Traveling a long distance today requires little effort on our part, other than the aggravation of going through airport security or if you’re driving, it’s just a matter of checking the air in your tires, fueling up the car and hopping on the interstate in your completely air-conditioned vehicle. Not so with my heroine, April McBride, when she travels to Montana in my newest release, A Love of Her Own. She begins her trip by train, but later must take the stage to Lewistown for the remainder of her trip. She has to endure a crowded stage, a crying baby with soiled diapers and the heat without a breeze, along with all the dust that the six horses of the stage kicked up. We’ve all lived through uncomfortable traveling situations that we’d soon rather forget. But while doing the research for my book, though we romanticize the West, it gave me a clear understanding about travel and the inconveniences and a deep appreciation that I live in the 21st Century.
There was always the risk of robbery, break downs to the wheels, squeezing through a mountainous road through a narrow gorge, risking life and limb. Occasionally, passengers had to get out and walk to help lighten the load for the horses or better still, had to help push from behind if needed. Stagecoaches normally carried the US mail and many times a strong box of cash and important documents. I envisioned a Morgan Freeman type character for my story, driving and running a stagecoach franchise, who winds up tangling with the lively, but spoiled rotten April. He eventually teaches her a few things—one of them knowing how to drive a stagecoach. I decided to make my stagecoach driver’s name Morgan Kincaid.
Morgan drives his stage with six horses and sometimes travels as much as 70 miles in a day. He had a side-kick, Leon, who rode shot-gun. The typical stagecoach weighed 2100 lbs. Morgan explains to April that the driver has the toughest job, with the tug of the 33,000 lbs of power exerted per horse putting tremendous pressure on the driver’s shoulders and arms. Hence, this is where we get the term “horsepower” that’s used to describe our powerful car engines today. Morgan wore thick, heavy, leather gloves and the reins, called ribbons, were threaded though each of is fingers to be controlled with a slight touch to guide his horses. He used precise control and pressure to apply the brake as needed.
He tells April of a famous stagecoach driver, Mary Fields, an ex-slave from Tennessee nicknamed “Stagecoach Mary”, who drove a stage for the US mail in Cascade County region of Montana. She was a 200 lb. black woman, full of grit and vigor, but not afraid of anything. She became a stagecoach driver around the age of sixty, retiring after ten years to open a restaurant and laundry in Cascade, MT. Although April was skeptical of Morgan’s story, it is a truthful one.
Traveling by stage was an offshoot of mail contracts by our government, because stages could deliver more quickly compared to the time it took to be delivered by boat through the Panama Canal. Despite the hardship, riding the stagecoach gave the passenger a view of spectacular landscape. I wanted to take a real stagecoach ride and just missed the opportunity by several hours when I went to Wyoming this past fall. It’s one thing I regretted not being able to do. So I live vicariously through April McBride’s story.
Here’s a tease of the opening page for A Love of Her Own.
The Yampa Valley, Colorado
The brisk Colorado wind tugged at April McBride’s silky tresses underneath her Stetson hat, tickling the exposed skin at the nape of her neck. She threw her head back in delight, and her laughter spilled across the valley floor, causing her roan’s tail to twitch. There wasn’t anything April would rather do on a fall day than be out riding with total abandonment. She pushed her mount higher up the slope.
A half hour later she reined her horse in as she reached the crest of the craggy ridge overlooking the Yampa Valley. Her gaze traveled down to the rumbling Blue River below where a familiar figure on horseback had stopped to give his horse a drink. Luke Weber. But this time her heart no longer thumped with excitement.
Luke paused at the river’s edge and rested his arms across the saddle horn. He glanced up to her on the ridgeline above him and lifted his hat in greeting. April returned the greeting with a wave. After a brief moment, Luke gave his horse a nudge and continued on downstream.