The Mystery of the Wichita Falls Country

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[by Rob Roehm. Originally published January 10, 2012, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]

I love a mystery. Unfortunately, I never have enough time to spend in Texas, where most of my favorite mysteries are, but I did manage a trip during the first week of January 2012 with my dad. Besides exploring several old Texas towns, this trip was also full of courthouses and documents. The mystery at hand was Robert E. Howard’s vague reference to the “Wichita Falls country” in his circa October 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

Why, by the time I was nine years old I’d lived in the Palo Pinto hills of Central Texas; in a small town only fifty miles from the Coast; on a ranch in Atascosa County; in San Antonio; on the South Plains close to the New Mexican line; in the Wichita Falls country up next to Oklahoma; and in the piney woods of Red River over next to Arkansas.

This laundry list of locations was repeated close to a year later in a letter to Wilfred B. Talman:

I was born in the little ex-cowtown of Peaster, about 45 miles west of Fort Worth, in the winter of 1906, but spent my first summer in lonely Dark Valley among the sparsely settled Palo Pinto hills. From then until I was nearly nine years old I lived in various parts of the state — in a land-boom town on the Staked Plains, near the New Mexico line; in the Western Texas sheep country; in San Antonio; on a ranch in South Texas; in a cattle town on the Oklahoma line, near the old North Texas oil-fields; in the piney woods of East Texas; finally in what later became the Central West Texas Oil-belt.

Now, let’s connect the dots. Peaster, Dark Valley, and the “Palo Pinto hills” require no explanation. The “South Plains” and “Staked Plains” near New Mexico are references to Seminole, where the Howards lived from late-January to at least August 1908. “Western Texas sheep country” must be Bronte, where the Howards lived from September 1908 to  at least August 27, 1909. For San Antonio and Atascosa County, we turn to Dr. I. M. Howard’s November 7, 1936 letter to his sister-in-law, Jess Searcy:

I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.

We also have Dr. Howard’s medical registrations for those places. He registered in San Antonio on November 20, 1909, and in Atascosa County on January 8, 1910 (just two days after Robert’s 4th birthday), with a mailing address at Poteet. This appears to be the location of the “ranch in South Texas.”

The “piney woods” are located in Bagwell, Red River County, where the Howards lived starting in 1913. The “Central West Texas Oil-belt” is the region surrounding and including Cross Plains. That leaves us with only two unidentified locations: “a small town only fifty miles from the Coast” and the “cattle town on the Oklahoma line, near the old North Texas oil-fields,” i.e. the “Wichita Falls country.” I haven’t done much traveling near the coast, so let’s see what we can find near the Oklahoma line.

“Wichita Falls country” has been a problem for biographers starting with L. Sprague de Camp. In Dark Valley Destiny, he handles it this way:

The Howards’ next move was to a place near Wichita Falls. Although there is no record of Dr. Howard’s medical registration in the District Clerk’s Office in any of the three nearby counties—Wichita, Clay, or Archer—Robert later told Lovecraft that his family had made their home in a little cattle town near the old North Texas oil field, which lies in the Wichita Falls area.

De Camp was wrong on at least one point, but we’ll get to that later. Some time after DVD was published, Howard fans started focusing on Burkburnett as the most likely “little cattle town.” A quick look at a Texas map will show that it is in Wichita Falls country and certainly near, if not on, “the Oklahoma line.”

Due to its format and intended audience, the next biographical work, Rusty Burke’s A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard, bypasses the issue completely: “Isaac Howard seems to have been possessed of a combination of wanderlust and ambition that led him to move his family frequently in search of better opportunities. By the time he was eight, Robert had lived in at least seven different, widely scattered Texas towns.” However, in Seanchai 111 (REHupa mailing 197, Feb. 2006), Burke notes the following:

Robert himself seems to suggest that, during at least some part of this three-year period [1911 to 1913], the Howards were living near the Oklahoma line, in what he calls “the Wichita Falls country” in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, and told Talman was “a cattle town. . . near the old North Texas oil fields.” Thus far no documentary evidence for this has been located.

