Posts Tagged ‘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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A little sneak preview here of Isherwood:

Riding alongside Trey in the deepening night, with no thought to where they were or where they were headed or how or if they might get there, Farrin felt something warm spreading inside her, a strange sensation she had never felt before. It was like drinking a cup of mead for the first time and feeling the liquid begin to kindle a small blaze inside her, and it was like standing too close to good fire and feeling the heat soaking in through your clothes but not wanting to move away because of the strangeness of it. And also it was like thirst.

When it was too dark to see with safety they walked their horses for awhile until they found a quiet place on a saddle between two low hills where a large oak tree had fallen and caught in the crook between two other trees. They staked the horses and made camp, Trey deciding to risk a small fire despite Geoffrey’s warning against it. Neither of them were really hungry, and when Trey mentioned food—no doubt for her sake—she demurred, but with a brief, kind smile. When the fire was going good Trey went off to find water. Soon, the horses taken care of, Farrin waited until Trey sat down so that she could sit beside him. Her thighs and her rump were indeed sore and there was a stitch in her back, but she promised to herself that she wouldn’t complain about it even once.

When she sat down beside Trey he started at her closeness, but only a little.

Crickets chirped in the wilderness around them and once Farrin was sure she saw the reflection of the fire in the eyes of some animal twenty or so paces away. Above them spread a cloak of blueblack velvet with diamonds for stars.

Farrin laid her hand gently on Trey’s forearm, feeling the rough bristles of his hair. She heard Trey breathe a long, low sigh.

In the small blaze before them she saw reds and blues and greens as the larger branches were consumed and broke into orange, square pieces to join a growing bed of coals.

“I love thee, Farrin,” Trey said, softly.

She laid her head against his shoulder. “I know,” she said.

Trey let loose all of his pent up breath, perhaps letting go of some small portion of a long season of torment. They were both fifteen seasons in age, which was the beginning of marriagable age for them both.

“How long have you known?” he asked.

“Long enough.”

The kindled, meadlike warmth at her center suddenly blazed alight. She felt swollen and sore, but no longer the same soreness from the ride.

“Trey. Look at me,” she whispered.

“I…I can’t.”

She reached for his face and touched his chin, pulling his face around where she could look at it with as much gentleness as she could muster. When she could see him looking at her in the firelight, eyes distant as if to keep his thoughts secluded, sheltered far away in some safe harbor of the soul, the fires banked inside her were loosed, spreading upward into her breasts and her lips, and then downward. And her question, that darkest of all questions as to what she might do for Trey, for herself, was answered for her now.

The moment blurred when they began to kiss. Maybe it had nothing to do with time at all.

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Okay, so Reveille In Red is off and running. Here are the opening bars of the song:

CHAPTER ONE

The one good thing about getting older is that there are far many more opportunities to drink wine and relax—for other people. Things are a little too busy for me to attempt such a passtime. Julie, my wife, likes to have a little wine now and again, usually on a Saturday or a Sunday night, and while I have tasted the stuff, I couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a serious wine-drinker. Or a drinker of any kind of alcohol in any appreciable quantity, for that matter. First of all, I have to have my wits about me at all times. Second, I never particularly liked the way it made me feel.

So when I got invited on a tour of the Fredericksberg, Texas wine country through the Austin Chamber of Commerce—one of those “reciprocity” deals that is really little more than flagrant promotion—I didn’t exactly snap at the chance. But when I did give finally give the nod and accept the invitation—and received two tickets for my troubles and for my modest donation—it was with an eye toward treating my wife to the kind of life she’d wanted to live all along, or at least it was in my estimation. Possibly, I couldn’t have been more wrong about everything.

The worst disasters typically begin that way: good intention gone awry; an effort to kill two overly vociferous song birds with the same sling bullet, which in this instance included Constance Fielder and her pushy public relations methodology, and the realization during our little talk that it was perfects true—I rarely treated my wife to anything except a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day, taking her car down to have it washed, waxed and detailed some time in the neighborhood of her birthday, and the obligatory Christmas and Anniversary presents.

“Bill,” Constance said while standing in front of my desk, as if she belonged there and had real business to conduct, “when was the last time you treated Julie to anything? I mean, aside from taking her to dinner?”

“Well,” I began, and was fully ready to charge forward with the details of our last trip to South Texas, but then I remembered that Julie had spent most of her time in the hotel room while I was out running around trying to figure out who was killing people and turning their bodies into instant mummies. I thought of our most recent trip to the re-opening of a blues bar in Houston, but then, on the heels of that, came the realization that it had all been for my benefit.

I regarded Constance’s serious face and steady eyes, then sighed and leaned back in my chair.

“How much, Constance? How much is my conscience going to cost me?”

“Three hundred dollars. It’s the best deal you’ll ever get your thoroughly used and overly abused conscience.”

