The Story Behind A Story

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, once again writing about my grandfather, Fred Gorton of Liberty, New York, last seen in “The First RFD Carrier in Town” This post also has to do with me and my writing.

Grampa wrote his memoirs when he was in his eighties. I used some of the stories he told about growing up in the 1880s early in my career when I wrote a children’s book for ages 8-12, Julia’s Mending, but it was a story of his from 1910 that ended up inspiring one of the first pieces of short fiction I ever had published.

There are two versions of events, the one in the newspaper at the time and Grampa’s account written years later. Here’s what the newspaper reported:

clippingWhile at the station last Thursday evening, after an express package, Freddy S. Gorton, the R. F. D. carrier, had what might have been a serious runaway. While loading a mirror into the wagon a piece of paper blew in front of his pacer, which he recently purchased, and which has a very fast mark. The pacer started down the hill toward Ernhout’s mills. Freddy jumped into the back of the wagon and climbed over the seat. When he found his reins were under the pacer’s feet, having been taught in childhood to sit still and never jump during a runaway, he settled himself into the bottom of the R.F.D. wagon. On the street leading to Ernhout’s mills is a creek about 40 feet deep. When near this, men hearing Freddy saying ‘Whoa’ in loud tones, ran into the road and shook a sheet in front of the racing steed. Getting past, it took Freddy on the bridge but luck saved him. Just before he got to the mill, Seth Amis ran out and hit the runaway with a coal scoop and before the steed could get up he had him by the bridle and a serious accident was averted. In payment for the mad flight the pacer had to do 50 miles the next two days and wear hopples.

After reading this account, I had to do a bit of research. For one thing, what the heck are hopples? Turns out they’re hobbles and you hobbled a horse so it could only take tiny steps. As a punishment today, that would be considered cruelty to animals.

When he came to write his memoirs (online as The Life of a Plodder), Grampa remembered the incident a bit differently. Here’s his version:

Fred's storyI bought a large bay mare of Mrs. Nichols. I hooked her up to the light lumber wagon to get a looking glass for a friend at the Liberty freight house. As I just got the looking glass in the wagon, the horse switched her tail and caught the lines and they tangled under her feet. She started to run. We crossed a narrow bridge. The horse swayed on the bridge as if to throw me out. Seth Amis was at the mill. I yelled and asked him to knock her down with the scoop shovel he had in his hand. He waved the scoop and the mare stopped. I was so upset I forgot to thank him. I have been told in a wagon without lines in a runaway never jump. You will come out better to stay in, as maybe someone may rescue you.

With two versions of the story and a little more research so I’d know more about freight houses and wagons and looking glasses, I created a third . . . with one very significant change at the end, and made it into a short story for children. It’s titled, unoriginally, “Runaway.”



Kathy Lynn Emerson

            Freddy spread a heavy blanket over the planks in the back of the light lumber wagon. As soon as it was in place, Father and Douglas loaded the looking glass aboard. They were all very careful. The looking glass was a present for Mother. It had been shipped all the way from New York City.

            Freddy folded the blanket over their reflections in the mirror. Douglas tucked in the corners.

            “There. All safe,” he said.

            They each breathed a sigh of relief.

            The freight house doors gaped wide in the October sunlight. Somewhere in the blackness was the freight master’s office.

            “I’ll be right back,” Father said. “You two stay here.”

            He disappeared inside the building.

            Freddy sat down next to the looking glass and glanced around. There wasn’t much to see. The dusty street was empty of people, except for Douglas. Freddy thought that Kit, the horse, was more interesting. She was a big bay mare Father had just bought. She was fidgeting in the traces. She wasn’t used to the wagon yet.

            “Easy, Kit,” Freddy whispered. “Calm down, now.”

            Kit didn’t listen. Just as Freddy spoke, a piece of paper blew in front of her. The mare switched her tail once and was off. Before Freddy realized what had happened, they were speeding down the hill.

            “Runaway!” Douglas yelled.

            He made a dive for the tailboard . . . and missed! Freddy was the only one in the wagon as Kit raced away. Douglas was left behind, sprawled in the roadway and covered with dust.

            It wasn’t easy to climb forward over the bouncing seat. Somehow Freddy managed it and looked for the reins. The ends should have been tied in place, but they were gone. For the first time, Freddy felt afraid. Kit’s tail had caught the lines. They were dragging along the ground, tangled and far out of reach. There was no way now to stop Kit’s mad flight.

            Freddy tried to stay calm. Father had told them once that it was safer to stay put in a runaway than to try to jump out. The wagon swayed dangerously as Kit crossed the narrow bridge at the foot of the hill. Freddy’s eyes widened. The deep, cold water of Shaw’s Creek came very close. Father hadn’t said anything about being thrown out!

            In a panic, Freddy scrambled back over the seat and crouched in the bottom of the wagon. The mirror was sliding back and forth across the planks. Freddy tried to steady it and hold on tight to the edge of the seat at the same time. It was tricky.

            “Whoa!” Freddy hollered. “Whoa, Kit!”

            Kit paid no attention.

            By now there were more shouts of “Runaway!” Some men waved their arms at Kit as she raced by them, but they only frightened her more. She sped on toward Bonner’s Mill.

            Freddy peered fearfully over the top of the seat and yelled “Whoa, Kit!” again. Ahead, Seth Ames came into sight. He was walking slowly out of the mill, carrying a coal scoop. He didn’t see them coming.

            “Mr. Ames! Look out!” Freddy cried.

            Seth turned around and saw Kit and the wagon bearing down on him. For a moment, he stood frozen in place. Then, too late, he tried to leap out of the way. The scoop shovel in his hand waved wildly and came down on Kit’s head.

            Startled, the horse stumbled and almost fell. The wagon bounced to a halt. Before Kit could run again, Freddy had scrambled out and grabbed her bridle.

            “Easy, Kit. Easy, girl.”

            Freddy stroked the mare’s nose and kept talking quietly. Kit wasn’t hurt, but she was frightened. Her eyes rolled wildly. She’d just begun to calm down when Father and Douglas came into sight.

            “Are you all right?” Father shouted as he ran.

            “I’m fine. So’s Kit. And so’s the looking glass.” Miraculously, it hadn’t broken.

            Father began to laugh with relief. By the time he reached the wagon, he was shaking his head in amazement. He often did that around Freddy.

            “You’re a brave girl, Fredericka,” he said.


So that’s the story, and the story behind the story. After several rejections, “Runaway” was published in 1985 in an obscure children’s magazine distributed to Sunday Schools. I was paid, if I remember correctly, a whopping $7.50 for first rights. It was my second short fiction sale and only the fourth time I’d sold anything I’d written, and most of the credit goes to Grampa Gorton.


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games ~ July 2016) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are and



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5 Responses to The Story Behind A Story

  1. This is a great story, both about how you came to write the story and the version that was published. How kind of you to credit your grandfather!

  2. I love it, Kathy! Especially the twist with Fredericka. ;^)

  3. Gram says:

    Wonderful…both stories!

  4. Lea Wait says:

    Love stories from history — especially family history!

  5. León says:

    Great story! Loved the twist at the end…it took me totally by surprise.

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