Friday 29 August 2014

PART 2 of "Six Jutlands and a Conestoga."

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Last week the Verhoeven family reached their final destination, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. "Six Jutlands and a Conestoga" continues....
Starting at the rear, he undoes the six-horse hitch. While he removes the paraphernalia, he talks lovingly to each horse. The first horses unburdened are the wheelers, the biggest horses, nearest the driver. Willie and Anton are each a couple of hundred pounds heavier than the leaders. When Bram takes off the traces, the breast collar and the driving halter of each horse, they are free to move on their own. He pats each on their heavy cheek before resting his head against their wide necks for just a moment to offer a special note for each animal.
“Thank you, Willie, for getting us outta that bog today. You’re a hardy and proud beast.”
“Where would we be without you, Anton? You never give up, do ya boy? This’ll be your last haul, old fella. You deserve to rest.”

He soon has the swings – the center pair – unfastened from their leather straps. The horse on the “off” side, or the right, is Molly, the only bay-colored Jutland. The one on the “near” side is Gustav, named after Bram’s father.
“You’re as beautiful as ever, Molly. I haven’t told you this before, but you’re my favorite.”
Bram chuckles at the old adage he uses all the time, and in response, Molly prances slightly, delighted by her owner’s caresses.
“Hah, Gustave, you are as stubborn as my father. You always want to go in your own direction. Ah well, you’re still young and frisky.”

After their reins have been released from Bram’s grip, each horse goes to the river to drink. Later they will amble aimlessly nearby, nibbling at the young shoots among the grass. Bram finishes with the leaders, Hercules and Ellen, after which they join the other horses. As he carefully lays out the lines beside the wooden tongues that separate the pairs and gathers the leathers, he is watched by loving eyes.

Lena stands at the back of the wagon, where Aron has lowered the tailgate as an informal table. Veronica is straightening a gaily colored tablecloth to hide the rough wood before setting the tin plates out. Lena’s narrow face is livened by a bright smile as she thinks how she loves Bram for the way he hugs each animal, knowing he is smothering them with flattery. He treats them as well as his family, she knows. She has an amusing stab of jealousy as there has been little opportunity or time for more than a quick hug at night from her husband. She trusts him completely but is troubled by the news they received earlier today at the fort. She will make a point of talking to him after the children are asleep. Rubbing her hands together, she thinks how she might reward him for getting them here safely.

The bend in the river where they are encamped, and the back of the wagon, face west. The sun hangs just below the trees that cover the shallow rise beyond the junction of the rivers. Night is not far off. The family has finished their meal of pheasant, captured by Bram earlier and prepared on the spit by Lena with lentils. The dishes are washed and put away, the makeshift beds for the girls are ready and the boys have spread their rolls out in the soft grass under the wagon. Lena is refolding the tablecloth, clucking over the stains she vows she will wash tomorrow. Bram sits on a keg of axle grease in front of the fire, poking at it with a dead branch.

The wood snaps as it burns, the river provides a regular symphony as it flows over dead trees that have fallen into the waters, gurgling on its way by. The children are laughing, being kids after their responsibilities. Veronica has a way with her oldest brother, Jonas, who can’t say no to her and the four children are off to the edge of the trees to play hide and seek. Lena approaches her husband from behind to place a hand on his shoulder. Her voice is low, shaded by a tinge of worry.
“What will we do this winter, Bram, if the contract for the army’s horses is only up for renewal next spring?”

Bram doesn’t answer right away. He has had the same thought since they left the fort yesterday. When he had met Colonel Denison in St. Louis, Missouri, last year, the commanding officer of the new fort had assured him that if he made it here by this spring, he would have plenty of work shoeing horses and forging hinges and other metal objects the Army needed. Upon reaching the fort in mid-May, Bram discovered an older man, a crude farrier, had already set up shop.

Reaching to hold the hand on his shoulder, he looks back at his wife and says, “Someone beat us to it, Lena, but Colonel Denison is not happy with the man’s work. The Army is bound to him by virtue of a relative of his in Washington, so until next year there is not much we can do about it. We can talk more later after the children are abed. Okay, honey?”
Lena gives his arm a squeeze.
“Well, that can be anytime now. It’s getting on late. In fact, I should get them ready.”

