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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Red House On The Niobrara: Free Sample Chapter.

An aerial view of the Red House, nestled in a curve of the Niobrara river in Cherry County, Nebraska

The festive season has arrived early. Or maybe I'm just feeling expansive. Whatever the case, here's a sample of my e-book The Red House On the Niobrara - the first few pages.

No. That's  a lot of nonsense. I'm trying to sell the book. That's what this is about. So read what's here, and if you feel like it, check out the reviews on (by clicking on the image to your right). They're good. Then make your mind up.

The Red House on The Niobrara

by Alan Wilkinson

A six-month retreat in Mari Sandoz’ Nebraska Sandhills


‘I’ll tell you what it’s like out there’



I really wanted to start with Buffalo Bill, even though I can hear Mari Sandoz snorting her disapproval at the very mention of his name. She never thought much of him. But that’s a great story, the one about my great-great-uncle. I mean the ship’s captain, back in 1887, who ferried the old scout and his troupe of showmen, sharpshooters and Indians across the Atlantic on the State of Nebraska and introduced into my family the precious Wild West souvenirs that so fascinated me as a five-year-old. It always seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about my time here on the Great Plains, that would be the place to begin, with Captain Wiltshire. Trouble is, it turned out that just because a story’s been around for a hundred years it doesn’t mean it’s true.

So, if I’m going to explain what persuaded a sixty-two-year-old jobbing writer to spend six months alone in a semi-derelict hunting lodge in the remote and forbidding Sandhills of western Nebraska I’d better start with an earlier escapade, and a pretty foolhardy one at that. I mean the time I set off from the banks of the Missouri river on a borrowed bicycle, and pedalled west in my sandals until I was able to convince myself that the flickering whiteness I thought I saw on the far horizon might just be the Rocky Mountains.

Rulo to Kimball, and then some - the whole length of Nebraska, from its lowest point, 840 feet above sea level, to its highest, 5,424, just to get a sense of the place. It wasn’t much more than 600 miles, but it was two weeks of hard going in a fierce September heatwave. I was on the last leg, shovelling breakfast down my throat in a tiny ‘Mom and Pop’ joint at Bushnell (population 124), the point where I would finally leave Highway 30 and make my way across country on gravelled roads to Promontory Point, over a mile above sea level.

I can still see that cowboy at the next table, rubbing a calloused hand over his chin and looking out across the dusty yard at an endless vista of low hills, their coat of bunch-grass riffled by a brisk south-easterly. ‘What exactly you say you’re doin’ out here?’ he asked.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m pedalling my bike across Nebraska, east to west.’ I wanted to tell him about my great-great uncle, about my interest in Mari Sandoz, biographer of Crazy Horse, who’d grown up just north of here but got the hell out as soon as she was grown, and the way she chose to paint it, years later, from the safety of the east: majestic, beautiful, haunting, calling to her from a thousand miles away. But out west you don’t generally break into poetic abstraction unless you’ve earned the right, and that’s the province of old-timers, drunks, or bona fide oddballs.

While I was thinking the cowboy lit a cigarette and said, ‘Now what in the name o’ tarnation made you do a damn fool thing like that?’ He grinned at me through a veil of blue smoke. ‘Lose a bet, did ya?’

It wasn’t the first time I’d had to answer such questions in diners and bars along the way. By now I’d honed my response down to a single line and couched it in western idiom. ‘Guess I wanted to see what Nebraska’s really like,’ I told him.

He stared out the window some more, watching the wind tug at the yellowing leaves of the old cottonwood against which I’d propped my bicycle. Then he turned towards me. ‘We-ell, I can tell you what it’s like, feller.’ He drew on his cigarette, and exhaled slowly. ‘It’s desolate.’ Then he repeated it, nice and slow, just in case I hadn’t caught it. ‘De-so-late.’

I’d used the very same word in my diary two days previously after I rode out of Ogallala and into a 55 mph head-wind, when a level sheet of cloud spread over the landscape like a huge grey tablecloth, compressing the space between earth and sky. The dirt was flying, the visibility dropped to fifty yards and I went down through the gears, click click click, until I just ground to a halt.

