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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 1
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Apr 3, 2018
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Harry Peyton Steger stepped out of his Uncle Verge's Steger Opera House, fumbled for a smoke and started a slow amble towards home two blocks away.  He needed time to think while he thought about time.  Harry had a sneaking suspicion that time had already run out for him in his gossipy little hometown.

As a boy growing up in Bonham, a little North Texas town named after one of the heroes of the Alamo, Harry had kicked clods out of his way and wandered, lost in thought, along the dirt-road Center Street that passed just east of the towering Fannin County Courthouse.  But this was a very different street now that he was a grown man kicking clods. And today was different from most days.

Today was Monday.  Families in wagons, buggies and surries circled the Bonham Square, stocking up on groceries and picking up one or two items at the local hardware store they couldn’t make themselves in their blacksmith shop at home.

And not just any Monday, either.  This was First Monday Trade Day and it looked like horse traders were thicker ‘n fiddlers in hell in downtown Bonham.

The first Monday of each month was horse-trading day around the square and every horse in the county had his mane trimmed, his tail brushed and a price on his head.   And not only horses, either.  Milk cows.  Mules.  Hogs.  Chickens.  If you could eat it, ride it, milk it, skin it, shear it or plow with it, odds are someone would trade you fair and square for it.

Maybe nothing told more about the man than his set of mules.

Harry had learned to tell what section of the county a man called home just by looking at the pair of mules he owned.  A small, lean pair of mules meant the man lived north of town and farmed the easy-breaking, sandy loam soil up along Red River. A big, heavily muscled pair of mules was a good indication this was a cotton farmer who worked the rich, thick, black gumbo prairies in northern Fannin County that had attracted so many frontiersmen to Texas in the first place.

Local cotton farmers had a favorite saying: "If you stick to this black land when it's dry, it'll stick to you when it's wet."

This was powerful soil where even stout mules struggled as they swelled in the harness and leaned forward to drag the moldboard bottom plow.  From one end of the field to the other, from dawn ‘til dusk, these powerful mules labored.   Many a cotton farmer prized a brutish set of mules, a dependable water well and a good woman, quite often, at least in Harry’s mind, in that particular order, too.

But more than anything, this one Saturday was about horses; horses broke to harness; gentle, old horses well past their buggy days that kids could still ride to school or young horses just now learning the feel of a saddle on their back and a steel bit between their teeth.

This was the one day each month a man with a good eye for horseflesh could come to town leading a broke-down nag and, four or five astute trades later, head home riding a Tennessee Walker without the sheriff’s boys on his trail.

Harry spun around to shield the south, summer wind with his back as he touched a match to a cigarette.  He pulled the tobacco smoke deep into his lungs and let it out slowly while pulling his cap down low over his eyes.  Turning back around to face the square, Harry couldn’t help but shake his head at the thought that this whole horse-trading business was his Uncle Ed’s idea, dang his hide.  Every man, woman and child around the square knew Colonel Ed Steger.  Today, they all seemed to know Col. Ed’s bookworm nephew, as well.

The questions showered down like a hard summer rain as Harry entered the town square.

"Harry, are you goin' to teach at Austin College?"

"Hey, does your papa know you smoke?"

"Are you studyin' law down there in Austin?"

"What happened down in Mineola, anyway, that you can't go back?"

The first two questions Harry answered with a silent, tight-lipped smile.  The second two he simply let roll off his shrugging shoulders like water off a duck’s back.

“Geez…what got into his craw?” the fellow who had asked about Austin murmured when he saw Harry wasn’t about to break stride.

"Aw, reckon his milk cow went dry and his chicken quit layin’," answered the man that asked about Mineola as he wiped a dribble of dark brown tobacco spittle off his chin with the back of his hand. 

The thought of any one of the high-and-mighty Steger clan fretting over a chicken made both men laugh for a second as they scanned the crowd for an easy mark.

Harry had a plan, a rather ambitious one, actually.  But as the pieces slowly fell into place, young Steger felt the sting of wagging tongues.  The year was 1901 and only four years after Harry Peyton Steger had blasted out of Bonham like a homemade bottle rocket and took Austin by storm, he seemed to have briefly fallen back to earth in his old hometown with all the grace and force of an anvil.

Reaching the stairway to his temporary, second-story apartment for the summer, Harry bounded up the stairs, taking two steps at a time until he could close the door on the clamor below.

Jabbing a blank sheet of paper into a typewriter, Steger slipped into his inner sanctum.  In the world of the horse traders bartering on the street down below, Harry was a fish out of water -- a minnow darting for cover.  Up here, he was a shark.  Now he was in his element, as practiced fingers danced on the keys to fire a missive to a close friend from his University of Texas days.

"Oh, ye gods and diminutive specimens of the piscatorial tribe, how I want to be back in Austin, where I can lapse into innocuous desuetude," Harry wrote to his old college roommate, Roy Bedichek.  "The inhabitants of this burgh seem to have realized that I am marooned here for at least a month, for they have been persecuting me systematically."

Wrapping up his letter to Bedichek, Steger pulled some advertising shtick out of the bag of tricks he had picked up working at the UT campus newspaper and then Harry closed the letter with perception far beyond his tender years when he predicted his playful way with words would forever have a way of finding him out.

Are you impotent? Debilitated? Is your back weak? Have a dry hacking cough?  Is your gait wavering and undecided?  Do you feel occasional twinges of pain, with a noticeable irregularity in the heartbeats?  A tightness about the chest?  Pain and soreness over the kidneys?  Oh, Beddy, if you have these symptoms you have been to a Bonham social function and nothing will do you any good...

With regards to the kittens, and the rest of the fellows, I am,

Yours very truly,

"Non Compos Mentis."

P.S. -- You see this is a pseudonym that nobody will ever guess is mine.  I am fearful lest the letters I write will get into the hands of some unscrupulous publisher who will bring them out after my death.  Therefore, this anonymous character.  The inimitable style, will, I am apprehensive, reveal me as their author.

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