Saturday, August 23, 2014

‘A Horse for Henry’ — Kaye Spencer’s memories of a treasured childhood book



When I was eight or nine years old, my parents gave me a hardback book called A Horse for Henry. At that age, I identified with the main character, Henry, because he wanted his own horse more than anything in the whole wide world, and so did I. What my parents wanted me to take away from this story was the theme of responsibility and that certain privileges had to be earned by demonstrating responsible behaviors.

Somewhere in the process of growing up, I not only forgot about the book but, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, I lost it somewhere, somehow along the way. So, a couple of years ago, I decided to search for it. Patience and time paid off, because I located three paperback copies, which I have tucked away, hopefully to share someday with an interested grandchild.



You’ll notice the author’s name is not on the cover (or anywhere else in the book), which makes me sad. The inside cover has a little bit of information about the book. The publisher was Whitman Publishing Company in Racine, Wisconsin, and the Roman numerals translate to a 1952 copyright date. The illustrations certainly pigeonhole the book as classic 1950s and early 1960s style, but they also bring up fond reading memories since I am of the generation who learned to read with Dick, Jane, and Sally and “See Spot run”, which share the same type of illustrations.

A Horse for Henry goes like this…
 

What Henry wants most is a black colt named Shine, but he hasn’t shown that he’s dependable enough to take care of a horse. He leaves a saddle out in the rain. He forgets to load the salt in the chuck wagon. He leaves the corral gate open, and the horses get out. His dad tells him, “Son, when you can do a man’s work and do it right, you can have a horse.”


Just when it looks like Henry will always have to ride the family’s pet mule and never get a horse of his own, through some quick thinking on his part, he saves his little brother (and himself) from a cougar.



The next morning, Henry wakes to find Shine tied outside his window, and his dad says, “You’re a man now, Henry, and a man can’t get along very well without a horse of his own.”


From my adult’s perspective, I look back on the popularity of the traditional western novels, western television shows and movies, and perhaps even some of the country music during the era when A Horse for Henry was published, and I see this story as a post-WWII children’s slant on the Old West theme of “what makes a man a man”.

This story, and its message, has stayed with me all these years and, every time I reread it, I remember why.

 * * * *

Just for fun, here I am with my first horse, a Welsh pony named Corky. In the left-hand picture, I was riding in the Howdy Days Parade in Fort Morgan, Colorado in August 1964. The right-hand picture was at the Morgan County Fair in Brush, Colorado in August 1965 (4-H).



Until next time,

Kaye
Fall in love…faster, harder, deeper with Kaye Spencer romances
www.kayespencer.com
Twitter - @kayespencer

Friday, August 22, 2014

SOCIAL MEDIA -- Why Bother? by Meg Mims


Many moons ago, writers wrote (longhand or via typewriter - that's Louis L'Amour, by the way - before the desk computer or laptop). They wrote from start to finish, printed off the pages, boxed it up, and sent off their book (to an agent, editor, or the proverbial slush pile.) Once they signed a contract, writers started the next book. Did they worry about promotion? Nope. Did the publisher routinely take care of the book's cover? The print run? Distribution?

Yup, yup, yup.

Things are a bit different now. Some western writers are hanging on to the "old ways" by their fingernails. A blog, what's that? Why do I need a website? Tweeting is just plain silly, like teats on a bull.

Some writers believe they'd rather not put a "face" to their name, especially on Facebook. What's so social about Social Media? Writers might believe it robs them of precious writing time.

While that might be true (and some people waste hours on Facebook), you can say the same about answering the telephone, watching television, playing video games, reading others' books, exercising their horse, even sleeping. "Call me old-fashioned, just don't call me late to dinner."

It's all about networking. Surely you've heard that term. And while life happens, so does change. And friends -- the times, they are a-changing.

