Posts Tagged ‘george wier’

As part of the overall book, I will be including several stories in Appendix form, from the history of the Isherwood. This one I previously posted, but in unfinished form. Here it is, mostly finished now. There will be at least five shorts like this, of varying length, dealing with some of the legends touched upon in this fantasy epic (because it has begun taking on epic proportions, as I knew it would). Therefore, here’s the full “Craypipe and Stovelilly”, along with an “Editor’s Note” at the end. I hope you like it.

CRAYPIPE AND STOVELILLY

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 of his, already gnarled with great strength and abrasive with 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 the 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, so no one thought of the lesser miracles 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 it was that 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?

Now the Great Old Bear also ranged the Saw Teeth, from Darkfell in the far south all the way to Northern Cross and the Castle ruins, and his wanderings took him past Laurel Peak, where the Mountain Magic was strongest. The Mountain Magic always made the Great Old Bear feel young, and when he slept in one of the dry caves beneath the saddle between the mountains, he awoke hungry, and hunger always made him angry, if not a little crazy.

It so happened that morning that the Great Old Bear and Craypipe awoke in the same instant, and while Bear was moving downhill to one of the streams with its treasure trove of brightfish, Craypipe moved steadily upward, pulling on Mule’s halter rope and cursing the beast at every misstep.

When Craypipe saw Bear coming, he said the bad word—the word no one can write under pain of death or imprisonment—and Bear, upon seeing Craypipe and hearing the word, let forth a fierce roar. Mule jerked the halter rope from Craypipe’s hand, turned his tail and ran, leaving Craypipe all alone on the mountainside.

Craypipe had naught but his walking stick, a shaman’s crook given him by his great grandpappy, and although it was chock full of both wonderment and power, the words and gestures that could summon the dark magic failed his mind upon the charge of Bear and imminent death.

Thus it was that Craypipe took the full force of Bear’s charge and was bowled over. Both man and beast tumbled down the mountain in a death embrace, and both would have perished were it not for the fact that one word escaped Craypipe’s lips during the mad descent, and this word was the only Power Word that Craypipe new. The Power Word set the shaman’s crook ablaze with the Hidden Fire, and the Fire enveloped Craypipe and turned the Bear’s great claws away from his all too tender skin. Additionally, it slowed their descent until they were aloft, suspended in the air with no ground beneath them. There, in the air, Bear became enraged and Craypipe became even more terrified. He was already bleeding from several deep slashes, and while the claws of Bear could not penetrate the fire, the concussive blows of Bear’s powerful forearms pummeled at Craypipe and very nearly knocked him senseless.

Stovelilly heard this great scuffle, distinctly heard Craypipe’s screams and Bear’s tremendous roar, and like a moth drawn to the flame, flew down the mountain toward them, gathering all the force of magic within her perimeter and channeling it into her arms and face.

Thus it was that in the last instant when she could have ceased her flight, instead she leapt outward from the face of the mountain and struck Bear with the concentrated force of her magic. The Hidden Fire of the shaman’s staff in Craypipe’s death clutch was snuffed out in a twinkling, and the three of them fell. Bear, however, was struck senseless by the Stovelilly’s magic, and thus it was that Bear alone—or rather, Bear’s ponderously huge form—that saved them, for the fell atop him and lay dazed upon his inert form on a high cleft in the mountainside.

Stovelilly awoke first, and found the bleeding man, still clutching his staff. Far away she heard the neigh of a horse or mule, and wondered if it was the man’s beast. There was nothing for that, however. She took hold of the man and pulled her to him. Her hands quickly became wet with his blood. She listened for his breath and felt for his heartbeat, but both were faint and fading, all too quickly. Instead of being repelled by the prospect of the strange yet handsome man dying in her arms, even as they lay atop the sleeping form of the Great Old Bear, Stovelilly began the song of Binding, first in a hushed whisper so as not to awaken the Bear, then, as the magic poured upon her from the earth around her and then through her, she was emboldened to sing all the more loudly and clearly. And those of you who know the Song of Binding, may sing it with me now, for here are the words as they were in the time that Stovelilly sang them:

Were it for me
I would not sing
Were it for death
I would not cry.
This is for life and
For healing
I sing.
Hear me Savior Man
And bring to me
The power to save
This lost soul
From the shadow
That comes.
To fight the shadow
Bring light.
To fight the death
Bring life.
To fight the wound
Bring healing.
And in healing
Bring Victory.
Thus I bind.
Thus.
Thus.
Thus I bind.
Thus.
Thus.

And as she sang “Thus” again and again, the magic multiplied and shimmered in her hair. Her old dress with the little daisies became a garment of light so bright that no thing could gaze upon it lest it be blinded.

And thus Craypipe’s gaping wounds were both cleansed by the Light Fire and closed, and the torn skin was sealed, even as the rent blood vessels were re-connected and blood once more flowed where before it flowed only outward through the breaks in the dam that was his body. For that is all a body is, a reservoir.

When Craypipe’s body was healed, he awakened to her beautiful visage and was struck dumb with admiration and wonder. He took her by the hand and bade her to rise. From the stomach of the Great Bear, the pair ascended the mountain, where they found Craypipe’s mule, standing and regarding them in a copse of mountain wildflowers. Stovelilly laid her hand on the beast’s head, and he too was struck as by a woven spell of love. Therefore both man and beast followed her to her little house on the saddle between the peaks, and there bided for a time in bliss and wonder.

