Sheriff Alec Lawson had never robbed a train before. He'd infiltrated a band of outlaws to help capture them, but when they kidnapped Lacey Fry from the Leadville express, he had no choice but to try and rescue the young woman alone. Alec Lawson didn't know the territory and he didn't know the girl. He had to fight his way through the snowy mountains, trying to stay one step ahead of the pursuing outlaws.
Bill Alcott, the gang's leader, felt he had been fooled and betrayed by Lawson. He had to kill him to avenge his brother and to keep the respect of his men.
Lacey Fry had to ride as she'd never ridden before, and travel with a man she didn't know, who was her only hope of escaping a fate worse than death.
So the chase was on, through snow and bloodshed, until one of them could run no further and hunter and hunted finally came face to face.
I had the idea of Alec rescuing a girl from outlaws and having to get her away to safety. He was on his own, without his deputies, and they would have to make a difficult journey. It became logical that Alec was working alone because he was undercover, pretending to be an outlaw, which is why he was present when the girl was kidnapped from the train. I'd previously said that Alec is a deputy state marshal, so this meant he could be working on behalf of the state marshal, and operating outside of his sheriff's jurisdiction, which would further isolate him from his friends and deputies.
I got out the old map of Colorado and started planning the route. Alec would head for the country he knew best, and towards his deputies, so I had a rough end point. Leadville was on the railroad and a suitable distance away, so the kidnapping would happen somewhere near there. I had to join up the dots. As before, some of the initial plotting was done during a car journey, in this case while heading for a cat show in Wigan. Alec's route was slightly changed during the writing: I had to choose a route that was logical given the terrain, while allowing for action, and to maintain the chase over a number of days.
I like to use maps, to give myself a sense of how things are arranged and to maintain continuity. The more clearly I can visualize the relationships between things, the easier it is to understand the surroundings of my characters and thus where and how they can move. It lets me into their world better, so writing about it becomes more fluent. The particular problem in this case is the perennial one of finding decent maps of American states. I'm used to the beautiful Ordnance Survey maps, with all their lovely details and the contour lines to help me to read the flat map as though it were three dimensional. Sadly, American maps are not as clear. After some searching, I found National Geographic maps, which do have contour lines; however they still use shading to partially highlight the form of mountainous areas, which tend to obscure the contour lines. There are also coloured borders and shading to indicate landownership, national parks etc, which makes things even less clear.
The adventure was to be about the journey itself, as much as the chase by the outlaws. I wanted to show Alec drawing on his horsemanship skills and his knowledge of how to survive outdoors as part of the story. The nature of Black Horse Westerns meant I couldn't go into too much detail on this - it has to be an action-filled adventure, not a travelogue - but I think I managed to get across something of the hardships of the journey.
As Alec is travelling with someone inexperienced with rough travel, so his explanations are informing Lacey, as well as the reader. I acquired a book on trail riding and used an SAS guide to mountain and arctic survival that's been in my bookcase for years, waiting for just such an occasion. It was from the survival book that I got Alec's method of using a tree to make a shelter. The trail riding book had advice on picking a good horse for the job, and about some of the hazards that can be encountered. When Alec is choosing one of the outlaws' horses for Lacey, he chooses the dun for its good disposition and because it gets on with his own horse. When they first ride away from the outlaws during the night, it is Alec's horse, Moray, that warns him they are crossing boggy ground.
It was while they were walking that Alec's horse slowed, lowering its head to inspect the ground more closely.
"Slow", he ordered quickly, holding out his arm.
Lacey hardly needed to slow her mount, which was also walking more cautiously.
"What is it ?" she queried. The ground ahead looked much the same as that they'd just passed through.
"Moray knows something," Alec replied, nudging his horse to walk on a little. "These are good trail horses; it's wise to listen to what your horse tells you."
As he spoke, he could hear his horse's hooves squelching in soft ground. Moray took another step and lurched as his front hoof sank to the fetlock. The horse jerked himself back with a snort, Alec sitting easily in the saddle.
"The ground's boggy here; we hafta go round this low patch."