The most successful business man is the man who holds onto the old just as long as it is good and grabs the new just as soon as it is better.    Robert Vanderpoel

Every writer -- no matter the genre, no matter how young or old -- has to consider they are IN BUSINESS. A hobby doesn't fly with the IRS. So every serious writer needs the basics besides a solid plot, characters and a finished manuscript. YES, a finished manuscript, because writers rarely sell on proposal (unless you're already published with a good sales track.) You want to sell, and make money doing it. Right?

First off -- will you use your real name? Think about what "public" really means. If you prefer privacy, come up with a pseudonym. And consider the idea of "branding" -- just like the old days of cattle ranching. Say Double-Bar L aloud -- it rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? -- versus a surname difficult to pronounce or spell. Think about the bookshelf, too. Top, middle or bottom? Where do you want your readers to find you? Remember, many readers purchase on-line now so that's not as important as it once was.

Does a name/brand matter? Yes. Readers need to find you, unless you're Louis L'Amour, Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. It's a fact. Your name is ON your book, and "brands" that PRODUCT as yours. And readers want to do more than crack open the spine. They want to know more than the story. They want to know YOU, the writer. And that means taking to "social media."

So. You're an author, with a book -- or several. A WEBSITE can be cheap, and sometimes easy. But they often LOOK cheap and easy too, so consider that if you're working your way up the ladder of success. A website can be your first investment. It's relatively cheap to buy your "domain name" for a year -- and cheaper for three years. Avoid the URL of "authorname" followed by blogspot.com or wordpress.com because people will remember "authorname.com" a lot easier. You also need an ISP like GoDaddy or Hostgator or some other host for your website, paying a set amount per month. You could also hire your grandkid, a friend or someone who knows what they're doing to "set up" your website. Shop wisely, because you ought to know how to maintain and update your website once in a while.

Next, consider a choice between Twitter and Facebook. Unless you're willing to tweet (and that means NOT constantly promoting your book - keep that to once or twice a month) about anything and everything, avoiding politics, religion and sex, AND re-tweet other followers' 140-character tweets, forget it. It's useful to get your name out there, but not necessary. FACEBOOK will do a lot more for an author. Caution: if your timeline is filled with gross photos, jokes or rants between family members, change the setting to private. Keep that stuff far away from your author name/brand. I've often seen authors rant on and on about the school parking lot idiots, or their a**backward relatives, or spout F-bombs and worse, and thought, "Whoa. That's not professional." Remember -- keep your author name *sacred* and stay on "topic."

How? Create an AUTHOR PAGE and profile. Post updates of your books, reviews, print or ebook giveaways, writing tips, etc. Think visual, too! Share other writers' inspiring photos, quotes or interesting ideas about books, reading, writing or whatever might relate to your book. For example, when my western mystery Double Crossing debuted, I shared all kinds of information about trains -- with photos from the CPRR.org website, details about the Pullman Palace cars, maps of the cross-country transcontinental railroad route, menus of the station houses along the way, etc. Quick visuals often "tell a story" faster than a long stretch of words. Even this blog post has visuals to give the eye a rest and add color and interest.

Which leads to the last option I'll share about Social Media possibilities -- and in my opinion, is the most fun. PINTEREST -- what is it? Think "virtual corkboard" or "scrapbook" only on the web. See the "sharp point" on the bottom of the P? Yup. PINS.

It's easy to become a member, too. It's similar to Facebook in networking potential. And it's also a way to spend hours exploring ideas for characters, costumes, places, food, celebrities, films, books, whatever your little heart desires. The minute Pinterest appeared, I signed up. Hey, I'm an artist and love visuals!

