Or, “What Does Jefferson’s Airplane have to do with it?”
26 Pickup—The Half Ton
I will add to the question about the music in Craig’s books. In The Western Star, Grace Slick makes an appearance. Music is obviously important to Craig. When you add certain songs/characters to your books is it a spur of the moment decision or planned in advance?
I’m not very good at the seat of the pants thing, simply because I tend to get things wrong. Whenever I’m putting real people in my books, I try to make sure that I’ve done my research and get the facts straight, otherwise it ruins the believability of the book for the reader and annoys the real people.
In the book you mention, I originally had Walt being picked up by a truck driver, but that didn’t really assist in informing the reader that this was the sixties (early seventies, but basically the same thing). I immediately thought of the music of the period, which is a sure-fire shortcut to getting the reader there. So, I thought that if I could get Walt picked up by a rock band that might be something different and give me a number of opportunities to not only advance the period, but the characters as well.
First of all it had to be a band or an artist that was touring not only that year but at that period of time, and believe it or not it was a little difficult to come up with one… Bob Dylan was touring, but he wasn’t anywhere near Wyoming at the time thatthe book took place–then I discovered that Jefferson Airplane had done a concert in Central Park in New York and at that time would’ve been on their bus on their way back to San Francisco. Well, the direct course would’ve had them coming through Wyoming at just the right time.
I have a good friend out in California who was a Federal Judge and is an enormous fan of Bob Dylan, as a matter of fact I used him as a character in The Western Star… Anyway, I knew he’d be disappointed if I didn’t gerrymander Dylan, but because Walt always seems to bloom in the company of women, I decided on Grace Slick.
You have to be careful when you put celebrities in your books in that no matter who they are, you need to treat them with respect. I really enjoyed writing a genuine Rock legend into the book and I think the sequence poses a number of questions. What if Walt had taken Grace up on her invitation to stay on the bus and continue on to San Francisco in the late sixties/early seventies? What would his life had been like? Would he have pursued a career in music, instead?
I think it was fun to include one of those moments that are crossroads in your life, where one small decision would’ve set your life in a completely different trajectory.
I like to think that I did a good job in portraying Grace in the book and after it came out, I received a package in the mail, and it was my book. I remember being puzzled by it and wondered why somebody would mail me back a copy of The Western Star?
The mystery was solved when I opened it to the title page where Grace Slick had not only signed it, but informed me that in no uncertain terms, she would’ve gotten Walt to stay on that bus…I believe her.
You have often said that people in real life end up in your stories. Who was your inspiration for the character Geo Stewart in Junkyard Dogs? That is perhaps the most-read story in my collection. I love laughing out loud. And also, did the chimney, roof, rope to the car and somebody being dragged from the back end of the car really happen to someone you know?
-Ingrid De Groot Mannisto
In short, yes…
I can’t give you all the details, but like a lot of the outrageous tales in my books, the story is true. I remember when I first heard it, I knew I had to put it in a book, but the challenge then became where? I figured if I put that story in the middle of a novel it would stop the book dead, so it had to be either the beginning or the end.
I like writing a variety of books from the dreadfully serious to the overtly comedic and even though Junkyard Dogs dealt with some dark issues, it was essentially funny. When you’re a writer like I am, I think you have to signal what type of book the reader is going to be dealing with, so I decided to plop the story like a centerpiece right there in the beginning.
To protect the guilty, I can’t tell you exactly where the story came from, but I can tell you the person I drew from to develop the character of Geo Stewart.
When I first bought the property that would become my ranch, the only other going concern other than the Ucross Foundation and the guest ranch was Sonny George’s Junkyard which sat right at the apex of Ucross, population 25.
A thorn in the side of the more affluent neighbors, a battle went on for decades where everyone tried to get Sonny’s junkyard out of there, but he held fast. Most folks don’t know it, but Sonny’s father had had a junkyard in the larger town of Buffalo until the founding fathers thought that maybe that wasn’t what they wanted tourists to see as soon as the pulled off the highway. They bought a beautiful piece of land out at the confluence of Clear and Piney Creeks in the shadow of the snow-peaked, Bighorn Mountains—perfect place for a junkyard, right?
Well, the junkyard and Sonny stayed there for the better part of a century, including a couple of decades at the beginning of my residency here. Sonny was something of a character, but I got along with him fine. So fine, in fact, that when the local sheriff needed to get Sonny into the emergency room after he fell off of one of his stacks of cars, he enlisted my help.
After a little finagling, we got Sonny into the hospital, and they whisked him away but after a few moments the attending physician came back out and said that that was the first time that had happened. We asked him what it was, and he informed us that Sonny’s hair had grown through his long underwear.
I remember the sheriff saying. “Way more than we needed to know, doc.”
And all I could think was—how can I get that in a book?
I discovered the music of Phillip Aaberg because of a reference you made in an interview. Do you create different musical set-lists for each book you write?
I love music and always have. I’m not particularly musical, but I truly enjoy it in every aspect of my life. All my trucks and cars have radio/cd players in them, along with the entire house, guest cabin, tack shed and even the cabin I have on the mountain that doesn’t have electricity—it has a hand-crank Victrola.
I’m kind of old-fashioned in that I’m still one of those dinosaurs that buy cd’s. I guess I don’t trust all the download/cloud stuff, and I like holding a book, and still like holding a cd, cassette (Yes, I still have them) and vinyl albums.
I even send a cd a month to my granddaughter as something we can share, and she should have quite the music collection by the time she’s 18…
Music is important to Walt as well—predictably—and I knew there had to be a connection for him. But rather than having it be something common, I made him a boogie-woogie aficionado and a pianist. Why piano? I’m thinking his mother had something to do with that, a way of civilizing a rambunctious boy growing up on a ranch in Wyoming. I guess I thought it might be a little more refined than a cowboy with a guitar. I like to think that just when I’ve got him figured out, he takes a hard turn in another direction.
