Reach for the Sky

Reach for the Sky debuted in paperback and ebook July 17th! Below is  the back cover description. Below that, find Chapter 1 for your reading pleasure! And here’s where to buy: https://www.amazon/com/dp/B00QMLW3LU.

****

Southern California, 1929. It is the Golden Age of American Aviation, when dashing young men pilot flying machines and women are told they don’t belong in the cockpit.

That means nothing to fifteen-year-old Shannon Donnelly. Orphaned and on the run from her parents’ killers, she stumbles into the world of aviation. Inspired by a chance encounter with Amelia Earhart, she pursues a dream to fly, becomes part of 1930s Hollywood, and is shadowed by a man determined to see her dead. Along the way, she wins the hearts of two men—one she will marry; one she cannot forget—and falls into a love triangle culminating in a daring rescue mission into Nazi-occupied France.

Take flight into a slice of 1930s Southern California life—air races, Hollywood, movie stars, dangerous flying machines, the Great Depression, and more in an adventure set in the same period as The Rocketeer and Chinatown.

****

1
Near Running Springs California
Northeast of San Bernardino
April 1929
The grave yawned before the girl, broad but shallow. Room for two
bodies. And maybe one more, she thought. She sat on the edge of the
grave, cradling the shovel and gasping for breath. The desert soil had
fought her all the way, oozing back into the hole when dry, and
heavy when wet as the rain began again. It had taken her most of the
night. She’d worked like a machine, fearing if she stopped, she might
never start again. Her dirt-stained hands brushed loose strands of
wet dark hair from her forehead. Then, willing her aching muscles
into motion, she got up and grabbed her mother’s booted feet and
pulled her into the grave. Then, staggering with fatigue, she pulled
her father alongside. For a fleeting instant she considered joining
them, lying down on top of them and pulling the earth over her. No
more running, no more pain, no more fear. Done, finished with life at
fifteen. But a spark of revenge, of payback due, banished the notion.
Refusing to give in to overwhelming weariness, she rose to her feet
and slammed the shovel into the wet sand.
When she patted the last shovelful into place, she collapsed on
her haunches, her pounding heart telling her she needed to talk to
them one last time, to tell them how sorry she was, to pray God
1
would take them into His bosom, even as she prayed that the grave
would not be discovered. But she knew her time was dangerously
short, and if she did not leave, she would likely join her mother and
father in the ground. Wiping away silent tears, she raised her face to
the east. They would be coming.

It was still dark as the beat of horses’ feet sounded near the fresh
grave. The horses stopped, breathing heavily, feet stamping the
ground. Three mounted figures wearing rain slickers looked down at
the disturbed earth. They gazed at the grave for a moment. One,
older than the other two, a merciless cruelty branded on his
weathered face, looked up, eyes searching the land, out past the
Joshua trees and the ocotillo, the sagebrush and desert willow,
sensing, probing the dim light. After long moments he looked down
at the grave again and spoke, his voice a sharpened blade cutting into
the still air. “Dig ’em up.”
“Ain’t diggin’ no grave in the dark,” one of the men said in a low
growl.
The man who had first spoken slowly got off his horse. “Don’t
reckon they’ve been dead long enough for ghosts to be walkin’.” He
walked over to the nearby overturned buckboard wagon and
retrieved an intact kerosene lantern. Lighting a match on the
scratchpad of the matchbox he retrieved from his coat pocket, he lit
the lantern and placed it on the ground beside the grave. Then he
looked at the others. “Dig.”
Reluctantly, the other two shed their rain slickers and set to
work, taking turns with the shovel they had found nearby. In less
than half an hour, they had partially uncovered the bodies. The man
who had been spooked by digging in the dark looked up. “Looks
like just the two of ’em,” he said.
The older man looked down at the open grave, his expression
devoid of emotion. His eyes peered into the surrounding pre-dawn
darkness again. “The little bitch is alone now.” He turned back to
the other two. “Hold on a minute.” He jumped down into the grave,
and did something to the body of the man that left the other two
2
nearly gagging in revulsion. Then he hoisted himself out of the
grave, brushing the dirt from his hands. “Now cover ’em back up.
Let the dead stay buried, I say. And this site needs to be cleaned up.
Let’s remove all evidence of this spot. I don’t want no one ever
finding this place again. Includin’ her.”

The girl ran through the desert, arms in front of her face in the
darkness. Lost, directionless she ran, her feet pounding on the
unforgiving ground. There was nothing in her mind now but to run.
Cactus and flame-red ocotillo grabbed at her clothes, thorns
scratched her cheeks, the salt of her tears stinging in the cuts.
Yesterday was buried behind her; tomorrow was a blank slate. She
ran, the blackness of night enveloping her. Then the skies opened
again.

Three demons rode down from the mountain, the pounding of their great horses’
iron-shod hooves striking fire on the rocks of their passage. The horses’ flaring
nostrils spouted flame as on they came, their eyes burning coals of death. The
riders looked ever forward as their black greatcoats flew out in the wind, cold eyes
the color of glacial ice.
The girl jerked awake, shaking in the early light of a desert
sunrise. A bad dream. Clutching her arms about her chest, she
squinted up at the sky, mostly empty now with remnants of the
storm lingering in far-off patches of gray clouds. Stiff and aching,
she got to her feet. She had taken shelter under a rock overhang
barely big enough to keep her dry as a downpour drenched the area.
Bracing against the overhang for support, she saw rain had filled a
depression on top of the rock. Ravenously thirsty, she leaned over
and used both hands to scoop water into her mouth. Satisfied, she
cupped her hands once more and splashed water over her face, then
shook her hands dry. The effort caused her to breathe heavily and
lean against the rock as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over her.
She had not eaten in too long and knew she had far overworked her
3
slender frame during the night and would pay the price for several
days to come. If she was allowed any more days.
She looked at the ground and felt a surge of panic. The rain last
night had not erased her tracks in the slightest. Her crusty footprints
were starting to dry in the sun. There was no time to linger.
Relieving herself behind the sheltering rock, she was off and running
again, weaving directionless through the forest of cactus and desert
mallow.

