I continue to post commentaries I have written about my own work, with the assumption that anyone who ends up here is interested in knowing about things I have written. For additional images, book descriptions, and review excerpts, one may go to the “Books” tab above and browse there.
For the Norden Boys is my eighth traditional western novel. It was published in June 2002 by Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). As with Black Hat Butte and Lonesome Range, I consider it to be at the center of my work, as it is a literary traditional western with strong interest in character and landscape. For the Norden Boys is available at Amazon.
As part of my preparation for writing this novel, I went out to do field research in order to get a feeling for the place where I wanted my story to take place. Because I was planning to deal with topics such as treachery and injustice, and because I wanted to have an amoral hired killer in the enemy camp, I thought it would be interesting to go to Iron Mountain, the scene of the fatal shooting that led to Tom Horn’s hanging. I did not intend to use any historical characters in the story, but I thought that if I went to the place, I might feel some inspiration.
So with plenty of food and drinking water, I set out on a back-roads journey in my old black pickup. The pickup doesn’t have air conditioning, and I expected the weather to get hot that day in late summer, so I got an early start. I drove south to Hawk Springs, then took the road west, over the rim to Chugwater. From there I took the narrow two-lane highway south to the Iron Mountain area, where I found the old post office, now closed. I took a road that led into the hills, and I wondered which of the peaks in the vicinity was Iron Mountain.
I ended up driving into a ranch yard, where I got out of the pickup and lingered at the low woven-wire fence until someone came out. A woman perhaps in her late fifties, wearing what I might vaguely describe as town or city clothes, came to the gate. I had the impression that she did not live there, and my guess was confirmed when she said she and her husband were visiting her son. I told her I was a writer and was hoping to see Iron Mountain, so she went to get her son the rancher.
He was a fellow in his mid to late thirties, I would guess, and he didn’t seem to care for visitors. When I told him of my interest, he pointed out a flat, stubby rise to the northwest and said that was Iron Mountain. I said it didn’t look much like what I was expecting, and he told me that most of the mountain had been mined away, and the hill was what was left of it. I apologized for the trouble, and he must have been an honest man, because he did not tell me it was no trouble at all.
For a short while, I felt as if my hopes were like that mountain, all carted away. I drove back out to the main road, took another look at the post office, and headed south to Horse Creek, which is a small community about twenty miles north of Cheyenne. Still not having seen a landscape that matched with what I was looking for, I turned around and went back north to Chugwater. The day was wearing on, and the heat of the engine was coming through the floorboard. I ate lunch, pondered for the umpteenth time what it was like to look for a mountain and find that it wasn’t there any more, and drove further north to see what I could see.
Then the good thing happened. The Laramie Mountains begin to rise taller in the near distance as a person travels from Chugwater to Wheatland, and there I saw a couple of mountains and a canyon that spoke to me for my story. I had to drive past them until I found a way to cross over the interstate and get onto the right road that would take me close to the mountains. Then I was able to take in the landscape, jot down notes, and take pictures. By the end of a hot afternoon, I had the setting for my novel.
As for the story line, I had been tinkering with it for a while, and I knew I wanted my main character to be an older cowpuncher who had become a ranch cook. I found the place on the range where he would first meet the Norden boys, Dane and Hal, and agree to go to work for them. I had decided to call him Tom Atkins, which in my reading of Thomas Hardy’s poetry I had learned was a generic name for a common soldier. My character was a regular guy, not heroic or superhuman, but in the course of events he was going to have to rise to courage and try to deal with injustice.
To get into his character a little more, I did some other research at my own place. In my back yard, where I have a permanent campfire site, I experimented with the various kinds of fuel, such as sagebrush and cedar, which Tom Atkins would use in his work. I practiced with cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens on the open fire, and I learned what it felt like to put my hand palm-down to see if the bottom of the skillet was hot enough to fry meat. On another occasion, when the ashes were cold, I set up the iron tripod and used it as Atkins was going to do—as a rifle rest. I got exactly the right feel of how things come together, and then I squeezed off a shot with my lever-action saddle gun. I did this on two separate occasions, to make sure I got it right. The scene in the novel works pretty well, as Atkins shoots an antelope that comes unwisely close to his camp. It is also a good set-up for a later scene when he has a more critical shot to make.
As I wrote this novel, I had the good feeling that I was carrying it off all right. My character was rising in his power to act, but he wasn’t going to be able to do away with injustice in the world. Furthermore, he didn’t kid himself. I thought it was a real novel about a real kind of person. Several months after I wrote it, I did the proofreading before the book went to press, and again I had a very memorable feeling that I had done as well as I could. After that, the responses I got in person as well as in the mail told me that at least some readers took the novel as I envisioned it.When this book came out, I thought it was the best thing I had written up to that point in my career. Later I would feel that other works rose to this level, and I hope it happens again. Without feeling that I have to compare or rank my own work, however, I am content to say that For the Norden Boys is right up there with my best.