The Fillies welcome guest Kathleen D. Bailey. Please make her welcome.
Judge Henry Garth owns “Shiloh,” the largest ranch in and around Medicine Bow, Wyoming. When feuding ranchers and Indians from “up north” want to meet to settle their differences, Garth offers Shiloh as a neutral venue. He has two house guests: Ben, a city-slicker newspaperman come to visit Garth’s daughter Betsy, and the Indian Affairs agent who’s supposed to settle the whole mess. Garth wants a peaceful solution to the Indian/rancher problem, but his plans go awry when a group of thugs takes over Shiloh. He finds himself a hostage in his own home along with Betsy, the journalist, the Indian agent and Randy, his singing cowboy. His other hands are all at the roundup.
The hostages try various ways to foil the thugs. After the criminals take everyone’s guns, Randy mouths to Ben that there’s one in the desk Ben’s leaning on. Ben sneaks it out and aims it at the ringleader, but loses his nerve. When the captives discover a small bottle of laudanum they try to drug one of their captors’ coffee, but they are again foiled. The Indian Affairs guy turns out to be part of the problem when he reveals himself as allied with the criminals. There are other attempts at freedom, and each time the viewer thinks, “Well, they’ve got it now.” Except they don’t, because this is a 90-minute Western and there’s plenty of time for things to go wrong. Even The Virginian, Garth’s relentlessly resourceful foreman, can’t get them out of this one. He’s been shot.
Where will it all end? How will it all end, with every escape blocked?
Western movies and television have always known how to keep a viewer engaged. The classic stories hook viewers by baiting, switching and baiting again. Just when the viewer thinks the cowboy/wagon scout/marshal has figured a way out of their dilemma, someone or something will trip them up. Just when the viewer thinks there’s no hope, a solution appears, and they’ll wonder why they didn’t see it before. It’s like mystery writing only with horses.
The genre could be formulaic, especially in the early years. My husband and I are aggressive Western watchers and we’ve learned to recognize the archetypes such as the physician who won’t practice medicine any more, usually due to alcohol or losing someone precious to them. Or losing someone precious, then turning to alcohol. But it’s what they do with these archetypes that makes these tales stand the test of time.
I spent most of one summer watching “How The West Was Won,” the epic TV miniseries starring an aging James Arness as Zeb Macahan, one of the legendary Mountain Men. Arness was perfection in the role of his life, and supporting cast members included shoot-em-up royalty such as Slim Pickens and Dennis Weaver. But as I rolled through it a second time, I became hooked on the story itself. It wasn’t just Zeb meeting up with old cronies, or rescuing his kinfolk from one scrape after another. Oldest nephew Luke, played by a young Bruce Boxleitner, stumbled into serious trouble when he went back East to check on his father. He got conscripted into the Union army, ran away from same, stole a horse and shot a sheriff. The sheriff lived but lost the use of one arm, and that one rash act—and the sheriff’s lust for revenge—followed Luke through the entire series. Luke spent most of the show on the run, eluding the sheriff’s spies, hired guns and the sheriff himself. The threat to Luke’s life kept resurfacing, like Whack-A-Mole, every time he thought he had a chance at happiness. It’s perfect story structure, a thread that runs through the entire series and keeps the watcher hooked.
The best Westerns carry out the classic themes of guilt, shame, retribution and justice. They connect on a deeper level, as with John Wayne in “The Searchers.” It’s why I chose to write Westerns. Take two strong characters, give them something to fight about, give them an attraction—and set it against the Oregon Trail or a cattle drive or the Land Rush. Watch the magic happen.
What of Judge Garth? He solved his dilemma without a single bullet. Calling on his memories of a court case, he set two of his assailants against each other. A long-simmering grudge came to the front, and they destroyed one another. With all other escape routes blocked, Garth solved the problem with his mind.
The perfect ending to a not-so-perfect day.
The Western genre is adventure, romance and at its best something more. Western stories pack a satisfying experience for the reader. And if you’re a writer of Westerns, you can chalk up all that movie watching as research. You’re welcome.
So…what’s your favorite Western movie, mini-series or TV program? I’ll be giving away a paper copy of my first book, “Westward Hope”; an e-copy of the sequel, “Settler’s Hope”: and a New England gift pack to three separate winners. Leave a comment to enter the drawing.
Kathleen Bailey is a journalist and novelist with 40 years’ experience in the nonfiction, newspaper and inspirational fields. Born in 1951, she was a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, a young adult in the 70s and a young mom in the 80s. It’s been a turbulent, colorful time to grow up, and she’s enjoyed every minute of it and written about most of it.
Bailey’s work includes both historical and contemporary fiction, with an underlying thread of men and women finding their way home, to Christ and each other. Her first Pelican book, ‘‘Westward Hope,” was published in September 2019. This was followed by a novella, “The Logger’s Christmas Bride,” in December 2019. Her second full-length novel, “Settler’s Hope,” was released July 17, 2020. She has a Christmas novella, “The Widow’s Christmas Miracle,” scheduled for this December as part of Pelican’s “Christmas Extravaganza,” and is completing “Redemption’s Hope,” the third and final book in the Western Dreams series.
She lives in New Hampshire with her husband David. They have two grown daughters.