The trio of riders, now shed of their rainslickers, followed the trail of
footsteps to a large rock. One of the men got down to look closer.
“She was here last night,” he said. “Must’ve took off first light.” He
raised his face to the men on horseback. “Shouldn’t be hard to
track.”
The older man on horseback raised his weathered face to the
horizon, eyes probing the land. “Couldn’t have got far,” he said, his
coarse voice a low, rusty rasp in the stillness. He prodded his horse
into motion and set off through the scrub.
The other two looked at each other, sharing an uneasy
expression. Then they mounted and rode up alongside the older
man.
“So we catch her, then what?” one said. He was a big man,
muscular and taller than the older man, with a face like a granite
carving of some legendary war hero.
The old man said nothing for a long uncomfortable period.
The third man spoke, a hint of pleading in his voice. “Look, I
don’t cotton to killin’ kids. Grown-ups is one thing. But kids, that
ain’t my thing.”
“Mine neither,” the other said.
The old man was mute again a few seconds, then spoke. “I’m
doing what has to be done. You don’t want to be part of it—”
“I don’t,” said the man who didn’t cotton to killing kids. “I’m
done with this and I’m heading home.” He wheeled his horse
around and galloped off into the desert.
4
The other two looked at each other wordlessly, then moved their
horses at a measured pace through the brush, as if they had no
doubt they would overtake their quarry.

The girl fled blindly, sure there was little chance her pursuers would
not catch her, and when they did, she would likely end up in the
grave alongside her parents—if they bothered to bury her at all. As
she staggered through the cactus and ocotillo, she reflected it would
have been infinitely easier to just give up. But she wouldn’t, and
stumbled on through the morning light, feet marking the sand for all
to see. At last, gasping for breath and stumbling, she fell to her
knees and collapsed into a sitting position. She was done, spent, her
young body pushed to the limit and beyond. Mother, Father, please
forgive me. I’m so sorry I lost everything you worked so hard for. But I can’t run
anymore.
She sat, head down, and heard a faint buzzing sound. It grew
louder. It sounded like it was coming from above. She willed herself
to her feet, heart pounding, and looked in the direction of the
sound. She trod ahead and came to the edge of a long clearing. To
her complete astonishment, about two hundred yards away she saw
a yellow aeroplane rolling swiftly along the clearing on two wheels. It
was a biplane. As she watched, the biplane slowed and its tail section
sank down onto a stick which furrowed the ground as it went. The
biplane came to a stop. The propeller was whirling around at great
speed, but then it slowed and the buzz she had heard died. The quiet
of the desert returned, with no sound but the faint buzz of insects.
As she watched, a man jumped out of the machine to the ground.
He bent and stretched himself as if weary and cramped. As she
looked at the biplane, a daring idea began to form. There were two
openings in the flying machine’s body. The pilot had been in the
front one. If I could get in that back opening, maybe they won’t catch me.
She knew there was no time to hesitate. She had to get down to
the machine as fast as she could but remain undetected. She couldn’t
count on the man allowing her to get into the biplane; she would
have to get aboard unseen if she could. As she watched, the man
5
walked away from the machine, stretching his legs, then, as she
blushed, saw him stop and relieve himself on a creosote bush. At
least his back is to me. This was her chance. She moved quickly around
the perimeter of the open space, thankful for the sound-deadening
sand under her feet. The man had finished and was still stretching
his legs with vigorous steps when she neared the biplane on the
opposite side. Arms still rubbery with fatigue, she laboriously hoisted
herself up into the rear opening, then shrank back from the top as
far as she could. The little space smelled of oil and kerosene. There
was a seat with a harness crisscrossing it. She knew it was not an
option; she’d be discovered if she sat in it. She held her nose and
took some deep breaths through her mouth, then sank to the floor
in a ball, wedging herself into a narrow space between seat and
fuselage. She wrapped her arms around her legs, shivering with fear.
She could do nothing now but wait.
After a minute, she heard approaching footsteps on the sand, the
biplane rocked slightly as the pilot got aboard, and then the glorious
sound of the motor turning over, puffing a belch of smoke as it
whirred to life. Her hands bloodless and pale from their death grip
on her legs, she prayed he wouldn’t find her. There was a moment’s
pause, and then the yellow biplane trembled, the taut wires between
the wings vibrating in the wash from the propeller. The motor
settled into a steady buzz.
She heard the engine surge and felt the plane begin to move, and
she dared to breathe again. Then to her horror it stopped, and the
engine settled back into a low purr. There was the sound of
approaching hoofbeats. Her throat constricted as she lay nearly
paralyzed with fear. She heard the man in the pilot’s seat making
noise as if handling a heavy object. There was a voice from nearby, a
voice she recognized for its coldness. There was only one man she
knew who sounded like that.
“Mornin’, mister,” the man said, speaking loudly to be heard
over the motor and whirling propeller.
“Thanks,” she heard the pilot say. “You gents admire biplanes?”
“Not especially,” came the response, and she could feel a tension
grip the air. She heard the snort of a horse and a creaking of leather
as someone shifted in their saddle. “We’re lookin’ for someone.
6
Little gal about so high, around fifteen. She’s a runaway, and we
need to get her back home out of this raw weather. Started trackin’
her yesterday.”
“Mister, we’re a long way out into the desert. Doesn’t seem likely
a runaway would make it out this far.”
The man’s voice turned harder. “She stole a horse.”
The pilot paused, staring at the man. “Mister, I haven’t seen
anyone like that around here. I just dropped in to stretch my legs for
a bit. Now I’m headed back into the air. You’d better back clear of
the propeller.”
The man rested his right hand on the handle of the gun on his
hip. “Maybe we oughtta have a look in that machine of yours.”
She clamped both hands over her mouth to keep from
whimpering in terror. A brief quiet, then she heard a thump as the
pilot set something heavy on the edge of the cockpit.
“Mister, I’m already tired of your company,” the pilot said. “I
told you I haven’t seen anyone like that. You go for those guns and
I’ll wipe both of you out of the saddle in less than two seconds.
Now back off.”
There was hushed moment, then she heard the scuffling
hoofbeats of horses slowly backing away. The pilot apparently put
down whatever he had threatened the men with as she felt a heavy
thump. She gasped in relief as she heard the motor surge and the
wheels once again begin to turn. The biplane began to roll, faster
and faster. Now, she was sure, the horses wouldn’t be able to keep
up. Then her stomach threatened to fall to her shoes as the biplane
lifted into the sky. Terrified, she sank back onto the floor, in the
process laying on two cables running lengthwise, and held on as
tight as she could to the seat frame, her eyes squeezed shut in panic.
In her mind’s eye, she could see the chilly gaze of her pursuers on
the yellow machine, as it flew into the blue-skied distance.
On the ground, the younger man broke the stillness. “Think she
was in there?”
The man who had spoken to the pilot was still staring at the
receding flying machine. “I’d lay money on it. Ain’t no other escape
out here.” He blew out his breath in exasperation and slammed a
hand onto the pommel of his saddle, causing his horse to jerk its
7
head. “Don’t know where that aeroplane is goin’. But it had a
number on it, and I got it. We should be able to track it. For now,
let’s head home. Wasted enough time on this chase.” He turned to
the other man. “We’ll find her. Someday, we’ll find her.”

