Archive for September, 2016

2After participating in the Howard Days panel about the Lancer Conan series,  I realized quite a few are interested in Lancer Books and the later Zebra Books. The presentation (and my previous article) concentrated on Frazetta’s influence, but now let’s talk a little more about Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius, the founders of Lancer Books.

Irwin Stein had a journalist background but had an affinity for comic books and science fiction. He wrote for Quality Comics (chiefly known for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man) and later the romance comics line for St. John. When he left comic books to start his own company, Royal Publications, he published genre magazines (men’s adventures, detective, SF, monsters).

4Stein and Zacharime partners somewhere along the line. They formed Magnum Communications Corporation. One of their first purchases was Swank Magazine. Martin Goodman (Timely/Atlas/Marvel) was the owner at that time. Swank had a reputation as a quality men’s magazine. Aficionados of these things say the quality took a slightly downward slide after their takeover. Magnum Publications include Untamed, Lion Adventures and True War.

They then started Lancer Books in 1961. Later Stein hired Larry Shaw as editor. Shaw was instrumental in acquiring the Conan series and in getting Frazetta to illustrate the first cover. Mr. Shaw was honored with a special Hugo Award for lifetime achievement in 1984, a year before his death.

The early Lancer books had a distinctive green (often bluish looking) edge around the pages. 1962 saw the start of the Lancer Science Fiction Library. These sold for 75 cents at a time when most paperbacks were only 50 cents. Lancer realized they were pitching to a specialty market that would pay a premium. In 1966 they began publishing paperback originals with the purple colored edges. One notable entry was Michael Moorcock (writing as Edward P. Bradbury) doing a Martian series that owed a great deal to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

For Robert E. Howard fans, the key year was 1966, and the publication of Conan the Adventurer.  There is no need to rehash that story again; suffice to say everyone knew that the Frazetta cover was a smash!

Stein in an interview, from Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics by John Benson, talks about that first Conan painting:

Yes, those covers really put him on the map, I think. He was known mostly to the fans at the time. I tried to keep one of the paintings, and he threatened to come up with a gun. Well, most of the cover artists, if you said you liked something, they’d say, “Keep it.”  What the hell, they had very little residual value at the time. But Frazetta always had a huge sense of his own worth. And rightfully so. Generally, there were very few that I really wanted to keep for myself. But that was one of them, and I asked him for it.

In 1968 they reissued Conan the Adventurer and issued Conan the Wanderer at 95 cents. From the fanzine, Megavore, which featured a Lancer SF Checklist in their 10th issue comes this comment:

It tells you something about the popularity of the series that Lancer could jump the price so rapidly and not have to worry about the effect it would have on sales.

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Lancer was doing well and besides the Conan books published Howard’s King Kull, The Dark Man and Others, and Wolfshead. Larry Shaw left Lancer in 1968. He was replaced by Robert Hoskins. Hoskins, apparently a fan of S&S, edited an anthology Swords Against Tomorrow for Signet Books that mentions REH as a literary descendant of Homer.

conan-the-adventuer11971 saw the change from purple edges to yellow and 1973 brought with it the bankruptcy.

The details of the bankruptcy can probably be found with enough patience and access to legal archives but suffice to say Lancer Books was no more. Magnum Communications Corporation continued on with various publishing ventures and at least three other non-publishing ventures: Vacation Ownership Marketing; Capital Solutions I, and Fuda Faucet Works.

Gerald Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book tells the story of Harry Donnenfeld. Donnenfeld started National (DC) comics. Donnenfeld apparently had ties to gangster Frank Costello. New York publishers bought a lot of paper shipped from Canada. Canada was in full liquor production during the failed U.S. experiment of prohibition. Along with shipments of paper there was plenty of booze. So pretty much all publishers of exploitation literature (comics, pornography, and men’s adventures) have rumors of mob money.

