My Favorite Americans: Temple Lea Houston

Every July 4th I dedicate this space to a person in American history whom I admire. I’ve peppered this space with bold men and women who stood up for just causes and risked life and limb, often making the ultimate sacrifice, often standing against the unjust policies of this very government. John Brown, Silas Soule, Mary Elisabeth Bowser, Geronimo….

But this year I felt like a lighter entry, and so I turn your attention to the mostly unsung offspring of Sam Houston, the Old Raven and Father of Texas. Sam Houston is a fascinating guy, perhaps a man worthy of this space in his own right, but it’s his son Temple Lea I’m concerned with here. I wrote a screenplay about him years ago that nobody’s taken to yet. Maybe one of these days.

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Anyway, Sam Houston died when Temple was three years old, having abdicated the governorship of Texas after refusing to swear loyalty to the Confederacy.  Temple was the only one of Houston’s eight children to be born in the governor’s mansion. At thirteen he landed a job on a cattle drive to Great Bend, Kansas, and caught a steamboat all the way down to New Orleans working as a night clerk.

In New Orleans he met Texas Senator James Winwright Flanagan, an old friend of his father’s, who secured him a job as a page in the Senate in Washington DC, where he worked for three years.

He graduated with honors in law and philosophy from Baylor in 1880 after completing his courses in nine months and became the youngest practicing lawyer in Texas at 20 in Brazoria, where he met his and married his wife (on St. Valentine’s Day), Laura Cross. Maybe he was brilliant, or maybe his pedigree accelerated his career. His father was beloved, after all.

An announcement in the Brenham Weekly Banner about the graduating class of Baylor reads;

“He is a young man of steady, temperate habits and a hard student; he won the J.M. Williams medal for the best logical speech on commencement day. Temple stands upon the battlefield of life with high aspirations, and we believe, with energy to carry them through.”

He was already a renowned orator, and in 1882, at the age of 22, he was appointed district attorney for the 35 Judicial District of Texas, which comprised 26 unorganized and wild counties of the Texas Panhandle. Settling in Fort Elliott and later Mobeetie in Wheeler County, this is where his personality starts to shine in the accounts. Riding far and wide through his district, he shunned hotels, preferring to sleep outside, often in the various cattle camps, where he got the nickname Lone Wolf of The Canadian. He was a good father to his five children, one of which, Louise, only lived two years. Contrary to the popular practices of the time, he reportedly never beat them.

Maybe there was something about growing up in the huge shadow of his father that induced him put on such a big show.

“He loved clothes,” his wife Laura wrote. “He would dress up in a yellow-beaded vest, Spanish caballero-style trousers and sombrero with a great silver eagle on it, and go to Kansas City on railroad business. Of course, he attracted a lot of attention. When people asked why I let him dress that way, I would say, ‘That’s why I married him – because he was different.’ ”

Around this time the story got out that he bested Bat Masterson and Billy The Kid in a shooting contest in Tascosa. The story’s almost certainly apochryphal as Henry McCarty was already dead by now (unless you subscribe to the Brushy Bill Roberts theory). Maybe he let it out himself, or at least, didn’t deny it. It was true that he was a sure shot with his nickel plated pearl handled pistol, a skill that would come into play later.

Defending hapless cowboys became a staple of his early career. Supposedly he was appointed to the defense of a young horse thief, and begged the marshals to give him time alone with his client advise him.

After a few minutes the marshals broke into the room to find Temple sitting alone, the window open.

“Well boys,” he said, “I gave him the best advice I could give.”

In 1884 he was elected to District 19 of the Texas Senate for a single term. Asked to speak at the dedication of the Texas State Capitol, he wowed constituents, who pushed him to run for U.S. Senate.

When he expressed his own doubts about carrying a statewide election, somebody urged him to ‘just stand on your father’s name, and you will win.’

Outraged, Temple declared;

“A man is only what he makes himself!”

He departed the meeting and refused the opportunity.

“I care not to stand in the light of reflected glory. Every tub must stand on its own bottom.”

Maybe he saw that he could never shake his ‘son of Sam’ appellation in Texas.

In 1893 he participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush, and settled with his family in Woodward, Oklahoma, leaving Texas behind, much to the ire of the notoriously proud populace. He became an attorney for the Atchison Topeka-Santa Fe Railroad.

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Temple’s Home Office

He befriended Kwahadi Comanche chief Quanah Parker, and the Comanche were reportedly frequent guests in his home, pitching tipis in his backyard when they passed through town. He was a collector of Indian artifacts, and an expert on Aaron Burr and Napoleon.