There came a day when Craypipe’s tobacco had run low, and there was nothing for it but to venture forth in search of other people. Stovelilly would not travel so far, either on foot, or upon the back of an animal, and therefore she pled with him to stay.

Craypipe would not do so, even though he loved her more than he did his own hide.

She asked of him, “If thy mind is settled, would not thou instead then travel no more than a short time with me along the Ways, and there see other worlds?”

“I know not the Ways,” Craypipe stated, “though I have heard tell of them.”

“It is a simple matter, for a Byway Gate lieth not far from where thy sleepth next to me. For I know the ways, and would travel there before I would walk down the mountain, for the day that I go down will be the last day I shall ever see my home, and I shall never return.”

“Why speakest thou so seriously?” he asked her.

“When thou depart this place, I shall indeed go with thee, even though my heart be shorn in twain, for I love thee, silly Craypipe, and would live beside thee and also die, as thy wife.”

“I never had a wife,” he said, and spun his pipe on his fingertip. “But if thou would be my wife and have no other husband, I will forego a traipse down the slope, and instead travel with thee the Byway Gate, and gaze upon these other worlds of which thee speak.”

“Oh Cray,” she cried, and her tears came, and she kissed him.

They left the mule in the pasturage upon the mountainside, where all was green and lush, and would remain so throughout the seasons, and Craypipe followed Stovelilly to a secret cave.

Therein she lead him to a narrow passage hewn within the rock.

“Walk with me,” she said, “but lay aside the torch, hold my hand, and walk backwards, with nothing but hope and trust in my direction.”

“I would follow thee even into the Great Pit,” said he, and setting aside his torch, took her hand.

The walk through the Ways was a brief one, and they emerged amid a great battle, ongoing, in which men in shining armor hacked with swords at their enemies and fell from their mouths when the rains of arrows penetrated their armor, and there died.

An arrow passed through Stovelilly, and at first Craypipe cried out, but seeing she was unharmed, he gazed at her ethereal form in wonder and said, “Is this place not real? Are we not real to this place?”

“It is as real as the Great Bear, and fifty times more dangerous, but we are not yet wholly real. We must walk onward a ways, but continuing backwards, until we shall be restored to full flesh, for as now, we are mere shades.”

“Wonder of wonders,” Craypipe said.

One of the fallen knights gazed at them, even as he was slowly overcome by his wounds.

“A vision,” said he. “Art thou angels? I must be already dead.”

“She may be,” Craypipe said, “but I assure you, I am not.”

Then dismissing Craypipe, the knight turned his head to Stovelilly and cried. “Wilt thou not bless me? For my wound is mortal.”

Stovelilly knelt and placed her hands upon the brave knight’s brow and said, “I bless then in the name of the Savior Man, and of all that is good and blissful.”

The brave knight smiled. His eyes glazed over and he perished.

“Come,” Stovelilly said to her husband. “Let us walk further and away from this place, for I should not like to fully emerge amid so much death and carnage.”

“Aye, Lassie,” he said. “That we shall.”
[Editor’s Note: The story of Craypipe and Stovelilly ends here, as it did in the Book of Laird Merrick. It was likely collected by Merrick because of its references to the Ways, which were apparently an obsession for him. Although by decree, all references to Merrick have been stricken from the royal records, the tales of Laird Merrick have been passed as folk tales of the people of the Harrows from mouth to ear. Those tales follow.]

 

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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.

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.

 

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I know I’m a bit of a tease, but here is Chapter One of The Lone Star Express!

CHAPTER ONE

Invest heavily in ammunition. That’s the flip-side of the warning on seeking revenge—the one about first digging two graves. When vengeance seeks you out—as opposed to the other way around—it’s wise to be locked, loaded and ready. But you have to know it’s coming, first.

With me it’s always something like that.

I’m Bill Travis, and apparently I’ve never met a problem I didn’t welcome to come on in and pull up a chair.

It began, innocently enough, with the performance of a good deed. Which brings up the second warning that I somehow bypassed during all the sturm and drang of Governor Richard Sawyer’s final disposition: no good deed goes unpunished.

Here’s how it started.

*****

Former Texas Governor Richard Donegal Sawyer was born in the Louisiana canebrakes back in the dark days of World War II. As an infant he was brought to the Texas Gulf Coast and raised by his father, his mother having died in childbirth. At age sixteen, or thereabouts, Sawyer and his father had a falling out over the fact of the elder Sawyer’s being a bloodthirsty killer and crime boss. The junior Sawyer’s feet carried him all the way to West Texas where he settled down at a life of hard labor as an oil field worker in the Permian Basin—Midland and Odessa. With his passing, at the ripe age of eighty, someone had to go looking for his will. I got that duty, at the request of his granddaughter, Elizabeth.

I was no more than a few days back from Mexico when she asked me. The next morning, I got up before the crack of dawn and drove Julie and a whole truckload of kids down to Houston, and stopped by the Sawyer home.

Julie rocked the baby in the rocking chair in Sawyer’s living room while Elizabeth and I commiserated at the dining room table, thirty feet away. There were a couple of banker’s boxes open on the glass tabletop and the contents—old papers, invoices, random things like insurance policies and old hospital bills—were poured into each box so tightly that both were apt to burst at the seams. I understood the filing system. It’s easier to throw it all in a box, especially after you realize that every single scrap of paper would need its own separate file, and office supply stores don’t typically carry fifty-thousand file folders. At least not in the economy pack.