3As mentioned before Stein and Zacharius purchased Swank from Martin Goodman (of Marvel Comics fame) and Stein worked for various comic book companies. So, yes, they traveled in the same circles as Donnenfeld and others that might have had mob ties. No doubt pornography publishing makes strange bedfellows, but no real evidence of organized crime exists. There was the occasional article in the SFWA Bulletin newsletter about Lancer not paying royalties and offering lame excuses and after the Lancer bankruptcy their remaining publishing arm, Magnum Books, republished books from the Lancer catalog that were in violation of previous contracts. So there were shady-doings but nothing that other publishers had not set as a precedent.

After the Lancer bankruptcy Walter Zacharius chose to start the Kensington Publishing Corporation (which included Zebra Books) with a new partner, Roberta Grossman. Apparently there was a falling out with Stein but other than a very brief mention in Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present by John Markert not much has been said.

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Zebra Books published 14 REH books:

  1. The Sowers of the Thunder
  2. Tigers of the Sea
  3. Worms of the Earth
  4. A Gent From Bear Creek
  5. The Vultures of Whapeton
  6. The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan
  7. The Lost Valley of Iskander
  8. The Iron Man
  9. The Book of Robert E. Howard
  10. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard
  11. Pigeons From Hell
  12. Black Vulmea’s Vengeance
  13. The Sword Woman
  14. Three Bladed Doom

According to Leon Nielsen in Robert E. Howard: A Collector’s Descriptive Bibliography:

[the] books were selling so well that Zebra capitalized on its success by adding the line, “Heroic fantasy in the tradition of ROBERT E. HOWARD” to the front cover of any book that might fit loosely into the category of heroic fantasy.

Second only to Frazetta as a fan favorite, most of the REH Zebra books featured art by Jeff Jones. Even the most conservative REH fan would probably let Jeff Jones go to the public restroom of his choosing.

Jeff Jones was a troubled fellow with loads of artistic talent. If Frazetta was power, then Jones was poetry. I think it is possible he could surpass Frank Frazetta as a REH fan favorite one day. His best work is breathtaking if not always true to the story.

Walter Zacharius was always an innovator. Early in his career he helped start the Ace Double Novel line (along with Aaron Wyn), and with Kensington he signed deals with Wal-Mart and QVC, and made the first forays into e-books.

One of his more exploitative tricks was during the height of Lee Iacocca’s success with the automobile corporation, Chrysler. Iacocca was popularly known as an innovative entrepreneur (there was talk of him running for President, as if Americans would vote for someone with no political experience!). He had a best-selling autobiography eating up the sales chart. Zacharius republished a previously little read paperback with the same title and it ended up as one of the best selling paperbacks of 1985.

Even with his other successes the Lancer Conan series was a hallmark. His New York Times obituary had this to say in summing up his accomplishments:

With Irwin Stein, he founded Lancer Books in 1961 to publish genre fiction, primarily science fiction and fantasy, notably the “Conan the Barbarian” stories of Robert E. Howard…

The New York Times knew “those were books!”

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Most Howard scholars could probably write an entire treatise on the things they wish they had related to Robert E. Howard’s work, starting with more of everything from a gifted author who died too young.

In amongst all those predictable wishes I could name is a minor but nagging one – that we had more information about his composition of the story Gates of Empire. Surviving correspondence discusses many of his historicals, but little related to this one has come down to us, and that’s a shame, because there’s nothing quite like it in the entire Robert E. Howard canon.

It’s a historical, but while it has detailed and thrilling action, it’s not grim and moody. It’s humorous, but its tone has scant in common with Howard’s Western tales, which are so exaggerated that they clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously, or even his humorous boxing stories, which, while not quite as embellished as the western yarns, still are many more steps removed from reality. Gates of Empire is both an action adventure and a comic send-up, and it’s a marvelous little tale.

It stands alone, a class by itself in Howard’s work, showing us another kind of tale Howard might have succeeded in, had he the interest, the time, and the market.

The story might very well have come off as grim and relentless as Howard’s more famous historicals, the famous four adventures that immediately preceded it in composition: “The Sowers of the Thunder,” “Lord of Samarcand,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” and “The Shadow of the Vulture.” But with its witty, bumbling ne’er do well protagonist, Giles Hobson, in the driver’s seat, it becomes an entirely different sort of adventure almost from the very start.

