. . . but I don't agree. I enjoyed Louis L'Amour's and J. T. Edson's Western novels during my military service; they were ubiquitous at most bases (the only problem being that a few front and rear pages were often missing, so one had to wait impatiently to find an intact copy before reading some of the endings). I think the genre has been grossly abused with the advent of so-called 'Westerns' that are nothing more than soft porn under another name; or that embody modern attitudes towards life, the universe and everything that would be utterly foreign to the people of the real West; or authors who have their heroes kill dozens of enemies in every book, ignoring the fact that in the real West, a personal 'score' or body count in double figures was exceedingly rare.
I've long wanted to write a Western that was historically accurate in terms of events, locations, culture, weapons and the like. I know I'll have to put in some elements that modern audiences will expect - a bit more gunplay than was normal, a leading lady, that sort of thing - but I want them to fit into the authenticity of the scenario. I've been working on a draft for a couple of years, in between other bits and pieces, and I'm pleased to report that it's almost complete. The question is, will it attract readers? Will they be interested in authenticity and historical accuracy? I thought I'd put that question to you, my blog readers.
(EDITED TO ADD: In response to readers' comments, I've posted a follow-up article here.)
Here's the opening chapter of my manuscript, the working title of which is simply 'Go West'. It's set at the end of the Civil War in 1865, and my protagonist is heading for home after the surrender at Appomattox. He'll be going onward to the western frontier to pursue a new life there. Please let me know in Comments if you like (or don't like) it, and if possible, why. I'll be grateful for your input. If you do like it, I'll publish it soon.
Walt cursed beneath his breath as another runnel of water found its way over the brim of his black felt hat and down the neck of his greatcoat. He’d only owned them for a month, their former Union Army owner having had no further use for them after a vicious little skirmish. They had proved very useful against the March and April cold and snow, but weren’t as good as keeping out the rain. The waxed hat’s brim drooped and the greatcoat was almost soaked through.
The narrow, winding, overgrown trail rounded a corner of the steep bluff to his right, then opened onto a small clearing. He halted his horse among the last of the trees, looking around carefully. Three years of scouting had taught him caution. There was no sign of movement, nothing visibly out of place... but something didn’t feel right, and he’d learned to trust his instincts. The clearing was too quiet. Birds and squirrels had been around during his ride so far, despite the light rain, but none were visible here.
He considered. Rifle or pistol? No, not rifle. It’s no more’n thirty feet to t’other side – close pistol shot. He slipped off his gloves, tucking them into a greatcoat pocket, then leaned forward, unfastened the flaps of the holsters on either side of his saddle pommel, and slowly, silently drew the revolver in the right-hand one. He held the gun in his right hand as he took the reins in his left… then he waited, sitting motionless in the fading light. Let them make the first move, whoever they were. They’d have to reveal themselves to do so.
Why’d anyone be up here? he thought, puzzled. Sillman’s Hollow’s five mile behind me. No-one lives around here. Nothin’ t’ farm except rocks an’ scrub. Moonshiners? Not likely. Too far from their customers, an’ no wagon trail t’ get their likker out. Besides, I ain’t smelled old waste mash. Cain’t miss th’ stink o’ that stuff. Union troops? They’d have no reason t’ be around here. I must be the first man in gray t’ come this way in a year or more.
His horse moved restlessly beneath him. He reached down with his left hand and patted the bay’s shoulder gently to calm it. Like the brown behind him, it made no sound. Both horses were well accustomed to cautious, stop-and-go travel like this. He’d captured both of them from the enemy, then further trained them for his specific needs as a scout. They’d smelled powder smoke many times before and wouldn’t flinch at the sound of gunfire. He knew he could trust them to do what was needed when the time came.
The light faded further, the sky growing an even more leaden gray as the sun descended behind the clouds. Still Walt waited motionless. The first man to give away his position would probably be the first man to die. He’d learned that lesson early and often in bitter encounters along too many dark, narrow trails as both attacker and defender.
