Western Wednesdays—A CONGREGATION OF JACKALS by S. Craig Zahler + Giveaway

A Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler has been nominated for a 2010 Peacemaker Award in the Best Western category. Today we’re previewing the first chapter of the nominated novel. For those of you new to Zahler’s work, you’ll see just how well-deserved the nomination is!

In addition, Zahler is posing the question “Which has a richer history—the Western novel or the Western film?” to readers and Dorchester is offering the e-book for FREE to one lucky commenter.

Happy Reading,

Allison Carroll

Editorial and Web Coordinator

Chapter One

They Should Have Paid Attention to Otis

 1888

Otis Boulder had what some people in the San Fortunado area referred to as a rumble gut, a stirring in the juices of his stomach that warned him of impending danger, akin to the nerves in the tip of a dog’s nose that warned it of bad weather. This was a helpful sense in the sprawling Southwest. 

When the two swarthy, sun- bronzed strangers entered the largely empty saloon, Otis’s gastric fluids intimated with a low growl that he should leave. Without even finishing the watered- down drink for which he had been overcharged, the thirty- nine-year-old blacksmith stood, grabbed his hat and walked toward the exit. The final thought he had before he passed through the open door and entered the San Fortunado dusk outside was that these two fellows smelled not like men, but like vultures. 

The denizens of the saloon glanced furtively at the sun-bronzed arrivals and then returned their gazes to the collections of diamonds and royal personages that they would only ever know in card games. The beeves had been ridden northeast that morning and for the next two months the saloon would be peopled by drunken tradesmen with little to do, and sour fellows too old to ride and too ornery to marry.

Amongst these disenfranchised locals sat an anomalous pair, a young handsome couple from Arizona, married not more than three weeks prior: Charles and

Jessica Lowell. When the two sun- bronzed strangers entered the saloon, the newlyweds did not glance furtively as did the others—they openly looked. The couple from Arizona gazed upon the weathered arrivals, surveying the guns in their holsters, the spurs that were long and unnecessarily cruel, the yellow gloves that were stained brown with what might have been dried blood, the dark coats ragged with wear, the cracked faces submerged beneath prickly beards and the long black hair that twined and trailed from beneath their broad brown hats and dripped like candle wax in oily tangles about their shoulders. Their striking resemblance was beyond coincidence: they were identical twins.

Charles squeezed his wife’s hand and, a moment too late, whispered to her, “Do not stare.” The newlyweds had looked; the twins looked back. The one on the left pointed at the couple with his prickly chin and the other nodded while removing his hat. Their heavy boots elicited groans from the floorboards as they strode toward the Arizonians.

Charles felt his muscles tighten with apprehension; his wife sidled close for protection. The twins, limned by the dusty blue light of the gloaming, closed the distance between the door and the newlyweds. Charles was reminded of standing beside train tracks when a locomotive arrived, though he was not exactly sure why.

He said, “Might I offer you fine gentlemen a drink?”

The twins did not acknowledge the inquiry; they pulled weary wooden seats from the table, legs scraping upon the planks of the saloon floor, and sat themselves.

The smell of these men reminded Charles of butcher’s offal left a day too long in the bins.

The Arizonian inquired amenably, “Which particular drink is your preference?”

The twins looked at Charles and then over at Jessica.

Their obsidian eyes coolly fixed upon the finely dressed blonde woman.

Charles cleared his throat and asked, “What would you gentlemen care to drink?”

“Ain’t gentlemen,” the one across from Charles said. The man pointed to his own dingy brown hat. “I still got it on. You want my hat off, you just try and take it off.”

“I am not overly concerned with hats,” Charles replied. Jessica giggled, perhaps too loudly because of her agitated state.

The talker, the one with the hat, looked at his brother and then back to Charles.

“You havin’ fun at us?”

“I can assure you, Mister . . .” Charles waited for a name. Receiving none, he continued. “I can assure you, I am not having anything remotely resembling any form of fun at this present time.”

“You talk smart. That’s how you got her, I s’pose?” The talker looked over at Jessica, upon whom the eyes of the silent brother remained fixed like black moons too stubborn to rise or set.

“I was lucky.” Charles turned in his seat and faced the bartender, a nervous bald man of thirty who could pass for fifty, and said, “Three bourbons and a glass of wine.”