She leaves her husband while he stares at the dying fire. The darkness rims the hilltops, turning the fields a light gray, the setting sun casting a pale orange along the horizon, a promise for tomorrow. She rounds up the children, instructing them to get ready for bed against their protestations. She reminds them that tomorrow morning after breakfast and an hour of schooling, it’s a bath for everyone, and the girls will do the laundry as the men prepare a temporary shelter until their house is built. All talk turns to speculation as the children prepare themselves: How soon can they have their own bedrooms? When can they go fishing? Are there any neighbors? Are there bears in the woods? On and on they ramble until each child is tucked in, prayers said, hugs and kisses accompanying them to bed. Within twenty minutes, they are all asleep.

The moon is gibbous and almost full, casting a bluish light on the empty fields. Stars appear in the eastern sky by the hundreds as night begins to cover the frontier. Bram is about to stamp out the last of the embers with dirt when Lena comes from the wagon carrying the cotton shift she uses for sleeping and one of their quilts folded across her arm. She has a small floral bag that is drawn closed by a silk cord that swings from her hand. Bram knows it is the sweet-smelling lady things she cherishes and cannot hide his glee at what she is up to. Tossing him a bar of rough soap and a fresh, well-worn towel, she says, “Get cleaned up, Bram, and meet me by the river just past that large maple where the kids were playing.”

While bathing in the cold waters, Bram is concerned with what he will do this winter. The beaver trade is dying; the old man who works the forge at the fort is an annoying complication. He guesses they have enough money to build a house and put a garden in. Meat will have to be dried for the winter. But after that, he’s not sure. He doesn’t like to take these concerns to his wife as she is a natural worrier, but he decides he can’t hide the facts.

After drying off, he carries his folded clothes and boots to where Lena said to meet her. When he approaches the large bole of the hardwood tree, he can see the blanket spread out in the grass. The moonlight is such that he can see the outline of his wife’s shape as he approaches her. Stopping at the foot of the quilt, he expresses what he is thinking.
“I don’t know Lena, I…”
“Never mind all that for a moment, Bram. Come hold me.”

Placing his clothing on the ground, he kneels before her. All thoughts of the future disappear like smoke in the sky. He gazes down at the alluring shape of his wife. A soft blue light covers her and highlights the gentle curves of her soft skin. Soon they are overcome with an urgency that demolishes any thoughts other than how much they love each other. Bram’s big hands are gentle as he touches his wife in the way he knows she desires. Her hands caress the hardness of his body.
Their lips roam freely about each other’s faces and upper bodies. Delicious torment consumes them until Lena’s soft moans cut the silence of the evening, followed closely by the harsh breathing and heavy panting of a man in the throes of release. They collapse in each other’s arms, and for many moments there is only the rushing of the waters, the clicking of crickets to disturb their soft breathing.

Lena is about to speak when Bram places a finger to her lips to quiet her questions. He knows what she is about to ask.
“I love you, Lena. I love the children. I love the way you take care of our family. We are never hungry; the kids are never without clean clothes. You teach them their numbers and letters. You show them the way of the Lord. And you put up with my many moods.”
He unfolds himself from her arms and rises slightly so that she can see his face in the soft light.
“I will never let you down, Lena. I will never let my children suffer. I’m not sure what the next sunrise will bring, but I guarantee you that we will survive. With every muscle in my body, I will provide.”

Lena doesn’t have any words. She is full of tender love for her husband. She pulls him toward her, holding him so close that she can feel the beating of his heart. She pulls the loose end of the quilt over them, and with only the stars as witness, they lie like that until they doze off.

Please join me next week when the 4Q Interview hosts award winning author Susan Toy, from the  Caribbean island of Bequia. She is every author's friend and a terrific teller of tales.

Don't forget to mark September 7th on your calendars. 6:30 - 8:30 pm at The Chateau Moncton for the Book Launch of my debut novel, Dark Side of a Promise.

Thursday 21 August 2014

" Six Jutlands and a Conestoga" One of my short stories.

