Pre Readers Needed!

I’m hoping to publish my next book by the end of the month and I would like for a few of my friends to read over it and make suggestions. Grammar, spelling, clarity, story flow, etc.

Here’s an excerpt:

The small group made its way closer to our little barn and seemed intent upon exploring. I slid behind the manger and shrank against the back wall of the barn. Steven joined me and I could hear him softly praying.

Footsteps tramped through the tall grass near the door and into the packed dirt of the barn. From my vantage point, I could see several pairs of boots as the men entered. They still talked and laughed, just men enjoying a sunny morning during a brutal war.

“Ol’ Rooney would have never been promoted to major if his daddy wasn’t the commander,” a high-pitched, nasal voice was saying as they walked in, “He is just riding daddy’s coattails.”

“That’s probably true,” answered another soldier, “but at least he knows his right hand from his left!”

The group laughed, obviously at the high-pitch voiced soldier’s expense. He joined in, his laugh distinguished from the others by that same high-pitched, nasal tone.

Sweat rolled into my left eye, stinging. I resisted the intense urge to wipe my forehead, knowing that any movement could cause our precarious shelter to shift and betray our position.

My senses were on high alert. It seemed that time slowed, and every experience was thoroughly felt. The stinging of my eye, the dry scent of old dust being stirred, the sharp pain of an ant biting my lower leg near my ankle, all were felt intensely.

Fear constricted my throat, making it difficult to swallow. When I did swallow, it sounded much too loud to my sensitive ears.

The Rebel soldiers milled around in the barn, examining the old planks, and commenting on the disrepair. One of the soldiers had evidently lived in this area and delighted in telling his mates about visiting this old barn a few years ago.

“It was in bad shape then, too,” he was saying, “But, I think it is worse now. That stack of planks at the back was not there then. It seems strange that they would have fallen like that, though.”

I watched in horror as two pairs of boots began to walk toward our hiding place. Steven’s eyes were closed tightly, and his whispered prayer had gone silent.

“Look over here,” interjected a triumphant voice I had not heard previously, “it’s a nest of baby rabbits!”

The two pairs of boots halted and turned. Excited conversation ensued as the men discussed the idea of taking them and taming the rabbits. They talked about eating rabbit stew once the rabbits grew a bit.

The two men closest to us joined the conversation from their place, several paces from the other group. Once the initial excitement had died down, they again turned, and the awful thud of their footsteps seemed to thunder toward us.

Suddenly, the clear sound of a bugle called through the late morning air.

Map of Civil War Richmond

This story takes place in Civit, with trips back in time to Elisha Browne’s experience in the American Civil War. It involves a daring escape from Belle Isle Prison Camp.

Update on my newest book!

Since our family was blessed with the opportunity to own our own farm my authoring career has been on hold. We sold our home almost a year ago, moved into a family member’s home for about four months while building a shop, then moved into our shop just before Christmas last year.

Settling in while continuing to hold both my jobs required that I give up a few of my activities. Writing books for children is a passion of mine, but it had to take a back seat to other responsibilities for a time. Now, though, I have been able to write again.

My latest work, You Gotta Dig Two Graves, is now a bit over halfway finished. I’m very excited to share this excerpt with you!

Cover Sketch for You Gotta Dig Two Graves (credit Zech Shippey)

Chapter 3

The Escape Plan

          Dad shook my arm and I started up quickly. He laughed and I realized I was safely in our cozy house in Civit.

          “You are going to miss the story if you sleep through it,” Uncle Reed said, laughing.

          I looked around and noticed that Cooper, Amanda, and Lanie all looked sleepy as if they had just awakened. Gigi was smiling at me from her perch on the end of the couch.

          “Would you like to hear more of the story?” she asked, “Or, does listening to stories make you too tired?”

          The adults were smiling as we stretched, trying to wake our drowsy bodies. Gigi’s stories did not seem to affect them as they did children. I guess their imaginations had shrunk as their bodies had grown.

          I finished my stretching and sank back down into the fluffy couch cushion before answering.

          “Oh, yes, please finish your story!”

          The others all added their consent and Gigi smiled. Mom and Aunt Lorna returned from the kitchen with several cups of sweet tea. I stood quickly and helped them distribute the drinks.