Burke ends the section with this:

In 1911 the North Central oil fields produced almost 900,000 barrels of oil; in 1912 the figure was over 4 million and in 1913 over 8 million barrels. Either Electra or Burkburnett might qualify in REH’s mind as an “ex-cowtown,” since both had their beginnings in association with large ranches. Unless some other evidence comes to light, we will never really know whether Howard lived in the “Wichita Falls country” at all. If he did, it would have given him his first experience of an oil boom town.

Both Electra and Burkburnett are in Wichita County, with Wichita Falls serving as the county seat. Any investigation of Howard’s claim would have to include a stop in that county, but before we hit the road there’s one more source to check.

The most recent biography, Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, 2nd edition, has this: “The years 1911 and 1912 are pretty confusing. Robert mentions [. . .] that he lived in the Wichita Falls area up next to Oklahoma.” After recounting Howard’s description of the area, Finn adds the following:

The evidence suggests that Isaac pulled the family out to the burgeoning Burkburnett Oil Field in North Texas to see if it suited him. When oil was struck in 1912, the town became swamped as a torrent of people invaded the area in what had become the usual boomtown fashion.

Finn goes on to say that the Howards then returned to the Palo Pinto area before moving on to Red River County and Bagwell. This makes some sense, though I haven’t found any evidence of their return to that area.

With all of the book work finished, let’s look at the map. Howard’s use of “Wichita Falls country” leaves lots of wiggle room. De Camp says he looked in three counties— Wichita, Clay, and Archer—maybe by expanding the net to include nearby Wilbarger, Baylor, and Montague Counties, I could find something. Montague County was especially enticing: Dr. Howard had registered there in May 1900, could a return to familiar stomping grounds be the solution? My dad and I made our plans and hit the road on January 1, 2012.

After spending some time near Waco, we headed up to the Wichita Falls country: first stop, Montague County. After searching several courthouses in the days preceding our arrival, we were old hands at searching for what we were after. We scoured the land purchases from 1899 to 1915 and found nothing. Neither the County nor District Clerk knew anything about a physicians’ registry.

Over in Henrietta, the County Seat of Clay County, our luck changed. We walked into the courthouse and learned that the County Clerk’s office, where land records are held, was no longer in the courthouse itself, but located just across the street. The District Clerk’s office was just down the hall, so we hit that first. Once there, we asked about a physicians’ registry from the early 1900s. The clerk was surprised by our request, saying, “No one has ever asked for that before.” Despite this, she had no trouble finding it. I opened it up to the section marked “G H” and there it was: “Howard, I. M. – 51.”

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Breathless, I turned to page 51 and found the answer to the mystery of the Wichita Falls country: on December 19, 1912, Doc Howard was standing right there in the Clay County courthouse, presenting his credentials. The book must have been missed by whoever the District Clerk was back when de Camp was looking for it.

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While these physicians’ registries don’t actually tell you when the physician arrived in the county, it does appear that doctors needed to register before starting to practice; in all of the counties that I’ve found documents pertaining to Dr. Howard—birth and death records, mostly—the first one is always his registration. If this is how things worked, then the Howards must have moved sometime between the doctor’s last birth notice in Palo Pinto County—dated October 18, 1912—and his registration in Clay County—December 19, 1912. Not a big window, but where in the county did they land? A typed statement signed by Doctor Howard (above) says that his “post office address” was Byers, Texas (a scene from Byers circa 1910-20 heads this post).

I turned to the clerk: “Do you know where Byers is?”

“Sure,” she said. “It’s up north on 79, about five miles from the Oklahoma line.”

As I chatted with the clerk, my dad took several pictures of the book and its pages, with two different cameras. When he was finished, we crossed the street to the County Clerk’s office. No land records for I. M. Howard were found. Next stop, Byers.

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The town (above) will require a little more looking into, maybe there’s a newspaper or library, but based on what we saw in our drive-by I doubt it: lots of crumbling buildings and abandoned storefronts.

