Friday, March 9, 2018

The Pronghorn

Your characters might have encountered America’s unique animal, the pronghorn. Pronghorns range throughout all four deserts of the American Southwest, from Sasketchewan, Canada south to Mexico. This animal’s scientific name, Antilocapra americana, means “American antelope goat,” but it is neither goat nor antelope. It is actually the sole surviving member of an animal family dating back 20 million years. It’s also called the prongbuck, pronghorned antelope, prairie antelope, and American antelope.

Pronghorns live in grasslands, brushlands, bunch-grass and sagebrush areas of open plains and deserts. They have deer-like bodies and weigh between 90 and 120 pounds. They stand about 3 and ½ feet at the shoulder and the upper body and outside of the legs are tan or brown. The cheeks, lower jaw, chest, belly, inner legs and rump are usually white.  Pronghorns have large, protruding eyes and a white or buff, 4-inch tail. The male pronghorn has a broad, black band down the snout to a black nose and black neck patch, together with black horns.

The pronghorn is the only animal in the world with branched horns – not antlers – and the only animal to shed those horns as if they actually were antlers. Their horns are lyre-shaped hollow sheaths over a bony core arising from the skull directly over the eyes. Male horns may grow to 20 inches with a short prong jutting forward and upward from the base. Like sheep and goats, pronghorns have gall bladders – and like giraffes, they lack dewclaws.

The pronghorn is the fastest animal in the Western hemisphere, running in 20-foot bounds at up to 60 miles per hour. And unlike the cheetah, pronghorns can run for hours at a fast pace. They live alone or in small bands during the summer and form large herds in the winter. Pronghorns can survive a temperature range of 180 degrees, from 130 degrees in the deserts to 50 below zero. They typically live from 9 to 10 years in the wild and 12 years in captivity.

Pronghorns are high-strung animals and are active day and night, alternating snatches of sleep with vigilant feeding. They are selective feeders, eating shrubs, grasses, juniper, chamiso and sometimes cacti and domestic crops. During the winter, desert populations are said to favor sagebrush.

Because they inhabit open terrain, pronghorns rely on their speed and keen eyesight to stay safe. They can detect movement up to four miles away, and when alerted to danger, their white rump hairs ruffle up and can be seen by other pronghorns up to two miles away. At the same time, the alerted pronghorn exudes a musky odor which can be detected for more than a mile.

During late summer or early fall, male pronghorns gather a harem of three or four does. The animals shed their horns a month after breeding, and does usually produce twin fawns in early June after a gestation period of about 250 days. The young are born weighing from 4 to 12 pounds and lack the spots characteristic of deer and elk fawns. They have no odor and instinctively lie motionless for hours, which is their main defense against predators such as bobcats, eagles and coyotes. After a week of nursing, the does rejoin the main herd with their fawns.

It's estimated that during the mid-1800’s, pronghorns numbered in the many million, second only to the American bison. However, by the 1920’s, the US population had been reduced to about 20,000. Pronghorns cannot leap fences like deer can, so fenced rangeland has hampered their migration and survival. However, efforts to preserve the animals have helped revitalize the general population.

Sunday, February 25, 2018


I love lists: making them, reading them, crossing things off them. Even the act of creating a to-do list for the week makes me feel I’ve accomplished something. I also keep ongoing lists of things helpful to my writing cause –– such as interesting character names, trivia about historical events, or those little stories told around dinner tables that might fit perfectly in a fictional scene.

A few years ago, I heard the incredible author Win Blevins (STONE SONG, GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE HAWKS) speak about his mental list of character types. He said that, when he first began writing western fiction, he realized he didn’t know that much about real cowboys. After some pondering, it occurred to him that there were dozens of other characters to write about: miners, natives, fur trappers, and so on. That opened the door to an endless supply of potential plots and character studies. Thank goodness Win had that realization. Western literature would have missed out on his emotional, beautifully styled novels.

This inspired me to keep a list of my own (included below) for those times when I’m stumped for a story idea or just need subplots and interesting side characters. Feel free to add more suggestions in your comments!

