The girl jerked awake to the drone of the motor. Blissfully, she had
passed out not long after they had taken to the air. Now she could
feel the flying machine descending, and her stomach with it. Steeling
herself and looping an arm tightly under the cable running along the
fuselage under her, she dared a peek over the edge of her enclosure.
They were rapidly descending toward a broad dirt strip carved out of
the brush on the arid landscape. She could see another flying
machine near an odd-shaped building at one side of the strip. Dizzy,
she sank back onto the floor and held her stomach, hoping it
wouldn’t erupt until they were at least on the ground. She hadn’t
given any thought to what she would do then. What would happen
when the pilot discovered her? Will I be punished? Beaten? Taken to jail?
The options chilled her, and she thought her best chance would be
to stay hidden until she had a chance to sneak away.
She felt the biplane start to turn. But it suddenly jerked and
shuddered, and she could hear the pilot cursing. At the same time,
the arm she had looped under the cable was suddenly pulled back
and forth, the cable sawing at her flesh as her arm was bound
between the cable and the fuselage. Panicky, she did her best to jerk
it free, and after a few seconds, succeeded, huddling deep in the
enclosure until she felt the tires contact the smooth dirt. The plane
rolled along until it slowly came to a stop near the odd building she
had seen from the air.
The pilot cut the engine and jumped out. More cursing.
Suddenly he yelled to someone in the building. “Leroy! This infernal
machine’s got a rudder problem!”
A man in oil-stained coveralls ambled over. He was past middle
age and looked like someone who had long since ceased to care
about his appearance. Thatches of gray in his unruly black hair
peeked out around his ears from under his grimy cap. “Shouldn’t
8
have given you no trouble. I checked her out myself before you took
off. What happened?”
The pilot threw his goggles and leather helmet to the ground in
disgust. “When I turned to line up for landing, the rudder didn’t
want to respond. Acted like it was bound up. It fought me for a few
seconds then broke free. But not before it scared the hell out of
me.” He stopped and caught a breath. “That’s not all. When I took
off out in the desert, it was a little sluggish, like there was extra
weight in the tail.”
Leroy looked at the flying machine, rubbing his chin in
puzzlement. “Drew, I don’t figger it. But I’ll have a look.”
“You do that, Leroy, ’cause I’m not taking it up again ’til you get
it fixed.”
Both men started to walk back to the hangar, their backs turned
to the airplane, and didn’t notice the girl slither out of the rear
cockpit and slide down the far side of the fuselage onto the ground.
But when she took two steps on the dirt and collapsed heavily into a
heap, they heard that. Hurrying around the fuselage, they found a
small figure sprawled on the ground face down. Drew stared down
in amazement.
Leroy scratched his three-day beard stubble. “Hmph,” he said,
“there’s yer rudder problem.”
The pilot turned to him in astonishment, then back to the still
figure on the ground. “A damned stowaway!” He reached down and
grabbed hold of a shoulder strap and started to pull upward. But he
got only a few inches when the figure jerked awake and began
fighting him with the ferocity of a wildcat. There came a muffled
volley of obscenities. “Leave me alone! Get your filthy paws off
me!”
Speechless, Drew hoisted the figure and held it at arm’s length,
and for the first time could see the face. “Even worse. A girl! So you
were in my airplane, just like those yahoos thought you might be.”
“Let go of me!”
Drew plopped the girl back onto the ground but still held her at
arm’s length. “Not yet. Do you realize you could have got us both
killed? That you could have caused us to crash?”
“No! Can I go now?”
9
“Nope. You have questions to answer.” He glanced at Leroy.
“Let’s get her into the hangar.” He looked down at the girl, who was
glaring at him ferociously. “Don’t fight me,” he said. Holding her
shirt collar, he marched her into the hangar and sat her down
roughly in a ratty office chair. Wanting to stay clear of the whole
situation, Leroy walked off and busied himself with a wooden
propeller leaning against a work bench but kept an ear to the
conversation.
Drew looked down at her. “It’s a hot day. You want a drink?”
The girl nodded.
“All right then.” He reached for a canvas water bag slung over a
nearby post and retrieved a cup, then filled it and gave it to the girl.
She grabbed it and drank deep until it was empty. Drew filled it
again and gave her the second cup. As he watched her drink, it
occurred to him the two riders in the desert who had menaced him
had told the truth. Or at least some of it, he thought. Why did they want
this little girl so much?
He waited as she drank the second cup, looking her over. She
was slender, tall for her apparent age, and dressed in a frayed shirt
underneath dirty overalls, her feet in scuffed-up boots with badly
worn soles. She had intense dark blue eyes, and her dark reddishbrown hair was a tangled mess close around her head. She looked to
him to be about fourteen, though he knew so little about young girls
that he wasn’t sure. When she lowered the cup he said, “You have a
name, girl?”
The girl paused for a moment as if lost in thought: “Shannon.”
“Nice name. How about a last name?”
Nothing.
Drew sighed and pulled another chair close to her, where he sat
and ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, Shannon’s fine for now.
Look, you gave me a serious fright up there. So I figure I’m entitled
to know why you stowed away in my airplane.” He paused, waiting
for a response, but didn’t get it. “Somebody’s chasing you. Looks
like they want you real bad too. They were ready to pull guns on me
to see if you were on board. Good thing for you I didn’t let ’em.
Nobody messes with my airplane.” He sat back and crossed his
arms, “You want to tell me what this is all about?”
10
Shannon shook her head, looking at her captor. He was tall and
athletic-looking and blessed with rakish movie-star good looks. He
had thick brown hair that spilled over his forehead and piercing
green eyes over a killer grin.
Drew snorted in exasperation. “It must be pretty serious, damn
it! A little girl running around the desert all alone—”
“I’m fifteen!” she said, deep blue eyes blazing.
Drew involuntarily jerked back in the chair at the ferocity of her
response. “You’re still way too young to be running around the
desert unless it’s some kind of desperate situation—”
“Yeah? How old are you?”
“Hmph. Twenty, not that it’s any of your business.”
The girl stuck her tongue out. “Stop calling me a girl. I’m halfgrowed. There’s only five years between us.”
“Hmph.”
“I told you all I’m going to tell you. Can I go now?”
“Where to? Say, where are your parents?”
Shannon looked down at her cup. “They’re dead.”
Drew shook his head and looked away for a moment. “I’m sorry
to hear it.” His expression sobered. “You a runaway?”
There was no response.
Drew drummed his fingers on his knee for a moment. “I think I
need to call the sheriff.”
“No!” Shannon yelled, leaping to her feet. “You do and I’m
dead.” Tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “Please, please, don’t
do it.”
He looked amazed for an instant, then rubbed a hand over his
chin. With a heavy sigh, he said, “You have relatives you can hook
up with?”
“Yes. In Los Angeles.”
He wasn’t convinced. “That’s a long way. It’s dangerous out
there for a girl—excuse me, young lady—to be traveling all alone.
How about I take you there?”
“I’ll get there myself,” she said, frowning.
Drew sat back in his chair. “Hmm, now why don’t I believe
you?”
11
“I don’t care if you believe me or not. I’m going.”
Drew stood up and stretched. “Fine. No place for you around
here anyway.” He pointed to the outside. “There’s pretty much
nothing but desert for about twenty miles in every direction. I’d say
