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Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Cover image that nearly approximates Chowder and Mort, without me having to draw or paint them. I hoped to hire either Jeff Nicholson or John Severin to draw them, but Severin died and Nicholson now wanders the deserts of the Southwest without any ink.

I'm 50,000 words in and no end in sight. I don't know why I'm writing a Western when I've never really read one. Here is the first chapter. More available on Amazon for Kindle, which is of course adaptable to any device such as iPhone, using the Kindle App.

Chowder and Mort Head West

Chapter 1:
Lightening the Load

Autumn introduced itself to 1897 with a single cool breeze near the end of August. Chowder Crowder retired from the cattle drives of the Dakotas and said, “My bones are getting crooked and all this roping and riding is really startin’ to hurt my fingers. I don’t think I can weather another winter up here.” He decided to ride west to California, where he heard the gold was all claimed, but ladies walked around in their underwear all winter long. “Wouldn’t that be a sight, Mort?” Mort was his horse. Mort really didn’t care about anything Chowder told him, as long as he got his oats. He would have snorted a big NO to California if he’d had any idea how far away it was.

    Chowder sold his cattle for eleven dollars a head to Rawhide Johnson over in Sturgis. This was what they called a “friendly price”—the highest dollar you could ask without pointing a pistol. Chowder knew a thing or two about not only cooking meat, but raising it. That’s why he had a handful of the best looking cattle in the county. Rawhide had admired Chowder’s little herd for some time, so he was glad to acquire it.
    Chowder sold his cabin to a young couple just in from Ohio who wanted to raise a family on the frontier. Knowing this goal of theirs would be about as much fun as falling down a well—and twice the work of climbing out—he threw in his chicken coop and three old chickens free of charge. “Those hens are almost as old as me anyhow,” he told the couple. “If you study hard on the eggs they lay, you see little fossils and such… feed them extra grain and they’ll knit you mittens.” The young man and woman just stared at him. “You see,” he prodded, “because knitting is something old ladies do….” They still didn’t laugh. Chowder decided it was because they were so scrawny—they were probably saving their strength. He shook their hands and hoped there was a richer market for jokes farther West.
    At last Chowder had his place cleaned out, the last of his belongings wrangled onto a squeaky old cart. He looped a rope around the load a few times and cinched everything together in the manner of trussing a beef roast. Even tying knots made the cart squeak. “Even if I thought this cart could make the trip, the squeaking would drive me to tears.”
    “I never did like pulling that cart,” Mort said. “If you let me, I’d love to kick it over a cliff, or maybe just trample it to pieces.” Sometimes Chowder thought Mort had a bit of a problem.
    “Not till we get this last load to town. Hey, you need new shoes, buddy! Let’s get a wiggle on—we got lots to accomplish in town before we hit the trail.”
    One had to be careful. Mort was strong, even for a horse. He stood fifteen hands tall, muscular as any workhorse, with Quarter Horse legs for sprinting. Some might call him dark bay in color, or you might just call him brown. The small star on his broad forehead was often obscured by the forelocks of his generous mane, making him even more thoroughly brown. His lack of color seemed a match for his personality, often mired in the muck of melancholy moods, but he held a reserve of inner grit.
    Like most any horse, he could be high-strung. Equine blood ran hot, so even the muddy moodiness of a horse like Mort could quickly be overturned by the instinct to kick, buck, or bolt at the drop of a hat. People didn’t impress him much, nor did he have quick love for other animals. He had one hero, but it wasn’t Chowder: the legendary Morgan-Mustang horse named Comanche, the last horse standing in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn. After the Indians sent Custer and his men to their ends, and likely captured a number of horses for their own, the only survivor from the Custer regiment was Comanche. An old photo of the famous horse was tacked on the wall of the Spearfish post office. These days Mort was a dead ringer for old Comanche. Chowder told him all about it. “You might have some Comanche blood in you, Mort,” Chowder told him, always careful not to point out that surviving such a skirmish might have more to do with dumb luck than any special bravery. 