Even though we’d solved the mystery, my dad and I continued with our original plan and headed west to Wichita Falls. The Wichita County library and courthouse had no relevant information. The District Clerk there looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for a physicians’ registry; the County Clerk had never heard of one but did spend some time looking around, to no avail. From there, we went to Burkburnett and found nothing useful in their library. At Electra (seen below in 1912), we found a superior library, but no information on the Howards. Wichita County was all tapped out.

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Despite the lack of evidence in Wichita County, Isaac Howard may well have worked there, too. Without a physicians’ registry, there’s no way to rule it out. He was, after all, always trying to expand his territory, and what’s a county line to a country doctor? But at least we now know—without question—that I. M. Howard practiced in Byers, near “the Oklahoma line,” and we finally have the evidence to back up Robert Howard’s claim that he once lived in the Wichita Falls country.

Now, what towns are fifty miles from the Coast?

“We Spent the Winter in San Antonio.”

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[by Rob Roehm. Originally published Sept. 7, 2013, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]

One of the reasons I was so gung-ho about going to WorldCon this year was because it was in San Antonio. Readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m a tad obsessed with visiting county courthouses in Texas, and, up to this point, I hadn’t been to the Bexar County facility. There are reasons for this: I have generally found that the larger the courthouse, the less helpful they are; also, my usual traveling companion (my dad) disdains to drive in populated areas. But, since the Howards had lived briefly in San Antonio and visited on occasion, a stop at the courthouse was required. So, since I’d be traveling solo this time, I figured I’d brave the traffic and see what treasures I could uncover.

I’d originally planned on swinging by the courthouse in the morning, before my first WorldCon panel on Friday; however, I lost half an hour due to construction and the abysmal parking situation downtown, so I abandoned that plan and went to the convention center. During a lull between panels, I decided to take a walk. I asked my fellow Howard-heads if anyone else was interested; only equally-obsessed Patrice Louinet took the bait [that’s him in the photo above].

We walked the five or six blocks to the courthouse, emptied our pockets and walked through the metal detector, only to be told by the guard that everything we were looking for was at the annex across the street. We refilled our pockets and hit the county clerk’s office in the other building.

One good thing about the larger counties is that their land records have been scanned and indexed. A quick name search on the computer will generate a list of all the pertinent documents. I searched for Howards and McClungs while Patrice looked for Ervins. None of the Howards that popped up appeared to be connected to our Howards, but there was one item on W. O. McClung, Bob Howard’s uncle (Dr. Howard’s brother-in-law). The document raises more questions than it answers. Some kind of judgment was rendered against McClung and a few others, but the type of judgment is not mentioned and the clerk couldn’t find any other documents to help us make sense of this one. And it’s always possible that this McClung isn’t our McClung, though they were definitely in the area around that time. Maybe someone will look into it later.

After finishing up with the county clerk, we went down the hall to the district clerk, which is where medical/physicians registries are typically housed. There were at least two reasons for looking into this. In a November 7, 1936 letter to a sister-in-law, Dr. Howard says the following: “I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” In Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp reports this:

[O]n January 8, 1910, Dr. Howard presented his credentials at the county seat of Bexar County, giving his home address as Poteet, a few miles from the border. Years later Howard reported that he lived for a time on a ranch in Atascosa County, Texas, near San Antonio. These bare facts are the only records we have of the family’s South Texas adventures.

I already have a copy of the registration mentioned above, but it’s a crappy scan of a photocopy, and I always like to have color photographs of the real thing. Plus, there’s a problem with de Camp’s statement: The January 8, 1910 document was filed by the district clerk of Atascosa County, not Bexar County. Of course, when I went to the county seat of Atascosa County last winter, they couldn’t find a Medical Registry, so maybe, I figured, the book was housed in the larger county’s archives. Anyway, I wanted to have a look at the Medical Register for Bexar County.

