr. Pulaski, I have 30 wagons of equipment on their way here and I need…"

    "You don't believe me? He's watching you right now." Pulaski nodded his head uphill.

    Archie turned and had a clear view of the Victorian Mansion’s turret.

    “Sets up there with a spyglass he does. All day coughing and watching the mine, his brain et up with consumption. And when he gets bored with that he comes down here and gives us hell. I've half mind to quit right now.”

    Archie said nothing, for there was nothing to say.

    Pulaski stared at the sawmill now making cuts three times faster than it was before. He growled his approval as a fresh beam was dropped off the sled. "All right," he said with a violent jerk of his head that served as a nod. Pulaski indicated the empty lot across the street. “You can leave the wagons there tonight and we'll figure out the rest in the morning." Then he looked sharply over Archie's shoulder and said, "that is if you still have a job."

    DuMont was stomping down the middle of the street covering his face with a handkerchief and coughing as he came. Following close behind him was his furious nurse. "Mr. Croryton!” Cough, cough, cough. "Mr. Croryton !”

    Archie looked straight at the man, and still, he called out “Croryton!” as if Archie hadn’t heard. And he only stopped yelling Archie’s name when he got to arm’s length.

    "Explain yourself, sir!"

    "How do you mean, sir?"

    “Give an ack ack accounting of your behavior. Are you not in cahoots with this man,” he said pointing at Pulaski.

    "I don't see how I could be, as I do not know what cahoots are."

    "Do not play games with me!" snarled DuMont, falling into a coughing fit again.

    "Really sir, You should be in bed," said Archie with real concern.

    "You'd like that, wouldn't you?” asked DuMont. "Give you and the rest of these shirking scoundrels time to rob me blind!" He was interrupted by coughing again."But I am watching. Even when you think I am not. I am always watching! And I have revealed you for the fraud that you are!"

    "How do you mean, sir!” said Archie, finally starting to take offense at this absurdity.

    "The wagons, sir. You claimed to be something you are not in an attempt to defraud me no doubt!"

    "The wagons are on the other side of town and only want but a small exertion of your much-vaunted perception to be seen.”

    "Ha," cried DuMont, "there are many wagons in this town. But where is your cargo? Answer me that, sir."

    Archie looked down Main Street and saw the wagon train advancing slowly towards them up the hill. "There, sir!" cried Archie and walked into the middle of the street waving his helmet above his head. As DuMont argued with his nurse in French, McAllister pulled the lead wagon alongside Archie.

    "Where is Miss Siskin?" Asked Archie.

    "We've one last wagon stuck in the wash and she's seeing to it. Rather violently, I'm afraid. But she and the wagon will be along in due time."

    "Park here,” said Archie, and directed the train into the lot across the street from the mine and catty-corner from the Morning Star Hotel and Saloon.

    The driver of the third wagon shouted to Archie, "across the street from the bar! You're a good man, sir!"

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at patrickemclean.substack.com/subscribe

  • Posted on 04 Feb 2022

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    Somewhere a Story is Searching for You

    Somewhere, out there, a story is searching for you.

    It fumbles, faceless through the dark. Unknowable, unformed. Newt pads for hands, it whispers questions in the dreams of people you know.

    Is this nascent thing a love story, a family drama, a gritty crime thriller?

    It doesn't know yet, so how can we?

    At this point, it is not much more than a stubborn collection of related longings.

    Unless you are very sensitive (or very wise) you probably don't believe that this ur-story is real because it hasn't happened to you yet.

    You are practical and level-headed about such things. Good for you, you think. But you are wrong.

    Fiction, my friend, is the realest thing of all.

    So real that even when you don't believe in it, it believes in you.

    All of the mundane facts of life were once just stories. And EVERYTHING was a crazy idea at first.

    From: "Whattyamean? You're going to live on land? Life has always lived in the ocean?"

    To: "We could never go to the moon, that's a story for kids!”

    And on and on.

    Never forget that nations and causes are just stories. And nations and causes have murdered a lot of people.

    They take you seriously, ESPECIALLY when you don't take them seriously.

    And this story that is searching for you begins with a choice.

    It could be a choice to say a thing or leave words unspoken. To move towards or away from or to just stand still.

    Doing nothing is still a choice.

    Ah look, the story has found you. It crept up on you while you were wasting time on social media.

    Here it is to seize your life and make itself real.

    Be brave, good luck and don't give up hope at the beginning of the third act. It only looks like all is lost. But if you trust in yourself and what you have learned and let your loved ones help you, you will triumph in the end.

