So Much for the Old West Myth (or maybe not)

What’s the point of correcting the Hollywood cowboy myth when all that nonsense is so much fun?  Well, I say the truth is a lot more fun.  Which is why I write historical Westerns full of characters and events drawn from a history that is bigger, more brawly and more complex than anything Hollywood can concoct.

I love cowboy movies and will watch one anytime, anyplace, including interrupting family dinners for my 300th viewing of Shane or The Oxbow Incident.

But I do have my limits.  I hit that limit last night.  With a cowboy movie that started the career of a famous actor, and I don’t see how that could have happened.  He was rugged, silent and god-like, as are all Western heroes.  The villains craven and conniving, and more than a little incompetent at their fiendish work.  The script the same story you’ve seen a million times after the gunsmoky opening scenes.

What was all wrong was the details.  All of them.  Infuriating!

Such as, every cowboy wore a low-slung belt and holster rig for his polished six gun.  No cowhand or gunman in the Old West wore a rig like that.  It was invented for the movies.  Wild Bill (actually “Wild Duckbill” for his enormous nose) Hickok carried his pistol in his pocket most of the time.  As did most Westerners, few of whom could afford an expensive leather holster for the even more expensive pistol they also could not afford.  Better to spend that money on shovels to plant and rope to herd.

Few cowboys or farmhands carried guns, and fewer still were allowed to open carry them through a Western town without annoying the local peace officer.

When a gunman, like the psychopathic Johnny Ringo, wore a holster, it was a Mexican loop holster that folded over the belt that held up a man’s trousers.  That holster rode on his waist, not dangling above his knee.

And have you ever walked a hundred yards with a holster belt around your waist its cartridge loops filled with shells?  The damn bullets tend to pop out all over the place, don’t they?  Happened to me, anyway.  That’s why cowhands and gunslingers wore vests – for the deep pockets to hold those expensive bullets they didn’t want to lose.

Wyatt Earp never carried a Buntline Special because there were none when he had his shootouts.  (Ah, but you knew that already.)  When had to gunfight, he would go in with his weapons in his hands, cocked and ready.  As would any sensible man.

But there really wasn’t that much gunfighting in the Old West.  Who but a fool duels face-to-face in an empty street at high noon?   Sure, you may be the fastest gunhand in that street.  But a distracting shadow, your pistol sight catching on holster leather or your stumbling into a pothole as you whip out your iron and you aren’t the fastest gunhand anymore.

No, no, no.  Most gunfights were shoot-‘em-in-the-back affairs, the only sensible way to gunfight.  And safer to do it with a rifle or a shotgun at a little distance.  That’s how Virgil Earp was wounded and Morgan Earp killed in Tombstone.

Even a gun brawl among heavily armed men looking for a fight, as the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was a rare thing.  Because no sane and sober person wanted to be standing anywhere close when lots of guns went off.  Well, the Clantons and their associates weren’t that sober, and the Earps and Doc Holliday were sane.  You see who had the advantage and made sure of it.

Even then, that famous gunfight went nothing like in the movies.  At about six feet apart, nine men fired off 30 pistol rounds and two shotgun cartridges.  The result was three dead on the Clanton side and everyone but Wyatt wounded on the other.  And a lot of fence rail and nearby wooden buildings holed.  Whoa!  At six feet apart?

Last night, TV news reported a policeman had to fire four shots at an armed criminal before hitting him once.  The policeman took out a neighbor’s car, a divot of lawn and someone’s front door before he got the crook.  That was across a bit more than the distance of the OK Corral fight.  Proving that pistols, even in the hands of trained users, even close-in, are not that sure.  So why risk a face-to-face fight?

What does all this carping mean for the Western novels I write?  It means I’m determined to make my books as near the real thing as I can.  That many of the characters in my stories are based on or composites of real Old Westerners.  Many of the incidents come from events that really happened.

