First Herd to Abilene is the fifth book in this series featuring the hilarious exploits of H.H. (Henry Harrison) Lomax, one of the most colorful characters to ever grace the pages of a western novel. If you’ve never read any of the previous entries into the outrageous circumstances and succession of adventures that puts H.H. at the confluence of every major event to ever be recorded about the Old West, don’t worry. Author Preston Lewis revisits those earlier escapades in Chapter One, while at the same time laying the groundwork for what is yet to come.
Lewis contends that he came across Lomax’s memoirs while conducting research at Texas Tech University, and though he “can’t vouch for their veracity,” these tales of encounters with the likes of Billy the Kid, Jessie James, Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, and George Armstrong Custer (to name just a few) are told with such insightful historical detail as well as wit and humor that readers will find themselves totally engaged. “While some may question his credentials as a credible chronicler of the occurrences Lomax claims to have witnessed, no one can doubt his abilities as a humorous story-teller of the first rank.”
“First Herd to Abilene takes Henry Harrison Lomax from the end of the Civil War to three years past the turn of the century and, as in the earlier volumes, allows Lomax to weave another yarn about his encounters with some of the most memorable characters in the history of the Old West, folks such as James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, Calamity Jane, Jessie Chisolm and Joseph G. McCoy.”
It begins with Lomax grousing about his disdain for all Texans, “a breed whose stupidity, greed, and depravity was exceeded only by that of politicians and lawyers.” His bitterness is really the result of a later tragedy, but at the outset of the book he begrudges Texans for making a fortune in the cattle industry while he “received nary a cent for all the hard work I put in and all risks I took to chart the course to Kansas.” Additionally, Lomax feels slighted by Joseph G. McCoy, the entrepreneur who had the vision of transporting cattle by rail to Easterners starving for beef, but fails to give Lomax recognition and historical credit for being the first to blaze a trail from Texas to the stockyards and railheads in Abilene. That credit went to Jessie Chisolm, “an old coot who never traversed the route from Kansas to South Texas and back.”
It’s this bitterness that sets the tone for probably the most serious storyline of all the books in the series, with much of its 449 pages describing what it was like to be a part of the great cattle drives that defined this era in history. The arduous challenge of herding longhorn cattle over 700 miles from Texas to Kansas required months of backbreaking monotonous work that pitted cattlemen against the elements, disease, wild animals, hostile terrain, Indian attacks, and rustlers. It meant months of breathing in trail dust as well as the foul odors of the livestock, going without much sleep, eating the same food day-in day-out, no gambling or drinking, and very little human contact except between fellow trail riders… all of which grated on nerves and frequently resulted in the deaths of both man and beast. Preston Lewis certainly intersperses Lomax’s typical humor into this portrayal of a cowhand’s life, but he does so in a manner that doesn’t negate or gloss over the difficulties faced along the way.
Besides Lomax and the iconic historical figures mentioned above, Lewis creates a cast of characters that brings these hardships to life. Madlyn Dillon, an artist who has been spoiled and pampered her entire life, but the first Texan, male or female, to take an interest in Lomax and Joseph G. McCoy’s vision. Colonel Saul Dillon, her father. The Texas cattleman puts his trust in Lomax to get his cattle to Kansas and save his ranch. Ruth, orphaned by the Comanche but taken in and employed by Colonel Dillon. She falls in love with Lomax in an ill-fated relationship. Sainty Spencer, the ranch foreman who is sweet on Madlyn, and as trail boss is trusted to bring back the cash from the sale of the cattle in Abilene. Charlie Bitters, the cook, second in importance only to the trail boss, but whose cooking for the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War is said to have led to its defeat. Jose Munoz and Pedro Ramirez, Mexican hands that will tend to the remuda during the trail drive. Martin Michaels, a sketch artist on the side and the first cowhand hired, and Tom Errun, an Englishman with no experience pared up with Michaels to lead the herd. Silas Banty, a former slave, who looks to the future with optimism and learns to read from Lomax. Toad Beeline, little understood by his fellow trailhands because he tends to mumble when he speaks. He and Silas are assigned to ride flank. Trent Parsons, a former Confederate soldier wounded at Shiloh who spends his spare time with the Good Book, and Jurdon Mark, an affable sort who excels at the game of marbles, will ride swing. Lastly, Harry Dire, a skilled roper but a malcontent, Chuck Muscher, a Yankee troublemaker, and Bartholomew Henry O’Henry, another former slave angry about his past with a mean streak in him, will all be assigned to ride drag which only adds to their alienation and seditious attitudes. Their actions bode ill for the success of the cattle drive.
Bookending this description of the cattle drive and the fate of these characters is the story of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane told as only H.H. Lomax can, again putting himself right smack dab in the middle of the action over a span of years that begins in Springfield, Missouri and ends on that fateful day in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. But what does a “Rattle Jar,” head lice, an illicit game of poker at the library, a stolen gold Waltham watch, cherry pie, an impromptu lynching, counterfeit wanted posters, and the “romance” between Wild Bill and Miss Martha Jane Canary and their final resting place have to do with that narrative? For those insights, you really do need to read the book. In fact, once you do, I highly recommend that you go back and read the entire series. You won’t be disappointed!
Finally, to give a complete review of First Herd to Abilene, I need to mention errors in editing that I had not encountered in Lewis’ previous books. I seldom comment on SPAGs, but readers will undoubtedly come across them in the course of reading the novel. Preston Lewis is a great storyteller and a deserving winner of the Spur Award for western literature, but this book would have benefitted from a final edit before publication.
That said, as someone who once wrote that the “western genre no longer holds the public’s attention as it once did in cinema and published media,” I can definitely say that Preston Lewis’ books are the exception, helping keep western literature alive, vibrant, relevant and entertaining.
I received a free copy of First Herd to Abilene in exchange for my honest review.