Last August we published the cover story "Erik Storey Could be Colorado's Next Literary Star," on the eve of the release of the author's first thriller, Nothing Short of Dying. Now Erik Storey's next thriller, A Promise to Kill, is coming from Scribner on August 15. In advance of that, we're sharing Storey's essay on "The Still Wild West."
You walk into a busy and raucous saloon in the Wild West and take a seat in the corner with your back against the wall, for safety’s sake. Inside, miners, ranchers and roughnecks toss back shots of whiskey and shout obscenities while the barmaid hustles to keep pouring for rough men whose thirst seems unquenchable. With the smell of smoke, booze and unwashed bodies entering your nostrils, you watch uncomfortably as a group of cowboys begins harassing some Navajo Indians at the bar.
This goes on for a few uneasy minutes until some new customers push through the door: ten dark-skinned Natives, most with long hair pulled back into ponytails and dressed in the same clothes they’ve worn all week. They belly up to the bar, and as they do the place goes quiet, save for some quiet whispering. That’s when one of the newcomers spots the Navajos. With a yell of “I’ll gut you!,” the newcomer lurches forward and throws a punch at a man who only a minute before was being harassed by cowboys.
That spark lights a fire, and soon both groups of Natives are trading blows in an all-out-brawl. You find out later, after the sheriff comes to break things up, that the new group was Apache, and that what looked like sudden violence was actually the latest chapter in a long-running blood feud.
What I’ve just described isn’t the plot of a John Ford western. Rather, this scene was one I witnessed only recently. The thing is, the West is still very wild, and all the “civilizing” that the region has supposedly been exposed to is sometimes very hidden. While wandering and working throughout the West, I’ve seen many examples of how little the region has changed.
Take Brown’s Park, for instance. In this isolated ranching area far from civilization and law enforcement, things can still get very Western. I worked in the area for two seasons, and saw firsthand how wild it can be. For example, a small village in the park’s center burned to the ground when a meth lab exploded. A man who owned the only airstrip in the park was rumored to be a big-time drug smuggler. Most of us thought it only rumor, until the feds showed up.
One rancher I knew there — a land-rich baron of sorts — was closing a gate when an angry rider approached, accusing him of stealing his land. An argument ensued, and then things got even worse when the rider pulled a pistol and shot the rancher. The bullet passed through the rancher’s right hand and ripped into his right ear. The shooter suddenly became so overwhelmed by what he’d done that he turned the pistol on himself.
While working in Death Valley National Monument, I met a few of the strange and crazy people who find refuge in the big open spaces of the West. One guy, a thin and twitchy man with beady eyes, went by the name of Catman. No last name, and it wasn’t a nickname. He showed us his driver’s license, and explained how he’d legally arranged to be called just Catman. Why? Because he really, really, really liked cats.
My roommate there had a habit of sleeping with a pistol under his pillow. He told me that back home in Kansas, he’d fallen in love with a Laotian woman whose brothers were involved in organized crime. Now, he claimed, they were coming for him, and Death Valley seemed as good a place to hide as any. One night, after I came off a swing shift and opened the door to our shared housing, my roomie shoved a pistol in my face, screaming that “they’d never catch him...never.” The next day I left to look for a new job.
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While camped one summer in the Black Rock desert of northern Nevada, I met a desert prospector who lived there. He’d retired from banking and decided to become a full-time rockhound. Living in the almost uninhabitable desert amid the razor-sharp rocks, he sustained himself on meat and beans. During our lengthy conversation, he explained that the best rifle for shooting antelope out of season is a small-caliber .22. “You got to get close,” he told me, “but the sound won’t carry and alert the authorities.” That prospector was the first of maybe ten strange desert rats I’ve met while wandering around the West, all drawn to the still wild areas.
I also worked one summer for a very large guest ranch, big enough to require 1,200 head of horses. Breaking in the horses for the inexperienced riders wasn’t the most exciting part of the job, however. Rather, the real excitement occurred in the bunkhouse. That’s where we played poker and told stories. And it’s also where I met Billy Clyde. Billy had just been released from prison after serving twenty years for an unknown offense. He worked for the ranch as a cook and mechanic, and at night in the bunkhouse we all witnessed his decline into alcoholic madness. Twice we caught him battering, deep-frying and eating dollar bills. Once he pulled a straight razor during a poker game and threatened to “spill someone’s guts” if he didn’t win. Another night, after accusing me of cheating, he left the room and returned with a revolver. Waving it in the air and shouting, he eventually tired, sat down on the floor and slept.
It’s people and places like these that keep me rooted to the West. Sure, spending time in these parts can sometimes be life-threatening, but where else in modern-day America can you feel as though you’ve stepped out of your own time and into a different era?
Erik Storey is the author of the thriller A Promise to Kill, whose protagonist is a lethal, modern-day Western drifter. Publication date for the Scribner book is Tuesday, August 15.