Friday, June 29, 2012

The Gunsmoke Journal: #2 Marshal of What, Exactly?

In the longrunning western TV classic Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon was the marshal of Dodge City. And he was a U.S. Marshal. He rode herd over the town -town marshal was the equivalent of the modern chief of police -and he chased bad guys all over the American West (the chief of police doesn't do that.) I've heard a lot of people express confusion over what exactly Mister Dillon's job was... and to be honest, the show didn't spell it out real clearly after the first few seasons.

Here's the lowdown: Matt Dillon was in the federal marshal's service, assigned to the U.S. Marshal's Office in Dodge City. This sign hung on the front of his office building for the entire run of the series:

Technically he would have been a deputy U.S. marshal, as "marshal" was more of a regional political position- they rarely if ever actually took the field. Still, even now it's not uncommon for deputy marshals to be referred to as "federal marshals," in fictional media and in real life. Ever hear of Marshal Raylan Givens?

The United States Marshals Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the U.S., formed in 1789. Their job is to serve and protect the judiciary branch (although they are actually part of the executive branch)- they protect judges and courtrooms, transport prisoners to and from court, protect witnesses, serve arrest warrants, and pursue fugitives. As agents of the federal government, marshals can pursue said fugitives anywhere in the United States- or other countries, if they have extradition papers.

A lot of famous deputy U.S. marshals were active, during the period of the "Old West," in and around present-day Oklahoma. That is because, until the 1890s, what we now call Oklahoma was Indian Territory. The eastern part of Indian Territory (or I.T.) was the location of the "Five Civilized Tribes" who had been transported from the East during the Trail of Tears. Those Nations had their own governments and their own police force -called lighthorsemen. The lighthorsemen had jurisdiction over Indians, but not over U.S. citizens.

Choctaw Lighthorsemen:

As a result, many outlaws "headed for the Nations"... the local police there had no power over them. "Hanging" Judge Isaac Parker's court in Fort Smith, Arkansas (right across the I.T. border), however, did. Federal marshals attached to that court had the right to go into Indian Territory and apprehend them.

Among the most famous of those marshals were the "Three Guardsmen of Oklahoma," pictured below... l to r., Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, and Chris Madsen.

Another of the most effective marshals was Bass Reeves, who was only one of several African American -and in some cases African-Indian -federal officers operating out of Fort Smith.

Famous fictional agents of Parker's court included deputy marshal Jed Cooper from Hang 'Em High:

...And the incomparable Rooster Cogburn.

In the earlier seasons, it was made clear that Matt Dillon was employed by the War Department and had to answer to Washington... this was alluded to in the final seasons, but only rarely. One second-season episode, "Bureaucrat", had Matt's Washington superior come into Dodge to do an inspection.

This is why a common plot device was to have Matt out of town at Fort Hayes, testifying in court or transporting prisoners. It's also why he could wind up, in any given episode, pursuing the renegade Chato through Jicarilla Apache territory in New Mexico (in one of my favorite episodes):

...or even into Mexico to deal with a corrupt federale played by Gilbert Roland, in the two-parter "Extradition."

Since he was stationed in Dodge by the Marshals Service, the town council hired him to serve double duty as town marshal. Later, as the town grew, that required him to have a deputy or two, at least part-time- these deputies (Thad, Festus, and Newly) were referred to as Deputy U.S. Marshals, so it is possible that Matt deputized them in his federal capacity, which would have been within his purview. (Note- Chester occasionally accompanied Matt, but never wore a badge or was called a deputy. Officially, he was hired by Matt to help out around the office/jail, thus being an assistant rather than a sworn in lawman.)

In the fourth-season episode "The Constable," the town council (including good old Mr. Bodkin, the banker for the show's entire run) had a change of heart. Matt was developing a reputation for being too hard on the rowdy cowboys, and the council feared the drovers would drive their cattle to a different town and ruin Dodge City's businesses. They called Matt in for a meeting and informed him to just "stick to his duties out in the country," and they would hire a more lenient constable to keep order in town (of course, this turned out to be disastrous and they called Matt back in.) This clearly demonstrates, early on, that Matt's duties as U.S. Marshal and town marshal were very much separate.

It is worth noting, by the way, that the U.S. Marshals Service did not have uniform badges in the 19th century like they do today; instead, they were purchased by federal agents and often reflected their own tastes. Here is the modern day federal marshal's badge:

... which was preceded by this one in the 1970s:

Marshal Dillon's badge- and those of his deputies (or, um, deputy-deputies) was similar to this one in use around 1900:

I've always thought Heck Thomas's badge was pretty snazzy:

Anyhow, if you were ever confused about Marshal Dillon's status, them there's the "facts," near as I can tell.