    I promise.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at patrickemclean.substack.com/subscribe

  • Posted on 02 Feb 2022

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    Nowhere Ch 4 - Trouble with the Stage

    The Swing Station was a pile of mud bricks with a thatched roof on the east side of the Mule Mountains. The windows had no glass, only torn curtains that would flutter in their mud sockets on the rare occasions that there was a breeze. But there was no breeze today, and the Bisbee-Grantham station baked in the sun. Give it another hundred years of days like, thought Miguel, and the Bisbee-Grantham station would turn into a proper brick building.

    The only things that separated the building from a ruin were the large corral of strong horses out back and the telegraph line running through the station and on to Grantham.

    Miguel’s job as Station Agent was to mind the horses, see that the place had plenty of water, and operate the telegraph. Which meant that most of the time, he sat in the heat of the station waiting for that angry piece of metal to clack to life. All day long, he would listen to it tell tales of coaches traveling up and down the line. Two hours ago it had told him that a stagecoach with four passengers had left Bisbee headed this way. He has spent those two hours staring at the fat flies chasing the smell of the morning’s fried beans. They flew in slow clockwise arcs around the room while Miguel and the mestizo kid who helped with the horses endured the heat. There was a book open next to him on the desk, but in the heat of the day, the thought of turning the pages was ridiculous. It was all he could do to sit at the desk, chin propped in his hand, and breathe through his mouth.

    When one of the flies dropped dead on his desk with a fat plop, Miguel nudged the mestizo boy, who was asleep next to the desk. The boy rubbed his face and looked at Miguel. Miguel said, “Sais” and the boy nodded and went outside.

    There were twenty-three horses in the corral. The boy cut six out and formed them up into a team, moving the huge animals, and rigging the harness and yoke with ease and skill. When he was done he took the long reins and walked behind the animals as he moved them around to the front of the station. The stage would be here soon, and if it was to keep the schedule, it would need this fresh team of horses.

    As the horses stood waiting, the boy walked around with a bag of oats giving each of them a handful in turn. It was a long run from here to Grantham. This was the last station on the line.

    Inside, Miguel closed his eyes and drifted somewhere just on this side of consciousness. Even as he dozed, he was aware that something was wrong. The stage should’ve been here by now. He struggled to open his eyes and check his timepiece, but he told himself it didn’t matter. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. If something was wrong, he should be rested for when trouble came.

    At the first sound of the far-off stagecoach, his cheek slipped from his palm and his face dropped onto the desk, causing the dead fly to bounce. In a minor miracle, the fly came back to life long enough to buzz off the desk and drop dead on the dirt floor. Miguel jumped bolt upright and rubbed his chin. That sound wasn’t the stage. It was coming from the wrong direction and was two horses at most. He could hear the boards of an empty wagon ringing from the jolts from the road. He walked to the doorway and fought to shove it open against the accumulated dirt.

    On the road from Grantham, he saw a man in a broad hat driving an empty wagon. The man waved hello as he pulled into the yard and Miguel waved back. The mestizo boy only had eyes for the horses.

    Miguel recognized him as the owner of the Miller general store. What was his name again, Virgil? He remembered Virgil’s pretty wife and son working with him and his even prettier daughter that argued with all the customers with the innocent mayhem of a six-year-old girl.

    “Mr. Miller!” said Miguel.

    Virgil opened his mouth to return the greeting but just then, they heard the rumble of the stage coming down the hill from Bisbee. The first blast of the horn might have been mistaken for a trick of the wind. But the horn kept sounding and sounding its urgent call.

    Everyone stared uphill in anticipation of the stage’s appearance on the road down out of the mountains. The mestizo boy cinched one of the horses tighter. The stage always blew the horn for fresh horses. The boy and the animals were both well-conditioned.

    The horn and the clattering of the stagecoach grew louder and louder. Just over the next rise now. Then the boom of a shotgun echoed off the hills. The horses' heads jerked up. Miguel stepped back through the door and grabbed his rifle, cocking it as he re-emerged. “Get inside,” he said to the mestizo boy who hitched the team to the rail and did as he was told.

    “Mr. Miller, I do not know what we are about to receive,” Miguel called from the doorway, “but I think you should step inside.”

    As Virgil ran to the building, the horn fell silent. The stagecoach burst over the rise with a thunderous clatter. It came down the grade at a hideous speed, lurching wildly, tottering on the left wheels and then the right, in danger of tipping over at any moment. They saw the driver fighting to control the panicked animals, but no one was riding shotgun. Behind the stage were three Mescaleros, ragged–looking, but on fast horses and riding as if they had been born in the saddle.

