Friday, December 13, 2013

Bounty Hunters in the Old West by @JacquieRogers

The law was a bit sparse in the Old West, often not a lawman around for hundreds of miles. If a criminal knew how to live off the land and he owned a fast horse, he was pretty well guaranteed an escape. What's a sheriff to do?

In 1872, the Supreme Court ruled that bounty hunters were a part of the U.S. law enforcement system with a decision in Taylor vs. Taintor:

“When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of due process. None is needed. It is likened to the arrest by the Sheriff of an escaped prisoner.”

As you can see by this decision, bounty hunters didn't have to adhere to the same rules of due process that lawmen did. (This is still true in some states.)

One of the greatest bounty hunters was Pinkerton Detective, Charlie Siringo. Siringo had a long and distinguished, if not controversial, career. He had steely nerves and his cleverness got him out of more than one jam. But he wrote a book, and the Pinkerton Agency wasn't too keen about that, so he spent several years at the end of his life arguing with them. Could be that the Pinkertons were the only ones to ever best him.

Lots of town marshals and county sheriffs supplemented their meager incomes with bounties. Of course, they had to follow the rules of due process while a bounty hunter had no such restrictions. Then again, if there's no one around for a couple hundred miles, who's to know? This is part of how the West was tamed. Many lawmen straddled the fence between law-enforcing and law-breaking.

In order for a bounty hunter to get his money in British Columbia, he had to bring the criminal in alive. The US had no such compunctions, but the bounty was half if the prisoner died before making it to jail. Bounty hunters didn't receive payment until later, so when they brought in prisoners, they'd either have to wait, or have the money sent to a bank. (They'd probably wait, considering the state of banking at the time.) But the most important thing was that bounty hunters' names were never, ever recorded, because their anonymity was their protection. This little item is what makes research difficult.

(From Wikimedia Commons)
Much to movie and TV viewers' delight, popular lore glorifies the Old West bounty hunter. The role of Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive in the 1950s made Steve McQueen a star. "Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) was a man of few words. A bounty hunter by trade, he tracked his prey all over the West. Randall carried an 1892 44/40 center fire Winchester carbine that he called "Mare's Laig." It handled like a revolver by had the punch of a rifle. Unlike other bounty hunters, Randall had scruples. He tried to bring the prisoner in alive and often found himself called upon to protect people in need."

Then there's my personal favorite, Paladin, played by Richard Boone on "Have Gun-Will Travel." (Okay, so he was more of a hired gun than a bounty hunter, but they go together well.) 

I haven't written a novel with a bounty hunter character yet, but I have a few planned.  My Christmas story, A Gift for Rhoda, in Wishing for a Cowboy (Prairie Rose Publications) has a retired bounty hunter hero.


Rhoda Johnson is stranded in a lonely cabin without a groom. The townsfolk say she's better off without him, but her drunken groom sends a message that he'll claim her as his Christmas bride. Gunman and ex-Confederate soldier Nate Harmon comes to Idaho to make peace with his abolitionist preacher father. When half-frozen Nate reaches the cabin on a snowy Christmas Eve, instead of finding his folks, he's greeted by a pretty blonde with a shotgun who keeps calling him Mr. Snyder. Will she shoot him, or melt his heart?

Excerpt of
A Gift for Rhoda
by Jacquie Rogers
a short story in 

With trepidation, Rhoda stoked up the fire in the stove, then leaned her back against the door and closed her eyes, praying for strength. It was Christmas Eve, a stranger—a hulking grizzly of a man, but a stranger nonetheless—had come bearing gifts, so sharing her shelter in the blizzard was the Christian thing to do. Maybe.

Before she gave herself a chance to think again, she turned around and yanked open the door. The wind caught it, blew it open, and nearly mashed her into the wall.

Rhoda grabbed her shotgun and pushed the door nearly shut, and yelled, “Mr. Snyder, you can come into the house.” She slammed the door again, not sure whether she was frozen from fear or from the cold.

Within a minute, boots clomped on the porch. She had said she would let him in and she’d go through with it—that was that. With false bravado, she swung the door open.

Aiming the shotgun at him, she said, “Leave all your weapons outside, Mr. Snyder.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He held his hands out to his sides, likely wanting to assure her that he had no intention of using his weapons. “But who the blazes is Mr. Snyder?”

♥  ♥  ♥
There are eight wonderful stories in this Christmas anthology, and at the end, there are recipes that go with each story, and mine is Rhoda's Wedding Custard Pie (bonus—it's gluten-free!).

Hearts of Owyhee series

(and available for Christmas...)


Mel Comley said...

Great post, really enjoyed it. :-)

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jacquie, this was a good post. I didn't know about Charlie, but he's fodder for stories, isn't he? Loved your story in WISHING FOR A COWBOY. My favorite in the book.