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Here’s the Author’s Note to Buffalo Bayou Blues. I reserve the right to change or add to it prior to publication, for which I’m staring May 1st dead in the face:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

When I was very young, my father took me on a tour of blues joints in the Houston area. You see, my father was one of the original Hellfighters. He worked directly under Red Adair, and Boots and Coots. Some of my earliest memories are of him going off for weeks at a time to fight oilwell fires in the Gulf. I would throw a wall-eyed fit whenever he’d go off like that. Later, while working for Brown & Root, he had his back broken on an oilwell platform during a hurricane, and thus had to “slow down” a bit. Therefore, he went from longshoreman to truck driver, and drove a rig for Skerlock Oil Company, headquartered out of Houston. And before all of this—I don’t remember any of it, because I was far too young—we lived down in La Marque, right on the Houston Ship Channel. So, I suppose it should be no surprise that my father would know Houston, and know it well. Maybe a little too well, if you take my meaning. If you’re an old-timer, and lived during those times—you would have to be in your eighties or nineties, but I’m sure there are a few of you still around—and were around the Houston area, chances are you met him, and if you met him, why, you knew him. His name was Nelson Wier, and he was a force of nature.

When I was no more than seven, my father took me to some of the back street dives, little more than juke joints, with clouds of blue cigarette smoke and loud “colored” music filling the air. My father loved those places. For my own part, I was instantly enthralled.

Since that time, I have loved The Blues.

From my point of view, it was a matter of course that I would be accepted by the many people I visited in those back street blues joints, even though, technically speaking, I’m whiter than an unbaked flour cracker. At that early age, I suppose I was already closing my eyes and moving my head to the backbeat, lost in the mood, ducking with the changes, and showing it all on my face—that other place, apart from my sleeve, where I wear my heart for all the world to see. Possibly, I looked ridiculous. But I felt the music. It was the most real thing I’d ever heard, and it literally moved me.

My father passed away on September 12, 2007. He never got to hold one of my published books in his hands. He never met nor got to hold his great-granddaughter. He never got to see me sign a book or speak before a crowd of fans. But all that’s okay. You see, he got to know me, and he instilled in me so many things that without him, there would be no Bill Travis. There would be no great love for Texas. Without him, life would have been dull, beyond belief. Instead, because of him and his influence, life has been indeed rich.

Far from a simple tribute to my late father, I wanted to convey, here in this little Author’s Note, a little something more than is evidenced by the foregoing story.

The blues isn’t simply music, or a genre of music. It is a way of life for many—and that path is not limited to people of color by any means.

Fast forward to about 2003, when I laid down the titles to no less than twenty-one Bill Travis adventures. When I got to Trinity Trio, the alliteration bug set in, and the next one had to be alliterative as well. My whole life was right there in front of me that day. I could pick and choose anything. But one thing came through at that exact moment. The blues. I had to write about the blues. Houston, of course, sprang into mind. Those old blues joints with their blue cigarette smoke and gently clicking billiard balls, and…that wonderful sound. You can’t think long about Houston without thinking about Buffalo Bayou, and thus the title sprang full-blown like Athena from my forehead. I wrote it down without batting an eye.

And guess what. Just the other day, I unearthed that original piece of paper with all those titles on it. The order may have changed, somewhat, and a few of those titles have changed a little, but they’re basically still there, and Buffalo Bayou Blues is written there, plain as day. Would anyone like to have that piece of paper? I’m thinking of either framing it or auctioning it off.

So what’s there to write about the blues? Well, for one thing, a good half a dozen mystery writers have made writing about the blues part and parcel of their career. Guys like Tim Bryant, whose Dutch Curridge character hails from Waco during the heyday of the blues era, specifically the later forties and early fifties. Then there’s Ricky Bush, whose books have ‘blues’ right in the titles, such as Howling Mountain Blues and The Devil’s Blues. And there are many more, but these two come to mind most readily. So, the blues have not only been done, they’ve been done well. And wouldn’t you just know it, the blues are rife with such sentiments as, ‘My woman done gone and done me wrong’ and ‘He kilt her right then and there.’ That is to say that lust and betrayal, heartbreak, suicide, murder and a host of the world’s other evils are inherent within the blues. The blues sing out with them. They tell the story of—well, Houston, and Texas, and everyone who has ever drawn a breath in either or both of the two. But mostly, the blues just sing.

