Category: Heron Island, a historical mystery

Real-life roots of HERON ISLAND

December 9th, 2010 — 12:26pm

The first Dade Wyatt historical mystery, Heron Island, germinated in the spring of 2001, when my husband and I made a farewell visit to an island in Lake Champlain’s Inland Sea owned by a friend. She was about to sell the birch-shaded, thyme-turfed Eden, whose ten acres featured a bird sanctuary and a miniature Adirondack Great Camp built in 1902 by the heir to the International Paper fortune.

A largely unaltered slice of the past, the Vermont lodge boasted a gallery ringed with trophy heads, huge screened verandahs with white wicker furniture, and acres of Oriental rugs. In a curio cabinet sat an 1895 Mauser rifle—the service weapon, we learned, of Spanish troops in the Spanish-American War.

“They say a daughter of one of the early owners married a Rough Rider,” our friend said. Local folklore also had it that Teddy Roosevelt had visited the island for their wedding.

A few weeks later, the image of a handsome, mustachioed man with a brimmed hat came into my head, and my detective Dade Wyatt rowed an Adirondack boat into the story. A melancholy widower, former Shakespearean actor, Pinkerton agent, and Rough Rider,  he’s providing security for the island’s politically ambitious owner, who’s trying to lure Roosevelt for a summer visit in 1903. On a dry run for the event, somebody ends up dead. Suspicion falls on an Italian anarchist musician—perhaps from the granite works of nearby Barre, a hotbed of labor radicalism, or from the teeming immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side.  Wyatt sets off to track down a killer and gets mixed up in more than he bargained for.

I discovered some intriguing historical nuggets in the course of writing and revising Heron Island: Vice-President Roosevelt learned about the shooting of President McKinley in 1901 while attending a reception at the Isle La Motte, Vermont home of Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk; Roosevelt and his Cabinet members were frequent Vermont visitors (in some cases summer residents), and the leading Italian anarchist of his day, Luigi Galleani, who inspired the devotion of the more famous Sacco and Vanzetti as well as the “Red Scare” of 1919, hid out in Barre, Vermont from 1903 to 1912, publishing a radical underground newspaper called Cronaca Sovversiva.

There are two terribly sad things about the real-life roots of this story. The Adirondack lodge on the island burned to the ground in the fall of 2007. Our friend who’d owned the island died last year, much too young. Perhaps she’d be pleased that the place lives on in fictional form.

Cross-posted from Kingdom Books’ blog,, with thanks to owners Beth and Dave Kannell.

2 comments » | Heron Island, a historical mystery

Heron Island

September 16th, 2010 — 10:37am

Worker protests, unbridled capitalist greed and the specter of international terrorism shadow the sunlit summer of 1903 in an America still reeling from a President’s murder by an avowed anarchist.

Widowed Rough Rider and Shakespearean actor Dade Wyatt longs to cast off the shadows of his own past and retreat to a quiet life as a security operative for pulp and paper tycoon Warren Dodge. But when Dodge’s plans to host Wyatt’s old commander, President Teddy Roosevelt, on his idyllic Vermont estate are imperiled by a guest’s mysterious death, Wyatt must descend into a maelstrom of desperate poverty, anarchy and class war to safeguard the President and bring a killer to justice.

Chapter 1

The boat gliding southeast from Heron Island to the Vermont shore might have held a courting couple out for a Saturday excursion, the woman reclining under a lacy parasol in the stern, the man pulling steadily and evenly on the oars.

“But, Mr. Wyatt, surely I can persuade you to join us for the ceremony?” Mrs. Van Dorn’s tone was half entreaty, half protest.

The oarsman paused, the lines of his arm muscles softening. His dark eyes met her china-blue gaze.

“You’re very kind—but I promised Mr. Dodge a game of chess when I get back, and he is so rarely at leisure.” A slight, apologetic lift of one shoulder. “One wants to be a good guest.”