I talk a lot about how it’s very difficult for any other art form to compete with reading as far as the way that it enters your mind through the interpretation of words.
Then there’s music…
Okay, I’ll admit that one of the most emotive forces is music, which is why we dance, march and a million other things, but when you introduce music into a book you have to be careful—like humor, it can take on a number of personal connotations.
I listen to music while doing everything, so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I listen to music when I write. What do I listen to? Everything. If you were to visit me at my ranch, I can’t help but think that you’d be puzzled by the eclectic quality of my tastes. Personally, I’m a big blues fan and enjoy combing the record shops in France for old and strange stuff I can’t find here. I love old Country but have to admit I’m not much into the new stuff, and then there is classic Rock & Roll and any kind of Jazz or Classical.
One of the secret weapons I’ve got is a good friend in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts who gets the soundtracks from all the movies that come out each year. Living in a town of twenty-five, I don’t get out to the movies very much, consequently, I don’t have any imagery to connect to the music she sends me. Soundtracks are wonderfully evocative and when you don’t know the movie they are from you can just listen to them as your own.
Of course, I sometimes listen to the soundtrack from Longmire.
Idea: A story or book from the perspective of Walt’s horse.
I read the other day that horses can hear your heartbeat from ten feet away, and that they can infer your moods and condition long before you arrive. I’m not so sure I believe that, but I do think that they’re incredibly intuitive animals and have an almost psychic ability to read human beings when in close contact with them.
I don’t know how they do it, but whenever I head down to the barn in the mornings or at night, I can always tell that those horses know what kind of mood I’m in before I get there.
I’ve spent most of my life on horseback, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. To this day, they’re still my favorite writing partners, listening closely to what all I have to say about whatever novel I happen to be working on, and never uttering a word of advice.
As knowledgeable as I am, I’ve got a specialist in the field that has forgotten more about horses than I’ll ever know, a fellow by the name of Buck Brannaman. Buck was the model for the character in the book and movie, The Horse Whispererand is the world leading practitioner of horse handling in the vaquero tradition. Buck’s place is about ten miles from mine and whenever I get a question I go straight to the horse’s mouth, Buck. There’s also a marvelous documentary on his life and work called simply, Buck.
Writing an entire book from the perspective of a horse though, that might be a bit challenging… I’ve seen those books where the story is told from the perspective of animals, but I can’t help but think that it’d be a challenge in that there’s no dialogue unless you wanted to go full Mister Ed. Of course, you could use an internal monologue, but that presents a number ofproblems, too.
Maybe a short story, but I think there would be another character in line before I could get to a horse, Dog. I have to say that I really enjoy writing Dog as a character and think the TV people really missed the boat by not including the character. He and Walt have a pretty unique relationship, and I take advantage of that by not having the Dog talk—he doesn’t have to… I’m not sure if there’s anybody else in the books who knows Walt as well as Dog. Dog spends the most time with him, and it goes without saying that Dog is extraordinarily smart.
I don’t know. I have learned enough to know that you should never say never—so, you never know…
In Daughter of the Morning Star, the photo of the young ones at the school was faded except for the one face. Did that mean that the one person is still alive?
Boarding School Blues:
No, that’s not exactly what it indicates.
But in answer to your question, I was made aware of the current horrifying problem that involves murdered and missing indigenous women when I came up with the idea for Daughter of the Morning Star. I knew there had to be a backstory that would provide an underpinning to the more mystical aspects of the tale and remembered that a few years ago I was talking to venerable Cheyenne Elder Leroy White Man about the Éveohtsé-heómėse, a taker of children something of a bogeyman to keep the young ones from wandering off too far. I asked him where a being like that could originate, and not so oddly he told me that in his long life he had actually given it some thought.
His theory was that the Wandering Without was a conglomeration of all the lost souls that had been banished from the tribes–the murderous, the insane, and the evil ones that had been driven out into the wilderness to die alone. His belief was that there was and always had been something out there waiting to take these souls that no one else wanted and that they had banded together to feed a hunger for companionship.
Think of the thousands if not millions of those souls.
The Northern Cheyenne have a saying that you judge a man by the strength of his enemies… I couldn’t think of a better statement about Walt Longmire, but what if the souls he’s dispatched on their way are somewhere out there waiting for him?
Where would the perfect feeding ground for a creature like the Éveohtsé-heómėse possibly be? A storage place for the tender, young souls it finds so irresistible?
In the long list of incredible wrongs that have been implemented against the Native People, the boarding schools that separated children from their families, cut their hair, forbade them from speaking their native language and a million other atrocities must be forefront. With the discovery of unmarked gravesites scattered across the West, the true horror of these places and their genocide is only now becoming known. These were children.
When Walt is given the postcard you mention, a strange, scallop-edged photo of the young boys of the Fort Pratt Industrial Indian Boarding School with the number 31 printed on the back—Walt notices that the faces of all the children are blurred—almost all of them.
In the photographic process of the late 1800’s, the subject had to remain completely still; any movement at all would ruin the development of the tin plates. Not moving at all would be relatively impossible for children of any age, hence the only boy who stood still. Or was that it? The child couldn’t still be alive after all this time, but could his lineage?
What if the good sheriff decides to cross time and space in an attempt to rescue the tiny souls marked by the thirty-one crosses on the hill above Fort Pratt where the Indian Boarding School used to stand—an act that would right a tragic wrong.
Some years back, I took liberties with the classic Clement Moore poem – from a cowpoke’s perspective, no less. I apologize.
A Visit From Craig Cringle
‘Twas the night afore Christmas, an’ all ‘crost the spread All the cowpokes were drunk, an’ the hosses were fed. The bunkhouse was warmed by a fire of cut wood, All the Pappy’d been finished, but it was sure good!
Most fellers were passed out, but a few could still move, An’ one o’ the hombres had crawled ‘hind the stove. I was jes’ semi-conscious, yet was sure that I’d heard The clatter of hooves, but said nary a word.
