My Stories of the Wild West

Erie Stanley Gardner is a distinguished criminologist, lawyer, and authority on police work, in addition to being the creator of one of the most widely read fictional characters in the English language, Perry Mason. In his early days as a writer, Mr. Gardner tried his hand at Westerns, but unlike some of his editors, he got his knowledge of the West from actual experience.

IT WAS my law practice that put me on the track of detective stories, and in time I branched out into other markets and began to achieve some success writing Western stories. In those days I had a camp wagon, a little house fitted on a half-ton truck. It was really a remarkable little house, cozy and comfortable, with fine Navaho rugs on the floor and on the bed. The truck’s exhaust led through a horizontal thirty-gallon water tank. Under the davenport type of bed was a full-length bathtub. By the time I had driven fifty miles I had thirty gallons of boiling hot water. Whenever I could break away from the law business for four or five days, I would jump into this camp wagon, which I kept provisioned and ready to go at a moment’s notice, and head out into isolated areas looking for stories.

I was, of course, laboring under a terrific handicap in that I knew the country I was writing about. To be sure, the editors were demanding that their writers “know the West,” but the big bulk of Western stories were being written by people who had never been out of New York, and who had secured their local color from reading Western stories written by other authors who, in turn, had never been out of New York.

Every once in a while one of these writers would make enough money to go see what the “Wild West” looked like. Usually he would take the train all the way, arrive at Los Angeles, put up at one of the tourist hotels, and encounter one of the real estate vendors of that period. The phone in his room would ring and a dulcet feminine voice would say, “Is this Mr. Blank?”

Upon being assured that it was, the voice would go smoothly along: “Mr. Blank, how would you like to see something of Southern California? If you’re free later on in the day, I’d like to call for you in my Lincoln and take you out through the orange groves to show you some of our beautiful scenery. There won’t be any charge, of course.”

If he fell for it, the car would come on time, a big seven-passenger limousine, crowded to capacity with the charming driver and six “prospects.” She would take them out into the various real estate developments and urge them to buy. Some did, and those who hung on to a sizable portion of their purchases are comfortably fixed today. This welcome, however, was hardly likely to inspire the imagination of a writer who had come to see the cowboys in action.

The editors of those Western magazines all assumed an air of infallibility and an encyclopedic knowledge of the West, probably gleaned from reading the manuscripts which came pouring in.

Take, for instance, the ghost town of Rhyolite, in Nevada. I decided there might be a story there, so I took my camp wagon and fought my way to Death Valley, where the roads were terrible, down the Panamints, and up the Funeral Range, until I finally parked right in what had been the main street of the ghost town. I remained a couple of days and took quite a few pictures.

The railroad station was made of material which was impervious to time and must have cost some two hundred thousand dollars to construct back in 1906. It was the most grandiose of the buildings which survived.

I made inquiries and found that apparently the city charter was still in effect. Any three men who resided in Rhyolite for the legal period of time could hold an election, elect themselves to office, vote city ordinances, levy taxes, and in general, have themselves a ball. Out of this I concocted a story entitled “The Lord Mayor of Rhyolite.”

The plot had to do with a very wealthy snobbish Eastern woman of narrow mind and wide hips, who brought her very attractive daughter out to a cattle ranch. The daughter and the cowpuncher fell in love, but the mother wasn’t going to have her daughter throwing herself away on a thirty-dollara-month cowpuncher even if he was one ot “Nature’s Noblemen,” so she whisked the daughter off to another cattle ranch.

The disgruntled, heartbroken cowpuncher quit his job and went to Rhyolite with two of his nefarious friends. They established legal residence, voted taxes and special assessments, bid in the property at tax sale, and the cowpuncher became the duly elected mayor of Rhyolite.

As the mayor he issued an invitation to the mother to be a guest of the city.

The beaming mother arrived and was not happy to find the cowpuncher installed as the mayor. Her prejudices were so strong that she still wouldn’t consent to the marriage. The friends of the cowpuncher, however, took care of that. They had passed an ordinance limiting parking to five minutes in certain sections of the city. Inasmuch as the dowager’s car was parked overtime in one of these five-minute zones, they promptly proceeded to take her to the city jail, where they held her incommunicado long enough for the cowpuncher and the daughter to get spliced in the holy bonds of matrimony.

I sent this story to one of the better-paying Western markets of the time and received a personal letter from the editor, who said that he would buy it were it not for the fact that I had let my imagination run wild in creating the city of Rhyolite; that it would be a physical impossibility for any city of that sort to exist at the present time, and his readers wouldn’t accept it.

It came as a surprise to me to think that any editor of a Western magazine purporting to know the West hadn’t heard about Rhyolite, so I sat down and wrote him a very nice letter, telling him that Rhyolite did indeed exist, that the railroad station was there, that the legal points in the story were perfectly feasible; and to prove my point, I sent him pictures of the huge railway station and some of the other buildings.

The editor was good enough to answer me, stating that he was evidently in error about Rhyolite but that the story had technical defects aside from the reference to Rhyolite and he didn’t want it on any terms. That was the last word I ever received from that editor except a flood of rejection slips, which continued without a break.

A year or so later I went to the desert mining town of Randsburg, parked my camp wagon, and proceeded to pick up local color for a story about a man who discovered a gold mine. He took his ore to be assayed, but the assayer, who was crooked, was teamed up with a claim jumper. The assayer made a false report to the miner; then the claim jumper went out and jumped the claim. That would have been all there was to it if it hadn’t been for the fastthinking, quick-shooting champion of justice who entered the story and rectified wrongs in a blaze of gunfire.