“Do you mind?” I asked Elizabeth, and gestured with my hand over one of the boxes.

“Please do. I’m afraid to touch any of it. I’ll get immersed in it and won’t see daylight for days on end.”

I nodded and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers, about a reams-worth, and dropped it on the table-top. What spilled out was expired insurance policies, licensing agreements for trucks and tractors, old pay stubs going back to the 1950s and 60s, random photographs; a lifetime’s worth of the detritus of those things that, at the time, could not be simply thrown away. The things a person keeps!

“Yuck,” Elizabeth said.

“Everything here tells a tale,” I said. “If you were to piece it all together, maybe put it in chronological order, you’ve got a piece of the story of your grandfather’s life, which is another part of the story of Texas.”

“I know it’s not all trash, but some of it’s trash,” she said.

“No doubt. Okay, we’re looking for his will. And you say that it’s not tucked away in a safe-deposit box somewhere?”

“Uh uh. I cleaned those out. It wasn’t in there.”

“Then it’s here. Let’s keep looking.”

It took thirty minutes, but I found it. Oddly enough, it was fairly recent and tucked into the front end of the second box, right where you’d put something recent, if you were archiving it. The will was signed, witnessed and notarized roughly six months previous.

I began reading aloud.

“He leaves the whole kit ‘n kaboodle to you, Elizabeth,” I said.

“Let me see.”

I handed it to her and she read it to herself, her lips moving soundlessly and her eyes going back and forth.

“It’s a lot of responsibility for a woman your age. But I’m sure you can handle it.”

“There’s a list of stocks, bonds, all kinds of…”

“Financial instruments,” I finished for her.

“Yeah. Those.”

“It’ll take some time to find out what they’re all worth. No doubt the bulk of them were in the safe deposit boxes.”

“There was a bunch of that stuff in there, but I didn’t understand any of them.”

“I’ll take a look at them for you. For now, I suggest you get your own safe-deposit box and put them away. But after you make photo copies of everything. I’ll need a copy of it all, and I can get Penny at my office working on it in her spare time.”

“Ha. If she works for you, Mr. Travis, I doubt she has very much spare time.”

I chuckled. “You’re probably right. Never thought about it. She doesn’t know it yet, but I’m naming her a full partner on Monday.”

“Then she’s been paying her dues all these years.”

“She has.”

Elizabeth turned a page, moved her eyes down and then struck upon something. She frowned.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A heading: Disposition of Remains.”

“Oh. They’ll need to know about this down at the funeral home. And pretty quick. Before I left Austin, I had a call from the Texas State Cemetery. They’re expecting to bury your grandfather there. It’s where we bury our Governors.”

“Not according to this, it’s not.”

“Crap. I’d better see it. Those guys may have already set aside a plot for him.”

She handed me the will.

“You’ll need to get this filed with the Probate Court as soon as—” I began, but by then my eyes were already taking in the bad news. My own name jumped out at me from the page:

DISPOSITION OF REMAINS

Since I buried my heart in Midland a long time ago, it is my wish that my body be buried there beneath the ancient mesquite. I purchased the plot in 1969, knowing full well that men can easily lose their lives in the oil patch. Further, I request that my friend Walter M. Cannon accompany my body by train to its final destination. If Walt Cannon predeceases me or, due to issues of health or availability, is unable to fulfill this wish, then I request that my dear friend, Bill Travis, should do so.

For many years I have been a supporting member of the Big Thicket Steam Association, headquartered in Palestine, Texas. I request that those old boys—those who have survived me—get the old ‘19 running for one last trip out west, and that I travel each mile between Austin or Houston and Midland by whatever rail line the boys may take. I pray that I may find my rest there in Midland.

“What’s the ‘Old ‘19′?” I thought, then realized I had said it aloud.

“I have no idea.”

“It’s okay. Tell you what, why don’t you ride with us down to the copy store where we’ll make three or four copies of this, then we’ll scoot by the funeral home, drop this off with the director and let him know how to contact me.

I detected a presence at my elbow. It was Julie, gently bouncing the baby.

“What’s going on?”

“It looks like I’m going to West Texas.”

“When? And how?”

“Soon,” I said, thinking all the while about bodies, temperature and steel boxes. “And by train.”

*****

I took the family back home to Austin after making certain that everybody on the Houston end of things was on the same page. The plan was for Governor Sawyer’s body to be transported to the State Capitol, there to lie in state for two days time where all Texans who wanted to might stop by and pay their respects. It’s a time-honored practice, and Sawyer’s will didn’t preclude it. I’m not certain it would have done any good if it had. In the final analysis, while we may suggest what should happen after we’re gone, it’s the family’s wishes that are usually honored, and at any time those wishes may be trumped by the state, particularly in the instance of a dignitary. In the end, we all render unto Caesar, right down to the toenails.

In the meantime, I had a ton of phone calls to make and correspondence to get out in preparation for what was to come—an event to which I was decidedly not looking forward.

I spent an entire day at the office, mostly listening to and receiving updates on Penny’s progress on the stocks and bonds.

At the appointed time—pre-arranged between my partner and me—Nat Bierstone came by the office. He was dressed in a blue jeans, red checkered shirt and suspenders. Penny gasped. She had never seen him in anything other than a business suit.

It had been three weeks since he had come by the office. Both he and I knew that he had already retired, but he was in to make it official.