I find it the easiest thing in the world to write about this topic. It’s sort of like breathing. It just flows on out there, and I don’t even have to think about it.

So, I hope you enjoyed this little excursion to a side of life that is seldom written about, seldom visited, and even rarer, brought up to the surface and exposed. Because, as Bill would likely tell you, there’s nothing done in the dark that won’t sooner or later be exposed to the light of day.

Okay, that’s about it.

For the die-hard among you—the faithful ones; those who keep coming back for more, and more, and still even more—this book was for you. It’s my privilege to know you and to write for you. Thank you for giving me every chance along the way to make good my word. You’ve been good to me, and you have my undying devotion.

Therefore, all my love to you and yours.

And as always, all the best!

George Wier
Austin, Texas

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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.

I don’t know what this is, nor where it’s going, but…hmmm…here it is:

Of all the tales of great adventure that come down to us from the old days and the older ways, nary a one is any more moving, any more adventurous, nor more affecting than that of Craypipe and Stovelilly. As you all know, Craypipe lived in the Wide Valley and Stovelilly kept her abode up in the Laurel Range of the Saw Teeth, and only upon great peril would Craypipe adventure forth from his shack among the stands of paper reeds; but the weather was fine and Craypipe was still young and less set in his ways, and he wondered what sort of land lay beyond those far, high and jagged peaks, and as you well know, there is no stronger motivation than simple curiosity. So one clear and bright morning, after all the chores had been done, Craypipe cursed to himself, threw up his hands—those hard hands were already gnarled with great strength and abrasive and harsh toil, even then—and put a paper note on his door saying, Gone Explorin’, put a blanket and one of his old belts around the mule, put some crackers, cheese and jars of honey wine in his burlap sack, grabbed his stick and set to walking.

Now, as you also know, Stovelilly got her name on account of her odd birth—her mother, Pratelin, was cooking that day for the Savior Man’s Feast and all the extended family in the hills, and the babe chose that precise moment when two or three things were ready to come off the stove or out of the oven all at once to come into this screaming world. Pratelin felt Stovelilly start to drop and reached down in a flash and caught her by the foot, lifted her up and set her in the cooking pot on the back of the stove—there was no fire under that burner, don’t you know, because it was nothing there but water for cooling things down with—and the new babe settled into the cool water, looked up at her mother and smiled. In the next instant, Old Ames came into the kitchen, took one look and stated, “Now Ma, what you cooking over there on that corner? Because I don’t think the folks will want any of that!”

“Oh shoo!” Pratelin said, damping down the fire under the taters. “That’s nothin’ but my little stove lilly.” And as you know, the name stuck.

But that was a long time ago, close on to thirty years, and Stovelilly lived in the cabin perched on the saddle of land between the two valleys all alone. Old Ames had died of white rot and Pratelin got herself struck by lightning—and that is a whole other story, let me tell you—and it’s a hard world when you’re living on your lonesome. The family didn’t bother to come and state when they were moving off to the valley. They had forgotten about Stovelilly, as people sometimes do when they are deeply involved in their own affairs.

Now there was still magic in the Earth in those days. Some believe that it originally came from the great volcanic vents in the ocean, mixed with the water, was skimmed from the waves by the great winds that blow unceasing, and was dropped upon the mountains in great rain deluges, and ran down across the land and found its way into the very crops and the animals that we eat. It didn’t, then, take a lot of magic to manifest itself in ordinary ways such that no one thought of it as being quite…magical. They will see a tree growing from a little nut and think nothing of it, or a water spring up from a rock and pass it off as simply the way of the world. But it takes magic to move things, to cause them be when they weren’t before, and to generally bring forth life and living.

However the magic came to be there, it so happened that Stovelilly was particularly sensitive to the ways of magic. She saw it everywhere around her, and was quite versed in pushing it along, of spreading it around such that little things throve and grew in profusion near her. Consequently, the saddle of land between Laurel Mountain and Forrestal Peak became ringed with a great forest of birch and pine, black walnut and maple, and fruit trees were everywhere such that there was no need to plant any crops nor slaughter any animals—for it wasn’t in Stovelilly’s nature to kill anything that could gaze upon a sunset or grow tired or thirsty. Thus, she walked alone in the forest, singing songs to herself to bide her time, and wondered as she walked if she would ever hear the voice of another human being ever again.

