My western mystery, The Reckoning, was recently released by The Wild Rose Press. It’s set in 1868 and follows Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find that his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the murderers; a search that takes him to the high plains of Colorado. My sequel, The Renewal, set in South Park, Colorado, 1872, was released in March 2108, also by The Wild Rose Press.
Let’s talk westerns for a minute. We’ve all heard that the traditional American western is dead—which prompts the question, ‘If that’s so, why write westerns?’ Well, it’s true the golden age of westerns was some time back. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell until recently when several big box office westerns based on great new novels have been released.
Are they’re coming back? It sure seems like it. Why would they be mounting a return? Probably because westerns and the Old West embody timeless values—a place and time where right triumphs over wrong. Not always, certainly, but in our stories it does. The American West in the nineteenth century was a black and white society with clear-cut rules—there were things you were supposed to do as well as things you weren’t. And if you did wrong, there were consequences, oftentimes immediate.
Code of the West
There was a code of the West, even observed among the bad guys. Simple rules for simpler times. Unwritten, but adhered to nonetheless. The Code drew its strength from the underlying character of westerners, both men and women alike. Life back then was hard, but it was also simple. Things that needed to get done got done. Whining wasn’t tolerated. Complainers were ignored. You weren’t a victim. You played the hand you were dealt.
If you’re getting the idea I like that kind of culture, you’re right.
The world we live in today sometimes baffles me. Everything seems to be different shades of gray. Honor and fidelity seem to be out of fashion. People are entitled. The media are advocates, not observers.
While the Code of the West was unwritten and existed in various forms, there were certain common elements everyone—from the hard-working sodbuster, to the law-abiding citizen, to the hardened criminal—typically abided by. Granted, there were exceptions, but generally that held true.
In 2004, Jim Owens synthesized the Code into ten guiding principles in his book, Cowboy Ethics- What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.
- Live each day with courage.
- Take pride in your work.
- Always finish what you start.
- Do what has to be done.
- Be tough, but fair.
- Keep your promises.
- Ride for the brand.
- Talk less and say more.
- Some things aren’t for sale.
- Know where to draw the line.
Let’s look at three of these.
How about number seven—Ride for the Brand. It means be loyal to the people in your life—from family and friends, to those you work for. Support the people you’re involved with.
Take a look at number four—Do what has to be done. Life is oftentimes messy. Our days are filled with ups and downs, and we make choices all the time. This is about choosing to get done what has to be done, then getting on with life.
Next, there’s number nine—Some things aren’t for sale. The Code gave westerners a guide to live by that they broke at their own peril. Are there still things today that aren’t for sale? What are they for you? They might be different for each of us, but at the end of the day I’d wager we all still have values that are non-negotiable. After all, values don’t really change—only times, circumstances, and people do.
The good news is the values the Code embodied haven’t vanished from today’s America, but more often than not it seems they have been marginalized. Popular culture tends to look down on old-time values, or should I say the timeless values of nineteenth century America. We’re an instant gratification society that focuses on the here and now, and disregards the lessons of the past. Imagine a world where you sat with your family for dinner at night, even going so far as to talk with each other. Imagine a world where a man’s word, and a woman’s, was their bond. Where handshakes took the place of fifty-page contracts and lawyers.
Arthur Chapman captured these principles in a poem he penned in 1917.
“Out Where The West Begins”
Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying—
That’s where the West begins.
So, yes, occasionally I yearn for those simpler times amid the hustle and bustle of our world. We’re inundated today with various media from morning to night. Sometimes Ike’s and Lorraine’s world-my main characters-looks pretty appealing. Especially right now.
At the end of the day, westerns remind us of our solid roots and what we were and could become again. That’s why the American western will never die.
To buy a copy of Mike’s latest release The Renewal, click here.
Mike is giving away the winner’s choice of either a print or digital copy of his novel, The Renewal. To be entered in the drawing leave a comment about one of the ten Code of West principles listed above.