Across the Cheyenne River was my second novel with Five Star Publishing and my twenty-first traditional western. Although that sequence may sound routine, this novel did not make its way into the world without obstacles.
This was the manuscript I was working on in August of 2010 when I received a phone call from a fellow writer who told me that Dorchester Publishing was shutting down its western line. I discuss this unfortunate development elsewhere in these commentaries, so I will not retell it all here–just the part that pertains to this novel.
When my wife, Rocío, and I returned from the Western Writers of America convention in the latter part of June 2010, I resumed work on this novel in progress. It was under contract, the second work in a two-book contract with Leisure Books / Dorchester Publishing. (I had finished the first one, Dark Prairie, and was waiting for the advance.) I had worked up a set of notes to go along with the synopsis that I wrote for Dorchester, so now I was ready to go out and do my field research.
In July I hooked up a little camper I used for my excursions, and I set out for the country north of Lusk, Wyoming. I was familiar with quite a bit of the area from having hunted deer and antelope a few years earlier, so I had a good idea of where I wanted to go in order to observe the locales where I had different parts of my story imagined. I drove through rolling grasslands, sandstone bluffs and outcroppings, and piney ridge country, then through more grassland. I pitched my camp on some public land I knew about, on a nice rocky knob with cedar trees. Birds trilled, a sprinkle of rain fell, and a lonesome wind picked up for a while before nightfall. A few deer came out, and the grey rocks turned salmon-colored with the pink light of sunset.
This is a good way to take in the setting for a story, to spend the night and see the country in the morning as well as in the evening.
The next day, I followed the main highway north toward Newcastle. The route follows and intersects with watercourses, which means lines and groves of cottonwoods. In some places, I was able to stop on high ground and see the plains stretching away toward Nebraska and South Dakota. Again, this was good, lonesome country with not many houses or ranch headquarters around.
I traveled north until I crossed the Cheyenne River, at a place where I had camped in a cottonwood grove many years earlier during an antelope hunting excursion. Many of those trees were dead and fallen over now. The rural schoolhouse had been painted red and lost all its paint in those years as well. All of these landmarks are familiar to me, as I have traveled this highway many times over the years. New to me on this trip was a little side trip to the original location of the Robbers’ Roost stage station, now just a flat, grassy area where I saw a doe antelope and two fawns.
On my return, I saw some of the same country, then an alternate route where I once again renewed my familiarity with rolling grasslands, draws, and ridges. At Lusk I went west to Manville, then north through the breaks where I had such a good time taking notes for Lonesome Range some five years earlier.
After two days of driving, poking
around, and taking notes, I went home. I took up my plan for the novel and
began to write. When I received the disheartening news about Dorchester, I
continued to write, although the sensation was odd, as I was no longer writing
with a sense of fulfilling a contract and meeting definite editorial
expectations. Also, I was spending a bit of time and energy on trying to find a
new publisher and an agent.
I finished the manuscript nevertheless, and I did arrive at an agreement with an agent. Some of the places where she submitted work preferred manuscripts a little longer than the ones I had been writing for Dorchester, so she suggested that I try to make this one a little longer. I went through it again, after being away from it for a couple of months, and I was able to add a couple of thousand words, but I couldn’t see any value in adding more just for the sake of padding.
So there I was. All the early smooth sailing of getting the novel under contract, working up an agreeable story line and synopsis, having a tranquil and evocative field trip, and beginning the writing gave way to turmoil, uncertainty, and superficial considerations. Two or three editors looked at it (for not very long if at all, I imagined) and passed it by.
At last I got a break, told in more detail in other places. Five Star brought out its frontier fiction line, with Dark Prairie as the lead title. When it received good reviews, Five Star considered Across the Cheyenne River, and it found its place in the frontier fiction line as well. It came out in May of 2014. I had written three other western/frontier novels in the meanwhile, but at least things were beginning to flow again.
As for the content itself, which did not seem to matter very much when the implosion of Dorchester Publishing sent tremors through the other publishers of traditional westerns, I wrote the story I set out to write. It follows the fortunes of Russell Archer, a young man who is working his way up in life and would like to have a place of his own some day. He takes a job working for a man who has a ranch and cattle but not much fortitude. This man, Lidge Mercer, takes Archer in as a junior partner, which works all right until Mercer is killed–as an eventual result of bad judgment earlier in life. So Archer has to be on the lookout for someone who might want to knock him off as well, at the same time that he has to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. Meanwhile, he has made friends with a fellow puncher, Boot Beckett, and he has developed an interest in Kate Blackwell, a girl who lives in town, works for the grocer and his family, and wants to find her father. The mystery thickens, a couple of more people die, and Archer works his way through the difficulties.
My unifying idea for this novel was that it would be a story about the paths people choose in their lives. In spite of some of the practical difficulties I had in the business side, I felt that I kept my eye on my main purpose and protected what I thought of as the integrity of the story line. I was glad at the time, and still am, that I let it seek its own form and keep it. The novel came out in a nice hardcover format, received decent reviews, and earned some nice comments from fellow writers. It has also been appreciated by the families of my two high school classmates to whom I dedicated it.
Across the Cheyenne River is available at Amazon.