“Mr. Bierstone, you look like…a real person!” Penny said. I listened from my office, having already glanced out my window when Nat pulled into circular driveway that runs behind the office and out the other side.

“Why thank you, Miss Taylor. Is Bill in? Thought I saw his car.”

“Come on back, Nat!” I called. “Penny, you come in here too.”

I waited. When they were both inside, Nat reached behind him and closed the door.

“Something is happening, isn’t it?” Penny asked. “Are you two about to fire me?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Nat said. She started to protest, but he raised a finger, then gestured to one of the two chairs in front of my desk. “Hush now and have a seat.”

“Yes sir,” she said.

Nat took the other chair, and by way of stretching the moment out interminably, fumbled in his blue jeans pocket for the front door key and the key to his office. He removed them from the key chain and said to Penny, “Hold out your hand.”

She did, and Nat placed the keys in it. “Don’t lose them until after you’ve made another copy. This is the only one to my office in existence.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Nat’s retiring,” I said, “effective today.” I picked up an envelope from the counter and handed it to him. He took it.

“What is that?” Penny asked.

“A check,” I said. “I just bought Nat’s half of the business.”

He looked at the envelope, poked a finger at the inside of the crease, as if he was about to open it with his finger, then instead handed it to Penny.

“You want me to open it for you?” she asked.

“I want you to keep it,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with it, since it’s yours.”

“I—I’m not sure what you mean.” Her voice trembled and had become very small.

“You know what it means,” I said.

“Let me do this, Bill,” he said. “I’ve earned the right.”

“This is where you fire me,” Penny said. She opened the envelope delicately and removed the check. The amount was eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Her eyes stared at the thin slip of paper.

“She’s gonna burn a hole in it,” I said.

“You can keep that and cash it,” Nat said, “or you can give it right back to Bill, keep that key of mine, and start worrying about who is going to replace you and become your secretary. Or rather, yours and his.” He hooked a thumb at me.

She looked across the desk at me. “How much is half the practice worth?” she asked me.

I laughed. “Spoken like a true accountant and financial consultant.” I leaned back in my chair and interlaced my fingers over my head. “Worth a hell of a lot more than twice eight-fifty.”

Penny handed the envelope back to me. “Then I suppose we’ll need to start interviewing applicants.”

I stood up and extended my hand.

“Welcome to Travis & Taylor,” I said. She stood slowly, then took my hand and shook it. And then she started crying.

Nat stood. She let go of my hand and threw her arms around his neck, her face disappearing from view. Nat grinned at me and patted her back.

When she released him, she stood and wiped the tears from her eyes, then slowly handed the check back to me.

“Go ahead and re-deposit it in the practice account. And make an appointment at the bank. You’re to be signatory to that account from now on, so consider that you just paid yourself back.”

“Who’s idea was this?”

“All three of us,” I said. “Nat, me, and Julie as well.”

“I wish she were here.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “She made me promise to give her the play-by-play tonight.”

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.

I laughed. “There’s a first time for everything.”

“I’ll try to be a good partner for you, Mr. Travis.”

“Penny, now that it’s official, you are required to call me Bill. I won’t have a partner who can’t say my name.”

“Mr. Bierstone calls you William.”

“He can get away with it because he’s older than I am, he’s the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, and worse than that, he’s Julie’s uncle.” I grinned at her. “You can’t.”

“Okay, Bill,” she said. And you could have knocked me over with a feather.

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Coming down the pike in a few days. Here’s the rough draft of the Foreword:

FOREWORD

Omnibus 3 has been a long time coming. What can I say? It takes a while to write twelve books, but that’s no excuse. I never intended this to be a long, drawn-out affair, but I do find that it has worked better this way for me (better, that is, than the way I originally intended, when I thought I could just fire out about twenty-one books in no more than a couple of years). That is to say that the time it has taken has had its effect on me, and that is reflected in Bill. You know, things have a way of happening in life. One thing leads to another, and even the catastrophes turn out, in the long run, to be okay.

I watched a little documentary once where the survivors of Hurricane Hugo were interviewed. This fellow had lost his home and all of his possessions, and he had to move to a new town and start all over. I was watching that, and before it got into the meat of his interview—this was all backstory, you see—I was thinking, “You know, I’d like to think that I’m a pretty flexible, bend-with-the-wind kind of fellow, but I just don’t know how I would handle that kind of setback.” Well, since that documentary, many years ago, I’ve had a few setbacks of my own—the kind where I lost everything and moved to a completely different city—so, yes, I can now say that I do have the ability to cope with most anything that life can throw at me. But then, the interviewer in that documentary asked the survivor this telling question: “If you could, would you go back and change things, such that this one devastating event didn’t happen to you?” And the guy told the interviewer something to the effect that, indeed no, he wouldn’t change it if he could. After moving to a new city and starting all over, he met the most wonderful woman, and the two of them had several beautiful children, and he was leading the life he’d always wanted to lead. All this by way of saying that, no, I wouldn’t go back and change how this series ultimately has been written. Each book is its own little universe. Bill and Julie got together at the end of The Last Call, and they were having kids together by the middle of Longnecks & Twisted Hearts. And later those kids (and even Julie) had integral roles in some of the later adventures.

But then again, I suppose that’s what life is. It’s one big adventure. The wind blows. Sometimes it blows everything away, and you have to pick up the pieces after the fact. But, you’re still alive. You can live to fight another day. And that sunrise of the new day is the most glorious sight you could ever lay your eyes on.