And much as hubris destroys many of the central figures of those four stories, its Giles’s own actions that launch him into adventure, misfortune, and the occasional turn of luck.

A Howard tale often beings in the midst of deadly action, or the plotting of same. Gates of Empire, though, opens with a discussion shared by inebriated servants who’ve invited themselves to the wine in their master’s wine vault. Giles, who’s more clever than his fellows, does lead the others in a plot, but it’s neither meant to unseat a ruler nor obtain riches – it’s a jest meant to get two aristocratic lords fighting each other for no other goal than sheer amusement.

sercerender4Giles may be clever, but he can’t see too much further than the end of his nose, even when sober. Once discovered as the author of the prank he’s forced to flee for his life, and when we see him next he’s been found as an inebriated stowaway aboard a merchant vessel on its way towards the holy land. Once again we find Giles’ planning short sighted, for the owner of the wine he’s been tapping is ready to have him heaved overside.

Fortunately for Giles, the ship soon comes under attack. As arrows fly, mayhem erupts, and men fall to left and right as the Moslem galley closes the distance. The carnage is almost exactly what we’d see in any other Robert E. Howard story, except that we’re getting something of a backstage view. Howard’s not focused on the lone hero or stalwart band who’s readying the defense or the attack. Instead, the camera follows a fellow we might normally have seen simply as a background characters. Arrows miss when Giles bends at just the right moment. He evades getting skewered when he trips and his vast bulk takes down Emir Shirkuh, who mistakes his opponent for a mighty warrior owing to Giles’s vice like hug, desperately thrown about Shirkuh so the redoubtable warrior cannot swing his own blade.

In perhaps this one way Giles could be said to resemble other Howardian heroes, for his strength is remarkable, even if its never used to succeed in bold exploits.

It’s Giles’ tongue that’s his greatest gift, another characteristic uncommon among Robert E. Howard’s characters. Giles may not be adept at long term strategy, but he’s a master of improvisation, soon convincing Shirkuh that he’s a relative of none other than the King of England, a lie that would have proved problematic for other mortals once he’s again with Franks, but Giles passes his first lie off as an exaggeration of his enemies, claiming instead that he’s merely the younger son of a Scottish Baron.

63a9e084e3e7525ebe873f415534f4e9He’s adept at navigating changing circumstance as well, such as when he first wishes to avoid the company of an army riding to war by travelling to Acre until he learns that the lord he’d wronged, Guiscard de Chastillon, commands the city. He quickly claims that “duty calls, and what are weary limbs and an empty belly beside duty? Let me go with you and do my devoir in Egypt!”

I enjoy this story well enough that I’ve written of it before, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a favorite scene that I already covered: the moment Giles is lured from his friends by a lovely dancing girl.

It’s the ideal demonstration of another difference between how Howard presents Giles and how he writes about his other protagonists. For instance, Conan is often a step ahead of us, his readers, whether it be smashing a giant spider with a quickly flung chest or out-thinking a swordsman in the midst of a fight. We’re not sure how Conan will get through, but know that he will, and wait to see how he’ll manage this time. The dangers that come at him are frequently surprises.

Giles, on the other hand, walks into dangers he himself has often created, and that we the readers can see coming a mile away. It’s impossible to imagine Conan unwarily following a woman down a dark hidden passage without suspicion, but Giles does, and we know full well she’s up to no good. He can’t overcome his situations with martial prowess and is unlikely to do so with brawn, so either dumb luck or inspired lying is his only real chance, and it’s a pleasure distinctly different to see how he gets through each challenge.

Howard maneuvers the elements of this story like a master cardsharp, keeping us so busy focused upon other things that each time Guiscard de Chastillon reappears it comes as another shock. The first time Giles encounters him after fleeing, it’s just another challenge amongst all those he’s suffering on the sea seems like it might be the last. The second “encounter” is a mere mention when Giles is offered the sanctuary of Acre, and comes as merely a humorous aside.