Check out my other "Gunsmoke Journal" installments:

#1 Dodge City and Me

#3 Chester vs. Festus

Monday, June 25, 2012

Big Announcement from Western Fictioneers

Western Fictioneers has made an important announcement over on our website: .

It concerns our new, ongoing collaborative western series, Wolf Creek. There is also some info on the subject at , where I made the official announcement earlier today.

As Western Fictioneers president, and Wolf Creek series editor, I will be sharing more info on here from time to time, beginning in a day or two.

Check out the announcements, and our official Wolf Creek website:

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Last Stand at Bitter Creek

I've been hearing a lot of good things about Tom Rizzo's new novel Last Stand at Bitter Creek -and reading the book confirmed the positive buzz. My only previous experience with Rizzo was through his work at Wild West Magazine- and believe me, folks who write for that magazine have to know their history. Editor Greg LaLire makes sure of it.

In fact, it was an article Rizzo wrote for Wild West many years ago, about the first train robbery, that inspired this novel. Not only is there a lot of history in the book... in some ways the novel is about history.

The basic plot: in the final days of the Civil War, weary Union intelligence agent Grant Bonner accepts one final mission. A series of twists and turns follows, so intricate that I can't go into much detail for fear of betraying plot points. But there is a train robbery, accompanied by a larger theft -that of a priceless national treasure. Bonner ends up on the run, cut off from his handlers, wanted for crimes he did not commit -trying both to solve the crime and clear his name. It all comes to a head in the town of Bitter Creek, Wyoming.

First off, how could you have a better western title than Last Stand at Bitter Creek? I'm just sayin'. And Rizzo has produced a real page-turner. This book is equal parts Bourne Conspiracy, National Treasure, the 1990s Robert Urich western series The Lazarus Man, and old-fashioned Louis L'Amour adventure yarn.  And it works.

I recommend this highly to anyone who likes any of the stuff I just mentioned... or who just likes a good story.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Favorite Artist and Poet

About fourteen years ago I made a new friend at the old Yahoo Books-&-Lit chatlist -one of several good friends I made at that site, and at the subsidiary site we called "Gorpies" after the chat name of that site's founder. This new creative presence in my life was an artist and a poet- and darn good at both. Her name was Robin, but her chatname -appropriately -was "artistrobin."

We were casual friends for years, and throughout that time she remained my favorite poet and a visual artist I admired greatly. I would never have guessed that ten years after our first talks about poetry and art she would become my wife. We celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary just a week ago, on June 14. I think my wife is one of the most talented peope I know -and I know some talented people. I am confident that if you take a look at her new website, you'll agree with me:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Gunsmoke Journal: #1, Dodge City and Me

I love me some Gunsmoke.

And I’m clearly not the only one. Gunsmoke is the longest running dramatic series in television history –broadcast from 1955 till 1975, for a total of 20 seasons. Law and Order, a show I also love, managed to tie this feat –but with a caveat. The cast of L&O turned over several times during its run, with none of the original ensemble group making it the whole time. In fact, the longest tenure of any original first-season L&O character was five seasons (Mike Noth’s Det. Logan, although he did appear several seasons in the spinoff Criminal Intent.)

On the other hand, the four main characters introduced in the first episode of Gunsmoke had staying power. Marshal Matt Dillon remained the central protagonist for all 20 seasons. Doctor “Doc” Galen Adams also appeared for 20 seasons, although he missed most of Season 17 due to heart surgery. Miss Kitty made it for 19, leaving before the final year. Even the short-timer, Chester Goode, made it partway into the ninth season.

Kelsey Grammer’s “Frasier Crane” character tied Matt Dillon for longest run of an actor in a television role –but there is a similar caveat there. Frasier was not introduced on Cheers until the third season, and for two years was only a recurring guest rather than a featured cast member. James Arness brought Matt Dillon to the small screen as the main character of a program for twenty consecutive years –plus a series of TV movies, from 1987 till 1994. So in a way, James Arness played Matt Dillon for closer to 40 years.

But even twenty years is a big chunk of time. When Gunsmoke premiered my father was eleven years old. When it was cancelled I was almost eight –and when the final TV movie featuring retired marshal Matt Dillon aired, I was 26 and a father myself. To this day, love of Gunsmoke continues to be one of the bonds between my father and me, and we discuss it often.

