"Cattle Country and Back Trail" is part of Erwin A. Thompson's heartwarming series set in Wagon Wheel County, a fictional location similar to Colorado/Southern Wyoming. "Cattle Country" begins just after the Civil War, and revolves around an escalating range war involving a greedy rancher and the banker who backs him, and the hardworking, motherless Ashburn family who struggle to keep land and cattle. "Back Trail" happens six years later, when a solo rider from Texas passes through Wagon Wheel County in hopes of outriding his dangerous, dark past. But when he sees the young son of his employer tricked into a gunfight with a professional gunman, he breaks the promise he made to himself to never use his guns again. His mettle is tested and a romance that began as real-life chess grows into a match with his true mate.
Interview with Erwin A. Thompson
Cattle Country and Back Trail: Two Tales from Thompson Western Series
Reviewed by for Reader Views (3/07)
Today, Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views, is talking with author and poet Erwin A. Thompson about his book “Cattle Country and Back Trail: Two Tales from the Thompson Western Series.”
Erwin A. Thompson, a genuine old-timer, has written over a dozen westerns, all painting a moral universe in which good humor and wit triumph, and love unites and conquers all.
Juanita: Welcome, Erwin, and thanks for the opportunity to talk with you about your book. Would you start by telling us how long you’ve been writing western novels and how many you have written?
Erwin: I’ve been writing a little over fifty years. All three of our children were good listeners. I wrote the manuscript and then read it to them. It took me roughly an hour to write a page, but only two minutes to read it aloud. After I read, we discussed the characters and possible plot sequence. "What do you think he will do?" I’d ask and got some really good ideas.
Out of the forty books I wrote in those fifty years, eighteen stories would qualify as westerns.
Juanita: What inspired you to write your stories?
Erwin: Sometimes as I read a book by another author, I would think there was room for other things. As I read other books, I might have a wish to dwell more on a scene or to know more about a character. For instance, in the movie Lonesome Dove they killed the really interesting heroine! I felt there was a far more interesting heroine to be written than the one featured in that story. In other cases, as I wrote and came to a logical stopping place, I began to wonder what the characters might have done next and wrote from that.
Juanita: These stories have become tradition in your family, as you once read them to your children and now, your grandchildren. What does sharing your stories with family mean to you?
Erwin: It convinces me that my time writing was not wasted. Our daughter-in-law said she had learned many valuable things about our family legends and values by reading the stories. When I was working as a gas pipe fitter, much of my writing was done on inclement days when we were not required to work outdoors unless there was an emergency. My fellow workers smoked and played cards; I believe that writing produced more valuable results!
Juanita: Where and when are Cattle Country and Back Trail set?
Erwin: When I write, I have a general sense of Colorado or southern Wyoming. For these two stories I’ve created a place called Wagon Wheel County, but it’s not on any map. Cattle Country is set just after the Civil War and the Back Trail story is six years later. One way I show the passing of time between the two stories is that there was no railroad in Wagon Wheel at the time of Cattle Country, but there is one by the time Back Trail came along.
Juanita: Would you give us a brief overview of your storylines?
Erwin: Cattle Country is the first of the two. The story revolves around a range war that starts because a greedy rancher moves against the hardworking, motherless Ashburn family that just wants to keep its land and cattle. The conflict upsets the whole community and erupts in bar fights, ambushes, and downright ruthlessness. The banker tries to run out the Ashburns by reneging on a loan; the storekeeper won’t renew their credit. There’s violence but good things happen too, like three romances. (grin)
Juanita: What about the second story in the book, Back Trail?
Erwin: In Back Trail Jeff Hawkins rides up from Texas with a dangerous secret in his past that he hopes to outride. Hawkins is heading in no particular direction, as long as it takes him away his reputation as a gunfighter. But when he sees the young son of his employer tricked into a gunfight with a professional gunman, he breaks the promise he made to himself to never use his guns again. He rescues the young man by taking on the fight himself. This, of course, produces other complications in the story.
Juanita: How do these two stories tie together?
Erwin: Back Trail is set probably six years after Cattle Country. The setting is the same and many of the characters appear in Back Trail. Some of the loyalties formed in Cattle Country carry over into Back Trail.
Juanita: Who are your main characters?
Erwin: There’s John Wade, who has been sheriff for forty years. His wife and daughter are fitting family members of the keeper-of-the-law.
Another character is Henry Ashburn, a small cattleman with the almost impossible job of raising two children by himself. He’s a brave man and not afraid to fight for a young man who has been set up to be killed or cripple in a gunfight.
One important woman in the stories is Betty Vane, an entertainer in the Trail Dust Saloon. She is generous enough to spend her small savings to keep homesteaders Ed and Martha Brady from losing their possessions that are being sold to satisfy the storekeeper’s lien.
