Del Norte (Prologue and Chapter 1)

by Julia Robb





The white sandstone grave marker stood tall as a man and had a thin, sharp top, like a finger pointed at heaven. It read, “Ameríco Chapas, 1823-1868, Asesinado, Dios Lo Vengará.”

Murdered, God Will Avenge Him.

The carving was easy to read because it never stood above a grave in San Angela’s desolate cemetery, scoured by the sun’s translucent hammer while sinking into six feet of wind-swept dirt. 

Instead, someone carved it, then lugged it down the street and propped it against the back wall in Magdalena’s saloon.

Thomas discovered the stone when he came to work after lunch one day, his usual time. He did his chores with drooping eyes; wiping the bar, washing and polishing glasses, emptying the spittoons, loading the shotgun.

A flash of white washed across his vision and he turned and saw the stone leaning against the dim back wall, shadowy, yet glowing.

What has she done?

Though the saloon was large, filled with wood tables and chairs, a faro table, a bar and back mirror that ran half the length of the building, the monument already dominated the space, as if Ameríco Chapas himself stood beside it, groaning about his dismal fate: “Dios Lo Vengará.”

“Get rid of it, hire somebody to drag it to the graveyard where it belongs,” Thomas said to Magdalena, after she emerged from her rooms in the other half of the building.

“No,” she said, “Nobody remembers him but me, nobody cares, not even mama, not even Rosie.”

“This is trouble,” he said.

Magdalena knew Thomas was right; but since it was Thomas who asked her to remove the gravestone, she was forced to ignore him.

If she listened to him even once, about anything, where would it end?

So the marker stayed.


Chapter One


A man bent over her in the freezing boxcar and Sing Kum thought he was the most handsome male she had ever seen. Her lungs brimmed with so much liquid they wheezed and her body burned with fever, but she noted the man’s clear dark eyes, blue ink hair, big bones and glowing brown skin. He was taller than most Chinese, almost as big as a white man.

She raised her arms like an infant, knowing he would save her, and he did. He scooped her up, eased off the car and ran, sprinting over rails, over couplings linking boxcars, detouring around engines snorting steam into gray air.

Minutes later, the man folded himself under a doorframe, ran into a hut, laid her down on rags filling two joined packing crates, then piled stained quilts over her body.

It wasn’t possible to stand under the low ceiling, so the man bent his knees and shuffled as he moved around the hut.

Filthy rags were the only defense against wind blowing through the warped, gray board walls, but a fire leaped in a shallow pit scooped from the dirt floor.

A fist-sized hole in the ceiling sucked some smoke up and out of the hut, but most of it swirled around them.

“Who are you?” the man asked, in Cantonese dialect.

“I am Sing Kum,” she said, then closed her eyes and let warmth and sleep take her.

Sing slept for three days, waking only when her bladder filled, forcing her to leave the shelter–one in a long line of huts–and squat on the frosty ground.

On the third day, the fever evaporated, leaving her moist and cool.

“What is your name,” she asked the man.

“I am Lan,” he said in Cantonese, then added, in English, “I’m ace high.”

Ace high?

Lan forced tiny spoons of soup in her mouth, bit by bit, as though she were a baby bird.

“Eat, eat.”

Another sleep. She opened her eyes and saw Lan sitting by the fire, clutching his knees.

“When did you leave Canton, why were you in the boxcar?” he asked.

“Evil men forced me on the ship and we sailed many weeks toward Gum Shan,” Gold Mountain. “They told me I would live as a hundred men’s wife. After many weeks, we came into the harbor, the evil men came and took me from the cabin and over the water in a little boat, then into a town built on hills.”

“San Francisco.”

“Yes. They pushed me through the streets, but they stopped for food and I ran until I saw the Tianlong dragon; I even saw his breathe puffing into the sky! I was afraid to touch it, but I saw the men coming so I climbed in the opening and found it was not a magical creature, but a box. Then it moved!”

              “It was a train.”

“I had no food and no water, I was so thirsty, but then the box ran over high mountains, up and up, and white water came down from the sky and floated inside; I know what it was, Mrs. Stewart, at the mission hospital in Canton, told me about snow. I gathered it up to drink. I was sick, then the box stopped and you found me.”

“You rode the cars all the way from San Francisco to Omaha?”

“What is Omaha?”

“Here. We are in Omaha, a town, in a state called Nebraska; states are like provinces in the Middle Kingdom, like Canton.”

Thinking a moment, Sing Kum concluded she might be luckier than she thought.

“Are you a man?” she asked, politely, reluctant to embarrass him in case he was a heavenly being in disguise, like the ones Mrs. Stewart told her about.

“Yes, I am a man. What do you think I am?”

Blood rushed to her face and she breathed faster. She sat all the way up and felt her hair tumbling over her shoulders.