          After a sip of tea, Gigi began the story again.

          “Over the next few days Elisha and his friends spoke often of attempting an escape. Lieutenant Colburn and Clarence Wilson decided that they could make it, but Herman Clark and Steven McNeil were hesitant. They expected the South would negotiate prisoner release soon rather than just letting them starve.”

          “The South knew they could not house, feed, and guard so many prisoners. Therefore, they were searching for solutions and in talks with the North to exchange Northern prisoners for their own. There was talk of release almost daily and a few prisoners had already been exchanged.”

          As Gigi talked, it seemed the glow of the sun shining in the window became the glow of a small campfire. A kettle hung suspended over the flame, bubbling, and emitting a pleasant odor. Around the fire sat Lieutenant Colburn, Steven McNeil, Clarence Wilson, and Herman Clark.

          Men walked past nearby. A few other campfires were visible across the camp. Colburn was speaking earnestly.

          “Men, we are in more danger here than we could possibly face in an escape. Conway killed another prisoner yesterday. We all know that he will not stop and none of the Rebs have the guts to stand up to him.”

          “He will continue to brutalize everyone he can,” he continued, “and there is nowhere to go to escape him in the camp. If he chooses one of us next, then we are sure to die. At least in an escape there is a chance we can all live!”

          McNeil spoke next, “Lieutenant, you know that an escape across the swift currents of the James River is almost impossible. Elisha, here, cannot swim well since he lost his arm and I know he could not make it across those treacherous currents.”

          “Even if we did make it across the river, we are in Rebel territory, and it is a long dangerous journey back to safety. You make it sound as if escape is safer than staying here, but I am certainly not convinced.”

          This conversation continued as it had for days now. Wilson and Colburn both believed we should make a run for it. McNeil and Clark argued that we would likely be released anytime. I was undecided and it seemed that every day the decision grew more difficult.

          Conway did have free rein to treat us however he wanted, and his ways were getting more brutal daily it seemed. I had seen him yesterday just a few minutes after he had beaten the prisoner and it was obvious he was pleased with himself. His conscience was numb.

          As a group we had decided that if Conway did begin torturing one of our fellow prisoners where we could see it, we would all help the prisoner, even if it cost us our lives. So far, we had not been around when he chose to terrorize anyone.

          Days passed and we continued to wrestle with the question of escape. Then, one hot afternoon a guard named Leonard approached us.

          “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he began in his high, nasal voice, “awful hot out today.”

          We nodded our agreement, not sure what to say to him. He continued.

          “I have been watching you fellows and it looks to me like you have been talking about some serious matters. Now, I know that prisoners could talk about a lot of things, but it seems to me that escape would certainly be a common topic around here. That seem right to you?”

          Each of us looked at him with wonder and a touch of fear. He was a small man and had always treated us with kindness. None of us knew how to answer.

          “I take that as a yes,” he grinned at his own humor.

          “You see, I am also looking to escape this place.”

          He paused here and we all stared at him, our mouths open in astonishment. A Rebel guard wanted to escape? Was this a trick? A trap? What was going on?

          Lieutenant Colburn finally found his voice and spoke.

          “This is all a little strange, Leonard. I am not sure what to think.”

          Leonard answered with a smile, “I expected you men might be a bit surprised by my offer. Let me explain.”

          “See, when this war started, I signed up to defend my home and family. We have never owned slaves and, in fact, are staunchly against slavery. However, I have supported the right for every state to make its own laws and felt that the federal government was overstepping.”

          “Since joining the army, I have understood that many of the men who fought beside me have those same ideals. Then, they moved me to prison guard here at Belle Isle. I have gotten to know a good many prisoners and come to understand that most of you Yankees are just like me.”

          “You had no desire to fight us, you just felt you were doing the right thing. War is foolish, men. There is nothing to be gained by all of us killing one another and I am tired of being a part of it! My plan is to escape into the north and perhaps even to Canada until after the war.”

          “Furthermore, I have complained repeatedly to our warden about the way the Conway treats prisoners. It is not right! The warden turns a deaf ear and I think that Conway has heard of my reports. He has been watching me closely of late.”

          “So far, he has only killed prisoners, but I will not be surprised if he turns on me. He is full of hatred and anger.”

