Many a tall tale and legend have their origin in stories of the Wild Wild West. Few, however, are as colorful, humorous, often outrageous, and thoroughly enjoyable as the adventures of H.H. (Henry Harrison) Lomax.
In the six novels by award winning author Preston Lewis, readers have followed the character’s journeys and escapades throughout the frontier from his origins in Northwest Arkansas to his latest efforts to find fame and fortune in Colorado and Alaska.
The recollection of his life and times are allegedly taken directly from Lomax’s memoirs found in the archives at Texas Tech University. Lewis admits that he “cannot vouch for their complete authenticity,” but also states that unlike many academic historians, rather than question Lomax’s credibility as an observer of historical events or his acquaintance with many famous icons of the Old West, he’s focused on Lomax’s ability as “a storyteller of the first rank… a chronicler of the historical and the hysterical West.”
North to Alaska picks up the saga in the year 1877. The previous year Lomax survived Custer’s ill-fated campaign against the Plains Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and settled for awhile in Deadwood in the Dakota Territory where he’s linked to Wild Bill Hickok who is gunned down in a saloon while playing poker. Since some observers believe that Lomax may have distracted the famed gunman allowing Jack McCall to shoot him from behind, he again hits the trail arriving in Denver, Colorado where he finds employment as a bodyguard to the famous Denver madam, Mattie Silks.
Certainly Henry Harrison is no shootist, but when he doesn’t discourage speculation that he was the one to teach Wild Bill Hickok the fast draw and how to shoot, he’s hired on to protect Mattie and her lover Cort Thomson from a rival madam, Kate Fulton, and a phantom assassin conjured from his own imagination, Shotgun Jake Townsend. With the help of Mattie’s cook and housekeeper, Lupe – Lomax describes her as having “the biggest heart of any woman he’d met in a brothel” – he devises an elaborate ruse that makes enough “protection money” to set her up for life and provide him with a grubstake for a mining venture in the town of Leadville.
It’s here that Lomax is introduced to Susan B. Anthony. “If ever a woman had been suckled on lemons and preserved in vinegar, she was it!” It’s only a brief encounter, but since rumors seem to spring up about anything or anybody Lomax is a party to, he’s forever romantically linked with the suffragist.
Lomax has never been good at holding onto money, and is soon scammed out of the mine and all his cash by an unscrupulous lawyer, Adam “Noose Neck” Scheisse, who, it turns out, works in cahoots with the notorious crime boss and conman, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Not only that, but after drowning his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey, Lomax wakes up to find himself accused of murdering the lawyer who bilked him out of his claim and money.
There’s an interlude at this point in the book that briefly describes Lomax wandering the West while constantly looking over his shoulder for anyone looking to collect the $500 bounty on his head. He then ends up in San Francisco where an unexpected windfall (courtesy of an unlocked Wells Fargo strongbox) is the money he needs to head to the Alaska gold fields. “Finders keepers is what I always heard, and I didn’t see any point in countering that adage.” Of course, now there’s a Wells Fargo Special Investigator on his tail, so Lomax assumes the alias Jessie Murphy.
It’s now the year 1897 and the Klondike Gold Rush is luring hundreds of travelers to the Chilkoot Mountains looking to strike it rich. Initially intent on trying his luck, he instead partners up with Roger Meredith, a thespian and ventriloquist, to open the Gold Dust Saloon and Grand Opera House in Skagway, Alaska. But with every honest citizen he meets, to include the writer Jack London who he remembers as “Jack Paris or Jack Madrid or something like that,” there are conmen, pickpockets, thieves, and scoundrels of every stripe. Organized crime and escalating violence aren’t far behind, which soon brings Lomax back in contact with Soapy Smith and his gang.
It also brings Mattie Silks to Skagway to scope out a location for her new brothel. Fortuitously, she overhears a conversation in which Soapy admits to framing Lomax back in Leadville, plans for his assassination, and plans to kill her as well. Mattie doesn’t stick around long enough for the plan to be carried out, but she does expose the corruption in Skagway on her return to Seattle which sets up the final confrontation and shootout on Juneau Wharf.
History records that Soapy Smith was killed on Juneau Wharf July 8, 1898. It doesn’t comment on the personal losses suffered by Jessie Murphy (his dog Buck and Ella Wilson, a “soiled dove” who plied her trade at the Gold Dust, were both victims of the violence.) Nor does it record the arrival of a Wells Fargo Special Investigator by the name of Dayle Lymoine, looking to recover the cash pilfered by H.H. Lomax.
Looking to get his name and reputation back, Lomax sells his stake in the Gold Dust and returns to San Francisco with the detective. Even after repaying the money, he fully expects Wells Fargo to press charges. Instead, he’s asked by the lawyers if the rumors are true that he had a relationship with the famed suffragist. “As for pressing charges, we’ve decided courting Susan B. Anthony was punishment enough for a man’s lifetime.”
So ends this chapter in H.H. Lomax’s life.
North to Alaska contains many of the same elements that make Preston Lewis’ books both accurate in historical fact and fun to read for his reinterpretation of these events and the people involved. Was H.H. (Henry Harrison) Lomax an eye witness to history? Did he really live to write his memoirs or is he solely the construct of Lewis’ imagination? Readers might think it absurd to even ask these questions, but it’s a credit to a very talented author that the mere mention of Lomax’s name evokes statements from people like… “I’ve heard of him. Wasn’t he someone famous in the Old West?”
Each volume in this saga needs to be read and enjoyed, yet each stands alone. Preston Lewis does an excellent job of bringing new readers up to speed on Lomax’s past exploits, and he also summarizes his latest adventures and the people involved in the Introduction to each book. Knowing the plot before you open the first chapter may seem counterintuitive, but even my summation of North to Alaska doesn’t scratch the surface of what’s in store for readers. The joy is in the storytelling, not the historical facts. So, whether it’s H.H. Lomax or Preston Lewis that’s the master storyteller, the Old West is brought to life in a manner that makes you anxiously await the next release.
The archives tell us that H.H. Lomax passed away in 1933. This novel ends in 1898. I for one hope that there are many more adventures to come!