This series, I must admit, has been reflective of my own life. I’m fifty-one years old, as of this writing. I don’t feel fifty-one (an age I once thought of as the time when a fellow has to get ready to die). At times I feel as though I’m in my thirties, and at other times I’m no more than a teenager. And every once in a blue moon, why, I’m about eight years old again, the world a reflective gleam in my eye, the future stretched out before me, staggering and beautiful, and anything is possible. You see, it is, still. Anything is possible, and I don’t close myself off from the potential for it, whatever that might be.

This day and age, a fellow has to really bend with the wind. He has to keep abreast of new technologies, the new trends, the new ways of looking at things. And he can’t, for even a minute, spend valuable, never-to-be-seen-again seconds in regret.

So, it is without one scintilla of regret that I offer The Bill Travis Omnibus 3. This third, four-volume installment represents the culmination of the last fourteen years of my writing. Yes, the stories are shorter, but that’s because I’ve learned what didn’t need to be included. Yes, Bill still has the occasional disturbing and nevertheless poignant dream. Yes, he occasionally brings either the kids along for the ride—and one time, here, Julie—or friends such as Hank Sterling or Walt Cannon. And indeed, yes, he’ll get to the end of it despite being shot at, or nearly blown up, and all while on little sleep. But act his age? Uh uh. No way. Not even. You see, that’s how it should be, because…he’s Bill Travis. And here, at this late date, I’ll confess to just you and only you, that he’s a little bit George Wier. Dang, I can’t believe I said that, but there it is.

I want to take a moment and thank some folks— knowing full well that it’s impossible to thank each who have helped me, or been a friend, or read my books along the way.

Casting my mind as far back as it will go along this track, I would like to thank the following:

The memory of those who have gone, including—

Lester Dent, who inspired me to write action and adventure stories; Theodore Sturgeon, who personally convinced me I should become a writer during a twenty-minute one-on-one discussion that changed my life at about age thirteen; Milton T. Burton, sage, counselor, and friend; and Nelson Wier, my father. I miss you. Thank you for having lived.

And those who abide, including—

Fellow authors: Billy Kring, T.R. “Tom” Harris, Nick Russell, Craig Johnson, Valerie P. Chandler, Laura Oles, Reavis Wortham, Steven M. Thomas, Cleve Sylcox, Terry Shames, Joe R. Lansdale, Claude Bouchard, Kristie Haigwood, Robert Thomas, Stephen Arsenault, Brandon Hale, Alison Blake, Randy Morris, David A. Cuban, Jesse Sublett, Carol Ann Newsome, Suzy Steward Dubot, Mike Meyer, Mark Pryor, J. Carson Black, Kate Aaron, AJ Rose, Jess Mountifield, Manning Wolfe, Chris Ward, Russell Blake, Albert Benson, Holli Marie Spaulding, Thomas & Angie Jenner, Corrie Stout, Catherine Weaver, Chantell Renee, Bill McClure, Ricky Bush, Alan Martin, Beck Bee, Jay Allan, Dale Roberts, Daniel C. Chamberlain, Molly Burton, Scott Langrel, Andy Downs, Donald Everetti, Tim Bryant, Saxon Andrew, Ronnie Pace, David Carus, Ben Rehder, Lindsey McCullen, C. Craig Coleman, Charles Hall, James F. Coyle, Sally A. Wolf, Lee Spiller, John Daulton, Liz Miller, Dale Bradley Morris, Bill Crider, Donna Blanchard McNicol, Sharon Delarose, Jacques Duvoisin, Lee Burton, Ron Moss, Scott Montgomery, and many, many more. You folks inspire me to become better than I am.

And all the fans who have reached out to me and have become steadfast friends, including but in no wise limited to: Jim Geckles & Dawn Vizzotsky, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, Bob Thomas, Ruth Ellen Clendenin, Russ & Lauren DeWitt, Belinda Jayne Parker, Catherine Boyd, John Lucenti, Tom Burks, David Jefferson Potter, Jim & Eva Neikirk, Mary J. Vander Meiden, Courtney Michelle DeWitt, Dave Minnich, Guy van Zijil, Richard Waynn Bentley, Bill Cunningham, Brad Hicks, Don Riley, Gerrie Lispon Salinas, James Barbatano, Heather Quiring, Chuck Holland, Mike Collella, Tonya Connell, Nicole Hall, Bob Henslee, Lia Pham, Linda Kay Shadden, Joseph Pally, Gary Carlin, Jeri R. Walker, Norma Dell Jones, Carol Kropp, Ray Fisher, Roni Valdez-Cuellar, Mike Saliwanchik, Travis & Jo Ann Everett, Wikus Hattingh, Jayne James, Don Hardman, Nicole Combs, Todd Dempsey, Daniel G. Benes, Jeff & Candace Fischer, and Deborah Scouras, Kevin Tipple, Amy McMurrough, Christine Bell, and actually, too many more to put on the printed page. I thank all of you, from the depths of my heart.

No man is an island. Therefore, the following team members deserve special mention: Elizabeth Mackey, graphic cover artist extraordinaire; Mike Williams, photographer and filmmaker; Jessica Conley Potter, without whom I wouldn’t be able to function as a writer. Thank you all so very much.

And my immediate family: Clarice Caldwell, my mother, conscience and guide; Joseph and Maggie Strickland; Carlie and Shoshone Sky; and the one who assures that the road goes ever on, my Sallie. You know my love.