Proper horsecare is often overlooked in westerns and fantasy novels. Characters throw saddles onto their horses and travel for long distances, often at a canter or gallop, then leave the horse tied up at the other end of the journey. Horses rarely get the chance to warm up or cool down from their work. It's rare to see a character with a brush in his hand, or checking hooves for loose shoes. Fictional horses can endure long, hard rides sustained by nothing but the grass they eat at night instead of reating. I wanted to make this ride more realistic. Alec's predecessor, Wedge Antilles, is not only a superb pilot, he is also handy at looking after ships. Alec is a skilled rider, and also knows how to look after his horses. He unsaddles the horses when they rest for lunch, airing the saddleblankets and brushing out sweat from the horses' coat. He checks the horses' legs after falls and is careful to not let them drink too much cold water when hot. The horses get more tired as their supply of grain diminishes. Realistically, the two horses couldn't carry much grain as well as the riders' equipment. They should be getting 10-12lb of oats a day, as they are doing hard work and living out. They should also be getting at least as much hay, but are only grazing on what grass they can find in the snow, which will be poor quality at this time of year, just before the new grass comes up. There's a bit of artistic licence in the feeding of the horses, but not too much, and at least they do actually show signs of lack of feed, rather than keeping going like machines.
The chase was a challenge both for me and for Alec. He had to keep outrunning the outlaws, but they had to get close enough for direct conflict along the way. A story that was just journey, even a difficult one, wouldn't fit in the Black Horse Western mould. There had to be action, which meant encounters. I did devise a scene involving an encounter with a bear, and another with an avalanche, but these didn't fit as I wrote the story. One of the biggest problems with planning encounters was that Alec was outnumbered; it was difficult to come up with a convincing fight with odds of five to one and have the one survive virtually unharmed.
In an early draft, the chase climaxed with Alec and Lacey riding double, and making a daring escape from the outlaws by riding down the staircase of ledges into a valley, that Alec rides down in Dynamite Express. It was a way of using Alec's superb horse skills to delay the outlaws for a while and give Alec time to reach the backup of his deputies. I can't remember why this was dropped - possibly once I got to studying the maps, I found this route didn't make much sense. The visit to the mine was originally just an overnight stop. Then it was going to be a narrow escape from the bandits, with Alec and Lacey fleeing in the night. Finally it became the chance for Alec to face the bandits in a battle where he had backup, so there could be a proper bit of action.
In the previous books, Alec had been working with his three deputies. In Outlaw Express, he's been away from them for over two months, posing as an outlaw. He's independent and self-reliant, but he does miss the others. Talking with Lacey, he admits that the right company makes all the difference in a difficult job. His deputies are his friends and all he has as a family. His parents died when he was fifteen and any relatives are back in Scotland, their names and addresses lost in the fire that killed his parents. Alec made a new life for himself in the Army and carried it over into the law, by bringing his closest friends with him. Although he's generally content with his life, he now feels there's something missing, and sometimes pauses to reflect. He enjoys the company of his friends and gets great satisfaction from his work. He knows he has the skills to help others as a lawman and is particularly keen to prevent people from suffering the kind of loss that he did when he lost his parents and home. He will also, occasionally, admit that he enjoys the excitement and danger. On the other hand, he feels some envy when he visits somewhere that feels like a real home; somewhere with a woman's touch, that is home to a family. He wants that for himself, but isn't sure he can reconcile it with his dangerous work as a lawman. It doesn't stop him from daydreaming about Lily, the Chinese girl he rescued in Dynamite Express. For now, he's taken the step of hiring a housekeeper, a motherly widow, to look after the lawmen at their home. I felt that the lawmen had enough to do without having all the household chores as well, so it made sense for them to hire someone to clean and mend for them.
When I first started writing, The story was told from Lacey's point of view. The whole of the first chapter was written this way, with events and Alec being seen from Lacey's point of view. The idea was the when the outlaw, Colt Turner, revealed himself to be a lawman, it would be a surprise to both Lacey and and reader. The story would then continue from the point of view of both characters. I liked the chapter the way it was written, but found myself reconsidering it in relation to the book as a whole. It was always instended to be part of the Express series, and would hopefully be picked up by people who had read at least one of the other two. Those readers would be expecting to see Alec in the story. Some might be put off or confused if they thought he wasn't, or more likely, they would quickly realize that Turner was actually Alec, and the surprise of the reveal would be lost. In the end, I felt it would be better to keep the tone more like the first two books. The story would be told from Alec's point of view.
At first, he was the only point of view character, but as I was writing more, I realized I needed to have some scenes from the point of view of the outlaw leader, Bill Alcott. This was partly for the purely practical point of showing how the outlaws manage to work out where Alec is going, especially after the fight at the mine. I could build them more as characters, in the scenes amongst themselves, and show their motivations for keeping up the chase. Happily, after losing the ability to show Alec from Lacey's point of view, I found another way show how other people see him, by writing from Alcott's perspective. Alec's quiet competence impresses the outlaw, who is pleased at allowing him to join the gang. When I was later writing the scene when Alcott discovers that not only has Alec run off with Lacey, but that Alec is a lawman who had him fooled all along, Alcott feels all the more resentment towards him. He becomes more strongly motivated to catch and kill Alec.