Wyatt Earp is there in his own name, but he’s a Wyatt nearer the man of the Vendetta Ride after his brothers were attacked than of his Hollywood myth.  Dirty Dave Rudabaugh is there, still unbathed, though composited into another name.  So are a very young Annie Oakley along with Texas Jack Omohundro and Hanging Judge Roy Bean, though in different skins.  So, too, a Choctaw bountyhunter ruined by missionary schooling and Exodusters escaping the collapse of Reconstruction.  General John Bell Hood makes an appearance in New Orleans, but the appearance he makes is a puzzle even to me.  River pirates, steamboats marooned in prairie dust and murdering Vigilantes who take time to build libraries fill out the stories.

Give them a read, if you please – The Gunfighter, The Outlaw, The Bountyhunter, Broken Spur and, soon, Dead Hand.  Test them against the non-Hollywood reality of what you know of the Old West.  Then let me know what you think of them.  I’d like that.  And I’d be obliged.

 

Veterans Day for Just One American Hero

1D-20-243-68 1stMarDiv Vietnam 1968 Tank from “Bravo” Company, 1st Tanks, in support of Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. DEFENSE DEPT. PHOTO MARINE CORPS mis A371608.jpg

I love marching bands and parades but I don’t go all soppy on Veterans Day remembering our fallen heroes.  That is because Veterans Day is the one day I don’t  think about them.  Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Instead, it is the day I reserve for a private thanksgiving for what those men and women have given us – our country, safe and whole.  That makes it a second Fourth of July for me, one more day each year on which I feel especially good and very proud.  It’s also the one day of the year I don’t think about one particular hero.

I can’t say why what happened to him affects me so much so many years after our war, but I think about him nearly every day.  He has 364 Veterans Days with me.  When a whiff of diesel from a passing truck gives me an unexpected flashback to the crank and roar of tanks.  When the air on a hot, dusty day sets my teeth on edge like chewing tinfoil and I’m standing there again, beside the guns firing a mission, tasting cordite.  Then I remember him.  We were buddies in war.  We went though officer candidate school together.  Ended up artillerymen in the same piece of Vietnam.  Faced the same hardships, the same risks, the same sniper fire, the same incoming rockets, the same humping the boonies with the grunts calling fire to keep us all alive and to try to win our war.

When I finished my tour in the war zone, I went home, very happy to go home safe and whole.  He stayed on.  He had extended.  But it wasn’t quite the same home I had left.  There were no parades for me and no cheers.  Girls wouldn’t go out with me – and that was very painful when I was young! – because they believed me to be one of those doped-up, village-burning, orphan-making wild men they had heard about from some twisted characters on the grapevine.  That was not a description of me or any other soldier I knew in the war.  It was not a description of this one hero.

There was no good ending to that war.  Too bad.  I don’t care to argue politics here.  I want to tell you about a letter.  It was around Christmastime the year I got back Stateside.  Here, the letter said, written by an adjutant in my old battalion, is some unhappy news.  He was killed last week and we knew you would want to know.

He was killed on a firebase.  In the middle of a hot and dusty day.  Mortar rounds were coming in and he was down deep behind sandbags, trying to stay alive.  A mortar round struck a gun pit and guys were flung across the hardpan and were lying twisted and screaming for help.  He ran out to help them.

No need for me to say what happened.  I came home and he did not.  I have a wife and child and made a satisfying career and he was denied all those things.  Why did he do that, with the shells coming down and his chances very slim of getting across open ground to the wounded?  You know the answer as well as I.  He did it for his buddies.  To save a life, if he could, by risking his own.  Because there is something in the spirit of an American soldier, committed to the defense of his country and family, that he must protect his buddies who are his country and who are his family.  What nobler thing can be said about anyone?

That is why on Veterans Day I cheer the parades and wave the flag and think not about the fallen but about what they did in 1776, and 1865, 1918, 1945 and 1969, to create this country and keep it safe.  Veterans Day is my special day for cheering.  Because on the other 364 days, I think about one special hero, and what he sacrificed for us.

