Ridgeline is my fifth published book. None of my previous works are westerns.
So then why, at this stage of my career, would I choose to write in a genre that is, according the geniuses in New York, writhing in its death throes? Well, first of all, it’s been a good many years since I’ve given much credence to the opinions of strangers.
Secondly Jeremiah Jones, the main character in Ridgeline, appeared to me, and like most cowboys, the man is as stubborn as a dang Missouri mule. He simply refused to leave until I told the story. Finally, in an attempt to rid myself of the man, I sat down to write a short story.
Ah, huh. Every writer out there knows how THAT goes. I’m now 50,000 words into The Rainmaker, the sequel for Ridgeline, with another two or three books in the series bouncing around in my head.
So I wrote a western to get the cowboy’s story down on paper. But I wrote too for Dad who took me to the movies every Friday night where we watched James Gardner and John Wayne and, heck even Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior, ride over deserts and mountains in cowboy hats. I wrote for Dad because the morals and ethics in those big screen heroes embodied a dying breed of men who defended the powerless and stood up for Right, and by God we all knew what Right was when we saw it back then, didn’t we?
I also wrote a western because the women in these movies, while often fiery and as stubborn as the men chasing them, always searched for a real man to overpower them, to show them who was boss. Something about that characterization bothered me on a deep and disturbing level, didn’t ring true in these epics of the old west. So, I wanted to write a western with a strong female point of view. I knew it could be done. Heck my good friend Velda Brotherton has been writing just this kind of western for years.
I also wanted to write a book set in a turbulent time in American history, a time when folks struggled to find their way in a world changing too quickly for anyone to get their bearings. The years after our civil war provided the historical setting of confusion.
And, last but in no way least, my cowboy was a saddle preacher wrestling with God, a veteran of that civil war, a man wandering lost in a wilderness of ghosts, an infantryman struggling with Soldier’s Heart. Now days we call this normal reaction to the ungodly trauma of war Post-Traumatic Stress. Call it what you want. My cowboy lived it.
Here’s a little excerpt. See what you think.
He lifted himself from the chair, meant to sit beside her.
“Don’t,” she said. “Do not come any closer.” From the folds of her skirt she drew a cleaver. A blade he’d sharpened himself and with which he’d seen her, just this week, chop the head from an unruly rooster in one swift flash of metal.
He lowered his ass back onto the chair.
“Look, I said I was sorry.” He swallowed. This woman frightened him more than going into battle single-handed against a dozen enemies. Hell, all an adversary in battle could do was put him out of his misery. But this woman, she was determined to force him to look deep into the muck of his soul.
“You don’t know anything about me.” His voice rose in anger and frustration. “You think you do. You believe all that soft, intuitive woman’s knowledge has given you some kind of window into my heart.” He fluttered his fingers in the air. Fought back the fear. “You have no idea of the beast that lives in me.”
“You’re a fool, Jeremiah Jones.”
The baby stirred in her arms and she lowered her face to the child’s, pressed her lips to his cheek. She lifted her gaze to him, the tears flowing now like a steady stream of anguish, dampening her dress front.
“I have no more time for fools,” she said.
He forced himself not to look away.
“Montego’s heard rumors that Frank and Jessie have already left Arkansas, are living large in Texas. The rest of the gang is milling around Fort Smith, and they know Brett James was bent on taking you for his prisoner when he rode off. I will not leave you until I’ve dealt with the James gang.”
“You want to help me?” She stood so suddenly the baby jerked in his sleep, Jeremiah flinched backwards in the chair. “Get out. Leave me the Colt and go. I was doing fine before you showed up.”
He stood, leaned over her in a deliberate attempt to intimidate.
“You stole my horse! Hell, woman, I rescued you from Indians, got shot defending you from Brett James. Shot! Five years of war, and nothing but a couple of flesh wounds. A week in your company and I’m damn near killed. And you have the unmitigated gall to tell me you were doing fine before I showed up?”
She bent and laid the baby in his makeshift bed, straightened and stepped into Jeremiah, backed him against the wall of the tiny room.
“Leave the pistol on the table. Go on! Ride off into them mountains. Lift your arms, but not your heart, to a God whose love you cain’t accept. Go to your burying and marrying and to your . . . your fornicating women.”
“My what?” He lifted his hand, slowly, gently as though petting the soft coat of some wild animal whose heart flutters just under the skin. Her tears wet his hand. She did not step away but she did not lean into him either. He softened his voice.
“Adeline?” He waited for her to look into his eyes. “It is because I care for you that I must leave you.”
Her hand sliced at him so fast he was still wondering whether or not she’d dropped the knife when the stinging of his cheek told him it had been only her open palm. But it was what came next that cut him to the bone.
The little horse thief laughed.