Rocking W.

barbed wire

Paul Hallam liked everything about riding for the Rocking W in the Big Bend of Texas - well almost everything. He didn't like Snake-eyes, but then the big man claimed to hate almost everyone: Mexicans, Northerners and especailly Indians. So when the ranch owner brought home an injured half-breed, Paul just knew there was going to be trouble.
As Hallam began to get to know the new arrival, Josh, he found that any talk concerning his people, the Comanche, brought on an explosion of temper as fast and deadly as summer lightning. Furthermore, he didn't expect to form a deep friendship with the boy, who came to trust him wholeheartedly. So when Snake-eyes tried to push Josh off the Rocking W, Paul couldn't ignore the fight.

Rocking W was the first novel I had published but it wasn't the first I wrote. The first full-length book I completed, (written by hand), was called Rio De Sangre, which means River of Blood. That story was directly inspired by the film 'Young Guns'. I started to think about what might have happened to the surviving characters afterwards (they got to appear in a not quite so good sequel), and so I wrote my own story. Of course, the characters developed and changed as they were affected by their life on the run as outlaws. When this book was done, I was ready to write my own western, starting with new characters developed from scratch but still with some counterpart to their movie originals. This was Rio de Sangre, which starts with Josh, Paul and Sandy becoming outlaws after a range war. It was a long book, far too long for Robert Hale, who are the only publishers who regularly produce westerns. They were encouraging about my writing though, so I decided to try again, with something new, written specifically to their usual length of 45,000 words.

the rocking w brand

That book became Rocking W. I chose to go back to Josh and Paul's first meeting, to develop how they built the friendship that drives so much of what they do. I first started the book with the Army's attempt to round up Josh's family and the deaths of his father, brother and mother. From there, the injured and desolate young man blames himself for their deaths and wanders aimlessly, eventually collapsing with exhaustion by the side of the trail in the snow. This is where he is found by the owner of the Rocking W and taken back to safety and companionship. By this time, I'd written about six chapters of Josh's adventures; it was good, exciting stuff, but I was nearly halfway through the book and he'd only just met Paul. Not good for what was meant to be a story about their friendship. In the end I scrapped all six chapters and started with Josh's dramatic arrival at the ranch and Paul's reaction. The last bit of the book that I wrote is the first paragraph, as I thought a description of a man letting himself die in the snow would raise questions from the very beginning and keep the reader interested through the next couple of pages of description and background.

The young Indian was huddled at the base of a pinon pine as the tree bent beneath the force of the screaming wind. The slashed, eroded peaks of the Chisos were invisible in the snowstorm that raged about him. Snow had settled thickly on his braids; ice froze in his lashes and eyebrows, making them grey in his pallid face. Despite the weather, he wore no more than a torn buckskin shirt, leggings and trail-worm moccasins. He was hardly visible from the trail as snow drifted thickly against him. It made little difference to the Indian: he was letting himself die.

Josh and Paul

Although Josh Thunder and Paul Hallam are only separated by a year in age, they have little else in common. Paul is educated and fairly well-spoken. He is the son of a storekeeper, who has become a cowboy to see something of the world and have some adventures rather than settling straight into the family business. Josh has been raised as a Comanche warrior; he's been trained to steal horses, hunt and kill. His past life has been destroyed so he has to make a new one for himself on the ranch, among white men and Mexicans. Josh clings to the kindness that Paul showed him when he first arrived, rewarding him with complete loyalty.
The outward drama of Rocking W is provided by one of the other ranch hands, a man known as 'Snake-eyes', and his cronies. They have the common prejudices of the time and resent the idea of working alongside a half-breed. The description of Snake-eyes, as a red-faced, beefy man with fingers like thick sausages, was inspired by someone at a writers' class I attended. The guy didn't look very villainous, but his general description stayed in my mind. In the book, Snake-eyes frames Josh for a crime, setting the wider community against him and making him feel like an outsider again. Paul's unshakable friendship to the lonely Comanche seals their friendship through the difficult time.
I introduced a few of the things that had been developed in the longer story to this book. Josh clings to the Comanche belief in spirits that he was raised with. His particular guardian spirit is the coyote, which can give him warning of things in advance. In the story, Josh sometimes interprets the howls of coyotes to make accurate predictions, though he only tells Paul. Josh only uses knives and a rifle in combat, never a revolver. This is explained by an accident, which leads Josh to conclude that revolvers are bad madicine for him. His wild, explosive temper and his fear of accidentally hurting someone he cares about are also introduced. I also explained Josh's particular fear of death by hanging, even though he doesn't fear death generally. The Comanches believed that the spirit escaped through the mouth at the moment of death; if the passage was blocked, as in strangling or hanging, then the spirit would be trapped inside the body forever. Josh's utter terror at this then-common form of execution drives him to reckless desperation in the original story.