“Get us whiskey instead.”

Charles turned back to the bartender. “Make two of the bourbons glasses of whiskey.”

“We’ll take a bottle,” the talker amended. The bartender looked at Charles; the Arizonian nodded in assent; the rapidly aging drink slinger disappeared to fetch the liquids of his trade.

Charles, his fear allayed by being able to involve some of his considerable inheritance in his current predicament, leaned back comfortably in his chair and asked, “Where are you fellows from?”

“Ain’t none of your mind,” said the talker. He then looked over at Jessica. “She’s got good breeding. You can tell she ain’t done much in the way of work with those hands she got. And all that softness.”

The bartender appeared beside the table, set down a glass of wine, a glass of bourbon and a bottle of whiskey. He reached for the two empty cups upon his tray, but the talker shooed him off and said, “You ain’t gettin’ this bottle back.”

The swarthy man uncorked the whiskey, put the neck to his chapped lips, swallowed a cupful and handed the bottle to his sibling. The silent brother opened his mouth. His gums were wholly bereft of teeth and grossly swollen. At the sight, Charles’s stomach dropped and Jessica shuddered; the couple averted their eyes.

“Now that ain’t polite—lookin’ away from a man while drinkin’ with him.”

Charles and Jessica raised their gazes and watched the silent brother tip the bottle neck. The Arizonians ineffectually tried to hide their repulsion.

“Since you’re buyin’, I’ll tell you what happened to Arthur, why he can’t talk none.”

“I am sure it is a fascinating tale,” Charles said, disguising his sarcasm enough so that it went unnoticed.

“We was captured by some Indians. Don’t at all matter how it happened, but it did. And so there we was, hidden in some cave in some gulch in Indian country, bound up, our backs tied to a damn boulder that weighed more than a fat elephant. Them savages left to go do some scalping or what ever they had a mind to do that day, but only they never did come back. And there we was, tied up expertlike, ’cause if there’s one thing those Indians know, it’s how to tie a knot that won’t never give. Dig up some thousand- year- old Comanche and I bet his moccasins is still tied smart.”

A third of the bottle already ingested, Arthur returned the vessel to his brother. The talker drank, smacked his mouth, exhaled gruffly, handed the bottle back to his brother and, properly lubricated, continued the tale.

“A day passed. And then another. And then a third and a fourth day. And there we was, in that cave, starvin’ to death ’cause those Indians left us. If it hadn’t of rained, we would’ve gone thirsty, but it did rain and some water dripped from the cave ceiling right there onto our heads and we drunk all of it that ran from our scalps down onto our faces, every little bit, even though it tasted like sweat and lichens. But we drank it all.

“And then the fifth day come and we’re both crazy with hunger, delirious, starving, only I’m a little better off than Arthur, ’cause the day we got took by the Indians I had a giant breakfast and dinner, but Arthur overslept and missed his breakfast and he missed his dinner too. So I’m a day behind him in starving to death, if you follow.”

“Indeed. Please continue.”

Arthur handed his brother the bottle. Again the talker drank, smacked his mouth and cleared his throat. Jessica, calmed by the warming influence of her wine, leaned on her husband’s shoulder. Charles looked around and did not think overly upon the fact that most of the saloon denizens had vacated the establishment.

“So we get to arguing. ‘I ain’t gonna die,’ ‘It’s your fault,’ ‘Mom said you was gonna get me kilt,’ ‘It’s your fault Dad got kilt’— that sort of stuff that brothers argue ’bout. So Arthur says, ‘We was born at the same time and I ain’t gonna let you outlive me. I’m gonna last as long as you. Longer even!’ ” The talker looked over at Arthur. The silent man’s eyes were glazed in either recollection or inebriation, Charles could not decide which. “That was the last thing Arthur ever said.”

Charles and Jessica were perplexed by the conclusion of the tale. The talker nodded his head and drank another swallow from the dwindling supply in the bottle.

“I am afraid that I do not understand what happened,” Charles said.

“He ate his tongue. Bit it off, chewed it up and swallowed it so he wouldn’t starve before me.”

Arthur opened his mouth widely for another swallow of whiskey; amber liquid splattered upon the waggling nub within, the tiny remnant of his tongue that was no larger than an olive. Charles stared on in disgust; Jessica, nauseated, placed her wineglass down and clasped her shaking hands.

