Gunslingers, Pistoleers, and Shootists

IMG_1920The annals of the Old West are replete with names of gunfighters. Men who earned their reputations by being fast with a gun and surviving shootouts. Outlaws gained their notoriety by robbing stagecoaches, banks, and trains. The lawmen who arrested or killed them were in many cases former outlaws themselves. Many operated on both sides of the law.

However, the iconic image of a dusty western town where two men approach each other from opposite ends of the street or face off in the local saloon is in many ways a fabrication. Such confrontations happened, but rarely. Cemeteries like “Boot Hill” attest to frontier violence and are the final resting places of such well known western icons as John Wesley Hardin, Ike Clanton, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and John Henry “Doc” Holiday to name but a few. But hardened men with nerves of steel and a fast draw are principally the invention of dime novelists, journalists, and early cinema; the events embellished and participants made larger than life to sell books, build newspaper circulation, and encourage attendance at movie theaters.

Certainly, most men were armed and occasional gunfights occurred. But of those, the vast majority avoided confrontations. When guns were used it was to protect livestock, property and family. And, even when an exchange of gunfire took place, gunfights without casualties weren’t all that uncommon.

Though most men carried a firearm and risked death by doing so, more often than not shots were fired wildly, triggers jerked instead of squeezed, weapons aimed to high or to low or not aimed at all, bullets whizzing by their intended targets, thudding into wooden walls or planking or plowing into the dirt. When the gun smoke cleared, the participants were often amazed to find themselves and their adversaries unscathed. – excerpt from Palo Duro. 




A Very Personal Endeavor

Though both are based on the past, there is quite a difference writing historical fiction versus a memoir. One is based on events, people, and circumstances known to history while the other’s focus is unique to the author. Historical fiction requires topic research and some degree of subject matter expertise while a memoir is defined solely by the writer’s personal experiences. Historical fiction also uses plot devices and character development to drive the story while a memoir relies on the writer’s memories to relate a very private tale that hopefully strikes an emotional cord which resonates with the reader.

With few exceptions, the majority of my blog posts have related to my novel of westward expansion and the Plains Indian Wars. It is my more recent book, and I concentrated on it to build interest in a genre that not only reflects my writing preference but the focus of future book releases.

I didn’t initially promote my first book because it was a very personal endeavor that I wrote with my children and grandchildren in mind. It spoke to my relationship with my dad and his influence on me as I grew up. He was my hero, and I wanted them to understand why I held my dad in such high regard and why I wanted them to never forget him or the values that he tried to pass on to each of us. I must have succeeded to some degree as it was my children that encouraged me to publish and market my memoir. 

Later this month (August 26th) I’ll be holding a book signing at the Twig Bookshop at the Pearl in San Antonio that will feature both my books. And, while I’ve written extensively about my novel, I thought it important to return to the book that began my love of writing. In so doing, I hope that current and new readers of my blog might learn more of who I am and might also make a connection with one or more of the themes that I addressed in my first effort as a writer.

The book evolved into a personal journey, becoming a catharsis of sorts for me… coming to grips with the loss of the man I was privileged to call a friend, brother-in-arms, role model, and most importantly… my dad. Equally important, the book also allowed me to redefine my relationship with my sister after our father’s death. It is neither autobiography nor biography. It is merely the memories, anecdotes, and musings of a son written down for his children and grandchildren. If it finds additional readership, it will be the result of a chord or chords struck amongst other sons and daughters who remember a father who loved them and whom they loved. – excerpt from Silver TapsCompleted Book Cover




Westward the Women

Women faced tremendous hardship and challenges on their trek westward. Few had an appreciation for the dangers that awaited them en route to the frontier – traversing rugged and inhospitable terrain, unpredictable weather, the lack of food and water, injuries and disease without recourse to doctors or hospitals, natural as well as unscrupulous human predators that assaulted both men and livestock, the absence of creature comforts and sanitation, isolation, loneliness, and attacks from hostile Indians.

It was the lure of land and the promise of adventure that caused their menfolk to take the risks and head west. The women and children who accompanied them faced an uncertain future. Many would die along the way and those that made it to their destination now had to carve out an existence in an unforgiving uncivilized country.

Many arrived alone, widowers or orphans who had seen their husbands or family members die during the journey. In a world dominated by men, theirs was a fight for survival by any means available.