I guess that’s it.

All the best to you and yours,

George Wier
Austin, Texas
June 1, 2016

Mexico Fever

 

 

Here’s just a bit of teaser from Mexico Fever:

Piste came up ahead of me about five miles away. From the maps, I knew the airport was to the southwest of the city by no more than a few miles, and the Chichen-itza plaza was a mere stone’s throw from that. I banked to the south and scanned for the opening in the jungle—a mere rectangular swath—and found it. I cut the power by half, brought down the flaps ten degrees and shed both altitude and airspeed. I made the obligatory call to all Piste air traffic, but received not so much as a blip in acknowledgment.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Bill’s coming in, so everybody had better get out of my way.”
The runway turned out to be a small canyon in an ocean of jungle. The runway was so much hardpacked dirt. I brought Lola in with the landing gear grazing the palm fronds and set her down. I cut the engine all the way back, jumped on the pedals to keep from slewing into the jungle from the rough dirt runway, and rolled to a slow stop.
I scanned the airport. There was a lone building with the tanker portion of a rig parked outside, and a small car sandwiched between them. A lone Mexican man walked out on the porch, doffed his hat and waved at me. I brought the engine back up and rolled slowly over to him and off the runway. I cut the power and climbed out.
“Buenos Dios,” I said.
“Gringo,” he stated. “How long are you here?” While his words were English, his accent was thick. He appeared to be in his late twenties, or perhaps early thirties. Sometimes people age differently closer to the Equator. He had black, curly hair and a thick mustache. His clothes appeared slept in.
“I don’t know. A few days, maybe.”
“Come to see the pyramids?”
“No.”
He shook his head.
I offered my hand and he frowned and slowly took it and shook. “I’m Bill Travis.”
“I see,” he said. “I am Phillip. You may call me Phil. I run the airport for twelve hours every day. I sell fuel. Do you need fuel?”
“Not now,” I said. “I will need to gas up when I’m ready to leave. Is there some place I can tie down?”
“Tie…? Are you camping?”
“No. The plane.”
“What for do you need to tie the plane? We have no wind here. We have nothing here, just in case you did not know.”
A chicken walked by and Phil made as if to kick at it. The chicken sped up and moved along.
“You have chickens,” I said.
“We have chickens and we have eggs. Do you wish for either?”
I shook my head again. “No. What I need is a ride into town, and the recommendation for a good hotel.”
“Oh.” Phil turned his head toward the jungle that lay in the direction of town, as if that might jog his memory. “Well, you need a ride.”
“That’s right. I need a ride.”
He regarded me again. “We do not have rides here. But, if you can make it into town, go to the center of town. There they will have hotels.”
“How should I get to town, other than by walking?”
Phil frowned again, as if framing the question seriously to himself. He peered at the ground at his feet, as if consulting it. After a moment he looked back up. “Well, you can walk to the gate to the Pyramid Plaza and wait for the autobus. Or, you can take Senor Burro.” Phil pointed and I followed his gaze.
There, tied to a tree, was my worst nightmare. A burro, or what we commonly refer to in the states as a donkey.
“If I take Senor Burro,” I said, “which road do I take to town?”
“There is only one road. You just tell Senor Burro where you want to go. You say, ‘Senor Burro, take me to Piste,’ and he take you. You say, ‘Senor Burro, take me to aeropuerto,’ and he take you. If you don’t need him anymore, you tell him ‘Go home, Senor Burro,’ and he go home.”
“How much will you rent him to me for?”
Phil raised his hand and gave a dismissive wave. “For nothing. I hate Senor Burro. Maybe you will kill him. Will you kill him and poke out his eyes?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Okay. You…mucho consado.”
“What?”
“How you say? Tired.”
“Oh. Yes. Mucho consado. Tell me, Phil, is there another gringo in Piste? An old man?”
“There are many old gringos in Piste. Gringos may no go home, or have to go to old people house.”
“Nursing homes. You’re referring to nursing homes.”
“Si. Si. Who is this gringo?” he asked. Very clearly, this was the most exciting event of Phil’s entire day. A tired gringo who looks as though he’s been ridden hard and put up wet comes flying in on a single-engine prop, needs a ride to town, and starts asking questions.
“A friend,” I said. And then I thought about Dick Sawyer, his eyes boring into me, telling me about a revolutionary named Sunlight. I was in enemy territory. It was time for me to shut up and get to town. “Don’t worry. I’ll find him. He’s an old man who drinks too much. I need to take him back to the United States. He has a room in a nursing home waiting for him.”
Phil shook his head, as if I had just confirmed his entire world view.
“Si. That is what I say about the old gringos, but no one believes me.”
“No one believes anything anymore,” I said.
Phil shook his head in complete agreement.
“I’ll take Senor Burro.” I noted that Phil was about to speak, so I decided to cut him off. “And no, I will not kill him.” Phil shrugged, turned around and went back into the office.

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Billy Gostman climbed the last few feet to the top of the rock and sat himself to gaze out over the city as the last light faded from the sky. The shadow of Pike’s Peak here from the Garden of the Gods hid him in effective absolute darkness. He extracted the field glass from his jacket pocket and aimed it at the lights of the town below.

Billy was twenty-nine years old, and beginning to feel his age. He’d been out of shape for the climb up the rocks, but he had to see Merkam’s secret. It had taken him days to figure out how he was going to see inside the thirty-foot walls around the two-block compound, and had struck upon a view from the heights west of town as the only possible solution.