Hopefully, this list will spur you on creating all kinds of interesting folks in your next book. It took a lot of people to build the West. Go forth, and tell their stories!

All the best,

Vonn McKee
“Writing the Range”
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 WWA Spur Award Finalist (Short Fiction)


Now available on Amazon:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Western Fictioneers Book Reviews

Death at Gran Quivera by Jesse J. Elliot

I Dorothy A. Bell received a copy of the novel Death at Gran Quivira by author Jesse J. Elliot in exchange for an honest review. I give Gran Quivira four stars.

The grizzly find of a bloodied scalp of a golden haired girl on a New Mexico property owned by a young woman Iragene Jones, and her brother Daniel sets into motion this tale of one families hard scrabble to eke out an existence in New Mexico in the 1800’s.

After the civil war the railroad moguls had dreams of commerce and riches with rails stretching from coast to coast. Their dreams embolden ruthless desperados to threaten, rape and destroy on their quest to acquire the land upon which the rails were to be laid and rake in the money. The home of the Jones: Iragene, her brother Daniel, his pregnant wife Prudence and their friend Cassie, and many of their neighbors, stood directly in harm’s way. Neighbors were important in this hostile land. One could take refuge and count on a neighbors support in times of trouble. The law was often miles away and had other concerns.

In every western there has to be a great shoot out and Death at Gran Quivira does not disappoint.

The author has peppered in interesting historical points without disrupting the flow of the story. I lost track of all the neighbors and their points of view. But the plot was well thought out. And characters well defined, each with their own agenda. The grizzly scenes, just grizzly enough, the love scenes lovely.

—Dorothy A. Bell Author of Dance Hall Road Do-si-dol

Longhorns and Blood (A Drifter Western) by Jake Henry

Longhorns and Blood is number five in a series of books written by Jake Henry. His books can be read in isolation or in order. The main character, Jeff Savage aka the Drifter, is a Texan who served in the Union Army and still wears his blue, uniform pants in spite of the war being over. He’s good with a gun, good with the horses, and good with the woman—at least most of the women.

Savage became the Drifter after four years of bloody fighting in the War only to come home to discover his wife had been raped and murdered by a gang of cutthroat, renegade Confederates.  After avenging his wife’s horrific death in Book 1, he chooses a life of drifting—but always on the side of the law and righteousness. In Longhorns and Blood, Savage is confronted with a series of murders and the stubbornness of a dead cattleman’s daughter, Mavis. In a never-ending series of murder and mayhem, Savage attempts to save Mavis and her cattle from her bad decisions and the ruthless Breen.

The book is a succession of shoot-em-ups, cattle stampedes, and just plain bloody mayhem, and the reader hardly has time to relax until another string of events occur.  Desperate to protect Mavis from inevitable death, Savage is forced to go to the Long Trail Saloon “where they’re all bad, to the man” to recruit cowhands to help the hapless Mavis, and the rest is left to the reader.

As I read Longhorns and Blood, I pictured Savage as a Clint Eastwood type. As exciting as a spaghetti Western, Henry pulls no punches and throws in every element of violence known to the old west. His succession of action is well laid out, and the novel maintains its momentum. The characters are almost believable, and the many bullets that Savage takes per book is limitless.  As a female author, I get tired of the mindless whores and illogical women, but it’s only been recent that anyone has recognized the fact that women played a major role in the old west.  Lastly, I found his characters who were supposed to be “bad to the man” some of the most likeable in the story. See for yourselves.

For a great foray into the Old West and a bit of escape, take some time and read the entire series of “the Drifter,” and enjoy the wild ride. 

—Jesse J Elliot, author of Death at Gran Quivera

Brodie by McKendree Long

Anyone can be a writer—all it takes is a working knowledge of a word processor or the archaic process of applying pencil lead to a lined, yellow page. However, to be a good writer, one must own the technique of creating credible dialogue, vivid descriptions, character development, plus a captivating and persuasive plot.

As if he had not previously established these skills in earlier novels, McKendree Long cements his writing talent with his recent novel, Brodie.