Suddenly the stillness was broken by a shrill call from no more than a few score yards away, on top of the bluff to the right. “Sim! Tom! What’s keepin’ ya, dammit? Come eat!”
It was a woman’s voice. Walt frowned in surprise, but remained still. Across the clearing there came a rustle in the bushes. “Aw, hell, Mattie! Awright, we’re comin.” A bearded man wearing dirty buckskins rose to his feet, lifting a Sharps carbine, lowering the hammer to half-cock and laying it in the crook of his left arm. “C’mon, Tom. Let’s go.”
“But, Dad, I was sure I heard a horse comin’!” A younger man, wearing similar clothes and carrying a long-barreled Springfield rifled musket, stepped out from behind a tree on the other side of the trail.
“Thought I heard somethin’ myself, but it was prob’ly a deer brushin’ through the trees.”
“Deer don’t wear saddles. I figured I heard leather creak.”
“I didn’t, and no-one’s come down the trail, have they, boy?”
“Naw, but…” The younger man peered across the clearing, and suddenly stiffened. “Hell fire, there’s –”
Walt didn’t wait for him to finish shouting a warning. He dug in his heels and the bay responded instantly, jumping forward into the clearing as he thumb-cocked the revolver. The two men frantically tried to raise, cock and aim their rifles, but at such short range he was on them too quickly. He aimed at the older man and fired twice into his body. As his victim shouted in agony, clutched his wounds and fell forward, Walt charged his horse into the youngster, knocking him down, his rifle flying from his hands.
“D – don’t shoot, Mister! Don’t shoot!”
Walt held his aim steady. “Why the hell were you layin’ for me?”
“W – we wuz only gonna see who ya were! We wouldn’ta hurt ya!”
His lip curled in disgust. “Uh-huh. I could tell that right off.”
The younger man shook his head vehemently. “No-no-nossir! We’s patriotic Union men, jus’ like you! We only rob rebels! Ask Lieutenant Ford up at Ripley. He gave us a paper t’ make it legal! Tay went there this mornin’ t’ sell our take t’ the storekeeper an’ th’ livery barn, an’ pay the Lieutenant his cut. He’ll be back t’morrer night. He’ll show ya th’ paper!”
“Don’t let the blue coat fool ya, boy. I’m wearin’ gray underneath it – an’ if you’ve robbed us afore, that means I ain’t leavin’ ya here t’ bushwhack any more of us who come this way.”
The young man’s eyes widened in horror, but Walt didn’t give him a chance to reply. He put a round between his eyes. His body bounced once as all his muscles clenched involuntarily, then went limp.
Walt spun in the saddle as a woman’s scream resounded from the top of the bluff. Looking up, aiming his revolver with extended arm, he saw a flicker of color as a figure fell. Clearly she’d rushed to the edge of the cliff to see what was happening, only to miss her footing. She toppled down the steep slope, squalling, bouncing and sliding, and collided head-on with a rock. Her head snapped to one side with a sickening crack, audible even from that distance, neck twisting at an unnatural angle. She didn’t move or make another sound.
Shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear the ringing, all-too-familiar aftereffects of gunfire from his ears, Walt holstered his revolver and drew its fully loaded twin from the other side of the saddle horn. Eyeing the fallen bodies warily, he swung down from the saddle and searched the two men. The older man was wearing a military gunbelt with a Lemat revolver in a flap-top holster, balanced by an Arkansas toothpick knife on the other side. The younger had an old-fashioned pepperbox revolver stuck behind his belt, which Walt tossed into the brush with a grunt of disdain. However, the boy’s knife was a Green River skinning blade in a leather sheath, which he added to the other man’s belt atop their rifles. Their pockets were empty of anything of value.
