The Horseshoe Feud

barbed wire

Ben Whirlow enjoyed his work on the Circle A ranch - that was until the day Lennie Kirkwood offered to get the paint's shoe fixed. Lennie got to talking with pretty Tilly Draper and forgot to finish the job. When the paint fell in front of a stampede, Lennie let Ben take all the blame.
Ben can't make anyone believe his story and Lennie is too proud to admit the truth. With Ben's constant presence on the ranch reminding him of his dishonesty, Lennie's shame turns to resentment. And so begins a bitter feud which will last until one of them bites the dust.


My first quickie

After The Paducah War was accepted, I got on with writing other books. None of these were succesful so I began to think about writing another western. I love writing the westerns, but the pay is poor, so I didn't want to spend time writing a book for such little reward. I decided that I would try to write one in the space of two months. I sat down with pen and paper, and started roughing something out that afternoon. My first note was:

Hero is set up - wronged. Has to clear name

That was the beginning of The Horseshoe Feud. I wrote a list of emotional states and vices and from there I decided that someone makes a careless error which the hero is blamed for. The person is too ashamed to admit the truth; the shame makes him resentful and angry and he thinks he'll lose the girl. I also decided that the villian had to be someone of local standing, so no one would be willing to take him up on his errors. Only at this point, did I start choosing names for the characters and designing the setting. In the space of about half an hour, I had roughed out the bones of the book. The blurb from the back of the book (quoted above) is remarkably similar to those initial notes, even though the blurb wasn't written until well after the book was completed and had been accepted.
I settled down to get on with my writing and had the first draft done in about five and a half weeks. Unlike the earlier westerns, few changes were made to the main structure. The only major change was that I'd first planned for the hero, Ben, to stay on the ranch until he went face to face with Lennie at the end. I was about three quarters of the way through when it became more logical that he would be sacked. I realised that if he were sacked, he would then be forced into making a choice about leaving the area or staying to defend his name. The climax comes through events initiated by Ben, making him a more active character and more courageous.

A friend by any other name

With most of my other books, I had developed the main characters before sitting down to write a full-length, structured book about them. I was mostly starting from an idea or situation that I had already thought about and that I already felt involved with. The Horseshoe Feud is still unusual among my books in that I knew nothing about it before I started. I decided that Ben should have a best friend and picked a name before starting to think about what his friend would be like. I was suddenly inspired to base him loosely on a friend of mine, Dave Redford. The real Dave has a sharper and more cynical sense of humour than Val Palmer in the book, but the description of a tall, black haired, blue-eyed man who looks like trouble but who is actually kind and helpful would be recognised by any of Dave's mates. For a look at Dave, try the website of his band The Way of All Flesh. I also paid tribute to the friend who patiently taught me to play guitar, Steve 'Hat' Yates, with the barkeeper called Hatt Yates.
Trivia buffs might notice that The Horseshoe Feud mentions three characters named after Formula 1 drivers (Irvine, Coulthard and Frentzen). There's also an Italian cowhand called Allesandro Allessandroni after the musician who founded the choir heard on the soundtracks of most Italian westerns, and who performs the whistling heard on many such films including 'A Fistful of Dollars'

Four-legged friends

I set The Horseshoe Feud on a horse ranch partly to make a change from the more usual cattle ranches, and also because I like horses. In many westerns, and indeed, historical and fantasy novels, horses are treated merely as convenient ways of getting the characters from A to B. Anyone who has anything to do with horses will tell you that there's a lot more to them than that. They are powerful, intelligent animals with long memories, likes and dislikes, and personalities of their own. I try to incorporate some of that into my westerns, without getting it in the way of the story. Horses in my stories sometimes take actions of their own accord: Paul's horse bites another during a race, many horses buck and play up during gunfights, making life difficult for their riders; a horse bolts with its rider in Cullen's Quest. For The Horseshoe Feud I used a story told in Will James' autobiographical book All In the Day's Riding. He relates how one horse protected another one, stuck in a gully, from a wolf. Such behaviour is unusual but not altogether implausible.

