Boone Voss is a young, idealistic preacher. Riley Fox is an Iowa farm boy who heads west the first chance he gets. Range Cooper is an outlaw, a deserter from the Civil War.
Their lives are intertwined in ways that none of them know. As their past actions are slowly but surely exposed, the dominoes start falling and only one survives, albeit as a broken man. Years later he returns to The Nowhere Church to find that it too has had a life much like his—birth, growth, and slow death.
The Nowhere Church
To the West, and the people who made it what it is
Every story should have a beginning, and should start there. That sounds obvious, but it is also difficult to decide what is important, and what should be left out or stand for later. We don’t start keeping track of our life when we are born, and even after we start a journal, some things which seem unimportant turn out to be life changers, some things which seem so important at the time turn out to be forgotten with just a few changes of the seasons. Even those forgotten and then remembered, or remembered and then forgotten, seem to pop in and out of our lives at random times and random places. So it is with me.
The actual beginning for me was December 25, 1862, when I was born outside of Council Bluffs, Iowa to Daniel Boone Voss and Claire Cutler Voss. I was christened Thomas Boone Voss, in honor of my mother’s father Thomas Cutler of Syracuse, New York.
The real beginning for me, though, began in the summer of 1872.
My father, God rest his soul, had made a point of telling me virtually every day of my life that I was lazy, worthless, and going nowhere. Then, that summer, he was killed by a stray bullet in a bar fight somewhere in South Dakota. Word did not reach my mother and me back in Council Bluffs until October of that year, soon after I had started my fourth year of schooling.
Mother immediately packed what things she could fit into our wagon, hitched our only two horses to it, and off we went up the Missouri River to pay our last respects. We left behind our one room house, our clothes line, the pile of wood I had worked so hard all summer to cut, and our pot-bellied stove. Although I was only nine, I remember arguing with her that we should take the stove, but we couldn’t lift it, and she didn’t want to wait a day until some man could come over and help us.
So off we went. No good byes to friends, no last minute checks to see we had gotten everything, and no looking back. When the wagon was full, she just said to get in, and that was that. I remember that is was late in the afternoon when we left. It would have made more sense to sleep in our house and then get an early start the next day, but she had made up her mind, and I wasn’t going to change it.
Our trip to Deadwood, South Dakota, which is where my father had been buried, was generally uneventful. Had it not been for my willingness to take repeated whippings from my mother, it would have been near boring. However, even if I was lazy and worthless, I was also stubborn, and able to withstand her attempts at discipline. I never really meant to be a problem child, but if you are nine years old, there is a lot of nothing to see between Iowa and South Dakota, and therefore a lot of small troubles to create.
We did not arrive in Deadwood until the spring of 1873. If I had to guess, I would say that it was sometime in May, but I don’t remember for sure. I do know that we got stopped cold in Reliance late in the fall when an early season snow storm blasted across the plains.
Mother was always impatient, but she was also realistic, so when the locals told her that we would most probably die if she continued on, we stopped. She got a job cleaning up the rooms in the hotel every morning, and another delivering beer to tables at the saloon each night. Between those two, she managed to make enough for us to stay in a back room of the hotel, and enough to stay fed.
She did not talk much to me or anyone else that winter. She would work and sleep, with too much of the first, and too little of the second. There were times she would fall asleep in the only chair in the room, and I would have to wake her in time to get to one of her jobs.
Sundays were the only days that were different. On Sundays, we would get up early enough to “wash up, dress up, and ‘fess up,” as she liked to say. We would spend most of the entire day at church, which she found comforting, and I found boring and confusing. Many times, I would hear people say bad things about her, or see them pointing at her and speaking in hushed tones about her being the woman who worked in the bar all week and then had the audacity to come to church on Sunday. “Why the nerve of that woman,” one woman said, “working where she does and then calling herself a Christian!”
I happened to be right behind the woman who said this, and said loudly enough for her and everyone else nearby to hear, “At least she’s not a BIG, FAT gossip.” That produced a silence like I have never heard before or since in a church, and a whipping outside the church from Mother. Later, when she found out why I had made the statement, she started crying, and hugged me until she had no hug left. She took me by the shoulders and told me she would never again lay a hand on me in anger, and she never did.
The only other thing worth mentioning that happened that winter is that I turned ten on Christmas Day. I got both a used coat and a new pair of boots, but I don’t remember for sure which was for Christmas and which was for my birthday. I gave her the promise that I would not always be lazy and worthless, but some day would make something of myself that could make her proud of me. She thanked me, and said she was going to hold me to that promise.
When we finally did arrive in Deadwood, our first stop was at the Sheriff’s office, and our second stop was at the undertaker’s. The Sheriff remembered a stranger getting shot the year before, but said that once they are dead, they aren’t his responsibility anymore, so he had no idea which grave might be his. The undertaker had to look at his records. He had a rough map of the cemetery that he kept mostly updated with names and dates. He looked in his burial log for a day the summer before when three people had been buried on the same day. There was some kind of shootout between some locals, and an unarmed newcomer to the area had been killed also. His grave would be marked “Unknown.”
Mother asked him if his name was unknown, then how was it that we received word in Iowa that he had been shot. He said he now remembered a man coming to his office shortly after the burial and describing the dead man accurately. The man said he knew who he was, and he would try to notify his family.
Our last stop of the day was at the cemetery. We took a small set of instructions—something like “Row 3, Hole 7”—and found the wooden headstone. It said “UNKNOWN. Shot July 7, 1872.” Mother immediately started picking weeds from around the grave, and dusted off the already decaying head stone. She wept silently the entire time.
When it was close to getting dark, I told her that I thought we should probably leave for now and make our arrangements for the evening. She arose slowly, walked to the wagon, and got in on the passenger side. Never had she allowed me to even touch the reins, and now she was asking me to drive. Luckily, the team was broke enough and tired enough to figure out what I was trying to tell them.
We stayed one night in the hotel, and parked our team at the livery. Mother said that we could only afford one night, and then the next day we would have to make plans for our future. I laid down and went to sleep immediately.
When I awoke, the sun was already up, and the street was already busy. Mother was not in the room. I dressed myself, and waited for over an hour before being concerned enough to walk down the stairs to the front desk. The man there said she had left before daylight without saying anything. He could not guess where she was.
I then tried the livery where we had parked the wagon and the horses, and both were gone. The man there said she had hitched the wagon and drove off without saying a word.
My last place to look, and I was already in a panic of what to do if she wasn’t there—was the cemetery. It was not visible from the town, being slightly over a hill and around a bend, about a mile, I was guessing. I climbed the hill, and just as I was starting around the bend, she came from the other direction. She looked worse than I had ever seen her. She stopped the wagon for me to get in, and drove back to town without a word.
She stopped at the mercantile and made a deal with the owner to buy everything we had except the clothes on our backs. “We need to go back home,” she finally said.
By “home” I thought she meant back to Council Bluffs. She didn’t. She meant back to New York where she was raised and where her family still lived. I had never been there, being born after she and my father had come west.
After a long trip on horseback, in stage coaches, and on trains, we arrived in Syracuse, New York on November 26, 1873. Her sister Elizabeth agreed to take us in until Mother could get herself re-established and we would be able to afford our own place.