Black Hat Butte is my ninth traditional western novel. It was published in February 2003 by Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). I consider it to be at the center of my work, as it is a literary traditional western with strong interest in character and landscape. Black Hat Butte is available at Amazon.
In preparing to write this novel, as in several of my other projects, I went out to do field research in order to find a place where I could envision my story taking place. I knew I wanted to set this novel somewhere in the area between Hartville and Manville, south and a little east of where I set Coyote Trail. Having done field research there before, I knew there were plenty of landscape features like the ones I had in mind. So I went in search of an area with a butte that matched my conception of Black Hat Butte.
I was driving south on a dirt road, going up and down through hilly grassland, when I saw the tip of a butte several miles further on. I got excited, because I had the feeling of discovery, the feeling that the material was talking to me. I drove on, still noting the landscape around me, until I came to the butte itself. With my camera as well as my notebook, I made note of many, many features, including colors, shapes, shadows, other landmarks. I sketched out a few maps by hand, and as I did so I noted where some of the places and events of my story would be located. It was a long summer day, and I had packed a lunch as well as drinking water, so I was in no hurry.
Once the place came alive as the locale of my novel, the feeling was almost magical. At the very least it was inspiring. I believe that the special feeling I got from this place was related (though I can’t say which came first) to a conception of a secondary character I planned to put in the story. The character’s name is Rove, taken from a use of the word that I had seen more than once in reading Great Expectations. It is related to ropes and strands. My idea for the character was to have him enigmatic, a character who comes and goes on horseback (his appearance is always foreshadowed by antelope, which I saw the first day I went to do my research), appears to none of the characters in the novel except the main character (until the last scene), and seems to materialize out of and fade back into the landscape. In the story, he not only does those things but also communicates on an irrational level with the main character, speaking in gestures, metaphors, and riddles. To the main character, Rove seems clairvoyant and possibly supernatural, “an ethereal sort who nourished himself on rainbows,” but he has a handshake as solid as a rock.
Rove was an interesting, not to mention entertaining, character to experiment with. As I go back through the scenes in which he appears, some of the lines make me laugh. I have that sensation that I am sure many writers have when they read their own work and come across something that surprises or delights as if the passage were written by someone else.
I would not want to set things out of proportion, however. Although working with Rove as a character was the most unique thing about this work or even most of my traditional westerns, I hope I succeeded at blending him into the novel at large. As always, I tried to work with a variety of characters whose story lines or strands interact, and I set several scenes in other places in that beautiful grassland I have come to know. For this novel, I went to the area a second time to renew my impressions and to feel again the life of the land. Moreover, I envisioned it as a place where a man named Braden (the main character) meets realistic cowboys as well as quirky characters, comes across injustice and confronts it, and takes an interest in a woman named Beryl. Overall, this is the story of Noel Braden, a cowboy with a good conscience, who rides the wide, rolling country near a place called Black Hat Butte.