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The first chapter of Buffalo Bayou Blues:
You don’t know it’s a dream when you’re in it, usually.
I was borne along on the inexorable currents of the river, caught in the main flow between the distant banks of the fast-moving water, which was brown from the silted runoff from eroded ditches, construction sites, and perhaps washed-out back-country roads. My body turned and rolled this way and that, and no matter how hard I struggled against it, I was pushed along, of no more consequence than any other piece of flotsam. After awhile I became philosophical about it, even as I tried to right myself and swim toward shore. Should I stop struggling? The more I struggled it felt as though I fueled the power of the river with my own efforts against it.
There was something eerily familiar about being caught in the river; the deluge, the flash flood, whatever it was. The inescapable power of nature had finally caught up with me through the long years of my evasion, and was not going to let go. But even as it carried me along, I felt as though I knew this stretch of river. We had once been friends.
I detected that someone was watching me. Someone standing on the shoreline. I kicked and tried to spin that direction, and caught a fleeting glimpse of him, but was thrown beneath the surface.
I came up, sputtering muddy waters and trying to take on fresh air in the same instance, and even as I did, I felt his eyes on me. He was watching me. Watching me drown.
And that’s when I knew it was a dream.
I came out of it, abruptly, gasped and sat bolt upright.
Hank Sterling was sitting in a chair beside the bed.
“Hank! What the hell?”
“You were dreaming. Didn’t want to wake you. Almost did there for a second, but you came out of it yourself.”
“What are you doing…in my room?”
He nodded. “I know it don’t seem right, but I had to tell you something. And seeing as how Julie and most of the kids are up at Nat Bierstone’s ranch for a few days, I didn’t think you’d mind me coming in and waking you up.”
“Except you didn’t. Wake me up, that is. I knew someone was watching me.”
“You couldn’t have, Bill. I was quite as a church mouse on Sunday morning.”
“Maybe you were, but a fellah knows when someone is looking at him.”
“Well,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. I doesn’t matter. The deal is that I’ve got a problem I need your help with.”
“What time is it?”
“Oh. Going on about four-thirty.”
“You’ve got a problem. At four-thirty in the morning?”
“I do,” he said.
“Well,” I reached for my shirt and slid it on, pushing my arms through the arm holes one at a time. It was my favorite around-the-house shirt, about fifteen years old, gray with light gray vertical stripes. Julie hated the thing, and kept threatening to throw it in the trash. I’d saved it from destruction time and again. I was attached to that stupid shirt, though more from her disdain, I realized as I thrust my hand through the narrow sleeves, than because I truly loved it. Sometimes the war doesn’t end. “What’s the problem?”
“I have to be in two places at once. I’m a pretty smart guy, Bill, but I never figured that one out satisfactorily.”
“No? A fellow who can defuse a landmine, can walk through a rocket barrage without a scratch, and he can’t be in two places at once. I’d say you’re slipping, pardner.”
“Maybe I am. Maybe I really am. Anyway, the deal is it’s not only two places at once, it’s two separate locales at the same time.”
“Uh. Okay,” I said. “Tell me about it.” And, of course, I found myself wishing like hell I hadn’t asked.
Hank had gotten a call from an old friend, Willard Morgan, who was calling in a marker. It was an old promise going back to their days together during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, when Willard had, as the story went, saved Hank’s life by going into a cave system near an airfield and bringing a wounded and bleeding Corporal Henry S. Sterling back to the light of day. At about the same time as the call from his old Army buddy, Willard, Hank had gotten a text message from the East Texas town of Carter in Atchison County, and specifically a lady name Bee, who was having second thoughts about dumping him forever.
“Hoot?” I asked.
“That’s Willard’s stage name. Hoot Morgan.”
“What kind of stage?” I asked.
“A music stage, Bill. Willard is a blues musician down in Houston. He’s up to his chin in something—he won’t tell me exactly what—but not only his own life, but that of his family is in danger. And I don’t know how to be in two places at once. It’s probably something stupid like a gambling debt, and that’s easy to handle. I’ve got enough money laying around to buy a damn casino. You said so yourself.”
“You do. And you do not want me to go visit Miss Bee on your behalf.”
“Not exactly,” he said.
I thought about it for a moment or two, then said, “I need to take a shower. Also, I’m hungry.”
“Of course. Not a problem whatsoever. You shower, I’ll get the coffee going and throw some bacon and eggs on the grill.”
“You know Julie’s kitchen rules, right?”
“I know. I know,” he said, and got up from the chair, headed for the door. “No metal utensils on the non-stick pans, no high heat on the aforementioned pans, no…” Hank went out the door and down the hall and his voice moved into other parts of the house, continuing the litany as he went.
I slapped myself lightly in the face as I looked in the bathroom mirror. “That, my friend,” I said to my reflection, “is for inviting your best friend to come live with you.”
I disrobed and turned the shower on, got the water good and hot.
“Hoot,” I said to myself, and climbed into the deluge.
The revised (added to) opening of Neptune’s Forge:
From the journal of Jonathan Gleese, E.C., Esq.
September 14, 1888
It is with some amount of unease and, dare I say it, trepidation, that I once again attempt Terra Australis Incognita, as the early explorers once characterized the land.
We are two days south of Stanley—what is little more than a whaling and sealing village among the Falklands—and less than a week’s sail from Antarctica. I believe I am the last of the explorers from my time to undertake the lost continent. This shall be the last expedition, I am afraid, for I am beginning to feel if not my age, then the illimitable miles.