 

In Oklahoma, his legend grew by leaps and bounds, and numerous amusing anecdotes about him pop up.

One of the most famous is his bizarre defense of a hapless horse thief who gunned down the horse’s owner before he had a chance to draw.

Approaching the jury box, Temple asked the jurors to consider the reputation of the deceased as a notorious gunman, and the fear with which the defendant (“an ordinary, hard-working citizen….little experienced in the use of firearms”) regarded him.

He explained that the victim was “so adept with a six-shooter that he could place a gun in the hands of an inexperienced man, then draw and fire his own weapon before his victim could pull the trigger—like this!”

Temple then proceeded to draw his own revolver and rapidly fan six shots (all blanks) at the startled jury, whose members fled in every direction, jumping out the courtroom windows and following the onlooker out the doors into the street.

The judge threatened Temple with contempt, but he apologized, explaining he only “wanted to show what speed this dead man possessed.”

After the restoration of order, Temple’s defendant was quickly found guilty….but he immediately motioned for a mistrial, citing that the jury had dispersed and mingled with the crowd, and was at such time no longer properly sequestered. He won his mistrial, the case was heard again with an impartial jury and a new judge, and Temple won his client’s freedom.

Not every case turned out so well.

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He developed a rivalry with the Jennings clan, lawyers Ed and John and their father, Judge J.D.F. Jennings. Arguments between the legal teams in a property case in October 1895 grew heated, with Temple proclaiming Ed Jennings ‘grossly ignorant of the law’ and Jennings calling him a liar and lunging at him. Guns were drawn, bailiffs separated them, and court was adjourned.

Temple and ex-sheriff Jack Love went over to Jack Garvey’s Cabinet Saloon, and at nine o’clock the Jennings brothers entered, backed by their cousin, a gambler named Handsome Harry. The Jennings brothers went directly to Temple and Jack Love’s table, whereupon Temple suggested they settle their business outside.

“We can settle it inside,” Ed purportedly said, and the two attorneys drew their guns, one of the first shots knocking out the lights.

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Al Jennings

Whether Temple killed Ed Jennings with a shot to the head or his brother John accidentally killed him somewhere in the ensuing gunfight (in which fifteen to twenty shots were reportedly fired) is unclear, but Temple (acting as his own defense) was acquitted for acting in self defense. John Jennings, wounded in the shoulder left lawyering. His brother Al Jennings swore revenge, but never made good on it (although possibly he tried – later in Enid, Temple was blown from his saddle by an unseen shooter. He had been carrying a thick copy of the Oklahoma Statutes though and the book stopped the bullet) going on to a middling outlaw life and a career as a consultant in early western movies, once getting into a brawl with the actor Hugh O’Brien.

A year later, the Jennings patriarch Judge J.D.F Jennings, passed Temple’s eleven year old son Sam coming home from school in front of his house and spit in the boy’s face. Temple marched up to him (again, in the Cabinet Saloon), pressed the muzzle of his gun to the judge’s chest, and killed him.

He pleaded guilty, saying “It was my life or his,” and was fined $300.

The greatest moment of Temple Houston’s career, for which he is most remembered, is undoubtedly the legendary Plea For A Fallen Woman, also known as The Soiled Dove Plea.

In 1899, a woman named Minnie Stacy was charged with prostitution, and told the judge she had no money for an attorney, or for bail.

Temple, in court for another case, but in earshot, stepped forward and asked to defend her. He took her aside for ten minutes, and then delivered this address to the court, entirely extemporaneous;

Gentlemen of the jury: You heard with what cold cruelty the prosecution referred to the sins of this woman, as if her condition were of her own preference. The evidence has painted you a picture of her life and surroundings. Do you think that they were embraced of her own choosing? Do you think that she willingly embraced a life so revolting and horrible? Ah, no! Gentlemen, one of our own sex was the author of her ruin, more to blame than she.

Then let us judge her gently. What could be more pathetic than the spectacle she presents? An immortal soul in ruin! Where the star of purity once glittered on her girlish brow, burning shame has set its seal and forever. And only a moment ago, they reproached her for the depths to which she had sunk, the company she kept, the life she led. Now, what else is left her? Where can she go and her sin not pursue her? Gentlemen, the very promises of God are denied her. He said: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” She has indeed labored, and is heavily laden, but if, at this instant she were to kneel before us all and confess to her Redeemer and beseech His tender mercies, where is the church that would receive her? And even if they accepted her, when she passed the portals to worship and to claim her rest, scorn and mockery would greet her; those she met would gather around them their spirits the more closely to avoid the pollution of her touch. And would you tell me a single employment where she can realize “Give us our daily bread?”