    As the stagecoach roared passed, the driver looked to Miguel with fear-filled eyes, the silent plea of a man who has seen death gaining on him. The Stage hit the flat in front of the station and bounced hard before settling back to earth with a crash.

    Miguel put the rifle to his shoulder and fired at one of the Mescalero’s. A miss. Before he could fire again the lead Indian shot the driver from the top of the stage. As the driver’s body pinwheeled into the dust and scrub, the stagecoach hurled, driverless, downhill towards the plain. Miguel fired three more shots out of frustration. None of them had a chance of hitting.

    Miguel heard a clatter from the corral and saw Virgil riding after the stagecoach on Miguel’s horse. As Virgil disappeared down the road, Miguel yelled at the boy, “Goddammit, saddle me another horse!”

    ~ ~ ~

    Virgil lashed the horse with the reins, shouting encouragement to the animal as he rode. he hadn’t had much experience with chasing people. In his old life, he had been the one being chased. As he rode through the dust kicked up by the stagecoach, he had time to feel the fool. Of course, a stagecoach getting robbed was bad for all business, general stores included, but stopping robberies was the stage line’s business first, the Law's business second and none of Virgil’s business at all.

    But Virgil could do no other. He had seen a glimpse of terrified faces in the window of the out-of-control stage as it roared by. Lost souls if ever he had seen them. His heart had gone out to them. It wouldn’t have happened when he was younger, but now that he had a family, he looked at strangers and instead of seeing threats and opportunities, he saw sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, each a patch in the quilt of humanity.

    Them as he used to ride with, would have said he had gone soft, and mark him for a shopkeeper. But that wasn’t true. When he was younger, he had been driven by anger and by fear. Now he was surprised to find he was driven by love. If desperate men were allowed to do this to strangers, one day they might do it to someone he cared about.

    Besides, that station agent didn’t stand a chance. Playing with that rifle, wasting shots. A rifle was an honest man’s weapon and no good at a gallop. A man should only fire a shot that had a chance of hitting, especially with a fancy repeating rifle like that. When things went bad, ammo was always scarce. Miguel was a sportsman; a hunter, no killer of men.

    The Mescalero’s had pistols, but now there was no one left on the stage for them to shoot. They thought they had won their prize, and just needed to run it to ground.

    As Virgil came over the next rise he could see the bandits racing along with the stage, trying to find a place in the narrow road to get alongside. But the road was winding downward through the foothills with a cliff on one side, and a steep drop on the other.

    As Virgil came up from the rear, none of the Indians looked back. There must’ve been more of them to start with, thought Virgil. The man riding shotgun would have gotten a few from the stage, and now these Mescaleros were too angry to let it go.

    Virgil saw that the road bottomed out and opened up ahead. He took the reins in his teeth and drew both of his heavy pistols. He pointed them both on the same side of the horse’s head. Less likely to shoot the poor animal out from under himself that way. He had a moment to hope the horse wouldn’t spook at gunfire in his ear.

    As the stagecoach bottomed out on the flat, Virgil came within in range of the first man. He brought the Army revolvers to bear and cocked them. He stabilized his hands, doing his best to let them float free as his body and the horse flailed along through space.

    Virgil fired four shots as he swung the guns in an arc through the path of the Mescalero back to front. The first shot went wide the second and third hit. The fourth would’ve had a chance, but the Mescalero was already dead and falling from his saddle.

    As Virgil galloped past the riderless horse, he heard gunshots from up ahead. The second Mescalero was alongside the stagecoach firing back at him. Beyond him, Virgil saw the third Indian lifting his pistol to fire into the stagecoach team.

    Virgil had just enough time to think it was a cowardly thing, and not what proper Apaches would do. They could be fierce and cruel, but the ones Virgil had known had prided themselves on their horsemanship, and the care of useful animals. As Virgil shot the second one from his saddle, the one in the lead shot two of the stagecoach horses in their traces. This slewed the rest of the team around to the left. It happened so suddenly that the Mescalero couldn’t get clear. His horse was knocked sideways off the road and he flew from the saddle.

    Horses screamed, leather and wood snapped. Dead animals and shattered tackle ground into the Earth as the stage skewed left, then capsized. The Coach smashed into the earth, and shuttered to a stop, scattering trunks and luggage and debris as it went. Virgil slowed his horse and shot the third Mescalero through the head as he writhed on the ground, struggling to catch his breath.

