barbed wire

'Set a thief to catch a thief' is a risky strategy for a lawman to take, but Sheriff Darrow has very personal reasons for wanting to catch the bank robber, Tom Croucher. Forced to stay in Wyoming and unable to search for the outlaw, Darrow is relying on two convicted criminals, Tomcat Billy and Irish, to do the job for him.
But Tomcat hates Darrow and Irish wants to go straight. They join Croucher's gang but who deserves their loyalty - the outlaw or the sheriff ?

On again, off again

It was on a visit to a rather chilly Glasgow in the February of 2009 that I first started plotting the story for Darrow's Debt. I had the idea of Darrow being shot in ambush, and his loyal horse taking him back into town and stopping outside Hugh's house, where he was found and saved. Darrow would then obsessively pursue the outlaw responsible, leading to a reckless charge that puts the same horse's life in danger. Having got thus far, things came to a halt. I wrote Silver Express and The Judas Metal, and a lot of Star Wars fanfic. I wanted to tell Darrow's story though, and I also wanted to bring Tomcat Billy and Irish back. I'd imprisoned them at the end of Darrow's Badge, and wanted to find a way of freeing them, so they could have further adventures without being on the run. Someone would have to intervene to get them released early and it seemed logical for it to be Darrow, rather than introducing some new character. I came up with the 'set a thief to catch a thief' idea and started trying to fit the parts together.

I worked out a story, wrote the first few chapters, then stopped. I rather liked what I had, but was having a hard time pushing on with it.

Come 2012, I wanted to get back to my professional writing, and wanted to get Darrow's Debt out of the way. I knew I had the basis of something good, so I got it out again and set to work. I perservered, acquiring various sets of notes along the way with contradictory plot developments. I wasn't sure how to balance the two storylines of Darrow back in Govan, and Tomcat and Irish riding with the outlaws. The shootout at the end was meant to happen in Govan, but when I came to write it, it made more sense for it to happen elsewhere. Although I liked each part, they didn't seem to quite hang together as a whole, and I stopped writing again for a while in the summer. On starting again, the conflict between Irish and Tomcat became stronger and I worked on that. It wasn't a direction I'd intended to go in, but it gave depth and seemed right for the characters. At last, I got to the end, but I was considerably over-length and still wasn't entirely happy about the feel and the flow.

I'd written a scene where Hugh saves the injured Darrow's life by pursuading the doctor to try the new procedure of blood transfusion. Transfusions had been done in this period, directly from donor to patient but was a risky procedure as blood types had not been discovered. I liked the scene, but it didn't feel quite right, so I cut it to shorten the book. I'd also written a dramatic scene for Tomcat and Irish's arranged 'escape' from prison. Much as I liked it, I felt it delayed things. The first event, the bank robbery, is set four months before the next, showing Irish and Tomcat in jail. The third part, introducing Hugh, and the attack on Darrow, is two months after that. Then Darrow has to recover before deciding to risk letting the thieves out of jail. The deal isn't made until the end of chapter five, about a third of the way into the novel. I didn't want to hang around any more, but wanted to get on with the main story of Tomcat and Irish joining Croucher, so the detailed escape scene was ditched. The whole book was starting to feel tighter. Other bits and pieces had to go to make the book the correct length, from short descriptive passages to the odd couple of words here and there. A new scene had to be written where Hugh and Pacey discuss the attack on Darrow and I strengthened Darrow's reasons for being so determined to go after Croucher. It took a lot of work, but I got there in the end and I'm very satisfied with it now. While re-reading the final version, it struck that me that Darrow takes quite a gamble in his last shootout with Croucher. He also takes a gamble in having Tomcat and Irish freed to help him. Although I had been thinking of the book as Darrow's Debt for years, I felt that Darrow's Gamble was actually better. Which means that I can save Darrow's Debt for the future.

The Good, Bad Guys

One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to get Tomcat Billy and Irish free again. I became very fond of them while writing Darrow's Badge and they came to life quite easily, going on to further adventures in my imagination. I did take the chance to feature them in a short story I wrote for the Where Legends Ride anthology, published by the Black Horse Westerns group on Yahoo. This was set before Darrow's Badge, when they were still outlaws. I couldn't write books with unrepentant criminals as heroes for Hale, and I didn't feel that Tomcat and Irish were serious criminals anyway. So they needed to be rehabilitated, and when I realized that I couldn't have Darrow just leave his post in Govan to go chasing after his enemy, this was the ideal opportunity.