Our sex wrecked her once pure life. Her own sex shrink from her as they would the pestilence. Society has reared its relentless walls against her, and only in the friendly shelter of the grave can her betrayed and broken heart ever find the Redeemer’s promised rest.

They told you of her assumed names, as fleeting as the shadows on the walls, of her sins, her habits, but they never told you of her sorrows, and who shall tell what her heart, sinful though it may be, now feels? When the remembered voices of mother and sisters, whom she must see no more on this earth, fall again like music on her erring soul, and she prays God that she could only return, and must not — no — not in this life, for the seducer has destroyed the soul.

You know the story of the prodigal son, but he was a son. He was one of us, like her destroyers; but for the prodigal daughter there is no return. Were she with her wasted form and bleeding feet to drag herself back to home, she, the fallen and the lost, which would be her welcome? Oh, consider this when you come to decide her guilt, for she is before us and we must judge her. They (the prosecution) sneer and scoff at her. One should respect her grief, and I tell you that there reigns over her penitent and chastened spirit a desolation now that none, no, none but the Searcher of all hearts can ever know.

None of us are utterly evil, and I remember that when the Saffron Scourge swept over the city of Memphis in 1878, a courtesan there opened wide the doors of her gilded palace of sin to admit the sufferers, and when the scythe of the Reaper swung fast and pitiless, she was angelic in her ministering. Death called her in the midst of her mercies, and she went to join those she tried to save. She, like those the Lord forgave, was a sinner, and yet I believe that in the days of reckoning her judgment will be lighter than those who would prosecute and seek to drive off the earth such poor unfortunates as her whom you are to judge.

They wish to fine this woman and make her leave. They wish to wring from the wages of her shame the price of this meditated injustice; to take from her the little money she might have — and God knows, gentlemen, it came hard enough. The old Jewish law told you that the price of a dog, nor the bite of such as she, should come not within the house of the Lord, and I say unto you that our justice, fitly symbolized by this woman’s form, does not ask that you add to the woes of this unhappy one, one only asks at your hands the pitiful privilege of being left alone.

The Master, while on Earth, while He spake in wrath and rebuke to the kings and rulers, never reproached one of these. One he forgave. Another he acquitted. You remember both — and now looking upon this friendless outcast, if any of you can say to her, ‘I am holier than thou’ in the respect which she is charged with sinning, who is he? The Jews who brought the woman before the Savior have been held up to execution for two thousand years. I always respected them. A man who will yield to the reproaches of his conscience as they did has the element of good in him, but the modern hypocrite has no such compunctions. If the prosecutors of the woman whom you are trying had brought her before the Savior, they would have accepted His challenge and each one gathered a rock and stoned her, in the twinkling of an eye. No, Gentlemen, do as your Master did twice under the same circumstances that surround you. Tell her to go in peace.

The jury acquitted Minnie Stacy unanimously after a few minutes’ deliberation.

Word of the speech traveled beyond the Oklahoma Territory, and the court stenographer was inundated with requests for copies.

Newspaper lauded it as “the most remarkable, the most spellbinding, heart-rending tear-jerker ever to come from the mouth of man.” It was even put on display in the Library of Congress.

The story goes that Minnie Stacy became a washerwoman in Canadian, Texas and died there in the 1930s, a reformed Methodist.

As for Temple, there was talk of a gubernatorial nomination, but days before his 45th birthday (and two years before Oklahoma statehood) he suffered a brain hemhorrage that left him blind and confined to bed, possibly brought on by years of suffering from St. Anthony’s Fire, a bacterial infection that drove him in his later years to intemperance.

Texans had a long memory, and while the Dallas Times-Herad declared backhandedly that he was ‘a chip off the old block, he had great gifts and strong passions. The gods were kind to him — he was not kind to himself.’

Contemporary attorney R.B. Forrest, said of him, “He could touch a heart of stone in painting its sorrows. He seemed to feel the agonies of others and portrayed them with electric power.”

The novelist Edna Ferber modeled her character Yancy Cravat after Temple Houston in the 1929 novel Cimarron, which was adapted twice in 1931 (and won the Academy Award) and 1960.

