“David’s an American, straight from the frontier. Dodge City, Wild Bill Hickok, cowboys and Indians, and all that. Rough as they come. We think he had to flee. No one believes for a moment that David Smith is his real name.”
~ PATIENCE HOBBS describing Smith to Ellsworth
All of these little airships have a deckhand, because the captain can’t do everything. Some, such as the Leprechaun, carry two, but most have a deckhand and a pilot. The duties of the deckhand involve everything from handling cargo, through light carpentry repairs, to in-port security. He’s sort of a dogsbody/jack-of-all-trades who is there to handle anything that needs handling above-deck.
Kestrel’s deckhand claims to be named David Smith. He’s about 35 years old, hails from the American west, and is a bit evasive about his past. He claims to have been captured and tortured by Apaches, to have run with outlaws and posses, to have loved and lost, and to have known, at least by proximity, some of the larger-than-life figures of the Old West. He does a decent day’s work as a deckhand, and possesses an adequate level of skill, but Beyond the Rails is, after all is said and done, a tale of action and adventure, and nobody reading in that genre cares how well you can tie your cargo down.
David is your classic cowboy, skilled in roping and tracking, handy in the barroom with both bottle and fists, and has a lightning draw almost too fast to see. Like Patience and Monroe, he carries a bit of baggage in the area of cliches, but he is exactly what the role and the ship call for. The difficulty in writing this article is in avoiding spoilers. We meet Smith early in the first story, and see him demonstrating skills with no firm explanation of how he acquired them. I’m not disposed to offer that explanation here, as much of it (but not all!) comes to light in volume III, Slayer of Darkness, when a sizeable piece of his past catches up with him.
Smith, like Ellsworth, doesn’t drive the story so much as contribute to it. They are second-tier characters, ranking behind Monroe and Hobbs, rarely the center of the action, but make the action more intense, and create many more paths for it to follow simply by their presence. All of which is not to say that I skimped on his development. Smith has a deep, rich backstory, not all of which is honorable. Remember what I said in Character Study, that everyone has a secret they would kill or die to protect? Well, Smith has a doozie, and it begins to unravel in Slayer of Darkness.
So, for novice writers here to study the craft, Smith presents an example of a supporting character, there to make the leads better. Just as in your real life, not everyone you know carries equal importance, but everyone enriches the mix. Let me phrase it another way: You wouldn’t make stew out of garlic, but used in the right proportion, it certainly enhances the final product. This is what I’ve attempted to achieve with David. He contributes to the formidable nature of Kestrel’s crew, but he also attracts a class of problems they wouldn’t face were he not present. That, I believe, makes the stories better, and that’s why he’s there.
How about you? Do you have a David Smith in your stories? I’d love to hear all about him!