I’ve done writer’s conferences a lot; done a lot of those things. And writers talk at conferences. In panel rooms, waiting in line to pitch projects or get coffee, tidying up in the restroom, having a drink in the hotel bar; everywhere really. And one of the things I’ve heard repeated by writers over and over again, is a certain discussion about the tricky task of altering their story. More specifically, editing without altering the parameters of one’s own story too much. Changing something that intentionally alters a bit of framework here or there, or a little something which can completely change the focus, without destroying what has been created. In other words, “fixing” something, without being accidentally self-destructive.
And after hearing this discussion jump from one person to the next, and from one room to the next, I realized there’s a certain ongoing anxiety among many, many writers when it comes to this topic. It’s a fear some writers live with, and thus feel the need to talk about with anyone they feel can relate to it. They describe it like being given a small box and being told to keep it on a shelf and not to open it, and if you can do that — you will be rewarded. How many people do you honestly know, crazy or not, who can live with that little scenario for an extended period of time ? That’s the type of thing that could eventually drive a person bugfuck crazy. It sounds like Chinese water torture. Or something worse.
Writers often regard changing anything already written, a very big gamble. Or at least sacrilege; that’s a given. But changes often do need to be made to streamline or clarify the work. For example, I worked on the Introduction to Western Legend for a very long time, just trying to get it right. There was one version, which went on page after page, and for so long, that I eventually realized it was just another prologue and way to much for the reader to take in — and so I simply removed it, altogether. Then there were other drafts. All of which introduced the story from various distinctive points-of-view.
They were all interesting, but it became obvious after a protracted interval, that I would have to settle on a much briefer introduction of some kind. Mainly to allow the reader more immediate access the story. And while the completed and printed introduction seems to have worked, I really miss some of those initial concepts. The very last of which, and the introduction I almost used (see below,) described an old photograph, and the untold story behind that photograph. This aspect of my introduction did not survive to the final draft, though the creation of a such a photograph as described did survive to be included in a single chapter.
The reason I removed this ? The larger story structure didn’t really need it; too much fat.
But for some, strange reason, I miss it anyway. Like an amputated limb. And I wonder if I inadvertently opened the box.
The image had not been seen for many years.
It had been publicly displayed only once before; sometime around 1915 in the window of a local bookshop. A great deal of immediate controversy had followed, and rather hastily, the photograph had been permanently removed from any form of exhibition. An action reportedly attributed to a universal sense of fear and dread on the part of the township.
It had been visible for only a single day. And after that, the image vanished from sight for generations. Some even claimed the infamous “picture” had been destroyed. While further gossip suggested that the image had simply been stowed away in an attic somewhere; though curiously, no one could ever seem to remember exactly where.
Decades passed, and selective memory issues reportedly plagued the population during those years when The Charleston was en vogue, the Second World War raged, and “flower power” reigned. Elements of the story traveled the sewing circles for sure; with many viewing such incidentals as nothing more than conjecture. Those in-the-know, however; those who were witnesses, to at least some of it, if not much of it — remembered well the full story behind the so called, “picture.” They would never forget. And among them, all agreed it was inexorable that the image would one day re-emerge. One day, they would say, scrutiny will scrape away layers of bullshit, revealing an astonishing truth.
And in the high summer of 1979, that is exactly what happened.
Only weeks following the death of legendary western movie star John Wayne, the photograph was discovered by a local family preparing an estate sale. Not instantly realizing what they had, and exceedingly curious, the owners promptly dusted and cleaned the heirloom, before inviting a local television crew to tape a human interest piece about it.
Within mere hours, viewers would sit entranced before television sets all over town. The effect the ghostly image had on the public was that instantaneous; hypnotizing anyone who laid eyes on it; young and old. The eighty-year-old photograph, a remarkable antique window into a lost era, had become a sensation trumping any other aspect of pop-culture.
The image itself, a large Gelatin silver black-and-white print (now yellowing like so many other prints of its age,) measured approximately twenty-seven by fifteen inches around the aging, wooden frame. Birthed of a photographic process which reportedly involved elaborate prepping, developing, and printing methods, the result clearly evidenced that the Photographer had both: A) considered this “specific moment” of very profound interest, and B) had somehow determined this, in advance.
Viewing the image more carefully, the aspect which always grabbed the attention first, was the angle. The photograph appeared slightly crooked, as if the picture taker had either been nervous, or hurried. Then, when peering deeper, through cracked glass at the central area of the image, four majestic figures stood out. Portrayed with light and shadow, these four men favored a group of children, who appeared to see them off at the local train station.
And although from a distance, even the larger details were a definite curiosity, the area of the image which finally mesmerized — the part of the photograph which hypnotized — featured the distant, spooky eyes of a single individual. A prominent figure draped in a long, white linen duster and black slouch hat.
The only initial clue to the photographs origin, as well as the identity of the participants, had been some inked writing on the reverse; which read: “Virgil, Jim, Frank, Tom, and the boys — taken by local photographer, Phillip Lee Hollis, using his brand new mail-ordered box-make camera, November 20, 1899.”
Seasons would change, and in time, an aura of electrifying mystery would grow around the legendary photo’s presumed origin. Talk of the image would rip through discussions across the entire region, like an air-born virus. And when finally cemented as a genuine source of East Texas pride, the community’s aging citizens would find their long held attitudes toward the infamous image, changing. In fact, those who had survived, era after era, agreed it was time for the world to know. After all, the eyes had it.
The story presented here recounts a minor episode of some historical importance. An incident concerning men of general personage–emeritus to their former positions as active participants in the Wild West–waging battle with a full company of violent cattle thieves in the County of Nacogdoches, Texas, at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Since the task of elucidating any unknown part of history is never an easy one, and taking into account that much of this isn’t recorded in very many places outside of Texas, anyway–everything depicted has been thoroughly researched, fact checked, and triple checked, for the purpose of communicating what newsman Carl Bernstein has called: the best obtainable version of the truth.
The narrative has been constructed using a variety of County and State Records readily available from various libraries and historical societies. Referenced materials have included: court transcripts, medical reports, County Sheriff’s reports, land ownership records, relevant newspaper items, audio tape histories, affidavits made out by eye-witnesses, and a handful of maps and historical photos.
Please check the Bibliography for further clarification.
The author has chosen to inaugurate with the most violent in a handful of incidents, all existing as prologue to the larger episode fully represented here, and all involving the theft of livestock. This sadistic attack on a local farmer was described by one anonymous citizen as, “…the damn near death of a poor young Irish feller known well by the community as Tommy Henderson.”