June 03, 1833

The six Jutland draft horses strain as they pull the Verhoeven family over the last rise of their 1,200 mile journey. Bram Verhoeven walks beside the team, just ahead of the heavy wagon, using the long leather reins to guide the lead horse, front left. The tireless leader, Hercules, with his mate on the right, the grand dame, Ellen – named after President Arthur’s wife – guides the team of sturdy horses. Both are fifteen hands high, large quartered, relentless workers. The hill they are climbing has long grass swaying in the wind that urges them on. The lowering sun is partially hidden behind the crest, casting bright rays.
The groomed heads of first Ellen then Hercules break out of the long shadows into the golden waves of the western sun. Small sharp ears, thick beige manes with loose strands turning bright yellow. Their chestnut fur turns redder still as the animals walk into the sunlight, exposing the short neck, the muscled shoulders, the wide withers and the strong back of these willing animals. Bram watches the horses as they rise, pair by pair, into the brilliance. His dusty face splits with a smile of pure joy. Time almost slows down in his anticipation of the view his family is about to encounter. He’s seen it before. He owns it now.
Wiping the sweat from his brow with his right forearm, he looks back at his wife, Lena, who is standing up inside the front of the Conestoga, awaiting the horizon he has talked about for the last two years. Her right hand is raised above her head as she grasps the outer rib that holds the coarse hand-woven fabric of the wagon’s bonnet. Veronica, the youngest, is beside her, wrapped in Lena’s left arm. Her head, which rests upon her mother’s stomach, is covered with the same dark red curls; her face, with the same orange-ish freckles and the same mischievous eyes he has. Sheila, the oldest girl, leans on the front board, a smaller version of Bram’s wife, with a thin pretty face, straight brown hair tied up in a bun, eyes that study everything and a smile that artists search for. They all catch his movement and wave at him.
His oldest, Jonas, rides their quarter horse, Fancy, bringing up the rear, towing their Jersey, Cinderella.

Aron, who is ten years old today, is a year younger then Sheila, two years younger than his brother and two years older than Veronica. He is perched on the lazy board on the left side of the wagon. He braces himself by hanging on to the ropes that hold the water barrel. His father had promised him they would make it by his birthday. Looking at his Pap, he waves a free hand when he sees him looking back.

“Happy birthday, Aron.”
Concentrating on the team, Bram yells out just before he walks over the crest, “Gee, Hercules. Gee now.”
The powerful animals follow Hercules’ lead and pull to the left as the wagon navigates the top of the rise. When all wheels are on level ground, Bram pulls back on the strong leather.
“Whoa, Hercules. Whoa, team.”
The horses, snorting and breathing heavily, gladly come to a complete stop. The clatter of the chains and leathers relaxing is almost a sigh. The horses shift in the harnesses while shod hooves paw at the ground as they back into the single trees to take the strain off their bodies. Aron jumps up on the plank he was sitting on to pull back the heavy iron brake lever, locking the wheels in place. Bram drops the heavy leathers to the ground. Fancy trots up beside the wagon and Jonas jumps off to stand a short way behind his father. The whole family is bathed in sunlight. No one speaks.
The sward is a carpet of tall, untamed grasses, colored with the yellows, whites and purples of wild flowers undulating in the breeze, making a soft swishing sound. The aromas of the coarse earth, of the raw vegetation, fill their noses when they breathe deeply. The field sweeps to the left and right, south and north, for 1,500 feet to meet a wide glimmering river that looks alive. Shimmering rays of the setting sun scatter across its surface. It bends back and forth several times before disappearing around a neighboring hill that is covered with forest. The bluffs they are on curves north like a bowl for half a mile, where it has been gouged by another river that is narrower and in more of a hurry. The waters meet to form a deep swirling pool before the flow continues south, eventually spilling into the Mississippi. To their left, the rise tapers to the tree-lined river for almost the same distance.

The hills around them are varied in both height and covering. Many of the southern ones are barren of growth, composed of brown and reddish dirt exposed on cliffs that the water has created by its passage. Jagged mountain peaks are visible a hundred miles in the distance. The northern portion is mostly knolls capped with coniferous trees. The deep green of the forest facing them is as dark as their elongated shadows. Save for the sun, the sky is empty. The blue is rich as a new ribbon, just turning pink on the horizon. Small birds weave among the grasses looking for insects or seeds, calling or complaining. Two deer stand at the junction of the rivers; they were drinking but now stare at the family, bewildered by the odd interruption, not knowing they will need to fear the strange animals they see. A large bird circles above the tree line on open wings, looking for prey.

For ten minutes the family remains mute, surveying their surroundings, the place where they are going to live. Lena breaks the silence with a sigh of delight.
“Oh, Bram, it’s as beautiful as you said. It’s breathtaking.”
Aron can’t stay still much longer and jumps down to run up beside his father. Placing a hand upon his father’s brawny arm, he pushes his floppy hat back as he looks up and says, “Where we gonna build our house, Pap?”