4190654_origWhen Giles becomes swept up into a great battle, there’s so much going on around him that Guiscard’s sudden appearance is almost as alarming to the reader as to Giles, and timed to perfection, leading to a climactic moment in the story that may be full of battle, but not owing to a protagonist’s heroic plan or charge! And it’s the enmity between Guiscard and Giles that lies behind a famed charge that ruined a battle and put Shirkuh on his throne, an event lost to history but rendered entirely plausible, as is Shirkuh’s good humored response when he encounters Giles on the battlefield shortly after the victory.

To me it’s always seemed that Howard had mastered the heroic historical fiction story in the preceding four tales and that with Gates he began to experiment with the form to amuse himself. He happened to have amused most readers who’ve chanced upon the story, as well. Unlike other writers who experimented a little with a different style, Howard’s work was a wonderful success. I can only wish that there were a few more just like it. But perhaps its solitary existence is remarkable, and entertaining, enough.

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

1905-rand-mcnally-web

Before getting too far into this, have a look at the section of a 1905 Rand-McNally map above. On the left is Palo Pinto County; near the center of the northern edge is a place called Christian, where a young doctor I. M. Howard practiced in the early 1900s. He also practiced in several nearby communities: Graford, just below Christian about five miles to the south; Oran, about five miles to the east; Whitt, just over the Parker County line to the east of Oran (the little circle next to the vertical “Creek”); and Peaster, Robert E. Howard’s birthplace, about ten miles southeast of Whitt and 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth (off the map to the right). The distance from Christian to Peaster is 25 miles, as the crow flies. On today’s roads, interested travelers can tour all of these tiny towns in one or two hours.

__________

[For a peek at Dr. Howard’s movements before the 1900s, look here.]

After a brief stint in the Indian Territory, where he had most likely gone to help out his favorite sister, Willie, Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard (IMH) returned to Texas, where his Physician’s Certificate was filed for record in Palo Pinto County on January 8, 1902. Polk’s Medical Register and Directory for 1902 has him in both Petersburg, Indian Territory (which I assume is a holdover from a previous notification), and Graford, in Palo Pinto County, population 19. He is the only doctor listed there. The 1904 edition has him still in Graford, but the population has grown to 24, one of that number being another doctor, J. M. Patterson.

But the Polk’s directory doesn’t tell the whole story, and maybe not even the correct story. I’m guessing that the 1902 mention at Graford is probably correct, but by the middle of 1903, IMH was listing his address on birth and death records as Christian, not Graford, which would make the 1904 listing another holdover. Polk’s does list one F. R. Bowles practicing in Christian in 1902 (population 50) and 1904 (population 90), but no IMH. The Standard Medical Directory of North America for 1903-04 lists both IMH and Bowles at Christian. It also adds that IMH was “licensed by examination without college diploma” and began his career in 1899.

And, since the good doctor was listing his address as Christian up to November 21, 1904, it’s safe to assume that that is where he and Hester Jane Ervin made their first home together after their January 12, 1904 marriage. (Today, the only remnant of that town is a road sign, “Old Christian Rd,” about five miles north of Graford.)

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There are no documents to testify where the Howards were from December 1904 to May 1905, but we can hazard a few guesses.

During that time, the number of medical schools in Texas was expanding and Dr. Howard picked up his diploma from Gate City Medical College, over in Texarkana, on May 1, 1905. While “the founders of these schools had the best intentions to offer bona-fide instruction in medical science, [. . .] they had too few resources. Most of them ceased operations or were absorbed by other schools within a short time.” Gate City was closed in 1911 when it was caught selling diplomas, but I think it’s safe to assume that IMH spent a little time in Texarkana before being awarded his. [1]

Also during that time, the newlywed Howards approached IMH’s older brother, David Terrell Howard, about adopting his youngest son. Wallace Howard told L. Sprague de Camp that Dr. and Mrs. Howard, “they come to mama and papa and wanted to take me and raise me as their, their foster son.” [2] David Howard was farming in Limestone County at the time, some 125 miles southeast of Christian, and had quite a large family (six children in 1904, and 12 before he was finished having children in 1919). In 1977, Wallace Howard wondered if he “wouldn’t have been better off” going with the doctor, but nothing came of the plan and before the summer of 1905, Hester would have known that she was pregnant.

