Some people just aren’t cut out for a life of crime.
An example of this is the case of two cowboys named Grant Wheeler and Joe George. In 1895, they decided to try their hand at robbing the Southern Pacific Railroad. The real loot was carried by rail, so why waste time robbing stages?
After carefully working out a plan, George and Wheeler purchased a box of dynamite and boarded the train. Five miles out of Willcox, Arizona, the desperadoes got the engineer to stop the train with the help of a .45 revolver. Piece of cake.
One of the outlaws uncoupled the express car from the rest of the train and ordered the engineer to pull forward. Wheeler and George then broke into the express car. The safe had eighty-four thousand dollars in cash and their hands were itching to get hold of it.
They must have been ecstatic to discover that the Wells Fargo agent guarding the loot had escaped. In addition to the unguarded safe, they also found bags of silver pesos used as ballast on the floor. Oh, heavenly days!
Working quickly, they placed sticks of dynamite around the safe and ducked outside to escape the blast. Unfortunately, the safe remained intact.
They decided to try again with extra dynamite but got the same results. The stubborn safe refused to give up its treasure.
If at First…
Not willing to give up, the bungling robbers decided to try yet a third time. This time, they used too much dynamite and blew the entire express car to smithereens. Pieces of lumber and thousands of silver pesos filled the air. Acting like shrapnel, some of the coins were embedded in telegraph poles. It’s a miracle the two men survived.
When the smoke cleared, they found that the safe door had been blown off, but only a few dollars had escaped the blast. The real booty was the Mexican pesos, but the silver coins were scattered all over the countryside.
Meanwhile, the train has rolled into town and sounded the alarm. The sheriff tried putting together a posse with no luck. Folks were too busy racing out to the scene of the crime to hunt for silver pesos.
…Try, Try, Again!
After licking their wounds, Wheeler and George decided to give train robbery another shot. No sense letting their harrowing experience go to waste.
A week later, they showed up to rob the same train and felt confident they knew what they were doing. This time they would make careful use of the dynamite.
The fourth times a charm—or is it?
Wheeler and George ordered the crew to separate the express car from the engine and passenger cars.
Everything went according to plan. You can almost imagine the two giving each other a high-five as they entered the express car. They were, however, in for a rude awakening. For the hapless duo soon discovered that the crew had reversed the order of the rail cars. Instead of the express car, Wheeler and George were left with the mail car. They had been duped!
I’m so happy, happy to FINALLY share TO MARRY A TEXAS OUTLAW with you! This release will make me twenty published books and short stories. Whew! I can’t believe it.
It seemed this third book of Men of Legend, the story you’ve all waited so patiently for, would never come. (A watched pot never boils.) I think you might find it well worth the wait. At least I’m hoping that’s the case.
At last, Luke Weston has the location for the man who pinned a federal judges’ murder on him. He’s searched for Ned Sweeney for two long years and finally has his location. He only has a one-hour window before Sweeney goes underground again. He’s riding to Dead Horse Creek when he sees a woman bound and gagged underneath a scrawny tree and covered in blood. He’s torn about what to do but his honor won’t let him ride on.
The woman doesn’t know her name, where she belongs, or how she got there. But she’s mad enough to whip someone.
Deliverance Canyon is close by. He decides to take her there to Tally Shannon and the other woman hiding out.
I often think of how scary it would be to wake up and not know who I was or where I lived. You would have no starting point or nothing to relate anything to. I can’t imagine. But Josie somehow keeps her sense of humor and stays optimistic for the most part. She trusts the outlaw Luke Legend and feels safe with him.
As pieces of her life slowly start to emerge, she falls deeper in love with Luke. It’s at that point she begins to pray she never finds out who she is because she senses it will change things between them. Something tells her that her past is riddled with bad people and she’s found contentment with Luke and hates the thought of that ending.
Despite the seriousness of her situation, she is so funny and sweet and I love that. I think you will too. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be a doormat for anyone. She’s quite a fighter.
I think that’s what Luke likes most about her. She takes whatever life throws at her and finds a silver lining.
This story is full of twists and turns and Luke will steal your heart—all over again. Will he clear his name and get to claim the Legend name? So many forces are working against him. And Josie too. You’ll just have to see. All I can say is you’d better hold on tight.
Many secrets are revealed, and love claimed. By the end of the book, Luke and the Legend family will forever remain etched in your memory.
In Texas some legends are born, some are made
…and some are created by destiny.
In this story, the legend is that whoever sleeps beneath the Texas star will find his true worth. Luke does that in this story and gets the affirmation he seeks.
Do you know of any legends? Maybe you’ve read about some in other books. Or maybe a book about amnesia. Leave some kind of comment to be entered in my giveaway for one of three copies of the book.
There are some places that draw me over and over again. The St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico is one. Each time I pass through there, I have to stop. So much history happened there. I never fail to feel as though I brush shoulders with the many outlaws, ranchers and historic figures that once walked through those doors. Gunfights were a regular occurrence. But then, Cimarron was a rough place with no law.
The St. James Hotel was established in 1872 and continues to operate today. How I wish those adobe walls could talk. It seems as though I walk back in time. Henri Lambert, who was once a chef for President Abraham Lincoln, and his wife built the establishment–and trouble soon began.