With one exception, Clay County, the district clerks’ offices never know that they should have such a volume; Bexar County was no exception. Luckily, the director of archives happened to be in the building and he called over to his office. Someone there located the volume I wanted; unfortunately, the archives collection was clear across town. As Patrice and I walked back to the convention center, in the blazing, humid heat, I tried to decide if I really needed a color photograph of a document I already had a copy of. Obsession won.

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Leaving a trail of sweat behind, we arrived at the Bexar County Archives and Training Center—they were expecting us. We drank gallons of water and wiped the sweat off of our bald heads with paper towels while waiting for the book to arrive. The book (above) has seen better days, but its index is still intact, so I turned to the section marked “H,” found Dr. Howard, and went to page 260. I didn’t remember the short list of Dr. Howard’s other registrations at the bottom of the page, but I was so convinced that I already had a copy of this document that I didn’t pay much attention to that. After taking a few photos, we settled back and waited for a taxi—if we’d tried to hike back in the sweltering heat, there’d be nothing left of us but a sweaty smear on the sidewalk.

In the cab, I inspected the digital images a little more thoroughly in my camera’s display window and started to think that maybe this wasn’t the same document that I already had, but we arrived back at the convention center and I put that thought on the back-burner and enjoyed the rest of WorldCon.

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Once I got home, I pulled the image up on my computer and had a better look. Different document. The registration de Camp mentioned was indeed filed on January 8, 1910—but in Atascosa County, not Bexar—and Dr. Howard’s address is listed as Poteet. This document was filed on November 20, 1909, in Bexar County, and Dr. Howard’s address (after crossing out what would have been Holly Springs, in Arkansas) is listed as San Antonio! Plus, at the end of the page is a list of other counties in which Dr. Howard had registered: Palo Pinto (Oran), Gaines (Seminole), and Coke (Bronte). Some of the information here flies in the face of what has been presented in the past. For example, according to notes by de Camp’s partner in DVD, Jane Griffith, Dr. Howard registered at Seminole on the day that the Bexar Co. document has him registering in Coke County—I’ll take a document over someone’s notes any day of the week.

Using this document, and a couple of newspaper articles I found just before going to San Antonio, I’ve put together a more precise timeline for December 1907 to January 1910. To wit:

On December 20, 1907, I. M. Howard of Oran, Palo Pinto County, had his medical certificate recorded with the county. Shortly after doing that, he packed up his wife and almost two-year-old son and headed west. The January 3, 1908 edition of The Enterprise (edited by Hester Howard’s brother, William Vinson Ervin, in Big Spring, Texas), has this:

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“Monday” would have been Dec. 30, 1907, and don’t go scrambling for a map to look up “Cran” like I did; there is a Crane, Texas, very close to Big Spring, but as soon as I showed this to Patrice he said it is “of course Oran.” Duh.

The January 24 Enterprise has an update:

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The new San Antonio registration has Dr. Howard registering in Gaines Co. on February 3, and we know from a death record that he was there until at least July 24. The same document has him registering over in Coke County on September 14, 1908, and he starts recording births in Bronte at least as early as January 19, 1909. The last birth record I’ve found there with Dr. Howard attending was recorded on August 24, 1909.

I’ve theorized that after leaving Bronte the Howards visited the McClungs in Crystal City and went down the Nueces in the fall of 1909 (look here). Whether they did that then or not, we now know that they were in San Antonio sometime before November 20, 1909. Less than two months later, Dr. Howard registered in Atascosa County, with an address in Poteet. From there, things get pretty sketchy again.

I never did get a picture of the Atascosa County registration.