How can you use Pinterest to your advantage? I typed Pinterest.com into my browser, and then typed "western books" into the search bar -- VOILA! Click here to see. From book covers to film posters to baby shower ideas, it's all there as  a visual feast. It's also pretty
self-explanatory to create your profile and "boards" before adding "pins" -- for example, either uploading your book covers from your computer or inputting the URL of the purchase links from Amazon, B&N or Smashwords. I recommend the latter, in fact, because it's another way to nudge readers to buy. To the left, the graphic shows a sample profile with boards.
I can hear the grumpy (cat) men whining aloud. "Why, why, why would I bother to use Pinterest? It's mostly for women! Men go to the bookstore, they buy my books, I'm fine." Uh, huh. Sure. But don't men want *more readers* to buy their books? Why limit your readership? So get over it. Say YES. You'll thank me for it. Check out my book board by clicking here if you want to see. Then check out the rest of my boards while you're there.

The same goes for women -- I'm here in Western Fictioneers to network with a lot more male writers and readers than my books would normally reach. It's not easy learning to juggle all this "social media" with a writing career. How can you do it?

Time management, of course. And knowing your limits, because you can't cover the Ponderosa in a day on horseback. The same goes for networking. Unless you're as famous as the late Louis L'Amour, who has a website and videos about his career, and a staff to keep his name/brand alive.

Hey, great idea. Maybe one day... 


Mystery author Meg Mims lives in Southeastern Michigan with her husband and a 'Make My Day' Malti-poo dog. Meg loves writing novels, short novellas and short stories, both contemporary and historical. Her Spur and Laramie Award winning Double series is now among the Prairie Rose Publications book list. Meg is also one-half of the D.E. Ireland team writing the Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins Mystery series for St. Martin's Minotaur. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. 




Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fair Play (or How to Survive a County Fair) #western @JacquieRogers


All’s Fair in Owyhee!
by Jacquie Rogers

When I was a kid in Owyhee County, Idaho, the year was divided up in two parts — 3 days of the fair, and 362 days preparing for it. The Owyhee County Fair & Rodeo outshined every other event, at least it did for me. The heat, sawdust, animals... the excitement of winning a blue ribbon or sometimes even a purple... yep, that’s when people kick back and enjoy themselves.

This year, I rented a booth in the Commercial Building, where I featured my Hearts of Owyhee series. More about that later.



These days, the fair is four days and it’s the second week of August, not the third. Lots has changed over the years. The old and young go, but we didn’t see many twenty-somethings there. The food and art exhibits were fewer, but the livestock barns bulged as always. Good to see.

Speaking of livestock, they’ve now added goats. I never once saw a goat the whole time I lived in Owyhee County, but apparently lots of folks have them now.



Of course the standard dairy, beef, swine, and sheep. The granddaughters had a great time snapping pictures. Here are a few:




A few prize chickens shared a barn with the cute little lop-eared bunnies. I’m gonna get one of those someday.  (A bunny, not a danged chicken.  I've had enough of those.)



The Tumbleweed Theater had several fun acts including Larry—and I’m sorry but I can’t remember the name of his act. He walked around the fairgrounds, twirling loops around people. Everyone got a real kick out of it, and not one kicked his stilts out from under him.



We all love the rodeo but we only managed to go one night. Loved the mutton-busting. The wild horse race lived up to the bill. A horse dragged a man all the way around the arena (and it’s a big one) three or four times, but he hung on to the rope, and eventually they got that horse saddled. Not sure if he won or not, but he finished the race. Not very many do.

Ranch bronc and the normal bronc events are always a treat.



Ahem.  Back to work.  My booth turned out pretty well even though I had no idea what size it was until I got there. What decorations to bring was purely by-guess and by-golly. Turns out, the stuff we brought actually worked out, and even fit right. I figured the commercial stall would be about the same size as the dairy stalls, and I’d spent many an hour in the dairy barn as a kid, so I figured 8’ x 9’. Imagine my surprise when I was actually right! Well, close. I was assigned #7 and it measured 7.5’ x 9.5’ so my banner worked and things just came together.

Hearts of Owyhee booth... mostly finished

It was the second day of the fair when we realized the banner had a typo—misspelled “Owyhee” of all things. How embarrassing. My husband didn’t say a thing when I told him, just stapled a cover flat over the two offending letters. Worked great.