I knew Tomcat liked to be free to roam, and mentioned his fear of being jailed at the end of Darrow's Badge. I'd imagined how he might react, and had already visualized the scene where he climbs the cell doors up to the ceiling, and jumps off.

Wyoming State Penitentiary: the cells that Tomcat climbs

I put this into Darrow's Gamble to show the devastating effect that prison has had on him, and to explain his eagerness to co-operate with the law. It turned out to have a side effect, in giving him a grudge against Darrow. I found that the two great friends were becoming divided, with Irish choosing to go straight, but Tomcat Billy harbouring thoughts of revenge. I knew Tomcat would have to make a decision sooner or later, but was having trouble finding out when. This was a Darrow novel, and I didn't want the ex-outlaws taking over the book, but I had to spend time exploring their feelings to make them, and their actions, convincing. Things became clearer the more I wrote, and I eventually hit the right moment. Tomcat's, and Irish's story came together in the editing of the first draft and it ended up as something I'm very pleased with. .

We Are Family

Not unsurprisingly, once married, Hugh and Minnie begin to produce a family. In some ways, it's a surprise to Hugh, who hadn't really seen himself settled with a wife and children, but he takes to happy domesticity. In this, he's definitely moving away from the character of Vila, who once had the chance to settle down with a woman but rejected it, saying that a thief isn't what he is, it was who he is. Hugh however, while relaxed about petty larceny, is not really a thief by nature, Unlike Vila, the character he was originally inspired by, Hugh defines himself in other ways. Vila's self-respect is based on his skills as a thief. Hugh's belief in himself comes from being a member of the English upper-class; he is secure in that long and rich history.

Fancy Victorian baby buggy that would appeal to Hugh

At the same time, Hugh is a bit of an outsider amongst his own kind. He didn't fit in easily with the bold, hunting and shooting country set; he was afraid of getting hurt and regarded as a coward. So why does Hugh stay in a risky job as a deputy when he has no financial need to, and now has a wife and child depending on him ? It's his sense of duty, drilled into him from childhood. He knows he is privileged, and that he indulged himself through his twenties and early thirties. He's privileged because his ancestors took risks and fought battles and he feels he too should contribute in some way. He wants to support his wife and family himself, and not just through what he's inherited. The people of Govan have accepted him and although he may complain to Darrow about his job, he's proud of his role in making the town safe.
His relationship with Darrow is also part of it. It's been a prickly one at times, but they've learnt to get along with one another. Hugh understands Darrow better than anyone else in town, and Darrow knows it. Hugh believes that Darrow is a good lawman, and that he needs someone who supports him, and who he can trust. The trust extends both ways.
Hugh shook his head. "I don't want Pacey as my boss. He'd bully me and get angry at me."
Darrow gave him a curious look. "I bully you and get angry at you."
"I know. But you're also willing to bend the rules, and you care too much about your own skin to rush stupidly into danger and drag me along. Even when you take a gamble, as you did in freeing Irish and Tomcat, you assess the risk first."
"I am flattered by your shrewd judgement of my character," Darrow drawled.
Hugh nodded. "You're welcome, And in any case, I always believe in the phrase, 'better the devil you know'."
Darrow declined to answer that.

While thinking about the characters, I also though about exactly Hugh came to take the post of deputy in the first place. He had been gambling in Laramie and following a run of bad luck, felt he needed to get out of town urgently. The furthest he could get on the railroad, while leaving enough for a night or two in a hotel, was Govan. Darrow had just been elected the local sheriff and advertized for a deputy. Needing cash and the free lodging, Hugh applied. He got the job by offering Darrow a bribe, even though he didn't actually have the money. He was due a payment from his family in the next few weeks and Darrow accepted his word about it, as Hugh was a gentleman. Govan was very small then, and the county lightly settled, so by the time the money arrived, Hugh had settled in. The work wasn't too hard, and he could carry on drinking and gambling so he never got around to quitting. Since settling down, marrying, and gaining more self-respect, Hugh's found his niche in life and plans to stick at it - for a while, anyway.