“Then, will you sell me back to the evil ones?” she asked.

Surely he would not, she concluded, but what if he wanted payment for her care and he could get it by selling her? She was valuable because she was young and pretty, only seventeen.

Sing approved of her slender arch of eyebrow and sensitive lips, and she liked her wide, wondering eyes. She didn’t look like the other peasant girls, broad-faced, with coarse skin.

“No, I won’t sell a strong girl like you, who will prosper in this country. It was cold and you lived all the way from California. That’s very good.”

It was hard to disguise how much she liked the way his eyes filled with lights, like pieces of shattered glass, and the way his rough American clothes clung to his hard, muscled body.

“Did your family sell you?” he asked.

“Yes, the pigs rotted with a sickness, and it stopped raining.” Sing wrinkled her nose against the memories and the smelly quilts currently pulled to her chin. The quilts were grimy and the cotton sprang from the red and blue patches.

How can I trust him, she asked herself, but decided to believe he was a good person because he rescued her, he fed her, and besides, what would she do without him?

Returning to her father’s farm was impossible. How would she get there? Her father would just sell her again, and why would that be better than staying in this new land?

“How did you come here?” she asked.

“Say Omaha.” 


“My friend, Ah Ti, said let’s go to America. We took a ship at Canton harbor and went to California. We worked for the railroad. We built rails all the way to Utah and we dug tunnels through the mountains.

“One day he stood in the chair drilling a hole for dynamite, he put the dynamite in the hole and boom, he was gone and we never found his body.”

“Ah Ti was crowbait,” Lan added, in English, shrugging, as if he were talking about a dog.

Crowbait? Dynamite? Tunnels?

Sing Kum didn’t know what to say. She knew people mourned for the dead–but she only knew this by watching what went on around her. She had never personally mourned anybody and knew nobody mourned her.

“What is crowbait?” she asked.

Preening, Lan said, again in English, “He was blown to smithereens.”

“The English word meaning small pieces?”

“Yes, but he was weak. He wanted to return to the Middle Kingdom, he complained, he would not learn English.”

“But he was your friend.”

“Yes, but to prosper here, a man needs a strong heart. I have a strong heart. I will be somebody, I will be head of a prosperous family, I will not be a poor Han man who bows before Manchu.”

“But you are a Han. How can it be different?”

“I am an American, not a celestial. I will never return to Canton.”

“Where is California?”

“Where ships come in from the ocean. Your ship sailed into the harbor in San Francisco, in the province of California. Say Cal-i-for-ni-a,” he said, rolling it on his tongue, as if he were savoring a rice ball spiked with pickles.

“Cal-i-for-ni-a. I know how to speak English because Mrs. Stewart taught me,” she said, in Cantonese, then added, in English, “Nice meet yourself, my name Sing Kum.”

“You pronounce well. I could not speak English for the first three years, my tongue would not stay flat. Nobody knew what I said. Now I speak American.”

Switching to English, Lan said, “I learned a bang-up job.”

Bang-up job?

“I speak English because I listened in the hospital,” she said.

“What hospital?”

“My father…” Sing reverted to dialect. “He put me at a mission hospital in Canton, to work. He kept all my wén. Do you see these clothes? They gave me these clothes at the hospital, before my father took me back to his house, to slave in his fields.”

“I want pretty, clean, new clothes, I want to wear silk,” she added, and was still so weak she could not prevent tears seeping from her eyes.

A Manchu woman once passed the hospital in a horse-drawn carriage, wearing a silk qipáo, embroidered with purple flowers and Sing daydreamed about that dress, what purple flowers would do for her eyes, how the silk would feel against her body.

Skin now gleamed through Sing’s frayed cotton pants and tunic, her long sleeves were tattered on the ends, and the cloth was so dirty it looked black rather than the original blue.

Just thinking about the lice, which fed on her body, made Sing begin scratching.

“Well, if you stay with me, I will buy you new clothes,” Lan said.

“How will you be rich?”

“This is a great nation, everyone who works hard is rich, so money will also come to me.”

Leaning toward her, Lan–radiant, though his noise ran with smoke irritation–grabbed the back of his head: “You see, no queue! The Manchu won’t let Han men come back to China without a queue, so they will know us, so they can force us to kowtow to them, but I will never return. I am different from those peasants.”

“How did you earn wén, in Canton?”

“Some things this, some things that. Someday I will tell you my story.”

Why did he refuse to tell her, she wondered, and in the quiet that followed remembered her father’s house. Sing tried not to think about her family, but she could see her father grabbing her hand and prying her fingers open, grabbing the coins she earned.

It still hurt. She wanted the wen to buy the dress, a hand mirror, earrings. She would have gladly given her father half her money, why did he take all of it? Why did men treat women like slaves?