Other than roasting half to death, we had a great time—met with old friends and made some new friends.  Even some relatives showed up.  I gave away tons of promo material but only sold half my books.  Since most people there live too far away from stores to buy print books and most that I talked to were strictly ebook readers, I thought that was pretty good.


The Owyhee County sheriff deputies wouldn't take my Hearts of Owyhee junior deputy stars, but we gave out over 500 to the kids and a lot of adults.  Everyone's up for a good time.  Like riding a mechanical bull.  The operator told me that little girls generally do the best.  

And of course there's fair food.  Fair food is unique in and of itself, but in Owyhee County, no event is complete without a chorizo.  The Basque kind.  Absolutely heaven.  


So there's my "what did you do this summer" essay.  Actually, that only took up a week and the rest of the time I've been writing.  What's your idea of summer fun?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ONE MOMENT, PLEASE! by CHERYL PIERSON



I don’t know about you, but when I write, I use the word “moment” quite a bit. I never really stopped to think about how long a “moment” was until my first editor for Fire Eyes made me take out a description of a moment—I had deemed it “a long moment”—she let me know that there could be no such thing as a “long moment”—it was either a moment or it wasn’t.

A MOMENT OF PRAYER
Ever since then, I’ve paid close attention to my writing about “moments”—because it dawned on me that I believed there were more than just one kind of moment. There are the long, awkward pause moments; the quick can’t-believe-I-said-that moments; the long steady stare moments that say “I saw what you did and I know who you are”. There are the moments in between the blink of a firefly’s light in the summer night, and the breathless moments in between the first assault of a tornado’s devastating winds and the eye of the storm. There are the moments that tick by into minutes, and then hours…and hopelessness; and there are the moments of despair that settle quickly only to be lifted by a smile of forgiveness or understanding.

A MOMENT OF REMEMBRANCE
I subscribe to a funny little newsletter called “Wisegeek” that addresses all manner of subjects, and their piece on “moments” was what prompted this post. Here’s what they had to say about it:

The amount of time in a moment is 90 seconds, or one and a half minutes, according to its usage as a unit of time measurement in medieval times dating back to the 8th century. This was based on the positioning of shadows on a sun dial, in which shadows moved along the dial 40 times in an hour. After the invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century, a moment was no longer widely used as a specific unit of measurement. Going forward in modern times, a moment began to be used as a figure of speech to refer vaguely to any very brief period of time.

A MOMENT OF TRUTH
More about measurements of time:

• Time has been measured since at least 1500 BC, which is the first instance of records indicating time measurement through the invention of the sundial by the ancient Egyptians.

• The word clock comes from the medieval Latin word for bell and refers to the bell that was used to signal that it was time for monks to pray.

• The poet Miroslav Holub proposed in 1990 that a moment is the unit of time it takes a person to read a average line of verse.


A MOMENT IN HISTORY (BUD AND TEMPLE ABERNATHY--THE YOUNGEST LONG RIDERS EVER)
So now that you know what a moment really is, what do you think? Would you define it the same way? How would you measure a moment in your writing? Would there be “long moments”? “Fleeting moments”? “Awkward moments”? I’m of the mind that there can be many different kinds of moments—but it’s clear, not everyone agrees. What do you think?

A PRECIOUS MOMENT--SOLDIER SEES HIS DAUGHTER FOR THE FIRST TIME

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE INVISIBLE SOLDIERS by Tom Rizzo



Sniper. Sharpshooter. Marksman. Words that bring to mind the image of a lone gunman highly trained in tracking, concealment, and observation, on the hunt for a human target.

 

The term sniper emerged in the late 18th century when British officers in India sent letters back home referring to a day of shooting as "going out sniping." 

The snipe is a small and fast game bird that dips, dives, and twists, creating an erratic flight path making it difficult to hit. Only the most highly skilled individuals, using flintlock guns, were able to to bring down a snipe.

