Billy Gashade: An American Epicby Loren D. Estleman
Billy Gashade is a wandering musician crossing the young United States in the late 1800s, and introducing us to its most colorful characters along the way. Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, Chief Crazy Horse, Oscar Wilde, and many many more cross paths with Billy in this sweeping epic of American History from Loren D. Estleman.
Looking back on a long and eventful life from Depression-era Hollywood, the octogenarian narrator recalls his lost youth. Obliged to flee New York City at age 16 after badly injuring a Tweed crony during the draft riots of 1863, he left behind his privileged status as the only son of a wealthy businessman. Adopting the name Billy Gashade, the well-bred tenderfoot finds refuge in a Kansas brothel where both the soiled doves and their clients fancy his piano-playing abilities. Captured in the course of a brutal attack by Quantrill's Raiders, Billy rides with the guerrillas and is befriended by Frank James. After Appomattox, the wandering minstrel (who learns to play the banjo and guitar on his educational travels) winds up in Fort Riley, Texas, where he encounters commanding officer George Armstrong Custer. By now a self-sufficient rover, the erstwhile aesthete, who's developed a taste for wine and women as well as for the songs he sings to get his supper, treks the frontier. Along his wayward way, the resolutely nonviolent Billy has brief encounters with the likes of William Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid), Chief Crazy Horse, John Wesley Hardin, Wild Bill Hickok, and Oscar Wilde. Having loved and lost (to consumption) the fair young maid to whom he was paroled after running whiskey to Indians in the Oklahoma Territory, Billy returns to Manhattan nearly 20 years after bolting it, just in time to bid farewell to his dying father. Parlaying his musical talents into a low-profile career in Tin Pan Alley, he eventually heads West once again, this time with the infant film industry.
A fine picaresque tale that brings to vivid, mock-heroic life many of American history's western icons.
A brilliant creation. The dialogue is magical, the prose poetic, the characters earthy and real."El Paso Herald Post
"His entire story is a song, lyrical and alive with biting wit, drama, and the grace of a fine tale well told....Rousing and entertaining."Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Read an Excerpt
By Loren D. Estlema
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1997 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
My birth name doesn't matter, although that wasn't always the case. If you've patience enough to page through the New York Social Register — and in my time there were many who built entire careers on doing no more than that — you're sure to come across someone or other who bore it clear back to Peter Minuet.
No, my birth name doesn't matter, and I won't tell it now, even though all my enemies are dead. The truth is I've gone by Billy Gashade for so many years — full four times as many as I answered to the other — that if someone were to address me by the name under which I was baptized I'd keep on walking as like as not.
In any case, neither name displaces much cargo now. If you're the kind of moviegoer who sits through the opening credits instead of going out for Cracker Jacks, you won't find me listed there, despite the fact that I wrote three songs for Gene Autry to sing in Phantom Empire and two in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, and composed the entire score for a Porky Pig cartoon. Not bad in a Depression year for a man of eight-and-eighty.
I pocketed the cash for this work and let others slap their brands on it, not because I'm modest, but because any kind of attention sooner or later gets back to New York and I didn't want to take the chance of one of my old blueblood acquaintances recognizing my features in a wire photograph after all these years and spreading the news through the season boxes at the Met that the judge's son is making his living as some kind of Tin Pan Alley songster in Hollywood, California. I don't care a damn what they say, but my father always did, and I respect that dead gent too much to let those hypocrites have the satisfaction of dragging his name through horseshit.
It isn't a bad living at that. There are no summers in Newport or autumns in Europe, but I've a small apartment I find comfortable at Pacific Palisades with a dandy view of the ocean when I stand in the northwest corner of the living room and crank my head, a two-block walk to the bus stop, and at an age when most men require strained turnips and a bedpan I have my health. Not to mention a pretty young blonde named Myra to bring me my meals on those occasional days when I'm too stove up to go out. Her mother, my landlady, carries my rent when the studios aren't calling and floats loans to her oldest tenant when his less understanding creditors come around. But then I've always had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of generous ladies.