The Real Wild West

The Rocking W is owned by Wade, an Easterner who has chosen to see something of the wild west that he has read about in magazines and newspapers. The American West was being written about and mythologized even during its own heyday. Films like 'Young Guns II' and 'Unforgiven', which show gunfighters being trailed by reporters eager for exciting stories, are no exaggeration. While many people travelled west to escape poverty in the east, or for land or out of opportunism, others did so just from a sense of adventure. John Wade is a character in that tradition. He has liberal views and stoutly defends Josh when the half-breed is accused of murder. To him, Josh is an exotic character, a real part of the wild west and as close as Wade can come to meeting a 'Real' Indian. He learns to relate to Josh as a person but finds it hard to come to terms with Josh's natural tendency towards independent action and violence. Wade is inclined to stick to the letter of the law and doesn't encourage his men to take the law into their own hands. For his part, Josh sees Wade as a father figure and treats him with respect, but he finds the white-man's abstract version of law rather difficult to understand.

A day's ride to the south was the man who had sworn to harm or kill him; the man who caused trouble or hate for everyone at the Rocking W. Josh's warrior instincts called for him to solve the problem. No worthy Comanche brave sat back and let others deal with his troubles. Josh sat alone, aware that he had no brothers to call on for help in the Indian way. He had listened to Paul and Wade and had tried to work in the white way, but it did not work for a Comanche.

Getting into the worldview of a Comanche was a challenge as a writer but I wanted to convey Josh's thoughts and beliefs accurately. I have a copy of Comanches: Lords of the Southern Plains, which is the essential text on the subject (for more information, see the entry in my western bibliography). The above quote also emphasises the particular importance of brothers. The tribe lacked the strong social structure of those like the Sioux and was more a loose grouping of family units. Having been deprived of his birth family, Josh comes to regard Paul as his brother, with all the affection and loyalty he would have given to a Comanche brother.
I wanted the ranch to reflect to mix of peoples common in the west. Although the majority of western films give the impression that nearly all cowboys are white Americans, this was not true of course. The Rocking W has only a few men, including two Mexicans and one Irishman. The setting is largely Hispanic, being down near the Rio Grande. I wanted to give a real sense of place around the Rocking W. The fictional county of San Felipe was established in some detail, including items that weren't mentioned in the book. I also drew a couple of maps so that the internal geography of the story would be consistent. Some of this detail had been created for Rio de Sangre but more was added specifically for Rocking W.

A Published Book

Once I had established the central story of Josh settling in at the ranch and being accused of murder, the second version of the story went ahead straightforwardly. Even so, I was greatly encouraged by the support of my partner of the time, Iain Fielden. He helped me get to grips with using a computer word processer, which certainly took the cramp out of writing a book by hand. Just as importantly, he thought that I could do the job and acted as though it were merely a matter of time before I achieved my aim. Although the sheriff and his deputy are named for other friends, I didn't name a character after Iain until the sixth one, San Felipe Guns. It finishes the story of Josh and Paul, so it seemed an appropriate point to thank Iain for his earlier support.
The original draft was still slightly too long for the publisher's needs, so I removed a couple of minor sections, tightening the main thrust of the drama. The title at this stage was Eagle Flying in Thunder, which is Josh's Comanche name. The book was accepted for publication with a request for a title change, as the original was too long. Finding a good title for something is rarely easy for me and I've been known to ponder for days to find the right one. In this case, I simply settled on the name of the ranch for the book.

Click here for larger cover image

The cover has almost nothing to do with the story. The book does include men with guns, horses and mountain scenery, but that's about as close as it gets. Someday I might actually write a book that features a scene like that on the cover of Rocking W. On the whole though, I didn't really care what the cover was. I'd had my first book published, a dream that not every would-be author achieves.

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