ROGER WILTZ: What would it take to write a western?
In my estimation, the last good movie I saw was Open Range. Yes, I'm partial to westerns. Now there's a remake of True Grit in the theatres. I don't know that the John Wayne classic needed to be improved, but I'll give it a chance. However, why can't a western with a new plot be made? Surely there must be some stories out there.
It occurred to me that I might attempt to create my own western. Back when I taught high school English, one of my more challenging assignments required the students to write their own short stories.
This unit was always met with enthusiasm. It was a multiple objective assignment that included plot and character development along with dialogue writing. Above all, I encouraged the students to write what they know. I would have to apply this to myself as well.
I'm currently reading Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry created Lonesome Dove, a saga of his fictitious characters August "Gus" McCrae and Woodrow Call. McMurtry is a good story teller who develops plots that would make a fine movie. However, he is flawed when it comes to knowing his subject. While his time-frame is pre-Civil War, his characters have six-shooter cartridge pistols. These didn't come onto the scene until 1873.
McMurtry wrote the line, "The deer looked tired." "Hey Bob, did that tired looking doe come by your stand this morning? She must have had a long night."
Have any of you ever seen a deer that looked tired? I've seen deer that have been running full throttle for awhile, and perhaps they were approaching exhaustion, but they didn't "look tired."
Other than knowing a few bits and pieces about subject matter for a western, much research would have to be done if I were going to create a western. I know little about real cowboys, riding and breaking horses, wild cattle, driving cattle across open range, or what cowboys did in their spare time if they had it. Did real cowboys carry guns? What about the Indians? Were outlaws as plentiful as we are led to believe?
The West As I Lived It, a collection of anecdotes by Ed Lemmon compiled by my good friend Phyllis Schmidt, contains everything one could possibly want to know about life as a cowboy. Lemmon (1857-1945) was often doing man's work at age 10. He lived it all, and fortunately for us, wrote of his experiences. This book, along with Boss Cowman by Nellie Snyder, are personal treasures. Ed and Phyllis Schmidt live in Lemmon. Contact them for a copy of The West As I Lived It.
I enjoyed Lemmon's account of wild cattle. He talks about "Southern Moss Backs" along the Texas Trail that would hide in mesquite brush 10 feet high. They would drop down on all fours and spring at a cowboy when least expected. Sounds a lot to me like hunting a wounded cape buffalo in Africa. Lemmon goes on to say that the wildest and most unruly cattle he ever worked were some spayed heifers. He said that they were much wilder and uncontrollable than the steers raised in the same manner. Is this true today?
Entertainment wise, Lemmon says that most cowboys liked to gamble. IOU's were commonly written at the end of a game, and they were good as gold. It seems that there was an unwritten code of honor among cowhands. A cowboy was faithful to his peers and the men he rode for, and putting his life in jeopardy for them was part of the job.
Lemmon wrote of crossing perilous rivers with cows, and some of the accounts talk of cowboys swimming among ice flows to get the job done. I can handle cold, but what Lemmon describes is too much for me. Rivers, ice-choked or not, had to be crossed. It wasn't an option.
Lemmon wrote some first-hand accounts of tension between cowboys. Calling another cowboy "a liar" was serious business. The life of a cowhand was hard, and fuses were sometimes short. After reading these accounts, I believe that if I had been a cowboy, I wouldn't carry a pistol at my side. It was an invitation to trouble. A gun wasn't pulled on an unarmed man.
Though they had "winter count," a pictorial written history, our plains Indians lacked a written language. Story-telling was a means of preserving history (it is a competitive event at some modern pow-wows), but it lacks in-depth information. We would have few actual accounts of what really happened if it weren't for men like Ed Lemmon and James McLaughlin, author of My Friend The Indian. Their combined works can give us fairly accurate information on Indian culture during the development of the west.
Last week, I wrote of my impetuous purchase of a vintage Colt pistol. In looking at that Model 1851 of mine, Sam Colt was in the right place at the right time. During the period 1847-1860, the time frame of Colt's growth from a fledgling arms maker to a thriving Connecticut factory, we experienced the Mexican War, railroad expansion, the California gold rush, the Mormon Migration, the Crimean War, and the tensions that led to The Great Civil War.
A single incident also spurred the Colt revolver to fame. Captain Sam Walker of Texas Ranger fame, along with 15 mounted rangers armed with two Colt pistols apiece, charged 75 hostile Comanches. They killed 35 of them. Two of Walker's men were wounded, but none were killed. The first "Walker - Texas Ranger" sold a lot of pistols.
*See you next week, when my column will probably be about our trip to Dallas and the Dallas Safari Club Expo.