It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like giving up. If I’m honest, there were moments along the undulations of the Republican river valley with its three, four, five inclines per mile, later beside the railroad tracks that follow the Platte, when the temperature hit  97 and all I had to aim at was the next grain elevator hovering above a glassy horizon. Times like that I’d thought hard about it – except that there was nobody out there into whose arms a guy could surrender. No way back. The only option was to keep heading west.

I finished my breakfast in the little diner there under the cottonwood tree, said goodbye to the cowboy, got astride my bike and set off towards the sign on the highway bridge. PAVEMENT ENDS. Just fifteen miles on the dirt and my journey would be over. I headed south, then turned west, then south again, beside huge fields of sunflowers and bleached wheat stubble. Along the way I remember pausing to investigate an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, then braking to watch a herd of white-tail deer, twenty strong, arc across the road and slide from view, swiftly, silently, the way water sinks into sand. And all the time I kept thinking about what that guy had said, how he’d dismissed the entire area in a single word. I knew he was wrong. Had to be.

Even as I pedalled back to town that night, my quest completed, my name added to the register they keep in a tin box out at the highest point, a place barely distinguishable from any other in a huge expanse of grassland, I knew I’d have to come back and take another look. Had to find this magical Nebraska that Mari Sandoz writes about.



Early Days

It’s 46 degrees, the sky is grey, and I’m wondering whether to walk down to the river for a wash. It’s beginning to look as though I may have running water in the bathroom here by evening time, but I’m a writer, for goodness’ sake, and a romantic. I like a bit of drama.

There has been plenty of that around here lately. Matt is fortunate to be alive, and I’m damned lucky that this whole enterprise hasn’t been strangled at birth. Barely a week before I flew in I received an email from Kitty to say that her husband had shot himself. My immediate thought was ‘farm suicide’. I was thinking back to an elderly couple I stayed with in south-eastern Nebraska some years ago. They still farmed the old home place that had been in the family since the first wave of settlement, some time in the 1870s. They ran it on ‘no-till’ principles. That is to say, they didn’t plough the soil between crops, just drilled straight into last year’s litter. Saved on tractors, on fuel, and on labour. I always remember John laughing about his two hired hands. ‘One has no teeth, the other has a pony-tail. They’re grateful to be employed,’ he said. This was but a few short years after they’d hit hard times, in the mid-1980s - the era of Farm Aid. Then, they told me, they’d all sat around the kitchen table – John, his wife and their two boys - and discussed whether he should put a bullet through his head. It was his idea. Others they knew had gone down that road and their families had collected on the insurance.

What happened to Matt was more mundane. He was in the middle of calving, sleeping in a little room in the cattle-shed, right across the way from here. He has a TV, a fridge, a microwave and a bed in there. It’s cosy enough – and that’s what the skunk thought when it tried to move in under the floor. Matt spotted the guilty party outside, grabbed his rifle and gave chase on the ATV with the weapon laid across his knees. He chased it up the hill, turned to follow it down into a hollow, and that’s where he hit the patch of mud and ice. Skidded down the slope, hit a rock and stopped dead. The rifle flew forward, the butt crashed against the dashboard, and off it went.

You have to be pretty unlucky for something like that to happen. You probably deserve every ounce of good fortune that follows. The x-rays they took, after Matt had crawled to his pick-up, driven up the hill and got a ride to hospital in Rapid City, gave a detailed picture of the bullet’s course. Somehow it wove a path between several vital parts, missed his femoral artery by a whisker, then bumped into his hip bone and came to rest before it could do any more damage.

Matt still has the slug in there somewhere, but he’s on the mend, probably doing more than the doctor would like, but… hey, he’s a cowboy. Drafted in his nephew to take over in the shed there until he’s fit to be pulling on reluctant calves. And today he called in his buddy from up north to help him fix the plumbing down in my basement.