(I repost this article every year for Veterans Day.  Because I must.)

(c) 2011-18 Steven Hardesty

 

Image:  “Tank from ‘Bravo’ Company, Tanks in support of Third Battalion Seventh Marines, 1st Marine Division, Vietnam 1968” U.S. Department of Defense photo.

No Wild West for an Old Gunfighter

  Tap the cover to order on Amazon.com

Tap the cover to order on Amazon.com

I've plenty of new writing sizzling on the laptop keyboard but I want to tell you about my latest novel just published in ebook and paperback.  Broken Spur, a classic Western, tells the tale of a hard-bitten gunfighter who discovers he has to make a moral choice in a life that has no morality.  The book is written in a gritty style true to hard lives lived in hard times on the western frontier.

Broken Spur begins a new string of Westerns that take an old gunfighter - he calls himself "Mr. William Sumpter of Georgia" - from the Legacy of the Gunfighter series and lets him show what he can do in his own series.  And what he does makes powerful reading.

The Legacy stories, if you haven't had the chance to read them yet, are about an abandoned orphan boy named Ronas whose dreary life changes in the instant Wyatt Earp tosses him an outlaw’s gun and hauls him into a wild chase after a string of psychopathic killers.  Ronas must become an accidental gunfighter to save his life.  His growth across all his wild adventures drives the three books in the Legacy series.

Writing all these stories became for me an exploration into the United States in the ten most turbulent years of the Old West – 1876-1886.  From the political end of Reconstruction through Wyatt Earp’s “vendetta ride” after the OK Corral shoot-out to Geronimo’s surrender.

It seemed to me writing about those ten years required a deep rooting of the stories in historical fact.  Particularly in the wretched failure of this country in those years to maintain the great achievement of a new national freedom won for us all at Appomattox.  And how that failure played out in the West.

True, I began to write the Legacy books as genre Westerns with the usual strapping heroes, sniveling villains and gun-totin’ schoolmarms.  I did not plan for them to shapeshift into something so very different.  But they did.  And that led me to begin writing a new series called Gunfighter Nation that begins with Broken Spur.  These will be stories of supporting characters in the Legacy series set free in their own series.  Each of those characters stunned to find himself called to a never-expected moral choice.  As each of us is called, sooner or later.

I hope you’ll read Broken Spur and let me know what you think of the novel.  I'm already hammering the keyboard writing the next in the series - tentatively called Dead Hand - and could use your comments.

Woman on Fire

I’m not so sure I was inspired to write Running in Heels so much as badgered into it. It’s the story of a lonely and self-hating woman named Kathryn Teal who is adrift in life but discovers that stealing a fortune (by accident) is all too easy while keeping it (on purpose) is tough, tough, tough.

The thing is, Kathryn wasn’t supposed to be in the book at all. I planned the story for a male protagonist. But when I’d written the first line, there she was, staring back at me and daring me to cut her out of her story.

Kathryn took over the novel, lock, stock and down to the last exclamation mark, and believe me I was making a lot of exclamations by the time I keyed the last words.

Thing is, I like her.  Admire her, even.  Grateful she did what she did to my story.

And, thanks to poplar demand, I’ve decided to tell the second half of her story, of what Kathryn becomes after she’s had a taste for a wild streak of fortune (good, bad and badder).  What will I call the sequel?  Why, Stalking in Heels, of course!

Because it’s the story of getting back the fortune stolen from Kathryn by the woman from whom Kathryn first stole it, and, yes, that convolution is as hard for me to figure out as it will be for Kathryn to get rich again.  And stay rich (maybe).

Life is a wild and crazy thing, eh?

Harry Seaburn’s comic crime caper novel series had just been born – with publication of The Feathered Virgin on Amazon – and the author (me) almost got unborn.  Life, as the old Greek said, is a wild and scary thing.