Maybe sometimes you don’t have to have a hand in world changing events. Sometimes it’s enough to show compassion in life, to be a good father, a good friend, to say the write words when they’re needed, and hope you’re a good son. Volatile, bigger than life, but very human, Temple Lea Houston’s one of my favorite Americans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Published in: on July 4, 2018 at 1:07 am  Comments Off on My Favorite Americans: Temple Lea Houston  
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If You’re Ever Down In Texas Look Me Up -Weird West Fest

Hey all, I’ll be appearing at the Weird West Fest in Giddings, Texas next weekend, December 14th (it was originally this Saturday the 7th, but the whole shebang has been rescheduled due to inclement weather).

I’ll be on the weird western panel from 2-2:30, and the HWA panel with Karen Lansdale (HWA founder and wife of Joe R. Lansdale) from 3:00-3:30.

I’ll be hawking books all day as well somewhere among the vendors, so if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time (or just swing by for an autograph or to say hi).

Should be a cool convention, as the lions share of it will be taking place in a restored 1880’s Train Depot and all of the Lansdales will be around, including Joe R., whose work my readers will know is a big inspiration for Merkabah Rider and a lot of what I do.

Check the link.

http://www.weirdwestfest.com/

Hasta Pronto!

TexasTom2

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 6:24 pm  Comments (2)  
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Happy 107th, Robert E. Howard

rehToday marks what would’ve been the 107th birthday of my all-time favorite writer and chief influence, Robert Ervin Howard, the creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, and a slew of others, and the father of the sword and sorcery genre.

Howard was an extraordinary writer and sometime poet who took his own life before he had the chance to truly blossom or gain the recognition he deserved. He never knew fame or steady success in his lifetime, but he accomplished enough to still resonate with fans all over the world to this day, including myself.  There is no greater writer of sword swinging action in my opinion.

Writing is a kind of alchemy, and the best practioners find a way to string base, everyday words together into a mystic formula that shines golden on the page long after the author is dust. The best parts of his stories enflame the spirit and plunge the imagination down lustrous, vivid paths. Howard was a man out of time and place, who dreamed of the past and idolized it, who could look at fields of churning oil derricks and see groaning monsters, who turned liquor store bullies into barbarians and saw dragon fire in the sun over the West Texas hills. He partly believed his own stories I think, saying they were merely related to him by individuals who existed somewhere, sometime. It’s his own belief in the worlds he is responsible for bringing to light that make them so enduring.

Everybody dreams, but not everybody can relate those dreams in a way that strangers can share in them and believe them too.

Hats off to the man from Texas. Next year, in Cross Plains!

Recompense

I have not heard lutes beckon me,

nor the brazen bugles call,

But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.

I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,

But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host,

But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.

I have not kissed the tiger-feet of a strange-eyed golden god,

But I have walked a city’s street where no man else had trod.

I have not raised the canopies that shelter reveling kings,

But I have fled from crimson eyes and black unearthly wings.

I have not knelt outside the door to kiss a pallid queen,

But I have seen a ghostly shore that no man else has seen.

I have not seen the standards sweep from keep and castle wall,

But I have seen a woman leap from a dragon’s crimson stall,

And I have heard strange surges boom that no man heard before,

And seen a strange black city loom on a mystic night-black shore.

And I have felt the sudden blow of a nameless wind’s cold breath,

And watched the grisly pilgrims go that walk the roads of Death,

And I have seen black valleys gape, abysses in the gloom,

And I have fought the deathless Ape that guards the Doors of Doom.

I have not seen the face of Pan, nor mocked the Dryad’s haste,

But I have trailed a dark-eyed Man across a windy waste.

I have not died as men may die, nor sin as men have sinned,

But I have reached a misty sky upon a granite wind.

Published in: on January 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm  Comments (3)  
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Win A Signed Copy Of Buff Tea On Goodreads

Hey all, for the summer I’m running a giveaway on Goodreads of my western novel Buff Tea from Texas Review Press.

In 1874 a boy leaves a comfortable life in Chicago and heads west to work on the burgeoning railroad, quickly finding the labor not to his liking. He joins a disparate group of itinerant buffalo hunters led by a tough old ex-Indian fighter named War Bag Tyler and they pass into Texas to participate in the great slaughter. The season draws to a close and death strikes the outfit. War Bag swears a Cheyenne Dog Soldier from his past is responsible. As War Bag plots a new hunt, a hunt for the Cheyenne, the boy must choose between life and death.

You can read an excerpt right here –

https://emerdelac.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/buff-tea-an-excerpt/

And this will take you directly to the giveaway.

http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/28249-buff-tea

Suerte!