Who could that be ridin’ in from the cold? So out the winder I peered an’ lo an’ behold Was a wagon behind eight hosses, all roan, With a white-whiskered red-suited driver, alone.
He sported a 50X hat from H-Bar The color of whiskey, as I saw from afar. His cheeks were so rosy an’ his smile was so wide I was sure he had sampled the jug by his side.
He hopped from his seat and pulled down a sack Then hoisted it up and clambered ’round back. The bunkhouse door creaked, and he paused just a tick Afore sneakin’ inside, an’ then he worked quick.
Set out bottles of likker an’ new cowboy boots, A couple of sidearms for them as could shoot, Some Kings ropes an’ saddles for riders galore An’ bottles of likker…oh, I said that before.
He crept out the door without making a sound Then he mounted his wagon and turning around Looked me right in the eye an’ winked with a grin, Hollered, “Boy Howdy!” then I recognized him.
“He’s the hombre what writes them novels I think, ‘Bout the Wyoming sheriff, the one likes to drink Rainier by the case-full, an’ sometimes some Pappy An’ plays chess with ol’ Lucian, ’cause it keeps the man happy.”
Afore I could think of a nice thing to say He hollered “Boy Howdy!”, an’ then rode away. But I heered him exclaim as he rolled out of sight, “Happy Post-Its and more Longmire stories tonight!”
December 24th, 1972 “This is your first call out with me, so don’t do anything stupid.” I studied the old Doolittle Raider who’d hired me in the fall as he navigated the road leading up the Bighorn Mountains in the little Bronco half-cab that was his personal vehicle. “Define stupid.” “I’m looking at it.” He shook his head, his rough hands wrapped around the steering wheel like a braided leather quirt. “As in don’t say or do anything stupid, you got me?” I saluted him, mostly out of habit but also because I knew it would annoy him. Most everything I did these days seemed to annoy him, which begged the question as to why he’d hired me as a deputy. “Just stand there and look intimidating, that’s what I hired you for.” Well, that settled that. The weather wasn’t great, and the sifting we’d gotten in the afternoon had turned into a full-on cascade of snow now that night had settled in. There was only a couple of inches in town, but the foothills of the mountain were getting pounded the way they always did, and he’d surprised us all by showing up at 4:25 in the afternoon on a Christmas Eve – but that was the kind of thing he did. * * * The Ferg had already headed home, and Ruby our dispatcher busied herself by going over and turning off the coffee maker and emptying the grounds in the wastepaper basket while Lucian Connally had climbed the stairs of the old Carnegie Library we called the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Office, on his one good leg. Unbuttoning the top button of his red and black wool hunting coat and revealing his star, he stood at the landing to catch his breath, looking around at the all but empty office. “Where the heck is everybody?” Heck was not the term he would’ve ordinarily used, but in the presence of our grand dame dispatcher, he generally tempered his language. Ruby poured out the remainder of the coffee in the mini-sink and rinsed out the pot before returning it to the burner. “Going home. It’s a holiday in case you hadn’t noticed – you heathen.” He glanced up at the Seth Thomas, ticking on the wall. “Near as I can tell, we owe the county another thirty-five minutes of service.” She pulled on her own coat and gathered her purse. Buttoning up, she pulled the pocketbook strap over her shoulder like Pancho Villa straightening a bandolier full of ammunition and squared off with him. “Where have you been all day?” I liked her. He coughed a noise of indignation and shoved the Stetson Open Road back on his head, a dollop of silver hair escaping from his overgrown crew cut. “Well, where do you think I’ve been?” “From the smell of you, I’d say you and your cronies have been smoking and drinking and playing poker in the back of the Euskadi Bar.” With that, she stepped around him and continued down the steps past the gallery of photographs of all the sheriffs past and singularly present. He turned and watched her go, pulling out his briarwood pipe and fixings as he called after her. “We haven’t been smoking, just so you know.” He stuffed the bowl from the beaded, leather pouch the Cheyenne Tribal Elders had given him. “Not that it seems like such a bad idea.” Her voice echoed up from the landing below as she got to the front door. “…And if you keep that new deputy of yours here for one of your cockamamie schemes rather than letting him go home to his young wife on a Christmas Eve, Lucian Connally, I will personally come in here the day after tomorrow and skin you alive.” I hung there in the doorway of my office listening to the argument come to an abrupt stop as the front door opened and hissed shut. He puffed on his pipe, lighting it in his two hands before whipping out the match and dropping it in the astray on Ruby’s desk and then raising his face to look at me. “Damn, what’d you do to set her on the warpath?” “Me?” He limped over to the coffee maker on the wooden leg and fingered the handle of the empty pot, even though I’d never seen him drink the stuff after 9 AM. “So, no official office Christmas party, I take it?” I looked around the empty place and the dissolute candles on Ruby’s desk that read NOEL, the only celebratory decoration in sight. “I suppose not.” He nodded, leaning against the counter, rearranging the candles so that they now read LEON. “What’s your name again, Troop?” I folded my arms; it was a game we played. “Longmire, Walt Longmire.” “Longmire, that’s right.” Studying me, he puffed on the pipe. “I knew your grandfather.” “Yes, Sir.” “So, you gonna man the fort for the next thirty-three minutes?” “Unless you’d like to take over.” He glanced at me, unsure if that might not have been a trace of sarcasm he’d heard. “So, you wanna just sit around here for a half hour listening to the clock tick, or do you wanna go learn something?” This was how it usually started, what Ruby referred to as the cockamamie schemes, with me sitting in his office being regaled with stories of law enforcement of yore or getting hauled out on some emergencywhich really wasn’t an emergency but just something to occupy his time – and mine. I guessed that was what you got to do when you were the Absaroka County Sheriff, dip in and out of investigations as you pleased. “What is it I’m going to learn?” He puffed on his pipe, the smoke curling up and around his walnut-stained iris like the devil incarnate. “Every. Damn. Thing.” * * * His duty vehicle was a boat of a Plymouth Fury that handled like a pole barge, especially in the snow, so we’d squeezed in the utility vehicle with its four-wheel-drive and enough room for two, regular-sized