I remember watching “The Deadly Innocent” with my grandma –and informs me this was on Dec. 17, 1973. I distinctly remember watching “The Tarnished Badge” –in which Victor French, whom I recognized as the kindly Isaiah Edwards from Little House on the Prairie, played a vicious sheriff that Matt had to bring to justice. The next day I re-enacted the story with my Marx cowboy action figures on the red clay banks behind our home (Johnny West was Matt Dillon, and Pat Garrett was the evil sheriff.) Whenever I think of that episode, I smell that red clay. That was Nov. 11, 1974.

That year my mom was in the hospital for awhile. My step-father, my older cousin, and I were on our own for several days. I remember our efforts to make breakfast that Sunday morning… the result being biscuits so hard you could break a window with them, and gravy so thick it was hard to pull the spoon out of it. And we watched the two-part episode “Island in the Desert,” in which Festus was held captive by a crazed prospector played by the great Strother Martin (who had a pet rattlesnake named Homer.) In a bizarre sort of family tradition, for years afterward we delighted ourselves in imitating Martin’s distinctive nasal voice: “Bite’im, Homer!” “I’ll cut ye, Festus, and I’ll cut ye good!” That was early December, 1974.

When I was 18 I had a job buffing floors at Wal-mart –back in the days when such stores actually closed at night, from 9pm till 9am. The floor guys would be locked in overnight. The other floor guy became my best friend –and he was a huge Gunsmoke fan. Syndicated repeats showed on the local Fox outlet at 10 pm every weeknight… when we were at work, yet before the rest of the employees went home and got out of our way. We had a contraband VCR tape that we kept hidden above the ceiling tiles in the janitor’s closet… every night, just after we got to work, we’d secretly stick it into one of the display TV/VCR’s, turn it to the proper channel, and push record. Every morning at 2am we’d retrieve it and watch Gunsmoke on our lunch break. Those are some great memories. And beyond that, the steady western diet contributed to me writing my own western stories at night while locked in those stores, never dreaming that I would one day be a published author.

I decided to occasionally write about the show on my blog- future installments will be more about the program itself, rather than my own nostalgic attachment to it. But I’m willing to bet that many of you have your own Gunsmoke stories, and I invite you to share them in your comments.
It’s hard to get out of Dodge.

Check out my other installments of the Gunsmoke Journal:

#2 Marshal of What, Exactly?

#3 Chester vs Festus 


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Road to Rimrock

I was lucky enough to get an advance view of a western novel set for release next month by Black Horse Westerns -an excellent outfit across the Big Pond, the United Kingdom to be exact, that has been producing action-oriented westerns since the 1960s. The novel in question is Road to Rimrock, by Chuck Tyrell -an American living in Japan, writing for a top-notch British press that specializes in the American West... and he's as interesting as he sounds.

Matt Stryker is the marshal at Rimrock, Arizona... a mining town whose silver mine has played out, and which even the most optimistic citizens would admit is possibly on its way to ghost town status. Stryker's job mostly consists of putting the town drunk, Stan Ruggart, away for the night. But then one day everything changed...

"Stan Ruggart went on living and drinking, Matt Stryker went on making his rounds, and Rimrock went on dying. Then Tom Hall rode in."

Soon Stryker is caught up in murder and conspiracy, unsure who to trust as he carries out a promise to a dead friend. He gains several unlikely allies along the way (including, briefly, Wolf Wilder -protagonist of Tyrell's novel A Man Called Breed.) He also picks up enemies -targeted not only by the killers he pursues, but also a trio of gunmen from his past, bent on revenge, and a couple of very shady ladies. The story unfolds via Tyrell's usual well-paced action and engaging dialogue.

For decades now -off and on -people have been pronouncing the death knell of the Western, much as the Rimrock of this novel is written off as a dying prospect. But it keeps bouncing back, as new generations of writers infuse their energy into the genre and give it new twists even as they pay homage to its storied traditions. There are several such authors on the scene in the 21st century, and Chuck Tyrell is right there at their leading edge. I have read and enjoyed several of his books in the last couple of years, and he is becoming a name well worth noting. If you haven't read his work yet, Road to Rimrock will be released on July 1- you can sign up for an amazon email reminder HERE.  Until then, you can try one of these other books -all worth your money if you love Westerns, especially the good old-fashioned kind.



Friday, June 1, 2012

Red Trail

My two-volume "Tales of the West" short story collection is now complete: the second volume, RED TRAIL, has arrived. 

"An intense and often violent story collection... These seventeen character driven short stories of the Old West and the American Frontier by award-winning author Troy D. Smith reveal the good and the bad in men and women as they fight to survive harsh circumstances and deadly situations."