Bigfoot Walsh In Welcome To Hell: An Anthology Of Western Weirdness

Coming at you from E-Volve Books is WELCOME TO HELL: AN ANTHOLOGY OF WESTERN WEIRDNESS, edited by the maestro of all things Sasquatch, Eric S. Brown.

First take a look at this cover. I think it’s one of the best my work’s ever appeared under to date.

Reminds me a still from the opening credits of a Leone movie.

I’m told the title of the anthology is a direct reference to the words the stranger paints over the Lago town sign in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, a movie I’m a tremendous fan of.

I’m in great company here – Stoker Award Winner Joe McKinney, fellow Dark Moon Books alum Max Booth III, Aaron J. French, Franklin E. Wales, Suzanne Robb and more.

My own offering, BIGFOOT WALSH, takes place inFredericksburg,Texas around 1849. A troop of Texas Rangers rides into town seeking one German doctor Wilhelm Keidel, to accompany them. They have received reports of Comanche Indian depredations in the hill country, and want to bring a doctor along as they investigate the remote settlements in case of wounded survivors.

Discovering a burned out cabin with its goods and weaponry largely untouched but its horses brutally butchered and womenfolk stolen, the Rangers are also joined by legendary Texas Ranger Lieutenant ‘Bigfoot’ Walsh (no relation to real-life ‘Bigfoot’ Wallace, though they are acquainted), a tremendously large and hairy individual who is said to be of Lithuanian extraction. He rides no horse, goes barefoot upon a pair of huge feet, and sports a Brand Rifle loaded with a broomstick lance, a weapon usually reserved for killing whales.

Brand Rifle

Bigfoot Wallace

He also dismisses the Rangers’ assertion that they are tracking Comanche Indians, pointing to a set of overlarge tracks in the mud. Their quarry is something altogether more dangerous, something Walsh himself has a certain connection to….

Fredericksburg is a real community, called Fritz Town by the old-timers, as it was established soon after the Mexican War by German immigrants, and named for Frederick of Prussia.

Fredericksburg was interesting and perhaps totally unique in their dealings with the local Penateka Comanche tribe, in that they settled for peace early on, and enjoyed a lasting armistice the surrounding Texans did not.

One cool tradition dating back to the signing of the treaty which purportedly continues inFredericksburgtoday is the lighting of bonfires on the surrounding hilltops during Easter Eve.

During the negotiations, the Comanche camped on hilltops all around Fredericksburg, and their fires could be seen at night. To alleviate the fears of their children, the German mothers told them the fires were the Easter Bunny boiling eggs to be painted for the morning’s hunt.

Dr. Wilhelm Keidel, who appears in my story, really was the first licensed doctor practicing in Gillespie County. A veteran of the Mexican War himself (in the First Texas Foot Rifles), he also became the county’s first Chief Justice, and founded the nearby town of Pedernales. He never refused treatment based on creed, race, or loyalty, even during the War Between The States, and was called ‘Butcher Knife’ by the Comanche whom he often treated (maybe something is lost in the translation).

Chief Santa Ana (who is mentioned in BIGFOOT WALSH) of the Penateka Comanche was a modestly renowned war chief, having participated in the Council House Fight and the Great Raid Of 1840, in which the Comanches burned out two anglo cities and conducted bloody raids all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, he was one of the instrumental parties of the Penateka band in the signing of the Meusabach-Comanche treaty inFredericksburg.

In 1849 the Penateka Band dissolved, reportedly due to a severe outbreak of cholera (which Dr. Keidel and the Germans of Fredericksburg were also dealing with at that time). Chief Santa Ana was one of the victims, though his son Carne Muerto (Dead Meat) survived and joined the Kwahadi Band of Quanah Parker.

My story says different, of course…

Not afraid? You will be….you will be.

The climactic scene of the story takes place on Enchanted Rock. AKA Spirit Song Rock, it’s a huge pink granite monadnock where the renowned Texas Ranger Captain John C. Hays supposedly singlehandedly held the high ground against a superior force of Comanches in 1841.

Legends about the area say that Comanche and Tonkawa bands held sacrifices on its summit in prehistoric days, and that it was a portal to other worlds. There is also a story of a Spanish priest who fell into a hole in the rock and was lost in underground tunnels for days, where he encountered hordes of mystical beings before finding his way out again.

