Albuquerque, N.M., writer Melody Groves knows firsthand what it feels like to face down an opponent, as she’s both an active gunfight reenactor and a onetime bull rider. The multitasking writer has published Western novels and history books and writes for magazines. In her “downtime” she plays rhythm guitar. Groves’ novels include Border Ambush, Sonoran Rage, Arizona War, Kansas Bleeds, Black Range Revenge, She Was Sheriff and the forthcoming Lady of the Law: The Maud Overstreet Saga (2022). Her nonfiction books include Ropes, Reins and Rawhide: All About Rodeo, Butterfield’s Byway: America’s First Overland Mail Route Across the West and Hoist a Cold One! Historic Bars of the Southwest. Her latest, When Outlaws Wore Badges (2021), profiles Old West lawmen who broke the law.
How would you characterize Milton Yarberry, who became town marshal of Albuquerque?
He was probably always a bad guy, since as a teenager he killed a man. But he managed to do a few good things along the way. Characters like him, I believe, are what made the Wild West wild.
What about Henry Plummer, the sheriff hanged by vigilantes in Montana Territory?
Plummer truly walked both sides, but I think he was an opportunist. And I think he was probably the opposite of mainly bad Yarberry. Plummer had good intentions and generally followed the law, but his ego took control, and he saw the opportunity to get rich and took it, which didn’t work out so well for him.
How about Arizona Territory’s Burt Alvord, once a respectable lawman?
Alvord was a schemer, which made him smarter than the average outlaw. It takes a lot of planning and bravado to get your friends together to play poker, rob a train and then rush back to the poker table pretending you’ve all been there all along. Yep, he was no dummy.
How could the likes of Plummer and Alvord work both sides of the law?
They possessed fearlessness and the willingness to either enforce the law or commit a crime. Men like that were often hired as lawmen because they had the gumption to rob a train or hunt down a criminal. It takes a certain type of person to either stand behind the badge or stand in front of it.
Which of the lawmen/outlaws interested you most?
Frankly, they’re all intriguing. But Burt Alvord’s robbing a train while a lawman, then appointing all the other robbers as deputies and riding out to catch the outlaws is hilarious. For a while he got away with lots of money. It takes a ton of ego to pull that off.
‘Men like that were often hired as lawmen because they had the gumption to rob a train or hunt down a criminal. It takes a certain type of person to either stand behind the badge or stand in front of it’
What motivated some of these men to turn to crime rather than maintain law and order?
There wasn’t much money associated with being a lawman. At times there was no salary at all, other times not enough to live on. Many were paid by receiving a percentage of the taxes they collected and/or the bounty on a criminal’s head. For those men who could go either way, I think they chose the more profitable. They probably didn’t consider being caught as a possibility.
Were there others who didn’t make your book?
The men I wrote about all had some sort of bizarre event or connection I found interesting—first town marshal…rode with Billy…mysteriously disappeared, etc. I thought long and hard about including Billy the Kid. He was a [Lincoln County, N.M.] Regulator for a bit, and while it felt like he was on the side of the law, his being a Regulator wasn’t legal action such as being a deputy.
The Flat, just below Fort Griffin, Texas, had quite a reputation. Who were some of it notorious inhabitants, and why did they congregate there?
Situated between Fort Griffin and the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, the town below the fort became known as “The Flat.” It was one of Texas’ most lawless communities. Among the most notorious denizens were Lottie Deno, Big Nose Kate, John Wesley Hardin, John Selman, Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. It’s reportedly where Earp met Holliday. Fort Griffin is now a state historic site.
Does participating in gunfight reenactments give you empathy for the subject?
From gunfighting I know what it’s like to stare down the barrel of a .44 (thankfully, we always use blanks—but they can still hurt), and I know the adrenaline it takes to be in a gunfight. I’ve learned so much from being a gunfighter, especially from the inside. And as a gunfighter, I’ve been involved in reenactments such as the killing of Billy the Kid, walking inside the store where he ate his last Christmas dinner. I know what holding a gun and pointing it at someone feels like. I’m familiar with the emotions associated with gunfighting—being afraid, confident, concern for fellow “bad guys” or “good guys,” trying to figure out the opponent’s moves. Because of those reenactments I feel as if I know what I’m writing about.
How has bull riding shaped you?
While I never expected to be professional at the sport (I was too old when I started), the gumption, tenacity and sheer single-mindedness it takes to stay on (at least it did for me) is something I apply to everything I do, including writing.
You write nonfiction and fiction. How does one form help you write the other?
Due to my fiction work, I like to think that my nonfiction characters are a bit more rounded than just something you read in an encyclopedia. And in my fiction I work hard to get the facts correct. Sometimes I come across an interesting fact, and I’ll incorporate it into my book, and one time it changed the story line. I can’t imagine simply writing a story without doing research.
How do you undertake research?
My favorite form of research is to visit where the story is set. This may sound odd, but I find touching a building or simply standing on a historic spot allows me to connect with the past. I’ve learned a great deal just by running my hand down an adobe wall. I can see the history that way. Other research includes newspaper archives, reading other written work and talking to historians.
What do you find challenging about your work?
My biggest challenge is to find enough time to do everything I want to do. I have to be majorly organized. And second biggest challenge is to stick with one topic. I usually work on several projects at once. They all get done, and I’m always surprised when I write, “The End.”
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a story for Wild West about Billy the Kid’s mom (a fascinating woman) and another for True West about “Uncle Dick” Wootton and Raton Pass. I’m working on a nonfiction book, Before Billy: The Story Behind the Legendary Outlaw, coming out next June. And I’m line editing Lady of the Law, coming out next February. I’m also line editing my five Colton Brothers Saga books, which are being made into e-books. WW