          We had listened silently as Leonard shared his thoughts and now his words hung in the still air. I glanced at Lieutenant Colburn, then to each of the other men.

          Leonard, getting no reply, continued after a moment, “As a Christian, I have a lot of concerns about the way things have been done during this war. I struggled with understanding how God’s children could maim and kill one another on the battlefield.”

          “Once I was assigned to the prison, though, I expected everyone would be treated with respect and care. That has been far from the case! I can no longer in good conscience be a part of it.”

          “I intend to escape soon, and I have a plan that just might work.”

          We all leaned in a bit closer as he continued.

          “See, I have a skill of mimicking handwriting and forging documents. I learned it as a teacher, just trying to copy my students’ writing for the fun of it. As an assistant to the warden, I am very familiar with his scrawl.”

          “My plan is to write an order for me to transport a handful of prisoners to the camp in Richmond. That should get us over the bridge and past the guards. Then, I know this area very well and can get us to Union territory in just a couple days.”

          “The guards will be suspicious if I am alone with more than four or five prisoners. We do transport some prisoners to Richmond from time to time, though, so I think we can pull it off without getting caught. They will probably not notice my absence until the next morning at roll call.”

          Our little group had been silent during Leonard’s entire speech, still unsure what to think about this episode. My mind whirled with so many questions.

          “Why did you choose us?” I heard myself saying. The question popped out almost involuntarily. Everyone turned and looked at me. My head ducked for a moment, then I asked again.

          “Why us?”

          Leonard pondered the question. Then, he pointed his finger at Steven McNeil.

          “This man,” he answered solemnly, “I have heard him praying many nights. He asks God to have mercy on his family and friends. I hear him praying for the soldiers on the battlefields.”

“But then, he has prayed for all the guards here and even Conway. It is obvious that he is a true Christian man whom I can trust. That has given me the courage to approach you men with my plan.”

Lieutenant Colburn finally spoke.

“Leonard, speaking for myself, let me say that I am ready to go with you as soon as you can make this plan happen.”

The rest of us nodded our agreement.

“Now, if you do not want the other guards to suspect anything you had better move along. Talk to one of us again when you have the plan prepared. Until then, may God be with each of us!”

Leonard turned on his heel and strode away, leaving us watching after him. Our thoughts tumbled around in our minds as we wrestled to understand what had just taken place.

I Haven’t Always Done Brilliant Things…

I had a great time at this year’s Shed Builder Expo in Grand Rapids! Thanks to each of you who took the time to visit with me on the floor and at my book signing. Special thanks to those of you who purchased a book and support my work. If I could put Julian in charge of my book sales and marketing, I would retire soon!

                I have been writing this little column since April 2016 and, to be honest, sometimes I struggle with inspiration. I have not built sheds in about six years due to moving into a management position and so it seems I have shared all the stories I can recall. However, while visiting with the friendly folks at the Expo, I remembered why I started this journey. It is because I believe shed builders are fascinating people who have important stories to tell. My goal is to represent those fine men (and women, if applicable) through my own experiences.

My guess is that the reason many of you flip to the back and scan this page is because you can relate. You may have never shared the exact experience, but you probably smile and nod as you read along. The adventures I have experienced here in southern Oklahoma are similar to things that shed builders encounter all across the fruited plain.

So, thanks to each of you who shared your stories with me. Thanks for telling me how much you enjoy my scribbled stories. Your encouragement motivated me to keep on writing. Never underestimate the power of your encouraging word!

Now for the story. This tale took place in a very distant time, long before my brain fully developed. One of my fellow shed builders and I were making our merry way toward our on site location for the day with a fully loaded truck and trailer when the truck began to hiccup. After a few minutes it was evident that we would not be able to continue traveling in this rig.

We were on I-35 just a bit south of Purcell, so we found a good spot to pull off the road and park. Since we are not the type to give up after hitting a little obstacle, we called another builder to bring us a truck. Since we were still trying to build a shed by the end of the day, everyone was in a hectic state of mind. It was decided that they would bring another truck and trailer.

While we waited for reinforcement to arrive, we got busy unstrapping our load so we could quickly transfer all the materials onto the new trailer. It did not take us long to get the load ready to move. Then it was time for a quick nap.