passengers, one of us who was not. “Let me see your intimidating look.” I watched at him as he sawed the wheel, not having put the thing in four-wheel-drive, as far as I knew. “My what?” “Your most intimidating look.” He shook his head some more as we took a cutoff at the west part of town, traversing the gravel road and approaching a ranch gate. “The guy we’re going up against is one ornery customer, and I want to see if you can throw a scare into him.” I stared at him, as he glanced at me. “A Rose Bowl and four years in the Corp and that’s as intimidating as you can look?” I frowned a little. “That’s it? You look constipated.” Slowing the Bronco, he pulled up beside the gate where a couple of cords of firewood rested, collecting snow. “Get me an armload of that wood and throw it in the back, pronto.” Sighing, I climbed out in the swirling flakes and did as he said, knocking the pieces together to get rid of the built-up snow. Not bothering with lowering the tailgate, I stacked the firewood and started to climb back in when he stopped me. “Get another armload.” Once again, I did as he asked and dumped some more. Then I climbed in and closed the door behind me, trailing an arm along the back of the seat behind him because it was the only way I fit. “Happy?” He ignored me and simply drove the rest of the way up to the tiny log cabin on the virgin snow, which indicated that no one had gone in or out for some time. “Who’s this?” “Willis Dietz, used to own a stock service, provided bucking horses and bulls for the rodeo.” He shut off the V8 and then climbed out, heading for the door as I followed. He stopped and looked back at me. “Well, bring the wood, damn it.” I dutifully returned and then loaded two arm loads in one, struggling to get back just as he knocked on the wooden door with hardened knuckles. We stood there under the eaves of the small porch as I looked at the long lines of split logs stacked against the lee side of the house and wondered why Lucian had had us pick up firewood from below. There was some noise and pretty soon the door was yanked wide. A skinny man about Lucian’s age with hair standing on end stood there holding said door by the weight of his belt buckle and a Charter Arms .32 revolver in his left hand. “Whatta you want?” “Merry Christmas, Willis.” He gestured toward me, all smiles. “We brought you some firewood.” “I got plenty.” He didn’t move to get out of the way. “At least I did until people started stealing it – you finally here to do something about that?” Lucian glanced past me at the falling snow, even going so far as to reach up and brush some from my shoulder, but still not answering the man’s question. “Well, you can’t have too much firewood on a night like tonight” Reluctantly, the man stepped aside in order to allow all of us into the tight confines of the kitchen, overwhelmingly heated by one of the old, wood-burning stoves where a green enamel percolator sat burbling into the glass knob on its lid. “Willis, this here is…” He gestured toward me, snapping his finger as if it might summon up my name. I sighed. “Longmire, Walt Longmire.” “Right, Longmire, that’s right… And even though he rivals Paul Bunyan, he’d probably like to put this wood down somewhere?” He leaned forward, looking through a doorway and what appeared to be a small living room to our left. “Have you a hearth hereabouts?” Dietz glanced at me, tossing the snub-nosed pistol onto the kitchen counter with a clatter, finally raising an arm and reluctantly gestured through the doorway as I sidled that way, finding several old, framed rodeo posters on the wall and a lumpy sofa and matching chair resting on a frayed, bearskin rug, all of it facing a river-rock fireplace where a miserable flame struggled to stay lit. Carefully resting the arm-and-a-half load of wood in a cradle there, I listened as the two men talked in the kitchen about somebody stealing the old man’s firewood and figured that was the emergency. Bored, I reached over and took a poker to move the coals before placing one of the logs I’d brought in on the andirons. Adjusting for maximum combustion, I rehung the tool back on the hook and then turned to see Lucian leading the way as they entered the room, the old sheriff sipping what I assumed was coffee in a buffalo china mug – there being a first time for everything. “Where’s the wife, Willis?” The skinny man slipped by Lucian with his own drink and sat in the single chair with a proprietary sense. “Left me.” “Left you? Again?” The old sheriff looked around the room before standing in front of the fire and stretching a hand out to warm it. “Well, they do that sometimes.” He suddenly glanced up at me with a quizzical look. “You throw that log on the fire?” “I did.” Pulling off my gloves, I stuffed them in the pockets of my horsehide jacket and leaned in the doorway, figuring I might look more intimidating standing up. “It needed tending.” I glanced over Lucian at the man with the over-sized belt buckle. “I hope you don’t mind, Mister Dietz.” He ignored both Lucian and me, staring at the partially blooming fire. “You fellas gonna do something about people stealing my firewood or what?” Lucian sipped his coffee some more but seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time studying the log with which I’d selected to build up the fire before redirecting his attention to the vintage rodeo posters on the wall. “’Fifty-four, that was year we had both Jim Shoulders and Casey Tibbs at the county rodeo, wasn’t it?” The old man begrudgingly nodded. “How long was it that you ran your stock company, Willis?” “Since before the war.” He groused. Lucian chuckled to himself. “Do you remember Rodeo Joe Odegard?” For the first time, the old man cracked the briefest of smiles. “Best rodeo clown I ever saw – rode rough stock before he started getting a little long in the tooth.” Willis crossed his legs and scratched his scalp, standing what little hair was there up even more. “A lot of fellas do that, just to stay in the game.” I crossed back to the fire and plucked the poker from the wall so that I could adjust the log, listening to the two old buzzards and was trying to figure out why it was we were here. Lucian sipped his coffee. “Ol’ Rodeo Joe run into this older clown up in North Dakota who was getting out of the business and bought up all of his trappings. You know, costumes, props and such? Well, this fellow had an act where he’d finish up his schtick with a visit to the outhouse.” The old man grunted. “An outhouse which was loosely constructed so that it would explode.” Willis glanced at him. The old sheriff held a hand out to me. “Gimmie me one of those logs, Troop?” I did as he said. Lucian examined the piece of wood I’d handed him and then looked back at the man. “Yep, you see the old guy used to use an eighth of a stick of dynamite to blow