Many women found themselves working as “whores” in the Old west. For a good majority, it was a matter of survival. Travelling to the frontier held risks that included the loss of family or a husband along the way. Finding oneself suddenly alone or widowed meant acknowledging the reality that food and shelter required money, luck, or ingenuity… including offering yourself to strangers just to stay alive. It was the fortunate individual that could afford to buy or build a boarding house, and only a few lucked into positions that allowed them to cook, clean, or teach for a living. The less fortunate found themselves indentured to barkeeps or the like for room and board and very little money. These women were treated as a commodity, had no say about their customers, and were subjected to filth, disease, and occasional violence. A minority found a boss that protected them and some even found love and marriage. The further west the town or city, the greater the disparity between the number of men and “available” women. In some locales the ratio was ten to one or even higher, and here lonely men were appreciative of a woman’s touch and looking for permanent relationships. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Frontier Saloons

You cannot watch a western film (with few exceptions) without images of the local saloon replete with dance hall girls, gaming tables, the barkeep serving customers whiskey and beer from behind a long wooden bar, gunfights or fistfights erupting over a card game or a girl, traveling thespians attempting Shakespeare in front of drunken and raucous crowds, and courtesans entertaining guests in the upstairs rooms.

Though stereotypical, these images of the Old West have their basis in fact. Frontier saloons began as little more than tents, sod, or adobe structures with wooden planking to avoid the mud and excrement from horses tethered outside. However, as the mining or cattle industries flourished, so did the evolution of these establishments. Often the exterior walls were nothing more than false fronts erected to attract more customers, but wood, brick, and glass eventually replaced earlier rudimentary structures while hand-carved bars with brass railings took the place of barrels and sawed lumber, spittoons eliminated spitting on the floor, and mirrors, oil paintings, and chandeliers graced the interiors.

Tombstone, Arizona was home to one such saloon, The Oriental. It was a place where a man could escape the monotony, drudgery, harshness and uncertainty of life while living out his fantasies.

Tombstone had developed first as a mining camp. Silver had been discovered in 1878; there had been only a hundred desperate souls in the beginning hoping to strike a vein and get rich quick, but by 1880 it was considered a “boom town” with over 3,000 residents. Naturally, the gaming business moved in along with the influx of inhabitants, and the Oriental opened its doors in July of that year.

Many frontier saloons were nothing more than canvas tents with false wooden fronts and the establishment’s name on the entrance. They specialized in unrefrigerated beer and hard liquor, mostly whiskey – bourbon and rye. Sometimes that whiskey was nothing more than “Rotgut” made from raw alcohol, burnt sugar and tobacco juice. The Oriental, however, was a much more cultured establishment, with hitchin’ posts out front for the horses, a broad boardwalk at the entrance, swinging doors for easy access, a long hand-carved wooden bar with a brass foot rail where unaltered spirits, even champagne were served by the glass or bottle, carpeting – though with dusty/muddy streets, this proved more of a liability than an asset – glass mirrors and oil paintings, a piano, and “dancing girls” to draw in the clientele.

The girls offered companionship and solace to men who spent long lonely hours working their  mining claims or to the cowboys lonely after a long ride. A buck could get you a “poke”, and for those with money and more perverse carnal desires, just about anything could be “negotiated” at a price. – excerpt from Palo Duro.




The Life-Giving Buffalo

Though the Southwestern Plains Indians warred against each other and against white encroachment onto their lands, they were principally a nomadic people who followed the great buffalo herds during their yearly migrations.

The Indians hunted bison for food, clothing, shelter, fuel, in honor of the Great Spirit… venerating the animal for providing the necessities for their very survival.  Whites, on the other hand killed off  the herds for sport (the thrill of the hunt), to assuage their vanity (buffalo hides becoming fashionable in Eastern and European markets), and to finally deny the Indians their way of life by slaughtering the buffalo in the millions to force the Plains tribes onto reservations and into an agrarian lifestyle.IMG_2176

The Comanche bands and all the Plains Indian tribes relied on the buffalo for their very existence. The “life-force” of the animal was celebrated in their religious ceremonies; the heart was often left after a hunt as an offering to the Great Spirit. They found uses for literally every part of the buffalo. The horns could be made to hold water or gun powder, used as a musical instrument, or ground into an aphrodisiac for the old men who could no longer get an erection on their own. The head and horns were used in ceremonial dress, the warriors wearing the headdress in homage to the life-giving buffalo while dancing to bring about its return. The tongue, heart, liver, rump, and tenderloin fed the people; the meat roasted or dried into jerky, while the sinew was used by the women to sew hides together to provide clothing, shelter, even toys. The entrails including the intestines, stomach, and bladder were thoroughly washed and used to carry water. Even the hooves were boiled down to produce a glue like substance to bond items together including flesh wounds caused in battle or by accident. Nothing was wasted.

