This week, we return to the novel extracts of the shortlistees of the 2020 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize (Best Unpublished Manuscript). My thanks again to each of the authors who have shared their extracts with Write On!
Up next is Joe Totten and his exciting 19th-century Western, The Law Of Capture. Like our previous entries, The Lioness & The Flame and Sleepers And Ties, Joe’s extract is from the beginning of the book. He introduces us to the main protagonist, Edward Valentine, and it’s clear why the novel was shortlisted for such a prestigious adventure prize. In the opening chapters, we experience bloodshed and betrayal, justice and chaos, and the corruption of youth and innocence by war and the harsh life of the West. But what’s more impressive than the time and distance we cover, is the voice the author lends to his character. Joe’s research and knowledge of the place and era is synchronic with his use of language and description. Yet, he only offers us what is necessary for the story and to get inside the mind of the young man we are about to accompany on his adventures. This is inspirational writing!
Of the shortlisted novels in this year’s award, Joe’s is one of the few available to purchase and read today. If you enjoy this extract and want to read more, you can grab a copy here.
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
The Law Of Capture (novel extract) by Joe Totten
The Law Of Capture is the unforgettable story of the multiple lives of Edward Valentine. Soon after the Civil War, a 16-year old Valentine rides out from the family farm to seek adventure in Texas. He is little prepared for the violence and brutality that will transform him from reckless young outlaw to seasoned lawman to hired assassin. Escaping from a Texas chain gang, Valentine flees to the Wyoming Territory, only to find himself in the middle of a murderous range war. Forced to decide between following the law or living outside it, Valentine manages to do both. While serving as county sheriff, he operates covertly as a hired assassin for the territory’s landed elite.
Book 1: 1869 – 1875
My life has been a long string of false moves, one after the other, until fortune blessed one of my failures. There were no guiding principles in my life. I advanced through my years on the strength of my own reckless manhood. Things happened, good, bad or neither, and I reacted to them accordingly. I have managed to stay alive as long as I have because I changed my opinions to fit the prevailing wisdom. Only an idiot would think he was certain about everything. And I tried not to think too much. If a situation required thought, I kept it simple and put little faith in the results. I began my life with one name, and I will end my days with another. Was I two different men? Or more likely, two halves of the same person. Regardless of what name I traveled under, I will do my best to truthfully set down the momentous events from that distant time. But reader, be warned, my memory is a rushing river, and my pen is a thin channel of ink.
I was thrown into this world as Corky Vance. At the age of fourteen, I left home to fight the tail end of the War Between the States. My father and older brothers fought on the side of the rebels. I joined the union army as a camp attendant to my uncle. The war, for many men, was the school that trained them as outlaws and bandits. After that savage conflict, these rough men found it difficult to put down their guns, as they had grown restless for the thrill of battle.
I returned from the war, a sixteen year old veteran, to find life on my father’s farm a little too quiet. With a horse and a few dollars in my pocket, I rode out to see the new country. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, I found work driving a wagon of lumber to the Indian Territory. Upon my return, my boss refused to pay me. Perhaps my age persuaded him that I would not pursue payment. He was wrong. I clubbed him to the ground and took my wages. Unfortunately, he died a few days later.
I was arrested and indicted. The only defense I offered at my trial was the truth, which proved to be sufficient. I was acquitted. As I was leaving the courtroom, after the trial, the sheriff took me aside and told me the man’s brothers were not pleased with the verdict, and suggested that I should seek a healthier climate.
I decided to ride for Texas.
I have killed many men, not, however, without provocation or need. Ending a man’s life does not always solve the problem. It has been my experience that killing a man ends one argument, and begins another in the same instant.
I met a man in Fort Griffin, Texas, named Robert Greathouse. He had a plan to round up the strays set adrift by the war and drive them to Abilene, Kansas. This was a time, just after the war, and brands were not widely used. During the years of the war, cattle were neglected and allowed to roam freely across the grasslands, and men such as Greathouse made fortunes rounding up strays, affixing their brand and driving the herds north. The scheme looked like a moneymaker, and so I threw in with him. We rode hard for weeks and, by the end of the summer of 1870, the five of us had assembled a sizable herd. Somewhere north of two thousand beeves.
The night before we departed, we rode into Fort Griffin and got drunk. We ate a meal off china plates and visited one of the sporting houses. It was there I stole a book from the whore’s room, one of the volumes of Gibbon. I kept the book for many years. I can’t say I understood what the man was writing about, the names and places were foreign to me, but his words were a comfort. There are passages that have stayed with me now, fifty years later.
Cold, poverty, and a life of danger and fatigue fortify the strength and courage of barbarians.