The term snipe shooting soon gave way to sniping. Eventually the term sniper was bestowed on soldiers who demonstrated precision shooting. But, they were  called marksmen or sharpshooters, never snipers. The term, however, seemed to gather momentum in the press during the early months of World War I. 

 
Training for the role of a military sniper was demanding. In addition to pinpoint marksmanship, contemporary snipers had to develop proficiency in core skills as  tracking, concealment, and observation. The most important skill was  accuracy. Snipers today travel in two-man teams--a shooter and a spotter--although it's believed the Confederacy utilized some two-man units.

A novel I'm writing - The Deadly Gray Dawn - features a former Civil War sharpshooter as one of the antagonists. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Four:

        In the smoky-gray dawn of the following morning, a man sat atop a plateau, his back against a giant boulder. Elbows braced on his knees, he peered through a pair of field glasses trained on the entrance to a distant cave.  He watched and waited, his Sharps rifle within arm's length.
        A former member of the Union Army’s sharpshooter corps, the gunman’s quick-thinking and eagle-eyed vision ranked him among the most lethal assassins in the infantry. His missions involved long-range killing of high-visibility targets—mostly Confederate officers. Long hours on the shooting range perfecting his marksmanship and learning to calculate distances with pinpoint accuracy helped mold him into a weapon of tactical and psychological advantage.
        An icy breeze washed across the high ground and he tugged the collar of his coat tighter around his neck. In the distance, a sliver of sunlight stretched across the horizon. 
        It puzzled him how anyone managed to find access to the cave. He guessed the prospectors wandered off the main trail seeking refuge from the storm and discovered it by accident, or maybe desperation.
        He came across the prospectors’ camp a couple of days ago and found it abandoned, but hid in the underbrush awaiting their return. Judging from the paraphernalia scattered about, there were three of them. The sudden storm apparently delayed their return, He  decided to trail them, a game he often played to hone his tracking skills. The one thing he missed about war was the hunt. And, of course, the kill.
        Not many knew this area like he did. If it weren’t for what looked like a felt hat he spotted on the ledge a few feet from the entrance, he’d have no reason to believe they found the place. A stroke of luck, to be sure.  It’s doubtful they'd simply sit and wait for the weather to clear. Prospectors explore. If they explored deep enough, they’d no doubt make a tempting discovery.
        Moments later, he spotted movement. Adjusting the field glasses, he saw two men crawl outside, stand up, and scan the sky. No sign of the burlap bags that he was told held the gold. It would be too risky for them to haul them off under these conditions, anyway. Chances were they’d return after the spring thaw. Of course, there was an outside chance they hadn’t found anything. But he wasn’t being paid to make guesses. His livelihood depended on immediate and decisive action.
     Retrieving the Sharps, he stretched out on the cold, rocky mesa and poked the long barrel through an opening he created in a stack of large stones. He rested the barrel on a small bag of sand and braced the stock against his right shoulder. Squinting through the iron blade front sight, he estimated the distance at about a hundred yards. Far closer than the distances he usually shot from during the war.
     “Stay in the rifle,” he whispered to himself, a reminder to keep his head down and stay connected to the stock through the shots and the recoils. Slowing his breathing, he cleared his mind, visualizing only the impact of the bullets. He squeezed the trigger back to the rear once, and then again—two shots in less than ten seconds...
 

In the War Between the States, each side relied on these highly-skilled marksmen, but in different strategic ways. 

The Confederate Army fielded sharpshooters in a more flexible manner than the North. They often served as semi-permanent detachments at the regimental level, assigned to larger formations. Rather than the breech-loading Sharps rifle preferred by Union marksmen. Rebel shooters used the Enfield Rifled Musket, or British Whitworth Rifles.

The Whitworth, designed by British engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth, featured twisted hexagonal barrels instead of traditional round rifled barrels. The Whitworth was considered more accurate than that Pattern 1853 Enfield. 