This volume includes "The Sin of Eli," originally published in the 2011 Western Fictioneer anthology The Traditional West and winner of the Peacemaker Award, and "Blackwell's Run," which was a Peacemaker finalist. It also includes the first fiction I ever had published, "Mourning Glory," which appeared in a 1995 issue of Louis L'Amour Western Magazine. Taken together with CHEROKEE WINTER -available HERE- the total is 32 short stories, some of the best I've produced in the last 17 years. I was greatly honored by having two of my literary role models allow me to include blurbs from them in this collection:

FRANK RODERUS: "Troy Smith has a rare and wonderful gift. His words do more than take you to another time, more than allow you to live another person's life… they also open that person's heart and allow you to feel its beat.

Smith is able to evoke the emotions that will touch your heart, using characters you will remember and think about long after his story is read and its pages closed. His work is a treat. Enjoy!"

RICHARD WHEELER: "He is a formidable writer, and one of the most knowledgeable."

Reviewer Ron Scheer had this to say about the first volume:

"Troy D. Smith puts the story in history. Figures from the history books often emerge in his western stories, but not until you’ve been totally swept up in the imaginative world Smith has invented. There’s western myth enough in them, but you realize that this writer really wants you to know the past as it was...

Westerns often sidestep the matter of real pain and suffering. Smith’s stories do not. He often puts us in the company of the walking wounded. Shame and guilt may haunt their lives. They may carry the weight of betrayals, atrocities witnessed, and secrets untold. Only occasionally is there healing, as in 'The Purification of Jim Barnes,' where a returning Vietnam veteran undergoes a tribal purification ceremony.

No surprise that Troy Smith’s stories are up for this year’s Peacemaker Awards. His work gives real stature to the western short story."
I invite you to give one or both of these volumes a try.

RED TRAIL can be found at amazon -HERE -and smashwords -HERE.

Peacemaker Award for Western Fiction- Winners

I am deeply honored that my story "The Sin of Eli," published in the 2011 Western Fictioneer anthology The Traditional West, has been named the winner of this year's Peacemaker Award for Western fiction in the short story category. As icing on the cake, another of my works -"Blackwell's Run," available as an ebook from Western Trail Blazer -was also among the finalists. The honor for me is compounded by all the excellent writers who were also winners and finalists.


Other winners include:  WAYNE DUNDEE for best first novel, Dismal River. Wayne won in the short story category last year, and is one of the fast-rising new stars in the western genre.

JAMES REASONER for Best Novel- Redemption, Kansas. If you could read the fine print on the cover, you'd find a blurb by me... and turns out I wasn't the only one who loved it.

JORY SHERMAN won the first Peacemaker for Lifetime Achievement... and I can think of no one more deserving. Jory's work is magnificent... and he is a top-notch human being. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer (for Grass Kingdom) and was on the Beat poet scene (you should hear his Bukowski stories. Or read 'em, in Bukowski and Me: The Beast and the Bastard.)

Here is a complete list of finalists:

Best Western Short Story:
***There were  two ties in this category, which is why there are seven nominees instead of the required five.

Winner: “The Sin of Eli” by Troy D. Smith (The Traditional West anthology, WF)

“Planting Season” by Johnny D Boggs (Cactus Country Anthology, Volume I – High Hill Press)
“The Way of the West” by Larry J. Martin (The Traditional West anthology, WF)
“Blackwell’s Run” (Western Trail Blazer) by Troy D. Smith
“Panhandle Freight” by LJ Washburn (The Traditional West anthology, WF)    
“The Death of Delgado” by Rod Miller (The Traditional West anthology, WF)
“Stay of Execution” by Lucia St. Clair Robson (Cactus Country Anthology, Volume I – High Hill Press)


WINNER: James Reasoner -- Redemption, Kansas  Publisher: Berkley


The Sonora Noose by Jackson Lowry (Berkley)

Blood Trails by Lyle Brandt (Berkley)

The Assassination of Governor Boggs by Rod Miller (Bonneville Books)

Between Hell and Texas by Dusty Richards (Kensington Pinnacle imprint)


WINNER: Wayne Dundee --  Dismal River        Publisher: Oak Tree Press

Unbridled by Tammy Hinton (Roots and Branches Publishing)

The Black Hills by Rod Thompson (Berkley)

Bullets And Bad Bad Men by B.A. Kelly (Oak Tree Press)

The Guerrilla Man by Steven Clark (Solstice Publishing)