They stayed in the hut two more days, then the third day, at dawn, Sing heard voices shouting, gunshots, steel pounding wood.

Jumping from his quilts, Lan grabbed her arms and pulled her toward the door, then turned back and snatched the quilts from the floor and threw them over his shoulder. He groped for a bundle hiding behind a box, peeped out the door and then began running, clutching Sing’s wrist.

Outside, men shot guns into the air, they ran up to the shelters with sledgehammers, pulled their arms back and hit the wood until it crumpled into boards.

Flames destroyed shelters. Sleepy people, most of them Chinese, stood looking around them, bewildered.

“Get out, get out, Union Pacific Railroad property,” the white men shouted at the people, who scattered before them.

Footsteps ran up behind her and something hit Sing’s back; Lan turned, threw his burdens down and hit the attacker’s neck with his fist, punched the man’s stomach–hit his bearded, twisted face.

Astonished, the attacker fell back and Lan doubled up his fists and slammed the attacker’s nose, which broke with an audible crack and spray of blood.

Maybe Lan was not a real man, but a god like Lu Tung-Pin, Sing thought, dazzled with admiration, an immortal who rewarded her with a new life because she had been brave in the face of great danger.

That was the first and last day on the run.

If Lan had been anybody else, Sing knew they would have frozen in Omaha, been discovered huddled against a building, like two pieces of human petrified wood.

In China, the poor were discarded on the street like trash.

Instead, Lan led Sing past the fragrant restaurants in town, looking through windows, and then he stopped at The Delmonico, as if he knew something she didn’t.

Peering in, Lan’s nose squashed against frosty glass.

A group of men wearing leather on their legs and guns on their hips threw their coins on the table, then lugged their saddles outside, banging the door behind them.

Her protector picked the cowboys over with his eyes, walked to the man who swaggered most, imitated the expression on the white man’s face–good-humored and tolerant–stuck his hand out and said, “I’m Johnny Lan.”


Grinning, the cattle boss shook Lan’s hand: “You’re the first chinaman I ever met.”

An hour later, she and Lan were in charge of a chuck wagon and cooking three meals a day for ten hungry men, bumping up and down on the wagon seat as the horses pulled them south to the wide horizon.


This book and others by Julia Robb can be purchased at


BEN McCULLOCH – Texas Hero

by Julia Robb

Ben McCulloch was a hero, but most of us don’t know who he was. Yet Ben McCulloch fought in the Texas revolution (barely missing dying at the Alamo), he fought the Comanches, he was a Texas Ranger, a U.S. marshal and a Confederate brigadier general. B_McCulloch_civ_ACW McCulloch was born in Tennessee in 1811 and David Crockett eventually became one of the McCullochs’ neighbors and closest friends. In 1835, Ben and his brother Henry decided to follow Crockett to Texas. They planned to meet in Nacogdoches on Christmas day. Ben and Henry didn’t get there on time and Ben tried to catch up with Crockett, who had left for San Antonio. But Ben got the measles and Santa Anna got to the Alamo before Ben did. That didn’t stop Ben from fighting. He joined Sam Houston’s army, fought at the Battle of San Jacinto and earned a battlefield commission as first lieutenant. At that point, the revolution was more or less won and Ben began working as a surveyor in Gonzales and Seguin. But Ben McCulloch was a restless man. He soon joined the Texas Rangers and won a reputation as an Indian fighter. In 1839, McCulloch was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. Ben is sometimes criticized for his rifle duel with Reuben Ross. It’s complicated. Alonzo Sweitzer, one of Ben’s political enemies, originally challenged Ben to the duel. But he sent his friend Reuben to issue the challenge for him. Ben told Ross he wouldn’t fight Sweitzer because Sweitzer wasn’t a gentleman. Those were fighting words and, predictably, Reuben Ross took offense and challenged Ben to a duel. This time, Ben accepted the challenge. The two men faced off with rifles, at forty paces, two miles north of Gonzales. Ross shot McCulloch, permanently crippling his right arm. Ross, who seems to have been a good man, sent his doctor to treat McCulloch and expressed his regret at having “to meet so brave a man in a private encounter.” Ross’s gallant behavior didn’t save him. Henry McCulloch shot and killed Ross a few months later. Ross was reported to have gotten drunk and picked a fight with Henry. Robert S. Neighbors, an Indian agent and Texas state legislator, killed Sweitzer in 1841.       Ben quit politics and returned to surveying and fighting Indians.       At the Battle of Plum Creek (fought against the Comanches) on August 12, 1840, Ben commanded the right wing of the Texas army.       The Texans won. walker-creek-navajo-ponies-for-comanche-warriors-by-frank-mccarthy2-2 In February 1842, when the Mexican government launched a raid against Texas and seized San Antonio, McCulloch scouted enemy positions and helped push Mexican raiders back across the Rio Grande. On September 11, 1842, a second Mexican expedition captured San Antonio. Ben again fought, helping to defeat the Mexicans. After helping to defeat the second Mexican invasion, McCulloch remained with a ranger company. That company was part of an army that would (it was planned) invade Mexico. Ben and Henry, however, believed the Somervell Expedition was not well managed and they went home. Good thing too, because the expedition was a disaster and many of the men were killed. After Texas joined the Union, McCulloch was elected to the First Legislature and after the Mexican War began he raised a Texas Ranger company. Ben was soon named chief of scouts for the American army and won great admiration for his reconnaissance into northern Mexico. Leading his mounted infantry company at the battle of Monterrey, McCulloch further distinguished himself, and before the battle of Buena Vista his daring scouting saved the army and won him a promotion as major of United States volunteers. McCulloch returned to Texas at the end of the war and served for a time as a U.S. Army scout In 1849, however, when gold was discovered in California, Ben hightailed it to Sacramento and was eventually elected sheriff. A few years later, friends lured McCulloch back to Texas and he was appointed United States marshal for the Eastern District of Texas. In 1858, he was appointed one of two peace commissioners to treat with Brigham Young (in Utah) and the elders of the Mormon Church. Ben is credited with helping prevent war  between the United States government and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. When Texas seceded from the Union, Ben was first commissioned a colonel and then Jefferson Davis promoted him to brigadier general, the second-ranking brigadier general in the Confederate Army and the first general-grade officer to be commissioned from the civilian community. McCulloch commanded Indian Territory and made friends with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and other tribal peoples. Many a good man died in the Civil War. McCulloch commanded the Confederate right wing at Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, and on March 7, 1862, overran a battery of artillery and drove the enemy from his original position. As federal resistance stiffened around 10:30 a.m., however, McCulloch rode forward through the thick underbrush to find the enemy line. He was shot from the saddle and killed. McCulloch was first buried on the battlefield, but his body was removed to the cemetery at Little Rock and reburied at the state cemetery in Austin.  