“My God,” Charles muttered. “How did he not bleed to death?”

The talker turned to his brother and with admiration said, “He pulled off his kerchief with his teeth, gulped it in his mouth and pressed it ’gainst the gash to stop the bleedin’.

“My God,” Charles repeated.

“Arthur was chewing at his bottom lip the next day when we was rescued. I was just startin’ to contemplate my tongue.”

Jessica, pale, attempted a weak smile; she said, “That is so . . . so savage.”

A coldness descended upon the siblings; beneath hedges of dark eyebrows, four glinting black orbs fixed upon the blonde woman.

“He ain’t a savage. He did what he needed to. I know you think you’re better than us, but you’d’ve done the same. We all got the animal within us, even your gentleman husband there.”

Jessica stammered, “I didn’t m-mean t-to—”

Her sentence was cut off by the slam of the whiskey bottle upon the table. “Shut up. Just ’cause you’re pretty don’t mean you can call us savages. You’d’ve done the same if it was you.”

Charles was keenly aware that— excepting the far-off bartender and an inebriate with his head upon a table— the bar was unoccupied other than by the brothers, his wife and himself.

With as calm a countenance as he could manage, he said, “My wife is affected by drink. Please pay her no mind.”

“We ain’t savages. You’d’ve done the same in that gulch.”

“Yes, you are correct.”

The talker removed his hat and set it upon the table. A curved scar like a corded pink rope ran from his forehead to the back of his skull; no hair grew from the

raised flesh.

“That’s what savages do,” he said. The talker placed his hat back upon his head. “We ain’t savages.”

“I am very sorry for offending you,” Jessica offered.

“Women says things they don’t mean. I know it.” The talker looked over at his brother. “You accept her apology?”

There was a glimmer of light by Arthur’s hip; the silent man thrust his right hand beneath the table; his gun holster was empty. Terror like the flames of a brushfire leaped across Jessica’s features; Charles better hid his fear (though his palms and forehead admitted beads of cool perspiration).

“He don’t accept it.”

Charles pushed back in his seat; a metallic click sounded near Jessica’s knees.

“You ain’t got his permission to go.”

Charles looked at his wife; her eyes coruscated with tears that would soon overflow her bottom eyelids and spill down her cheeks.

“Arthur wants to make a point.”

The Arizonians looked at the mute sibling, as if expecting him to grow a new tongue and speak with it. Arthur did not move or even blink; his arm, thrust beneath the table holding his pistol, did not waver; the silent man just stared forward with reptilian eyes.

“What’s your name?” the talker asked.

“Charles.”

“You got more names than that.”

“Charles Alan Lowell.”

“And hers?’

“Jessica Parcedes Lowell.”

The talker cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Lowell.”

“Yes?”

“Open up your mouth.”

“What do you intend—?”

Jessica yelped; Charles looked over at his wife. The talker explained, “Arthur poked her with the barrel. You ain’t supposed to ask questions while making him your apology. Open up your mouth.”

The Arizonian swallowed dryly, parted his lips and lowered his jaw.

The talker looked at Jessica. “Put the tip of your little finger in Mr. Lowell’s mouth.”

Charles would have traded his mansion in Arizona and both of his prized stallions for a pistol at that moment. Jessica raised her trembling right hand toward her husband’s mouth and extended her pinky finger.

To the husband, the talker said, “Bite down on the knuckle just below the tip. Don’t hurt her though— just hold it there with your teeth.”

Charles carefully closed his jaw; his upper and lower incisors pressed into the soft skin covering the last joint of his wife’s pinky. Jessica’s hand and arm dangled from her husband’s mouth like an absurd circus- animal tongue.

The talker surveyed the Arizonians and seemed pleased with what he saw. To Arthur, he said, “That to your liking?”

His sibling nodded, his prickly chin moving up and down less than a quarter of an inch.

“Mr. Lowell. I’d advise you, strongly advise you, not to let go of your wife’s little finger.”

Charles nodded minutely. The talker looked over at Jessica. His eyes surveyed her swollen chest, her long pale neck, her full lips, her upturned nose, her cheeks smeared with rouge (now streaked with tears) and ultimately fixed upon her leaking eyes. The appraisal was like a cold wet hand.