it’s going to reach at least ninety today. You want to go, nobody’s
stopping you.”
Shannon got up and walked out of the hangar without a word.
She broke into the sunlight but didn’t stop, hands jammed in her
pockets. Drew leaned against the hangar entrance watching her go,
fighting an urge to call her back.
Leroy turned from the propeller he had been working on and
ambled over. “You gonna let her walk out into the desert, all alone?”
Drew sighed. “Right now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
No place for a fifteen-year old here, but I’m not going to let her risk
her life either. Though I reckon she’s already done that. No, I’m
hoping she’ll decide for us.” He watched the girl’s receding figure
reach the far side of the dirt landing strip and slowly come to a halt.
She stood staring out at the desert shimmering in heat waves for
several minutes, then lowered her head and slowly turned around
and began to walk back toward them.
“You hungry?” Drew said as she reached the sanctuary of shade
provided by the hangar.
She seemed to simmer for a moment, then nodded affirmatively.
He didn’t press her for more. “Okay, let’s rustle up something to
eat. Come on back to the kitchen, and I’ll see what we can do.”
She cautiously followed him deeper into the hangar. For the first
time, she looked around. There was a dusty wooden sign above the
entrance that read “Kazminski Aviation.” The building was shaped
like half of a barrel set on the ground. A curved roof arched over
her. The air inside was thick with the same oil and kerosene smell
the biplane had, but stronger. There were tools scattered
everywhere; she couldn’t guess their purpose. Workbenches with
machines and parts of machines lined the walls, which were
plastered with faded posters advertising a variety of products, and
two or three that trumpeted events showing biplanes flying grandly
through the sky as a crowd below watched.
12
In the rudimentary kitchen, a separate room which was a few
shades of grime cleaner than the rest of the hangar, to her relief she
saw Drew wash his hands. As she sat at a chipped table, she
observed a small cook stove and noisy refrigerator with a big coil on
top in the room. Drew rustled around in the refrigerator and came
up with lettuce, bread, two apples, and some sliced turkey. Then he
set about making sandwiches for them. “No milk,” he said over his
shoulder as he worked. “You’ll have to make do with water. Oh, and
there’s an outhouse out back.”
Needing no urging, she shot for the door and was back in
minutes, to find a robust sandwich and an apple waiting for her on
the table, along with a glass of water. She shyly went to the sink and
washed her hands, then sat down and tore into the sandwich like she
hadn’t eaten in days.
Drew didn’t disturb her, even when a blot of mustard spilled
onto her shirt. When she had finished the sandwich, he said, “I’m
glad you came back to us, but you can’t stay here. No beds to spare,
and besides, if we kept a fifteen-year old girl—excuse me, young lady
—around, there’d be talk, and I don’t need the notoriety. Let me see
if I can call in a favor and get you settled someplace where you’ll be
safe.”
She glared at him between bites of the apple but said nothing.
After they were done with the sandwiches and apples, he rose
and left the table to go back into the shop. She could hear him
talking in low tones on a crank telephone fastened to a wall. After an
extended conversation, he hung up and came back to the kitchen.
“Good news,” he said with artificial cheer, “an acquaintance of
mine, Mrs. Barkley, will be here around late afternoon. She runs a
home for girls. She’s offered you a place to stay over in Highland.
It’s only about 15 miles or so. I think you can trust her. So how
about it?”
The girl looked at him for a few moments, then shrugged her
shoulders.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Drew said. “Until then, feel free to look
around. But don’t touch anything.” He left to talk to Leroy, who was
still working on the big wooden propeller.
13
Shannon watched him go, then began to slowly walk around.
Outside the hanger’s front entrance, to one side was the other flying
machine she’d seen from the air. It was colored a dark blue, and she
immediately took a fancy to it. On closer examination, she saw there
was a number at the front of the fuselage, below the pilot’s seat, and
a large symbol painted near the tail. In large print along the side,
letters proclaimed, “Kazminski Air Shows. Airplane Rides $1.00”.
She stared at it dubiously. Would people actually pay to have the daylights
scared out of them? Curious, she grabbed one of the wire wing struts
and hauled herself up onto the right-side lower wing to peek inside
where the pilot sat. There was a rudimentary seat that didn’t look
too comfortable, a large lever sticking out of the floor in front of it,
some gauges on the dashboard, and cables that ran along the floor,
along with some features whose purpose she couldn’t guess. She
noticed the seat had an X-shaped safety harness lying on it.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
She jumped in alarm and whirled to see Drew grinning at her.
“For someone who was hugging my rudder cables on your first
flight, you’re taking a strange interest in flying machines.”
Shannon slid down the wing and plunked to the ground. “This is
a lot different. It’s on the ground, so I figure it’s safe. But you’ll
never get me up there”—she waved to the sky— “again. Don’t even
think of it.”
Drew held his hands up in mild protest. “Suit yourself. Wasn’t
my doing the first time.”
Shannon looked over at the yellow aeroplane that had brought
her here. “Something you did out in the desert got those men to
back off. What was it?”
“Come over to the plane with me, and I’ll show you.” They
walked over to the brightly colored craft, where Drew reached into
the cockpit, threw aside a canvas, and hauled out the biggest gun
Shannon had ever seen.
“This is a Lewis gun,” he said, holding it out for her to see
clearly. “It’s a gas-powered machine gun. Invented by some guy
named Lewis, I guess. Used a lot during the war over in Europe, but
not by American forces. Too bad, something about some political
wrangling, I hear. It’s a good gun, very portable, not too heavy to
14
handle, though she does weigh around thirty pounds loaded, and
good for use in aircraft. Here, see how it feels.” He set the gun
gently in Shannon’s arms.
She sagged under the weight, cradling it briefly, then Drew took
it back. It felt plenty heavy to her. It had a long large barrel, with a
disc-shaped object on top. “What’s that?” she said, pointing to the
disc.
“The magazine. It holds the bullets. This magazine holds 97
rounds; the smaller one holds 28. The expanding gas from one
round firing powers the next round.” He stopped and fingered the
barrel. “There’s usually a cooling shroud around the barrel; it could
get damaged if it gets too hot. But for airplane use, the airflow from
flight cools the barrel enough so it doesn’t need a shroud. That’s
why this one doesn’t have it.”
“Fascinating,” Shannon said tonelessly.
Drew put the gun back on the floor of the cockpit and covered
it with the canvas again. He turned back to her and grinned. “This
baby can fire 500-600 rounds per minute.”
Shannon pursed her lips. “I can see now why those men backed
off.”
“Suppose you tell me who they were?”
“No,” she said, turning and walking away back toward the
hangar.
Drew watched her go. “That girl’s definitely got a burr under her
saddle,” he murmured. “But about what?”
Late afternoon came, and with it the sound of a motorcar
approaching. In the still desert air, it could be heard long before it
came into view. Shannon shyly watched it come from a dark corner
of the hangar, a frown on her face. The machine came to a halt, and
the motor shut down with a loud backfire that startled her. A stout
middle-aged woman heaved herself out from the driver’s seat as