Frank Wells is a drifter heading north in the wintertime. Caught in a blizzard, he stumbles across a homesteader's cabin where he learns about the problems of the locality and begins a friendship that endures for the rest of both men’s lifetimes.
I believe that my characters reflect real people: there are men just as selfish and greedy as my villains and people just as courageous and caring as my heroines. Many everyday men and women could qualify as heroes.
Juanita: Erwin, how do you transport readers back in time to Wagon Wheel County? What can readers expect in the way of issues of this time period?
Erwin: The issues are as old as time. I try to bring out the relationships between people, the loyalties, and sense of community. Critical issues crop up that test the courage and generosity of these people.
Juanita: Erwin, why do you think the old West and westerns are still popular today?
Erwin: Because the issues of pioneering the West were more clear cut than today. Who stole the cattle? Who robbed the stage? Readers become involved in the incidents that test the courage and ingenuity of the characters. By entering their lives, you return to your own life better able to find the courage to face up to your own challenges.
Juanita: What values do you spotlight that are illustrative of that time period?
Erwin: The values I highlight are enduring ones: the courage to fight when the need arises; the willingness to help someone who needs it, even though there is no obligation to do so; community and family; the willingness to sacrifice comfort for a greater cause. Generosity, courage, honesty, and love will never be out of date.
Juanita: Erwin, I understand that you always wanted to be a cowboy. Would you elaborate?
Erwin: My ambition didn't get very far. When I was a youngster, I had a pony. She grazed with the cows. At evening time I went out without bridle, rope, or halter and got on her back, and we brought the cows home. This is a far cry from cutting out steers a herd of hundreds to ship from, but it was a big thrill to me as a boy.
Juanita: Your daughter, who edited Cattle Country and Back Trail, commented that years ago you had your children actively participate in writing your stories and says that this “was wonderful training for us in our own writing, reading, and just plain living.” Did you know how meaningful this interaction was at the time?
Erwin: Surely I knew it was valuable. The story might come up at any time between the readings. It was a part of our lives and a part of their growing up. We worked together, and we played together. I considered it all just part of their education.
Juanita: Do you think that the advent of computers and television, as well as the increasing busy-ness of our lives, will eventually create a gap in the modern family?
Erwin: Modern conveniences do not need to spell the death of family reading. Even with all the gadgets, one of my neighbors still reads every night to her three girls, aged 8, 12, and 16. My great-granddaughters, 6 and 10, are great readers and love to be read to.
It is harder now, of course, to get a quorum for family time. There is too much competition for attention unless the parents make a decision that family time is important.
Juanita: Erwin, you have included some of your poetry in Cattle Country and Back Trail. How long have you been writing poems? How does writing poems differ for you from writing prose?
Erwin: I wrote my first poem in high school. I am now 91. Really there isn't much difference to me between writing poetry or prose.
I can't just sit down and write a poem. My poems write themselves. When I have an inspiration, I rush to write down the words that come to me on a piece of plywood, the back of a time sheet, or anything else I might find. If I waited to write down the words, an hour later I wouldn't remember them. I enjoy sharing my poetry with others and like to write poems dedicated to someone and give these as gifts.
By the same token, I can't sit down and write a story without having a place to start. Sometimes I see something happen that gives me a notion of how to turn it into a story.
Juanita: What authors have inspired you over the years?
Erwin: Probably some you never heard of: Randall Parish, John Fox Junior, Clarence Budding Kelland, Tom Gill, Peter Dawson, Earnest Haycox.
Juanita: Are you still writing?
Erwin: Still writing, whenever the mood hits me. I’ve recently edited two collections of poetry. One collection, Gems from Yesterday, is the poetry of my old music friend Bee Lewis. The second is a collection of family poetry spanning four generations. Getting both of these into print is part of our family publishing project for the coming years.
Juanita: How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
Erwin: I enjoy answering e-mails and my e-mail address is erwinathompson.gmail.com. I also answer letters. Readers can also go to www.riehlife.com to see some of my most recent poems on my daughter’s blog, “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century”. These are love poems for my wife who died just a year ago, and poems reflecting on WWII and on our modern day culture. Depends on how bad readers want to know (grin).
Juanita: Erwin, it has been a pleasure talking with you today. We encourage readers to take a step back in time with your new book “Cattle Country and Back Trail: Two Tales from the Thompson Western Series,” which they can find at online bookstores. Before we depart, do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share with your readers?
Erwin: I hope that the values, character traits, and sense of community portrayed in this first installment of the Thompson Western Series will be a source of strength and fun for individual and family readers. I hope that you all will have as much fun reading "Cattle Country and Back Trail" as I had writing it. There will be more tales coming in our Thompson Western Series. When these come out, we'll be back to tell you about them.