After the murder of Cross-Eyed Lil, the friendliest working woman in Sweetwater, former Ranger Brodie Dent is deputized by Town Marshal Curly Jack Sentell. Accompanied by Lil’s orphaned teenaged son, Cracked-Head Billy, the two men set out to kill the men responsible for the woman’s death.

The leader of the band of murders is Preacher Vance, whose current occupation is abducting women to sell to Apaches and renegades on the Texas-Mexico border. Preacher, tricky as a coyote and elusive as a jackrabbit, leads Brodie and Marshall Sentell on a chase across the Llano Estacado.

Mr. Long is an aficionado of late 1800s firearms and helps the reader understand the importance of cowboy weaponry. He knows his stuff—from the nitty-gritty of a gunfight to the raw emotions of the lawmen who often served as jury and executioner.

This is an entertaining read with just the proper mix of humor and adventure.

—John Neely Davis author of Bear Shadow

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Happy New Year


So what have I been doing besides not blogging when I’m supposed to?

Very good question. Only did a couple of Westerns in 2017. Must correct that, but first a memoir. Some of you may know of the two and a half years I spent in Kiwiland from 2005 to 2008. I built a bonney boat and sailed away, headed north to Hawaii and thence around the world . . . alone.

Greater powers than I had other ideas, and my lovely boat went on the rocks of Great Barrier Island, and New Zealand’s intrepid helicopter rescue service saved my bacon. Traumatic is not a strong enough word for my state of mind.

I’d promised to write a memoir of my circumnavigation, but as that didn’t happen, any memoir would be one of complete failure. I could not look that project in the eye for almost ten years. But at long last, the memoir is not only begun, it is well past the 50,000 word mark and narrowing down on the harrowing moments that killed my boat while saving my hide.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been completely lax in the Westerns department. On one hand, I’m about one-third into a book tentatively entitled Mogollon, the story of a lawman who lost his wife in childbirth, along with a stillborn son, and decides there’s nothing to live for that doesn’t come out of a long-necked bottle. We’ll see how he redeems himself. I have no idea how, yet.

The one in the planning is called Starvation Trail, a novelization of a true story. A woman named Dilehthe walked alone all the way from the bottom of the Baja California peninsula to her tribal home in the Chiricahua Mountains. She got some help along the way, but not much. We’ll see how it works out.

Then, as if I did not have enough to do, I’ve got about twenty-five of the Peacemaker best novel contenders yet to read and evaluate. The deadline will be here all too soon.

So the new year is already nearly a tenth gone and I’m still getting started. Hope you all are far ahead of me in the game. If not, pull up a chair and let’s start chewing the fat.

Charlie Whipple

Friday, February 9, 2018

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Buffalo (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The American bison, also commonly called the buffalo, is a North American species of bison. Its scientific name is Bison bison. Historians believe that the common term arose from the French word for beef, boeuf. Your characters may have come in contact with this large herbivore at some time in their lives, especially if they crossed the plains.

Bison stand between 7 and 15 feet tall at the head, 5 to 6.5 feet at the shoulder. They are characterized by the large hump on their shoulders and slimmer hindquarters. Bison bulls also have a beard that can be up to a foot long. Both bulls and cows have sharp horns that can grow to be 2 feet long. They have cloven hooves.

Bison weigh in somewhere between 900 and 2,200 pounds and live from 12 to 20 years. Despite their massive size, they’re quick on their feet and can run at up to 40 miles per hour. They can also jump high fences and are strong swimmers. Their shaggy coat is so thick that snow can settle on a bison’s back without melting.

Bison feed on various plants found on the plains: grasses, herbs, shrubs and twigs. They typically forage for 9 to 11 hours a day and eat up to 1.6 percent of their total body mass in food daily. Like cows, they regurgitate the plant mass and chew it as cud before final digestion. They prefer to graze in the morning, chew their cud in the afternoon, and graze again in the evening. They also wallow in the dust or mud to combat insects, shed excess hair, and scratch itchy patches.

Cows and young bulls live in small, separate bands that come together into massive herds during the summer mating season. Mature bulls have their own bands that can number up to 30 animals. Older bulls are often solitary. Although the males battle for mating rights, these contests rarely turn dangerous.