Or maybe just very Dortmunder.  (You Donald E. Westlake fans will know what that means.)

I’d just pushed the “publish” button for Amazon and begun preps to follow up immediately with publishing the rest of the series – The Dimpled Python, The Laughing Camel and all the way through to the seventh book, The Cracker Kingdom, with a blue-haired sniper girl and a dozen circus elephants for the grande finale – when I had this sudden urge to climb a ladder to grab a fresh tube of toothpaste on a high shelf.

Yeah, well, it would’ve happened to John Dortmunder, too.  I sort of fell off the ladder and sort of landed in the shower and sort of banged my head against the tile wall and sort of began to bleed.

Splash blood, I mean.

My wife, expert at solving problems I create, wrapped my head in beach towels (we live by the beach so we have lots of them to spare for occasions like this) and called an ambulance.

The ER jabbed me and wrapped me in wires and made me do bizarre arm exercises.  Shoved me into a CAT scan machine (not as scary as an MRI, which feels to me like being shoved into my own coffin without the benefit of being dead).  And decided I would survive.  Or maybe that I wasn't worth much more of their trouble.

So they stapled six quite pretty metal staples into my head to close up the tear and sent me home.  My wife took a photo of my head to show me the staples – they look like some office loony went berserk on my scalp with a desk stapler.

Have to admit, though, I felt instantly better with the staples in.  Like having that “closure” you hear so much about (I know it's an awful pun but I couldn't resist).  If they were stapling me and not admitting me, then I figured I was going to be all right.

Further, the ambulance man said he would check Amazon to buy a copy of The Feathered Virgin, so my misadventure was not entirely a waste.

After five hours in the ER and early to bed, I expected to be re-energized today and ready to get back to publishing the other six books.  Trouble is, the ER gave me this long list of “Symptoms Indicating Your Concussed Head is About to Explode and You Will Die” and I discovered I have all of them.  Except the one that says you have come to realize you are as handsome as George Clooney.  That requires an extra special concussion.

To fight off those symptoms, I spent the afternoon puttering around in the yard in the fresh air and sunshine.  But the sun heated up the staples in my scalp so powerfully that I had to flee indoors.

Then I recalled from the BBC’s "Doc Martin" series that the Doc revived a man dying from concussion by using a common or garden variety household drill to bore a hole in the skull to relieve the building pressure.  I asked my wife to keep our drill handy in case I want any more holes drilled in my head.

She scoffed and went out back to inflame our oak-fired barbecue to cook up fresh fish for dinner with friends.  I’m sure their good company will cure all my symptoms.  If not, I’m ready with the drill.

Cheers!

© 2015-18 Steven Hardesty

Oh, by the way, Harry is a great guy with one or two little problems...he’s a thief and he wants the love of a good woman, anybody’s good woman, but he tends to shoot people and what good woman could want him?
— Melody Brooks

Life is a War Novel

Saigon Blues - High Resolution.jpg

Some readers ask me how my war novels can describe the wild adventure and heroism of combat yet end without trumpets and flags.  Why so downbeat?  I’ll tell you, but only if you’re a young man or woman eligible to go to war.  You are my audience, not anyone else.

Point.  War is a pisser.  It pisses on you and you can’t piss back in self-defense.  Oh, it may seem a grand heroic adventure.  You may walk away from war dressed in bright ribbons and medals and praise.  But when you are alone in the deepest part of night you will say to yourself, “Goddamn, what have I done?  What did I do to myself?  What did I do to those other people over there?”  You will feel as alone in the night as any human being ever felt because your war is still pissing on you. 

If what you did had to be done, you’ll get through the night okay.  You’ll have in you a bitter regret that it had to be done but you’ll come out all right.  If it didn’t have to be done, you’ll feel the most wretched human being on the planet.