He was about to turn away when he noticed a leather thong around the older man’s neck. He pulled his shirt open and whistled in surprise. The man was wearing an Indian-style bear claw necklace. It was strung with all twenty claws from front and back paws, and very large specimens at that. Ain’t never seen a black b’ar with claws that big, Walt mused as he removed it and slipped it into a pocket of his greatcoat. Wonder if they’re from a grizzly? I’ve heard tell they’re pretty big.
He didn’t bother to check the woman’s body, but tied the weapons and gunbelt on his pack saddle and swung onto his horse again, holstering his revolver as he looked up at the bluff. Gotta be a way up there close by. Those two would never have climbed up there from here. He urged the horses into motion, peering at the right side of the trail in the fading light. Sure enough, within a few yards he saw a break in the brush and turned the horses into it. In the gloom they picked their way up a narrow, steeply sloped trail along the face of the bluff, to emerge thirty feet higher on level ground. He followed the almost invisible trail back along the bluff top until he came to a cave. Two horses were picketed outside beneath a brush lean-to shelter, whickering as they sensed the approach of his mounts. A small stream trickled down a nearby rock face.
A tantalizing smell of food came from the cave. Dismounting, he secured his horses in the shelter and went inside, drawing a revolver from his belt and looking around warily. He relaxed as he saw three beds made of tree boughs covered by tarpaulins, beneath old, dirty blankets. One was twice as wide as the other, presumably for the woman and whoever was with her. The narrower beds would be for the other two men. A lantern was set on a rock shelf, casting a dim, fitful light. A medium-sized black cast iron cooking pot was bubbling over coals. Lifting the lid, he saw it contained a mixture of bacon and beans. Another, larger pot of beans was soaking next to a stack of firewood. A half-side of bacon with a carving knife embedded in it lay on a rough-cut table. A pack saddle, bags and bundles lined a wall.
He made a snap decision. I’ll overnight here, eat their food, an’ see what else they got in the mornin’ when there’s more light. The horses can do with a rest, an’ there’s new spring grass in that clearing. I’ll see what that other bushwhacker has t’ say when he gets here. I for sure ain’t gonna leave him alive to rob any more Southern boys!
~ ~ ~
Next morning the rain had stopped and the clouds had parted. Walt took the four horses down to the clearing and picketed them to graze. Climbing back up the path, he hauled everything out of the cave and inspected his loot in the sunlight. The bushwhackers had obviously done well enough out of robbing passersby to be able to afford quite a lot – or helped themselves to the contents of a peddler’s wagon or the saddles on his pack mules, which was more likely.
There were a dozen beeswax candles, a gallon of coal oil, half a gallon of turpentine, a crock of soft soap and a couple of bars of hard laundry soap, five iron pots ranging from very large to small, some canning jars, several packets of dye in assorted colors, needles, thread and pins, and a selection of scrubbing brushes. Walt was cynically unsurprised to find the soap and cleaning materials almost unused. There was food: heavy sacks of dried beans, flour and corn, smaller bags of sugar, salt, peppercorns and green coffee beans, a net bag of onions, another of potatoes, the half-side of bacon, bags of Union Army-issue hardtack biscuit, and a hand-cranked grinder. There was a large and a small axe, a sharpening stone, several pounds of lead for casting bullets, a small keg and two horns of gunpowder, a couple of tins of percussion caps, a box of paper cartridges for the Sharps carbine, a big ball of twine and two coils of rope.
No money, though, he mused as he sorted through the bags containing the bushwhacker’s clothes and personal belongings. No-one’s got much cash these days. That Tay will bring some back from Ripley, I bet.
He set aside any clothes that looked as if they might fit him and were in reasonably good shape. Everything smelt dirty and stale, and he wrinkled his nose in distaste. He threw the remainder of the clothing into the back of the cave, then selected two of the blankets that looked to be newer, thicker and cleaner than the others and discarded the rest. Filling the biggest three-legged iron pot with water, he set it over the fire, then went back down to the clearing and used his horses and a rope to pull the dead bodies away from the clearing and into the trees down the slope, out of sight and smell of passersby. Animals had already been nibbling at them. Within a few days they would no longer be recognizable.