We turned on the main supply water and ducked for cover. Water was spurting out from fat pipes, thin pipes, vinyl, copper and steel, spraying in every direction, gathering on the floor and trickling towards the drain, which was blocked. I took a look, asked myself how many cowboys it takes to fix a few leaks, and splashed my way back to the stairs.

At least the electricity is on, so I have heat – narrow radiators that lie along the baseboards. I also have a vehicle. It’s not pretty, but it goes. Mercy is station wagon, a 1993 Chevy Blazer. It belongs to Kitty’s father, who ranches on the far side of Highway 61. It used to be blue, and still is in places. It has two bald tyres, a couple of cracks right across the windscreen, 204,000 miles on the clock and blows thick black smoke out the rear end, but, as Matt said, squinting up at the steep grassy hills that surround me to the north and east, ‘She’ll git you up there no problem. Goes where most vehicles won’t.’

‘But I’ll be using the trail,’ I said.

He gave a short laugh. ‘That two-track? Sure ya will, s’long as it’s open.’

No complaints. I’d set aside a little money in case I had to go and buy an old jalopy. This one is free.


                                                *          *          *          *

This morning I have running water to the sink, can take my first shower since I left home seventy-two hours ago, and the toilet flushes, so no more forays to the woods armed with a stick. I can start settling in. It’s going to take a little time. What troubles me most is being cut off from all the usual means of communication with the outside world. Yesterday I borrowed Kitty’s truck and drove to Valentine. 146 miles at around 18 to the gallon. That’s $32, but it had to be done. Mercy isn’t legal yet. I’ve no insurance and we need a set of up-to-date licence tags. I bought a stack of groceries in town, and a phone. If I walk up to the high ground about six or eight hundred yards from here, and stand perfectly still, I can get a signal of sorts. I’ll settle for that; the problem is… standing perfectly still. Despite the cold start yesterday, it warmed up nicely in the afternoon and out came the first of the insects. While I stood there a posse of small, dark flies hovered around me, growing in number and emitting something between a whine and a buzz. They’re not unlike the ones we meet at home in the summertime, the ones that form a little halo around your head and follow you for mile after mile, and drive you nuts. Matt says once the weather warms up, which could be any day now, I can look forward to mosquitoes, gnats and deer flies – which he mentioned with a shudder, and a pitying smile, as in, ‘Hey, whose idea was it to go live down by the river?’ I am sending home for one of the veils we bought in the Highlands last year. If they can keep the Scottish midges out I should imagine they’ll deal with whatever I find here.

Despite the warmth, everything around here still looks very wintry. The grass is all brown and crunchy underfoot, as are the remnants of last year’s sunflowers. The cottonwoods are bare, their branches a ghostly pale grey; the cedars that mark the river’s course and fill the canyons that branch off it are just about the only green thing in sight - apart from the soapweeds, and the cowshit that I’ve managed to get on my trouser legs. Once everything comes to life I shall be studying my Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. I like to know what it is I’m looking at.

                                                *          *          *          *

Sun, sky and wind. I don’t think I could imagine a nicer morning than we have today.  There was a slight frost overnight, but by seven-thirty, when I set off for my walk, the thermometer registered forty-five degrees, the sky was blue from horizon to horizon, and – fortified by my porridge and safe in the knowledge that nobody would hear me - I was tempted to sing.  Then I resisted. The meadowlarks were doing a far better job.

The landscape is mostly a dun colour, with splashes of white where the chalky rock shows through on the bluffs that overlook the river and pale yellow patches that mark the blow-outs, but there are plenty of signs that spring is happening. There’s a hackberry tree at the front of the house, and one or two of its buds are starting to open. Up on the range I’ve found the odd shoot poking through. These will be the cool season grasses. As soon as the soil starts to warm up to an appreciable degree they’ll flower, make seed and ripen off, then give way to the warm season grasses, big blue stem, switch-grass and the like. Or so I read in my books.

My walk this morning took me down towards the river-bank where I found the cedar-trees full of flowers, readily yielding a puff of yellow pollen when I flicked them with the back of my hand. Down there, out of the wind, it was deliciously warm. Spring is really on the way, and I have time to enjoy it.

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