this prop outhouse apart at the climax of his act.” Dietz glanced around, his eyes not looking at either of us. “Well, ol’ Joe didn’t know that he was only supposed to use an eighth of a stick of dynamite – and instead used a quarter stick.” Lucian chuckled to himself and once again scrutinized the piece of wood in his hands as if looking for aphids before making a show of tossing it on the fire. The old man said nothing but glanced up at me, studying my face. “What’s wrong with him, anyway?” “I don’t know, maybe he’s constipated.” He stretched a hand out to me. “Gimmie another one of those pieces of wood, will you?” I plucked one from the pile and attempted to give it to him, wondering what he was up to. “No, that other one. The other one on top there – the round one.” I gave him a questioning look and then did as he asked, handing him the one he’d requested. Holding the piece of wood, his dark eyes sharpened. “Lodgepole Pine, aged a year at least; Cottonwood and Aspen burn faster but they make a lot of ash.” He glanced up at the stone fireplace. “Do you ever worry about stopping up your flume with all that pitch and tar?” Frowning, the old man shook his head. “Not so much, I just get a length of chain and rattle it around in there to keep it clean.” “Dangerous stuff, I’ve seen quite a few go up like a Saturn-V rocket in my time.” He sighed. “Must’ve been what happened to your neighbor, Mel Stephens. You hear about that?” Dietz said nothing and remained perfectly still. “We had a little disturbance earlier this evening. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it – I mean literally heard it.” The old sheriff examined the ends of the piece of firewood. “There was an explosion right here in the neighborhood, back down the road at the Stephens place. We’re not sure what it was, but something blew up and took the old fireplace of theirs and turned it into a pile of rubble.” The old man fidgeted as Lucian continued to analyze the log. “Fortunately, there was no one home, Mel had even taken the dog with ‘em to his brother’s place. The funny thing is, it just didn’t look like a gas fire, you know. I mean the house has a propane tank, but none of those lines were ruptured. Then it struck me that it looked like when my buddy Joe Odegard was experimenting with his exploding outhouse.” He breathed a laugh and continued to examine the piece of firewood in his hands. “Now, the average stick of dynamite is about eight inches in length, about one and a quarter inch in diameter, and generally weighs a little less than a half-pound. Somebody could easily hide one in a piece of firewood, why, say no bigger than this one.” The old man slowly sat forward, still staring at the logs in the fire. “Ol Rodeo Joe damn near blew himself up in that outhouse routine, and he couldn’t hear for about three weeks and that was with that quarter stick being in a container that cushioned the explosion. Hell, I’d imagine if you had one go up right in front of you with say a stone backing like this fine fireplace here, it’d kill you deader than last year’s fruitcake.” Lucian once again tossed the log on the fire. Dietz swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing like a lure. “Um, Sheriff, where exactly did you get them logs you brought in?” Lucian once again gestured toward me with the empty hand, and I gave him another piece of wood. “Well Willis, we figured we’d do you a favor and haul up some of those ones you had down by the ranch gate.” He extended the piece of firewood in both hands as if it were a prize-winning trout. “Yep, right off that stack you got down at your gate near the Stephens place.” The sheriff had just started to turn and throw the piece of firewood into the flames when Dietz hurriedly raised a hand. “Wait!” Lucian paused and then slowly smiled pointing the piece of firewood at the old man. “Is there something you’d like to tell me, Mister Dietz?” * * * As we drove down the mountain, I shook my head and watched the old sheriff navigate the deepening snow drifts, still in full-time, two-wheel drive. “You think just having him pay for the damages is enough?” “Oh, it would’ve been another story if he’d kept that .32 on him, but I think he’s learned his lesson.” He glanced over at me and grunted. “Troop, how ‘bout I just run you by your place and drop you off with that young wife of yours.” “What are you going to do?” We slid sideways as he corrected the skid. “Oh, I don’t know… Go back over to the Basquo bar, I guess.” “Why don’t you come on in with us – Martha has a turkey ready with all the trimmings.” “That’s all right, I don’t need your pity.” He snorted and glanced up at me. “…Longmire, Walt Longmire.” I nodded and smiled to myself, gazing out the windshield. “All right then, but I’ve still got one question.” “And what’s that?” “How did you know which logs had the dynamite inside them?” “I didn’t…” He continued driving into the darkness. “I just hoped like hell he did.”
This being the final week of not only 52 Pickup but the year as a whole, I asked my wife what question I should answer, and she gave me one saying that I should do something that looks back over the year and toward the new one coming in.
I could talk about health, prosperity, friendship and so many other things, but these Q&A articles are really more about writing, so I’ll stick to that as a guideline in keeping this answer under a thousand words…
I’m thankful for the blank page.
Every morning when I get up and square things away here at the ranch, I’m working for something, working for the opportunity to get in that stool in my loft and hit the button on the keyboard that’s going to open up my writing world. It’s a pristine, arctic expanse that I’ve heard people refer to as intimidating, daunting, and overwhelming—a landscape so fraught with possibility that the mind and body quell. Then I take that 12D mountaineering boot with the twelve-point crampon and step into the void, the crunch of new thought invading the vista of possibility, and then another, and another, and another… And pretty soon, it’s my world.
I’m thankful for the words.
I like to think that we’re all repositories for words, the end point for all the lessons, conversations and stories we’ve been party to, fertile ground where these words can settle and germinate. I got an unhappy email from a reader who said he was giving up on my books, because I used too many big words and used them in strange ways. I wrote him back and tried to explain that that was one of my jobs, to stretch those words like a canvas and to paint them in ways that explored their meaning so as to engage the reader in new ways. He said he didn’t like that and probably wasn’t going to read any more of my books, which is fair enough, but I think that’s part of an author’s job, to find new ways to say new things with the same old tools—the words.