I opened my desk drawer, withdrew my personal checkbook, opened it and started writing.

“You won’t regret it,” Constance said.

As I wrote, I realized that it was all my fault to begin with. Constance and Jack had divorced a couple of years back, and Constance had been sitting in my office, quietly sobbing while I went over what Jack had done to their portfolio in the months and years leading to their breakup. I did two things for her that day: I recommended one of the best divorce attorneys in Austin to her, and when she asked me, “What am I going to do with my life?” I told her about the opening that I’d heard about with the Chamber of Commerce. All by way of saying that it always comes home to roost. No good deed…and all that.

I finished writing the check, tore it out of the book and handed it to her.

She gave me an envelope in return.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s your tickets. Two tickets to paradise.”

“Paradise,” I said. Full blown in front of me a panorama came into view: Julie and me sitting outside under an awning with half-empty wine glasses in front of us, crickets chirping in the scrub brush nearby, a vast field of grape vines stretching out to the horizon and the sun going down behind the farthest hill.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the stark beauty of South Central Texas with its rolling hills, stubby trees, and its often dry, sun-baked earth. But I do have a problem with the passage of time, or specifically, with time wasted wherein something that could be accomplished is being frittered away like money flowing through the hands of a wastrel.

Time. My life was all about time.

And then Constance, a late middle-aged and diminutive woman given to flowery apparel and almost obnoxious optimism, did something funny with her face. She smiled, got a little giddy-looking, and reached across my desk and put her hand on top of mine and squeezed it. “Oh, I so envy you, Bill Travis. You with your beautiful wife and your wonderful family. And now you get to go romance her all over again.”

“All it takes to romance her, Constance, is eggs for breakfast and banana pudding for dessert.”

“Oh, poo,” she said. She turned around, sashayed across my office while doing a little happy dance, then turned and said, “This makes me feel young, Bill, so I’m not going to let you ruin anything for me.”

“Goodbye, Constance,” I said, but she was already gone out the door—with my three hundred bucks.

I sat in my chair and looked at the envelope in my hand. It was a plain, white envelope, with no address on it, all clean and pristine. It would be all too easy to pull up the address for one of my clients, write their address on it, slap a stamp on it and put it by the front door with the outgoing mail. But it felt a little more thick than just a couple of tickets.

I opened the envelope, since it was unsealed.

Inside, there was a brochure, and sure enough, it had a photo splash of a couple holding hands, looking out across a field of grapes. Inside the brochure there was a wine bottle posing next to a hogshead of cheese that no family of any size could possibly eat in one sitting, and below this was another, smaller photograph showing the wine label:

REVEILLE

There was a small bugler inked into the background, forever blowing his bugle.

This jogged a memory.

It had been in the paper a few days back. I looked around my desk, but no newspaper.

I got up, went out into the outer office, but Logan didn’t work on Friday afternoon. I poked my head in Penny’s office. “Hey, where’s my newspaper?”

“What newspaper?” she asked.

“I had a newspaper on my desk. Where’d it go?”

“I have no idea. For what day?”

“I think Tuesday. No, Wednesday.”

“The housekeeper comes every Wednesday night. She probably threw it away.”

“Oh.” Lost. So many things, irretrievably lost.

“I think I have Wednesday,” Penny said.

“You’re kidding.”

“I never kid about the newspaper.” She pushed with her feet and her chair rolled backwards. She opened a buffet bureau and I saw a stack of newspapers there.

She handed it to me.

I opened it on her desk and turned the page to the Local and State section, and found it.

WINERY DEATH INVESTIGATION ONGOING

“This is it!” I said.

“What?” She got up and looked across her desk at the paper.

“Hmm. Now why would you be interested in that?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Two tickets for a tour of the wine country were just dropped in my lap, and the brochure has this!” I pointed at the picture to the side of the article.

“A bottle of wine,” Penny said. “Very nice.”

“No. If you look close, it’s the same name, same logo as on the brochure.”

“So, you get to tour the winery where somebody died. That sounds…about right.”

I suppose I had made a spectacle of myself, because I suddenly became self-conscious. It had something to do with the way Penny was looking at me, with her head slightly cocked, as if something had been confirmed. Or worse, as if she thought she understood me.

“Never mind,” I said, and turned to go.

“Bye,” she said.

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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

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.

            Yes, you’ve read that right.

            Poster.

          Die-hard  and sure, even live-strong lovers of The Bill Travis Mysteries can now display their love and pride and general awesomeness on their walls in the form of this amazing poster:

 

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          Awesome, right? You know you want one. Imagine. The colors! The mystery! The, even more colors! What a great way to keep track of where you are in the series and show off how many books you read.

 

               Here’s a photo of George with his very own poster:

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The poster is already available, so no waiting required (except for the time it takes to be shipped to you).  Get yours HERE.

 

-Jessica

 

 

 

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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.