He laid his guns handy, then stripped naked, shaved laundry soap into the hot water, and washed the clothes and blankets he’d selected and those he’d been wearing, stirring them with a stick. The water was black with grime by the time he’d finished, so he rinsed everything in clean cold water from the stream outside, then repeated the process. He draped all the laundry over bushes to dry in the sunshine, spread out the tarpaulins from the dismantled beds and the empty clothing bags to air them, then heated a third pot of water and scrubbed himself from head to toe with soft soap. It was his first opportunity to do so undisturbed in over two months. He smiled to see the unaccustomed whiteness of his skin as the dirt fell away, leaving him feeling clean and refreshed.
He was fatigued after his efforts, but knew he couldn’t afford to relax. If the other bushwhacker was due back this evening, he’d have to be ready. He dressed in clean clothing from his pack saddle, then brought the animals back up to the cave, watered them, and secured them in the lean-to shelter. He selected all the heavy items he wanted to take with him and laid them next to the pack saddle he’d found in the cave, then stuffed the clothes and blankets into three large cloth bags. He’d tie them across one of the thieves’ regular saddles. Their two horses would carry everything, their loads covered by tarpaulins to protect against wind and weather.
The clouds were moving in again, gray and ominous, threatening more rain. Walt put on the heavy Union greatcoat and prepared his weapons for action, checking his revolvers’ loads and the seating of the percussion caps on the nipples at the rear of each chamber. He turned up the lantern in the cave to provide light against which to silhouette anyone entering, then took his Spencer carbine to a tree about ten yards beyond the mouth of the cave, on the far side of the lean-to shelter for the horses.
He waited for over an hour, the light slowly fading as the sun set and the clouds grew heavier. He fought off the urge to relax. He knew it would be all too easy to doze off. That could get a man killed in a hurry. Too many of his friends had died that way over the past three years.
At last he heard, faintly in the distance, the sound of several horses’ hooves. He jacked back the side hammer of the carbine, lined it from behind the tree trunk, and waited. The sounds grew nearer, and a tall man appeared astride a sweating, foam-flecked horse, leading three pack mules with empty saddles. He called as he drew near, “Paw! Maw! Tom! We gotta pack up an’ head out right now! I robbed a sutler! He had gold, so they’ll be comin’ after me. We gotta get away!”
He sprang from the saddle, allowing the reins to fall to the ground, and staggered on stiff legs to the mouth of the cave. “Paw! Maw! Where are you?”
He must have realized from the silence that something was wrong, because he spun around, his hand going to the revolver at his hip; but Walt was ready, and the lantern light behind the man silhouetted him perfectly. He fired once, the shot crashing out, sending a gush of sparks and white smoke into the air, making the horses start and rear with surprise. The bushwhacker screamed and clutched at his stomach, reeling as he staggered. Walt levered another round into the chamber and re-cocked the hammer as his victim half-fell against the rock face beside the cave mouth.
“Damn you! You’ve kilt me!” he screeched. “Who are you?”
“I’m one o’ them Rebels you been robbin’, accordin’ t’ y’r brother Tom,” Walt called, not showing himself.
“T – Tom? Where is he?”
“You’ll be joinin’ him soon enough, an’ y’r Ma an’ Pa.”
The man clearly understood what he meant. “W – Why’d ya kill ’em, ya murderin’ scum?”
“They laid for me. What’d you expect me t’ do, let ’em shoot me? Y’r ma fell down the bluff an’ broke her neck. I didn’t lay a hand on her.”
“Yeah, sure ya didn’t! I –”
His right hand suddenly scooped the revolver from his holster. He fired a fast offhand shot at the sound of Walt’s voice. It thudded into the tree behind which he was sheltering, and he couldn’t help a sudden flinch at the sound. Cursing his own stupidity, he lined his carbine again and triggered another shot into the man’s torso, rocking him back on his heels. Tay reeled in a half-circle, then groaned and fell forward onto his face.