She had no way of knowing that a human being would be coming to visit her, and very soon. The magic didn’t speak of it, and her Dream Spirit kept the secret of his coming, for if she had any inkling of what would thereafter occur, she might have blanched at the aspect of it, and hidden herself, and not answered when the call came, borne of the wind that blows about the misty peaks in the morning.

It was seven days for Craypipe from the morning he left the shack until he came to the foothills beneath Laurel Mountain. He spent much of his time talking to his mule. The mule listened, but to his credit didn’t talk back. Nor had Craypipe ever named the beast, other than to call him, properly, Mule.

When Craypipe laid his head down that last evening before attempting the peak, he looked up at the stars and saw that they had not changed one iota from where they were back home, and he wondered at this. He had always heard that the stars were different in the southern climes. This, from the tales of old explorers, handed down through the years. But those old explorers had great boats, and all he had was an old mule who couldn’t talk or even curse back at him. Maybe it was all foolishness. How could the stars change?

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Here’s the Author’s Note to Trinity Trio, comin’ atcha soon!

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Catholics say that confession is good for the soul. This must have some truth to it, or else I wouldn’t be so inclined to unburden myself, or at least not so easily. And it didn’t take any prompting either. Here’s the confession: I have to feel a certain way to slip into Bill Travis’s world.

There. I said it.

There can’t be any music playing, nor anything seriously going on. I have to be fairly well-rested and in equable health. And if these conditions are just right, and if my little mind’s eye GoPro cam into Bill’s world is turned on and tuned in, why then I can follow what’s going on and report it. Otherwise, uh uh. Which is the real reason why I have to have several projects going at once and also the real reason why these books are trickling out there like black strap molasses a week after New Years.

Mind you, now, once I’m “over there” in Bill’s world, and things are hopping and popping, why, I can just let it roll and it sluices out of the old barrel in one hell of a hurry, but that’s not typical until somewhere in the neighborhood of one-third of the way to the halfway-finished area of the book, not at the beginning. If I’m anywhere in those first knuckle-dragging neanderthal thirty to fifty pages, well, sometimes it’s slow going. I don’t know why that is, it simply works out that way.

So, like I say, multiple projects are called for.

While writing this one, my main “other” project has been what I call a “serious” work entitled Neptune’s Forge, an Antarctic mystery. And man, is that mystery dark. Also, it’s written in a completely different vernacular than anything else I’ve ever written. All the action takes place near the end of the 19th Century, and it started writing itself in the prose form of that era—sort of a melding of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and Jack London. I’m not sure what or who I may have been channeling during that book—the ghost of Henry James, possibly?—but, oh man, if you read it, you’ll see what I mean. Between that book and this, it’s not only different continents and disparate times, it’s different worlds.

Here’s another confession, of sorts: I have interesting dreams.

This book is the only book I’ve ever written which appeared entirely in the course of a single night; a lone episodic saga. I was able to remember that dream—no, not in its entirety, but in its depth, its intensity, and in its feel. I’ll tell you, the dream was nowhere near as funny as certain passages in this book.

Humor, to my mind, is the knee-jerk reaction to “things that ain’t right.” It’s that plus the fact that you got the joke. You saw and understood it wasn’t right, and can therefore laugh at it. I heard a speaker once say that, “If you’re angry, then you haven’t gotten the joke yet.” I kind of appreciated that when I heard it. In fact, I laughed out loud.

Most of the humor in the Bill Travis books is unintentional. I’ll be in here (in my office, on my computer) writing, and Sallie will be in the bedroom across the way, reading what I wrote just a few minutes before (I’ll sometimes dash off a page or two and get them to her so as not to interrupt her reading of them by allowing her to reach the abrupt end) and suddenly she’ll laugh out loud. I’ll get up, go in there, give her a funny look until she notices I’m standing there, and then I’ll ask her, “What’s so funny?”

She’ll say, “Oh, it’s this part here,” and then she’ll read it aloud to me, and I’ll be shocked to find out it was actually kind of humorous. I mean, I’m sort of stunned by that. I hadn’t set out to do it, this I promise you, it’s just that it sometimes works out that way.