She leaned towards him, letting the shade of her hat-brim deepen the blue of her eyes. “I’m sure Warren would understand—don’t you want to see the new steamer?”

It was a perfect midsummer afternoon, the sky blue as a flag, dabbed with just enough cloud-fluff for decoration. Tiny wavelets danced on the surface of the lake’s darker blue. The Vermont III would be the largest steamer ever launched on Lake Champlain, and there was to be a band concert in Burlington afterwards.

Wyatt bent again to his oars.  “I’ll hope to have a ride on it before the summer’s out.  I’m sure you and Mr. Van Dorn will have a fine time.”

The rebuff stung, though gently delivered.  It almost spoiled the small victory of getting more than ten words out of him after a campaign of five days, an effort that must end with her husband’s imminent arrival.  She settled back among the silk cushions and let her gaze wander from the honey-colored ribs of the Adirondack boat, rolling slightly from her movement, to the play of muscle along Wyatt’s shoulders and arms.

A week’s sun had bronzed the cheekbones of his long face, and with the thick, dark mustache bracketing a wide, well-shaped mouth, he could pass for a pirate, or a lawman of the Wild West. Her mind’s eye pinned a sheriff’s star on his collarless white shirt, replaced the boater which shaded his eyes with a gray Stetson.

The Van Dorns often socialized with the Dodges back in the City, but this was their first invitation to Dodge’s private island with its newly built Camp. Her husband Gerald, a genial, portly merchant banker at Morgan’s, was to join her by train from New York. The company of Mr. Dade Wyatt, mannerly but laconic and thereby fascinating, had driven all thought of Gerald from her head. But the object of imagination and curiosity was not yet to be drawn out, and the shoreline was fast approaching.

“You will be here for Mr. Roosevelt’s visit, won’t you, Mr. Wyatt?”

The President had accepted an invitation to Heron Island for a few days in August, drawn by the promise of bird watching in the cool Vermont air and by a generational debt to his host, Warren Dodge, whose late father, a pulp and paper baron turned Congressman back in the eighties, had been a moderating influence in Roosevelt’s brash political youth. The Van Dorns, along with the Dodges’ Vermont friends, the Webbs and the Fisks, had been invited for a midsummer stay, and would later be guests for the great occasion.

Roosevelt’s visit was the last thing Wyatt wanted to talk about. A specialist in security and investigations, he had come to the island at the insistence of his friend Dodge to survey arrangements for the President’s stay.  He was joining the party for dinners as a fellow guest, but disappearing for much of the day to scout nearby islands and bays in the Adirondack boat.

Milly Van Dorn had done him a favor, Wyatt reflected, by requesting conveyance and presenting him with an opportunity for close observation. He watched her push back a strand of auburn hair and fan the faintest dew of moisture from the exquisite bow of her upper lip.  It occurred to him that, like many rich men’s wives he’d known these last few years, she might be inclined to other favors …

“I guess I’ll be back in August,” he said slowly.

“I suppose he’ll have to bring a lot of guards with him, won’t he? After that whole—debacle in Buffalo—I can’t imagine how they could have let that happen, can you? Hiding his gun-hand under a handkerchief! Shouldn’t someone have spotted that?”

It was Wyatt’s turn to be stung, and far worse. In the two years since the McKinley catastrophe, for which no one but himself had attached blame to him, he had stuck to such low-stakes assignments as nosing out labor organizers in Dodge’s paper factories and keeping watch on agitators in crowds for political speeches. Dull work compared with his prior life, but as much as his frame of mind could manage these days.

He’d failed once, and that failure had shattered a nation. And now Dodge wanted him back on the front line, this time to protect a man he revered as a reformer and as a commander. He could barely stand the thought of putting himself at such risk again.

He shook off the haunted vision and brought his gaze back to his companion’s. “And Mr. Van Dorn—he’ll be able to join you then too?”

“Unless Mr. Morgan has him off on one of his—acquisitions.” There was the faintest curl of the cupid’s-bow. “Though I dare say even he would have to excuse Gerald for a visit with the President.”