Enchanted Rock (or Spirit Song Rock)

Just a few of the real life ingredients that went into BIGFOOT WALSH.Now go pick up the anthology and sip the brew I came up with.

http://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Hell-Anthology-Weirdness-ebook/dp/B0080JBAQ6/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1336577735&sr=1-5

I’m told the print edition is forthcoming.

Hasta pronto,

Ed

Van Helsing In Texas Places In JournalStone’s $2,000 Advance Contest

Hey all, JournalStone has released the top ten entries in its annual competition for a $2,000 advance and my effort, Terovolas or, Van Helsing In Texas has managed to wrestle a spot.

http://journalstone.com/contest/journalstones-2000-advance-in-2012/

The premise of Van Helsing In Texas is bookended by the concept that Van Helsing was discredited in the academic community following the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and that following his death in the 1930’s, his longtime friend and colleague Dr. Jack Seward comes forward with a series of unpublished personal papers to vindicate Van Helsing’s Name…

‘Following the defeat of Count Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing checks himself into Jack Seward’s Purfleet asylum, suffering violent recurring fantasies related to his destruction of the count’s vampiric wives and centering around Mina Harker.

Upon his discharge, he volunteers to return the ashes and personal affects of the late Quincey P. Morris (the American adventurer who died in battle with the nefarious Count) home to the Morris family ranch inSorefoot,Texas.

Van Helsing arrives to find Quincey’s brother Cole Morris embroiled in an escalating land dispute with a group of neighboring Norwegian ranchers led by the engimatic Sig Skoll. When cattle and men start turning up slaughtered, the locals suspect a wild animal, but Van Helsing thinks a preternatural culprit is afoot. Is a shapechanger stalking theTexasplains? Is a cult of wolf worshipers responsible? Or are the phantasms of his previously disordered mind returning?

The intrepid professor must decide soon, for the life of Skoll’s beautiful new bride may hang in the balance.’

Anyhow, doesn’t mean I’ve won anything, but those of you who know me personally know my family and I could sure benefit from it if I did…haha.

Wish me luck/say a prayer.

-Hasta pronto.

Buff Tea: An Excerpt

As promised, here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming historical novel, Buff Tea.

Set in 1874, it follows the adventures of a naive young man from Chicago as he comes into manhood in the company of a group of buffalo hunters plying their trade on the Texas Plains…

Here’s a brief rundown of the characters mentioned in this passage, for the sake of context –

Monday Loman – a religious minded mule driver from Kansas.

Fuke LaTouche – a brash young hunter from Baton Rogue.

Fat Jack McDade – a superstitious Missouri Ozark man and buffalo skinner. He keeps a three-legged cat named Whisper.

Frenchy – a somewhat sadistic French skinner and ex-sailor.

Roam Welty – an African American ex-Army scout.

War Bag Tyler – the grizzled old boss of the outfit.

The Weather Turned quite suddenly one morning.

            It was fine climate for drying hides, but not for men. The summer heat panted on our backs like a tired dog.  Fuke was of a sour disposition for a few days after losing Napoleon.  He repeatedly offered to buy our horses from us, but nobody wanted to ride shotgun in the bull wagon with Jack anymore than he did.

            Boredom overtook us, and there was little to do after we had finished our work but sit under the wagons and watch hides tan and meat cure. 

            Insects flitted through the dry grass and dropped dead when they got too close to the arsenic. This was an endless source of amusement for Frenchy, but did not prove very engaging for the rest of us.  It seemed that the time to pack up camp and move on could not come fast enough.

            A week passed and we saw no more buffalo, nor any sign that they had been south of the Wichita Forks.  There had been talk of turning back north, or west.  War Bag’s argument was that there was little sense in going over the same ground.  Roam was for going back, but I think it had more to do with his chronic unease aboutTexasthan anything else.

            We awoke one morning to find Jack unpacking his rain gear, though the sky was unclouded and bright.

            “Whisper licked his fur agin the grain,” he explained.  “So I ‘spect a gullywasher.”

            “Redneck hocus-pocus,” Fuke told Jack sleepily.  He rose and kicked at the three-legged cat out of spite.

            But by noon clouds were drifting in from the northwest, and a cool wind ruffled the grass.  It would be the first real rain we had seen all summer.  There had been overcast days, but the heavy clouds had always passed over and dropped their burden elsewhere. This time it would be dead on.

