“A Soldier, An Indian, and a Writer Walk Into a Bar…”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #22, 5/26/2020

“I’m assuming from the title of your next book, The Next To Last Stand, that you had to do a lot of research, is that something you enjoy?”
–John Sothen

Hi John,

To be honest, yes, I really enjoy doing the research for my novels, but I have to admit that there are sometimes it takes me in places I’m not sure I want to go. There are certain facets of Western history where you can kind of disappear down the rabbit hole, and the Little Bighorn is one of them. I live about ninety minutes away from the battlefield, and according to which route I take, I drive by it every time I go and visit my friends on the Crow and Cheyenne Reservations.

I was relatively familiar with the stories of the battle and Custer, but never saw the reason to really delve into that area of interest maybe because the amount of material concerning the subject was so plentiful. I’m open to all kinds of research, but I always tend to come back to books, the love of my life. Do you know how many books have been written about The Little Bighorn Battle, Custer, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse? A lot, and I can now tell you from personal experience that not all of them are good… (Not to worry–I’ll be including a list of my favorites in the acknowledgements of The Next To Last Stand.)To me, the important part of any research is to get it right but also to find an access point that might be different from those who have combed the battlefield before, to find something new and interesting that the reader might not have previously been aware.

I was going through a collection of essays by Norman MacLean of A River Runs Through It fame and found one on a painting I’d seen my whole life, Cassilly Adam’s Custer’s Last Fight. In case you’ve escaped seeing it, the painting was done by this minor artist in St. Louis, toured the country, and then came home to adorn the wall of a saloon until the establishment went bankrupt. One of the largest creditors was a then, smallish brewery in St. Louis known as Anheuser-Busch. Well, Augie Busch strolled down to the saloon and inquired as to what the owners were going to do about the outstanding beer bill and was told they didn’t have any money. Busch, never at a loss for an opportunity, looked up on the wall and said, “I’ll take the painting.”

Hauling it back to the brewery, Busch told his marketing team that they were going to start printing posters and shipping them out to every salon, bar, and rumpus room in the country, with the name of the brewer prominently displayed along the bottom. Over the years, the painting became the most viewed by inebriated, questionable art critics in American history. Heck, I can name a dozen of the things in assorted drinking establishments within thirty miles of my ranch in Ucross.

Anyway, after producing more than a million of these posters and canvassing the American West with them, Busch, in a fit of philanthropy, donated the painting to the 7th Cavalry where it hung on the wall of their commissary until said building burned to the ground in 1946, destroying Custer’s Last Fight—or did it?

Did I just get lost down that rabbit hole I mentioned previously?

In answer to your question, yes, I do enjoy the research, but might enjoy trying to find a thread that the reader may not have known existed, something that takes these very large issues and brings them down to a human scale.

There’s an instance, which on this particular weekend might ring true. I was sitting with my friend, Charles Little Old Man, up at the trading post opposite the battlefield, and we were enjoying an Indian Taco and historical talk, his great grandfather having fought at the Little Bighorn. I’ll never forget the statement he made, summing up the pivotal moment in two culture’s histories. He looked toward the obelisks that stood on the hillside like naked bones. “My great grandfather used to say there were many kinds of men before a battle, but only two afterward—the living and the dead.”

A respectful Memorial Day,


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