And another thing I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t happen like that if I’m feeling the least bit off. If I’m having to force it, then it’s usually simply not right. I will, in fact, find myself backing up (a painful word here, but since we’re being all sober and truthful, the actual word is “deleting”) to where it first started going south and re-writing it, or even stopping and waiting until it feels right to proceed. Running that red light (by which I mean, writing when I shouldn’t be—when I have to expend effort to do so) can sometimes result in a pretty bad wreck.

All this by way of saying that if there’s not some real life humor on the printed page, then it’s just not a Bill Travis mystery the way it should be. Now, I know, sometimes things can get pretty dark. They can get downright real and dicey and the old pump is thudding in the chest and that old battery acid taste of adrenalin is coating the tongue, and man, even I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But even then, even there in the pitch blackness with the bad people running around in the dark trying to kill our friend Bill, there had better be something to laugh at, somewhere.

I suppose, in the final analysis, this is why Bill and I are still hanging together, and he allows me to ride along in the back seat with him and Hank up front. It’s because we both know these old back roads, we know this neck of the back woods like the backs of our hands. We’ve both been there, we’ve dodged fate and lived to fight another day, and we’re able to laugh about seeing the elephant. (By the way, that’s what the old campaigners used to call the action on the battlefield—“seeing the elephant.” I suppose that’s a nod to the Boer War, or something.) Because, let me tell you, we’ve seen the elephant—or at least the elephant as it exists in East and Central Texas—and it can still be a pretty big bastard.

That reminds me of the old redneck joke: The first guy says, “What are the three most dangerous words you can hear?” The second one replies, “I don’t know, what are they?” The first guys says, “Hey, watch this!” You know when you hear that, you’re in some deep kem-chee. Or, at least you are where I come from.

Well, the truth of the matter is that I’m a bit older now, and hopefully most of my kem-chee days are in the dark years of the ancient past. They are, that is, until Bill Travis dredges them up for me and shows them to me.

But hey, what are friends for?

All right, I guess that’s about it.

Y’all take care, until the next time. And in the meantime…

All the best to you and yours,

George Wier
Austin, Texas
November 12, 2016

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.

Gah!

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.

 

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Another little snippet from Neptune’s Forge:

The expedition party came off of the ice shelf and onto land with no fanfare. If anything, the way was more difficult, being mostly uphill, and the dogs slipped and the sleds had a tendency to slue and skid. Right away, Gleese could see the genius of Ned’s selections of the dogs, and particularly the leaders. At the front of Ned’s and Tomaroff’s own sled ran Anja and Freja, two of the largest dogs among the many, both females and of even temperament. Pulling his own sled, in the lead were Ole and Svend, two male black and white huskies. Behind them were Mads, Margreth, Lisbeth and Frans, all Danish names, selected by the only Dane in the party, Ned Kroones. In the final analysis, they were all Ned’s dogs, even though technically, Gleese was the owner. Beside Gleese rode the stoic American, Terry Rath. Behind them were Peter Bornik, another American from the deep south, and Parker Dunlevy, an Irishman, who spoke incessantly about nothing at all.

Gleese kept expecting trouble between Rath and Bornik, the two having come from opposing sides in the Civil War, but they seemed fine with one another’s presence.

Rath had been in the Drum & Bugle Corp attached to William Tecumseh Sherman’s XV Corp under U.S. Grant at Vicksburg. He had lived through the initial battle and was there for the long siege, though he had only been a lad of eight at the time. He loved and respected Grant very nearly as much as he loathed Sherman, whom he considered to be the only man he had ever met who was born without a heart.