The wind is already gusty and cold and the burgs abundant, a presage, I have little doubt, of what is to come, even though I have carefully selected the Antarctic spring for this final trip. And God alone in his majesty and infinite wisdom knows what I shall find.
Perhaps I shall find my final resting place.
Here aboard the Invincible, we have an unimpeachable Captain—Captain Kuralt—of great ability and middling diction, a First Officer who favors colored drinks (and in immeasurable quantity), twelve able seamen, and a purser (God save me from the company of seamen). My own Expeditionary contingent consists of twenty-three men, composed as they are of three Americans (including myself), an Irishman, a Dane, a Russian cartographer, and seventeen Argentinians.
First there is Ned Kroones, the Dane, whom I have employed these last fifteen years. He is an iron ramrod, my pillar of strength, and would see anything through to the end. Ned, much like the climate we both embrace, is a desolate man, alone, aloof, enured like hammered steel. Ned runs the dogs, which for my part is a thankless task; the man must have some dog in him—they seem to know his mind before he expresses his commands. In my travels I have seen few men more attuned to animals than their own race, but Ned is certainly one. Additionally, he is a sledder, and worth his weight in gold in that department. Once we are upon the ice, he is expected to train the rest of the men.
Then there is Viktor Tomaroff, the calm Russian, my navigator and map-maker. His English has improved over the past two years, and this will be our first expedition together, for I have been dormant since the death of Kitty. I reached out to him through correspondence twelve years ago, and we stayed in almost uninterrupted contact until I decided upon this current foray, once again, into the Antarctic. I believe he was and is my most excellent choice for the role, and seems to be at ease with both sextant and theodolite, with transit and compass. Additionally, he recalls small bits of data, particularly with regard to geography, and is a wealth of knowledge on the subject. I wish, though, that he were more personable; he keeps the world at arm’s length, and thus seems more British, in nature, than Russian.
The two Americans are Terry Rath and Peter Bornik. Rath is from Maine, a young country squire, of no great education but of inquisitive mind. He, like Bornik, is a veteran of the War of Brother Against Brother, what they are calling the Civil War, although Bornik (from Louisiana) fought for the South. I’ve seen no trouble yet between these two, nor any discussion between them, for that matter, on the subject. Of the two, Bornik is the taciturn one, although they are of the same age. Rath is the gentler one, while Bornik is rough and brash—he substitutes immediate action for thoughtfulness, a tendency I have come to respect in the wild places of the world, where the luxury of contemplation must accede to the necessity to survive and Frontier Rules apply, which is to say that there are no rules apart from quick wit and reflexes. Still, I should prefer not to cross Rath. One day he will explode, and the day he does, someone is likely to meet their maker.
Parker Dunlevy is our Irishman. He is an old hand for applying steel against ice, and can lay a spike faster than a Kentucky railsplitter can halve a knotty pine. His one failing is that he speaks overly much—and compulsively so—about petty matters.
And then there are the Argentines, itinerant workers from the Falklands. They are a rough bunch. Pay them, give them enough grog, feed them a couple of times a day, and they will do all of the heavy work. For the most part they are stevedores and gutting-house crew, and the smell of fish blood is deeply embedded in the pores of their skin. There are three leaders among them: Manuel Ortega, Guillermo Gomez, and Ignacio Vega. Of the three, Ortega is the chief. He is all arms and barrel chest and commands them with but a grunt and a gesture. Gomez, likewise, is strong and able, though not nearly as intelligent as Ortega. He is prone, however, to become angry when not instantly obeyed; a man of murderous temperament, but for the most part keeps it well in check. The last, Vega, defers to the other two much the way the men defer to him. Thus, a query of the orders is rapidly barked up the chain of command from the other Argentinians, through Vega, and thence to Gomez or Ortega, at which point the matter is instantly settled, either with a word or a nod (Ortega) or a growl and a curse (Gomez). I note all this from simply watching them load the ship with supplies. They hail, for the most part, from Patagonia, and although they therefore understand ice well, none have been to Antarctica. In fact, they seem to find it unbelievable that we are going there. In a way, I agree with them.
And thus we come to my own doubts.
At one time I was a young man, hale and strong. I feared no thing except the sea—and any man who does not respect the sea is an utter fool, and will come a cropper for it—no beast, no duel, no barroom brawl could stymie me. At one time I could crack Brazil nuts in my bare hands as well as I could crack skulls in a free-for-all. Those days, however, are no more. They have fled.
This is one final, great adventure for an aging explorer, the last of his kind. A little over eleven years ahead lies a new century and a new age. I shall not see it. And so this expedition begins…differently, if not diffidently.
Missing, this time, is the sense of expansiveness I remember, of impending greatness; the discovery of far lands, inhospitable climes, the soul-ache of adventure. Instead, in its place is a void, a vacuum, if you will, that knows no embankment, no island in which the soul might take refuge. Instead, doubt encroaches, crowds in to fill the empty space, and therefore I have had nightmares these past few nights of such great intensity and depravity and disturbance that I have awakened myself by crying out in the night. Perhaps the men think me mad.
My thoughts inevitably turn back to the streets, the homes, the taverns of New London. A normal man should return whence he was born for his dissolution, but this if for other men. For my part, I wish to die in lands unseen. And even now, as the hour grows late and the coal oil lantern flickers, I feel the heart pumping in my chest more slowly, sedately, as if biding its time and measuring out its own beats against the inevitable.
I shall put out the light and attempt to get some sleep. I have starved myself from an evening meal in the hopes that I shall not dream. We shall see.