“You love your husband, don’t you Mrs. Lowell?”

Without hesitation, Jessica nodded her head.

“But I bet he wasn’t the first one you laid with, now was he?”

Jessica stared at the talker, but did not respond. Charles’s face reddened, his wife’s long fingernail pressed into the wet flesh of his tongue.

 “You was with other men before you was with Mr. Lowell, wasn’t you?”

Jessica opened her mouth, hesitated and then looked over at Charles, her hand hanging ridiculously from his mouth.

“Don’t do no fibbin’. Arthur’s hard to fool and don’t at all care for fibs.”

Charles nodded to his wife; she returned her gaze to the talker and said, “I have.”

“How many others you been with, Mrs. Lowell? Lots?”

“One other.” Jessica’s embarrassment made her face shine bright and red.

“What was his name?”

“Burt.”

“Did you love Burt?”

“I was just a girl. I didn’t know anything then.”

“Did you tell him you loved him?”

“I did.”

The talker looked over at Charles and said, “You hear this? Watch out.” He pulled an errant twine of oily hair from his prickly beard, set it behind his right ear and inquired of Jessica, “What was Burt’s prick like?”

Jessica cried out and yanked her pinky from Charles’s mouth. She looked at her husband, frightened.

“You bit me,” she said.

“I did not mean t—”

The empty whiskey bottle struck Charles in the face, smacking loudly as it connected with the man’s right cheek. In the instant that he tumbled from his seat, he saw that the saloon was deserted. He impacted the floor; his unbalanced chair hesitated on two legs and then fell beside him.

“Get up.” Charles righted his chair and reseated himself.

The talker said to Jessica, “You put your finger back in his mouth or my brother’s gonna lose his temper. He’s an angry one.” Arthur stared on, aloof and inscrutable.

Jessica raised her right hand; Charles clamped his teeth to his wife’s pinky; her long fingernail settled against the tip of his tongue. His cheek smarted where the bottle had struck him, and his entire face stung with the heat of his embarrassment. He felt his wife’s heartbeat within the soft flesh of her fingertip— it was as quick as his own.

“What did Burt’s prick look like?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t look at it.”

“Afraid, huh? You one of them that just lies there, eyes shut, feet to the ceiling and takes it like cough syrup?” He looked at Charles and said, “Sorry.” He returned his gaze to Jessica. “So you just lie there with your eyes closed, huh? Maybe a buncha fellows was on top of you, takin’ turns and you didn’t even know it?”

“It was just him.”

“What did Burt’s prick feel like? Bigger than Mr. Lowell here’s? Got a lot of veins or hair?”

Charles felt his wife’s fingernail dig into his tongue and realized an instant later it was because he had unconsciously bitten her again. Jessica winced and shut her eyes.

“Stop biting your wife, Mr. Lowell. She don’t much like savages.”

The talker looked at the Arizonians pointedly.

Charles, embarrassed, nodded minutely and, with ungracious, finger- obfuscated enunciation, said, “We understand your point.”

“Good. But that don’t mean you learned your lesson.” The talker turned to his brother. Arthur shook his head; the arc of his chin traversed only an eighth of an inch, but the gesture twisted Charles’s stomach into a knot. “He says you ain’t learned.” To Jessica, the talker said, “Was Burt’s prick bigger than the one dangling between Mr. Lowell’s legs? Don’t lie.”

Charles (unsuccessfully) attempted to ignore his wife’s response.

She said, “I’m not sure. It hurt because it was the first time.”

“The next time you done it, it feel good?”

“It didn’t hurt as much, though I didn’t like copulating with him.”

“But would you go back looking for old Burt if your husband got himself killed?”

A silence like winter dawn settled upon the quartet. Charles felt his wife’s pulse race through her captive digit. Arthur yawned, saliva glinting upon his swollen gums and the limp stub within. Tears rolled down the cheeks of the Arizonians.

“I plan to spend the rest of my life with Charles.”

“So you’ll forgive him then?”

“For what?”

The talker punched Charles’s chin; his jaw snapped shut; the tip of his wife’s pinky and a gout of crimson flavored like copper and honey flooded into his mouth. Jessica shrieked and fell from her seat; Charles vomited upon the table.