Our days on the trail were empty and uneventful, until we crossed the Red River into Indian Territory. In those days, there were few white men in that country and lots of Indians. One morning, a small party of Comanche rode up on us, demanding a sizable portion of our herd as payment for passage through their land. Bob and I put our heads together. I told him I felt like we could take care of this bunch, as there was only a handful of savages armed with nothing but ancient revolvers and bows and arrows.
The chief dismounted and stepped forward to parley. Neither Bob nor I spoke Comanche, and the chief had only a few words of English. Off his horse, the old fella didn’t seem so threatening. He was naked from the waist up, save for a copper plate rigged across his chest. Scars from previous battles were visible on his dark skin. He held up the palm of each hand. On his left palm was painted a red cross, on his right a white cross. With gestures and sounds, he made us to understand that white meant pay the tribute and go in peace. Red meant blood. Bob shook his head no. The old chief mounted, and the Indians rode away.
A few miles beyond our parley, we crested a mesa and pushed the herd across the grass. The day was clear and fine, and I was counting my wages in my head when hordes of screaming Comanche, painted for war, seemed to rise up out of the grass. The savages rode down on us, and began to shoot our cattle. There was nothing we could do but push the herd forward. The Indians gave chase, but there were too many of them, and too few of us. The red thieves rode over our herd, killing as many cows as they could.
After the Indians shot all the cattle they could handle, they gave up the chase. The rest of the day we rode over that ground, rounding up strays and pulling our mob back into shape. We pushed the herd on and, toward dusk, found a spot to rest the animals.
That night, I fell into a deep sleep and began to dream. In my dream the earth was shaking violently, and things that should have been anchored to the ground were being tossed into the air. Rocks, trees, horses. All were jarred loose from their attachment to the ground, as if the earth had begun to boil. In my sleep, I reached out to grab hold of my saddle and pistol. I woke to find the earth was in fact rumbling under me. I was not dreaming. The savages had stampeded our livestock. I saddled my horse, as quickly as I could, and took off across the grassland at top speed. A dozing herd of two thousand cows had become a charging horde of deranged animals flying across the dark prairie. Their panicked screams were a constant roar in the night air. Their heads bobbing wildly as they ran, their hooves pounding the earth. Bob managed to ride ahead of the stampede, and was whipping the lead cows with his quirt trying to turn their heads. Together, we rode for many long, desperate minutes at the forefront of that churning mass of animals. Had our horse stumbled, there would have not been much left to bury.
The moon was thin, and the darkness absolute over the grass. As my horse charged forward, I noticed a thin band of shadow ahead of me, darker than the surrounding plain. A black arm cutting the grassland in half. This ribbon of shadow grew more distinct, and I could see that it was a chasm, growing wider as my horse charged nearer to the edge. I shot my pistol into the air to warn Bob of the approaching ravine. He glanced up, just in time to see the danger. We reined our animals away from the threatening ravine and watched as the boiling herd charged on and fell unaware into the shadows. For many long minutes, the animals plunged over the edge, screaming and fighting as they fell on top of each other. Bob and I pulled up at the edge of the cliff and watched in silence as our enterprise disappeared into the darkness.
The morning brought another painful surprise. During the chaos of the stampede, the Indians had run off with the rest of our horses. All we had left were two mounts. Bob was riding one, and I was on the other. We were a hundred miles from Abilene, with five cowboys and two horses.
Each man got a few hours on a horse, and the rest of the day he was afoot. If I’ve had a tougher walk, I don’t remember when. My boots gave out the first day, and my feet swoll up so bad, I thought I’d be a cripple the rest of my life.
Seven days of hard, dusty walking brought us into Abilene. The city was new and booming, and the citizenry was divided equally between pleasure and business. Bob sold what was left of the herd for a dollar and thirty-five cents a head, and for a few days acted like he was the richest man in Kansas. My wages bought me a fine new pony and a Henry Repeating rifle.
I spent few nights at a joy spot called The Cabins, enjoying the facilities, and then rode back to Texas with a cowboy named Carter Walling.
Carter died a few months later in a gunfight on the streets of Fort Griffin.
© Joe Totten, 2020
Joe has been a professional writer for more than 20 years, helping to create successful advertising campaigns for some of the tech industry’s most well-known brands, including Intel, Microsoft and Verizon. His work has won numerous awards for creative excellence, including Communications Arts, The One Show and The Addy’s.
His short stories have been published in The Driftwood Press and The Wasatch Journal. In 2016, he won the Utah Original Writing Competition for his short story, The Starling Killers. In 2019, Joe was awarded first place by the League of Utah Writers for his story, Reserved Seats For Armageddon. The Law Of Capture is Joe’s first novel. He lives with his wife in Midway, Utah, at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.
The Law Of Capture is available on Amazon.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! ‘Showcase’, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue (6) of Write On! out now and available here.