In test firings, the Whitworth design outperformed the Enfield by hitting targets at a range of two-thousand yards compared to the Enfield's fourteen-hundred yards.

According to Author Fred L. Ray, in his book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy, wrote that “Confederate sharpshooter battalions had a far greater effect on the outcome of the conflict."

One of the most feared and effective marksmen in the Civil War was a man named Jack Hinson.

A horrific event in the Autumn of 1862 transformed this once quiet, 60-year old tobacco farmer into a feared Confederate avenger after a patrol of Union soldiers arrested his two sons, ages 17 and 22. 

Despite their denials, the young men were branded Confederate guerrillas, known as bushwhackers, lashed to a tree, executed by firing squad, and then beheaded.

The patrol made its way to the Hinson plantation, summoned the family outside and mounted the decapitated heads of the sons on the gate-posts to the home.

Hinson eventually put his mourning aside and made arrangements for the design and manufacture of a specially-crafted sniper rifle. The expert marksman and savvy woodsman began waging a withering, personal, one-man war of vengeance on Union troops.

Hinson held the upper hand because of his familiarity with the Tennessee terrain, the river channels, the hills, and the valleys. Much of his wrath focused on the Bluecoat cavalrymen of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry Regiment that executed his sons.

According to Tom McKenney, in his book, Jack Hinson’s One-Man War, A Civil War Sniper, Hinson likely killed more than a hundred Union soldiers, mariners, and officers mostly along the Tennessee River in Benton and Stewart counties. His actual rifle, however, bore 36 notches.

In response to the Confederate dominance of the skirmish line, the Federals began to organize their own sharpshooter units at division level under the guidance of Colonel Hiram Berdan. 

A New York City mechanical engineer, Berdan earned the reputation of the top rifle shot in the country for fifteen years in a row. The politically-connected self-made millionaire was credited with inventing a repeating rifle, a patented musket ball, a twin-screw submarine gunboat, and a torpedo boat.

Berdan's weapon-of-choice was the Sharps Rifle, designed by Christian Sharps. In 1848, he patented his design for a four-foot-long Sharps Breechloading Rifle. President Abraham Lincoln personally authorized twenty Sharpshooter companies. 

The term sharpshooter wasn't based on the name of the rifle. The term had been used in America for decades before the Sharps rifle was ever developed.  

When the war ended, the Sharps rifle maintained its popularity. 

In fact, because of its power and long-range accuracy, it became the preferred weapon of professional buffalo hunters, frontiersman, and US troops throughout the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest.

Berdan's Sharpshooters were often chosen for special battlefield assignments targeting high-value targets, such as Confederate officers. 

But they also supported combat units, conducted reconnaissance, and monitored retreats. 

Berdan's Sharpshooters usually wore distinctive green uniforms, a green forage cap with a black ostrich feather, and black leather brogan shoes which enabled them to blend into the foliage they used for camouflage. 

The special uniform proved an advantage and a disadvantage. The green color gave the sharpshooters the clear advantage of camouflage. But, the green color made it easier for Confederates to spot them. 

Qualifying to become a Berdan Sharpshooter required a high level of demonstrated skill. 

The challenge called for the candidate to place ten consecutive shots in a circle of ten inches in diameter from a distance of 100-yards, and an additional ten rounds from 200-yards away. 

Recruits who missed the targets or averaged more than five inches from the center, were disqualified.

The results determined whether the infantryman had the skill required to qualify for an elite unit of crack riflemen for the Union Army.

The South considered the Berdan Sharpshooters high-priority kills.

Being a Berdan Sharpshooter proved a risky venture. Because of their marksmanship capabilities, sharpshooters were usually positioned far in front of the main body of Union troops and, as a result, made the initial with the enemy. Berdan’s force reportedly, “inflicted more casualties upon the enemy than any other unit in the Civil War.” Their key targets included officers, guides, scouts, spies, and other sharpshooters.

