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Chigger Boom and the Night the Devil Broke Loose

April 13, 2012

by Tom Sheehan

A starter for a western short story

Lots of folks down in south Texas still tell the story of the relentless search for a prized horse stolen near Rancho Lobo. They spin the story years after the horse was stolen during the night of one of the greatest storms that ever roared in from the Gulf of Mexico. Like Hell was shot out of a cannon, they said of that storm, calling it “The Night the Devil Broke Loose.” The winds of that momentous storm, roaring banshees seeking wild revenge, ripped inland from the Gulf and cut a scandalous path of devastation more than 80 miles wide. Roofs of barns sailed in the air like wings of ungodly giant birds, windows in meager huts imploded before their scanty roofs came free, and one small settlement not far from Rancho Lobo witnessed every one of its buildings blown apart the way dynamite could do the job. And the horse, a 6-year old stallion, a magnificent animal from the first day, big and black and fiery-eyed, by the name of Chigger Boom, belonged to 16-year old Chuck Curtin, the son of a small rancher. That’s probably going too fast for some folks any distance away from the local area, so we’ll have to go back to the beginning when Chigger Boom came into the world of lower Texas, near the grass town of Rancho Lobo that lasted only a dozen years. The town folded up one night and died a sudden death in another weird storm from the Gulf. The successor storm roared in from the sea, great and noisy and earth-shaking, the way steam engines pound into towns at the baptism of new train tracks connecting all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean. But Chigger Boom, according to historians, carried the real story.

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Western Pulps and Similar Magazines

Reasons behind the imitation

In my early years, in the ‘30s, the Depression in full swing, my adventurous spirit and thirst for new things at a full gallop, pulp magazines stuffed much of the void. They filled the empty spaces and often the empty stomachs waiting on a late meal of canned salmon, peas and a white sauce I remember to this day, or a meal of a quart of real oven-baked beans and a loaf of brown bread from a converted garage building just down the street on Charlestown’s Bunker Hill Ave, and all the lamb kidneys I could buy at a corner market with change from a dollar.

Often that simple meal fed the early five of us.

I particularly loved G-8 and His Battle Aces, Nippy and Bull, Doc Savage and his crew, Lamont Cranston as The Shadow and any pulp westerns I could get my hands on, barter for, even those with the covers torn off, or had the title stripped so they could not be put back on another shelf, to be sold as new. The covers were glorious paintings of cowboys in full gear and riding horses with wild eyes, their guns drawn and firing away, their lassos working a whirling magic, or running ahead of a cattle stampede or Indians chasing them to cover. The west was dynamic, a real place that hung out there on the edge of the rest of the country.

There was therefore a gastronomical and a literary connection for me where I lived less than 200 yards from history itself, Old Ironsides in Charlestown, MA Navy Yard, my father in the Marine Corps across the street from our cold water flat in a three-decker building on Bunker Hill Ave, and uphill from us stood the Bunker Hill Monument. Often he served as charge of quarters aboard that floating piece of history still making the rounds for us in their yearly turn-abouts. And many of those times were spent in my carriage when he baby-sat me while my mother shopped or completed other errands.

I seemed hungry much of the time those days, for those late meals, and for the accompanying adventures that reading pulp magazines brought to me, my mind exploding for the next few years, until girls intruded in their special way, a football felt comfortable in my hands, or a line drive into left field could be hauled in with a sprint and a sure glove.

Often when I select a name for a character in one of my stories, I feel some unique but unknown connection persuading me in a choice of names from a distant past aboard a fictional horse at a lope, trot or gallop across a pulpy page of print, or some character from Doc Savage or The Shadow, in a deliberate manner, making his name or the names of cohorts echo in the back of my head.

I always welcome such intrusions, calling to be repeated.

For a time they were real for me, and I try to make such characters real again, weaving them to do their thing in late stories I write, westerns, thrillers, or folk tales breaking out of the mind.

With over 240 cowboy stories committed to one Internet site alone, characters come to me looking to be named: I have uncovered Caleb Bonner, Mexico George, Lakota Betty, Otto Pilsner, Tobin Rally, Yardley Doyle McKee, Big Jack Tuppence (Coin of the Realm), Clay Hartung, Bad-Boy Goode, Bruce Danby (Pony Express rider), Doc Hannah, Falcon Eddie, Gregory Tolliver the Tascosa Gunsmith, Mrs. Binnie Minn of Shangri-La, No-Hugs Calhoun, Plumbeck the Fiddler, Will Halfloaf the Bumbler, and Crackbak Mellon-Mellon. I feel there’s an adventure coming up attached to a character’s name.

I call it romance of the language, the demand of phonetics playing at my ear, the sounds calling to be repeated from my reading past.

Memory knows yet the reading niches I had; to be alone, on a rooftop with the pigeon coops, in a cellar with the dust of coal in the air from a recent delivery, or in a portion of a hallway where the tenants were off working, all of them, all making their way to today’s computer at my command.

In those delicious hours, the cowboys came and went, G-8 flew in and out, Doc Savage did his thing, but I reaped all the rewards of their good deeds.

Those characters are still in my mind, suspended in some manner, waiting to be found again.

For me, it’s pay-back time.

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Tom Sheehan’s newest book is Korean Echoes, an e-book from Milspeak Publishers. Five more eBooks are in their production queue and one NHL mystery novel is seeking agent representation as he dawdles in his 84th year.

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  1. April 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I know of no other writer like Tom Sheehan. He is a master, and because of that, a frequent and favored contributor to OCEAN Magazine. We bow to you Tom.

  2. April 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Your title resonated with me because in Austin we’ve gotten far enough into the season that chiggers are once again a problem for a nature photographer, as my skin confirms.

    Steve Schwartzman

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