            It turned out to be a real frog-choker.  The land and the sky went gray and old with it, and we were soaked to the toes of our boots before we could scurry for our rain gear.  Roam found his tunic, Fuke his capote, and the rest of us donned buffalo coats (all save Fat Jack, who smiled and said nothing, the water running off his oil coat).  It was a hard rain, and the sound of every drop striking the earth rolled over the land like an ovation.  The ground turned to mud, and the going got slow and hard.

            By three o’clock the tempest died down to a light sprinkle that would have been pleasing had we not already been drenched.  There was a peaceful stillness over all the faded landscape.  The animals shook the water from their bristling flanks.  On days like these back home I would walk along the lake shore with the collar of my topcoat turned up, and watch the thousands of tiny drops erupt on the surface of the water.

            “It’s proof of God,” Monday told us.  His face was very white against the drab sky.

            “What?” Roam asked.

            “The Lord, renewin’ the land.  If you’ve ever leaned in the doorway of a farmhouse and watched the rain turn the earth to chili….seen the leaves of the green beans dance, and smelled that….I don’t know…fertile smell in the air.   It’s proof that He’s there, and that He cares.”

            “For being such a pulpiteer, how’d you end up with that pagan name –Monday?”  Fuke asked.

            The muleskinner shrugged.

            “My paw wasn’t very religious,” he said.  “My maw told me she fought him tooth and nail.  I was supposed to be named Michael, but paw said he knew too many Michaels of ill temperament.”

            “Were you born on a Monday?”  I asked.

            Monday shook his head.

            “It was a Sunday,” he answered.

            “No doubt you were dropped in a pew and reached for the hymnal before the nip,” Fuke said, chuckling.

            Monday blushed.

            “My paw, he used to drop my maw and me off at church and then wait for us outside.  I would always see him through the window, smoking and watching the road.  He was a strange man.  I used to think he was bad, or he had done something so bad he couldn’t go into church anymore.  Like…maybe God had cursed him for something, and if he went in, he’d burn up.  I remember asking him once when I was very small how come he didn’t come to church with maw and me.”

            “What’d he say?”

            Monday sighed.

            “I don’t recall the answer. Just the asking.”

            “Well what was your father’s name?”

            “Zachary.”

            I pulled a blanket from my saddlebags and wrapped myself in it.  My nose was red and cold, and I shivered in the saddle.  I found Stillman Cruther’s red wool muffler and tied it over my face.  That helped some, but then my nose began to run.

            Winter had given Fall a jump and our knuckles trembled as they gripped the wet reins.  The wind picked up and whipped about our legs.

            “Still think this is the good Lord’s work, Monday?”  Fuke muttered.  He had taken to riding with the muleskinner, saying Scripture talk was a sight better than listening to Jack go on about his queer superstitions. 

            Monday did not answer.  His mules out front were troubled, braying and shaking their heads in the harness.  They had not made a sound at the approach of the storm, yet now in this chill wind they seemed tense.  He spoke to them, too low for anyone with short ears to hear.

            I craned my neck up, feeling the rain on my face.  A flock of geese were cutting madly across the murky sky, buffeted by the wind.  Then I saw something odd that I never will forget.  The entire sky lit up with a crazy, twisting chain of lightning.  It flashed out like a bullwhip and in an instant struck in the midst of the flock.  They were burned on my cornea, little white ‘ems’ silhouetted against a purple flash, as of a photographer’s powder.  There was a weird honking cry and a tremendous crash of thunder.  Then twelve or fifteen of them dropped lifeless and blackened from the sky into the wet grass all around us like great, feathered hailstones.

            My mouth fell wide open.

            “Great God!  Did you see that?”

            Fuke was the first to laugh.

            He fairly leapt from the wagon seat and stumbled into the swampy grass where two dead geese lay smoking.  The smell was an acrid mixture of rain, static, and burnt meat.  Fuke gingerly reached out and grabbed them by the necks, withdrawing his hand quickly, unsure.  Then he snatched them up with aplomb.  He lifted one in each fist and stood smiling.

            “There’s proof of God for you, Sin Buster!  Manna from heaven!”

            We all laughed, exhilarated by the unnatural occurrence and warm with the knowledge of a couple of cooked goose dinners for the coming week.

            Jack did not seem so happy, though, and shook his head.

            “Y’all ought t’leave them geese be.”

            Fuke rolled his eyes as he returned to the mule wagon with the two dead geese.

            “Oh come on, Fats!  Don’t tell me your three tittied backwoods witches got anything to say about this?”

            Jack scratched his head gravely.

            “No, only…”

            Fuke cut him off.