Bornik, for his part, had been one of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalrymen after Forrest was stripped of his hardened veterans by General Braxton Bragg in 1862. Forrest had been forced to sign up two thousand new recruits, and had hand-picked the rail-thin will-o-the-wisp from the southern Louisiana canebrakes. Not that he could afford to be choosy about it. Bornik served alongside the brash and fiery-tempered Southern Cavalry Major from then up to that fateful day in 1865 when the then Major General Forrest bade farewell to his troops after the CSA’s surrender by General Lee in the drawing room of Wilmer McClean at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. During those three years he had been wounded twice and had three mounts shot out from under him. There had been no replacement horses, however, in the final days of the war, and so he was forced to make his way back to Houma, Louisiana, with his bare feet, his carbine and his cavalry saber, and the clothes on his back. Peter Bornik looked almost ancient, even though he was no more than forty. The years had been unkind to him. His skin was as red as an Indian’s, and it seemed that every inch of him bore one kind of scar or another. It was a wonder he was sound in his mind and members. There were few who had seen more action who were not missing a digit, or a whole hand, leg or arm. After the war, Bornik had spent most of the intervening years as a shrimp fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, one fine summer day, he decided he’d had enough of the blazing tropical sun and came north. Gleese had found the man on the New London docks, looking for work, took one look at his ropy frame and hired him on the spot.

It was Rath, though, who spoke first concerning the disposition of Mateo. “You left it to those Island men to mete out justice?”

Gleese turned to look back toward the last sled to see old Mateo straining to catch up with it. The Argentinians had put him afoot. They would not trust him in their midst.

“He’ll not last long, I suspect,” Gleese stated. It was a true answer to the question, but then again, he didn’t care to answer the query. “And they’re not Island men. They’re Portuguese, from Argentina.”

“What were they doing on the island, then?” Rath asked.

“Looking for work. Whaling and sealing, I’d say, mostly.”

Rath shook his head slowly, and lapsed into silence. It didn’t last long, because after a minute, he said, “You had to pay them handsomely, didn’t you?”

“Mr. Rath, your wages are between you and me. The matter of their wages is between them and me.”

“I’m only trying to figure why they would come, is all.”

“Some men will walk through the gates of hell for money.”

Terry Rath then remembered his fellow Union soldiers who had accepted payment for another man’s conscription, and shivered.

“You’re from Maine, aren’t you?” Gleese asked him.

“I am,” Rath replied.

“It makes sense.”

“What makes sense?”

“I have never met anyone from Maine that wasn’t attempting to puzzle something out.”

“I’m not sure how to take that,” Rath said.

Gleese nodded, and let it go.

By the time they topped a rise and saw the distant Trans-Antarctic Range, Mateo was nowhere to be seen anywhere behind them.

Sometimes the most fun writing these things is the dialogue. Here’s a little snippet from the forthcoming The Lone Star Express:

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Apparently anything can go wrong.

The train was slowing. Not majorly slowing, but the vibration and the rocking seemed less, and the lights passing in the night seemed to go by more slowly. I had swept most of the broken glass—all that wasn’t beneath Frank—into the corner where I had gotten the blankets, and Frank was trying to get to his feet.

“You want to help me up?” he asked. He had his left arm braced on a bar, trying to lever himself to his feet.

“I want you to lay there,” I said.

He faltered for a moment and lay back down. “I’m gonna try again in a minute. By the way, you make a terrible nurse.”

“I do.”

“Bill? Over!” The voice over the radio JoJo’s.

I picked up the radio and keyed the mic. “Yeah? Over.”

“Get up here. I need an extra hand. Only came with two of them. Charlie’s coming back there to spell you because he can’t…”

I waited. “Can’t what? Over.”

“Never mind that. Can you come on over?” Then, uncertainly, “Over.”

“Come over where? Over.”

“Come forward until you find me. Over.”

“Can we stop saying ‘over’? It’s getting old. Over.”

“Sure. Over.”

“Okay. I’m coming…uh, over.”

There was a beat of a pause, then, “So when are you going to stop saying ‘over?’ Over.”

“Right now,” I said, and released the mic. I waited, then keyed the mic again. “I’m also leaving off the ‘out’.”

“Uh huh.”

With that done, I looked back down at Frank. “You gonna be okay there for a few minutes? Charlie’s coming back here.”

“I heard.”

I turned to go, but then heard him whisper, “Amateurs.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just go.”

I opened the door onto the narrow brim beneath my feet, and for a moment began to doubt where I was going anywhere. The problem was the blackness of the night outside the caboose. The dim lighting from inside cast my shadow onto the rear of the refrigeration car in front of me. When I stepped a little to the side, I could see the brim of the car three feet in front of me and the faintly illuminated rungs of the later, but the problem was that when I stepped back in order to prepare myself to lunge forward, the ladder vanished into the darkness.