An overo paint

A paint horse of overo coat pattern

In The Horseshoe Feud I made the hero a wrangler, and gave him a talent for working with animals. Ben loves animals but isn't sentimental about them. He breaks in horses at the ranch with the traditional rough riding methods or putting a saddle on and riding the horse to a standstill. He would like to use better methods but with horses so cheap and needed in such numbers, it rarely paid a ranch to spend time on breaking its common mounts. The horses became increasingly central to the story as it went on. The trouble between Ben and Lennie starts when Lennie fails to get a horse's shoe fixed and causes an accident. The first scenes are of Ben breaking a horse which Lennie said would never be a good mount. When Ben successfully rides the overo paint horse, Lennie starts to claim that he knew it would be all right. Lennie's inability to admit to being wrong is the flaw that brings about the feud. As the situation gets worse, people's favourite horses become the targets for attacks. Eventually, after being sacked, Ben uses a horseshoe to remind Lennie of his part in the accident, driving him to desperation and recklessness.

The little ranch on the prairie

While the first two published books were set on a beef ranch in a largely Hispanic setting, The Horseshoe Feud has a more traditional American West feel. The small town near the ranch is typical of those of the time. Much of my information on small-town life of the 1870's and 80's comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder's famous series of 'Little House' books. The descriptions of Tilly's school room and details of female dress from poke bonnets to openwork silk dresses are from her books. They are also an invaluable source of information on manners and standards of the time. The Horseshoe Feud has a few scenes in domestic family settings, where the tomboyish Suzy, Lennie's sister, is lectured by her more ladylike mother:

"Let me know when he's going to ride, would you Lennie ?" Suzy pleaded.
"You are not going out among the men to watch rough horse riding," her mother said firmly.
"Oh, but Ma; it'd be so exciting." A lock of Suzy's hair fell across her face.
"You know I don't like you to mix with the men. And don't raise your voice: a lady is always gently spoken."
"Yes, Ma," Suzy muttered, brushing her hair impatiently behind her ear. She tried to catch her brother's eye, hoping he might offer to take care of her, but Lennie concentrated on his fried chicken. He admired his sister's spirit but felt she was getting too old to be running around like a tomboy.

Lennie's very traditional attitude, rejecting the suggestion from Tilly that his sister should take a job even though she doesn't need to support herself, is typical of the time. The question of woman's sufferage was discussed at lectures but the Victorians frequently revered the image of women as 'The Angel in the House'. Writers of the era like John Ruskin, said that women should be gentle and obedient, using their gentle femininity to set men a good example. In Sesame and Lilies (1865) Ruskin wrote:

There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it: not in that you have provoked, but in that you have not hindered. Men, by their nature, are prone to fight; they will fight for any cause or for none It is for you to choose their cause for them, and to forbid them when their is no cause. There is no suffering, no injustice, no misery in the earth but the guilt of it lies with you.

Strong words indeed. A blood and thunder western is hardly the place to discuss such issues in depth, but Tilly, who holds more advanced views, gets Ben to admit some of the illogicalities of conventional thought. The prejudice against women working away from the home looks as ridiculous as the cowhands prejudice against coloured horses like the overo paint (a flashy, brown and white horse).

Quick work pays off

When it was finished, the book was sent to my publishers under its working title of The Overo Paint. The paint horse appears throughout the story and I couldn't think of a better title at the time. My publishers, Robert Hale, had always been fairly prompt about reading manuscripts and making decisions, but I was stunned by what happened this time. I posted the manuscript off on a Friday. The next Thursday, I received two letters. One dated from the Monday, and said that it had arrived safely: the other was dated Tuesday and was the acceptance. I was astonished. However, I wasn't too suprised when they asked for a title change on the reasonable grounds that the title was too obscure. I thought about it for four days before finally getting the title The Horsehsoe Feud. It was the perfect title for the book and I was very happy about it. While the book was being prepared for print, the editor noticed a horrible continuity error about a missing gun. Luckily it was easy to set right with a brief change, and the printing went ahead with few other changes.

click here for larger image of cover

The book was released with a magnificently vague cover picture of a man on a horse. It could relate to almost any western ever published but for one set on a horse ranch, it's fairly appropriate. The man on the cover even has the right hair colour to be Ben.
I gave copies to Dave and to Steve, who were both pleased. While friends were looking at the books, Kelly Dorset remarked that he thought it would be cool if his name were to be used in a book. He soon forgot he'd said it, but I didn't. The pay was no better for The Horseshoe Feud, but I had proved to myself that I didn't need to spend too long on them to produce something enjoyable.




back to Black Horse Western page
back to my homepage