Cimarron is Spanish for wild or unruly, and man, did the town live up to its name! The fastest guns quickly settled disputes and to say the undertaker was kept very busy is no exaggeration. The newspaper in nearby Las Vegas, New Mexico wrote in 1874 that things were awfully quiet in Cimarron because no one had been killed in three days. That must’ve been truly remarkable. At least 26 people lost their lives in the hotel and its saloon. After that they stopped counting. When the ceiling of the saloon was replaced in 1901, they discovered over 400 bullet holes. Yet, despite the gunplay, the business thrived.
Many well-known and influential people visited the St. James Hotel. The Earp Brothers stopped for several days on their way to Tombstone, Arizona. The Territorial Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace, wrote part of his novel BEN HUR there during visits to the area. This was where Buffalo Bill Cody laid down plans for his Wild West Show. Author Zane Grey began writing his novel, Fighting Caravans, while staying in Room 22.
The outlaws who sought lodging were too numerous to list but among them was Jesse James who always stayed in Room 14, Black Jack Ketchum, Clay Allison, Bob Ford, Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid.
I found it interesting that David “Davy” Crockett, nephew of the famous Davy, was a regular at the hotel. He struck up a friendship with Clay Allison, then was killed one night by an unknown assailant and today lies buried in the Cimarron Cemetery.
I put Clay Allison in The Heart of a Texas Cowboy as Houston Legend’s head drover on that cattle drive and used his actual name. But my editor fell in love with him and wanted me to give Clay his own story, so I had to change his last name to Colby. I’m currently writing this story now and it’s due in two weeks. I love how the story came together and I think readers will love it too.
The real Clay Allison was responsible for killing 7 men in the St. James Hotel from 1872 to 1875. He loved to dance and did every chance he got and I incorporate that into my fictional Clay. Allison’s most quoted saying was this, “I never killed anyone who didn’t need it.” And from all the accounts he didn’t. He never bothered anyone who was doing right. He was well-liked and had a lot of friends. In 1881 he married America Medora McCulloch and they had two daughters. He bought a ranch outside of Pecos, Texas and had a freak accident in 1887 involving a wagon and was killed. He was 46 years old.
I just love visiting the St. James Hotel and do every chance I get. History presses around me and if I close my eyes, I can smell gunpowder in the air.
What do you like best about visiting historical places? Have any left a lasting impression?
If you’ve ever read a western novel or watched a western movie, no doubt you’ve run across a whole herd of quaint terms that add character to the story. Where did those terms come from, why did folks use them, and when were they popular?
Thomas Mitchell, Jack Buetel, and Walter Huston in The Outlaw (HowardHughesProductions, 1941) [promotional image]
Here are some of the words and phrases used to describe the bad boys of the Old West. Some of them are older than one might imagine. Western historical romance authors may be dismayed to find others are newer than they hoped.
Buscadero: gunfighter. From the Spanish buscadero, literally a searcher. The origin of the slang usage is obscure; possibly “seeking trouble.”
Bushwhacker: cowardly enemy who strikes from ambush. Americanism; arose c. 1809. Oddly, the verb “bushwhack” arose later, c. 1837. During the American Civil War (at least from 1862-1865), “bushwhacker” acquired a less-pejorative connotation, meaning any irregular who took to the woods to strike from cover and then vanish. The term was applied in equal measure to both friend and foe.
Cabrón: an outlaw of low breeding and even lower principles. In Spanish, the word means “goat.” Origin of the slang usage is obscure.
Cold-blooded: unfeeling, dispassionate, cruel. Arose c. 1828 from the old (1600s) notion that excitement increased human blood temperature. Reptiles have been called cold-blooded since about 1600, and the reptilian image also played into the description as applied to killers and other reprehensible sorts who acted without apparent regret.
Promotional flier for The Law and the Outlaw, 1913
Cold lead: from the mid-1800s until the 1920s, a bullet. About 1920, usage changed and “hot lead” became slang for bullets. The reason is unclear.
Cowboy of the Pecos: rustler, based on the notion safety could be found in the lawless area around Texas’ Pecos River.
Dressed to kill: double entendre meaning not only that a man wearing two guns most likely was a killer, but also that wearing a double rig (a holstered pistol on each hip) made it difficult for a gunman to do anything with either hand without implying a threat; therefor, dudes who adopted the practice were likely to be killed.
Dry-gulch: to ambush someone, particularly in a cowardly manner.
Get the drop on: to obtain a marked advantage, especially with the help of a gun. Probably dates to the California gold rush of 1849, when claim-jumpers sometimes seemed to materialize from the ether before hijacking a profitable claim at gunpoint. First documented appearance in print 1869 in Alexander K. McClure’s Three Thousand Miles through the Rocky Mountains: “So expert is he with his faithful pistol, that the most scientific of rogues have repeatedly attempted in vain to get ‘the drop’ on him.”
GTT: on the wrong side of the law. Short for “gone to Texas,” this usage dates at least to the Civil War, when deserters and other former soldiers from both armies — suddenly unemployed and inured to violence — migrated to still-wild, wide-open Texas, “lost” their names, and took up outlawry. (Originally, “Gone to Texas” was the phrase families ruined by the financial panic of 1819 painted on doors and fence signs before lighting out to begin anew in greener pastures south of the Mexican border.) In his 1857 book Journey through Texas, Frederick Law Olmstead noted that many newcomers to the state were suspected of having skipped out on something “discreditable” back home. Thomas Hughes, in his 1884 book G.T.T., wrote “When we want to say that it is all up with some fellow, we just say, ‘G.T.T.’ as you’d say, ‘gone to the devil,’ or ‘gone to the dogs.’”