    They pulled the rickety cart into Spearfish, loaded to the brim with the finality of Chowder’s household belongings. The cart was parked by the market while Mort stood under the big clock waiting for Bob Zipf, the local blacksmith, to finish pulling someone’s teeth. Spearfish wasn’t a very big town, so Bob was also the dentist. This was handy because both jobs required good grip, forearm strength, and a manly apron.
    Out the door came a gentleman with a mouthful of gauze and a red handful of uprooted teeth. Bob followed him out and waved goodbye. “Don’t eat or drink till tomorrow, Sam. Keep them clots in, you don’t want dry sockets.”
    “Yull neber shee me agaim,” Sam said, holding his jaw.
    “I know. You don’t have any teeth left.” Bob turned to Mort. “What can we do fer ya, Mort?”
    “New shoes, I guess.”
    “It does look like you need to be shod. Step inside while I don my chaps.” Mort considered walking away so he wouldn’t have to get his feet scraped, tickled and prodded. Kicking a farrier was always a high goal for any horse, generally worth bragging rights at any stable, except maybe with the most high-falutin Foxtrotters. But Mort also knew Bob Zipf was a canny old character. He might have a sleeve full of tricks to stop any horse from besting him, not to mention that knocking down a farrier mid-job would leave you with one shoe on, one shoe off, and maybe a nail or two poking out of your hoof. Best not to kick old Bob, at least not until the job was done.

Meantime, Chowder gathered his cartload of items he hoped to sell. According to plan, it was Saturday Swap time, so the other ranchers and townsfolk gaggled around like geese with their goods and their dollars. Even Old Shad, the poorest, hardest-of-hearing old geezer in town, was there poking around. He frowned at most anything put out for sale, because being penniless tended to make a man the pickiest of shoppers, at least until that point that it made him a beggar. Chowder had an item or two he would have given away to the old codger, but the yelling it would take to communicate this charitable discount would be too difficult and embarrassing for everyone involved.
    Otherwise, very little salesmanship was required, because everyone knew Chowder was leaving out. They would bend over backwards to relieve him of his unwanted possessions, and at fair market prices. Chowder considered this a township of friends and fine neighbors.
    Mrs. Gutwein had a linen-wrapped raisin bread which she gifted to him. He insisted she take something for it, and she finally went away with a tin ladle. Some extra rope went to Burl Jinkers, who loaned Chowder some rope once but believed it was never returned, even though Chowder felt different. Chowder gave two sauerkraut crocks to Nathaniel Dimble for a half-dollar, and a black trivet to Cora Corielle in exchange for two pennies and a coin purse which she said would hold money or dry medicines on a long trip. “Now, that there is a sound trivet,” he told her. “Chicago craftsmanship, with a little Art Nouveau in the cast iron. Ain’t yet found a pot that it won’t shoulder.”
    A pretty decent oak rocking chair went for sixty cents to the home of Rex Turpentine, who carried it away on his back, the curved runners over his shoulders. Rex said his wife and children had full run of his current rocking chair, and sometimes he might like to rock for his own relaxation. He planned on keeping it out in the barn for a long, slow refinishing job.
    Chowder traded a tarnished silver tray for a box of bullets, and threw a half-pint of molasses in on the deal. A shovel, a bucket, and a large skillet brought another quarter, another handshake from a rasp-callused palm. He traded a mallet for a sack of grits. He sold his hammer, but kept his hatchet for the trail. Finally, only the cart was left, and he’d seen most everyone he knew. He left it behind with a little sign that said, “Free Kindling.”
    He had better than fifty dollars now, and ten times that in the bank. All told, that was a terrible lot of money, especially to sport around on a ride across the continent. In a lucky turn, the Bank of Spearfish now transferred dollars to banks far afield—mostly back in the Old States. But ever since the Gold Rush, there were choices galore in California, several in San Francisco alone. For an exorbitantly high fee, Chowder could wire his money by Western Union’s “lightning line” and open an account far ahead of his actual arrival. He chose to do just that, but said, for the ten dollar fee, there best be a hot meal and a drink waiting for him when he caught up with his money. The Western Union clerk said he would see if that could be arranged.
    Time to pay for Mort’s new shoes, Chowder thought, walking back toward the town square. He took to the shady side of the street, passing a site two hundred paces away where men were building a bell tower, on the grounds of the new school. Within the scaffolding where stonemasons were still assembling the sturdy walls, someone rang the bell. The deep tone thinned out to a shiver in the hot, dry air; Chowder stood and listened for another strike, but none came. Was this the bell’s first clang? It was a grand old sound, never before heard in these parts. A wave of sadness came, filling Chowder up to the neck with the weight of water. Wherever he went from here, this town would grow, this bell would ring, and he would never hear it again. Still, he was glad he heard it once before heading out.

