They are the stuff of legend, thundering out of the harsh landscapes and stunning vistas of the American West, vividly lodged in our collective imaginations. From Buffalo Bill to Billy the Kid, from Cochise to Jesse James, these names and so many others screamed across newspaper and dime store magazine headlines while the Wild West was won.
Lost Trails features inventive, hard-riding, action-packed stories by America's best Western writers. Louis L'Amour, Elmer Kelton, William W. Johnstone, Loren Estleman, Johnny Boggs, Don Coldsmith, and many more, share tales of the legends born out of the wild frontier. So sit a spell and listen to a good ol' yarn about Mark Twain's meeting with Buffalo Bill, a man who shoed horses for Jesse James, or a little known nugget about Cochise by the legendary Louis L'Amour...and for a time, you can find yourself riding those Lost Trails with the real people that make the legends of the West come alive today.
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May 01, 2007
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Excerpt from Lost Trails by Louis L'Amour
When I was a little boy, my father surrounded me with the literature of the American West. Names like Louis L'Amour, Elmer Kelton, Zane Grey, and Max Brand were placed side by side with series Westerns that featured the same hero in a new adventure--and with a new woman or two (or three)--every month. But while I read each of these stories with the unbridled enthusiasm of the new reader who has discovered an untamed land and a clear code of right and wrong, and a mythos of good guys and bad guys that even my young mind could understand, my true hero of the West was, and still is, my father.
It was my father who introduced me to the character of Little Joe--a young boy, always about my age, who grew up (depending on where we lived at the time) on the plains of Nebraska, in the flatlands of Kansas, the rolling hills of Missouri, or any number of other places. Little Joe was tough. He fought off Indians and bandits with equal ease, once using a single bullet shot across the blade of a bowie knife to kill two assailants at once! Little Joe taught me about sod houses, about protecting your family, about doing right, and mostly about the mythic American West. I have been in love with it ever since, and I have had moments in my professional life, being involved as an editor, a writer, a book packager, a publisher, and even a sometime agent, that have transcended even my boyhood fascination with Little Joe.
During those moments, I wasn't just reading about the West, but participating in preserving it through books.
Imagine my pleasure, if you can, five or so years ago, when I was able to arrange, through the good graces of a friend, for my father to appear as a character in a long- running Western series. Imagine when Elmer Kelton happily signed a book for my father a year or two ago, and was willing to personalize it exactly as I'd wanted . . . or when I regularly receive signed copies of novels and collections in the mail, all signed for him by writers who know how much it means to me to able to send them along. Imagine what I felt when I called a few years ago to tell him I was going to be a judge for the Western Heritage Awards.
Imagine, if you will, what it meant to me to be able to call him more recently and say I was editing an anthology of Western stories, and some of the finest writers in the genre--like Elmer Kelton and Loren Estleman and Johnny Boggs--were going to write for it.
I can tell you that I have never been more honored than to have a role in continuing the important tradition of bringing new stories of the West into the bookstores and libraries of our nation. And it is important.
For those of you reading this, what I'm about to tell you should come as no surprise at all. The literature of the American West is fading into the sunset much like the lone gunslinger riding away at the end of the movie. Go into any bookstore and look at the Western section. Really look. It's smaller than it was, and getting smaller all the time. With a tip of the hat to Mr. L'Amour-- whose estate has graciously allowed a story to appear in this collection--it seems tragic to me as a reader that a man who has been deceased for nearly twenty years is still taking up forty percent of the shelf space at my local bookstore. In reprints. It seems equally unfair that another significant percentage of the shelf space is taken by series Westerns like Longarm and The Trailsman--not because these stories aren't valuable (they are), but because there are so many fantastically talented Western novelists doing original work . . . and not finding a publishing outlet for it because there isn't enough demand.
Now for the part you may not know. As a reader, you can make a difference. The publishing market is reader driven. They will publish what you ask for, provided that it's asked for by enough people in a loud enough voice. As a point of comparison, one might think of attempting to drive a herd of cattle alone, which would be a feat nigh on impossible. However, get a group of folks together who know how to ride a horse, how to move the cows, and how to rope, and the herd will go right where they tell it to. Usually. And in the world of publishing, the readers are what drives the publishing herd.
The stories of the American West are important. All of them. The old ones and the new ones. The series novels and the original epics. Stories written by famous authors long dead and stories written by new authors you've never heard of before, and every kind of Western writer in between. And should you, the readers, make a point of asking the bookstores, the publishers, the writers, and anyone else who will listen and might make a bit of difference for more books and more stories, this important genre will stay alive. And better still, it will grow. There will be more space on the shelves at your local store, and while you'll still be able to find plenty of Mr. L'Amour's work . . . you'll also find new stories.
Now more than ever, there is both a need and a hunger, I think, in our population for stories that remind us of who we are and where we came from. There is no genre of fiction more uniquely qualified for this than the Western. There is, in fact, no genre of fiction more uniquely American than the Western. I learned more about the West, about history, about where our values came from, in reading those books and listening to those stories about Little Joe than I ever did in a history class at school.
Right now there is an entire generation of young Americans who haven't yet read The Sacketts or Lonesome Dove or Buffalo Wagons or True Grit or so many other books. This same generation, and the ones that follow it, should read these books and new ones as well, because the literary landscape of the American West has always been free-range country. It is as vast and beautiful as the landscape of the West itself.
In some small way, the collection you hold in your hands represents an opportunity to help preserve our literary heritage. All these stories, with the exception of "The Gift of Cochise" by Louis L'Amour, are original, written specifically to the theme of this anthology-- namely, the theme of Lost Trails.
I challenged the authors to tell me a new story of a famous (or infamous) historical figure from the American West. I'm quite proud to say that all of them responded in ways that have surprised and moved me as a reader and an editor. They have provided stories about Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Blackjack Ketchum, Seth Bullock, Mark Twain, and many other recognizable figures, capturing the spirit of these icons, while at the same time, offering up a fictional tale of an adventure that might have been.
Part of the joy of reading stories about the West is in knowing that there are gaps. History, in the best of circumstances, is never a complete tale, but only the loosely woven tapestry of the most accurate information available to the teller. The history of the American West has many gaps, and a fair amount of the history comes in stories told by the victors of the battles, and reiterated by the third cousin's uncle twice removed. In so many ways, that is what makes the history both exasperating and (ultimately) a great deal of fun.
We can speculate about those gaps and, in doing so, enjoy a glimpse of where we came from and who we once were . . . maybe even who we are now and who we may one day be.
Without further ado, dear readers, I invite you to take this opportunity to not only read these stories for yourselves but to share them with someone else. Perhaps there is a young person in your family who would enjoy reading about some of the most famous people in our history. Perhaps it will start a discussion about that history. Perhaps it will start a lifetime love of literature, even a love of Western literature. Perhaps the demand for these types of stories will grow out of the simple act of sharing them with others.
And perhaps you will even tell your own stories, though I must warn you that Little Joe is already busy. He's been entertaining my children for a few years now and I think he's got a bit of life left in him yet. Worst case, should I run short of Little Joe memories, I can always call on my father for a new adventure. He's told me that he makes them up as he goes along, which explains all those cliffhanger endings and sleepless nights, when I stayed up worrying about what was going to happen to my hero.
That is the greatest thing about the stories of the West--those collected in this anthology, those that have come before, those told around the family campfire, and those that have yet to be published--these are the stories that can live forever, a part of the landscape of our lives and our memories and our families . . . but they will only last as long as all of us ensure that they do.