You'd know this one. Not so long ago, when pictures didn't talk, she did her communicating with Rod la Rocque, Valentino, and a score of other pop-eyed foreign male leads by means of a black lace fan, usually to their ruin in the last reel. She was billed as Annique Deriger, which if my drawing-room French isn't too rusty translates as Annie of the Erection; and she had her day right up until she tested for her first role in a talkie and her Flatbush accent landed her on her girdle square in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. Since then, along with a dead husband and property, she's acquired a fair approximation of a Parisian way of speech, which only deserts her when one of her succession of bad housekeepers neglects to clean an apartment she wants to show a prospective tenant, or she encounters a word ending in r. Underneath that voluminous gypsy scarf and pound and a half of makeup she's a good old gal with a heart as big as a Tennessee Walker. Daughter Myra's more steely-eyed, with a clearer view of what she wants out of the film trade and how to get it than her mother ever had, but she's sweet-tempered and more patient with an old man's guerrilla ways than most people her age. I think she's been an extra in a couple of programmers over at Fox. I know she sleeps with an assistant director there, and that's more than her mother knows. Women confide in me. Always have.
A deal more than three thousand miles and seventy-two years separates my palm-lined neighborhood from the Fifth Avenue of my youth, where I recall strolling home one day, a boy of sixteen, with my father from his club, and stopping to converse with one George Frederic Jones, a courtroom acquaintance of Father's, and his wife Lucretia. Jones was six feet and bore himself erect beside his birdlike and exquisitely seamstressed wife, who was pushing a perambulator. Its occupant, a grave little girl about a year old in a sparkling white linen dress and a starched bonnet trimmed with pink lace, took no notice of the conversation, appearing to be preoccupied with the gold elk's tooth depending from my father's watch chain, which dangled tantalizingly at her eye level when he stooped gallantly to retrieve the wood rattle that had dropped from her hand to the sidewalk. Ten or twelve years ago I was amused upon reading The Age of Innocence, by Mrs. Edith Jones Wharton, to learn that the Pulitzer prizewinning novelist had retained her fascination with such details more than half a century after saying farewell to perambulators and rattles. How different our lives have been. I've known associations whose gold teeth were extracted with a blacksmith's tongs from the jaws of their previous owners; but I am getting my verses mixed up. I'll sing them in their time.
My father was an expert jurist in a court system that routinely awarded the black robes to men who had simply managed to avoid personal scandal. Before that he was a brilliant and dedicated attorney with a firm whose partners had ascended to their positions by arranging not to be stillborn. So much genius and industry might have been regarded as unseemly in the New York society of the middle of the last century but for his celebrated family. That, together with my mother's line, less illustrious but nearly as old, guaranteed him membership in all the best clubs, and by projection the finest of musical educations for his only son.
I don't know how old I was when I first clambered aboard the stool of the Steinway grand in the conservatory of our Fifth Avenue town house, but I am told that at age three I was pecking out the opening chords to "Will You Come to the Bower?" without benefit of sheet music. My parents lost no time in engaging a tutor. One of my earliest memories is fearsome: A child with legs too short to reach the pedals attempts the bridge to the "Moonlight Sonata" over and over while an ancient dragon of a Viennese piano master with a Louis Napoleon goatee hovers nearby, keeping time with malacca stick raised as if to strike at the first false note. It never fell that I recall, but the implied threat remained, and to this day I am unnerved by men with thick European accents and chin-whiskers.
By the time I turned sixteen — at which point my song begins in earnest — I had performed in a number of successful recitals, and it had long been assumed that my future lay not with the law but with music. Although this was a subject of some ungallant gossip in a class that looked upon any sort of public exhibition as vulgar — this despite the fact that the beginning of the social season coincided with the Academy of Music's first opera production of the year — my parents were undisturbed: "Follow your strength" was a favorite axiom of Father's, and he would no more presume to turn me from the path that was obvious to me than he would have allowed my grandfather, a former head of surgery at New York Hospital, to suggest to him a course in medicine. The complacent belief was that in time I would take my place as a soloist with the great Philharmonic Orchestra.
Fate, however, is seldom complacent.
