Back in the days before the Web, I used to watch a TV show called Connections. Each episode would take some noteworthy scientific discovery or invention and examine all the seemingly minor occurrences, chance encounters, and people that led to it. It was a sort of reverse Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story,” and it was fascinating.
Now, with Wikipedia and a Google search at our fingertips, we can discover such connections any time. And just like with the show, I’m often surprised by history.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King wrote that his stories always start with a single What if? What if a New England town is inhabited by vampires? (‘Salem’s Lot) What if a woman and her kid were trapped in car by a rabid dog? (Cujo) Similarly, my short novella, Holt County Law began with a “What If?” concerning the murder of Sheriff Bernard Kearns by William Reed in March of 1881.
Even with the Internet, there’s not a lot of information available on Kearns or many details about the shooting. The written record isn’t much better. Here’s what Spur award winner Nellie Snyder Yost wrote about the event in Before Today, her 1976 history of Holt County:
“Although there are differing accounts of the shooting, all agree on one point – that both parties had been drinking too much. One account states that the sheriff and Reed were rivals for the affections of a waitress at the hotel and there was already bad blood between them. When Reed and other cowboys came to town and amused themselves by shooting down clothes lines where hung family washings, Kearns ordered them to cease and desist. The meeting in the hotel followed, where Reed drew his revolver and Kearns struck him over the head with his (Kearns’s) gun and Reed shot the sheriff with his. Another story has two cowboys in a saloon holding Kearns while Reed pumped lead into him.”
My What if? focused on one of those accomplices to the murder –and one of Kearns’s deputies. What if the deputy was also the sheriff’s best friend? Would the deputy blame himself for the tragic outcome? Would he try to get revenge? When the accomplice was acquitted (as was William Reed) in Kearns’s murder, what would our lawman hero think about the Holt County law? One What if? leads to twenty more questions. My Internet search for Kearns led to even more connections.
It turns out that Kearns had a brother, one that’s famous enough to have his own Wikipedia entry. Thomas Kearns grew up in Holt County and went on to become a “mining, banking, railroad, and newspaper magnate.” As a United States Senator from Utah, (1901-1905) Kearns was a personal friend of Teddy Roosevelt. Kearns township in Salt Lake County, Utah, is named for him.
If, as King also wrote in his short memoir, writing isn’t about the money, making friends, or all the usual motivations, (which it is not –got that passage taped right here above my keyboard) then discovering these real life connections is surely one of the great joys and motivations of the craft.
Holt County Law is .99 cents at Amazon.