It started the day I met Monty McCord at a Western Writers of America conference two years ago. Monty McCord. What a name! Perfect for a cowboy protagonist. "Hey, Monty," I said. "Gotta have your name. Can I use it for my next hero?"
"As long as you don't drag it through the muck," he said.
"Never happen," says I.
I sat down and began to write Monty McCord, the story of a Colorado cowboy. Just to give you a whiff of what the story's like, here's the first little bit for you to read.
Monty McCord topped the hogback above Mexican Hat and reined in his dappled sorrel. He threw a leg over the horn of his saddle and pulled makings from his shirt pocket. As he rolled the smoke, his eyes scanned the village, then the approaches, then the heights of the mesas off toward Monument Valley. For a man with Hunter Billings’ riders on his back trail, Monty made his smoke like he didn’t have a care in the world. Hunter Billings. Gawdawful hunk of an old man who figured he owned Twin Fork Basin and the town of Watsonville, even though Frank Watson was there before him and even though Ellen Watson made it clear she wanted nothing of Billings’ boy.
Monty figured Ellen was OK, as women went. She took over the Flying W when old Frank passed on, and she did a rightful job of running the spread. Monty McCord admitted that. Ellen Watson was some woman. But she owned a ranch and Monty McCord was nothing more than a line rider. A good line rider, but not one who could sidle up to a ranching woman and make her notice. Besides, she was the boss.
Dust showed on his back trail.
Monty snubbed out the smoke on his saddle horn, ripped the paper and scattered the tobacco. He rolled the paper into a tiny ball with thumb and forefinger and tossed it away, a habit born of years riding in the pine tree country of Arizona’s White Mountains. Suddenly he missed the peace and quiet of the Cooley ranch where he’d cut his teeth as a cowboy.
What the hell was he running for? He’d beat the shit out of nasty snot-nosed Hartley Billings. Tromped his ass. Then killed him.
Wouldn’t have done that if the kid hadn’t shot at him when he was about to leave through the batwings of Woodrow’s Saloon. The kid’s bullet had very nearly clipped Monty’s ear, and worse, damn near holed his spanking new black Stetson.
Monty reacted. His hogleg was out and cocked as he turned. He touched off a shot as the pistol came in line and Hunter Billings’ precious son lay dead.
The cloud of dust seemed closer. A mile? Less?
Monty McCord was tired of the chase. Not because he’d ridden so far. Not because of the gaggle of hard riders on his trail. Just because of the unfairness of the whole thing.
Hartley Billings had pushed Monty. Pushed him hard, saying he was a two-bit puncher who’d die with a horn in his guts or pitched from his horse into some worthless bottomless canyon.
“Shit, kid,” Monty said. “You can’t even wipe your own ass. You gotta call some dollar-a-day waddie to clean up your goldam messes. You ain’t got what it takes and your old man knows it. That’s why he wants you to spark Ellen Watson. She could save the H Bar H for him. But you. I hear you like men better’n women.”
The kid came in punching, and Monty laid him out. Had to give the boy credit. He got up and came in again, swinging a chair.
Monty kicked young Billings’ legs out from under him and connected with a looping right as he tried to get up. Smashed the boy’s nose. Monty pushed the fight, slowly beating the kid to a pulp as he backpedalled all the way to the bar.
“Nuff,” Hollard Smythe, the bartender, said. “Things’ll go hard enough as it is. Lay off.”
The kid crumpled.
“I hear you, Holly,” Monty said. He picked up his new black hat, cleaned the sawdust off it, and set it on his head at a jaunty angle. He walked for the batwings and the kid had to shoot at him. A man naturally shoots back and Hartley Billings lay dead.
“Jayzus,” Holly said. “Old Man Billings’ll be after your ass, Monty. You’d better light a shuck.”
Monty did. And now he had to decide whether to keep running. He never was one to run. Wasn’t like him. He walked Baron down the hill and into Mexican Hat.
A dumpy stop on the Outlaw Trail, Mexican Hat bore the name of a rock formation off to the west, marking the eastern edge of Monument Valley. One saloon, one cantina, and a rickety place without windows that stood empty, but wore a faded sign that read Garrison’s General Store. Monty counted the hovels. Thirteen looked lived in, half a dozen abandoned.
He walked Baron the sorrel down the trail . . . it would be hard to say a wagon road led into Mexican Hat . . . with the sun climbing near its zenith. Heat waves formed a mirage of cool water over under the southern horizon. Sideless brush jacals[JG1] kept the harsh sunlight from tiny patches of red dirt. A lizard panted, halfway up a bare juniper pole. Monty pulled his black Stetson low over his eyes. Without showing any sign, he searched the little village for anything unusual. A dog lay at the edge of the street, tongue lolling. The dirt around it said the dog was in its usual place.
Two horses stood before a low adobe structure that had CANTINA whitewashed on one side. The whitewash was nearly gone, but the name was still readable. Twenty yards away, facing the cantina, a false-front frame building wore a sign that said “Whiskey.” One horse stood hipshot in front of it. Nothing moved. Not even flies.
Half a mile on down the dusty track, a rickety bridge spanned the San Juan river. Maybe the only reason the town existed. It certainly was about the only place where cows and ponies could be swum across the San Juan and pushed down the Trail toward Chinle, Juan Lorenzo Hubbell’s trading post, and Navajo Springs, where the thirsty stock could at last get a decent drink. Commodore Owens always had a bottle for the cowboys at his place there, and he never asked leading questions.
Monty chose the saloon. He could drink mescal when worse got to worst, but preferred a civilized drink like branded whiskey. Old Grand-Dad, or Turley’s Mill. Maybe he’d have time for a snort or two before Billings and his iron-toting men rode in.
He tied Baron to the hitching rail next to a brown that looked like it hadn’t had a square meal or a chance to browse in the last month, maybe more.
There was no door, just an opening in the false front. Windows on either side gaped without panes, like the empty eye sockets of a longhorn’s skull. Monty shrugged.
Inside the saloon, Monty stepped aside and waited till his eyes could adjust to the dim interior. A quick glance showed him the scene. Dust on the floor. Dust on the chairs and tables. Dust on the empty bottles behind the bar. An old man with a scraggly beard stood with his back against the wall beyond the bar. Monty walked slowly over. He took the kerchief from around his neck and flapped it at the bar, moving enough dust for a place to put his elbows, which he did.
“Whiskey,” he said.
The old man shuffled over. “I’d sell you house whiskey,” he said, his voice sounding like his throat was full of sandpaper, “but I ain’t got none. You’ll have to make do with Old Potrero or Jameson’s.”
“Old Potrero’s good,” Monty said.
The old man squatted and rustled around in the space back of the bar. He stood up with a clear bottle in his hand. “Knew I had some left,” he said. The bottle bore no sign of a label. The liquid in it was amber.
The man blew the collected sand and dust out of a shot glass and poured it brim full. “That’ll be a dollar,” he said.
“Shee-it. Get four drinks for a dollar over to Woodrow’s in Watsonville.”
“This ain’t Watsonville. You can move across to the cantina. They may have some mescal. Most likely tiswin, though. A dollar.”
The old man set the glass in front of him and put the bottle back under the bar.
“Whose cayuse outside?” Monty asked.
“Mine. Keep him there to draw customers. Mostly it works.”
“They got two in front of the cantina,” Monty said.
“White men usually want whiskey. One horse’s enough.”
“Looks like he could use a good bait of oats.”
The old man cackled. “Mister, you think a shot of whiskey’s steep at a dollar, try buying a sack of oats. Me and that cayuse’ve been over more than one trail together. He gets fed afore me.”