Our backup rig arrived, and we worked feverishly to move the entire shed worth of lumber to the new trailer. We repeated the work we had done the previous day to ensure the load would ride safely to our destination. All the tools were pulled from their resting place on the onsite truck and reassigned a new location on the spare truck. Our friend agreed to wait on the wrecker so we could continue on to our on site destination.

I honestly do not remember if we finished our shed that day or not. What I do remember is Robert’s reaction when we told him what we had done. He shook his head incredulously.

“Why didn’t you just unhook the trailer from the onsite truck and hitch it to the other truck? Would have saved a lot of effort.”

None of us had a good answer. You may notice I did not use the names of my two fellow shed builders in this story. Let’s just say it was not one of our brightest moments. Not every day in the life of a shed builder showcases our brilliance.

Thanks for All the Kind Words!

I have been overwhelmed by how positive the feedback has been for my first two books. The latest review was given by my friend, Anne Ryan. I appreciate her candid assessment of my book.

I am finding that many folks who support my book are looking for books that tell a good story while affirming the foundational truths of honor, love, and kindness. I hope my stories are interesting, but above all, I hope that each reader finishes the book resolved to strive to be a better person. The lessons that I want to teach are timeless, so I hope that each generation can learn from these books.

As I have said before, reviews are the lifeblood for a self-published author. If you have benefitted from my work, I would very much appreciate a review!

Fourth of July

I love the Fourth of July! Grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, playing volleyball with my friends and family, then enjoying the beautiful fireworks display that my hometown of Pauls Valley puts on every year is something to look forward to annually. Also, Independence Day is one of my paid holidays!

                Every year we celebrate our freedom that we enjoy as Americans. I get those patriotic tingles when I hear our National Anthem. I’m very thankful for all we have in this blessed land of plenty. God has richly blessed our nation!

                Now, enough of the feel-good stuff. That’s not what you flip to the back page of the magazine for, now is it? Let me tell you a little story about a Fourth of July prank that happened a couple years back at our plant.

                I’m not one to spend a lot of money on fireworks. As I mentioned above, our town puts on a pretty impressive display at the local football field. The park is packed full of sweaty citizens as local crooners belt out tunes for a couple hours before dark. It seems that most of our 6,000 residents find their way into Wacker Park to enjoy the show. Our church is just right across a field from the park, so we gather at our church to watch the show without fighting the crowd. So, I very seldom spend much at all on any fireworks.

                However, this year I stopped by one of the many firework stands to see what I could find. I bought a couple little fountains, and a few other small items. Then, I saw a huge roll of Black Cats. You know what happened next. Into the little bag they went!

                Now is a good time to explain a little more about our shop. When you come in the entry door on the south end of our shop, the bathroom is right there on the left. The bathroom door is a standard interior door. Not much you can do to prank someone, other than the standard leaning something on the door to fall when they open it.

                The neat thing about the bathroom, though, is that the top of it doubles as a storage area. So, above the bathroom is a dusty area with old stuff that we’ll probably never use, and our children will wonder what to do with it when we die. Also above the bathroom is the vent pipe for the water heater. Now, our water heater is a gas water heater. Or, at least it was. It quit working quite a while ago and we have just never put forth the effort to fix it. Instead, there is a 5-gallon bucket sitting on the pedestal where the water heater was before. 

                I got to work early on July 5th and climbed up to the storage area. I stowed away my roll of Black Cats and a lighter. Later in the day, a coworker of mine made his way to the bathroom. I don’t know if you work with anyone who lives in the bathroom, but I do. I knew I had time to climb up to the top and tiptoe over to the vent pipe.

                I lit those Black Cats, and quickly dropped them down the pipe into the bucket below. They went off like crazy, the sound magnified by the bucket. You should have heard the commotion! Not only were the fireworks making racket, but my fellow shed builder made some noise himself! We don’t have a camera in the bathroom (thankfully), but I’m convinced it would have been a sight to see. Just another day in the life of a shed builder.

Gone Fishing

                Back in the “good ole’ days” of Better Barns, when things were simpler, and I didn’t have a family to support, there were a lot of things done that had nothing whatsoever to do with producing storage sheds. Vance and I were both young. I was in my teens, and Vance in his early twenties. Neither of us were married. Life was good!