JoJo saved me with a squawk over the radio: “Bill, there’s a light switch by the door.”

I flipped it, but at that instant it decided to burn out. The flare was brief, and I knew if from all the times I had turned on my closet light or my back porch light and the tiny filaments in the bulb of glass decided to take the opportunity to check out.

I keyed the mic. “Just burned out. Here goes nothing.”

“It’s a piece of cake,” she said, and silence ensued.

“I now officially miss ‘over’,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Will you two can the chatter?” Corky’s voice came over the radio. “We’re losing pressure fast.”

“I know. I know,” JoJo said. “Give us a minute.”

“Or five,” I said.

“You’ve got about four, and then this thing is coming to a stop and we’ll have to bank the fire.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“Starve it of oxygen,” Leo’s voice stated.

“Just aim and jump,” JoJo said.

“Okay,” I said. “Everybody shut up. Here I come.”

I turned the radio off, put it in my pocket, stepped to the side to let the dim light through.

Behind me, Frank shouted, “Just jump!”

“All right, already. Everybody’s a critic.”

I studied the rung I was going to grasp, and where I would have to put my feet. I counted from ten to one, then decided to start all over.

It came unbidden into my mind at that moment. One time Jessica and I were playing one-on-one basketball in the driveway and she was standing her ground from well past the free-throw line, and I couldn’t get past her. I dribbled, held the ball, dribbled and stepped, held it again, and then a feeling came over me. It was a sense of rightness. Why was I trying to get closer to the basket when all I needed was that feeling? I had height on Jessica, and I knew there was really nothing she could do. I dribbled once more, made as if I were going to step again, but instead leapt straight up and threw. The ball sailed up in a beautiful slow motion arc, as if what I had done was the laziest thing in the world, then went through the net without touching the hoop. It was game point. Jessica’s shoulders slumped and she said, “How am I supposed to defend against that?” to which I replied, “You don’t. There’s no defense against that.” “What do you call that?” “It’s a thing wonderful and rare. It’s called a sense of rightness.” The next morning I was awakened by the sound of a basketball banging off of the backboard. I looked out the window, and there was Jessica, practicing from past the freethrow line. She would jump straight up and throw, miss, try again and miss. Finally, as I watched, she got it. Then she stood there and I watched as the implication sunk in. And that was my gift that day to her.

I stood there in the night and waited. When it came, I recognized it and didn’t hesitate. I jump forward and my overly large shadow in front of me shrank. The rung of the ladder came into my hands at the same moment that my feet came down exactly where they were supposed to land. I started up without a second thought. There’s something to be said for rightness.

It’s coming down the embankment at you with a full head of steam! Here’s a taste:

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Our reverie was interrupted by a blast from the horn.

“Do you think…?” I began.

“Probably just coming to a crossing and he’s giving it the horn. Have to do that by law.”

The horn blasted again, was cut short, and then once more.

“Crap!” Corky said, and was suddenly in motion. “Something’s wrong.”

I dropped Perry’s baseball on the nearest seat, tucked the note in my shirt pocket and followed.

We went hurriedly through the next car—an even more dilapidated passenger car—through a door and across to the engine. I followed Corky up a small flight of steps. At that moment the brakes began to engage.

Out the front window, about two hundred yards away, was a truck sitting across the track. The single headlamp from the train speared it and light reflected back at us off the driver’s window, the hubcaps and the front bumper.

“I’m not sure I can stop in time without…really stopping.” Charlie said, and there was fright in his voice.

However sharp Charlie’s eyes were—and they had to have been terribly sharp to pick up the truck from more than half a mile back—my vision has always been excellent, particularly my night vision.

Several other vehicles were stopped off to the side of the tracks, a little closer to us than the truck that was blocking our path. I noted two figures closing in toward the tracks ahead of us, and then a third running up. They had rifles or shotguns in their hands.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Don’t?” Charlie asked. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t stop. The truck won’t hurt this train, will it?”

“It might scratch the paint, but that’s about it.”

“Then don’t stop. We won’t even feel it, will we?” I asked.

“No, we won’t,” Charlie said. “Why not stop?”