Bram hesitates. He is too full of emotion to speak, so full of pride in being able to purchase his own land. When he and his partner, Jean-Pierre Poirier, a French Canadian from the east coast of Canada, had trapped animals and traded furs each winter, he had discovered this glen. That was over two years ago. The demand for fur was great due to men’s fondness for hats made from the beaver’s sleek pelt, and they had made a small fortune. More than enough to outfit himself with the wagon and horses to move his family west. A blacksmith by trade, Bram hopes to establish his own foundry here in the small valley, two miles from where the government is building a new fort, which will also be a trading post. 
Looking back at his wife and the girls, all visibly pleased, then over to his other sons and then down to Aron, he turns and points toward the joining of the waters.
“Right on top of the rise where the rivers meet. It’s good and flat on top, lots of trees close by, lots of good fields around it.”
He reaches to embrace his son and adds, “A good place to work and lots of room to play. It won’t be all work, only in the beginning.”
Bram feels a burst of pure pleasure and can’t help but laugh. Aron can’t help but join in. Veronica loves to laugh at everything and bursts into girlish giggles. Jonas and Sheila soon add their glee. Lena has a quiet, elegant way of laughing that only makes her prettier. The merriment lasts but a moment and is followed by a flurry of questions.
“Are there fish in the river?”
“Can we pick some of the flowers?”
“Is there anybody living close to us?”
“Is there cedar in those woods?”
“What about Injuns?”
The last question, spoken by Aron, brings silence. The Lakota are generally not pleased with the intrusion of white settlers upon what had been their land for centuries. Bram’s encounters, except for one, were all friendly. Jean-Pierre could speak their tongue and the men traded for many furs with them. Bram Verhoeven felt he had nothing to fear if he treated people properly. He will learn to be as leery as the deer.
“We will put our trust in the Lord, Aron, and be fair to people. We won’t pre-judge them. There’s plenty that are friendly. No more questions now. Tomorrow there will be time as we make our plans.”
He claps his big hands. Pointing at a copse of trees beside the river to their left, he announces with a soft smile,

“The sun’s gonna set in two hours, and we must eat. We will camp beside the river tonight by those trees. When we get there, Veronica, you can help your mother with the meal.  Sheila, you peg Cinderella, give her a bit of feed and milk her. Aron, you get the saddle off Fancy and give Mam a hand with the table. Jonas you get the fire going. I expect there’s nuff dried bush inside that dense wood yonder. I’ll tend to the horses.”
By now, the family is familiar with the usual chores associated with the end of their day. They never question Bram’s commands. Their survival depends on his decisions. Once Bram brings the team to a halt under the protection of several old evergreens, he drops the reins once again. He turns to proudly watch his family for a brief moment. Jonas runs toward the of trees behind him, the top of his dusty boots exposed by too-short pants. He is growing too fast. The ladies are in plain grey cotton dresses, the girls with a ribbon around the collar – Veronica’s a soft blue and Sheila’s a bright yellow. Lena dons a red apron and commands the two youngest. Pleased with what he sees, Bram tends to the horses.
The six Jutlands have long manes and are feathered about their lower legs. Anxious to be free of the leather and chains, they greet their master with aplomb, lifting and lowering their heads as if in agreement with what he is about to do. After he removes the pins from the single trees that attach the horses to the double tree on the wagon, he reaches down for the reins.
“Get ahead there, Hercules. That’s enough now, boy. Whoa!”
Starting at the rear, he undoes the six-horse hitch. While he removes the paraphernalia, he talks lovingly to each horse. The first horses unburdened are the wheelers, the biggest horses, nearest the driver. Willie and Anton are each a couple of hundred pounds heavier than the leaders. When Bram takes off the traces, the breast collar and the driving halter of each horse, they are free to move on their own. He pats each on their heavy cheek before resting his head against their wide necks for just a moment to offer a special note for each animal....To be continued.

I hope you enjoyed meeting the Verhoeven family. Please drop by for Part 2  next Friday.
Thank you so much for visiting the Scribbler.


Friday 15 August 2014

Guest Author - Brian Brennan - an excerpt from "Brief Encounters"

Brian is an award-winning and best-selling author of seven critically acclaimed narrative non-fiction books about the colourful personalities of Western Canada’s past. A former staff writer with the Calgary Herald, Brian has written freelance articles and columns for magazines and newspapers across the United States and Canada, including the New York Times, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star.

Born and educated in Dublin, Ireland, Brian immigrated to Canada in 1966 and settled in Calgary in 1974. Over the course of his varied career he has worked as a golf caddy, lounge waiter, customs officer, nightclub pianist, church organist, radio news announcer, and a featured storyteller on CBC Radio’s Daybreak Alberta – a popular program heard across the province.  His website is listed below.
Following is an excerpt from his book-in-progress, working title: "Brief Encounters: Conversations with Celebrities, 1974-88." It's based on interviews he did when he was an entertainment writer for the Calgary Herald during the '70s and '80s.