In May 1863, with the Civil War in full savage swing, President Lincoln proclaimed the military draft to be in effect. The selection process, based upon a list of men of eligible age compiled from the tax rolls and voting registers, began in New England several days before the lottery wheel spun in New York for the first time. The declaration that the draft was unconstitutional, made by a number of politicians and several esteemed judges — with whom Father chose not to include himself, believing the war a necessary horror in which each must take his part — had led to a number of demonstrations and minor civil disturbances in Boston, Massachusetts, and Troy upstate. Therefore the police were out in force when a crowd gathered before the Enrollment Office on the corner of Forty-sixth Street and Third Avenue on the morning of Saturday, July 11.
The event was anticlimactic. Neither the city patrolmen nor a squad of wounded soldiers assigned to assist them in maintaining the peace were so called upon. Spectators remained peaceful, although there was a murmur of surprise when the names of several firemen from the local Black Joke Engine Company No. 33 were drawn. Since firefighters were exempt from service in the state militia, it was assumed they would be spared placement with the Union. Nevertheless the crowd dispersed quietly when the doors closed at six o'clock.
Monday, July 13, dawned placidly enough for me, if unpleasantly warm. In other years the family would some time since have repaired to Rhode Island and the cooling sea breezes of Newport, but this year my mother, never a sturdy woman, was confined to her bed with strict physician's orders to avoid travel of any sort, and Father had chosen to employ the enforced stay in the completion of one of those legal tracts that were always so well received from one of his stature in the profession. This time he had honored me by requesting my assistance, and so I made no complaint about the heat and grime of the city in summer as I struck off on a research errand to the library.
I have ever been curious, an incurable affliction and nearly always personally disastrous. When I was five I climbed by means of a construction of ottomans, pillows, and the works of Sir Walter Scott to the top of an eighteenth-century chifforobe in my parents' bedroom, only to burn my hand badly in the pretty blue flame of the gas jet that had inspired the ascent. Alas, it was not a learning experience. As many times since then as my Need to Know a Thing has landed me in foul soup, I would in my present extremity sooner chase a siren than dine on pheasant. In 1863 I nearly died of this condition.
Brief though the walk was to the library, I boarded a horse-car to avoid exerting myself in the punishing heat. It seemed to me as I paid my fare that the driver, an old campaigner in a battered shako with an inch of cigar screwed into the corner of his mouth, looked me over with more than the customary suspicion of the confirmed urbanite; but then I had been brought up to regard these denizens of the world outside the rails that connected our parlor, the opera house, our friends' dining rooms, and Father's clubs as nothing more than fixtures in the scenery, and so gave his behavior no great thought. However, as I found my way swayingly to a seat I overheard gossip among some of my fellow passengers that set my pulse throbbing.
Reports had spread that members of the city's Irish element, sworn enemies of the Republican administration that had created the draft, had been gathering in saloons and public halls since Saturday to grumble about the situation. Bad tempers and cheap alcohol was not a mix to be considered lightly, particularly when there was usually a derby-sporting agitator from rival Tammany Hall on hand to buy the drinks and keep the conversation from drifting in less volatile directions. Several horsecars on Second and Third avenues had been stopped that morning by rough-dressed men armed with cudgels and iron bars, forced to unload their passengers, and turned back to their barns with instructions to the drivers to go home from there. Other men had been seen with axes, chopping down telegraph poles in the same vicinity and along Forty-sixth Street. Plainly the objective of these activities was to seal off the Enrollment Office. Trouble was in the air as thick as cinders.
It was a spectacle I was determined not to miss. I got off at the next stop and headed east on foot. As I did so I had no way of knowing that twenty years would pass before I returned home.CHAPTER 2
The rumors I had heard proved true the moment I rounded the corner onto Third Avenue.