Down the Nueces

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[by Rob Roehm. Originally published Jan. 17, 2013, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]

As a child I crossed the South Plains, not in a covered wagon indeed, but in a buggy, in what was about the last big colonization movement in Texas—the settlement of the Great Plains. (I did go down the Nueces in a covered wagon.) I also saw the beginning of the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

After reading the above, from Howard’s newly rediscovered letter to Dime Sports, I got to wondering about a few things. The “South Plains” comment refers to Howard’s time in Gaines County—Seminole, to be precise—in 1908, but the other items are pretty vague. What else did Howard have to say about the Nueces River (pictured above)? The only other mention of the river comes from his circa October 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

But the old Texas is gone or is going fast. All the plains are fenced in, where in my childhood I’ve ridden for a hundred miles without seeing a foot of barbed wire. I can’t remember when I’ve heard a coyote. And one of my earliest memories is being lulled to sleep in a covered wagon camped on the Nueces River, by the howling of wolves.

When they built Crystal City twenty years ago in Zavalla county, some forty miles from the Mexican Border, the wolves came howling to the edge of the clearings. The woods were full of wildcats, panthers and javelinas, the lakes were full of fish and alligators. I was back there a couple of years ago and was slightly depressed at the signs of civilization which disfigured the whole country.

Looking at the map that heads this post, it’s pretty clear that anyone going “down the Nueces” would probably stop at Crystal City for supplies and/or human contact. So, if we can figure out when the Howards were in town, we can conclude when they went down the river.

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In an undated letter to an unknown recipient, Howard says of Crystal City (seen above) that it’s “a fair-sized town now and growing all the time. I lived there when the first store went up during its earliest boom.” No help with the date there, but in the letter to Clyde Smith that I recently tacked a “circa June 1928” date on, Howard says that he “was here twenty years ago when there was only one store in Crystal City—just beginning to build.” This comment would put his earliest trip to Crystal City in 1908, if I dated the letter correctly. Of course, he could easily be rounding the “twenty years ago” comment up or down. It’s fairly common for people to say “twenty years” when the actual number is nineteen or twenty-one. But there’s still another reference, this one from Howard’s circa August 1931 letter to Lovecraft:

I remember, very faintly, the fall of a meteorite in South Texas, many years ago. I was about four years old at the time, and was at the house of an uncle, in a little town about forty miles from the Mexican Border; a town which had recently sprung up like a mushroom from the wilderness and was still pretty tough. I remember waking suddenly and sitting up in bed, seeing everything bathed in a weird blue light, and hearing a terrific detonation. My uncle—an Indian—had enemies of desperate character, and in the excitement it was thought they had dynamited the house.

The description of the town here matches Howard’s description of Crystal City above, and his “about four” comment indicates that he was there in 1909 or 1910. We also know who that uncle was: William Oscar McClung, the husband of Doc Howard’s sister, Willie. In L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Howard, he says that “Fanny McClung Adamson [Willie’s daughter] remembers that ‘Uncle Cue,’ as his nieces and nephews called Isaac Howard, was a frequent visitor to Crystal City.” However, in the interview transcript housed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Adamson says, “The only time I ever met him [Doc Howard] and knew him, I was sick.” She then describes an episode of chicken pox she had while living at Crystal City with her parents, adding that “We must have moved there in 1908 and it was either 1909 or 1910 when [Doctor Howard] was there.” I’ll leave the frequency of his visits alone for now, but it seems pretty clear that the Howards were in Crystal City sometime in the 1909-10 range. Let’s see if we can narrow that down a bit.

Doctor Howard registered in Seminole on February 3, 1908, and then in Bronte, over in Coke County, on September 14, 1908. His next appearance on paper is his signature on a January 19, 1909 birth record from Bronte. He’s there until at least August 27, 1909, when he signs his last birth record for the county and drops off the radar until November 20, 1909, when he filed for record in San Antonio. He didn’t stay in Bexar County long because in January 1910 he sent a note to the Journal of the Texas State Medical Association changing his address from Bronte to Poteet and  filed for record in Atascosa County, post office address Poteet. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Mrs. W. P. Searcy, November 7, 1936, Dr. Howard says, “I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” Robert Howard turned four in January 1910. So, the question is: What were the Howards doing in the fall of 1909? I’m guessing they were going “down the Nueces” and visiting in Crystal City.