Days on the Range (Hands Up!) by Frederic Remington
Gun: until the early 20th Century, cannon or long guns like shotguns and rifles. Handguns were called pistols or — after Samuel Colt introduced his first patented repeating revolver in 1836 — six-guns or six-shooters.
Gunman: shootist; gunfighter. First recorded use 1903 in a New York newspaper. (Gunsman, with an S in the middle, arose on the American frontier during the Revolutionary period.)
Gunslinger: No such term existed in the Old West. The word is pure Hollywood, from the early days of western movies.
Gun shark: gunfighter. Arose mid-1800s from the earlier (1700s) use of “shark” to indicate a voracious or predatory person, based on the reputation of the fish.
Heeled up: armed. Arose ca. 1866 from the 1560s usage of “heel” to mean attaching spurs to a gamecock’s feet.
Hogleg: large revolver. Originally referred to the Bisley single-action Colt (first manufactured 1894), but later generalized to any big pistol.
Holdup: a robbery. American English colloquialism, 1851. The verb “to hold up,” meaning “to stop by force and rob,” didn’t arise until 1887, apparently from the robbers’ command to raise hands. “Hold up,” meaning to delay, dates to 1837.
Hustler: thief, especially one who roughs up his victims. Arose 1825. Sense of “energetic worker” is from 1884; sense of “prostitute” dates from 1924.
Lam: to run off. U.S. slang dating to 1886; of uncertain origin. “On the lam,” meaning flight to avoid prosecution or consequences, arose c. 1897.
Jesse James’ Oath, or Tracked to Death by W.B. Lawson (Street & Smith Publishers, Dec. 1897)
On the cuidado: running from the law. From the Spanish warning ten cuidado, which means “be careful.”
Owlhoot: outlaw. “Riding the owlhoot trail” referred to a man who had left the straight and narrow to become an outlaw. One explanation of origin came from a man living in the Indian Territory of eastern Oklahoma around 1870. He claimed the name came about from the Indians in the area using owl hoots to signal danger or someone’s approach. Another tale indicates outlaws were called “owlhoots” because, when they were getting ready to ambush somebody in the dark, they would imitate the hooting of owls to signal one another.
Pecos swap: theft. Again, based on the reputation of Texas’s Pecos River area.
Pistolero: expert with a handgun. Adopted from Mexican Spanish, in which the word has the same meaning.
Rattlesnaked: ambushed (literally or figuratively) in a particularly devious or cunning way. Dates at least to 1818.
Safecracker (also safe-cracker): individual with a talent for liberating money from locked vaults. Arose ca. 1897, as a reference to robbers who used dynamite to thwart security boxes.
Shootist: expert marksman. Arose 1864.
Sidewinder: dangerously cunning or devious person. Arose American West ca. 1875 as a reference to some species of rattlesnakes’ “peculiar lateral movement.”
Stickup: robbery at gunpoint. Arose 1887 from the earlier (1846) verb “stick up,” meaning to rob someone at gunpoint. The phrase “stick up for,” meaning defend, is from 1823. The archaic noun “stick-up” arose ca. 1857 as a colloquial term for a stand-up collar.
Wanted posters have a long history and they existed long before America was discovered. In England, I believe the first ones came about as the sheriffs sought to get their hands on Robin Hood. Most believe the thief’s name was an alias used freely by all thieves in England. But that time period is when the first wanted posters came about.
In America, the first was for the capture of John Wilkes Booth for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know how large a part the poster played in Booth’s capture but I do know they were used extensively afterward as a tool for catching criminals.
The money offered for the culprit was a great incentive and the amounts varied. If the crime was against railroads, stagecoach lines, or big banks, it was more because the companies put up the money. For smaller businesses for just low profile criminals, it was often around $50 or less.
Since photographs were extremely hard to come by for the most part in the 1800s, the posters usually only gave a brief description of the outlaw or maybe had a hand-drawn likeness.
The progression of cameras changed the landscape considerably. No longer were lawbreakers hidden in the shadows. Their faces were everywhere for all to see.
If the poster used the phrase, “Dead or Alive” on it, that made it okay to just kill the wanted man or woman. The person got the reward either way and it was often safer to bring them in dead.
Jesse James had a $25,000 bounty on his head and the Governor of Missouri put up the money. That’s equivalent to $115,000 in today’s currency. A whole lot of dinero.
Most were lots smaller. In 1892, a poster offered $6,500 for The Sundance Kid. That same year, Bob, Emmett, and Grat Dalton had a $5,000 reward for all three, not each. In 1874, the Texas Rangers put out one for John Wesley Hardin and didn’t state an amount. One for Billy the Kid only offered $500.
In 2007, the FBI went a step further and began to use electronic billboards. In 2014, they claimed that 53 cases had been solved as a direct result of the billboards.
I’ve used wanted posters in quite a few of my books and in my upcoming To Marry a Texas Outlaw in November, Luke Weston has a $2000 bounty on his head for killing a federal judge. It’s fun to fantasize about living in that era and thinking about all that money. It would’ve been nice for someone who made less than a dollar a week come into a windfall like this for catching an outlaw.
Do you think you’d have been a bounty hunter back then? Lots to think about. I have one copy of To Love a Texas Ranger to give away to someone who comments. The drawing will be Sunday.