There the carriage traffic, normally brisk at this business hour, was halted. A city policeman stood in the middle of the street holding things in check with an upraised hand while a party of laborers in overalls and flannel shirts black with sweat strained to lift a fallen telegraph pole from the macadam to the sidewalk. Impatient oaths arose from the stranded travelers, as might be expected, but it seemed to me that there was an added edge to the cries this day. The work progressed under the supervision of a second policeman, glum and moustachioed, who stood slapping the business end of his billy stick into the palm of his free hand while rotating his helmeted head constantly in search of interlopers who would hinder the operation for reasons of their own. That he was an Irishman was stamped plainly across his features; that his native sympathies and his professional sense of duty were in conflict appeared equally plain to my (admittedly prejudiced) eye. How divided we were then, and it was nothing so simple as abolition versus slavery, or an arbitrary line drawn in cold black ink across a paper map. Republicans and Tammany, Irish and Negro, rich and poor, assemblymen and suffragettes, the socially acceptable and the morally unredeemable; had a political cartographer set his pen to a chart of our tiny island of Manhattan it would have resembled a butcher's diagram, with all the sections outlined in angry red.
All this is clear enough to an old man who has seen the best and worst of his species at their most typical, but to a boy of ten-and-six whose most daring recent act was to take the March air in the back of an open phaeton without bringing along a lap robe, an unplanned excursion into the belly of the beast was jolly good sport, a prime anecdote to drop casually into the conversation next time the Reverend Eustace Abernathy's son Reginald brought up the weary subject of his sailing holiday in Puget Sound. Even Thurlow Rainsford, whose treasures included a brown withered scalp said to have been taken by his grandfather from a Huguenot captive during the French and Indian wars, would have to take second chair to the boy who brought a bloody riot still dripping to the circle.
The building, an unprepossessing two-story brick structure officially known as the Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office, was not the scene of pandemonium I had anticipated, although a sizable crowd had converged in front of its doors, blocking the street with their numbers and obliterating the sidewalk. Elsewhere, I learned later, hardware stores were being broken into to procure broadaxes for the continuing destruction of the local telegraph system, the tracks of the Fourth Avenue railway had been torn up with crowbars by the wives of prospective Irish draftees, and Superintendent of Police John A. Kennedy had been identified and bludgeoned within inches of his life by a gang of protesters; but for the moment, thanks in part to a show of force by some sixty police officers cordoned around the building, order reigned at the center of the tempest. As I stood straining to see over the heads of the crowd, the lottery wheel began turning inside, and each name as it was drawn was announced in a clear ringing baritone by a draft official standing atop the front stoop in gartered shirtsleeves and a straw boater.
I was not surprised that I failed to recognize most of the names. Percy Vandergriff's was called, but as he had just returned from Princeton to accept a position as junior vice president in his father's bank, I had no doubt but that he would report promptly with the three hundred dollars required to remove his name from the rolls. This provision, a bone tossed by President Lincoln to the Congress to secure passage of the Conscription Act, was the point of sharpest contention between the measure's supporters and detractors. It was said that it singled out the poor for military service while excluding the wealthy.
Chaos, when it came, arrived all of a piece. After about fifty names had been called, a horse-drawn hose cart with the legend ENGINE CO. NO. 33 splashed in elaborately serifed gilt letters upon its side panels swung around the corner, scattering pedestrians as the wheels ground to a halt in front of the office. This was the company from whose ranks several members had been selected on Saturday to serve the Union. On board were a score or more of firefighters in leather helmets and slickers and boots laced to their knees, carrying hooked axes. At sight of them a police whistle blasted and the uniformed patrolmen closed ranks, joining hands to seal off the entrance to the building.
There was a pause, and then a shot rang out.
Excerpted from Billy Gashade by Loren D. Estlema. Copyright © 1997 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Loren D. Estleman was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a BA degree in English Literature and Journalism in 1974. In 2002, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters for his contribution to American literature.
He is the author of more than fifty novels in the categories of mystery, historical western, and mainstream, and has received four Western Writers of American Golden Spur Awards, three Western Heritage Awards, and three Shamus Awards. He has been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, Britain's Silver Dagger, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, the mammoth Encyclopedia of Detective Fiction named him the most critically acclaimed writer of U.S. detective
Loren D. Estleman is the author of more than fifty novels, including the Amos Walker, Page Murdock, and Peter Macklin series. Winner of three Shamus Awards, three Western Heritage Awards, four Spur Awards and many other literary prizes. He lives outside Detroit with his wife, author Deborah Morgan.
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