Another possibility is Dark Valley, a few miles southwest of Graford. In July 1977, L. Sprague de Camp interviewed Florence Green, who was close to 100-years-old at the time. In his notes, de Camp writes that “Hester and I. M. Howard came from Christian miles away to Dark Valley as a young married.  They lived for several months with Mrs. Green who had a house a few feet away from the creek.” According to Green, the Howards stayed with her until their own place was built, “a little ways down the creek from the Green’s” and when it was time for Hester to give birth, “She went to Peaster, a much bigger town in those days, 1906, and some buggy ride away—a day’s journey—to have the child.” After Robert’s birth, the family returned to Dark Valley for a while, but “[t]hey moved away while Robert was a babe in arms—meaning anywhere from 1-2 years of age.” [3]

There are some problems with Green’s account. There is no record of the Howards buying any land in the vicinity of Dark Valley Creek; why build a home on property they did not own? Mrs. Green also, apparently, didn’t think it was relevant that it was Dr. Howard who recorded the birth of her daughter in 1907 (where he listed Graford on the Record of Birth); at least, it doesn’t show up in de Camp’s notes. Also, in Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp says, “During her pregnancy, Hessie was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors, but she never left her husband’s side. She traveled with Dr. Howard wherever he went” (pg. 32), information that must have come from Green, but how would she have known this when, shortly after receiving his diploma, Isaac Howard registered his credentials over in Parker County on May 12, 1905, and his name begins appearing on birth and death records that same month? Hester would only have been about one month pregnant at the time. And Peaster wasn’t the first place they went to in Parker County.

1905-05-23-whitt-parker-web

On May 23, 1905, Dr. I. M. Howard filed a “Report of Death” for a two-day-old child. The doctor’s address is listed as “Whitt.” The 1904 Polk’s directory lists three doctors in Whitt and sets the population at 430, same as the 1906 edition; none of the listed doctors is IMH.

Shortly after his arrival in Whitt, Dr. Howard appears to have partnered with one of those other doctors, J. D. Pickens, as their names appear together frequently on birth and death records in June and July. The last birth record filed by Pickens/Howard is dated July 19; all of these records list IMH’s address as Whitt. After that July 19 filing, the record goes quiet until August 16, 1905, when Dr. Howard was awarded a “Certificate of Registration” from the Texas Board of Pharmacy indicating that he had “given satisfactory evidence that he is a Qualified Pharmacist.” After that, he moved to Peaster.

From late September to just after Christmas 1905, IMH was listing his address on birth and death records as Peaster. Like Whitt, Peaster already had a doctor or two. In fact, besides J. A. Williams, the doctor who recorded Robert E. Howard’s birth, there was also a Dr. J. M. Blackwell, with whom Dr. Howard planned to share office space, as reported in “Peaster Items,” from the Weatherford Weekly Herald for October 19, 1905: 1905-10-19-peaster-items-weatherfordweeklyheraldp5

All three doctors appear in the 1906 edition of Polk’s, which has the population of Peaster pegged at 240. (A July 8, 1921 article in the Cross Plains Review announced Blackwell’s arrival in the area and says that he “comes well recommended for his work. He is an old time friend of Dr. I. M. Howard of this place, and a former partner with him in the practice of medicine.”) All of which begs the question: Why was it Williams and not IMH’s partner, Blackwell, who recorded Robert E. Howard’s birth?  If you’ve read this far, you probably already know the story. The Howards celebrated REH’s birthday on January 22, 1906, but, probably due to a delay in filing, Williams reported the birth as January 24. He filed the document on February 1st.

The last known sighting of the Howards in Peaster is a notice from the February 19 column, “Peaster Pencilings,” which appeared in the February 22, 1906 edition of the Weatherford Weekly Herald: “Dr. Howard is boasting of the only boy baby of Peaster in 1906.” After that, the trail is cold until a May 31, 1906 “Report of Birth” places him back in Graford, which is probably only where he received mail, since he was no doubt living in Dark Valley at the time.