Drew walked out to meet her. They conversed for several minutes in
words she couldn’t hear, but the longer they went on, the more
unsettled about the woman’s presence she got. Too much talk, she
thought. They could be making all kinds of plans for me. Maybe it’s not too
15
late to slip away. She was edging further back into the darkness of the
hangar when Drew turned suddenly and called to her.
“Shannon! Come and meet Mrs. Barkley.”
Rats. Too late to run now. She came out of the shadows and warily
approached the pair.
“Shannon, I’d like you to meet Mrs. Barkley. She’s going to take
you into town to a place where you can stay.”
Mrs. Barkley peered down at her with a plump face, a not entirely-convincing smile on her lips. She was clad in a print dress
with a pattern of small carnations all about and a real one pinned
below her left shoulder, a soft blue hat with black netting peeking
out from underneath, and black open-toed shoes not made for
walking off pavement. Her plump legs were encased in sheer
stockings with a seam running up the back. She had rouge on her
cheeks and smelled of cheap perfume, like the inhabitants of the
back pew on a hot Sunday at church. “I’d like to say I’ve heard so
much about you,” she said. “But Drew doesn’t know anything. He
says your name is Shannon.”
Shannon nodded.
“Now, as Drew may have told you, I have a home for children
who don’t have one. Not to worry; it’s licensed by the county and
there is a group of children there who’d be happy to meet you.
How’s that?”
Shannon shrugged her shoulders.
The smile this time was closer to a grimace. “Well, that’s a good
start, I suppose.” She looked at the afternoon light in the sky. “I
think we’d better be going. We need to get back to town while
there’s still light.” She looked at Shannon. “I don’t drive in the dark,
dear.”
Shannon got in the front passenger seat of the four-door touring
car. Mrs. Barkley laboriously slid herself into the driver’s seat and
looked at Drew again. “Does she have any belongings?”
“Nothing but what she’s wearing, apparently,” Drew said.
Mrs. Barkley smiled one last time. “All the more reason to let
Mother Barkley have a go at making her look proper.”
“Yes, never thought much about it. Now you’d best be on your
way.”
16
Mrs. Barkley turned the starter, and the engine galloped into life,
emitting another loud backfire.
“You ought to let me fix that,” Drew shouted over the motor’s
roar. “Chances are your spark plugs are dirty.”
“Perhaps next time, dear,” Mrs. Barkley said. “Besides, it lets
people know I’ve arrived. Toodle-oo!” With that she turned the
motorcar in a large circle in front of the hangar and drove off down
the dirt road.
Shannon turned with misgiving to watch the biplane hangar
shrink into the distance. Then she turned to face the dusty road
ahead. Mrs. Barkley chattered nearly non-stop on the trip. Shannon
didn’t respond, but the woman was undeterred; seeming to feel her
one-sided conversation was quite sufficient. She didn’t notice
Shannon’s fixated stare on everything they were passing.
After about twenty minutes, they began to encounter structures,
and soon were entering a full-fledged town, small though it
appeared. Drab buildings and homes lined a dirt street, with the
occasional tree and flowerpot here and there. The buildings were
fronted by boardwalks; the houses had faded picket fences
encompassing small yards. Some had grass; most did not. Mrs.
Barkley turned off the main street and parked in front of a large
home. It once was white, though that must have been some time
ago. There were dark blue clapboard shutters. And there was a layer
of dust on all of it. Above the front door was a large arched sign that
proclaimed, “Mrs. Barkley’s Home for Wayward Children”.
Shannon wrinkled her nose in disgust. Wayward?
Mrs. Barkley preceded her up to the door, her plump backside
jiggling like two pigs fighting in a blanket. Shannon stifled an urge to
guffaw, and the woman opened the front door with a grand flourish,
as if a trove of unexpected delights waited inside. Reluctantly,
Shannon walked into the house.
The living room was sparsely furnished in a functional way, with
worn chairs and a sofa accented by a floor rug the origins of which
must have stretched back into a distant past. There were two small
round tables draped by colored cloths which looked like sheets,
capped off by large lace doilies and lamps with a fringe of crystal
pendants hanging from their round glass tops. Looks like grandma
17
crap, Shannon thought. As she looked around, other children slowly
filtered into the room, regarding her as if she were a carnival
sideshow oddity.
“What are you lookin’ at?” she said.
“Children, be polite,” Mrs. Barkley said. “This is our new
resident. Her name is Shannon. She’ll take Olivia’s old room for
now.” She turned to Shannon. “Get acquainted. Dinner is at six,
prompt. All children wash their hands before dinner, and then assist
with cleaning the kitchen afterwards.”
With that, she walked off, leaving an uncomfortable quiet in her
wake. Shannon looked around at the other children. They stared at
her for a moment, then turned away and slowly disappeared into
other rooms. One girl lagged behind.
“Wait,” Shannon said, coming up close to her as the girl turned
to go. “Shannon,” she said, sticking out her hand.
The girl looked at it dubiously for a moment, then shook hands.
“Gwendolyn,” she said. Gwendolyn had blond hair taken up in two
long braids, and soft features, an altogether pleasing appearance. But
she looked sad.
Shannon leaned closer. “This place an orphanage?”
Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder to make sure they weren’t
overheard. “Yes. There’s usually about eight children here. Mrs.
Barkley gets money from the state for our care, so she keeps the
place as full as possible.”
“How long you been here?”
“Two years. Most kids are here until they’re placed with families
or get too old.”
“You don’t look like you like it much.”
Gwendolyn looked down and shook her head. Mrs. Barkley is
—” She stopped as Barkley herself entered the room.
“Gwendolyn, I need you to assist with the meal,” she said
frostily. “You may talk with Shannon later.”
Gwendolyn’s eyes flashed a warning at Shannon, then she
followed Barkley into the kitchen.
Shannon found herself alone in the living room. It was quiet
except for the ticking of a clock on the fireplace mantel. Dejected,
18
she sank down into one of the worn-out chairs and sat until she
heard the dinner call.
As indicated, dinner was called promptly at six p.m. Children
erupted from various parts of the house and headed for the dinner
table in a controlled rush. By the time Shannon could react, they
were all sat at the table, with one seat left for her. She sat down with
the others and looked dubiously at the fare. There were mashed
potatoes, beets, peas, boiled cabbage, and a sparse amount of sliced
ham. There was milk, and it was plentiful. Shannon saw nothing she
cared for, but her growling stomach overcame any reservations.
“Hands, children,” Barkley called out, and every child presented
their hands for inspection. Shannon put hers out, realizing she had
forgotten the edict, and, having spent most of the day at the
aeroplane hangar, it was obvious.
“Shannon, to the sink,” Barkley said, pointing.
Shannon went to the sink to wash.
“Children, if your food is cold, it’s Shannon’s fault,” Barkley
intoned. “Blame her.”
Shannon returned to the table in a frosty silence, and, after
Barkley led a prayer pointedly reminding the children how grateful
they should be for their blessings, they all commenced to eat.
Shannon spent the time observing the other children. They looked
meekly obedient and docile. But she thought she sensed an
undercurrent of fear among them.
“The children all attend school,” Barkley said to her as they were
eating. “You must join them. If you are fifteen, I should think ninth
grade might be right. You must tell me tomorrow how much
schooling you’ve had, so we can get you set up to attend.”