Although I finished Dynamite Express in September 2013, I didn't complete Outlaw Express until a little over two years later. I don't really know why it took so long. I had to start over after deciding to change the point of view in the first chapter, but I was reusing most of the material. I did struggle with the secquence of events, puzzling out what route they were taking and which of the planned possible events would take place. There was a lot of changing my mind and attempts to stitch things together coherently, but not a lot of actual re-writing, just a slowness in writing. When it was complete, the first draft, as usual, was too long and had to be edited. I was pleased with my book, and sent it off to Robert Hale as usual.
I was rather surprised when it was rejected. Alec's Scottish accent was described as 'painful', though I hadn't thought it was any stronger than in previous books. It was criticised for a lack of strong action, and for the fact that it was a chase, rather than a 'roundly plotted novel'. Well, it had been intended all along as a chase, and some very successful movies are essentially just chases. My own 'Cullen's Quest' is a chase with a subplot, though it does have plenty of action along the way. There was no way of rewriting Outlaw Express so it wasn't a chase and I was disappointed to lose two year's work, and a story about Alec that I wanted to share. While I was still nursing my wounds, there came a surprise. Robert Hale, the company, was closing down and selling off the rights to its books. It was bought up by Crowood Press, a small, independent publisher who specialize in non-fiction in various fields. Happily for me and other western writers, they had decided to keep the Black Horse Western line going. I felt I could give Outlaw Express another chance.
It was simple enough to tone down Alec's accent, though I regretted it slightly. It was harder to up the amount of action without substantial change, but I found something I could add. In the original version, they bypassed the first town they came to as it wasn't on the telegraph and was too small to offer help if Alcott caught up with them. When they reach the next town, Alec first calls at the marshal's office, and has a disagreement with the surly officer there.
The town marshal was sitting back in his chair, smoking a cigarette and reading a much-thumbed newspaper. His shirt was decorated with crumbs from his last meal and his stubble seemed undecided about whether or not it was supposed to be a beard.
“Kin I help you ?” the marshal drawled, lowering the paper to peer at Alec.
Alec privately doubted it, but advanced to the desk anyway.
“Alec Lawson,” he announced, bringing out his badge and showing it “Deputy State Marshal, and Sheriff of Dereham County.”
The marshal put down his paper, looking faintly resentful.
Alec's pride in his own work is offended by the lazy, suspicious marshal. I rather liked the short scene, but it wasn't much of a confrontation. I rearranged things so they visited the first town and Alec got into a fight with some miners who were bothering Lacey. They had to flee without getting their supplies, which was why they needed to stop again, at the second town. At the second town, I removed the scene with the marshal, as the new fight scene had put the manuscript over length, but left the visit otherwise intact. The fight with the miners had to be hand to hand; I couldn't have Alec getting shot or stabbed as he needed to be in good health until the chase was almost over. I ended up having Alec and the miners fight using whatever comes to hand in the hardware store, rather like a scene from a Jackie Chan movie, It ends with Alec using his cavalry sabre skills to fight with a pickaxe handle.
I made one other change to the story, largely in the interest of cutting the length. In the first version, Lacey develops a crush on Alec. He is entirely oblivious to this, mostly because he doesn't expect to be the subject of crushes, and also because his romantic energy is devoted to Lily. When they ride into a town for the first time, Lacey complains about how she looks after the journey and Alec tries to reassure her. In the original version:
She looked up at that, meeting his eyes. Her cheeks turned a little pink and she smiled bashfully. Alec smiled back, glad to have pleased her, and turned to ride on down the street, not seeing the way she gazed after him.
In the published version, this is changed just to Lacey carrying her head a little higher after his moral support. A larger change is at the end of the book. When Alec is at home again, recuperating from his injury and the journey, he is visited by Mrs Brown and Lily. In the original version, this visit was interrupted by more guests:
Almost half an hour had passed in pleasant chatter when Karl opened the door again.
“Alec, you have more visitors.”
He moved aside and Lacey eagerly made her way in, followed by her uncle and aunt. She smiled brilliantly as she saw him, but the smile stopped dead as she took in the visitors already present.
“Miss Fry,” Alec said cheerfully. “Please forgive me for not standing, but I’m sure you’ll understand why.” He looked at her relatives as he spoke.
Lacey recovered herself. “Sheriff Lawson, this is my uncle, Mr Fry, and my aunt.”
“Pleased tae meet you,” Alec replied. “May I introduce Mrs Brown, the wife of our minister, and Lily Brown.” He smiled warmly at Lily as he introduced her, and she smiled shyly at him before turning to face the newcomers.
“Sheriff Lawson rescued me too,” she said. “He has been helping me.”