The sun- bronzed siblings stood up, guns in their right hands. Jessica’s shrieking became hysterical sobbing; Charles wiped bile from his mouth and knelt beside his agonized wife. The shadow of the twins fell upon the Arizonians, but neither looked up at their persecutors. Charles wrapped Jessica’s finger with a handkerchief to stop the bleeding and thought about Jesus Christ for the first time since their wedding.

A deep voice with a thick Irish accent said, “It’s never hard to locate you boys. Let’s go.”

“Yessir,” the talker responded. Without preamble or delay, the siblings strode from the Arizonians toward the door.

Charles and Jessica looked up. Night had fallen on San Fortunado and against that blue-black sky, beyond the reach of the saloon’s oil lanterns, stood a tall, extraordinarily lean man with a curved back wearing a gray suit, a gray hat and a matching scarf tied over his face. Through the tears in Charles’s eyes, the man looked like a cane made of smoke.

The siblings exited the saloon and disappeared into the night, but the slender man in gray remained. He spoke to the Arizonians, his Irish brogue deceptively cloying. “Don’t take this to the sheriff.”

Charles, emboldened by the absence of his persecutors, heatedly replied, “I certainly will— those men attacked us!”

“You are both alive. Your wife still has her clothes on. Nothing serious happened.” The tall gray shade turned away; Charles opened his mouth to respond.

With her good hand, Jessica squeezed his shoulder and said, “I don’t want to be a widow.”

Humiliation replaced the anger burning within Charles, but he said nothing. The narrow gray wraith twisted weirdly and was welcomed into obscurity by the night.

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7 Responses to Western Wednesdays—A CONGREGATION OF JACKALS by S. Craig Zahler + Giveaway

  1. tarenn98 says:

    First let me say,this sounds like an interesting story. Next,I think both have a lot of history,but as I love to read Westerns and historicals.I think the novel have richer details,brings you more details and closer to the story.So I say the NOVEL.
    Congrats on the new release.
    AprilR

    • ed hummel says:

      Good story line, however the author “meanders” around it before getting to the point. Hard to follow.

  2. Lad Castle says:

    Did not find anybody to like in the first chapter. This discription does not lend me to believe the statement “Sun -bronzed strangers”… The yellow gloves that were stained brown with what might have been dried blood, the dark coats ragged with wear, the cracked faces submerged beneath prickly beards and the long black hair that twined and trailed from beneath their broad brown hats and dripped like candle wax in oily tangles about their shoulders. How could you tell? The cruelty in the first chapter overides “the cowboy theme”.

    Good luck!
    Lad

  3. Susan says:

    Wow! What a first chapter! I did not want to stop reading. There is so much more that I want to know and am sure that there is. I have not bother with reading a lot of westerns as often they seem to be the “same.” This one does not!

  4. Lad Castle says:

    Richer history: If you count the old westerns on film—before I could even read I remember cowboy names like: Hop-along Cassidy, the Durango kid, Lash Laroo, forgive the spelling, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Sunset Carson, Alan Rocky Lane, Gabby Hayes, Andy Devine, Alan Lad, John Wayne, and, too many to list here. Then again the Western books are the fodder for the Western films. Have it their way on screen—have it your way from a book…
    Lad Castle

  5. Allison Carroll, Editorial and Web Coordinator says:

    When I think about it, most of my favorite Western movies are based on Western books, so I see your point Lad Castle. I’ve just grabbed Open Range by Lauren Paine from our in-house library. I love the movie version—can’t wait to read the book!

    Thanks to everyone for joining in the discussion! Our randomly selected winner of the free e-book A Congregation of Jackals is Susan. Congrats Susan! If you thought the first chapter was a ‘page-turner,’ just wait until you read the rest of the book. This really is one of my favorite books, regardless of genre.

    Susan, please email contests@dorchesterpub.com with the email address you would like your prize to be sent to.

    And be sure to tune in next Wednesday everyone—I’ll be previewing a chapter from Broadway Bounty by Robert J. Randisi and offering a free copy of the print book!

    Happy Friday,
    Allison Carroll
    Editorial and Web Coordinator
    Dorchester Publishing

  6. Andy says:

    Interesting indeed. In my opinion it all depends on how good the writer is at describing the scene and story. Imagination is a truly wonderful place to visit! and you don’t even need to leave your chair!

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