    Chowder returned to Bob’s just in time to see a limp man come flying out the open door. The figure collapsed in a heap, as if every bone in its body broke.
    “Ye gods, Mort!” Chowder muttered as he prepared to empty his wallet for Bob Zipf’s doctor bill… or casket.
    “That should tide you over, Mort!” said Bob’s voice from inside. Chowder looked down at the body, which wore Bob’s clothes, then toward the open door, and almost laughed out loud—it was as if Mort had kicked the poor fellow so hard that his flesh and bones parted ways with his voice!
    Chowder used his boot to probe the collapsed body, rolling it over with his toe. It wore a ratty wig over a pale muslin face, with dark blotches of walnut stain for eyes. The overall effect was somewhat horrible and unsettling. He trotted inside, saying, “That impostor is a dead ringer for you, Bob! But he seems awful tired. And his posture’s weak, spineless even. You’ll need a sturdier helper if you want to take time off.”
    Yes, Bob had made a scarecrow for the purpose of a kicking decoy. Horses he did not trust would get a surprise dummy from the rear, sliding on a pulley line right into the sweetest kick-zone. Bob used it to root out the ornery kickers, saving himself a lot of pain.
    “I made a deal with Mort—to let him kick it good, just for fun, once I finished the job.”
    “How did it feel, Mort?” Chowder asked.
    “It was okay,” Mort said. “It could use some bones or something that breaks when you kick it.” Chowder paid Bob double the going rate and told him he was the cleverest horse-shoeing dentist a man could ever hope to meet.

    After a stop at the General Store, Chowder packed the full complement of rations  into his gear and they headed west with a full half-day to turn horizon into known miles.
    “Well, looks like we’ll miss our old town, huh Mort?”
    “Naw. This town wasn’t so special to me.”
    Chowder thought back to the sad state Mort was in as a colt, when Chowder had bought him from a grubby old horse trader by the name of Humberton. Most of the old crank’s horses were half-starved, hobbled, and sick with botfly-worms. Chowder tried telling him he could get healthier prices for healthier animals, but the man didn’t see it that way. He wanted out of the business as soon as possible, and not to put a penny more in than he had to. Mort’s mother gave out and died weeks before, for lack of proper care, and her collapsed carcass lay within sight of the others until coyotes carried her off a piece at a time, tugging her hide off in strips. Chowder wanted to remind Mort that that old fool wasn’t even from Spearfish, it was just where Mort’s ma parted ways with the living . . . but he didn’t want to freshen up bad memories. 
    “Well, there’s a few good folks around here. Spearfish could have been worse to us.”

Before Spearfish was even behind them, they heard a familiar sound. Above the light curtain of noise from insects and birds came the squeak of the abandoned cart. They both paused and swore they heard the unmistakable sound, looking around for whatever was haunting them.
    “It can’t follow us, can it?” asked Mort. “If it does, I’ll stomp it to pieces.”
    “Naw—look!” Over a hill came Old Shad, knees goring out through his hillbilly pants, pulling the cart with a Christmas-morning smile on his crinkled, buckskin face.
   “Old Shad struck gold.

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