    The horses were ruined. Piled up in rope and leather, and broken legs. One screamed intermittently, and the other two survivors panted, wide-eyed, in pain, resigned to death in that infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering way that all horses seemed to have.

    Virgil dismounted and shot them one a time, careful not to miss. He heard moans from inside the stage but took the time to reload his pistols before he went to help. His hands were practiced, and he slotted the cartridges home, without looking down, keeping his eyes locked on the Bisbee road, looking for more marauders.

    From the stage, he heard a voice say, “I hope you’re not going to do that to me.” Virgil turned and saw a badly battered man in a tweed suit drop down from the side of the capsized stagecoach. The man struggled as if he was drunk, but maintained his footing. He reached into the inside of his jacket, pulled out a bottle of patent medicine, and took a long swig. Then he added, “although, under the circumstances, it might be a blessing. Dr. Aloysius Krupp at your service.” He reached up to tip a hat he wasn’t wearing, lost his balance, and fell down unconscious.

    Virgil shook his head and squinted at the road. Still no one on the ridge. He finished reloading the second pistol and walked to the coach. Along the way, he stepped gently over Dr. Krupp, who was snoring quietly in the sun. He climbed up the side of the stagecoach and looked through the broken window at the human wreckage inside.

    In a pile, there was a large man in a black suit, a hat with a fancy silver hatband, a carpet bag, a lady’s hatbox, a man with a preacher’s collar, a young woman in a fine pink dress, a tattered Bible, and a deck of cards scattered around the compartment.

    The man in the fine black suit moaned. Virgil guessed it was because the other two passengers were sitting on him. He said, “Mister, you okay?”

    The question was answered with a louder groan. The woman came to her senses, swiveled her head around and tried to make sense of her predicament. Virgil asked, “Ma'am, can you rise?”

    The woman looked up at him and scowled in displeasure. But it was not meant for him. She removed one of the Preacher’s hands from her bosom and then slapped the unconscious man across the face saying, “No free rides! Not even for a man of the cloth!” Then she looked up at Virgil and asked, “Sir, can you extricate me?” As she shifted her weight in an attempt to rise something in the pile dug into the man in the suit, who groaned even louder. This in turn woke the freshly slapped preacher who exclaimed, “Has the Lord God Almighty seen fit to deliver us from the savages?”

    “Aw Christ, give it a rest,” said the man in the suit. “And would somebody get their elbow out my balls!”

    “Hang on,” said Virgil.

    He dropped down, cut some of the reins from the shattered team, and collected his horse. He looped one end of the severed reins around his saddle horn and then rode alongside the stage. He tied a loop in the far end and dropped it into the broken window. Then he pounded on the side calling out to the survivors within, “One at a time.”

    The first one he extracted from the stagecoach was the lady... if she could be called that. She had dark hair and green eyes. As she emerged from the wreckage she revealed herself to be an expensive beauty. Virgil helped her down, trying not to look at her cleavage so he would not feel the guilt of it when he thought of his wife.

    Next came the preacher, who cried out overmuch for deliverance and fell to his knees in loud and effusive prayer. The last man, in his dark suit, replaced the hat with the silver hatband on his head, held his handkerchief to his broken nose, and leapt down with surprising agility for a man of his size.

    Dr. Krupp recovered consciousness and took another swig from the flask. He offered it to the Preacher, saying, “A most remarkable tonic for the nerves and spleen. It will settle you right down after an ordeal.”

    The preacher broke into a hymn, and the man with the silver hatband shook his head and looked to Virgil. “Nevermind God,” he said, “Thank you, sir. We’re lucky you came along.” Virgil tipped his hat and looked back to the road. Still nothing.

    Virgil felt exposed, but they only had the one horse, so the group wasn't going anywhere very fast. As he listened to their chatter he began to think that *having* rescued them would be more difficult than just rescuing them.

    The lady picked her way through the luggage that was scattered behind the wreck of the stagecoach. The Preacher continued, hammer and tongs, praying “And for your deliverance, oh Lord, in your benevolence you sent a mighty champion, who slew the Philistines!”

    Dr. Krupp barked,” you blathering charlatan! Those weren’t philistines, those were savages. Fearsome Indians!”

    There was a clatter of hooves and Virgil looked up and saw Miguel, riding the left horse of the fresh team. Miguel looked at the dead horses and the dazed passengers and he said, “Verga.” He looked to Virgil and asked, “Señor, did you kill all of the Indians?”