“Because, it’s a trap. They put the truck there to scare us into stopping. And those guys are gonna start shooting the minute they realize we’re not. Stopping, that is. But if we stop, then they’ve got us for sure.”

“Damn.” Corky said. “Up, Charlie. Let me do this. Ya’ll get down.”

The side window was open, and the second Corky hit the driver’s seat, he stuck his head out the window and squinted.

“Yeah, they’re gonna shoot,” he said.

Then he poured on the juice. I had to reach a hand out to check myself from tumbling back into Charlie.

The first shot was a pang off of steel somewhere on the exterior. Charlie and I ducked and Corky hunkered down in the driver’s seat. The front glass picked up a spray of buckshot, but it merely chipped the glass. Then there were many such sounds, like someone setting off a string of firecrackers.

“We’re gonna hit it!” Corky shouted, the excitement in his voice both fearful and amused in the same instant. Then he stuck his arm out the window and shouted: “Go to hell you sonsabitches!”

His arm came back inside and there was the sound of something crumpling, not unlike someone clapping a paper bag full of air between their hands, followed by the spectacle of a large object coming up over the windows and onto the roof above us. The truck tumbled across the steel roof like a giant eating its way through a stack of steel fifty-five gallon drums. An instant later there was a loud, shrill scrape as what was left of it fell off to the side. Which side, I wasn’t sure. I realized then that Corky must have given them his middle finger in conjunction with his words.

I stood up, went back down the steps to the deck and went through the doors of the first passenger compartment. I was met by JoJo.

“What the hell was that all about?” she asked.

“You okay?”

“Yep.”

“Someone tried to stop us. The put a truck in our path, we ran over it, and they started shooting at us.”

JoJo laughed. “They tried to attack a train? With a pickup truck and some guns?”

“Yeah.”

“Idiots,” she said.

“Yeah. Only, I’m wondering who the hell those guys are, and what they want?”

“Hmph.”

We exchanged nods and passed each other.

A bit more on the Antarctic mystery:

No fires were to be lit upon the ice. This was well understood by Gleese, by Tomaroff, and Kroones, but a few of the Argentinians started a fire and this nearly unhinged Kroones, who cursed them and made a show of stamping it out. The language barrier was thus overcome by example.

From the story that Gleese had, Kroones was missing two of his toes to frostbite. He was on one of the early Arctic exploration teams with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who had found the northeast passage during the Vega expedition of 1878, and after a falling out with Palander of the Swedish Navy, had become an explorer in his own right, albeit a penniless one.

Gleese liked the Dane. He was a hard-bitten soul of few words, preferring the company of dogs to men, and could abide no ignorance or foolhardiness in any man other than himself. Gleese had found him alone —but for a small pack of dogs—in a room above a tavern in the extreme northeastern Greenland village of Qaanaaq, that launching point for many of the early Arctic expeditions, including the trips to Prince Patrick Island where the fabled graveyard of the whales was believed to lie. He had put the question to Kroones by way of a local Inuit interpreter: was Kroones searching for the valley of the whales, the place where the great behemoths went to die? Gleese could not get a verbal answer out of the man, so he’d removed his necklace and showed him a small golden locket. Upon opening it, the scent of ambergris filled the room and the dogs began to howl. Kroones’s eyes grew wide in wonder.

Gleese assuredly had been looking for the mother lode of ambergris, and hired Kroones on the spot.

They found no ambergris—the strange, cancerous growth found in the guts of sperm whales which was the base of all perfumes, more valuable than gold or diamonds. Instead they had found death and all but bankruptcy. But that was seven years before.

Antarctica, Gleese believed, was made for men like Kroones. If there was any man alive who could see to it that he made it to the pole and returned, it would be the strange Dane.

Just a little bit on this Antarctic story:

CHAPTER TWO: THE SHELF

The Antarctic
September 16, 1888

The Invincible lay at anchor before the blue and white cliffs. The first rope, attached to Gomez’s harpoon, was fired up and over the ice shelf by the twelve-pounder prow cannon—which equipment was the last vestige of her fighting past, but which the navy could not easily remove from the prow emplacement before her auction—and the breathless spectacle of watching Manuel Ortega shinny up the rope with three other rope bundles and an additional forty pounds of steel spikes bound about his form made for the single-most riveting moment for the passengers and crew during their brief voyage from The Falklands, apart from the bloody taking of the narwhal the previous day. If the harpoon, embedded somewhere above in the implacable ice, were to give way, then Ortega’s fifty-foot climb would be his last, this everyone knew.