There's no sign of a romance for Darrow, but we do get to learn that there was a woman in his past, who clearly meant a lot to him. That's all we learn, since Darrow is reluctant to admit even than much, and Hugh doesn't risk pushing him. On the other hand, one of the other regular characters seems to be finding romance. In Darrow's Badge, Josh Turnage, the town undertaker and occasional deputy, joins the local amateur dramatic society in order to 'meet women who are still breathing'. I'm fond of Josh, who's great fun to write, so while I was thinking about the characters' lives a few years ago, I figured he would get the family he wanted. I planned out when he would marry, and his future children, just as I'd done for Hugh, so it was time for the future Mrs Turnage to appear. Josh appears in the first few chapters of the book and was intended to be part of the chase and fight at the end. When I got to writing those scenes, it just didn't seem right for the town undertaker to drop everything and join a posse for a few days. Josh has helped out the lawmen before, but within the town. Riding out to take part in a potential gun fight just seemed like forcing the character in for the sake of it, so much as I like him, Josh stayed behind. Darrow does ask him, as he trusts Josh and wants reliable men, but Josh has work commitments, so a drifting cowhand recommended by Whiskers, is added to make up the numbers. I had introduced a new deputy but it made sense for one lawman to remain in the town, so the new guy stayed behind while the familiar characters went after the bad guys.

New Gaols

This wasn't the first time I'd run into the problem of not having enough lawmen. It made sense for Darrow to recruit extra help at times, as when he wants to put a curfew on the town in Darrow's Badge; this was not an unusual practice. However, Govan had been shown to be a growing town, yet it still only had the same few cells attached to the sheriff's office, as when the town had first been built. There were only room for five prisoners, and only one of them held securely, yet Darrow was supposed to be the sheriff for an entire county, as well as for Govan. Even with the addition of Deputy Pacey in the previous book, there were only three lawmen to do the work of the town and the county.
I made the expansion of law provision a theme in Darrow's Gamble. It added drama to the scenes back in Govan, and added pressure to Darrow. Catching Croucher was not only a matter of justice, it was also an opportunity for Darrow to show his worth as Sheriff and therefore make the town council more willing to listen to his arguement for appointing a marshal and building a county jail in the town. This question of reputation made his discision to involve criminals in the hunt for Croucher even more of a gamble. When he leads a posse after Croucher, Darrow is under time constraints, as he wants to be back in town for an important meeting about the future of Govan's law. And he wants to return with the news that Croucher has been captured or killed. This is all part of what drives Darrow so hard in the chase.

Now You See Them, Now You Don't !

I was also under some time pressure, as at the end of September 2012, I was comissioned to write a novella for a Blakes 7 anthology. I'd written a one-page summary and the first thousand words of something that needed to be at least twenty thousand words. The first draft had to be in by the 1st April 2013, so I had a full six months, but I really wanted to get Darrow's Gamble finished at last. The sooner I got it finished, the longer I would have to work on the Blakes 7 story, which was a new and exciting step for me. I got Darrow's Gamble finished and submitted by early November and was pleased to get an acceptance describing it as an excellent western which they very much wanted to publish.
I submitted a paper manuscript, but was later asked to email copies of my Word files for editing. The page proofs were sent to me as PDFs, so all in all, quite a move forward with tech, and meant a lot less faff as I didn't have to go to the Post Office. I was sent a preview of the cover, which I thought was a good, well-painted image. I liked it much more than some previous covers. The only problem was, I as pointed out, the stagecoach is held up, not chased, and more importantly, it's attacked by white outlaws, not Native Americans. In fact there are no Native Americans in the book whatsoever, which made the cover art a tad misleading. I didn't get an answer to this point, but when my copies arrived, just before Xmas 2013, it had the same stagecoach, but with the Indians carefully airbrushed out, though a few websites, like Amazon, show the original cover.

The background is a vague sunset/dust cloud haze anyway, so the missing figures aren't obvious; it just leaves the stagecoach racing frantically, with a man perched atop, pointing his gun at no obvious danger. Still, the stagecoach fills the cover, so the enemies could be racing a short distance behind. The viewer is free to make up their own mind...

I've already had one good review, at the 29th December 2013 entry of the Western Fiction Review. Thanks for that !

Back to Black Horse Westerns page
Back to my home page