All of the above makes the following paragraph from Dark Valley Destiny a bit shaky:

Robert Ervin Howard was born on January 24, 1906, in Peaster, Texas, a village in Parker County, ten miles northwest of Weatherford and thirty-five miles due west of Fort Worth. The Howards at that time lived in Dark Valley, a community of some fifty souls in Palo Pinto County, near the Parker County border; but Dr. Howard had taken his wife to Peaster, a larger settlement in the adjacent county, as her confinement drew near. He wished, presumably, to insure adequate medical facilities for her lying-in, as well as the services of Dr. J. A. Williams, the physician who attended Mrs. Howard at the birth of her only child. [pg. 18]

Patrice Lounet pointed out the biggest problem with this a few years ago: “If Dr. Howard wanted to ‘ensure adequate medical facilities’ for his wife, Peaster would not have been his first choice, but more likely the much larger Weatherford. Or even halfway from there, Mineral Wells, where physicians would be numerous.” [4] But if not for medical attention, then why?

In a 1977 interview with L. Sprague de Camp, Wallace Howard explained it this way: “The Howards are a moving people.” [5] And I can’t do much better than that. IMH seems to have been constantly on the look for greener pastures, and he never shied away from a dramatic move. Being a doctor himself, and having a partnership with another doctor (even though his partnerships never lasted for long), makes the “adequate medical facilities” argument seem a bit thin. I’m more inclined to believe that IMH saw an opportunity there that just didn’t pan out.

I’m fairly confident that one of the reasons IMH came to the Palo Pinto-Parker region in the first place was the railroad: “The Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern completed twenty-five miles from Weatherford to Mineral Wells in 1891. That year the company owned two locomotives and ninety cars. In 1895 it earned $15,561 in passenger revenue and $38,070 in freight revenue. The line was bought by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company in 1902,” the same year that IMH arrived. [6] And once the mainline was complete, the competition for spurs off of that line began, with rumors and speculation being reported in area newspapers every week; there was even some wild talk of turning the road into “a great transcontinental line” [7]. Of course, nothing quite so grand happened; however, “Construction of an extension of the line to the city of Oran was completed in 1907, and on to Graford the following January.” [8]

weatherford-mineral-wells-northeastern-web[Map courtesy of Abandoned Rails]

It may have been these rumors and speculation that encouraged IMH to begin purchasing land in Palo Pinto County. On October 11, 1905, while living in Peaster, Dr. Howard purchased part of lot 1, block 7 in the town of Oran for $50. This must have been a simple investment since, as we have seen, after leaving Peaster the Howards settled in Dark Valley. IMH listed his residence as Graford on birth and death notices from May 31, 1906 until at least May 5, 1907. But he may have been planning a move even before then.

On January 19, 1907, he purchased Lot 6 in Block 54 of the town of Oran for $45. Then, on May 25, 1907, he spent $200 for lots 7 and 8 in Block 7. A few weeks later, June 14, 1907, IMH and wife Hester sold “the North East one fourth (1/4) of Block Seven (7)” for $300. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the Howards. Not long after that, if not before, the family was living in Oran. From August to December 20, 1907, IMH lists his address as Oran. The week before Christmas, he re-filed his credentials in Palo Pinto County to correct a transcription error in his initials from “S. M.” to the correct “I. M.” Two weeks later, he was in Big Spring, way over in Howard County. The West Texas adventure had begun.

 

NOTES

1: Handbook of Texas Online, D. Clayton Brown, “Medical Education,” accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/sfm02.

2: De Camp, L. Sprague:  “Notes on Interview with Wallace C. Howard in Mart, Texas, 7/22/77,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

3: De Camp, L. Sprague: “Notes from  interview with Mrs. Green and visit to Dark Valley with Mr. John Dean McClure,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

4: Louinet, Patrice: “The Long Road to Dark Valley—Introduction,” accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.rehtwogunraconteur.com/the-long-road-to-dark-valley-introduction/

5: De Camp, L. Sprague:  “Notes on Interview with Wallace C. Howard in Mart, Texas, 7/22/77,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

6: Handbook of Texas Online, Chris Cravens, “Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern Railway,” accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/eqw08.