Shannon picked at her food and didn’t look at her.
After dinner, she was told to assist some of the other children in
washing the dishes. Sullenly she obeyed but hid her expression from
Barkley. During the drying, one of the girls dropped a small glass
bowl. It shattered on the floor.
The girl clutched herself in panic. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Barkley!” she
said, a pleading tone in her words.
Barkley gave her a stony look. “Clean that up immediately.”
19
Tearfully, the girl swept up the pieces into a dustpan, and then
stood mute, as if waiting for something.
As if by magic, Barkley produced a large flat ruler. “Carelessness
will not be tolerated,” she said to the girl. “Bend over.”
Red-faced, the girl obeyed, and received a solid thwack on her
backside.
“Now,” Barkley said, “go to your room and stay there studying
your homework until time for lights out.” The girl fled. Barkley
turned to Shannon, who had watched with astonishment. “Children
must be disciplined,” she said, face devoid of compassion. “Finish
your tasks, and Gwendolyn will show you to your room.”
Shannon stared at her defiantly for a moment, then finished
quickly and left in search of Gwendolyn. The girl showed her to her
room, which was on the second floor. It was sparsely furnished with
a table, a lamp, a small bed, and a desk and chair for studying. The
walls were mostly devoid of anything except aging paint. Gwendolyn
sat on the bed as Shannon stood mutely.
“You’re lucky,” Gwendolyn said in a barely audible voice. “You
have a room to yourself. Before long, you’re going to have a
roommate. You’ll have to share the bed then.”
Shannon snorted. “I’m not sharing a bed with anybody.”
Gwendolyn looked alarmed. “Don’t let her hear you say that!”
Shannon eyed her for a moment, then sat on the bed next to her.
“You’re afraid.”
Gwendolyn looked down. “All of us are. It’s the way it is here.”
“Hmph. This isn’t right. Have you ever tried to leave?”
Gwendolyn shook her head, her long braids swaying. “Other
girls have. But they were always caught and brought back. There’s
no place to go.”
Shannon sat back on the bed. “I’m not staying.”
Gwendolyn looked at her in alarm. “If you try to leave, she’ll
beat you!”
“She can try.”
“If you’re going to leave, you’d better try it soon. This is Friday.
Monday, she’ll have the county people out here to register you.
Once it’s done, you’ll be officially cast as a runaway if you leave and
hunted down.” She stood. “I have to go back to my room now.
20
Everyone is supposed to be studying this time of night.” She went to
the door but turned back and sat close to Shannon, eyes moist. “If
you get away, please remember me.” Then she was gone.
Shannon sat on the bed, lost in thought. Eventually, she realized
she was tired, and stretched out on the bed. She awoke later and
jumped at the sight of Barkley standing in her doorway.
“Lights were to be turned off nearly a half hour ago. Yours is
still on.”
Shannon sat up and rubbed her eyes. “No one told me. I fell
asleep.”
Barkley eyed her sternly. “We keep strict discipline in this
house.” She stepped in and closed the door behind her. “And I
didn’t like the way you looked at me in the kitchen this evening.
Defiance of house rules and decorum will be dealt with firmly.
You’re obviously in need of an introduction.” She advanced and
pulled out the ruler from behind her.
Shannon rose and pulled herself up to her full height, blue eyes
blazing. “You touch me with that ruler and I’ll shove it up your
backside.”
Barkley’s face froze in astonishment. Then her ample chin began
to shake. “Defiance! This will not be tolerated.” She turned to the
door, then paused, fairly trembling in anger. “I will deal with you in
the morning,” she said. Then she went out, slamming the door
behind her.
Shannon flopped back on the bed. I’ve done it now, she thought.
But I meant every word. Anyone lays hands—or anything else—on me they’re
going to regret it. She eyed the door speculatively. Hmm. If I’m to get any
sleep tonight, I’m going to need to secure the door. She got up and moved the
desk chair so it was tilted under the doorknob.
She turned the light off and reclined on the bed, closing her eyes.
But sleep didn’t come. Midway through the night, her suspicions
were confirmed when she heard a scraping sound. She looked to the
door.
The chair legs were moving.
Someone was trying to push open the door. But the harder it
was pushed, the more the chair resisted. After a minute, whomever
21
was on the other side gave up, and she heard the faint sound of quiet
footsteps fading away down the hall.
In the morning, Shannon was on edge and hyper-alert when she
went downstairs to breakfast. Barkley didn’t even look at her. But
Shannon had little doubt that something was coming.
Since it wasn’t a school day, the children were left to their own
devices. It was very warm outside, and the children congregated
mostly in the front yard, using various worn toys, games, and
playground structures to relax.
Shannon, not knowing anyone, stood under the shade of a large
tree to the right of the house. She soon found herself joined by
Gwendolyn. The pig-tailed blond girl approached her with a look of
admiration.
“That was very brave, what you said last night,” Gwendolyn said.
“I wish I was brave like you.”
“Well, it hasn’t gotten me anywhere yet. I’m here with all of
you.”
“But you have a plan, I’ll bet!”
Shannon twisted her mouth into a wry smile. “Not yet, but I’m
working on it.”
They settled onto the grass in the shade. From time to time, the
other children ambled over to seek relief from the heat. They looked
at Shannon curiously. They knew she was somehow different but
couldn’t define it.
An airplane ambled lazily overhead in the blue sky. Shannon
looked up at it. “Someday I’m going to be up there,” she said.
A little boy with a crewcut, whom she remembered from the
previous day as named Peter, registered amazement on his face. “Do
you really think so?”
Shannon nodded. “That’s my dream. I’ll bet some of you have
dreams too.”
The boy looked at the ground. “I want to drive a locomotive.”
“I want to be a dancer,” said a girl named Mary.
Soon all the children were gathered around. Others suddenly
broke in about their dreams and desires. But Shannon didn’t feel the
fire of conviction behind their words. How many of them will make their
dreams come true? They’ve already got one strike against them. And living in
22
this place could be strike two. She felt a sudden urge to take them all with
her, but immediately dashed it. It was impossible.
“How can I make my dream come true?” said a girl of about
eleven.
She looked at the faces around her, and realized they were
looking to her to say something helpful. I’m fifteen, what do I know?
Well, I guess I know one thing, because Da taught me. “Never stop
believing in yourself,” she said.
She looked up and saw Barkley standing on the front steps
looking with annoyance at the children gathered around her.
“Time to set the table for lunch, children,” she said. “Dust off,
come in and wash your hands.”
The children got up in unison, leaving Shannon seated on the
grass. She slowly got up to follow as Barkley came down the steps.
“What where you talking about with those children?” she said.
“Just kid stuff,” Shannon said. “What they want to be when they
grow up and such.”
Barkley eyed her suspiciously. “Go inside and wash up. The table
must be set. And I don’t want you putting rebellious ideas in their
minds.”
Shannon slid past her into the house.
“I’m not sure you’re going to fit in here,” Barkley said behind
her.
Shannon deftly avoided Barkley the rest of the day. She swore
sometimes the woman was trying to corral her for a reckoning.
Eventually she will. As if I needed any more reason to get out of here. Tonight.
Just before bedtime she slipped a note into Gwendolyn’s pocket
as they went to their rooms.
In the privacy of her room, Gwendolyn fished the note out of
her pocket and looked at it. I won’t forget you, or the others either, it said.