Though it’s hard to imagine the likes of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson bowling, this was actually a popular sport in the Old West. According to True West magazine, one of the strangest bowling alleys was built in California in 1866. After felling a majestic Redwood, miners turned the flat, heavily-waxed surface into a bowling alley.
Speaking of sports, baseball was also a popular sport in the Old West. Even Wild Bill Hickok was a baseball fan and reportedly umpired a game wearing a pair of six-shooters.
We think of the old West as wild, but it pales in comparison to what’s going on in some cities today. From the 1850s to the 1890s, Texas held the title as the most gun-fighting state. But during that forty-year span, the state logged in only 160 shootouts.
The number of Old West bank robberies were also greatly exaggerated. During this same forty-year period, only eight bank robberies were recorded in the entire frontier. Today, yearly bank robberies number in the thousands. California and Texas have the highest number of bank robberies. At long last, the west lives up to its reputation.
Some cowboys were real swingers. Yep, they even played golf.
It breaks my heart to say this, but some of the phrases associated with the Old West weren’t actually coined until the 1900s, which means I can’t use them in a book. These include “Stick em up” and “hightail.”
The one thing outlaws feared was dying with their boots on. To “die with your boots on” was a term that meant “to be hanged.” Outlaws often pleaded with the sheriff to take their boots off so their mothers would never know the truth of how they died.
Before the days of GPS, it was the chuck wagon cook’s job to keep the cattle drives heading in the right direction. Before retiring, his last chore of the day was to place the tongue of the chuck wagon facing the North Star. This was so the trail master would know which direction to move the herd in the morning.
It might be hard to believe, but most cowboys didn’t carry guns while riding. Carrying a gun was a nuisance to the riders and firing it would scare cattle and horses.
Of the 45000 cowboys working during the heyday of cattle drives, some 5000 were African-American.
The tradition of spreading sawdust on saloon floors supposedly started in Deadwood, South Dakota. The sawdust was used to hide the gold dust that fell out of customer pockets, and was swept up at the end of the night.
So what Old West fact did you find most surprising or interesting?
There’s a new sheriff in town and she almost always gets her man!
The Wild West could be a dangerous place. If outlaws, gunfights, and Indian attacks didn’t do a body in, disease or injury very well might. For an unlucky few, danger emerged from an unexpected source: women with an axe to grind … literally.
Belle Gunness and her children
Lizzie Borden may have been the most infamous of America’s female killers, but she certainly wasn’t the only woman to dispose of inconvenient family, friends, or strangers. She wasn’t even the most prolific American murderess. That honor probably goes to Belle Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant suspected of killing more than forty people — including two husbands and several suitors — in Illinois and Indiana at the turn of the 20th Century. When authorities began investigating disappearances, Gunness herself disappeared … after setting up a hired hand to take the fall for arson that burned her farmhouse to the ground with her three young children and the headless body of an unidentifiable woman inside.
The shocking crime of serial murder seems even more chilling when the perpetrator is a woman. Cultural and biological factors encourage women to eschew physical aggression. Most women fight with words or, sometimes, by manipulating male proxies. Consequently, females seldom go on the kind of violent binges that characterize male serial killers. In fact, only about 15 percent of serial murderers in history have been women.
According to Canadian author, filmmaker, and investigative historian Peter Vronsky, who holds a PhD in criminal justice, when men kill, they employ force and weapons. Restraint of the victim often provides part of the thrill: Many male serial killers derive sexual gratification from the act of taking a life. Women, on the other hand, prefer victims who are helpless or unsuspecting: 45 percent of convicted female serial killers used poison to dispose of spouses, children, the elderly, or the infirm. Instead of a sexual high, their primary motivation was money or revenge.
The eight female serial killers below were active during the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries in the American West. (Another half-dozen cropped up east of the Mississippi during the same period.)
The volatile wife of a wealthy physician, Delphine LaLaurie tortured and killed slaves who displeased her. An 1834 fire at her New Orleans mansion revealed her depravity when a dozen maimed and starving men and women, along with a number of eviscerated corpses, were discovered in cages or chained to the walls in the attic. One woman had been skinned alive; another woman’s lips were sewn shut, and a man’s sexual organs had been removed. LaLaurie fled to avoid prosecution and reportedly died in Paris in December 1842. Years later, during renovations to the estate, contractors discovered even more slaves had been buried alive in the yard.
Mary Jane Jackson
A New Orleans prostitute with a violent temper, Mary Jane Jackson was a relative anomaly among female serial killers. Described as a “husky,” universally feared woman, she physically overpowered her adult-male victims. Nicknamed Bricktop because of her flaming-red hair, between 1856 and 1861 Jackson beat to death one man and stabbed to death three others because they called her names, objected to her foul language, or argued with her. Sentenced to ten years in prison for the 1861 stabbing death of a jailer-cum-live-in-lover who attempted to thrash her, 25-year-old Jackson disappeared nine months later when the newly appointed military governor of New Orleans emptied the prisons by issuing blanket pardons.
A member of the notorious Bloody Benders of Labette County, Kansas, beautiful 22-year-old Kate claimed to be a psychic. In 1872 and1873, she enthralled male guests over dinner at the family’s inn while men posing as her father and brother sneaked up behind the victims and bashed in their skulls with a sledgehammer or slit their throats. Among the four Bender family members, only Kate and her mother were related, though Kate may have been married to the man posing as her brother. When a traveling doctor disappeared after visiting the Benders’ waystation in 1872, his brother began an investigation that turned up 11 bodies buried on the property. The Benders, who robbed their victims, disappeared without a trace. A persistent rumor claims vigilantes dispensed final justice somewhere on the Kansas prairie.
