Friday, January 20, 2017

The Posse is Coming!

Nowadays, a ‘posse’ usually signifies a group of friends or the followers of a celebrity or group such as a rock band. Of course, the word had a very different meaning in the Old West. Any western movie fan has seen a posse ride after outlaws, probably in many different movies.
Posse that killed outlaw Ned Christie posing with his body; Nov. 1892; public domain

But have you ever wondered where the word ‘posse’ came from and what it means? I looked it up online and learned the word’s first known use was in 1645 as a shortening of the medieval Latin legal term posse comitatus, meaning ‘power or authority of the county.’
Battle of Naseby, English Civil War; 17th century UK painting, artist unknown; public domain

In 17th century England, at the start of the English Civil War, all sides employed written edicts to persuade citizens to assemble. Two documents commonly used by those siding with Parliament were the "Militia Ordinance" and the older "Commissions of Array.” On the Royalist side in Cornwall, Parliament supporters were indicted by a grand jury as disturbers of the peace, and the posse comitatus was called out to expel them from the county.

In 1887 Britain, section 8 of the Sheriffs Act formalized the powers of sheriffs to enforce posse comitatus. Anyone who refused to answer the sheriff’s call for help in arresting a felon could be fined and imprisoned for a year. If unable to pay the fine, the person would be imprisoned for two years. Those English didn’t put up with slackers!

The British provisions for posse comitatus were repealed by the Criminal Law Act of 1967, but a  sheriff can still take ‘the power of the county’ if he needs to arrest resisters.
1922 posse captured murderers Manuel Martinaz & Placidio Silvas (back row center)
 after largest manhunt in history of the Southwest; public domain

In the US, while posses helped enforce law and order during frontier days, they could pose a threat, illustrated by the Lattimer Massacre of 1897. Nineteen unarmed striking coal miners at the Lattimer mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania were shot and killed by a Luzerne County sheriff's posse. Many more were wounded. Such incidents ended the use of posses to contain civil unrest.

What made me investigate the origins and use of posses? Well, it so happens I am part of a posse of authors who have a collection of western historical romance short stories titled The Posse coming out in March. We’re planning a Facebook cover release party with giveaways on February 15. For updates, please like and follow the page:

Fragment of The Posse cover

Here is an excerpt from my story, The Schoolmarm’s Hero.

What’s happening: It’s autumn 1880 in Colorado; Schoolmarm Matilda Schoenbrun has been kidnapped by a pair of outlaws. Marshal Trace Balfour leads a posse to rescue her.

Three days passed without sighting the outlaws. Their trail led into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, climbing over stony ridges, winding through creeks, and following low, rugged canyons. The rougher the route grew, the longer it took Trace to find their tracks. The process slowed the posse, causing his men to grow restless. They’d brought enough grub to last a week or more, but they hadn’t really expected the hunt for the fugitives to last that long. Worse yet, the excitement of the chase had worn off.

Ben Lambert fought for the Yanks in the Civil War. Strong as an ox, Saul Davis could flatten a man with his fist alone. Charlie Putnam wasn’t a big man, but he learned how to fight in his silver mining days. The other two men, Jim Curtis and Joe Wilkes were veterans of the frontier army. All five knew how to handle a gun and defend themselves, but not so their wives and children back in town. This was still a wild country. Trace knew the men wanted to get back home soon to protect their families and property.

The posse members’ discontent boiled over when he lost the outlaws’ trail. He’d followed their tracks down into a steep-sided, dry arroyo that split into a tangle of smaller outlets, barely wide enough in some places for a single man and horse to negotiate. After picking his way through three of these winding defiles without finding a sign of the fugitives’ trail, he backtracked to where the arroyo split. The grumble of muttered curses from the men grew loud.

“Marshal Balfour, this is pointless,” Ben Lambert said. “You’ll never find their trail in this maze. It’s time to face facts and turn back."

“Yeah, we might as well go home,” Charlie Putnam said. “It’s too late, anyhow. The schoolmarm is likely dead or wishing she was by now.”

Fury flared inside Trace. Charging his horse at Putnam, he caused the man’s mount to dance sideways. Charlie’s eyes widened in fear just before Trace landed a hard right on his jaw. The storekeeper cried out and nearly tumbled from his saddle.

“I won’t abide talk like that,” Trace growled.

He backed his horse to face the group, drawing a deep breath to calm down. “Whoever wants to turn around can leave now, but I’m going on. I’ll find Mattie or die trying.” He realized he’d revealed his feelings for her but didn’t care. The other men needed to know where he stood.

He surveyed the group, gazing into each man’s eyes. No one challenged his statement and none made a move to turn back. Putnam hung his head, rubbing his jaw. “I’m right sorry, Marshal. I oughtn’t to have said what I did. It was cold of me.”

Trace acknowledged his apology with a nod. Ordering them to wait where they sat, he set his hat and rode into another of the narrow offshoots of the arroyo. Lucky for Mattie, this one proved to be the right one. He spotted the outlaws’ tracks ascending a rock ledge from the depression. Backtracking once again, he was pleased to see every man sat where he’d left them.

