To Hell or the Pecos, by Patrick Dearen, is a fast-paced western that had me flipping the virtual pages on my iPad as fast as my finger could swipe. (Oh, I was riding a bucking bronco at the time, and shooting at bandits to save a rancher’s daughter. Just so you know I’m not a total metrosexual-esque wuss. And obviously I have, like, five hands, but that’s a story for another time. And anyway…)
A page-turner! A galloping ride through desert landscape with tough-as-nails cowboy heroes!
Westerns can be that simple. They don’t have to be exercises in twisting the genre or retreads of stories that are better left in the nineteenth century. They can be adventurous and romantic and push aside the everyday world for a few moments (enough for me to miss my subway stop–a sure sign of total absorption for me).
Yes, westerns can be simple. But the best aren’t simplistic. And as soon as I started feeling the rhythm of the voice of this novel, I knew this western was good and maybe even in the best category.
Many westerns portray a man with no name swooping in out of nowhere to save the girl/town/farmers (almost any Clint Eastwood western) or a heroic figure rising out of the community to show uncommon grit and purity of heart (as in High Noon). To Hell or the Pecos brings both together in a story of pursuit and redemption. A young cowhand with a settled place in his community (and a name), Jess Graham, rides desperately in pursuit of bandits who have abducted the young woman he loves. His rash inexperience is countered and balanced by a sixty-something old-timer, Tom, who carries a heavy burden on his soul, a ready six-shooter, and the gimlet eye of having been-there-and-done-everything from the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Together they must find and save this young woman—a near-hopeless task but one made possible by their partnership: Jess’s headlong zeal is steadied by the older man’s wiser hand. Tom, struggling with crippling guilt over his wife’s long-ago death, is himself strengthened by Jess’s idealistic love. Through this story of pursuit, their father-and-son story finds its own bittersweet resolution. Both stories are familiar to readers and viewers of westerns, yet Dearen finds the human touches that bring both to life.
Sharing the novel’s pages is the young woman who has been abducted. Liz Anne, beloved by Jess, has been kidnapped by bandits to be sold for sex. It’s not a pretty story; she’s raped and beaten but refuses to be the passive captive, striking off, when she can, to escape or kill herself to avoid her fate. She’s not the fainting female of many a western. Dearen based her situation and those of her rescuers on meticulous research into an actual siege, an abduction, and a pursuit in the Pecos area. Also based on this research are the antagonists, Mexican bandits. Usually they’re the stock bad guys in Hollywood westerns, but he strove to show how these men may have fallen into a depraved state through glimpses into their own stories.
The western landscape, declares Jane Tompkins in West of Everything, is “both the destination and the way.” And truly the Pecos River country of To Hell or the Pecos is a classic western landscape—except not of the Promised Land variety but one of alkali wastes and crumbling bluffs, blazing heat and precious pockets of water scummed with dust. It’s an antagonist, beating back Tom and Jess and their troop of men, demanding sacrifices in blood, sweat, and tears before allowing them to catch up to the bandits at Horsehead Crossing and face death at their guns—and ultimately find love and redemption. The land is “hell,” rasps Tom. Yet it’s also a character whose features the author lingers on quite lovingly—and he’s explored that land extensively.
The “hero in landscape” theme is universal in westerns; the “author in landscape” theme needs to become as important! The book trailer (check it out here) is shot at the spot that the climax takes place–you can practically smell the mud and feel the heat on your shoulders. Author Patrick Dearen, a seasoned writing pro with nineteen books under his belt and with extensive historical knowledge of the Pecos River landscape, took time to answer a few questions about westerns, writing, and To Hell or the Pecos.
Bucko: What drew you to writing westerns and this western in particular?
Patrick Dearen: The western life has always been in my blood. My grandfather was a nineteenth-century cowboy, and my great-grandfather was a Texas Ranger. I’m a writer today because of my early, and lifelong, admiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although best known for his Tarzan and Mars novels, Burroughs also crafted two of the finest westerns ever–The War Chief and Apache Devil.
My foray into writing western fiction stems from my research for my nine history and folklore books. Between 1983 and 1995, I interviewed 76 men who cowboyed before 1932 in Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona. They represented the last generation of cowhands who plied their trade exclusively on horseback. My transcripts ran almost a thousand pages, and I supplemented that vast reservoir of knowledge by studying hundreds of archival interviews with cowhands of the 1800s.
But that’s not all. In writing several books about the Pecos River country of Texas and southern New Mexico, I collected intriguing historical accounts of cowhands, early emigrants, soldiers, stage drivers, and outlaws. I came to know the land for its fascinating stories of an earlier era.
To Hell or the Pecos grew out of all this material.
B: Why integrate an intimate theme of camaraderie rather than hewing to the age-old western ideal of a rugged individual defeating all odds?
PD: From all the interviews I conducted and collected, I learned that cowhands were the most loyal of individuals. They had loyalty not only to their employers, but to one other. Yet, many of them left home in their early teens to seek out the cowboy life. Deprived of a father’s guidance at a crucial time in their lives, some young cowboys considered older cowhands as father figures.
Striving for realism rather than mythology, I decided to play on the relationship between a young cowhand and an aging one.