Julia can be reached at her website, at, by email at, and through Facebook. She is also at pinterest. Julia’s three novels, “Scalp Mountain,” “Saint of the Burning Heart” and “Del Norte,” are for sale through and at

—————– 1175627_385919568198141_1321538482_n

An Open Letter to Aetna from a Texas Doctor

Source: Notification of Termination to Aetna.

January 30, 2014

Dear Mr. Bertolini,

With a deep sense of sadness, I must inform you that I will no longer serve as a physician for Aetna patients under the terms of our contractual agreement, which you most recently unilaterally changed.

I have been privileged and honored to care for thousands of patients covered by Aetna policies since the 1990’s. I have devoted my life to providing the very best, state-of-the-art care to these individuals. We have formed a patient-doctor relationship, which I hope many will chose to continue in spite of my severing ties with Aetna. You see, health insurance has evolved such that insurers and government have inserted themselves smack-dab in the middle of the once sacred patient-doctor relationship. I am called a provider- not a doctor. My patient is now yours- not mine. What I can do as a physician now has strangulating strings and nonsensical numbers attached- to you and government and money-not the best interests of the patients.

Obamacare, the “law of the land”, contains ever-changing-at-the-whim-of-HHS, politically-expedient mandates, rewards, penalties, rules and regulations with which I cannot rationally or morally treat my patients and run a practice, much-less interpret, implement, or comply.

Millions of Americans have lost coverage because of the healthcare law and must now shop on a defective, insecure government website and sign up for more expensive policies through Federal and State exchanges. Only by logging in as a prospective patient did my office manager and I discover that Aetna was selling plans for which I am a provider-effectively selling my services without even asking, much less informing  me that my services would be sold on such a site, under the auspices of new terms with which I will not comply.

Then, after the fact, I received a form letter informing me of Aetna’s “new allowables”. I will not sell my services under such terms. While treated as such, patients and doctors are not commodities worthy of such impersonal, inconsiderate, and cavalier treatment. We choose dignity and personal service over disrespect and form letters.

So here we are, you are getting new business offering health insurance plans featuring my services without my consent under terms which are unacceptable to me. Accept this as my official written notice that the changes that you have unilaterally made to our contract are unacceptable to me and make our contract null and void.  You must explain this to your patients. You must tell them that they have purchased a product that was misrepresented to them and that you cannot deliver. It saddens me to think of the decreased access to care from actual physicians and the shockingly increased costs Aetna patients will now experience because of your choice to collude with big government rather than collaborate with patients and physicians.

Kristin S. Held, MD


Valentine’s Gift Basket
Great gift for your sweetheart… or yourself!