West of Rock River is my eleventh traditional western novel. It was published in October 2004 by Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). I wrote this novel in between Red Wind Crossing and Rancho Alegre, and it is quite different in tone from the Jimmy Clevis books.
West of Rock River is a chase or pursuit story, as the protagonist joins a couple of brothers who are on the trail of what they think are two people who killed their brother. The main character, Vance Coolidge, goes along because of a feeling of obligation based on his friendship with the youngest brother, but he comes to realize that he also joined up because of some unresolved feelings about getting even in his own life. As the pursuit develops, Vance comes to see that the whole idea is a bad one, and worse, the brother who demands to be in charge is a bad leader. So, in addition to being a story about chasing the purported bad guys (who turn out not to be villains of the deepest dye), West of Rock River is also a story about misplaced loyalty, ill-conceived missions, and poor leadership.
In preparing to write this novel, I felt it imperative to go out and follow the route that the characters would take. So I hooked a little camper trailer to my old black pickup, and with my wife and son packed into the cab along with water, snacks, and cameras, I set off on the field trip.
We kept to two-lane highways and gravel roads. We went first to Rock River, Wyoming, which is a little town northwest of Laramie. At that point the trip slowed down, as I took notes on landscape features and clicked a few photos. From Rock River we went to Medicine Bow, another small town on the old route (the Overland Trail and later the transcontinental railroad) from Laramie westward. (Medicine Bow, as many readers know, is the setting for the opening scenes of Owen Wister’s The Virginian.) At Medicine Bow, after a few more notes and photos, we went south through some vast, arid country toward Elk Mountain. This part of the route was new to me. I stopped at various places along the way here, too, in order to catch images and to make note of where my characters might make camp, meet the sheepherders, or meet the party who seems to be pursuing them.
We went into the town of Elk Mountain, where I made sure of my directions. Then we drove out west through the mountains, following a road that goes through Rattlesnake Pass. I had been on this road a couple of times before, but now I was seeing it through new eyes, as I had to imagine how it would seem to a party on horseback. I continued to snap photos and make notes until I got to the other side of the mountains where the trail leads out onto the plains. I noted a spot where my characters would have their big confrontation with the purported killers.
From there we went around to Saratoga, Wyoming, a pleasant town on the North Platte River, and back into the Snowy Range. We camped by a creek for a couple of days as I gathered further impressions for this story and who knows what others that might follow.
Going on this field trip was a rich experience, and I felt that it gave me genuine content for my story. Although I traced my characters’ route all in one day, I took things in at a slow pace, stopping every so often to gaze at this detail or that. The old black pickup doesn’t have air conditioning, and the afternoon sun heated up the cab pretty well on that day in late summer, especially in the two stretches where we were headed west, but we got through it all right. A little discomfort was well worth the experience and all the material I gathered.
West of Rock River is available at Amazon.