But success came at a steep price. 

Even though they got credit for a higher percentage of kills than any other unit in the war, they also suffered the highest casualties. In 1863, for example, the Sharpshooters fought at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Mine Run Campaign, suffering significant casualties.

Of the original 33 commissioned officers and 981 enlisted men in the First Regiment, only 11 officers and 261 enlisted men survived at year’s end.

The Sharpshooters represented the forerunner of the now-familiar concept of special forces.

* * * 





Monday, August 18, 2014

Man-Tracking 101 by Gordon Rottman



I apologize for this being so long, but I didn’t want to do a two-parter and make you wait a month for Part 2. Two of the photos have nothing to do directly with tracking; I just wanted to honor two friends who taught me a great deal about the skill.

We’ve all seen trackers in movies and novels, whether an experienced trail-wise cowpoke or a sage Indian scout. They’re typically depicted prodding along on their house leaning over to locate their quarry’s tracks. This works if distinctive tracks are left on impressible ground. When tracks are indistinct the tracker needs to be afoot to effectively detect what sign he can.
What is laughable is when the tracker is mounted and is tracking at night by torchlight. It is virtually impossible to detect sign by this means other than the most obvious, and most aren’t that obvious, especially at night. Besides dim inconsistent light, the flames are flickering and creating constantly moving shadows and made worse because the torch is moving too. If there is more than one torch, each creates another set of moving shadows which are crisscrossing each other. Steady shadows cast by the sun in daylight greatly aid in detecting sign. It’s a simple rule, you don’t track at night—except though snow are they’re dragging a log behind them.

 Giang Chu (aka "Ringo") taught me really serious tracking skills.

I learned some basic tracking skills in the Boy Scouts many many moons ago. I learned more from Cambodian mercenaries and Montagnard tribesmen in Vietnam. Believe me, tracking in a jungle or a dense American forest (it’s about the same) is a challenge. I picked up some additional tracking skills at the British and German-run International Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol School in Germany—I can tell you all about Russian and Warsaw Pact boot sole patterns.



Armando Castillo Medina of Rancho el Consuelo, one of the best trackers I've known.


Where I really learned tracking was in Mexico on my wife’s family’s ranch from the vaqueros. I think they can track a field mouse. My daughter learned from them as well. There was once a puma snatching calves on the ranch. Put-out by its marauding on her rangeland where she reigned as queen of the campo, she loaded up her horse and tracked the cat for three days before baiting it and shooting it at 30 feet. Anyway, that’s another story.
A tracker adds color to a story and of course is essential if in pursuit of the bad guys. In The Hardest Ride I made Bud, the protag, an accomplished tracker taught by an old vaquero in much the same manner I was taught by a wise vaquero—tracking kids we sent out and then tracking critters of different flavors, by foot and horse.
Okay, so what’s “sign?” Anything the trackee leaves behind. Some call it “spore.” Mostly this is footprints or hoof prints or paw prints or talons (okay, let’s not go there); scuffs, broken twigs, disturbed pebbles, cigarette butts, piss marks, and so on.
The best time of day to track is morning and late afternoon when the sun is lower to better highlight the ridges and irregularities of prints with shadows. Back to torches. Tracking at night on a horse with a torch held high, its flickering notwithstanding, does not provide the necessary low angle slat of light. In daylight the tracker walks or rides on the opposite side of the trail from the sun so the shadows in the tracks are better defined. Of course the sun may be behind or ahead of the tracker. Before setting out the tracker views the tracks from different perspectives to determine which side offers the most definition.
One can track from a horse if the sign is distinct, but if indistinct and the sun is low it better on foot. For one thing, if high on a horse you are looking more vertically down on the tracks and the low angled sun’s shadows are not so noticeable.
A tracker does not watch for sign looking down at his feet. He looks 10-30 feet ahead depending on the distance he can effectively make out sign. That distance of course changes as terrain and vegetation changes. He can also occasionally glace further ahead for sign. This way if he sees sign further on he can move along faster as it’s unnecessary to detect every track. Peering ahead may also show considerable sign when the trail passes through brush, saplings, weeds, low grass, and so on. It may be bent, pressed down, and generally disturbed. Sunlight will further highlight the differences from surrounding vegetation. Turned or bent leaves and trampled grass can reveal their undersides and this prominently stands out as the color and texture are different.
Tracking in the early morning takes advantage of dew on the ground and vegetation. If the quarry was moving at night or earlier in the morning, it will leave a distinctive trail, unless beneath dense trees.
Speed. Boot and hoof prints at a walking pace are fairly even. A man or horse moving faster makes a deeper impression at the tow and the prints are further apart. A large or heavily loaded man may cause deeper heel impressions.

