One of the first things I learned about the true hardships of such a venture was the summer I spent a week on my cousin’s ranch 20,000 feet high in the mountains of New Mexico. Granted, I knew I could drive out 100 miles and find running water and electricity, television and grocery stores. But what if I couldn’t have? That’s what I wanted to learn if I were to become sincere and causable in my western writing.
Oh, I’d written a lot of books based on western research and my vivid imagination, but this time I was serious. What would it be like to live in such a way? Even if it were for just a week, that should give me the feel of life in the 1800s. For I had taken on a big job. Working on unfinished books by my best buddy, western writer Dusty Richards. Truth be known, one experience came much before the other, but I’m flipping them to show what we fiction writers can and will do with occurrences in our lives.
The week I spent at the New Mexico Ranch was ten years ago. My cousin was in her 90s. Recently when my publisher asked me to finish some of the manuscripts and books underway when my friend was killed in an automobile accident, he did so because I’d been so close to this writer of almost 200 westerns and winner of 3 Spur Awards. Not because I spent that week on the ranch. Not even because after coming to Arkansas I owned and rode a beautiful red Tennessee Walker named Katy for a few years. Thus I would be familiar with the horse and riding world too. He knew, as I did, that Dusty still rode with me. I could hear his voice telling one of his fascinating and true stories about growing up in Arizona. Or about his days with the rodeo, or on his own ranch after he came to Arkansas.
Would I and could I go back to that long ago time? No, I could not live that way. Only one week told me so. But one week also filled my world with peace. I spent noiseless bright pure days on that high desert where the summer sun warms the skin without burning it. Arising at dawn one could watch the elk wander down to the river which flowed near the ranch house. In my case I only rose at dawn one day as I’m not a morning person. When I strolled casually uphill to the outhouse (no running water you remember) the high altitude turned me into a staggering drunk.
One day the ranch hands rode in, each one as authentically western as any cowboy I ever imagined, right down to a six shooter on their hip. It wouldn’t be long before they moved the herd north to the Colorado ranch for the winter. It was situated in a wide grass-filled valley much lower in elevation than the New Mexico locale. Being among all these people living such a life in the twentieth century was like sweet treats to me. I might as well have been transported backward in time. I soaked it all in, the feelings, the lingo, the smells of horses and cattle, my own reactions which are like gold to a writer.
The hardships in the kitchen were plenty. We cooked on a cast-iron stove burning wood brought in from the timber many miles away. Baking biscuits takes a certain touch not found in our heat-controlled ovens. Keeping the temperature proper was no easy thing. My cousin had no problems, but she still lived and worked on the ranch.
This reminds me of a day when she came in all excited and told my husband he had to come with her and hurry. We imagined all sorts of emergencies, like a cow hung on a barbed wire fence, or a momma unable to have her calf, something bloody surely, as red-faced as she was. When she grabbed a gun off the wall, we really became concerned. Were we being attacked by wild Indians? Surely not in that day and age. When we arrived out in the wide, sandy yard, she began to instruct him on pouring something, I’m not sure what, into a hole in the ground. When a small critter popped up, she took quick care of it with her pistol. The two of them worked for several hours. It seemed her yard had been attacked by gophers and they would soon take over everything if they weren’t eradicated. It was an exciting and disturbing afternoon. Obviously something that had to be done to save her plants. Tenderly cared for were precious flowers, watered from her daily dishpan. Water for the ranch came from a hand-pump in the side yard. What they termed a river flowing through nearby was only several inches deep and a foot or so across.
As I sit down to write yet another western classic, I try to be true to all the feelings of the time and place. I remember my friend and his way of writing that won him awards and accolades for the thirty years we were writing buddies. I try to develop my own style while remaining in that oh so special western world.
Check out The Blue Roan Colt and look for the series: The Texas Badge, Texas Lightning, Texas Furies and Texas Wildling, all by Dusty Richards and Velda Brotherton; Coming soon: Lady Bounty Hunter by Velda Brotherton; and true stories of some of the US Marshals of Parker’s Court by Velda Brotherton