Shannon lay awake on her bed until just past midnight. She went to
the window and looked out. There was a bright full moon in the sky
illuminating the landscape. She quietly slid open the window and
looked down. On the second floor, she was too high to jump safely.
She had no notion of trying to sneak out the front door; the floor of
23
the old house had too many creaks and groans. She stuck her head
out further and examined the wall of the house. Despite what she
had hoped for, there was nothing she could get hold of to lower
herself to the ground. No nearby tree branches, no ledges, no
nothing. There was a trellis ten feet away, but it was too far to reach.
Discouraged, she put her elbows on the sill and stared out for long
moments. Then the spark of an idea hit her, and she looked above
her. The old house had sturdy-looking rain gutters. They looked
solid, but would they hold her weight? One way to find out, she
thought. If I can get up on the roof, I can go along to where I can reach the
trellis.
She hoisted herself onto the windowsill and reached up for the
rain gutter, which was within easy grasp at her right. She thought if
she could do a pull-up, she could grasp something on the roof to
hoist herself onto it. She wrapped her fingers around the edge of the
gutter and pulled herself upward. There was a sharp crack as the
gutter started to give way. Not that way. Trying the other direction,
she reached to her left as far as she could, fingers again wrapped
around the gutter’s edge, and put her weight on it. Do or die. This
time it held. She dared to take her weight slowly from the
windowsill, one foot, then the other, until she was hanging in space.
The gutter did not protest. Swiftly, she edged her way several feet to
the left until one hand grasped the trellis. It was covered with a rose
vine. She pulled herself fully over to it. Scratched by thorns, she
stifled a yelp in protest. But with a few feet of descent, she was on
the ground. She looked up. There was the bare hint of an
approaching dawn on the eastern horizon. Stepping across the yard,
she was gone.