The white hunters, however, cared nothing for the multiple uses made of the buffalo by the Indians. Only their woolly hides were of value to them, and the rotting carcasses left behind by the thousands attested to their indifference. For the Comanche this slaughter was a direct threat to their way of life and was seen as a deliberate strategy to destroy a people the whites could not subdue by war alone. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

The Influence of Book Covers

The commonly heard expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is a metaphor, usually applied to people, that speaks to the judgments we make about individuals when we first meet or encounter them. We form broad brush opinions based upon their looks or actions in the moment without really knowing anything about them. We judge worth or value by outward appearance alone. However, if/when we really get to know that person, our preconceived notions may prove completely different from that which we imagined. But does the metaphor apply or hold true when we actually describe book covers?

Whether shopping online or at a bookstore, the first thing that is likely to draw our attention – before reading a synopsis or excerpt – is the book cover. We may have already narrowed our search for a good read by first looking for books written by specific authors or content that aligns with our reading preferences (romance, mystery, biography, war, history, etc.,) but the visual imagery on the jacket has an immediate impact on whether we pick up the book to examine it further.

Sometimes the image has little or no bearing on content. The design is simply a marketing tactic to make the book stand out amidst the multitude of available titles. Only the author and the publisher can decide whether this approach is appropriate, however, as a reader and a writer I believe there should be a connection between appearance and content.

Below are images of the jacket covers to my two books:


Silver Taps, my first book, is a personal memoir that pays homage to my father, a career Army officer, who served in World War  II, Korea, and Vietnam. The image of the folded American flag and wooden box depicting a soldier saluting the fallen was taken from an actual photo taken during his memorial service.

Palo Duromy most recent book, is a novel about westward expansion focusing on the Plains Indian wars at the turn of the 19th century. Central to the Indians way of life was the buffalo. It numbered in the millions before the herds were decimated as the result of deliberate U.S. government policy designed to force the tribes into subjugation and onto reservations. The image’s backdrop is a photo of Palo Duro Canyon that I took while doing research into this last stronghold of the Plains Indians, onto which is superimposed an artist’s conception of a buffalo hunt.

For anyone who has read either book, I’d appreciate your feedback on whether you think the images are representative of content. Even if you haven’t read them but you’re reading this blog, what are your thoughts on book jackets and their impact on book sales? Do they matter? Should they relate to content or characters in a book? Do they influence consumers? Whether you are an avid reader, a published author, or an aspiring writer your comments are important.


Historical Figures & Fictional Characters

Two of the greatest literary characters in contemporary fiction are Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call. They were first introduced in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic western novel, “Lonesome Dove.” The book explores their relationship and adventures as the two retired Texas Rangers lead a cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

The novel would be the third chronologically in a series of books that include “Dead Man’s Walk,” “Comanche Moon,” and “Streets of Laredo.” All were successful novels and would be adapted as TV mini-series, with “Lonesome Dove” arguably the best of the genre ever to be televised. Robert Duval as “Gus” and Tommy Lee Jones as “Call” give unforgettable performances that capture the creative genius of McMurtry and bring to life an era characterized by lawlessness, brutality, and the indomitable spirit it took to brave and conquer the western frontier.

Though historical figures populate all of his narratives, Larry McMurtry denies that the principal characters were based on any specific individuals. Nonetheless, they call to mind two individuals who made such a cattle drive and whose lives, in many aspects, parallel those of Gus and Call.

In “Lonesome Dove,” during the cattle drive to Montana, Augustus McCrae will be grievously wounded resulting in the amputation of his leg, the onset of gangrene, and his eventual death. While on his deathbed he will entreat his friend to return his body to Texas, and Woodrow Call will fulfill his dying friend’s wish.

In real life, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving launched a trail drive of over 2,000 head of cattle from Fort Belknap, Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico on a new thousand mile route they forged together. Historically this route would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and its success would change the industry forever.

Cattle Drive

Goodnight and Loving would make multiple trips on that trail over a three-year period, earning trust and respect for one another as well as making both men very wealthy.

On their fourth such cattle drive, however, Oliver Loving was severely wounded in a confrontation with Comanche, the wound requiring amputation of his right arm. He developed gangrene, and later died from the infection. Charles Goodnight wasn’t with him when he sustained his wounds; but once reunited, remained by his side until Oliver Loving’s death. True to his dying friend’s request, Charles personally ferried his friend’s body back to his hometown of Weatherford, Texas. – excerpt from Palo Duro.