During the first year after her 1912 marriage to a millionaire farmer, 22-year-old Ellen Etheridge poisoned four of his eight children. She attempted to kill a fifth child by forcing him to drink lye, but the 13-year-old boy escaped and ran for help. A minister’s daughter, Etheridge confessed to the killings and the attempted murder, laying the blame on what she saw as her husband’s betrayal: He had married her not for love, but to provide an unpaid servant for his offspring, upon whom he lavished both his affection and his money. In 1913, a Bosque County, Texas, jury sentenced her to life in prison. She died in her sixties at the Goree State Farm for Women in Huntsville, Texas. (Note: Someone who claimed to be Ellen Etheridge’s grand-niece told me Etheridge did not die in prison but instead lived the rest of her life in Oregon with her sister, the speaker’s grandmother. I remain skeptical because the woman offered no proof except her word, but I thought I’d mention the discrepancy.)
Linda Burfield Hazzard
Linda Burfield Hazzard
The first doctor in the U.S. to earn a medical degree as a “fasting specialist,” Linda Burfield Hazzard was so committed to proving her theories about weight loss and health that she starved at least 15 patients to death. In 1912, she was convicted of manslaughter in the case of an Olalla, Washington, woman whose will she forged in order to steal the victim’s possessions. Hazzard served four years of a two- to twenty-year prison sentence before being paroled in late 1915. She died of self-starvation in 1938.
Between 1918 and 1924, Sorenson killed eight family members to satisfy a twisted desire for revenge. Upon her arrest after an attempt to poison her second husband failed, she told authorities her niece and infant nephew, her first husband, her mother-in-law, two toddlers, and her own two daughters “bothered me, so I killed them.” She poisoned all of the children in the presence of their parents by feeding them cookies and candy laced with poison. A Dannebrog, Nebraska, jury declared the 28-year-old insane and committed her to the state mental asylum. She died there in 1941.
A serial “black widow,” Lyda Southard married seven men in five states over the course of eight years. Between 1915 and 1920, four of her husbands, a brother-in-law, and Southard’s three-year-old daughter — all recently covered by life insurance policies at Southard’s suggestion — died only months after the nuptials, apparently of ptomaine poisoning, typhoid fever, influenza, or diphtheria. Southard eventually was convicted of second-degree murder in the poisoning death of her first husband, earning her a ten-years-to-life sentence in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. She escaped with the warden’s assistance in 1931, only to be recaptured and returned to serve another eleven years before receiving parole. After changing her name and divorcing three times, she died of a heart attack in 1958 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (At least she divorced her final three husbands instead of murdering them.)
Bertha Gifford and a six-year-old victim
At the turn of the 20th Century, Bertha Gifford was known as an angel of mercy in Catawissa, Missouri. Not until 1928 did authorities discover her deadly ruse: The twenty to twenty-five sick friends and family members she took into her home and cared for between 1909 and 1928 all died of arsenic poisoning. Gifford was declared insane and committed to the Missouri State Hospital, where she died in 1951.
First published in 1820, Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been terrifying children for almost 200 years. Though the tale of a hapless schoolmaster’s midnight gallop through the New York woods made the phrase “headless horseman” a household term in America, by the time Irving’s story appeared headless horsemen had been staples of European folklore for centuries. German, Irish, Scandinavian, and English legends all offered versions of the ghoulish phantoms, who usually were said to appear to proud, arrogant people as a warning.
Texas has its own gruesome headless horseman legend. Unlike Irving’s unforgettable spook, though, Texas’s headless horseman rode among the living once upon a time.
Some say he still does.
In the summer of 1850, a Mexican bandido by the name of Vidal made an egregious error: He and several compadres rustled a sizable herd of horses from several ranches south of San Antonio. One of the ranches belonged to Texas Ranger Creed Taylor, a veteran of the Texas War for Independence and a man not inclined to forgive his enemies. (Taylor later would be one of the participants in the Sutton-Taylor Feud, a bloody, years-long running gun battle that resulted in four times as many deaths as the better-known fracas between the Hatfields and McCoys.)
Rustling cattle already had earned Vidal’s head a dead-or-alive bounty. Stealing a Texas Ranger’s horses was the proverbial last straw. Together with fellow Ranger William A.A. “Big Foot” Wallace and another local rancher, Taylor set out to put a stop to Vidal’s unbearable insolence.
Capt. Mayne Reid’s version of a Texas Legend, published in 1865, received a mention in Charles Dickens’s final novel, Our Mutual Friend.
As a group, the early Texas Rangers were hard men. Tasked with protecting an enormous patch of land rife with outlaws and Indians, the early Rangers were expert trackers, accomplished gunmen, and not opposed to meting out immediate — and often brutal — “frontier justice.” Vidal was about to discover that in a very personal way.
After tracking the bandidos to their camp, Taylor, Wallace, and the third man mounted a surprise attack while the outlaws were asleep. Killing the desperados was not enough for Taylor and Wallace, though. The entire Ranger force was fed up with the rash of rustling plaguing Texas at the time. Not even leaving bodies hanging from trees or hacking them to pieces and using the bits for predator bait had made a strong enough statement.
