On cold, winter days, my mother and I love a good shoot-'em-up Western.

 

Illustration by Jack Unruh

'Now wait a minute, Shep. We don't want to kill us no ol' ladies, 'cause I like ol' ladies'

— The actor Dennis Hopper, on Gunsmoke, just before shooting the train conductor

My mother is not a panicky woman; she is a Southern one. She was born in the cold heart of the Depression and has survived things most people encounter only in the pages of Faulkner. She has propped up more than one sorry man, and lived through a real-world heart attack and the demise of General Hospital. When As the World Turns stopped spinning, she did not miss a step—though it almost killed Aunt Juanita. But there was panic in her voice, one bleak day, as she stabbed the remote control, searching.

"I can't find my Virginian" is all she said.

"Oh, Lord," I said, and meant it.

My mother loves The Virginian. She is, I believe, sweet on him—not on the actor who plays him in the classic television Western but on the tall man in the black leather vest who looked good on a horse.

"I saw him the other day on the Western Channel, that Jim Drury, and he was old," she said.

They have been riding off into the re-run sunset, him and her, every day for as long as I can remember, usually after he shoots somebody. My mother does not like guns, but guns in the Westerns are not real; she knows this because a man who gets gunned down on Gunsmoke will be resurrected a week later on Cheyenne, killed again, reappear on Wyatt Earp, and killed again. Dennis Hopper was killed 5,000 times before his actual death, and still gets shot down twice a month in black and white; Ken Curtis was bushwhacked and buried on a Gunsmoke cattle drive and reincarnated a week later, as Festus.

But I digress. The Virginian was gone, cancelled, leaving my mother with a sorry choice between Bat Masterson and the hundredth replay of the Gunsmoke where Miss Kitty gets kidnapped. But even a sub-par Western is better than none, for us. Some people go south in the cold, the shut-in days. My mother, little brother, and I, we go west. The gray afternoons are a good excuse to do nothing, once the stock is fed and wood toted in for the fire. We sit down with a cup of coffee or some tea and unwrap a Little Debbie, and ...

'Have Gun, will Travel' reads the card of a man A knight without armor in a savage land

My mother loves the scenery of the Plains, and Monument Valley. I love the horses. We know they are not historically accurate. There is no bullet wound that cannot be healed by putting the man's arm in a sling. The Indians always, always ride in a circle around the wagons, to provide a better target. "I pull for 'em," my little brother said, and I do too.

I am addicted now. I like them because they make me feel young again, especially when I hear a line from my childhood. "If whiskey cured something," Miss Kitty told Marshal Dillon, "I could save the world."

My mother is, once again, at peace. She found The Virginian a few months ago, on the Inspiration Channel.

"My Virginian," she said.

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