I've been reading a lot of nonfiction about the Old West on my Kindle lately, mainly because (A) it's research for the new "Holmes on the Range" novel I keep not finding time to write and (B) I really need something to distract me from Judge Judy when I'm at the gym. (With its unvarnished portrait of the modern everyman's cupidity and stupidity, Judge Judy should be the most depressing thing on television...and would be if it weren't for just about everything else on television.)
I used to think I had a decent handle on what life was like on the frontier of the late 1800s. Hey, I've seen Blazing Saddles, like, five times! (Oh, and I've read a bunch of books about cowboys and cattle ranching, too.)
Yet a lot of what I've been reading lately has taken me by surprise. News flash: Blazing Saddles is not a documentary. Nor are Rio Bravo, High Noon, A Fistful of Dollars or Shane. (Though, come to think of it, Shane's not really that far off compared to the others.) Of course, I never thought that Hollywood was in anything but the fantasy business. But I still wasn't expecting some of the realities that Hollywood and many writers of Western novels have usually ignored.
Two books in particular opened my eyes...even as they sometimes made it hard to keep those eyes open. Mark T. Smokov's He Rode with Butch and Sundance: The Story of Harvey "Kid Curry" Logan and Jeffrey Burton's The Deadliest Outlaws: The Ketchum Gang and the Wild Bunch both have really, really long titles. (I was going to end that sentence with a more developed thought, but after typing out those titles I was too tired.) Both books are also exhaustively researched -- and, as a result, a bit exhausting to read, especially for someone who isn't familiar with the contentious intricacies of Old West scholarship. (Of course, it probably didn't help that I was trying to suss out those intricacies while sweating on a StairMaster, Judge Judy glowering at me from a large-screen TV about three feet from my face.)
Yet even though I still have a hard time remembering the difference between Harvey "Kid Curry" Logan and George "Flat-nose" Curry and the dreaded Chicken "Curry" Withrice, I did glean a few facts that will find their way into a "Holmes on the Range" tale sooner or later. For instance:
People used to shack up with each other
In your classic Westerns, there are basically two types of women: virtuous pioneer wives and school marms on the one hand, cackling saloon floozies on the other. Madonna, meet Whore. The notion of premarital wink-wink-nudge-nudge with any woman but a you-know-what is out of the question, and the sanctity of marriage is a given. Yet the books I've been reading are filled with common law marriages, infidelities, annulments, divorces, bigamy and plain old-fashioned hook-ups. Guess what, friends: Even 100-plus years ago, both men and women liked sex (there -- I said it!), and they weren't always as uptight about getting it as later generations would have us believe.
People moved around
"Duh," you say. "You can't be a pioneer if you don't go someplace new." Well, don't "Duh" me, pal! Here's my point: Once the settlers settled, a lot of them (or their kids, anyway) tended to un-settle themselves. Not only do the outlaws in Smokov and Burton's books drift around a lot -- putting in a summer breaking horses here before buying an interest in a restaurant there before just lying around drinking for five or six months way the heck over there -- they weren't the only ones. Many of the more law-abiding types were restless, too, trying their luck at something new someplace new every year or two. On Gunsmoke, Marshal Dillon, Kitty and Doc hung around Dodge City for 20 years. In the real West, they probably wouldn't have lasted 20 months.
People knew each other
"Duh," you say again. "Why wouldn't people on the frontier know -- ?" Stop duh-ing me! Geez, I hadn't even started explaining myself yet. The gist is this: Because so many people were moving around so much, and because the West was so sparsely populated, everyone seems to cross paths with everyone else at one point or another. So when an outlaw is on the run in Wyoming, there's a fair chance he'll be spotted by some random shmoe who can say, "Hey, isn't that Chicken 'Curry' Withrice? You know -- of the West Texas Withrices?" Of course, there was a chance that the West Texas Withrices didn't really exist and Chicken's real name was John Smith, because --
People changed their names a lot
Another reason Smokov and Burton's narratives are so hard to follow is the sheer number of aliases used by their subjects. "After the Missouri Pacific holdup," they might write, "Withrice went to Lubbock where, under the name Bill Vindaloo, he renewed his acquaintance with Sally Biryani (a.k.a. Mary Elizabeth Masala), staying until he was spotted by Sheriff Jack 'Tandoori Joe' Chutney, who'd known him when he worked for local rancher James 'Joe Tandoori' Naan under the name Joseph 'Tandoori Jim' Kingfisher." It's not only confusing for a modern reader trying to block out Judge Judy. It was super-confusing for the lawmen of the time. Which is one of the reasons --
People got away with murder
"Duh," you start to say before catching yourself. "Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef shoot a bajillion guys in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Good thing you didn't actually say that, because it misses the point. I'm talking about what CSI: Deadwood looked like. A crime scene investigation in the Old West seemed to go something like this. (1) Find the body. (2) Look around to see if anyone's standing nearby with a smoking gun. (3) Shrug. (4) Go home. Even if the notorious killer Chicken "Curry" Withrice is standing around nearby trying to look innocent, good luck proving he's anything but the itinerant Bible salesman he claims to be. "My name's Saul 'Psalms' Paneer," he'll say, "and I'm afraid I'm all out of Bibles." If you're lucky, you'll be able to hold him long enough for someone to recognize him. More likely, all you'll hear is, "Oh, he's not Psalms Paneer. That's Tandoori Jim Kingfisher, the Texas cowboy. He's harmless." But let's say someone does I.D. Chicken "Curry" Withrice, who was known to have a grudge against the victim, Bob Notnamedforindianfood. Well, then things would get really complicated, because --
People got lawyers
In a lot of Westerns, maybe even most, bullets settle everything. All you'll see in the way of an aftermath is a shot of bodies in the street or a gleeful undertaker. In reality, a killing inexorably led to something Westerns (and thrillers and action movies, for that matter) like to ignore: bureaucracy. There would be coroner's inquests, grand juries, indictments, warrants, motions to dismiss, jurisdiction disputes, trials, continuances, more motions to dismiss, more continuances, appeals, pardons and finally, maybe, the occasional legal hanging. Death, it turns out, could be just as tricky a business in the Wild West as it is today. But it's hardly surprising that filmmakers and writers ride around that fact. "You know what stories set in the Old West don't need more of?" you say. "Paperwork."