TALES OF STRONG WOMEN

JAMES SCOTT (formerly writing as B J Scott) is a writer and speaker.  He is the award-winning author of five historical novels set in the Old West in the last half of the 19th century, a novel set in 1929-1940s southern California, and a speculative fiction novel set in the near future.  His stories are often built around actual historical events and have a common theme:  they feature strong, courageous women.  Though the stories revolve around women, these are men’s adventure stories, but with female protagonists—fast-paced and action-packed.  His novel, Light On A Distant Hill, won the 2011 WILLA Literary Award for Original Softcover Fiction sponsored by Women Writing the West. His latest novel,  Reach for the Sky, was released July 2020.

The Old West is a relatively recent period in history, and yet the men and women of that time were so different from us.  They displayed an astounding mental and physical resilience and determination that I wonder if we possess today.  The severity of the hardships they encountered can hardly be imagined or appreciated.  Yet they persevered.  For some, the price was the loss of their sanity.  For others, the loss of their life.

I have a fondness for the women of that era, who dutifully followed their men westward into a vast and largely unknown land.  The three books that form the Angel Trilogy (Angel of the Gold Rush, Angel’s Daughter, Legacy of Angels) all feature my trademark women—steel-strong, loyal to family, and afraid of no one, woman or man.  Far from perfect, they also emotional, hot-headed, and adventurous.  As one reviewer put it, these are “women who want men in their lives, but don’t need them to succeed”.  These traits generate spirited escapades—and danger.  Ellen, the heroine of my fourth novel, Light On A Distant Hill (sixteen as the book begins) is not an outwardly strong woman as are the women of the Trilogy books, but her inner strength is revealed as the book progresses, and she meets severe challenges to both her womanhood and her choice in a husband. The heroine of my sixth novel, The Electric Woman, is an entirely different matter. An artificial human born in a laboratory, she learns to become a woman, and learns to love along the way.

I consider myself an entertainer who likes to inform, and I never forget that.  The loyal followers I have acquired over the past seven years know they can count on me for fast-paced books that have a high can’t-put-it-down factor.  I know you’ll find them the same.