7: “Doing Our Best,” The Daily Herald. (Weatherford, Tex.), Vol. 7, No. 218, Ed. 1 Monday, September 24, 1906.

8: The Weatherford, Mineral Wells, Northwestern Railroad Depot, photograph, 1990?; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth29853/: accessed September 11, 2016), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Boyce Ditto Pub

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“After all I have done to keep clean,” she sobbed, “this is too much!  I know I am a monster in the sight of men; there is blood on my hands. I’ve looted and cursed and killed and diced and drunk, till my very heart is calloused. My only consolation, the one thing to keep me from feeling utterly damned, is the fact that I have remained as virtuous as any girl. And now men believe me otherwise. I wish I … I … were dead!”

Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Helen Tavrel returned from her eventful, and bloody, cruise to the Low Countries and shared in its profits. Her captain, Troels Hansen, sold the two shiploads of armaments originally meant for Russia, to various rogues of the buccaneer trade in Tortuga and Port Royal. Helen received her share according to the articles of the voyage. Her foster father, Roger O’Farrel, no longer a young man, was living more quietly now. He made his living – for he had medical training – selling well-equipped medical chests to the surgeons of pirate ships.

He had taken a modest amount of land on Tortuga, and a house in the town. He was friendly with the French Governor, Bertrand d’Ogeron. (A Governor d’Ogeron appears in some of Sabatini’s Captain Blood yarns, but anachronistically; the real d’Ogeron died in 1676, in Paris.)  His Cuban servants Ramon and Eulalia, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, had moved to Tortuga with him. So had their daughter Renata, Helen’s closest friend. Renata was about to marry a young French pirate who was leaving the red trade and taking land under d’Ogeron’s scheme. Helen went to their wedding, as did her foster father, and they gave the couple generous presents to start their married life. Helen had a wistful moment or two as she drank to their future. But she was convinced no man existed who could compare to Roger O’Farrel, and her view of her fellow pirates in general was not rosy. Hansen and le Ban were probably the best of a scurvy lot. No, a decent life with a decent husband seemed to be absent from the cards for Helen Tavrel. Even Renata’s man might get restless and desert her someday …

Helen stayed in Tortuga with O’Farrel for a short time. She even considered settling down, but the thought was like a thought of death, too tedious for bearing. She was not twenty yet. She loved the sea and her wild, adventurous life. Her greatest model, her only one, was O’Farrel. Her credo might have been the one Robert E. Howard set down in his poem, “The Day That I Die.”

“And ye that name me in after years,
This shall ye say of me:

“That I followed the road of the restless gull
As free as a vagrant breeze,
That I bared my breast to the winds’ unrest
And the wrath of the driving seas.

“That I loved the song of the thrumming spars
And the lift of the plunging prow,
But I could not bide in the seaport towns
And I could not follow the plow.

“For ever the wind came out of the east
To beckon me on and on,
The sunset’s lure was my paramour
And I loved each rose-pale dawn.”

Ntw_i_sloopNevertheless, the slaughter of the arms ships’ crews made her dreams uneasy sometimes. Helen decided to try her luck as captain of her own craft – a sloop, fast and light, such as those in the trade often found convenient for inshore work. And she decided to raid Havana, where she had once lived, and where O’Farrel had been cheated by the Captain General.  Francisco Oregón y Gascón had ceased to hold the office only that year. The new Captain General, another Francisco (Rodríguez de Ledesma) did not know her or O’Farrel. He was about to.

Helen did not sail directly for Havana. Her pirate sloop was too obviously just that for entry into the city’s harbor, unnoticed and unchallenged, to be possible. Instead she sailed east, to Puerto Rico, where – as in Cuba – there was a huge contraband trade due to the Spanish crown’s taxes on legal commerce.  Off the mountainous island, she successfully waylaid a Spanish nao, called the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación.

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This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.