                             One horse at a walk, the other at a run on a slightly damp road.

About horse prints. I’ll provide an excerpt for The Hardest Ride’s sequel, Ride Harder, a WIP. Bud and his party returning the DeWitt Ranch are overtaking an Army convoy.

“I busied myself watching the tracks the Army convoy left. I watch tracks by habit to keep in good form. Can’t let these eyes get out of the habit of looking for the uncommon things. Things that’s always there, but you might not see them if your eyes aren’t taught to look. Gave me something to do while bouncing down a trail.
I figured the mule teams were two for each of the four wagons and seven riders. Down the road a piece a bunch of riders had come in on a side trail through the mesquite from the right, from the Rio Grande. I backtracked a little and figured they were six, well mounted and traveling heavy. But there were two mules with them making light tracks. They weren’t pack mules. I could tell because they over-stepped the horses and wagon tracks and weren’t side-by-side like the teamed mules.
Some will tell you that mule and horse tracks are the same, but they’re not. Mules have a more oval track and the hind hoof steps right in the fore hoof’s print. Horse’s hoofs don’t or might over-step them just a bit.
These horses and mules were moving at a faster pace than the Army horses. Their toes were dug in more with longer strides between the fore and hind roofs. That seemed strange. Most folks keep a steady walk when traveling any distance. Something didn’t feel, or look right.”

There’s other things besides prints and disturbed vegetation that can tip off a tracker. We were tracking a VC squad once and would have missed their camp site except we found several pissmarks off the trail to the right. Just beyond this we found where they’d slept, nine disturbed areas where they had tramped down vegetation and grass to sling their hammocks. They had started moving before light in a different direction and we easily found their trail in the turned layers of dead leaves further highlighted by dew.
Horse poop of course is another sign. Yeah, some claim they can tell how old it is by crumbing it, but when it 98°F the poop isn’t going to be the same temperature when its 32°F and both samples are two hours old. You can roughly tell how old a burned out fire is, but that takes lots of practice.
Excellent places to detect sign are on stream banks, gullies—even very small ones, ditches, and fallen trees the trackee crossed over. Man or horse can’t help but leave scuff marks, gouges, dislodged pebbles and rocks. They leave bark scuffs and dirt on fallen trees. Dislodged pebbles, even tiny ones; and this applies to level ground as well, will reveal little pits and the part of the pebbles that were below ground are usually darker than the exposed portion.
You can also find where a man’s climbed over a barbed wire fence as sand and dirt will stick to the strands, if he actually climbed it. Spreading stands and ducking through will not leave sand on the wire, but you can sometimes see drooping wire or trodden down weeds and brush growing along the fence line at the point of passage.
Okay, that’s just the basics. There’s much more to it, a lot of other technics, like how to pick up a trail that you’ve lost. The key to a good tracker is an eye for detecting something different and an eye for detail. And just as importantly, patience.
A comment on one last thing you see in movies. When you drag a leafy limb behind you or sweep your trail, to even a novice tracker, it looks remarkably like someone had swept the trail with a leafy limb.