In the beginning was the idea: I wanted to write a western. So I began to read about the old West, and the more I read, the more I came to realize that the tales that were grabbing my imagination weren't about how the West was won. In fact, those stories had been done — and done over and over.
What I found more compelling — more unique! richer with nuance! — were the tales about what happened to the men and women, the hero pioneers, who had tamed the West. With their boldness, sacrifice, courage, and often violent ways, they had brought civilization to the frontier — only to become victims of their own success. As the vanquished Indian tribes settled with dour resignation on government reservations, as the wheels of steam engines clicked and clacked against the metal tracks that stretched across plains where short generations ago herds of buffalo had thundered, as homesteaders pounded sturdy fence posts and plowed the rich brown earth, they had become heroes who had outlived their usefulness. What were they going to do next?
F. Scott Fitzgerald has written rather morosely that there are no second acts in American life. However, as I read I found that he was mistaken. Many of the legends of the old West had succeeded in making second — and often third and fourth — lives for themselves. They were constantly reinventing themselves. And one of those fascinating and resourceful characters was Charlie Siringo.
In his youth, Siringo had been a cowboy and Indian fighter, leading men and herds of cattle up the Chisholm Trail. He spent his time (and his pay) in hurrah cow-towns drinking too much and having his share of gun fights. But when cow-punching no longer seemed a suitable profession for a man with his kind of free-spirited and often reckless personality, he knew he needed to find some other way of life. As fate would have it, on a trip to Chicago he signed on with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And it was William Pinkerton, the elder son of the agency's founder, who had the inspiration that would revitalize Siringo's life: Siringo would become "the cowboy detective."
Assigned to the Denver office, Siringo spent the next twenty years solving mysteries and chasing crooks. To each case he applied the skills and mindset he'd acquired in his years on the range — and, more often than not, Siringo got his man.
But as I read Siringo's page-turning memoirs, books written with suspense and wit, I began to focus on one particular aspect of his detective's career — a case that took him north to Alaska and into the Yukon gold rush.
This was, I quickly realized, the story I was looking for! I could write a true story about people who had moved on to a new frontier. I could write about people who wanted to grow old boldly and in the company of new adventures. It would be a tale filled with schemers and dreamers, about men who packed their saddlebags and, as if driven by some natural instinct, began to migrate. They turned their backs on the towns they'd helped build, on the Main Streets where families now strolled, and journeyed north to the last American wilderness. They headed to a frontier that they were convinced held hidden treasure.
I was hooked. I'd found the narrative territory I'd explore and try to tame.