McMINNVILLE—Leading up to tonight’s signing at my brother-in-law’s Edward Jones office in McMinnville, Oregon, some editors and journalists have naturally asked, What is the connection of this story in your novel Morkan’s Quarry to anything in Yamhill County?
When I was working with editors and agents on the book, my wife, Tammy Gebhart Yates, and I were enjoying visits to Oregon, where her brother (Kevin Gebhart) was courting and soon marrying Cheryl Thompson, now Cheryl Gebhart, head of human resources at Newburg’s Providence hospital and a former nurse. Cheryl is a lifelong Oregonian. Kevin and Cheryl have lived in McMinnville for many years now, and it is from the largesse of Kevin’s heart that I am trying a signing at his brokerage on Friday 10.8, from 6-8 p.m. He’s spent months now talking to everybody in town and beyond about his brother-in-law’s new novel.
And (my bad here) he was marketing it without the benefit of a connection I should have made clear. His wife, Cheryl, was an inspiration for an important character in the book. The Yamhill connection to a whole lot of Ozarks Civil War fiction!
Years ago, at the same time he and Cheryl were about to marry and I was their best man, my agent and some editors were telling me that they very much liked “Morkan’s Quarry,” but that it needed a strong female force. Why not give Michael Morkan, the main character, a woman to love?, they suggested.
A nurse in the family is a powerful force indeed. At her rehearsal dinner, the sweet and hospitable Cheryl that I knew changed. I had the chilling privilege of actually seeing her transform from happy sister-in-law into medical professional in an instant while saving a loved one who fell ill and collapsed. To see a nurse fearlessly take action and calm and save a situation is unforgettable. A nurse is an elemental force of peace and good whether in the Ozarks or in Oregon.
Witnessing this inspired the character Cora Slade in the novel. That was Cora to me, fearless, powerful, loving, unafraid to step in even though the life of a dear one was in the balance. I don’t think the book would ever have been published without her, and without Oregon to inspire her.
Here’s a glimpse of the character this wonderful Oregon member of my family inspired.
At the hospital the Federals improvised on the western edge of town, Cora Slade cornered a wounded Iowan. Tracking the two knobs of his shoulders she inched forward. His eyes, she knew, were rolling like pebbles in a shoal, blood seeping down from his poorly bandaged head, and to top it he was decked out in a blazing yellow vest, pink frilled scarves, a red merino shirt, and a belt of bobcat skin. In his fist was the gory crimson bone saw he’d wrested from a surgeon. A steady, low cursing came from his lips, which never stopped moving—she tried to place the language: Dutch, Slavic, Hungarian.
Quite a morning this had been. The Yankees took over the White River Hotel and wounded arrived by ten a.m. Within an hour, the blood and entrails and limbs surpassed any train wreck or cyclone she ever worked. The soldiers were soaked wet from the night’s rain, the heat of the battle, and their horrible injuries.
And here was this poor fop, out of his mind and wielding a bone saw.
“Darling,” she said, “you have got to put that down and let me comfort you.”
When his cursing stopped for an instant she extended a hand, but lowered a shoulder to be ready. There was an awful pool of quiet in the heat and mayhem around them. Surgery nearby stopped, nurses halted, even some patients lifted their heads blinking.
The Iowan asked her a question in his barbar. His eyes stilled and focused.
“Yes, dear,” she risked. “We’ll let you take a rest.”
When he raised the blade back over his head, she rushed him with her lowered shoulder aiming to stun him against the hotel’s massive fireplace. But he was quick and rolled with her force, cracking her noggin against the bricks. They both fell, her with arms now numb around his waist, him flailing the saw, raking her knuckles. Once her bottom hit the hardwood floor, her hands and arms awoke and she wrapped her bloody fingers around his neck and squeezed with all her might.
Gagging, he clanged the saw against the hearth and lost it. A surgeon finally jolted from his stupor and dove to pin the Iowan’s arms.
When they lifted him off of her, a whirlwind of black and green stars swallowed her and she was floored.
She came to and the sun was high past noon and the place in an uproar, surgeons and nurses packing. General Lyon was dead, the Federals whipped, the hospital threatened, the army was running for St. Louis. She rose unsteady. When she straightened, her eyes met the one searing white stone in the fireplace that had nearly killed her—polished lime and the bold name: MORKAN. She breathed. Michael’s hand, Michael Morkan. She let the force of that name there draw her together and settle her heart.