San Felipe Guns

It was raining when Paul Hallam arrived back in the Big Bend after thirteen years of drifting. Farmers gave him shelter but they had problems of their own. Outlaw Sandy Daniels aimed to occupy their farms and he was the fasted gunman around. Paul and Sandy had once been friends, but Sandy was dangerous and couldn't bear to be crossed.
He wanted Paul to join him again and wouldn't let him refuse. Now the farmers were looking to Paul to help them fight off the outlaw. Could he overcome his fear of his old friend and confront the ghosts from his past ?

Sometime after the publication of The Paducah War, I wondered whether I could do anything more with the story of Josh, Paul and Sandy. Their first appearance had been in Rio de Sangre which had been rejected on the grounds of length. The novel falls into two distinct parts and I worked on the first half. It told how they fared as outlaws after the range war against the Paducah Cattle Company. Sandy's natural recklessness, coupled with Josh's dangerous temper and fear of being locked up or hanged, soon get them deeper and deeper into trouble. Paul is a law-abiding person, but he cannot leave Josh, who depends on him for comfort and to keep himself sane as they are hunted. I added a group of bounty hunters to the story, as an enemy to be overcome at the end, but the book was rejected. The story that I wanted to tell was never going to be acceptable to my publishers, so I stopped trying and wrote other stories.
About three years laters I suddenly thought about Josh and Paul again. I had the idea of a story about a man returning somewhere after years away, in order to deal with some unfinished business. It was soon obvious that this could be a story about Paul. The end of Rio de Sangre is about Paul and Sandy after Josh's death, and both characters die. But what if that confrontation had never happened ? Paul has always been afraid of Sandy's gunskill and self-confidence. What if Paul had fled from him after Josh's death ? His conscience would be uneasy until he faced up to his cowardice.

rocking w brand

Starting on the end

Sandy had always liked his notoriety and placed emphasis on having 'pals'. I knew he would have stayed outlaw and would stay in the same area, where he would be protected by the locals and could continue to enjoy his fame. It made sense that he would have taken over the Rocking W land and from there I got the thrust of the plot. Paul would find himself on the other side of a land war, with Sandy trying to get rid of the farmers. The end would be the final confrontation between Sandy and the farmers, with Paul facing Sandy down at last. I wrote an chapter by chapter outlime, for once, and the book came together quite smoothly from there.
Luckily I had kept all my notes about the Big Bend county of San Felipe, so I could keep the continuity right. I decided which characters might have died or moved on in the intervening thirteen years. I also had to create the little farming community who had moved into the area. The first were the family who shelter Paul on his return. I remembered a friend's comment, on the publication of The Horseshoe Feud that it would be cool to see his name in a book, so I named the main family Dorset. While San Felipe Guns was being prepared, I was working for the Employment Service, which has an invaluable directory listing headquarters and regional office staff. As well as being essential to my job, the directory was also a useful source of names. Most of the farmers in the book are American, like Benn, who was described as if the part were being played by James Cagney. I put in an English family and a Scandinavian one, which caused a few problems in writing speech. Admunson is supposed to be Swedish but I couldn't find many samples of Swedes speaking English to listen to. Admunson's accent is based on listening to interviews with the racing driver, Mika Hakkinen, who is Finnish. I believe that Swedish and Finnish have different roots but it was the closest I was going to get.

Round up the usual cliches

The central outer drama of San Felipe Guns comes from the conflict between the farmers and the ranching interests. This is a staple of western fiction, probably best used in Jack Schaefer's classic novel, Shane. The plot has its origin in history, most famously in the Johnson County war of 1892. The first whites to settle on the plains were mostly ranchers, cowboys and other associated with the cattle industry. The farmers came later, as more Indian bands were herded onto reservations and improvements in technology enabled the farmers to plough the prairie soil and establish wells to irrigate their crops. Many of the ranches were spread over public domain, and the ranch owners rarely owned much of the vast acres they laid claim to. The farmers bought their land, taking choice parts of the range, often those with water access. These they fenced off, denying the vital water to the cattle and ranchers. The ranchers felt they had established their title to the water and were prepared to defend it by gunfire, while the settlers were determined to stick to their legal rights. Many of the ranchers also objected to the barbed wire fences that farmers strung up to keep cattle off their crops. Cattle and horses were often injured on wire, and farmers also blocked important trails. A few of the cattlemen simply liked the open wildness of the range and objected to seeing it chopped up into little parcels, like back East.
For all these reasons, conflicts occured, with accusations flying back and forth on both sides. In San Felipe Guns Sandy wants to control the range simply because he wants to be the biggest landowner and most respected person in the area. His original desire to be the most famous outlaw around has changed over the years into a wish to be generally respected and admired.