Alec deflected her praise. “Mrs Brown has been shouldering the burden,” he said. “She’s been teaching Miss Lily tae run a home and tae earn a respectable living.”
There were polite smiles and acknowledgements all round. Lacey stared at Lily, then turned her gaze to Alec as he looked at the other girl. Mrs Brown addressed Alec.
“We should be going now,” she said, rising.
“Och, so soon ?” Alec’s face fell. He turned to Lily and took her hand before she stood. “I’m so glad you came tae see me. It’s been such a long time since I saw ye last, and I’ve enjoyed hearing about how ye’ve been getting on. Do come and visit me again soon, please.”
“I would like to,” Lily glanced at Mrs Brown, who nodded approvingly. “I am glad you have come back,” she added sincerely. She rose and the two women left, bowing politely to the newcomers as they passed.
Alec gestured for the Frys to sit down. Lacey hesitated.
“I don’t think we should stay long; we don’t want to tire you,” she said tersely.
Her uncle looked at Alec. “Lacey may be right. We wanted to thank you in person, Sheriff, for everything you did for our niece.”
“She’s spoken very highly of you,” Mrs Fry added. “She is very lucky to have had the help of such a resourceful and honourable man.”
“I did ma duty,” Alec said. “Helping the innocent is what I am paid tae do.”
“Not every lawman could, or would, do it so well,” Mr Fry said. “The family owes you a great debt.”
“It’s not all one-sided,” Alec said. “I was supposed tae get Alcott tae rob another train, which would ha’ lawmen aboard. He insisted on taking the Leadville train first. If Miss Fry hadna’ been aboard, I’d a had tae stay wi’ them mebbe three, four weeks longer. As it is, that that gang has been wiped out now, and Colorado will be all the safer for that. Your niece has got grit; ye should be proud of her.”
“We are,” Mrs Fry said, putting her hand on Lacey’s shoulder.
Alec was bemused by Lacey’s expression; he thought she looked more downcast that pleased. “Ye look verra smart,” he told her kindly. “I expect you’ve been enjoying having proper meals and a comfortable bed at last.”
Lacey gave a regretful glance at the smart new walking suit she was wearing. “Yes, thank you,” she answered rather listlessly.
“When are ye returning tae Leadville ?” Alec asked Mr Fry.
“We leave in the morning,” he replied. He approached Alec and shook his hand. “Thank you once again, Sheriff. If there’s ever anything I can do to help you, just let me know. The family will be glad to help.”
Alec thanked him in return and the family left: Lacey didn’t look back.
In the published version, this section is gone. Instead there are just three sentences relating how Lacey's uncle and aunt came to see Alec the previous day in order to thank him, before returning to Leadville with Lacey. I was rather sorry to take out this element to the story, especially as I thought it was very characteristic of Alec to fail to notice that a pretty girl was sweet on him. However it was worth it in the end.
The alterations took some four months. I had to make the submission to Crowood in their preferred way, which included a blurb. I also had to stitch the separate chapter files into one continuous file, which proved to be a challenge in the much newer version of Word that I was using, for some reason. I spent some time in trying to get the pages numbered, as Word kept wanting to include the title page as page 1, and wouldn't let me start numbering from the second page in the document, which I'm sure I could do in earlier versions. The habit of numbering each page is a leftover from when I first started writing novels. Manuscripts were submitted as loose sheets of paper inside a cardboard folder. If the folder got dropped, the sheets of paper could end up scattered hither and thither. They had to be numbered so they could be re-ordered quickly. Nowadays, manuscripts are electrontic files - you can't get the pages out of order (unless Word is doing something really bizarre) so they never need to be re-organized. I sent Outlaw Express to Crowood, specifcally pitching it as an exciting chase story, and a battle of wits between Alec and the outlaws, and against the weather. I also pointed out that it followed two other sucessful novels in the Express series.
Outlaw Express was accepted this time, much to my joy.I received a copy of the reader's report, which mentioned that Alec's Scottish accent was a little patchy. Seems I can't win with that. There were few changes made in the editing process, though I did change my mind about the amount of ransom the outlaws intended to ask for Lacey. I had put ten thousand dollars, but changed it to five thousand. I was used to a fairly quick turnaround with Hale, but Crowood Press were quick to get Outlaw Express to print. It was accepted at the beginning of June 2016 and was published in January 2017. After two disappointing covers for the first Express books, I was delighted when I got my copies, and saw the cover for the third one. It's an exciting painting of a train being held up, which is how the story starts, and there are even mountains in the background. There should be snow on the ground, but that's really the only thing missing, and I can put up with that. The foreground figure is a man riding fast down a steep slope, which is something Alec has previously shown himself to be an expert at.
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