“Good for business, I should think.”

“I suppose so. I find business talk so tiresome, don’t you? But then I don’t even know what your business is. Perhaps it’s fascinating to you.”

“I don’t suppose anyone’s business is fascinating to anyone else,” Wyatt parried. “You’ve met the President before?”

“Well—no, not really. Gerald knows him, of course. But you must know him— Mr. Dodge told me you were in the Rough Riders! What is he like? I confess I’m dying to meet him. He sounds so bold. So manly. It’s all I could do not to tell my girl-friends about it. But they said we mustn’t, for security reasons and so forth.” She gave a little shrug and rolled her eyes. “As if anyone I knew would be a threat to him!”

“I guess you can’t always tell,” Wyatt said.

She frowned at him and pursed her lips. “Good heavens, you’re not suggesting…”

“Oh, not your girl-friends, of course, but—servants, for instance, overhearing things. We, ah, don’t always know what their outside interests are.”

Her eyes flickered away for an instant, but she cupped her chin in her hand and gave him the full strength of her blue gaze. “I dare say you’re right. What with being positively overrun with foreigners these days—I do love the new Camp, don’t you? It reminds me of the Webbs’ place in the Adirondacks—” Her backwards look brought into his line of vision a profile that could have graced a cameo.

The roofline of the shingled lodge was dropping out of sight now, the cliff-girdled island with its verdant lawns and copses of poplar and young maples receding with each stroke of the oars, the low hills of the Grand Isle peninsula blurring to gray-blue beyond.

“You’ve spent time with the Webbs?”

Dr. Seward Webb, an eccentric New York millionaire who had married a Vanderbilt heiress, had just built a railroad across Lake Champlain that joined the southern tip of Grand Isle to the mainland. Webb had hosted the President at Shelburne Farms, his hackney horse-breeding estate on Lake Champlain, the previous summer.

“We’ve known them for ages! Well—three or four years. I count Mrs. Webb as a friend—the doctor’s rather reclusive—oh, I don’t mean inhospitable, just quiet, he couldn’t be more gracious— Gerald had something to do with financing one of his railroads. And we met the Fisks last summer—such a delightful couple!”

Wyatt remembered that Roosevelt had been addressing a Republican gathering at the Grand Isle mansion of Nelson Fisk, the former Vermont lieutenant governor, when he’d received word that McKinley had been shot. Another sting of painful memory…

He watched the rosy color ebb from Milly Van Dorn’s cheeks as she lapsed into silence. In her flower-trimmed straw and dotted-swiss muslin, she was a picture for Sargent—no, it was far more personal than that.  She was having the same effect on him that the smell of bread wafting from a bakery has on a man who has not realized until then that he is hungry. Her cheerful prattle, which might in other circumstances have irritated him, seemed all of a piece with the sparkle and wink of the waves, the gossiping breeze bending the crowns of trees on the shore. He let it blow aside the veil of melancholy which had been closing in on him, felt in himself the desire to respond.

Through half-lowered lashes, Mrs. Van Dorn watched Wyatt’s arms keeping the boat’s pitch-and-roll barely perceptible as they drew towards the Vermont shore. He was too lean and muscular for a man of her class, where corpulence was a badge of success, and he didn’t seem much interested in the doings of society. Though his hair was still dark and thick, with barely a hint of gray at the temples, there was something in the set of his face—not lines, really, except for a few light crows’ feet she could see when the sun flashed beneath the brim of his boater— something that betokened the experiences of maturity, of one past some prime. Perhaps not even a physical prime, but a prime of the heart, of the affections…

The Webbs’ carriage would take Mrs. Van Dorn to Burlington, as they had arranged earlier in the week. She strained forward, wanting to have first sight of the boat-tunnel under the Sandbar causeway.

“Have you known the Dodges long, Mrs. Van Dorn?”