"We're gonna be the top spread around here. Folks'll be proud to know us," Sandy went on expansively. "We'll be able to do what we want and no one'll disagree. I'll run the best spread in the Big Bend. Everyone'll respect that."
"Sure they will," Jamie echoed, his face bright.
"Them that disapproves of you won't take to having you the big auger around here," Madigan said, unable to resist sticking a spoke in Sandy's grand speeches. "It'll stick in Sheriff Fielden's craw for sure."
"He won't be able to touch me," Sandy said confidently. "I'll own all the range round here."

Although Sandy offers to buy out the farmers, he uses scare tactics to back up his words, and resorts readily to violence to get his own way. The farmers are a different kind of man. They are not killers and are reluctant to oppose Sandy directly. Once they discover that Paul used to ride with Sandy Daniels, some of them expect him to join his old comrade. Paul has sworn that he will never ride with Sandy again, and he urges the farmers to back him against his former friend. He needs them as much as they need his gun skill and understanding of how Sandy thinks.

Friends and rivals

The relationship between Sandy and Paul is complex. They have a long back history together, which has been developed over nearly nine years of writing on and off. It becomes a love-hate relationship, with Sandy determined to have everything the way he wants it. He was the undisputed leader of their group before, and he assumes that Paul will go along with his wishes now. Paul makes no challenge to his leadership, which pleases him, and he appreciates his old friend's loyalties. Underneath, Sandy is scared that Paul might one day prove to be a faster gunman than himself. Paul is unsure of his own skill, so Sandy takes every chance to undermine his confidence and establish his own superiority. He convinces himself that Paul is a coward, while secretly dreading what Paul might do. Paul's weakness is his lack of self-confidence: Sandy's is his need for approval, either admiration or respect from others. Of course, the main cause of their parting was Josh's death, an event which isn't covered in any published book. I included the scene as originally written some eight or nine years earlier as a flashback within San Felipe Guns. This is the shadow that hangs over the book as it hangs over Paul's life. In the end, while the book is about the conflict between the outlaw rancher and the farmers, it is the characters of Paul and Sandy that drive the action and bring about the emotional depth.

Publish and be edited

I was delighted when San Felipe Guns was accepted for publication. After the failures to get the intermediate stories of Josh and Paul into print, it was very satisfying to know that the end of their story would be available. It also meant that I could call myself the writer of a trilogy, which had not been my intention at all, in spite of my leanings towards fantasy and science-fiction writing. As usual, the orginal title wasn't acceptable but I had expected that and simply stuck Yesterday's Friend on the front until I could come up with something better. In the end, I reused the title I had created for the first half of Rio de Sangre. After that was sorted out, the next hurdle was the editing. My books are read by copy-editors at the publishers, who do a valuable job of checking the spelling, grammar and sense. One pointed out a horrible continuity lapse I'd made in The Horsehoe Feud; other queries can direction my attention to writing that was clear to me but which makes less sense to someone else. However, for San Felipe Guns, I was given a new and very keen editor who wanted to make all kinds of changes to the sentence structure. I don't mind a few changes for the sake of improving the printed layout, but this was different. Snappy sentences became convoluted and were lumped together so it was difficult to tell who was speaking to whom. One of the most important sentences was changed round, entirely losing the emphasis intended. Another 'correction' changed the subject of a sentence so completely that it made no sense. I usually return copy-edited manuscripts with about a dozen comments and corrections. In this case, it was over forty. The publishers apologised and we came to agreements on all the important issues

Click for larger image of cover

San Felipe Guns brought my total of novels to a round half dozen. What is more, it was published in the same week that my next book, Darrow's Word was accepted. I celebrated my double-whammy by going to a good pub with a few friends (including most of the cast of Cullen's Quest). I later gave a copy to Kelly Dorset, reminding him of his remark about having his name in a book.
After the best part of a decade, the story of Josh, Paul and Sandy in now complete. My early daydreams have been achieved and I can point to a row of books on my shelf and claim them to be all my own work. The also by this author list keeps getting longer. Writing a book can be hard work, but it's never a job; it's what I do best. Josh, Paul and Sandy helped me to find that out and I'll always be grateful to them for it.

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