So, Wallace got creative. After beheading Vidal, he secured the corpse upright on the back of the wildest of the rustled horses, lashed the bandido’s hands to the saddle horn and his feet to the stirrups, and tied the stirrups beneath the animal’s belly. Just to make sure anyone who saw the ghoulish specter got the message, he looped a rawhide thong through the head’s jaws and around Vidal’s sombrero, and slung the bloody bundle from the saddle’s pommel. Then Wallace and his friends sent the terrified mustang galloping off into the night.
Big Foot Wallace, ca. 1872
Not long thereafter, vaqueros began to report seeing a headless horseman rampaging through the scrub on a dark, wild horse. As sightings spread, some claimed flames shot from the animal’s nostrils and lightning bolts from its hooves. Bullets seemed to have no effect on the grisly marauder. They dubbed the apparition el Muerto — the dead man — and attributed all sorts of evil and misfortune to the mysterious rider.
Eventually, a posse of cowboys brought down the horse at a watering hole near Ben Bolt, Texas. By then the dried-up body had been riddled with bullets and arrows, and the head had shriveled in the sun. The posse laid Vidal’s remains to rest in an unmarked grave on the La Trinidad Ranch. Only then did Wallace and Taylor take public credit for the deed. The episode contributed to Wallace’s reputation and had the intended effect on rustling.
Even the revelation of the truth behind the legend did not end el Muerto’s reign of terror. Until nearby Fort Inge was decommissioned in 1869, soldiers reported seeing a headless rider roaming the countryside around Uvalde, near Taylor’s ranch. Thirty years later, a rise in the ground 250 miles to the southeast, near San Patricio, Texas, was christened Headless Horseman Hill after a wagon train reported an encounter with el Muerto. A sighting occurred in 1917 outside San Diego, Texas, and another near Freer in 1969.
El Muerto reportedly still roams the mesquite-covered range in Duval, Jim Wells, and Live Oak counties — still fearsome, still headless, and still reminding those who see him that Texas Rangers didn’t come by their tough-hombre reputation by accident.
I haven’t written any tales about headless horsemen — yet — but ghosts play a significant role in one of my short novellas. Family Tradition is one of two stories that compose Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts.
Everyone should have career at which they excel. At failing to commit crimes, nobody is better than Laredo and Tombstone Hawkins. Maybe they can bumble their way into love.
Haunted by his kin’s tradition of spectacular failure, bank robber Tombstone Hawkins is honor-bound to prove his family tree produced at least one bad apple. When carnival fortuneteller Pansy Gilchrist tries to help, she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts. Getting into the spirit of a crime is one thing…but how do you get the spirits out?
Here’s a brief excerpt:
Stone blinked at the apparitions. If not for Madame Minerva’s confirmation, he’d have sworn he was seeing things—and he hadn’t touched a drop of whiskey in weeks.
He eased backward a step.
So did she, sidling up next to him until her hipbone collided with his leg.
The two ghosts floated around the table, one on each side, and planted themselves close enough for Stone to poke a hand through either misty shape. Forcing a swallow down his throat, he squinted at the nearest. He’d been on the receiving end of that old man’s irritated glare far too often.
Heart racing fast enough to outrun a mule with a butt full of buckshot, Stone faded back another step.
The fake gypsy stayed with him, as though she were glued to his side.
The gauzy forms kept pace.
“Emile?” Madame Minerva’s voice squeaked like a schoolgirl’s.
Even on a ghost, disappointment was easy to spot. A pained frown gripped one apparition’s face. “I’m not part of the con any longer, Pansy. You can’t call me father just once?”
Stone ducked his head and tossed the woman a sidelong glance. “Pansy?”
“Said Tombstone,” she hissed.
The second ghost spoke up, his voice strangely hollow but recognizable. “Boy, you got nothin’ to say to your ol’ pop?”
“I uh… I…” Stone’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.
Thank God, Emile picked up the conversation. “I see my little girl is keeping the family tradition alive.”
“I am.” Pansy’s breathy whisper carried a hint of tears. “Oh, Emile, I wish you had stayed.”
“I’ve been here all along. You just haven’t looked for me before.” Emile’s specter extended a hand to cup his daughter’s cheek. Pansy leaned into the phantom caress.
Stone snatched her before she toppled over. Too late, he discovered she weighed little more than a ghost herself. His grab yanked her off her feet and slammed her into his chest.
He exercised quite a bit more care setting her back on the dirt floor.
Research is one of the most important tools of the fiction author’s trade. Regardless what an author writes—historical, contemporary, fantasy, science fiction—he or she must have some knowledge of the real world in order to create a world in which characters live and breathe.
Good authors don’t beat readers over the head with their research, but what they dig up informs every aspect of their stories. Much of what we discover doesn’t make it into our books. Instead, the information clutters up our heads and trickles out at odd times.
This is one of those times.
Each of the five authors who contributed to Prairie Rose Publications’s new release, the boxed set A Kiss to Remember, uncovered historical tidbits that surprised, charmed, or saddened her. Since all of us are good authors and would never dream of beating readers over the head with our research in our books, we’re taking the opportunity to beat readers over the head with our research in a blog post. We can be sneaky that way.
Without further ado…
Her Sanctuary by Tracy Garrett
Beautiful Maggie Flanaghan’s heart is broken when her father dies suddenly and the westward-bound wagon train moves on without her, leaving her stranded in River’s Bend. But Reverend Kristoph Oltmann discovers the tender beginnings of love as he comforts Maggie, only to find she harbors a secret that could make their relationship impossible.