            “Well I’ll be damned rather than look this gift hoss in the mouth.”  He plopped the two fat birds up into the wagon bed.

            We paused and gathered up what geese were worth it into the camp wagon.  Monday agreed to sit in the back and pluck them if Fuke would take the reins for awhile. 

            Fuke assented, but his command of Monday’s mules proved less than masterful, and they soon fell behind.  We could hear him cursing the animals through the rain.  Gradually he grew hoarse or tired.  I fell back to keep an eye on them, and rode in their tracks.  A little trail of blackened feathers began to flit from the back of the wagon and float between the ruts, as Monday went to work.  I frowned at the sight of them, for I was reminded of the turkey feathers we’d seen outside the pumpkin rollers’ camp.

            The chill wind died out.  The rain continued on for another hour, and we dozed in our saddles.  Jack sang a low song as he drove the bulls on, and the creaking of the wheels and the rocking motion of Othello grew hypnotic.  I tried to make out Jack’s words, but the melody was inseparable from the lyrics.  My eyes were as heavy and I flinched awake several times before giving up the battle and slouching in as comfortable a manner as I could muster.  I slept.  Jack’s wordless singing was the last thing I heard.

            It was one of those naps that seem to take place in an instant.  When I snapped awake, Jack’s singing had stopped.  The rain was gone.  Further, Othello had stopped to crop the wet grass.  Shaking myself awake, I saw that there was no one in sight.

            The gray prairie stretched out empty all around me.

            I had heard the phrase lost ‘without a trace,’ but never truly understood the meaning of the words.  I thought it was reserved for the snowblind and those unfortunates who fell overboard at sea.  Yet here I was, as lost without a trace as a man could be.  I had fallen behind and no doubt my comrades had continued on unawares.  I thought to resume my traveling with a nudge to Othello, but who knew if the horse had strayed from his course as I slept?  There were no tracks to follow (not that I could follow them anyway), no easily spotted wagon ruts.  All around me was the empty gray stillness of the rain-soaked prairie, a boundless, gate-less Purgatory.

            I remembered Roam’s advice not to go looking, but I saw no evidence of the wagons.  That terrified me.  I turned in my saddle.

            There in the grass were the almost imperceptible tracks of Othello.  Would Roam be able to find them?  Perhaps my absence had not even been noticed yet!  How long had I been asleep?  I could see mosquitos flitting up from their grassy shelters.  The hair on the back of my neck prickled.  I couldn’t very well just sit here until night came.

            I thought of Roam’s advice about firing a rifle into the air.  I had my Volcanic pistol.  In the storm I would have had no chance to be heard, but in this stillness, I found a hope and grabbed it.   I fished under my coat and prayed that the powder wasn’t wet.  I pulled back the hammer, pointed the pistol skyward, and squeezed the trigger.

            I was almost startled by the ensuing shots.  I had not truly believed until then that the gun would work.  I lowered the pistol new with respect.  It was a thing now alive in my hands, its acrid breath dissolving in the cool air.  I waited.

            I was ecstatic to hear in the distance (from which direction I could not readily ascertain), the reports of a rifle in answer.  I had not slept so long nor strayed so far as I had feared! It seemed to me the shots had come from nearby. 

            I raised my Volcanic again and fired, unable to contain the smile on my face.  In a few moments there was another answering shot, closer, and off to my left.

            I turned Othello to face that direction and stood in the saddle to see.  There was a low dip in the land about a hundred yards out.  Then there was another shot, and I saw the smoke flitting in the air.

            I put my gun away and pulled my muffler down around my neck.  Cupping my wrinkled hands out over my mouth, I shouted;

            “Hey! Over here!”

            Roam came up over the rise.  Though it was hard to make him out, I recognized his dark skin, his spotted piebald, and his union blue coat.   As he appeared, he fired another shot.

            I waved my arms happily at him, grateful to have been found.  I was still advertising myself like a fool when a bullet creased my right cheek.   It had sounded like a fly in my ear, and I had mistook the sharp pain for a mosquito bite.  I slapped my hand to the cut, and when it came away, the palm was red with my own blood.  As I pondered the significance of this, another bullet struck the earth beside Othello with a wet plop.

            With a revelatory tremor, I realized that the black man on the piebald was not Roam Welty. 

Buff Tea is up for preorder now from Texas Review Press and on Amazon. There will be a Kindle edition somewhere down the road.

You can pick it up here –

http://www.amazon.com/Buff-Tea-Edward-M-Erdelac/dp/1933896620/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1307772315&sr=8-1