I’m thankful for the ideas.
Hardly anybody that knows me hasn’t experienced that wayward look I get on my face when they’re talking to me in a perfectly normal conversation—but suddenly I’m out there in the white, thinking, assembling, manipulating. Usually, the poor person I’m in conversation with looks at me and says, “You’re writing in your head again, aren’t you?” I am. I don’t know what it is that starts you on the path of looking out windows when you’re supposed to be paying attention, but I think it must have something to do with the world not being enough. Most of the things I’ve been involved in in my life could be interpreted as looking for something, maybe even things that aren’t there—but I’m still looking.
I’m thankful for the characters.
If you’re lucky, and I mean really lucky, you’ll stumble onto people to write about. I remember when I first started writing almost twenty years ago, I was referred to as a young author and that rankled me, I have to admit. I was in my mid-forties and thought I was pretty well down the road. A lot of writers, I discovered, don’t really get their careers in gear until they reach middle-age, and there are probably a number of reasons for that, but I think it has more to do with discovering who you want to write about and finding the character that will give you that voice. I’m thankful in that I’ve got an ensemble to draw from, but the main voice will always be Walt and I’m glad I found him.
The last thing on this list that I’m thankful for? You.
Dog and I stopped at the top of the stairs of the vintage Carnegie Library the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department called home, and I stared at my erstwhile, part-time dispatcher and full-time Cheyenne tribal member Barrett Long. “Why?”
Sitting behind the counter, he shrugged. “I’m bored.”
I walked back over, figuring the domestic dispute I was attempting to respond to wasn’t so dire that I couldn’t take a few moments to impart some hard-won knowledge. “Troop, never, ever, in law enforcement do you say that you’re bored.”
“But it’s quiet.”
I held up a finger to silence him. “That’s the other thing you don’t ever say — both are an open invitation to disaster, especially during the holidays.”
He lay down the copy of Field & Stream, which obviously wasn’t holding his attention. “All I ever do is answer the phone.”
I stared at him. “That’s what dispatchers do.”
He folded his arms. “I think I’m ready to branch out.”
“Not till you do your three months down in Douglas.” One of the mitigating factors in hiring the younger brother of Tribal Police Chief Lolo Long had been that he would not become a full-fledged deputy until completing his studies over at Sheridan College and the extended training at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy. I patted my leg and started down the marble steps with Dog. “It’s Christmas Day—enjoy the quiet time.”
He called after me. “It’s only a domestic dispute.”
I stopped and turned, pointing the finger back up at him again. “That’s the third thing you never say.” I counted off. “One: unrealistic holiday expectations. Two: familial proximity. Three: alcohol and controlled substances. What could possibly go wrong?”
“How do you know there’s alcohol or controlled substances involved?”
I stared at the gallery of photographs of the previous sheriffs hanging in the stairwell and wondered if they had had to explain these types of things and then figured that yes, they probably had. “I know at least one member of the family in question.” I pulled out my pocket watch and looked at the time — late in the afternoon. “And unless I miss my guess, she’s well into her cups.”
He glanced down at the dispatcher’s log, where he had taken the notes. “The Murdochs — who are they, again?”
“They own the antique store downtown.”
“Come on. What are they going to do, doily us to death?” He stood, walking around the counter and looked down the stairs at Dog and me. “C’mon.” He plucked the beeper off his belt. “I’ve got the rock, besides I set it to transfer over to my cellphone.”
I considered. “You can do that?”
“We’ve really got to get you into the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first, Chief.”
Taking his duty jacket from the coat rack, he pulled it on, topping the outfit with the black Resistol I disliked. “I hate that hat.”
Passing me and the dog, he continued down the stairs as I shook my head. “We’re not the bad guys, you know.”
“So, convince the county commissioners to pay me enough to buy a new one.” He pushed on the glass door and held it open. “Coming?”
As high plains Christmas days go, this one was a beauty. A manageable snow covered our little county, and the skies were a passionate blue without a whisper of a cloud. The temperature was hovering around the mid-thirties, and as a gift, the powers-that-be had stilled the ever-present Wyoming wind.
The sun shone, and all was well with the world — well, almost all.
I flipped on the emergency lights as I turned left on Fort Street, heading west out-of-town toward the Bighorn Mountains. Barrett buckled up and reached around to scrub the ear of our one-hundred-and fifty-five-pound backup. “You got any Christmas music?”
I gestured toward the glovebox. “I think there’s some in there.”
He opened it and began hunting through the accumulation of paper, finally coming up with a worn cassette tape, which he examined like it was an ancient relic. “When’s the last time you updated your holiday mix, Chief?”
He inserted the tape into the dash, and the warbling sound of Perry Como’s Ave Maria leaked out into our ears. “I thought you said the Murdochs owned the antique store downtown?”
“They do, but the disturbance is at Ella Murdoch’s house up near the hospital.”
“Didn’t she croak-it a month ago?”
I glanced at him. “We don’t use the term croak-it in this department.”
We pulled up in front of the gaily painted Victorian with the turrets and wraparound porch, where a woman with an extravagant hairdo and possibly one of the ugliest Christmas sweaters I’d ever seen held a single-barrel, Ithaca shotgun on a young man in the driveway who was leaning through the passenger side window of a blue van talking to someone. Killing the lights, I started to open the door but then stopped when I noticed Barrett was opening his. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“No. Stay in the truck.”
“C’mon. If there is a low possibility of actual violence, I can use the training.”
He had a point. “Okay, but keep your mouth shut, got it?”
He nodded his head and then closed his door and circled around, following me up the driveway. The young man in the stocking cap and nylon deck jacket leaned back from the window and smiled at me. “Uh oh, they called in the Marines.”
“Hi, Benny.” I glanced in the van where a grumpy young woman had covered herself in a blanket to try to stay warm was slouched in the seat.
“You met my wife, Laura?”
I raised a hand, but she ignored me. “Are you back in town?”