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Have another look at the map above. About 150 miles due north of Barksdale, off the map, is a little town in Coke County called Bronte. I speculate that when the Howards left there in the late summer or early fall of 1909, they traveled south and went down the Nueces River in a covered wagon to Crystal City. After visiting the McClungs in the fall of 1909, they continued following the river as it meandered east toward Corpus Christi. After about 80 miles, in McMullen County, they left the river (or perhaps joined the Atascosa River) and went north another 80 miles to winter in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County, where de Camp says Doctor Howard registered on January 8, 1910. The doctor’s letter mentioned above says that the Howards spent “the spring months [of 1910] in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” After that, they appear to have traveled to Palo Pinto County, far to the north, where they were recorded on the U. S. Census, which was enumerated on May 16, 1910. Again, this is speculation; however, if this isn’t when the river trip occurred, there wasn’t much time left in 1910 for another. On December 20, 1910, the McClungs sold their land in Crystal City (below), practically an entire city block, and headed off to Arkansas.

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Good Ol’ Boys

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[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted September 9, 2007 at thecimmerian.com.]

The fans who participated in the bus tour at Howard Days 2007 received a special treat. Not only did they get to hear some great stories by the tour guide, long-time Cross Plains resident Don Clark, they also heard some great color-commentary by Alton McCowen (above at right) and Norris Chambers (at left), a man who actually knew the Howards. Those of us who were seated near the front of the bus even got to eavesdrop while these three chatted between tour stops. The trio seemed to know everything about the local area and quickly assimilated each other’s knowledge. One would say, “Did you know so-and-so?” and all the relevant details would follow from one of the others. “Didn’t so-and-so live there?” and so on.

As we passed the little-used dirt roads in the Cross Cut vicinity, Mr. Chambers said, “Boy, I went down that lane a lot.” And another conversation ensued. I tried my best to stay out of their chat, but couldn’t resist a few questions. Alton McCowen told me that he knew someone who had helped build the road from Cross Plains to Brownwood, and that he’d been paid .56 cents an hour for his work. Mr. Chambers piped in, “They built this big road after the war. It wasn’t paved then, and was awful muddy.”

At the bridge into Burkett, the bus stopped. Under the bridge is the Pecan Bayou—covered with shrubs and trees, all green from the heavy spring rains. Don Clark told us all that there used to be carnivals and dances in the Bayou. “After the fair stopped coming,” he said, “there was a lot of parkin’ and sparkin’ down there.”

At one of the stops—a no-foolin’ Texas ranch, complete with Longhorns—I cornered Misters Chambers and McCowen for a longer conversation, while the rest of the crowd went to get a close-up look at the steers. Mr. Chambers told me that Doc Howard wasn’t the best driver around: “Once we were driving to Brownwood and he’s got the car stuck in 2nd gear. I told him, ‘You might want to put it in high.’” He also told me about taking Robert’s Chevy “down to get the bullet hole fixed” after the suicide, and that Doc Howard used that car for a good while after.

Mr. McCowen answered my questions about Cross Plains, telling me where the movie theater was located (“Next to the tax office by the library”) and that there was no radio station in town; the closest was in Brownwood.

While not the best of drivers, Mr. Chambers had no doubts about Doc Howard’s medical skills. He told me about a minor car accident that he was involved in, saying that one of the girls passed out. He took her straight to Doc Howard to get “patched up.”

About this time, Mr. Chambers’ wife ambled up and listened as her husband said, “When we were first married, we lived with my folks in Cross Cut. Doc Howard would come by sometimes.”

This brought a chuckle from his wife who said that Doc Howard was always hungry. When he came calling, “We had to start the fire in the old stove and cook things—from scratch!” When she didn’t feel like cooking, she told me, she’d just whip up some scrambled eggs.

We started to discuss Dark Valley Destiny as the rest of the crowd returned. Mr. Chambers remembered talking with de Camp and that “He said he would give us a copy, but he never did. We had to buy one.” And then the tour was back on the road and I had to content myself with eavesdropping once again.