Tracy: I’m a “cradle Lutheran,” meaning I was born into a Lutheran family, baptized in the Lutheran church… You get the idea. Imagine my surprise when I began researching the history of the church in Missouri and found they’d been in the state a lot longer than I thought. It was fun, though.
Gabriel’s Law by Cheryl Pierson
Brandon Gabriel is hired by the citizens of Spring Branch to hunt down the notorious Clayton Gang, never suspecting a double-cross. When Allison Taylor rides into town for supplies, she doesn’t expect to be sickened by the sight of a man being beaten to death by a mob—a man she recognizes from her past. Spring Branch’s upstanding citizens gather round to see a murder, but everything changes with the click of a gun—and Gabriel’s Law.
Cheryl: Orphanages of the 1800s and early 1900s were mainly what I needed to research. And what sad research it was! The Indian orphanages and “schools” were the worst. The Indian children were forced to “assimilate”: cut their hair, wear white man’s clothing, and speak only English. Punishment was swift and sure if they were caught speaking their native tongues. In essence, they were taught they had to forget everything they knew—even their families—and adopt the ways of the whites completely. This only ensured they would never be wholly at ease in either world, white or Indian.
Outlaw Heart, by Tanya Hanson
Making a new start has never been harder! Bronx Sanderson is determined to leave his old outlaw ways behind and become a decent man. Lila Brewster is certain that her destiny lies in keeping her late husband’s dream alive: a mission house for the down-and-out of Leadville, Colorado. But dreams change when love flares between an angel and a man with an Outlaw Heart.
Tanya: The research that fascinated me the most was meeting and getting to know Dr. John Henry Holliday. What a guy. I’ve quite fallen in love with him. This handsome, soft-spoken, peaches-n-cream Southern gentleman can bring me to tears. He died slowly from tuberculosis for fifteen years after losing his beloved mother to the disease when he was 15. Talented pianist, multilingual, skilled surgeon who won awards for denture design… Most of his “deadly dentist” stuff was contrived. He needed a bad reputation to keep himself safe from angry gamblers. I was thrilled and honored both when he asked to be a character in Outlaw Heart.
The Dumont Way by Kathleen Rice Adams
The biggest ranch in Texas will give her all to save her children…but only the right woman’s love can save a man’s tortured soul. This trilogy of stories about the Dumont family contains The Trouble with Honey, a new, never-before-published novella. Nothing will stop this powerful family from doing things The Dumont Way.
Kathleen: Did you realize George Armstrong Custer was part of the Union occupation force in Texas after the Civil War? Neither did I. While I was double-checking my facts about Reconstruction-era Texas, I ran across that little tidbit. Texans may not have liked him any better than any other Yankee, but they were grateful for his kindness. During his five months in Texas, Custer was disliked by his own men because he strictly enforced Army regulations about “foraging” (read “stealing”) and poor treatment of civilians. I must admit I’m one of those who tended to view Custer as one of history’s real-life bad guys, but that one tidbit softened my impression. Funny how little things can make a big difference, isn’t it?
Yesterday’s Flame by Livia J. Washburn
When smoke jumper Annabel Lowell’s duties propel her from San Francisco in 2000 back to 1906, she faces one of the worst earthquakes in history. But she also finds the passion of a lifetime in fellow fireman Cole Brady. Now she must choose between a future of certain danger and a present of certain love—no matter how short-lived it may be. “A timeless and haunting tale of love.” ~ The Literary Times
Livia: I really enjoyed learning about the firefighting companies in San Francisco. The massive earthquake in 1906 was followed by an equally devastating fire, and there were a lot of heroes among those early firefighters.
Have you ever been surprised, charmed, alarmed, or vexed by something you’ve read—in either fiction or non-fiction? What was it? We’d love to hear! One brave soul who shares her or his discovery in the comments will win a digital copy of the brand-new boxed set A Kiss to Rememberbefore it’s available to the public! The five books comprise more than 1,000 pages of heart-melting western historical romance…and that’s a fact.
Patti Sherry-Crews is funny, friendly, and a pleasure to know. She lives smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest and took part of her education in Wales, where she studied archaeology, Welsh, and Welsh literature. Nevertheless, she writes western historical romance. Go figure. Welcome to Wildflower Junction, Patti!
Jesse James’s Grave in Kearney, Missouri
What do Billy the Kid and the Grand Duchess Anastasia have in common? Like Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Jesse James, The Lost Dauphin of France, and the Princes in the Tower, years after their “deaths” rumors of their survival persisted.
It’s obvious why certain factions in Europe would want their royals to escape death. But why do we want to believe a group of gunslingers and bank robbers went on to live a quiet life under an assumed name?
I’ve been thinking about this question, and except for a few stray individuals such as D.B. Cooper, I can’t think of a group so rumored to have faked their own deaths as much as the American outlaw of the old west.
Is it because the time and place capture our imagination? Or is it the personalities? Maybe we can’t bear the thought these mythologized, larger than life men were fallible after all? I picture Butch and Sundance always two steps ahead of the posse, Billy the Kid slipping out of handcuffs and escaping from jail, and Jesse James outwitting the Pinkertons. It is hard to then, picture these same men pinned down by gun fire in Bolivia, being taken down in the middle of the night while visiting his sweetheart, or being shot in the back while righting a crooked picture.
