Of Western Writing and Dreaming; or, William Post’s The Mystery of Table Mountain

Writers are badasses. They have to be. The stereotype of a writer is a coffee-shop-writing fop in a cravat not needing to cling to a 9-to-5 job, but honestly, to get images to incarnate as black-and-white correctly spelled prose between a front and back cover with ISBN number, and read and critiqued and/or praised by more people then one’s great-aunt Janey, a writer has to be tough as nails.

Which was confirmed after I read William Post’s The Mystery of Table Mountain (AuthorHouse 2010) and contacted him for an interview. (It also doesn’t hurt a writer to be thoughtful and gracious, as he is.) Now living in Las Vegas, Post has sailed on oil tankers, dredged and sniped for gold, traveled across the globe, enlisted in the Navy, been a surveyor for the Southern Pacific railroad—in short, his life has been as adventurous as the hero’s life of The Mystery of Table Mountain, James “Easy” Raymond.

The Mystery of Table Mountain is the first book of a trilogy about a young man in the 1800s and early 1900s who makes his way from the American West to Europe and home again. It’s an old-school kind of adventure, in that, like Zane Gray’s heroes, the man is young, handsome, moral, and rich, and, without desiring to change his life, is nonetheless forced by circumstances into a new life of life-threatening adventures, beautiful women, and Edenic landscapes.

Framed for a murder he didn’t commit (classic!), Raymond disappears into a different identity far from his home. He braves a journey in a wagon train, ducks capture by lawmen and villains, eludes Native American warriors (saving a beautiful woman from captivity with a fantastic haul-her-up-on-a-rope-before-their-eyes feat), and discovers a beautiful land on top of a mountain that he makes into his home.

His strong moral code keeps him from taking bloody revenge on the dastardly villains who framed him as well as taking advantage of the women who befriend him (despite their best throwing-themselves-at-his-feet efforts, I have to say). The book has a feel of a prologue, the setting up of the life of James “Easy” Raymond before his adventures in the military and overseas in the next books of the trilogy.

The most evocative part of The Mystery of Table Mountain is the scene in which the hero has found his Garden of Eden at the top of a high plateau, verdant, unspoiled by human contact, and ready to receive his benevolent care. He even has his Eve, the woman whom he rescued (who tempts him mightily). This time “Adam” doesn’t fall for her tricks, and they work harmoniously to make their mountaintop wilderness into a cultivated paradise.

The scenes at the top of this mountain have a Zane Grey glow that one perceives in that author’s elegiac Arizona settings. Far-fetched but satisfying, and it does have a basis in real life, folks–I’ve seen that glow in places such as Big Bend, Texas, where, yes, the sun does shine like gold over the cliffs with white threads of waterfalls catching the light and misty mornings by springs reveal green grasses like emeralds. In the foreword Post describes seeing the story in a dream, and of all the locales in this book, this is the one with the most dreamlike feel.

“I had never even thought about writing [William Post says] until I told this dream to my sister and she suggested that I write it. I started that day. I did not get the whole story in the dream, but most of it. The dream was very different than any other I had ever had as I was not in it and it played out like a movie. I enjoyed writing it so much that I kept on writing.”

(Lucky him—my dreams tend to be tragedies in which my novel-to-be features prominently as the hero with the tragic flaw.)

But the setting isn’t all from a dream. In true getting-western spirit (which means things can get very odd, very fast), Post found enough places and things to inspire a library of books.

“While working with the S. P. [Southern Pacific railroad) I traveled Texas, N.M., Arizona, and California. I have seen where the Chinese dug caves along the R. R. while they were constructing it near Santa Rosa, N.M., in the 1880s. Near Tombstone, Ariz., I cut into a thicket for a survey line and there stood a 1919 Ford. We came upon the ruins of a Spanish mission in the wilds. We researched it at the local library in Benson, Arizona, and the librarian told us that few knew about it and that’s the way they wanted it until they could get state funds to renovate it. I have been to the Dawson coal mine, which closed in the early ’30s…. I could go on and on of what I have seen while surveying in the wilds. This has helped me immeasurably to describe the settings.”

Western geek that I am, I saw Post’s hero, James “Easy” Raymond, as being part of the line of shining knights of westerndom, from Owen Wister’s the Virginian to Zane Gray’s handsome gentlemen. He’s not the hard-bitten western hero from the mid-twentieth century but a throwback to the chivalric heroes of an earlier fictional genre. Far from being a trigger-happy cowboy, Raymond has the best education and the best manners, and far from being a distrustful lone drifter, his success depends on his interactions with community. Like the old-school romances (settle down, buckaroos—the western is part of the romance genre), the story is optimistic: things work out for Raymond, despite adversity, and he remains the same moral guy he was at the beginning.