“I picked up their trail,” he announced. “Let’s go.” Getting no argument, he led them out of the troublesome web of false trails onto a dry, rolling plateau, where the wind blew bunch grass nearly flat, threatening to whip off their hats.

The trail they followed angled northwest. He pondered if Mattie’s kidnappers had a destination in mind, or were they wandering where the wind took them.

Late that afternoon, dark clouds billowed in the west, with distant flares of lightning. As a stripling, Trace had punched cattle down along the Rio Grande, where he grew up. He carried vivid memories of another rider who got hit by lightning. It had killed both man and horse. He didn’t want to witness such a thing again.

“We need to find shelter fast,” he said, to which the others readily agreed. Rain pelted them by the time they found an abandoned sod house in the side of a low hill. A pole corral stood nearby which offered no protection for their horses, but at least, they would be there when the storm passed. The men hurried to unsaddle the animals before closing them in the coral. Trace and his men crowded into the dank, pitch-black soddy.

Saul Davis struck a match. It briefly illuminated a small patch of dirt walls and floor. A plank shelf hung crooked on the wall. A broken slat bunk without a mattress stood beneath the shelf. “Hell of a place to call home,” Saul commented in his deep, barrel-chested voice. He blew out his match as the flame neared his fingers and lit another.

“I lived in a hole in the ground like this one when a kid in Kansas,” Charlie Putnam said. “My Dad had set his mind to growing wheat and corn there. He promised to build us a fine big house one day.”

“Did he succeed?” Trace asked.

“Naw, the border troubles started and pretty soon he went off to fight for the Union. He never came back.” Changing the subject, Charlie said, “You know, there might be a lantern in here somewhere.” He lit his own match, poking around in the dark corners. Sure enough, he recovered a dented lantern. Although low on kerosene, it provided steady light until the storm blew away two hours later.

By then, night was upon them. Although Trace begrudged the time lost to the storm, he knew they must wait for daylight. Standing at the corral where the horses stood drowsing after being drenched, he leaned his arms on the top rail, staring into the starlit night, thinking of Mattie. Had her captors sought shelter or had they ridden into the teeth of the storm with her? The thought made him sick with rage and frustration.

Footsteps squished through the mud behind him. Turning, he made out Saul Davis’s bulky form approaching. The big man halted and leaned on the corral next to him.

“Nice night. The rain cooled things off a might,” he observed.

“A might.”

After a moment’s silence, Saul said, “Reckon you’re worryin’ about our pretty schoolmarm, eh?”

“Yeah.” Trace shifted his stance, uncomfortable with putting it into words.

“You think you can find a scrap of those buzzards’ trail after all the rain?”

“I don’t know.” Saul had put his finger on Trace’s worst worry. If the rain washed away the outlaws’ trail, he’d have no choice but to send his men home. As for himself, he would search every acre of Colorado and beyond if necessary, until he found Mattie.

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  1. Interesting post, Lyn. For some reason I'd never thought about where the word posse originated. Well, your excerpt was too short. I want to know what happens to Mattie.

  2. LOL! Thanks, Linda. Sorry, but you'll have to wait to find out Mattie's fate until the book comes out. Despite her harrowing situation, I promise the story does have an HEA ending - after a few surprises.

    I had never wondered what the word "posse" means or where it originated, either, until I joined The Posse crew. Words have interesting histories, don't they.

  3. Loved finding out where the word "posse" comes from. Being from Texas, I just always assumed it meant men on horses. %>) Marilyn (aka cj)

    1. Another Texas gal! Glad you made it over here, Marilyn. I never gave much thought to what "posse" really meant, either - until The Posse came into my life.

  4. I have always loved stories with posses in those posses.
    Your story sounds great! ...I wrote one story that ended with a small posses hunting down a man...I loved writing that scene.
    Yes, it seems posses are always in least fairly often.
    Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Now, that was a posse to remember!
    Thanks so much...great post.

    1. Celia, I sure do remember the posse in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. I love that movie! I grew up watching old westerns that so often featured a posse chasing the bad guys. And they always caught them. Such exciting times! Sigh.

  5. Lyn, I too remember so many of our TV westerns forming those posses to get the bad guys! Always interesting to learn the origin of words, especially ones we use in our western stories.

    1. Hi Cheri. Yup, words are fascinating subjects, especially to authors. They are our stock and trade. Now let's go catch some bad guys! :)

  6. I would have never imagined the word "posse" could have originated anywhere other than the United States, but then, I see how wrong I was. This was quite an interesting and surprising post, Lyn.
    Good luck to you and all the authors involved in THE POSSE collection coming out in March.

    1. Sarah, I'm glad you found the origins of "posse" interesting. One thing I didn't mention is that their are federal laws in the US that prohibit the use of military forces to quell civilian unrest. A subject for another day.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your good wishes.

  7. I loved the excerpt! I was aware of posses being used in the east long before the west opened. And I vaguely knew it came from the English but that was it. As a child, I loved the dictionary and reading about where words came from and how they changed into what we use today. I, too, wind up taking "bird walks" while doing research and stumbling into facts, such as the English uses of posses, that I will never need for what I write. I know never say never! :-)


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