“No, I’m working at one of the metal fabrication shops over in Sheridan.”
The woman with the shotgun and the flute of champagne called down to me from the porch in a slurred voice. “Excuse me, but I’m the one that called you, Officer.”
I glanced at the young man and continued toward the house with Barrett in tow. Lodging a boot on the steps, I could see the front door hung open and could hear Gene Autrey’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer blaring from inside. “Hi, Lisa. Going bird hunting?”
She took a sip of the champagne. “Jaybird, maybe.”
“Do you want to put that shotgun away?”
She lowered the glass and smirked. “Why, make you nervous?”
I climbed the rest of the way up. “I’ve spent my entire life around alcohol and mishandled firearms, so yes, they continue to be a concern for me.”
She shrugged and stared at me in defiance but then set it on the wooden railing. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, taking a deep inhale before blowing it up and out, mixing with the condensation of her breath.
I reached over, taking the single-barrel and cracking it open, pulling out the shell and dropped it in my pocket as I tucked the weapon under my arm. “So, what’s the problem?”
She gestured with the cigarette toward Benny. “He’s trying to steal my rocking chairs.”
Benny called back. “They aren’t yours.”
She shook the cigarette at him. “Shut up, Benny.”
“You shut up, Lisa. Mom gave me those chairs before she died.”
“She did not.”
She shook her head and glanced up at me. “In 1869 our great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains fighting the weather, dysentery, and Indians…” She glanced at Barrett. “No offense.” She turned back to her brother. “…In a covered wagon from Missouri to Wyoming.” She moved toward the railing, spilling a little of her drink and shouting. “Our great-great-great grandfather built this house and those rocking chairs have sat on this porch for almost a hundred years, and you’re not taking them anywhere.”
He moved in closer. “Mom gave them to me.”
She sipped her champagne. “Prove it.”
Still cradling the shotgun, I held out a quieting hand. “Not to interrupt, but where are the rocking chairs in question?”
Lisa pointed with the cigarette, flicking a little ash off the porch. “In that piece-of-shit van of his.”
I glanced at Benny, who suddenly found the shoveled sidewalk of interest. “Did you take the chairs, Benny?”
He mumbled to himself. “She wasn’t going to give them to me.”
Barrett walked over to the van and peeked in the back window, then glanced up at me and nodded as I returned the shotgun to the railing. “Well, that doesn’t mean you have the right to take them.”
“Mom gave them to me. Lisa got the house and most of the stuff in the store, so I really don’t see why I can’t have the rocking chairs.”
“In 1869 our great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains in a covered wagon from Missouri to Wyoming, and those rockers are important to me; I remember being rocked in those chairs by our grandparents when I was a child — they’re over a hundred years old and I’m not giving them up.”
“I told you — Mom gave those to me.”
“Anybody else hear her do it?”
He gestured toward the woman in the van. “Laura heard her.”
Lisa snorted a laugh. “Oh, right.”
The passenger door of the van flew open and the young woman who had been sulking there, and who I now noticed was pregnant, slammed the door and began stalking toward the porch. “You listen to me, you filthy slut! It’s not enough that you took every single thing…”
My deputy stepped forward, attempting to cut her off before she got to the porch. “You know, guys, it’s the holidays and a time for generosity. I didn’t know your mother, but she sounds like a really wonderful person and I’m sure that if she were here, she’d want you guys to find a peaceful way of settling all of this.”
Lisa sipped her champagne, looking down at Barrett. “Who the hell invited this Jiminy-Cricket asshole?”
I stepped toward her as Rudolph gave way to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. “One more crack like that, and you go in the back of my truck, got it?” I waited for a response. but there wasn’t one, so I stepped down, placing myself between the two warring parties and considerable peril. “Benny, did you take the rocking chairs off of the porch?”
“I did, because I figured she’d be hungover.”
“Drop dead, Benny.”
Holding up the silencing hand to the two of them, I continued. “Then unless you two can come to some kind of understanding, I’m going to have to ask you to put them back.” His head kicked to one side in disbelief, but he said nothing, so I continued. “Without any clear-cut proof of ownership, the letter of the law would view that act as theft.”
“Hey, I’ve got an idea…” We all turned to look at Barrett as he tipped his hat back and tapped the back window of the van. “There are two of them; why don’t each of you take one?”
I stared at my deputy, somewhat shocked at the Solomon-style wisdom. Turning to the young man, I asked, “Benny?”
His sister moved to the railing and puffed on her cigarette. “They’re a set, and I don’t want them separated.”
I sighed. “Lisa, we’re all trying to work toward a solution here…”
Seeing she was outnumbered, she softened, but only the tiniest bit. “He can have the rocking chairs off the back porch.”
Benny shook his head. “Those are falling apart.”
“Take it or leave it.” She crossed over to the post on the opposite side of the steps and looking down at her baby brother. “In 1869 our great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains in a covered wagon…”
“Yep, all the way from Missouri to Wyoming — I think we got that.” I gestured toward the van. “Get ‘em out, Benny.”
I glanced at his sister, who sipped her drink, balancing the champagne flute between her fingers. “Nothing else we can do.”
Deflated, he walked past Barrett, opened the rear of the vehicle, and slid one of the much-vaunted rocking chairs from it. My deputy joined him, taking the other. Solemnly, like pallbearers they carried the chairs back onto the porch between Lisa and me as Feliz Navidad sounded from the entryway of the large house. Barrett followed Benny as they carefully sat them on the painted wooden floor of the porch’s round turret-corner that looked toward the mountains.
I never remembered having been on the Murdoch’s porch until I began arresting their daughter and bringing her home from the numerous drunken altercations she continued to be involved in, which meant that until she’d taken to drink their lives had been relatively happy — or at least I hoped so.
My deputy crossed back to the stairs and leaned against the railing, studying the combatants as Benny approached his sister, and I moved over toward the rockers, giving the brother and sister a little space in hopes that they might come to some kind of amicable settlement.