While the town itself was lit with dim gaslights, the Merkam compound shone brightly—the new-fangled electric lights cast a pillar of illumination into the otherwise darkening Colorado night sky.

“Got you!” he whispered to himself.“Jumping Gilas. That thing is huge.”

A broad, silvery cone poked a needle-like spire above the surrounding rooftops. That’s all anyone else could see from anywhere in the town or within a mile or more outside it: the needle. The whole town wondered what it might mean.

The rumor running around the saloons and markets and even the churches was that Merkam was going to blow them all to Kingdom Come with his invention. He’d destroy the whole town and everyone in it. But the other rumor, the one that few but himself had heard, was that Merkam had constructed a vessel that would not only fly, but that would fly to the moon and back again. It was such an incredible whopper that Billy believed it. It was always the biggest lies that seemed to have the most truth in them.

“I’m hitchin’ a ride with you, Dr. Judah Merkam. The Kid is going to fly.”

He could see far more of the immense ship at this height, although it was indistinct. Beside it, a zeppelin unloaded its wares.  The black figures of the stevedores moved crates by chain and rope from the blimp to the ground, where they were lifted by winch into the yawning side door of Merkam’s ship.

He caught a new sliver of light in the darkness of the door. Billy moved the glass to it and saw a figure inside, holding what appeared at this distance to be a blade of focused light. Nothing like the gas street lights or miners lamps with their diffuse rays, but one so bright and clean-lined it almost seemed solid. It wasn’t, because the light didn’t have a finite end. As long as something didn’t block it, the beam continued, never widening, just continuing. Billy’s heart thumped once when the light wobbled above the walls and, even at so great a distance, lit his position brightly enough that he cast a shadow on the rocks behind him. It stayed only a second, then continued its drunken, weaving path down the mountain and once more became secure inside the enclosure.

Billy watched it until the light blinked off. At the last instant of visibility, the beam lit the figure holding it. Billy’s eyes widened, “Huh.” It was a woman. A beautiful woman. He smiled and collapsed the tube of the small brass monoscope and put it in his coat pocket.

Billy had always had a way with the ladies. When he slipped into Colorado as an undersized youth on the run, it had been the good will and affection of women that bolstered him, kept him alive. Over the years his luck improved in the class of women who wanted to take care of him, and in 1885, when John Jacob Astor’s favorite illegitimate daughter, Cynna, put her head on his shoulder, everything changed for the better. She pampered him, clothed him, and taught him proper etiquette. Her mansion had a library of five thousand books and Billy practically lived in the room. With Cynna’s personal chef preparing meals and treats six times a day, Billy’s stature also increased. He grew three inches in height, bringing him from short to average, and his musculature improved so that the emaciated look was no more.

But the biggest change was when Cynna sent him to Denver to her personal Doctor of Dentistry. A genius in his field, the Doctor spent two days measuring and calibrating every facet of Billy’s lips, teeth, epiglottal depth, and tongue length. He spent hours on the front teeth, the ones he tsk-tsked as “those bucks”. Billy held his mouth open for so long that his jaw joints creaked when he finally closed them.

When the Doctor showed him the Dental Regravitator—his own personal invention—that would realign enamels to an Adonis-worthy symmetry, Billy almost pulled his Colt Peacemaker from the shoulder holster. The Regravitator was a plaiting of thin brass wires and numerous small gears no larger than the eyes of a small mouse. The Doctor said, “Once attached to your teeth, the kinetic action of talking and eating will transfer your mandibular movements through the gears and wires to adjust your teeth to their desired placement. It will take place slowly, over a period of three months. And it will be painless, I assure you.”

The good Doctor had been so wrong on that point.

Four months later, after the Dental Regravitator was removed and the sore mouth healed, Billy looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the man looking back. His teeth were even and white, and his lips no longer pushed out like a duck’s, but looked nice, full. The weight gain made his cheeks fill to give his facial shape a pleasing look. His eyes were the same, though. Blue and clear. And from all his time in the sun here in Colorado, his hair was now a dark blonde. He looked nothing like the scruffy, buck-toothed youth holding the barrel of the Winchester and posing in the tin-type photo taken in 1880.

Cynna had been delighted. She cooed and patted and touched his face, saying “I may have to call you my Adonis.” She slipped her arm in his, “But I am glad your voice is the same. I could listen to you read the most atrocious passages ever written and still be enthralled.”

Billy didn’t know about enthralled, but women did like to listen to him. He thought it was because he listened more than he talked. The change in his smile also started the change in their relationship. Cynna became more possessive. That progressed to jealousy, and from that to her thinking wealth and power allowed her to order him to do this, or not do that.

Being on the streets for the last three months was still better than having someone boss him. Billy had a good work ethic and was dexterous with his hands, small as they were. He used the knowledge gained from Cynna’s library to tinker with mechanisms that others, with larger hands, less nimbleness in the fingers, could not. The wages were enough to feed him and buy drinks when he needed.

Albert, the bartender was a friend and let him sleep in the storage room when weather was bad, so there was that, too. But he could not continue this way of life. So it was either befriend the woman he’d just seen through his telescope and use her to get on board as a hand, or find a way to become a stowaway. It didn’t matter which way, because he would be on the ship. And no one would stop him.