Turns out my pegging the main character as a non-cowboy was right, in a deeper way than I had imagined. William Post says that although Raymond is able to perform all the duties of a cowboy (except for the fact he isn’t a good shot, which I find endearing—no one is perfect), he is not a cowboy. In fact, like Raymond, Post never wanted to be a cowboy.

“I really wanted out of West Texas. I wanted to be an engineer, which I accomplished. […] I was raised in West Texas in ranch country and nearly all the boys wore boots and hats, but I never did. My father did, but I was never into it although I will say I have worked on a ranch helping brand the cattle at roundup time. I mostly just held the calves back legs as [the ranch hands] branded, cut out their testicles, and gave them shots.”

Remember what I said about writers being tough? I defy any rom-com, chick-lit, coastal-elite fiction writers out there to do this.

It has to be noted that although Post never wanted to be a cowboy, he admires them greatly, choosing to populate his novels with people that reminded him of those early cowboys he knew.

“They were hardworking men, who would cut off their arm before they would break their word. They loved our country and were very patriotic. They were the real Texans, uneducated, but wanted passionately to educate their children.”

One character, Billy Two Shirts, appears early on in this book and rejoins Raymond in the last book of the trilogy. A model of a western man of action, Two Shirts no sooner appears in the plot than he disappears East to excel in college, after offering invaluable help to the hero. (That’s the perfect kind of friend we want, right?) His life story spans borders, which allows Raymond to find solace within a community of strangers and begin to rebuild his life.

The origin of Billy Two Shirts is rooted in real life, but it also has an epic fable quality that should be on the silver screen.

“[His] origin comes from a true story of a friend of mine named Bill Harral. Harral worked with me when I worked for Southern Pacific railroad. Before 1958, the S.P. owned the railroad system that went to Nacozzari, Mexico, a mining village. Bill was on bridge inspection down there in 1956 and met a Mexican whose last name was also Harral. They exchanged family histories. Bill knew that his great-grandfather had left Texas because Sam Bass was after him [Bass was a famed outlaw whose steely glare and hair-trigger temper were legendary.] The family never knew what happened to him. The Mexican Harral only knew his great-grandfather was from Texas, but the Mexican family never knew his Texas history. The two of them pieced together the story about Harral and found they were kin to one another.”

© San Juan County (Utah) Historical Commission

Moral of the story? If we all paid attention to the people and places we meet, if we all had supportive siblings who told us with grave authority to write, and if we had the perseverance of a gold miner chasing El Dorado, perhaps there would be more novels in the world, or at least more stories.

But how does the book end? (Spoiler alert, folks!) Like any romance of the plains worth its salt, things work out for this hero of The Mystery of Table Mountain. The bad guys get caught. A worthy woman gets her catch. The disappointed women find their match. Raymond is ready for Book Two and Book Three, The Miracle and The Call to Duty. Life, dear readers, is good.

William Post is a prolific writer who writes for one of the best reasons: because he likes to write. His many books can be found at NovelsbyWilliamPost. And he graciously answered my western-fan questions as well: favorite western star? Audie Murphy.

Fave western wear? Post isn’t one of those decked-out faux cowboys. He owns no cowboy trappings but a pair of his father’s cowboy boots and his father’s 20x beaver Stetson. And the moral of that, dear readers, is you don’t need to dress the part of the silver-screen cowboy hero if you’ve lived the part.

4 comments to Of Western Writing and Dreaming; or, William Post’s The Mystery of Table Mountain

  • Thanks Bucko, I needed this !

  • bucko

    My absolute pleasure!

  • Tim

    Bucko – Great post! I do remember having to watch bulls being castrated when I was a wee lad on a friend’s farm – they were run through pens, locked into place in a metal cage, and the deed was done. Man! But yes, if we could remember all the places we’d been, the people we’d met . . . I don’t know if we’d have more novels, but we’d certainly have better novels from the people who write them. There’s so much beauty in the world . . . it is inspiring to think through each place and the people attached to them.

    T.

  • bucko

    Beautifully said, Tim. Writing a novel is a stretch for many, but being able to tell a good story is pretty universal, methinks.

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