                I could tell you many stories (and I may someday) about being called upon to help Vance haul a deer out of the woods, or chase cows out of the yard, or fight nearby fires. We worked hard and played hard and enjoyed every minute of life. Well, almost every minute.

                Our favorite pastime was fishing. The production facility at Better Barns sits on a family farm with over 300 acres to roam. There are several ponds. One of them lies just to the North of our shop. It wasn’t uncommon to find us there on lunch break or after hours…Or sometimes during work hours.

                Vance and his family moved to Oklahoma from Hobbs, New Mexico. Hobbs is a good-sized city and is the county seat of Lea county. In all of Lea county, there is only one bridge. Just one. If you lived in Hobbs, you had to travel a pretty good ways to find a decent fishing spot. So, Vance felt like he had moved to paradise!

                One day, Todd – Vance’s best friend – came to see Vance. Todd was from Hobbs and also liked to go fishing. We worked a little bit and then set out to catch some fish. We fished a little while without any luck. Todd and Vance circled around the pond one way while I went the other. I settled in a spot under a shade tree and sent my lure whizzing out into the pond again. No luck.

                As I reeled in the line, the hook from my little rooster tail lure hung up in the thick moss about 10-15 feet from the bank. My rooster tail was my favorite and most effective lure. I did not intend to lose it! I worked my line back and forth with increasing violence. At last, it popped loose! The line whipped to the left, then back to the right.

                I felt something smack me in the face. I thought it was just a wad of moss. I reached up to brush it off. It was not moss. It was my rooster tail! Two barbs of the treble hook had sunk into my face at the left corner of my mouth – one just above the top lip and one just below the bottom lip. They pinned my mouth partway shut. I tried to just pull them out, but they were in past the barb.

                I tried to get Vance and Todd’s attention by waving at them across the pond. They saw me and yelled across the pond to see what I needed. Well, my mouth wouldn’t open all the way, so I couldn’t yell very loudly. I did communicate to them that I needed some assistance. They headed around the pond and I headed toward them. I had cut the line and left my pole by my shade tree.

                We got together, and Vance helped me by cutting my rooster tail lure loose where only the treble hook remained. Vance tried to pull the hook out with his pliers, but it just wouldn’t come out. Finally, we trekked back to the shop. Vance found a new razor blade for our utility knives, and washed it thoroughly. He made a little slit for each barb, and out came the hook!

                Thus ended our fishing escapade for the day. It went down as the largest thing I have ever hooked while fishing! We still laugh about the day that Tyler went fishing and caught himself.

Our own Triangle M Ranch!

The biggest fish we have caught so far at our pond!

We closed on our land Friday, June 11, 2021. The “ranch” is 55 acres a little east of Pauls Valley, OK, and south of the forgotten community of Civit, OK. The characters and setting of my Triangle M Ranch series books are based on my family and our wonderful life. It has been our dream to own enough land to run some cattle, raise chickens and hogs, plant a huge garden, and allow our two children the opportunity to grow up on a farm.

The pond is muddy! Brooke got stuck and I had to help her out. Snapped this picture first, though… Carter was trying to be the hero, but wasn’t strong enough.

We are so grateful for this new chapter in our lives! We have already been blessed in so many ways and certainly don’t believe we deserve such a nice place. I never imagined that I would have so many material blessings to go along with the more important things God has given me and my family.

Carter casting a rod on OUR pond for the first time! This little guy loves fishing.
Brooke’s style of fishing. It was very hot and she decided to keep this chair from walking off.

I hope that you will enjoy reading about the Mason family in the Triangle M Ranch series. Their struggles, triumphs, and daily life are a reflection of my own little family. My heart is full today as I consider all we have been blessed with. Looking forward to sharing the journey with you!

Sneak Peek

My next novel in the Triangle M Ranch series is titled “You Gotta Dig Two Graves”. I am hoping to have it published by early August, for sure by the end of August. Here is a taste of chapter two:

Clarence spat on the ground and glanced at the guard house that lay a dozen paces away. Involuntarily, I glanced over there myself.