I sent the story to one of the Western magazines and received a letter from the editor stating that it was an ingenious story and he would buy it if it weren’t for the fact that an assayer would starve to death in Randsburg. According to this editor, the desert prospectors knew their ore when they saw it and had no use for an assayer.

At the time, I had photographs of the main street of Randsburg showing that almost every other business building had a sign “Assayer” over the door, and I made prints of these photographs and wrote a letter to send to the editor. Then I thought of my Rhyolite fiasco and decided to profit by experience. I had no new stories to send at the time, so I went to my “morgue” and dug out a long novelette. As soon as I looked at it, I realized that it had an unfortunate title which had sounded good at the time I wrote it but would have been a detriment on any title page. I changed the title and wrote my editor, stating that since he seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the West, he might appreciate the story which I was enclosing. Within a week I had received a check for six hundred and fifty dollars — and I had learned something about corresponding with editors.

From that time on I sold this editor story after story after story. His magazine became one of my big markets. The readers liked my stories, the editor liked my stories, and I made many thousands of dollars.

When a writer is writing at three cents a word, he is painfully conscious of the number of words.

In fact, when I was typing my own stories, I had an adding-machine device connected to the space bar of my typewriter, so that every time I hit the space bar I registered a figure on my word counter.

Without my realizing it, my heroes developed a habit of missing the first five shots, only to connect with the last bullet in the gun. At one time an editor took me to task for this. How did it happen that my characters, who were chain lightning with a gun, were so inaccurate with the first five shots?

I told this editor frankly, “At three cents a word, every time I say ‘bang’ in the story I get three cents. If you think I’m going to have the gun battle over while my hero has got fifteen cents’ worth of unexploded ammunition in the cylinder of his gun, you’re nuts.”

The magazines of the period were highly stylized. In the detective magazines there might be just a hint, a very faint hint, of sex, but in the Western magazines the women simply weren’t human. They were symbols.

And it is interesting to note that most of these Western magazines were read either in the big population centers of the East or by cowpunchers out in the cattle ranches of the West.

ALONG in the thirties, whenever a writer developed reasonable promise, the Hollywood studios would take him in at a thousand or twelve-fifty a week, and that usually was the end of the author as a magazine writer. He was a movie man from then on.

I had such an offer from Hollywood and did considerable soul-searching. I didn’t want to be one of the movie colony, living in that environment and becoming a part of Hollywood, so I decided to take a plunge on my own. I went down into the country and secured an acreage just as far removed from civilization as possible.

It happened that my holdings adjoined those of the big Vail Ranch, which was an anachronism deluxe. It consisted of some ninety thousand acres, all in one piece, devoted to cattle raising and run by cattle barons, who were, in turn, the sons of cattle barons.

After I had established myself as a neighbor, I would help out from time to time when the ranch had a big cattle drive and was shorthanded. In this way I worked with the cowpunchers on some pretty long roundup rides. The methods used by this cattle ranch had been evolved from time immemorial. They did grass feeding, and they cut their cattle for market without the use of corrals, using riders to “hold the herd” while the “cutter” went in and cut out the steers that he wanted.

At times the wrong steer would make a break and get past the riders holding the herd. Then it was incumbent on the person who had let the wrong steer through to make a wild sprint, head off the steer, and bring him back into the holding herd. Since such a steer has a desire to get into the “cut” herd, the cowboy must head him off, and this calls for some pretty wild riding over rough terrain.

Once I began to participate in these cowboy activities, I quit writing Western stories. I could no longer see anything dramatic about the life of a cowboy.

After a while, progress reached our section of the country. The Vails put in corrals and a squeeze gate, in which the young steer is held in a squeeze while cowboys brand him, inoculate him, and cut out a segment of the ear so that he can be earmarked and recognized at a greater distance than a brand can be seen.

My friend Al Gibney, who at that time was the head of the editors of the Munsey string of magazines, came out to visit me. I took him over and showed him the Vail Ranch in operation, and he asked if it would be possible to get some cowboy clothes and have his picture taken.

We did better than that. We fitted him out with a regular cowboy outfit, got him to the squeeze gate, had the branding fires going, cowpunchers running around with the red-hot branding irons, and I gave Gibney a knife and told him to earmark the steer as it came through. Then I stood with a big Graflex camera to take a picture.

Gibney fainted when he tried to cut out a section of the ear, so we had to fake part of the picture, but by the time we were through, we had a pretty darn good picture of Gibney bossing operations at a squeeze gate. He had it framed and hung it over his desk in New York.

I got a wonderful letter from him, giving me the name of a prominent Western writer of the day who had debouched from the elevator, clacked his heels on down the corridor, said “Hi-yah, pahdner” to the secretary, walked into the office, removed his sombrero, slapped it against his leg, settled in a chair, propped his cowboy shoes on the corner of the desk — and then saw the picture. He suddenly put his feet back on the floor, walked over to look at the picture, turned to look at Gibney, and said, “My God, Al, it’s you!”

“Sure,” Gibney said, “I was ramrodding the Vail spread for a while. Didn’t you know that?”

“Good God, no!” the man said.

Gibney went on to tell me the visit was short and sweet, and when the writer left the office, he must have tiptoed all the way to the elevator because Gibney, listening carefully, couldn’t hear any clacking sound made by high heels on cowboy boots.