Victor Borge

November 1975

Victor Borge had been a child prodigy on his way to becoming a concert pianist when he discovered a flair for comedy that sent him in another direction and brought him international fame. When he arrived in Calgary to play the 2,700-seat Jubilee Auditorium in 1975, the Danish-born virtuoso was 66 and still performing 150 shows a year despite having been forced to stop playing temporarily due to paralysis in his left arm.

I asked him if he was thinking of retiring. “Retiring from what?” he replied. “Retiring from life? Performing is my life. A lot of people retire because they’re forced to, and then keep regretting it for the rest of their lives.”

The problem with his left arm had been a shocker, Borge said, because for three weeks in the hospital he wasn’t able to move it. “It scared the hell out of me. I had to cancel a concert for the first time in my life. The newspaper in Wichita didn’t like it, but what did they expect?”

The doctors determined that the paralysis was caused by a pinched nerve in his neck. After they repaired the damage, Borge lost some strength in his arm but that, fortunately, didn’t affect his playing. “That’s the one aspect of my performance that has to be right.” Even though he filled his performance with musical jokes, such as his interpolation of “Happy Birthday” or “Hush-a-Bye Baby” into the music of Chopin, Mozart and Debussy, he wanted the piano playing to be technically proficient. “Each performance is a challenge for that reason.”

He had given up doing conventional concerts in his 20s because he came to believe he didn’t have any real control over what his fingers did when he sat down to play. Blessed, or perhaps plagued with something he called “finger memory,” Borge could start playing any piece he had learned from the standard repertoire and almost immediately his fingers would find the right notes. “It was just a psychological thing,” he said. “I would look down at my fingers while I was playing and be in awe of them. That’s why I had to stop concertizing. I was afraid I might foul up sometime.”

But he had no regrets about abandoning a career as a serious musician in favour of becoming a comic entertainer. “I’m not a frustrated concert musician or a frustrated anything. You can’t be frustrated if you’re doing something that you want to do. If I had stayed straight, I know I could have done well. But I wanted to do this. It’s my chemistry.”

He couldn’t explain the success of his comedy. “I was never particularly interested in analyzing it.” But much of it had to do with his spontaneous reaction to little things that occurred during a concert, plus his ongoing fascination with the idiosyncrasies of the English language. One of his popular routines involved “inflated language,” in which “wonderful” became “twoderful” and “create” became “crenine.” Another routine, that he called “phonetic punctuation,” involved reciting a story complete with trick vocal sounds for commas, periods and exclamation marks.

The man in the front row who sneezed or the woman who coughed too loud were natural targets for his ad libs, but Borge insisted that none of his jokes were planned. “Sometimes it almost seems as if all 3,000 people in the audience have been planted.” His method was to work mainly impromptu “and say things to suit the particular mood of the show.”

I asked him about reviews. Borge said he had received the occasional negative one. But he took some consolation from knowing that “bigger geniuses than I have suffered from this problem.” He recalled a letter that the composer Brahms was said to have sent to a critic who panned one of his concert performances: “Dear Mr. Critic. I have your review of my concert in front of me as I write. Where I’m seated, I’ll soon have it behind me. Yours truly, Johannes Brahms.”

True to his word, Borge never retired from performing. At age 90, he was still playing about 60 shows a year. His doctors suggested he eliminate a pratfall where he pretended to accidentally fall off the piano bench. But, of course, Borge had no intention of doing this. It had been part of his act for so long that audiences expected it.

A New York Times reporter asked Borge why he continued to maintain a heavy touring schedule. He gave much the same answer as the one he had given to me 20 years earlier. “Why not?” he said. “If it was a strain, I wouldn't do it. But I can do it. I haven't faltered yet. I know life. I have had a full measure of experience. Shouldn't I take advantage of it? These days my acts are the essence of what I have accomplished. The fruit is on the tree. Should I let it rot?”

Or as he had said to me, “It all has to do with the spirit. What I’m doing is at my natural speed. I travel because people don’t come to me.”

He died in 2000 at age 91 at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Thank you Brian for sharing your work with us. You can find out more about Brian by visiting his website,

Next week you can read one of my short stories. "Six Jutlands and a Conestoga". Moving your family into the western frontier can be a daunting task. Nothing but open wilderness and a plan!

On September 7th at 6:30 pm, you are invited to join me at the Chateau Moncton for the launch of my debut novel Dark Side of a Promise. I hope you can make it!