Billy headed back to town. He checked the Colt in the shoulder holster to make sure it came out fast and easy, then he walked down the street to a place where he could watch the guarded gate until the woman with the light emerged.

Once in town, he leaned against the wall of the mercantile and watched the zeppelin lift above the walls as the crew peered over the edges of the frigate dangling below the projectile-shaped, gas filled ascender. Painted in shamrock green letters on the side was Bonnie Brae. Billy knew this old ship and her owner, for it was the air-ship of Irishman Sean O’Bannon, a drinking friend. Billy said to himself, “If the woman won’t passport me, I may have another way.”

The huge gate opened at that moment and Billy caught a glimpse inside the compound. It was a bustle of activity, and nobody was going to walk in uninvited. Two enormous, bearded men guarded the gates, armed with the newest Velociter-Magnus rifles. The brass and copper shone on the weapons as if newly forged, and the multiple barrels looked as deadly as a dozen spitting cobras. No sir, Billy thought, I won’t be charging in there all bravado and horns and pawing the earth.

At that moment, the woman emerged from the compound. Billy stared, then caught himself and tried not to look directly at her. This was a female of heroic proportions, and not some frail waif or one prone to the vapors in moments of tension. Her bare arms and shoulders were muscular, but not manly by any measure. She was dark- haired and olive-skinned and carried a hint of far off places. The brass-studded brown leather corset showed a trim body. She wore no blouse under the corset, and the tops of her bosoms were full and high. A small pistol rested on the front of her right hip for a cross draw, and Billy realized she was left handed. A brass cylinder, maybe a foot long, hung by a leather loop from her belt. Billy thought it might be the strange light lantern he had seen her use. His eyes continued down and saw that her slim canvas pants disappeared into the tops of black, knee-high lace-up boots.

As she walked closer, Billy could see she was two inches taller than he was. He couldn’t see her eyes because of the brass goggles. She pulled a folded paper from her pocket and pushed the goggles up on her head when she was two steps from him. She stepped onto the boardwalk beside Billy and looked up from the paper.

Billy looked into liquid brown eyes flecked with gold, and with whites so clear they had the faint bluish tinge that indicated exceptional vitality. He smiled and tipped his hat, saying, “Howdy.”

She looked at the side of his jacket that hid the Colt, then glanced at his face before entering the mercantile.

Billy’s eyebrows rose and his respect for her went up a notch. He said, “She’s no pilgrim, this one.” When he turned to go into the mercantile, Billy noticed he wasn’t the only one following her. Two men wearing dusters were paying her a lot of attention.

The woman talked to the store clerk, who nodded and went to the back of the store.  He returned with a plain brown box about two feet wide and a foot tall. She paid him and picked up the box, which took both of her hands. Something clinked inside when she turned with it to go out the door.

The two men stepped in front of her. One had a red beard and said, “Hold on there, missy, we’ll be taking that.” The second man, younger and smooth-faced, started to say something, but Billy was already moving, and so was the woman.

She dropped the left side of the box and let it swing down as she snatched the brass tube from her side, all the while trying to hold the box with her right arm, but failing. Billy changed direction and slid across the wooden floor on his legs and back. He caught the bottom of the box with one hand as he drew the Colt with the other. But it was already over with the two men.

The woman had pointed the end of the brass tube toward the men’s faces and flipped a lever. A blaze of light hit them and was so white and strong it seemed to punch the men backward. Both turned their heads away and covered their eyes. The woman blinked off the light and hung it back on her belt. She drew her pistol, and waited until the men regained their vision.

Billy held the bottom of the box and he knew she was aware of him, but she didn’t look his way. When the red bearded man blinked and looked her direction, she said, “It will be best if we never meet again, do you understand?”

The man blinked, trying to see her better, and said, “We won’t bother you or him no more.”

She didn’t lower the pistol, “You misunderstand. Let me make this very clear for you and your friend. If I see you again, I shoot. On the street, in a restaurant, riding by, I will shoot.”

It soaked in. “Maybe me an’ him will go visit Californy. I hear it is nice out there.”

Billy spoke, “People live longer out there, that’s a fact.”

The red beard glanced down at him and paled when he saw the Colt. “Californy it is.” The two men left, with the red beard leading the other out the door.

The woman put her pistol in the holster and picked up the box in both hands. Billy rose to his feet and said, “Glad to be of assistance, Miss…?”

The woman looked him over and, although she didn’t smile, her eyes crinkled an atom’s worth at the corners. “Ekka Gagarin.”

Billy reached for the box, “May I?” Ekka let him take it and they left the store, walking to the compound.

“You’re part of this assemblage?” Billy said, nodding his head to indicate the compound.

“Yes.”

“Rumors are rampant about what Doctor Merkam is constructing in there.”

“Yes.”

“You’re just a little jaybird aren’t you? Can’t shut you up.” He grinned.

They reached the gate and it opened without Ekka hailing those inside. She turned to take the box and said, “Thank you.”

He gave it to her and said, “Any chance I could come in?”

“Not something I can allow. Only those who work here or are delivering supplies are allowed inside these walls.”

“How about hiring me? I could use some work.”

She shook her head no, and started inside, then stopped and turned back to him. “What can you do?”

“You name it.”

She nodded towards his coat where the Colt resided. “Can you shoot, or is it only for show?”

Billy smiled and held his hands out to his sides, “I’m the best there is.”

Ekka said, “Come by tomorrow morning at ten.” She nodded to the guards and they closed the gate.

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