The females give birth to one calf after a nine-month pregnancy. These calves can weigh between 30 and 70 pounds at birth and are a red-orange color. They don’t grow a hump or horns until a few months after birth, so they’re commonly called “red dogs” until then.

Bison are nearsighted, but they have excellent senses of hearing and smell. They communicate with grunts, and will snort or bellow if threatened. Due to their poor vision, a bison herd is quite apt to stampede at the slightest unusual noise.

Unless your characters lived during the early half of the nineteenth century, the bison would already have been on the decline due to the extensive efforts of settlers to eradicate the animals – for food, sport, and to deprive the Native Americans of their most important natural asset and drive them onto the reservations. Some 50 million animals were slaughtered during this time, reducing the once enormous herds to only a few hundred animals. Thankfully, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat today, and about  500,000 bison live on preserves and ranches.

Until the settlers decimated the population, Plains Indians relied on the bison for a wide variety of useful items. Not only did a bison provide from 400 to 800 pounds of meat (depending on whether it was a cow or a bull), but nearly every part of the animal was used. The horns were used to fashion spoons. The thick hide on the top of the head was turned into bowls. The heart was used as a pouch to carry dried meat. The tendons and ligaments were used for sewing and leathercraft. The thick coat was tanned and used to make the walls of a teepee, and could be used as a valuable trade item. Even the stomach had a use as a cookpot: drop a few hot rocks into a water-and-meat-filled stomach and you’ve got a tasty soup.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


One of Thomas Jefferson's boldest acts as president was the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He bought more than 800,000 square miles of land from France–sight unseen–for three cents an acre, doubling the size of the United States. The new lands stretched from the Mississippi River Valley to the Rocky Mountains. This initiated the great Westward Expansion of the 1800s. Between 1841 and 1869 alone, as many as half a million emmigrants braved the open prairies and rugged mountain ranges in search of a new start.
     The progress of a nation depends heavily on technology available at the time. As there were no roads, no steel rails, and little knowledge of navigable rivers, the hardy pioneers moved their possessions and loved ones west in freight and farm wagons, outfitted especially for the rigors of months-long travel. The covered wagon became a Westward Expansion icon, serving as a rolling storage room for food, water, tools, and furniture–as well as living quarters, birthing chambers, storm shelters, and sometimes the only available fortification in case of Indian attacks.
There were many kinds of covered wagons in use. It is a common misconception that all pioneers traveled in Conestoga wagons. That particular vehicle originated in Pennsylvania and was used more for moving heavy freight (up to 12,000 pounds of cargo). In fact, the sheer weight of the Conestoga made it unsuitable for travel across prairies, restricting its use mainly to the eastern states. That's not to say that no wagon train included Conestogas–only that they were not the preferred mode of transport. Its design was specialized, with a swooped, overhanging canvas top and a bed that was slanted up fore and aft to keep loads centered.

A lighter version of the covered wagon came to be known as the Prairie Schooner, since it resembled a ship with canvas sails crossing the prairie. These vehicles became the minivans of the West, if you will, or perhaps the first tiny homes. They were pulled by mules or oxen, the latter being favored for their strength, endurance, and lesser feed requirements. Most family members walked alongside. The wagon bed was crowded with supplies and usually reserved for small children, pregnant women, and the elder members of the party.
     Several covered wagon manufacturers sprang up in St. Louis, Missouri, the "Gateway to the West." The most popular was the Joseph Murphy wagon. There were many other makers including Luedinghaus, Linstroth, Gesting, Espenschied, and Studebaker (yes, the automobile manufacturer).

Interior of a covered wagon. Many dear possessions would be left along the trail.
     At an average speed of two miles per hour, and covering maybe fifteen miles on a typical day, the journey west often stretched from one season to the next. Even with inherent difficulties (river crossings, broken wheels, etc.), the covered wagon provided reliable transportation and a humble temporary home to the thousands of pioneer families who settled the American West.

All the best,

Vonn McKee

“Writing the Range”
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 WWA Spur Award Finalist (Short Fiction)

Now available on Amazon: