When Caroline Lockhart wrote a novel about a notorious rustler in 1911, it ended with him thrown into a pit of rattlesnakes. Decades later, she encountered a rustler in real life and decided to have a hit man bump him off.
Her contract on the life of the rustler is proving the most controversial part of my recently published biography: The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart. For some reason, everyone wants to know how she could have contemplated murder. Well, the answer is complicated.
Lockhart wrote best-selling Western novels in the 1910s, and as in most frontier literature, her characters lived beyond the reach of law enforcement or other moral institutions, so they had to right wrongs themselves. It's the ultimate test of character and probably why this literature endures. How do you act when there's nobody there to tell you how to act? Which violations require the response of violence?
In Westerns, rustling represents the ultimate injustice. Thus in Lockhart’s The Full of the Moon, an Eastern lawyer earns his chaps by besting a rustler despite a stacked courtroom. In The Man from the Bitter Roots, written two years later, in 1915, a mountain guide vows to "lick [the rustler] every day, reg’lar, or jest as often as I kin pay my fine, git washed up, and locate him agin.”
Lockhart helped the genre evolve to focus more on these moral situations than on authenticity. Her contemporaries invented the stylized gunfight, an ultimate test of character. That’s why academics like to talk about the Western novel’s “mythology” -- it’s a powerful story form that doesn’t necessarily represent real life.
But nobody told Lockhart that. In 1926, hoping to live in the sort of blissful cattle-laden setting she'd created for her novels, she homesteaded a remote ranch in southern Montana. Never married, she ran the ranch haphazardly with a succession of hired hands, until 10 years later, she came up against the very problem she'd described in her novels: Somebody was brazenly stealing her livestock.
In large part because she was a women, she endured many frustrations. Law enforcement, for example, could be found in the county seat more than 100 miles away. The sheriff’s department did nothing. A famed private detective cost her a fortune and hardly got off the couch. Ranch employees refused to confront the obvious suspect, and Lockhart's attempts to drive him out of the area in a "this town ain't big enough for the both of us" approach proved fruitless.
So finally she put out a contract on the rustler’s life. She told a former employee that the neighbor’s ears were worth $100 apiece to her. He understood the request: Murder. When you tell people this today, they're aghast. Was she paranoid, out of touch with reality, mentally ill? Was she just plain mean? The only regret she expressed in her diary concerned her fear of getting caught. How could she place so little value on a human life?
The way I see it, Lockhart was coming face-to-face with more than a lawbreaker; she was up against the limits of the Wild West mythology. After all, in a Clint Eastwood movie, the rustler would be summarily dispatched, to great audience satisfaction, because eliminating a villain is always more important than following the rules. Why do we resist seeing Lockhart playing the Clint Eastwood role? Well, for one thing, she’s Clint Eastwood in a dress. Does that mean we expect women to follow moral rules better than men?
She’s also Clint Eastwood with a Fistful of Dollars but no Magnum Force of her own. She hired a killer rather than doing it herself. Do we accept outsourcing of business processes better than emotional ones? There’s a third explanation for our dismay: Eastwood himself has moved beyond those roles. Can his fans no longer picture a lawless frontier where enforcing your rights is a job for everybody, not just lawyers and cops?
In any case, the hit man Lockhart hired never followed through on the contract. He simply pocketed her $35 down payment and left town, sending Lockhart back to pleading with the cops to arrest her thieving neighbor. It’s not hard to sympathize with her feelings of powerlessness. She must have hoped the West was just like her fiction, a fairy-tale world, where silent strangers can mete out vengeful justice. Instead, she found herself living in a real world, where you can’t always find a reliable shooter or even a pit of rattlesnakes when you need it.
John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the author of The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart, and lives in central Montana.