Walt waited for five minutes, watching the body carefully, alert for any sign of movement, ready to send another round into his victim if necessary. Mentally he cursed himself for his stupidity. You never gave an enemy the opportunity to take you by surprise. He’d learned that lesson early on, and taught it to many others – so why had he allowed himself to forget it? I must be gettin’ careless now that I know the war’s over, he glumly admitted to himself. Cain’t afford to do that. I’m still wearin’ Confederate gray. There’s lots o’ trigger-happy Yankees out there who’ll think nothin’ o’ killin’ me, then claimin’ it was my fault for makin’ a wrong move.
He moved cautiously up to the fallen figure, placed his foot on the outstretched hand holding the revolver, then removed the weapon. He kicked the body over onto its back. The man wasn’t breathing.
You said you robbed a sutler, he mused. Some o’ those Yankee sutlers made a lot o’ money out o’ the troops they supplied, or so I heard tell from prisoners we took. They didn’t bear ’em no love, that’s for sure.
He checked the man’s gun. It was a Starr double-action revolver, its exterior rusted and dirty. Walt curled his lip in disgust at the man’s lack of care for the tools of his trade. He checked his victim’s pockets, finding nothing worthwhile. Rising to his feet, he walked over to the man’s horse, unstrapped its saddlebags and carried them into the cave to examine them in the light of the lantern.
The first bag contained only a change of clothes, a spare pair of shoes and a compact leather-covered spyglass. Walt opened it, eyes widening as he felt the tight smoothness of the mechanism. This was no cheap toy. It had probably been stolen from the sutler, or another wealthy victim who could afford an instrument of such high quality. He collapsed it and dropped it into his pocket before turning to the second saddlebag, whistling in surprise and pleasure as he emptied it onto the log table. Four loose twenty-dollar double eagle coins rolled out, followed by two heavy rolls of coins of the same diameter wrapped in paper, plus a thick wad of greenbacks held together by a money clip.
Damn! You hit the jackpot with that sutler, Tay! Walt split open the paper rolls and counted the double eagles quickly. There were fifty-four of them – a thousand and eighty Yankee dollars. Walt sat down with a thump on one of the tree stumps serving as stools, eyes wide as he calculated. Last year you could get two and a half greenbacks for one gold dollar. Last I heard, it’s still not much better than that. There’s enough here to buy a good-sized farm, with a house, a barn an’ all the livestock a man’d need t’ work it!
He counted the greenbacks. They were in one, five, ten and twenty-dollar denominations, totaling three hundred and seventy-five dollars. Walt couldn’t help grinning as he reinserted them in the clip. He gathered up all the money and swept it into the saddlebag. They’ll be lookin’ for Tay for sure, ’specially in the towns near here where they’ll expect him t’ spend this. I don’t wanna be there when they do! I don’t want anyone askin’ questions about what’s on my horses. Naw, I’ll just stick t’ the back trails. If I head west towards Lexington, then south towards Knoxville, I can turn west again there an’ head for home. It’ll take me about three weeks, riding slow and careful. I got plenty of food, thanks to these bushwhackers, an’ I can hunt for fresh meat. I’ll take my time.
He unsaddled Tay’s worn-out horse and mules, driving them down into the clearing to rest and graze, then find their own way out of the woods in due time. He saddled his horses and the two he’d found at the cave, loaded the pack saddles and spare riding saddle with his belongings and his booty, and rode off into the coming rainstorm. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d pushed on through the night to evade pursuit, and he wasn’t about to let this rain go to waste. It would wash away his tracks. By tomorrow morning there’d be no sign he’d ever passed this way, except for Tay’s body at the mouth of the cave and those of his mother, father and brother slowly decaying in the woods.
Thanks in advance for your input.
EDITED TO ADD: In response to readers' comments, I've posted a follow-up article here.