Ever hear of anyone sitting at a microfilm machine to read 97-years’ worth of old newspapers? I’m afraid I did just that, not realizing that the job would be so monumental. Once I signed the publishing contract, I had to see it through to the end.
The book I was researching was a hundred-year history of central Wyoming for the state’s centennial. Three years later, when my notes were typed, the interviews over, the writing finally finished, and over 200 old photographs collected, I heaved a mighty sigh of relief and looked at the eighteen-inch stack of leftover research notes.
I couldn’t let them go to waste, so I thought about writing a novel. That’s how Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel, was conceived. I had always been fascinated with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and heard so many conflicting stories that back to researching I went. I also traveled to the outlaw hideout in the Big Horn Mountains known as The Hole in the Wall.
Among other inhabitants of the valley, I talked to an old-timer who claimed to have been an outlaw during his youth, and who knew some of the aging Wild Bunch members. He had also been interviewed in 1976 by Robert Redford for his nonfiction book, The Outlaw Trail. Garvin Taylor claimed that Butch Cassidy had fathered a daughter with his Arapaho companion, Mary Boyd Rhodes, but no one knew who she was. He also said that Elzy Lay, not the Sundance Kid, was Butch’s best friend and companion in crime. Further research bore that out. Butch hired Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid, after Elzy Lay was captured following the Rio Grande train robbery in 1899, a couple of years before Butch and Sundance escaped to South America, separately, not together.
Along the way, I learned that Longabaugh was not the happy-go-lucky guy portrayed in the film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In fact, he was a surly, well-educated young man from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania , who served time in the Sundance, Wyoming jail shortly after his eighteen birthday for the theft of a saddle, bridle and gun from the Triple V Ranch. Thus, his nickname, the Sundance Kid.
I was intrigued by one of the Wild Bunch members, Tom “Peep” O’Day, a bungling, alcoholic horsethief, but apparently a very likeable guy. He was my favorite outlaw to write about and provided a great deal of humor for the book. Although he was only a brief member of the gang, he nearly stole the novel from the protagonist, and was fun to write about. I made every attempt to portray all the outlaws true to character as well as accurately reporting the historical events of the late 1890s, which came straight from the pages of all those newspapers as well as historical texts.
I had plenty of actual historical events to write about and lots of real outlaws, but the plot was missing something. A woman, of course. My imagination turned up a 17-year-old orphaned heiress, Andrea Bordeaux, who is living with her grandparents on a sheep ranch when outlaws arrive during a Wyoming ground blizzard. Recognizing one of the outlaws, her grandmother snips off Andrea’s braids and dresses her in her grandfather’s overalls to disguise her. The outlaws subsequently kidnap her, believing she’s a 12-year-old boy. They take her to the Hole in the Wall where she listens to them plan the bank robbery. There she manages to hide her gender while attempting to reform the youngest outlaw.
I had my characters but what about the plot? I settled on the Four-State Governor’s Pact to exterminate outlaws as well as the badly botched Belle Fouche bank robbery in South Dakota during the “Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Reunion.” Tom O’Day spent his time drinking in saloons instead of reconnoitering the bank, and was subsequently arrested, as were the Sundance Kid and his cohorts. You’ll have to read the book to learn what happens next and whether Butch and Sundance were killed in South America, or whether they returned to this country to live out the rest of their lives.
A partial chapter from the book may be read at http://tinyurl.com/5zqr6f. Those who leave comments are eligible for a drawing to be held October 10 for copies of ESCAPE as well as a $40 Barnes & Noble gift certificate.