    Virgil said, “I got two of ‘em. The third one got tangled in the horses when it went over. But they’re not Indians. They just look like Indians. Maybe that one’s purebred, but they’re all border trash. Rustlers more than Indians.”

    “How can you be so certain, sir?” asked the man in the dark suit.

    Virgil shrugged, “Look at them. That one is a straight cowboy. And there’s not so many Indians left. These as call themselves Mescaleros, but they’re not much more than desperate men coming from across the border to raid and fall back. Besides, Apaches steal horses, children, women. They aim to take scalps, count coup. They don’t just steal money. They don’t have much use for it.”

    “What’s your name, sir? How do you have a knowledge of the savage tribes hereabouts?”

    “My name ain’t important, we need to get you people off this road.”

    Dr. Krupp staggered over and said, “Mr. Miller, as a token of my gratitude, allow me to present you with a bottle Doctor Amadeus Bartoleermeer the 2nd’s All-Purpose Miracle Cure. The 9th Wonder of the medieval world — thought to be lost to the ages — known to the Greeks as Panacea and among the ancient Pharaohs as…”

    Virgil look at the bottle from the man’s outstretched hand and asked, “you a real Doctor… Bartoleermeer?”

    The expensive lady snapped, saying, “No, he’s just a salesman.”

    “A Doctor of Philosophy. And a customer, a patient first and foremost! Let me tell you of my treatment and my miraculous results with this marvelous elixir.”

    Miguel climbed up and checked the strongbox that was still chained to the top of the stagecoach. Then he inspected the wheels and the axles and found that all of them were unbroken. He said, “I’d call it a miracle except for the two men who were killed. By rights, all the passengers should be dead and this coach should be kindling.”

    “And the horses,” Virgil said.

    “And the horses,” allowed Miguel. “Give me a hand and we’ll put this rig to rights.” Then he cut the tangle of harness holding the dead team to the stage. With Virgil’s help he backed the fresh team around and made it fast to the top of the wagon axles. Then Miguel stood beside the team with the reins and snapped them over the horses with a whistle and a click.

    As the team pulled, Miguel set his boot heels in the dirt and gave drag on the reins so the horses would not lunge forward, snapping the tackle. The load came on little by little. The ropes creaked, and the stagecoach groaned, but it came up on two wheels. It tipped past its center of gravity and crashed back onto all four wheels. Though it rocked back and forth violently, the battered coach held together.

    After they had hitched the new team and salvaged what they could of the baggage Virgil quietly asked Miguel, “Leave me out of tellin’, if you would.”

    Miguel was confused “But you are a hero, and the passengers - they will talk no matter what I say!”

    Virgil shook his head. “They didn’t see anything. When they tell it, it'll the both of us. When you’re asked, just say I rode with you. I was first to the wreck. Lotta confusion, can’t be sure who did what.”

    Miguel shook his head. “I don’t understand, but I will do as you ask.” They shook hands and Miguel drove the stage on to Grantham. When the stage was over the hill, Virgil looted the bodies for cartridges. He refilled the empty spaces in his bullet loops and filled another belt besides. Only then did he ride back to collect his wagon, and head on to tend to his business with the flour merchant in Bisbee.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at patrickemclean.substack.com/subscribe

  • Posted on 28 Jan 2022

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    Inspiration

    Inspiration… that son-of-a-b***h

    I’m having a problem with inspiration right now.

    He’s been ducking me.

    I mean we have this regular arrangement. He shows up and

    Inspiration, that son-of-a-b***h, has been ducking me.

    I know what happened. He got all cracked out on the ideas he was supposed to bring me and now he’s embarrassed. So he ran away. He’s jittering around Times Square circa 1976 clutching a Bendix brake drum in his left hand, trying to pawn it off on tourists as a novelty ashtray.

    Somewhere men are laughing. Somewhere children shout. But in Times Square circa 1976 it’s just starting to rain and that cigarette he bummed off a schoolteacher from Maine is ruined

    He slides into a pizza joint to get out of the weather, but gets yelled when he doesn’t order, because he doesn’t have any money. That son-of-a-b***h, I was prepared to pay cash.

    “Come on man, I got a great idea for a Tweet,” he says, starting to shake real bad now. “I trade you straight up for a slice.”

    If there’s one thing I can tell you about the creative process it’s that you can’t depend on inspiration. He’s a real shitheel.

    You just gotta make it happen for yourself.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at patrickemclean.substack.com/subscribe

  • Posted on 27 Jan 2022

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