“Oh, indeed! About five or six years now.” She lit up with his renewed attention. “Shortly before I married Gerald, we were invited to their box at the Metropolitan—so that I could be inspected, you see, and—“

“—I dare say you passed!”

She felt his smile melt something in her core. “Are you fond of opera, Mr. Wyatt? I adore Puccini! Gerald thinks he’s sentimental—I can’t think how he’d know, he’s sound asleep halfway through the first act…” she wrinkled her nose and shrugged, trailing a diamond-dewed hand in the water.

“I’m told his Tosca was splendid—”

“Oh, it was!  So—grand, so passionate! But there’s something…terrifying about Tosca, don’t you think?”  She shuddered. “Killing for love. I could never do that.”

“What about dying for love?” Wyatt’s eyes were intent on her face. She looked quickly away with a little laugh.

“Good heavens! Not that either. All I meant was—I prefer La Bohème.  Poor Mimi! Have you seen—”

“No. I haven’t.”  She saw something in him shut down, shut her out. The causeway was drawing closer, and she couldn’t bear to let him slip away.

“Forgive my asking—is there a Mrs. Wyatt?”

“There was, once.”

He looked away, but she caught the shadow that passed over his face. He had paused in his rowing and she could hear the water drip from the oars.

“I’m sorry.”

“No need.” He forced a smile. “It’s been a long time.”

“How strange that a—such a cultured man as you should be alone.” She leaned forward, her face intent on his.

“Lot of that in the world.” He began to row again. “Wise to get used to it,”  he added, surprising himself with so disingenuous an addition.

“Oh, pray don’t say that!” She held up a hand in protest. “One mustn’t cut oneself off from life. One must turn to—to the comforts that friends can give.”

He looked over his shoulder. There were figures on the Sandbar causeway, waving at them, two black horses hitched to a yellow-wheeled wagonette behind them.

“It seems your friends are waiting for you already.”

“Do let us be friends, Mr. Wyatt!” She let a dimpled smile lighten the intensity of the plea.

Wyatt took a breath, returned the smile and plunged in his turn. “I should like that—naturally.”

“I could tell when we met that you were—a sympathetic person. How wonderful that we shall have a few more days on the island—to get to know each other better. And pray don’t worry about Gerald!” she waved a dismissive hand. They were closing in on the shore, where their voices could almost reach. “He’s not the jealous sort.”

She strained forward and shielded her eyes. “There’s Mrs. Webb, all in white—and those must be the Fisks.” She pointed to a slender, dark-haired man with a neat black beard and a tiny, plump currant-bun of a woman standing next to him, both smiling and waving at them. “Oh, look!  Dr. Webb came as well. They said they would all come, if it was a nice day, but I was afraid they might just send the carriage.”

“You’ll be in good company for the ride to Burlington, then. I’m glad.”

After the Burlington concert, the Van Dorns and Fisks would sail back to the island on the Webbs’ steam-yacht, Elfreida.  Dr. Webb, a compact, red-bearded man with gold-rimmed glasses, wore a yachting cap and a nautical blue blazer. He climbed down onto the rubbled causeway and shouted a welcome. His wife Lila hovered behind him with an anxious smile, the breeze ruffling the white silk flowers on her elaborate bonnet.

“Do be careful of your footing, Seward dear—be sure Milly’s got a good grip on your arm. How kind of you to bring Milly to us, Mr. Wyatt!”

Wyatt glided in along the bank of the Sandbar and threw Webb a line.  Mrs. Van Dorn rose, steadied against the boat’s rocking by Wyatt’s hand at her back. She gathered her skirts and, taking the doctor’s waiting hand, stepped gracefully out of the boat. She thanked her ferryman with a soft-eyed smile, wondered why she was left with the feeling that Mr. Wyatt had learned more about her on their little voyage than she had about him.

We’ll be posting new chapters of R.A. Harold’s Heron Island here about once a week. Download  Heron Island in full for the Kindle at For other e-readers, download the full novel from Smashwords at Or order a print copy of Heron Island at, on at or from Powell’s Books at

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