          Standing self-importantly just outside the door was a guard that the prisoners unanimously despised. His name was Conway. To Conway, every day was an opportunity to bully the prisoners surrounding him.

          Conway was a large man with an imposing bulk. His broad shoulders rippled with enormous muscles. The muscles continued down the sinewy arms until they reached his huge hands. Each hand seemed to be the size of a frying pan.

          His bulk was not his greatest weapon, though. Cruelty was. It seemed that nothing bothered his conscience and there was no depth to which he would not stoop.

          Conway carried on a conversation with another guard and had his back to us.

          Clarence spat again. Then he turned to us with a grimace.

          “I hope he does not come over here today,” he said seriously, “Just last week he beat a prisoner to death. Claimed the prisoner attacked him, but everyone knows that is not the truth. The warden in charge knows that Conway is terrible. I guess he turns his head because everyone fears him, and it keeps folks from acting up.”

          None of us replied. We all agreed, but it was almost too hot for conversation. The sweltering air seemed to stifle all talk.

          A few moments later, Conway turned on his heel and walked toward our small group. I stiffened unconsciously and noticed that Herman seemed to shrink a little.

          “What are you Yanks doing?” he snarled as he approached, “Y’all ain’t conspiring up some trouble, are ya?”

          “No, sir,” Steven answered politely.

          Steven was one of the few prisoners who did not openly express hatred for Conway. I had heard him several nights as he prayed for Conway and the other guards. I could not bring myself to pray for them as he did.

          “See to it you don’t!” he said. The heavy thud of his boots vibrated the ground as he passed us. A putrid odor followed him. It was rumored that he never bathed, and it certainly smelled like the rumor was true.

Want to find out more? Stay tuned!

Belle Isle Prison Camp

Share your story!

The importance of stories cannot be overstated. I know that my little column does not have the same instructional value as the rest of the content in this publication. However, stories connect us in a unique way. Jesus Christ, history’s greatest teacher, used stories to connect to his audience as he expounded deep truths to them.

                Throughout my years of selling sheds and related items to the public, I have found one of my most important tools was to simply tell the story of Better Barns. Our story is used in our marketing in several ways as well. Here is our story:

                Back in the fall of 2002, Vance Wright and his father, Dallen, were looking for a way for Vance to earn more money. Dallen had moved his family to Pauls Valley from Hobbs, NM, so that he could pastor the church we attend in Pauls Valley. While living in Hobbs, Vance had built a lot of sheds for his dad’s company. He built his first one at age 12!

                Since Vance had so much experience building sheds, it seemed natural to build a few in his spare time to see if they would sell. Dallen and Vance decided they would start a business venture together and called it “Better Barns” and Vance built his first few sheds in their front yard. They partnered together with Vance doing most of the day-to-day operation and Dallen operating as the “silent partner” in the early years.

                Soon, his sheds had found a market and demand outpaced his ability to just build on the side. He quit his other job and started building, selling, and delivering sheds full-time. By the summer of 2003, the business had grown enough to warrant adding a helper. That is where I came in. I joined Vance in July/August and soon we hired another employee, Robert.

                I joke that I was “Employee of the Month” for the first several months I was employed at Better Barns but have never earned that honor since we added more help.

                In 2005 I married Vance’s oldest sister and became more than just an employee. Now, I was family. Robert married Vance’s other sister in 2007. Vance joked that he was afraid he would not ever find any more help since he ran out of sisters.

                Our company is truly a family business. Dallen operates as CEO. I am General Manager, a title which sounds much more important than I actually am. Vance now manages our construction division building large metal buildings and other structures. Robert is the Sales Manager of one of our two corporate sales yards. Dallen’s youngest son, Dakota, manages another wing of our operation that is too complex to describe in my small space here.

                We have about 20 employees at any given time and about that many more contractors. Our annual sales have grown four-fold over the past 5 years. God has blessed our team and we are delighted to continue to serve south-central Oklahoma with integrity.

                This is a condensed version of almost 20 years of history. I have found that sharing bits and pieces of this story seems to resonate with people. They want to do business with people, not faceless entities.

                Whatever your story is, share it with your audience. Tell it on social media. Let folks know who you are. Be vulnerable and share things that may even highlight your imperfections. Connection with customers is key to success!