Billy the Kid
It was not uncommon for outlaws to go by an alias. Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker. Billy the Kid was christened Henry McCarty in New York City but was also known as Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney. Butch and Sundance moved around South America under the names James Ryan and Harry E. Place (Etta Place). So it’s a short stretch to see them moving on with a new name after “killing off” their old one.
Rumor has it Butch went on to live in the Pacific Northwest under a name unknown to this day. A few Billy the Kids surfaced, Bushy Bill being the most famous. Of all of them, even though Jesse James isn’t my favorite outlaw, I believe he did successfully fake his own death—but that’s another story.
When I was creating my own bad boy for Margarita and the Hired Gun, I had these men in mind, but especially the resourceful and charming Billy the Kid. Like Billy’s mother, Rafferty is an Irish immigrant who got his American start in New York City. The Kid was only 5’3”, and judging by the few photographs we have of him, it’s hard to see his sex appeal. Despite all that, he was quite the ladies’ man. A picture recently surfaced of him playing croquet and wearing a striped cardigan I’d expect to see on my grandfather. He looks incredibly young. A man loved by ladies and feared by men—my type of hero.
Rafferty had many “adventures” in America, and in true outlaw style, he had to change his name a few times. The excerpt I’ve included is the scene where Rafferty tells Margarita his real name. They’ve endured a hair-rising stretch of the trail and both have let their guard down in their relief. It is the first time since fleeing Ireland he hears his own name being spoken.
Patti Sherry-Crews writes romances because she can’t help herself. She is a romantic who turns everything into a romance in the hope that everyone can just work it out and live happily ever after. Patti has published stories in several other genres, including paranormal and narrative nonfiction. Margarita and the Hired Gun is her first historical western but won’t be her last. The old west has always fascinated her, because the time and place are unique: the mix of cultures all coming together at a point in history when so many people were drawn westward in attempts to reinvent themselves after the great shake-up of the Civil War. The old west saw the borders between law and outlaw blurred, and people moved back and forth between the two, a theme reflected in Margarita and the Hired Gun.
Beautiful Margarita McIntosh escapes Flagstaff with a hired gun, Rafferty, as her only protection from her father’s powerful enemies who are hot on their trail. Giving up her life of leisure is nothing compared to the passion she finds in Rafferty’s arms. Together, they face a perilous journey that becomes a fight for their very lives—and a dream of the future neither of them could have imagined.
Within minutes, the trail turned onto a flat piece of grassland on top of a plateau. Margarita took in a deep breath. Her hands were shaking. He waited for her to come up alongside him.
“I think we all need a rest,” he said, smiling thinly at her.
He dismounted and led his horse and the mule over to a copse of trees. He tied up his horse and mule to a tree near a patch of grass, which the animals hungrily tore into. Margarita followed his lead.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, reaching into one of the packs.
“No. I don’t trust my stomach right now.”
“Fine, but do get some water into ya,” he said, sitting down with an apple and his canteen on a big boulder in the shade. She sat down on the ground beside him and was met with his look of surprise. She’d never sat near him before.
“What would have happened if the path was too narrow for you to get off your horse?” she asked, shuddering.
He regarded her with a little grin on his face. “You don’t have to think about that now, and I don’t want to. That part of the trail is behind us, never to be repeated on this trip.”
He pulled a large knife out of his boot. Margarita flinched. He gaped at her before cutting a slice out of the apple. He handed her a slice.
“It will do you good. An apple will settle your stomach.”
Her hand brushed against his fingers as she took the slice, sending a shock up her arm. He drew back as if feeling a charge, too.
“Thank you, Raf…I don’t know what to call you. Do you have a first name? Rafferty is a mouthful.”
He looked down and smiled. “I do have a first name.”
After a long pause she added, “But you’re not going to tell me?”
“I’ve got no problem telling you,” he said, but he continued to sit in silence.
“It appears that you do,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t mean to stump you with that question.”
He looked down at her, his deep blue eyes full of mischief. “I’m only trying to work out which name to give you. I’ve had a few.”
“Oh…I see. How about the one your parents gave you?”
He looked down at his hands, focused on carving out another slice of apple. “Michael.”
“That’s a nice name.”
“And Rafferty isn’t my last name. It’s Byrne.”
“Why do you have so many names?”
“Loads of people out here have more than one name. That’s what you do here, which is one reason I like the west. If you stop liking who you are, you become someone different,” he said with a wink, handing her another slice of apple.
She smiled coyly at him. “Mr. Byrne, what have you been up to?”
He chuckled. “Maybe I’ll tell you sometime. We have weeks yet ahead of us. My misdeeds will give us something to talk about. How about you, Margarita? Margarita is quite a mouthful, as well. Do people call you Rita?”
She realized this was the first time he called her by her name. She liked the way her name sounded coming from him. The way he seemed to chew the separate syllables of her name sounded like water roiling gently over pebbles in a creek.
She sat for a moment, relishing the heat radiating in her chest at the sound of her name spoken in his deep, silken voice. He was looking at her with something close to affection in his eyes. Then, she shook herself. “Not if they want to stay on my good side! I hate being called Rita. My father calls me Maggie.”
The smile disappeared, and the blood drained from his face. He stood up. “Time to hit the trail again if we want to reach camp and get these horses watered.”
He was walking away from her, already at his horse.
“All right, Michael,” she said, in a sweet voice, with a smile on her face.
His back was to her, but she saw his shoulders stiffen. Something about the gesture wiped the smile right off her face.