Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Some stories…

I have had very few opportunities of getting theoretical guidance on how to write. I once attended a workshop on writing for children. It was a wonderful experience, and I met many famous names in children’s fiction and learnt much from them. One of the writers at the workshop mentioned that some other writer (I forget the name) had once said that there are only two kinds of fiction: ‘hero goes on a quest’ and ‘stranger comes to town’.

I do not know if this is true, although for a while at the workshop I tried to slot the stories I have read in either category and found it somewhat true. I do know that fiction provides some rare moments of that special frisson you feel when a plot takes such a twist you can see it happening in front of you.

Which of either category, if they exist, would give that sort of frisson? Again, I do not know. But sometimes, events in real life can provide a template of the kind of stories that are difficult to forget. In the genre of the western, for instance, you have fiction work after fiction work on gunmen of all kind and description, all adept with their weapons.

This was not always the truth in real life. The truth is, a rifle or a shotgun back then was more reliable than a pistol or revolver. This did not fit a fiction work or the innate heroism of a pistol, so it never made the pulp fiction of those times. But the staples: the breathtaking shooting, the characters sharply etched, the strong motives driving them, they were all derived from the real world.

Once in a while, though, events in real life can provide you just the kind of frisson fiction in that genre tries to create. This is what happened on August 19, 1871 at Newton, Kansas, 10 years before the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday set out for the OK Corral. What happened at Newton is my favourite factual gunfight, and possibly the least known.

The story, then. Mike McCluskie and Billy Bailey were two cops at Newton. On August 11, election day, they had a little political difference of opinion so McCluskie shot Bailey, who died the following day.

Now, Bailey was a Texan so some of his cowboy friends vowed vengeance and waited for McCluskie, who had fled town, to return, which he did on hearing that the incident would be taken as self-defence.

The problem with telling this story is I do not know when I should insert the central character who only becomes central for about a few minutes. I should do it now.

The central character is not McCluskie or Bailey or the vengeful cowboys about to walk on to the stage. McCluskie, it seems, was otherwise a nice guy, so a few weeks before the Bailey incident he had befriended a young man who was new in town. This man, 17 years old, was Jim Riley. No one knew where he came from or much about him except he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. He didn’t do much while staying with McCluskie but was known to carry two revolvers wherever he went for no known reason.

On August 19, McCluskie was back at Newton and sitting in a bar in the Hide Park area with his friend James Martin. Four of the late Bailey’s cowboy friends entered the bar looking for him: Jim Wilkerson, Billy Garrett, Hugh Anderson, a rich rancher and Henry Kearnes.

Martin got up to stop the fight but was shot. Anderson shot McCluskie several times.

Jim Riley was in a corner of the bar and at this point, by various accounts, he got up and began shooting. He hit seven men: Martin, who got shot by both parties, Garrett, Kearns and an onlooker were shot and died. Anderson, Wilkerson and another eye-witness were shot but survived.

With all twelve of his bullets fired and all the gunmen down, this little kid then walked out of the bar. Apart from his age and the shootout, there is nothing really differentiating this from any other story of the real Old West.

Except, you see, Riley, after a gunfight that produced more deaths than the Four Dead in Five Seconds fight and the one at the OK Corral combined, walked out of the bar…and disappeared. No one saw him afterwards. It has been speculated that he died of the disease a short while afterwards in some other place, under another name. But for the reader, he just walks out of the bar and right off the story.

That’s the kind of event that fiction tries to come up with. And that’s what the best kind of stories have: some identification with the real, the actual, the it-really-could-happen-and-holy-shit-it-did.

So, was Riley on a heroic quest, or was he the stranger in town? I don’t know, though my vote goes to the latter. But then, there’s a problem. You see, his legend grows after he leaves, not when he walks into town.

I guess real life defies classification.

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