How can you tell the difference between those two ifs?  That’s easy…

Point.  There are two kinds of war – good wars and bad wars.  A good war is the war you can’t avoid.  December 7, 1941.  You have to fight back to stay alive and keep your family alive and save your country.  You will do terrible things in this war but you are standing up for what is decent and true.

A bad war is a war of choice.  Your country’s leaders make this war when they think they have run out of alternatives, like diplomacy, politics, threats, bribery or trying to persuade all sides, including your own, to see things with good sense and common decency.  What they really have run out of is honor.  Most of the wars this country fought were wars of choice.  They had no honor.

You know the difference because good wars leave you frightened in the night.  Bad wars poison all your life…

Point.  Vietnam was a bad war.  A very bad war.  Worse because it was a stupid war fought by stupid people on our side – by stupid generals and stupid politicians who lacked the brains and strength of character to break out of old ways of thinking about our wielding power in the world.

What I did in Vietnam poisoned all my life.  I did nothing dishonorable.  I was a good soldier for my country.  But I fought a war that didn’t need to be fought and killed people who should have been allowed to live and tore up someone else’s country for no good reason and left their land sick and ruined when I marched away from it.  I remember all that in the darkest part of every night.

Bet you can guess what I have to say next...

Last Point.  If you are a young man or woman considering going to war or caught up in war or thinking about voting for war, stop.  Stop to think about the difference between a good war and a bad war.  Then decide what you must do.

Your making that decision is what my war novels are all about.  They want to remind you of the good advice offered by Davy Crockett, a man who knew something about war-making, when he said, “Be sure you are right and then go ahead.”

You do the same.  Or you, too, will pay for it in the night.

 

© 2016 Steven Hardesty

What comes next...

I bet you're on the hunt for good reading and want to know if my books are worth your time and eyestrain.  So let's get on with it and talk about my books.

I've been writing all my life, mostly for cruel taskmasters but as often as I could for myself.  I had a war novel published in hardback in the traditional way and published again in paperback a bit later. Magazines bought my mystery and science fiction short stories. But mostly I piled up manuscripts without knowing if I'd ever see them in print.  Until I discovered indie publishing.

Like AirBnb, Uber and Netflix, independent book publishing is a gift of freedom to readers and writers.  I quit my day job and now indie writing and publishing are what I do.  The downside is it's all so much fun that I'm piling up projects faster than I can finish them. So I’ve decided to use both hands on the keyboard.

Here's what I'm working on now…

  Click book covers to order from Amazon.com

Click book covers to order from Amazon.com

●  With Harry Seaburn's "noir on wry" crime caper series done (7 books, a nice, round number), I’m filling out the series’ backstory along Florida's snapping-gator Everglades.  First, with short stories about the one-legged thief Bitter Bob and that pair of kidnappers who never get anything right. Then with a spin-off mystery novel featuring the pacifist-sniper-hippie-swampwoman Marjorie (AKA Tang Gramophone Weinstock III) from one of Harry's wildest heist capers.  And, of course, I'll throw in the usual dozen retired circus elephants trampling the swamp and the Miami mafia.

●  I've done a first draft of The Long Run, next in the Dirty Wars Series of gritty international thrillers, opening with a failed helicopter breakout from a Bolivian prison in the high Andes and the hero (well, a very anti-hero) running wild across South America thereafter.

●  And - by popular demand - I'm working up a sequel to Running in Heels telling the even tougher half of the story of a woman who changes from wimp to hero as she steals back a fortune stolen from her which she accidentally stole from a psychopath and her drug-running familiar, an assassin who can never remember who to kill without written notes.

●  I’m also halfway through drafting the sardonic comedy War and the Newby about how young soldiers become old soldiers, if they're very, very careful. With luck, I'll have it ready for Christmas gift-giving, if you really want to give your giftees something that bites and won't let go.

Hope to have all of this done this year, if I can learn to use all ten fingers to hammer the keyboard.

☼ Cheers and thanks for asking!

 

© 2011-2018 Steven Hardesty