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James Lee Burke

Wayfaring Stranger

James Lee Burke Wayfaring Stranger
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Excerpt from book:

Wayfaring Stranger

Chapter

1

IT WAS THE year none of the seasons followed their own dictates. The days were warm and the air hard to breathe without a kerchief, and the nights cold and damp, the wet burlap we nailed over the windows stiff with grit that blew in clouds out of the west amid sounds like a train grinding across the prairie. The moon was orange, or sometimes brown, as big as a planet, the way it is at harvest time, and the sun never more than a smudge, like a lightbulb flickering in the socket or a lucifer match burning inside its own smoke. In better times, our family would have been sitting together on the porch, in wicker chairs or on the glider, with glasses of lemonade and bowls of peach ice cream.

My father was looking for work on a pipeline in East Texas. Maybe he would come back one day. Or maybe not. Back then, people had a way of walking down a tar road and crossing through a pool of heat and disappearing forever. I ascribed the signs of my mother’s mental deterioration to my father’s absence and his difficulties with alcohol. She wore out the rug in her bedroom walking in circles, squeezing her nails into the heels of her hands, talking to herself, her eyes watery with levels of fear and confusion that nobody could dispel. Ordinary people no longer visited our home.

As a lawman, Grandfather had gone up against the likes of Bill Dalton and John Wesley Hardin, and in 1916, with a group of rogue Texas Rangers, he had helped ambush a train loaded with Pancho Villa’s soldiers. The point is, he wasn’t given to studying on the complexities of mental illness. That didn’t mean he was an ill-natured or entirely uncharitable man, just one who seemed to have a hole in his thinking. He had not been a good father to his children. Through either selfishness or ineptitude, he often left them to their own devices, even when they foundered on the wayside. I had never understood this obvious character defect in him. I sometimes wondered if the blood he had shed had made him incapable of love.

He hid behind flippancy and cynicism. He rated all politicians “somewhere between mediocre and piss-poor.” His first wife had “a face that could make a freight train turn on a dirt road.” WPA stood for We Piddle Around. If he hadn’t been a Christian, he would have fired the hired help (we no longer had any) and “replaced them with sloths.” The local banker had a big nose because the air was free. Who was my grandfather in actuality? I didn’t have a clue.

It was right at sunset when I looked through the back screen and saw a black automobile, coated with dust and shaped like a shoe box, detour off the road and drive into the woods behind our house. A man wearing a fedora and a white shirt without a tie got out and urinated in front of the headlights. I thought I could hear laughter inside the car. While he relieved himself, he removed his fedora and combed his hair. It was wavy and thick and brown and shiny as polished walnut. His trousers were notched tightly into his ribs, and his cheeks looked like they had been rubbed with soot. These were not uncommon characteristics in the men who drifted here and yon through the American West during the first administration of President Roosevelt.

“Some people must have wandered off the highway onto our road,” I said. “The driver is taking a leak in front of his headlights. His passengers seem to be enjoying themselves.”

Grandfather was sitting at the kitchen table, an encyclopedia open in front of him, his reading glasses on his nose. “He deliberately stood in front of his headlights to make water, so others couIn his most ambitious work yet, New York Times bestseller James Lee Burke tells a classic American story through one man's unforgettable life.

In 1934, sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious armed robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends with Weldon firing a gun, unsure whether it hit its mark.

Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland barely survives the Battle of the Bulge, in the process saving the lives of his sergeant, Hershel Pine, and a young Spanish prisoner of war, Rosita Lowenstein—a woman who holds the same romantic power over him as the strawberry blonde Bonnie Parker, and is equally mysterious. The three return to Texas where Weldon and Hershel get in on the ground floor of the nascent oil business.

In just a few years’ time Weldon will spar with the jackals of the industry, rub shoulders with dangerous men, and win and lose fortunes twice over. But it is the prospect of losing his one true love that will spur his most reckless act yet—one inspired by that encounter long ago with the outlaws of his youth.

A tender love story and pulse-pounding thriller, Wayfaring Stranger "is a sprawling historical epic full of courage and loyalty and optimism and good-heartedness that reads like an ode to the American Dream" (Benjamin Percy, Poets & Writers).

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