B: You balanced historical fact with fiction, traditional western archetypes (and stereotypes) with a more modern and complex sensibility. As a writer myself, and with many writer-readers, I’m always interested in the choices one makes to hone an inspiration to final, published result. Can you share any of that process?
PD: My cowhand characters are composites of the 76 pre-1932 cowboys I interviewed. These men were the real deal, not the mythologized Hollywood or dime novel figures. In crafting my characters, I wanted them to reflect the true-to-life, last-of-a-breed cowhands with whom I visited. They were complex men of simple honesty whose horse wrecks, draggings, and stampedes gripped me more than any romanticized account possibly could. I relate their actual stories in my books The Last of the Old-Time Cowboys, A Cowboy of the Pecos, and Saddling Up Anyway: The Dangerous Lives of Old-Time Cowboys.
My other characters (and the plot of To Hell or the Pecos) were drawn from actual events in the nineteenth-century Pecos country in Texas. In 1867, Apaches attacked the Joel D. Hoy party at Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos. The Hoy group took refuge in the abandoned stage stand and endured a multi-day ordeal, with one person dying and four others suffering wounds. In the early 1880s, a cowhand abducted a teenage girl from a West Texas ranch and fled to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos. The girl’s father, in the company of several other men, overtook the perpetrator at Horsehead, killed him, and rescued his daughter. And in 1890, two cowhands on horseback pursued four Mexican bandits across the same country of which I write. In an ensuing confrontation, bandido Lorenzo Porez killed one of the cowhands. The next year, Porez was hanged for his misdeed.
B: Some people drive by old adobe ruins and river crossings without noticing them. Other people find their muse at these locations. Does the landscape of the Pecos River country have a particular resonance for historians, artists, and novelists?
PD: To me, the Pecos River country epitomizes our modern perception of the mythical Old West better than almost anywhere else. Cattle drives, Indian fights, stage journeys, cavalry charges, outlaw shootouts – it wasn’t just myth on the Pecos; it really happened. Although the Pecos has long resonated with western novelists (see Zane Grey’s West of the Pecos), such has not been the case with historians and folklorists. In the foreword to my nonfiction book Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier, the great western novelist Elmer Kelton said the region has been “unjustly neglected in the state’s literature.” For thirty years now, I’ve tried to do my part to alleviate that oversight.
B: And, specifically, of the places mentioned in your novel, such as the fabled Horsehead Crossing, how did they inform your writing?
PD: I’ve come to know the land intimately. With backpacking as my favorite pastime since 1975, I understand and appreciate the outdoors in all respects – from the sweeping expanses to the soaring mesas to the alkali dust collecting on my boots. When I tell of characters desperate for water in a brutal desert, I write from personal experience.
To Hell or the Pecos takes place along the driest stretch of the Butterfield and Goodnight-Loving trail – the 79 miles between the Middle Concho River and Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos in Texas. Not only have I explored every mile of that section, but twice I’ve hiked the old Butterfield and Goodnight-Loving trail between Castle Gap and Horsehead Crossing. My intimate knowledge of the route has given me a connection with the past that I couldn’t otherwise have gained. Horsehead, in particular, has drawn me to it countless times, and whenever I walk its banks, I think of all the sweat and blood with which our forbears painted its waters. I know the loneliness of the Pecos country, but also its harsh beauty, so I guess it’s only natural that the land itself became a vital character in my novel.
B: Tom seeks to right the great wrong he inflicted, first by planning to take his own life as a kind of Old Testament–style retribution, and then by joining forces with Jess to save Liz Anne. He is disillusioned but not so far gone that he can’t find his inner (grizzled) white knight. He has a strong “all I want is to enter my house justified” Randolph Scott vibe (Ride the High Country) as well as a touch of the world-weary, psychologically fragile William Munney of Eastwood’s Unforgiven. If you could cast To Hell or the Pecos as a western film, whom would you choose for your major roles? Who would direct?
PD: For my old cowhand Tom Rawlings, I don’t think there could be a better choice than Robert Duvall – even today. For my mid-20s cowhand Jess Graham, I would choose a young Tommy Lee Jones, a West Texas native who’s at home on a horse. And for the kidnapped girl, Liz Anne, I would summon up a young Sissy Spacek, a Texas gal who would have given the role the proper depth.
As director, I would select Clint Eastwood, who handled Unforgiven with the kind of realism that To Hell or the Pecos demands.
B: And the last: what westerns inspired you as you wrote To Hell or the Pecos, either novels, stories, or films?
I dedicated To Hell or the Pecos to Elmer Kelton, a Pecos country native who was voted the all-time best western novelist by Western Writers of America. I came to know Elmer not only as a superb writer, but as a personal friend. As I drove home from his funeral in 2009, I asked myself how I could best honor this special man. I decided that nothing could be more fitting than to write a novel about the land he and I both loved, and to dedicate it to him. To Hell or the Pecos is that novel.
A fitting tribute! To Hell or the Pecos can be purchased via Texas A&M University Press (If you’re not a western lover–quelle horreur!–think of it as perfect gift for anyone who loves westerns, romance, action, historical fiction.)