Fantasy role players and gamers know all about lairs when it comes to their adventures. Abandoned dungeons usually, but also natural caves and tunnels of the “underdark”, ruined castles, lost cities, Dwarven mines, and mysterious islands. Lairs are places where the real action takes place and where characters are killed off, become heroes or become very rich. Well, there are plenty of lairs to be found in the Westerns of popular culture–the pulps, paperbacks, novels, movies, radio and television shows.
Westerns are often formulaic in their plots and characters and there are several recurring lairs that keep showing up. Some examples…
1. Abandoned Mines. These are great places for outlaw gangs and badmen to virtually disappear from sight for prolonged periods of time. Mine shafts are also handy for keeping prisoners and even stolen cattle if the shaft is big enough. 2. Ghost Towns. Sometimes western authors got ahead of themselves and had their fictional villains hold up in a creepy, abandoned, clapboard towns. How these small communities fell into such rapid disrepair in a couple of years or so requires some explaining. To me ghost towns are remnants of towns that have been abandoned and several buildings still remain standing after several decades. But, I should not try to be too critical about the “western genre” and agree that ghost towns are great for scaring away the simpleton locals and providing shelter for men and horses for long periods of time. Favorite buildings occupied by “residents” are the saloons and churches.
3. Hidden Canyons. There always seem to be a hidden canyon just outside of town that rustlers and outlaws utilize as their bases and holding areas for stolen cattle. Posses turn up nothing in their pursuits–just tracks and prints that seem to disappear. In some westerns there are whole communities living in a Shangri-La type of isolation within the canyon. It may be sealed from the outside world except for a narrow passage built by Spanish gold seekers in the old days (Senorita Scorpion).
4. Cellars and Basements. Quite often crime emerges from right underfoot. Many pulp westerns have the bad guys plotting, storing guns & whiskey, and holding prisoners in the basements of local establishments right in town. These lairs are often under the saloon owned by the mean, money grubbing bad men who try so hard to make their public personae reputable.
5. Indian Territory. One quick way to lose a posse is to enter into Federal Indian Territory. Much of the land above Texas was divided into various sections for the Cree, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes. This area was called the Indian Territories. To the west of this are as the Oklahoma Territory that sheltered Cheyenne-Araphaho, Kiowa, Pawnee, Shawnee and several other tribes. Other boundaries protected encroachment onto smaller Indian Reservations in the northern states. Local law enforcement usually ended their pursuit of outlaws at the borders of Indian reservations. Many disreputable towns and stores and establishments cropped up along these borders to meet the illicit needs of Indian and outlaw alike. When the law came snooping for outlaws the proprietors stalled while the wanted men rode out for the Indian side.
6. Natural Caves. An old standby, similar to the abandoned mine shaft, the cave is also found in many stories as a base for outlaw gangs, kidnappers, and lone murderers. They are often well concealed and only old prospectors seem to know where to find them.
7. Mexico. South of the Border is a place often referred to in westerns as a way for rustlers and outlaws to lay low after a major crime. They can sell their stolen cattle and horses for a good price in Mexico–usually without any questions asked. Most often they will be found in a cantina spending their ill-gotten gains on women, cards and tequila. Very few law enforcement organizations will pursue bandits into Mexico. Those that do will do so secretly so as not to spook their quarry. Sometimes the Mexican authorities are paid off by the outlaws or simply get in the way of justice by their incompetence and heavy handed ways of dealing with all “gringos” and “americanos“.
8. Ranches. Sometimes the bad guys hide in plain sight and utilize the facilities of a well established cattle ranch to carry on their nefarious crimes. In many cases the owner of the ranch has succumbed to his greed and ambitions, hired a bevvy of hard-case gunmen, and has initiated a series of actions designed to make him king of the local valley or owner of all local grazing land/water rights.
9. River Boats. There were several navigable rivers during the 1800’s besides the famous Mississippi River. There was the Ohio, Illinois and Missouri Rivers and some of their lesser tributaries that supported river boat traffic. Some of these boats became known mainly for gambling, prostitution and significant amounts of drinking. They might also get you from Point A to Point B. Many well organized criminal gangs existed on river craft.
10. Line Camps/Cabins. A line camp provides shelter to cowboys working on the fringes of very large ranches. These are most often log lean-to constructions although some are actually small cabins and larger shelters. These are abandoned for most of the winter and can provide decent accommodations for up to five or six desperadoes. If the ranch is abandoned then the camp or cabins are available to the first takers. They are often in disrepair and require some work to make them habitable such as plugging gaps between the logs, patching the roofs, clearing varmints and building up firewood.