When he disappeared over the cliff’s edge, a cheer went up.

“Hurrah! Ortega!”

“Mr. Gleese,” Captain Kuralt stated, “you and your men may now disembark, and with my compliments.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Gleese said, and shook the Captain’s hand. No wind blew here beneath the cliffs of ice, and as the cheering about them ceased a silence stole like death across the deck as the men returned to their work.

The cargo hold was thrown open and the supplies were hoisted forth.

Mr. Kroones—Gleese’s Danish dogman—led the pack up from the stern stairs and onto the deck. The pack was composed of a mix of grey Huskies, white Lapps, and black Alsatians—and it was a marvel that Kroones somehow kept them all from tearing one another to pieces. At night the man sang them to sleep, his melodious and nearly falsetto voice reverberating off the interior of the hold as if he were in some grand Opera house. Kroones waved to Gleese and Gleese nodded. Kroones and the dogs would be first up onto the ice after Ortega.

“You’ve marked the coordinates well, then, Captain?” Gleese asked.

“Yes. Hmph. We’ll see you here on December fifteenth, sixty-nine degrees, fifty-fourth minutes, forty-nine seconds south by sixty degrees, twenty-nine minutes, fifty-five seconds west. And Godspeed, Mr. Gleese.”

“Godspeed, Captain. I shall reach the pole and return.”

Kuralt nodded, but did not speak further. He had meant to say, “See that you do,” but he could not bring himself to tempt the Fates, or otherwise put voice what he felt in his chest—a disquieting foreboding, much like the coming onset of some malady that might prove a challenge to the doctor, if not to the clinging hand of life itself. Instead, he turned his eyes from the already tired explorer, placed his hand on the railing and gazed down upon the men at work.

*****

Twenty-five men and forty dogs watched as the Invincible belched steam. Her whistle blew a shrill goodbye as two sets of men who had been intimately intermingled for the past week waved to each other across the Antarctic air.

“Let’s move a bit towards land, shall we?” Gleese stated. “I wish to be away from these cliffs before we make camp for the night. Mr. Tomaroff, how far off is the land mass, would you say?”

“Fifty kilometres, no less,” Micail Tomaroff said. Tomaroff opened his pocket watch, then glanced up at the southern stars, as if confirming his calculations—a nod to the seemingly arcane science of celestial navigation. The sun was on the horizon, and would not quite disappear below it for several months to come, or at least not until the Antarctic fall, which would commence sometime in February, long after they were scheduled to depart this desolate and forbidding land.

“Very good. Mr. Kroones, please prepare the sleds for travel.”

“Sehr gut, Herr Gleese.”

Danish, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese were four languages that Gleese had not learned, or at least not well enough to carry on a conversation beyond an exchange of idiotic pleasantry. He could read Latin, some Greek, Gaelic, Chinese and Nipponese, and could speak some pidgin of the two Asian dialects—which was necessary in the far away Arctic—but English was his native language. While the language of Tennyson, if not of Chaucer and Mallory, was his favorite reading, he was forever mentally tethered to the American dialect of New England; that of Washington Irving and Thoreau, of Thomas Paine if not Thomas Jefferson, was how he best thought. That few of his own expeditionary party could converse with him intelligently could ultimately prove costly if luck refused to hold, as Kuralt had pointed out to him when the Argentinians had signed on en masse, lured as they were by the legendary weight of Gleese’s purse. He had largely and single-handedly depopulated the Falklands of male Argentinians, and all for filthy lucre. Some might die during the expedition, particularly if they did not heed the regulations—no wandering away from camp solo, even to relieve themselves, and not without rope.

The most dangerous foe, if it were not the ice and the wind itself, was the stealthiest, most hidden quarry imaginable; that of crevasse. He had personally witnessed a man swallowed whole by an opening in the ice that had not existed a moment before. Swallowed so utterly and completely that it was as if the man had never existed. And it did so even more abruptly than a cry could escape the lips.

No. He would not allow this to be. He resolved to spend a portion of time each evening learning Portuguese, Danish and Russian.