“Sis, there isn’t anything else I want.” Her head dropped so she wouldn’t have to make eye-contact with him and continued to drink and smoke. “I just thought I should have something to remember Mom by.”
Jose Feliciano continued singing, and I studied the chairs, finally tipping one forward in order to look at the back, and then reaching over to examine the other one. “You know these are some really marvelous chairs — the workmanship on these old slat-style rockers is amazing.”
The young man glanced at his older sister. “Lisa?”
“Old-world craftsmanship.” I gestured toward Benny. “Come take a look at this.”
He shook his head, stepping away from her. “That’s okay.”
“No, you really should.” He turned and stared at me. “This might be the last time you ever see these rocking chairs, and I think you should be able to appreciate them.”
Benny stood there for a moment more and then crossed the porch in a perfunctory manner as I leaned the one rocker forward, indicating the back of the thing. “Remarkable workmanship.”
As Lisa continued to stew, I watched as the young man darted a glance up at me. I then tipped the other one forward so that he could examine it, too. “How about Barrett helps you get those beat-up rocking chairs from the back porch and put them in your van as a gesture of conciliation?”
He stood there, frozen for a moment. “Um, yeah… That, that’d be great.”They disappeared around the corner as I re-took my post between the two women, finally turning to look up at Lisa to make small talk. “How was business down at the store this season?”
“Shitty, how was yours?”
I stared at her for a moment. “Well Lisa, I’ll tell you, it’s always a busy season for us, but one of the things I did was tell my deputies to be on the lookout for repeat offenders that might be tempted to do stupid things like driving drunk. I told them that with these individuals this year we’re going to take an attitude of zero-tolerance.” She glared at me as the two men returned with the battered rockers, stuffing them in the van and closing the doors as I handed her the shotgun shell from my pocket. “You might want to spread the word.”
Stepping off the porch, I watched as Benny collected his pacing wife from the yard and started toward the van only to stop and call back. “Hey, Sis? No hard feelings and Merry Christmas.”
Finishing off the smoke, she flipped the cigarette into the yard toward him. Picking up the shotgun, she turned, opening the front door and going inside without another word.
“I thought I should tell you, you handled yourself pretty well out there today.”
“Thanks.” He sat against the passenger door, snatching at Dog’s muzzle as they play-fought, like two pups. “Boy, you sure played it cool.”
“People get worked up during the holidays.” I turned the corner on Fort Street and headed back for the office as the sun started to disappear over the Bighorn Mountains, not taking quite all the warmth there was with it.
He studied me, finally reaching over and turning up the volume on Ella Fitzgerald’s What are You Doing New Year’s Eve. “One thing I don’t get is why you felt compelled to get Benny to take another look at those chairs, and I’m not sure why it is he finally gave-in and decided to take the shitty rockers off the back porch?”
“Oh, people get caught up in the spirit of the season and think they desperately want something but sometimes they’re not sure what, then they get a chance to think about it rationally and discover that whatever it is they’ve set their heart on really doesn’t mean that much.” Turning into the parking lot, I pulled to a stop in front of the office.
Giving Dog one last scrub of the ears, Barrett opened the door and climbed out.
“The important thing, Troop, is to have faith and patience with people, especially during the holidays.” He closed the door, and I spoke to him through the open window. “That, and there were these brass medallions on the backs of both of those rockers… So, back in 1869 when those great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains, fighting the weather, dysentery, and Indians — no offense — the whole way in a covered wagon from Missouri to Wyoming — they must’ve stopped somewhere on the way for lunch, because the rocking chairs on that porch came from Cracker Barrel.”
“I was wondering why the artwork on the covers of your books have changed?” -John Zabell
Hi John, They’ve actually changed a number of times.
One thing you might not know is that most beginning author contracts only have one thing in bold print—the author will not have final say in cover selection. Kind of gives you the feeling they’ve run into trouble with authors along these lines, huh? I’ve always figured they had entire art departments and probably knew what they were doing back in New York, at least for the most part.
When I first started out with The Cold Dish back in 2005 in hardback, Viking decided to go with a photographic cover design featuring an ominous-looking copse of snow-covered trees to represent, I’m assuming, the Bighorn Mountains here in Wyoming. The only problem? There was a sidewalk, and I had to explain to the folks back at Viking/Penguin that most of the Bighorns aren’t paved. They corrected that, and the first book went out.
When it sold well enough for us to start thinking of doing Longmire as a series, the publisher sent me portfolios of about twenty artists and let me choose. I picked a marvelous painter out of Kentucky, Gregory Manchess, who had done a lot of movie posters, stamps, book covers and even sixty for Louis L’Amour. I’ve still got his cover painting for The Cold Dish paperback hanging in the kitchen here at the ranch.
After three covers, Penguin got antsy again and wanted to change once more. They sent me another set of artist portfolios, and I picked out Greg Molica who does the Nashville Music Festival posters because his stuff looked like old WPA artwork from the ‘30’s. His designs stuck for ten more books until we got to The Western Star when Viking/Penguin thought that with the success of the TV series, we should try to establish some kind of synchronicity that wasn’t getting done by the little medallion on all the books that read A NETFLIX ORIGINAL SERIES: LONGMIRE.
We introduced them to TJ Scott and Dennys llic at Cinematic Pictures Publishing and their Longmire coffee table book. The publisher liked the idea, and we went with versions of those, mostly with Robert Taylor either in the distance or with his hat covering most of his face so as to not disturb the image that non-TV watchers might have of Walt. We’ve been using those from book thirteen up through Next To Last Stand, the sixteenth book in the series, even if that one’s just Robert’s profile and in silhouette.
I’ve got a sneaking suspicion the art department back in New York is getting itchy, so we’ll see what happens with Daughter Of The Morning Star, which will be out in September of 2021.
I realize it’s frustrating for folks who want their books to all look similar on the shelves, but generally, the only way that happens is after the author has passed and the publisher goes back and re-issues the entire series.