When Brisco County Jr. Met Watt O’Hugh

January 27, 2013.

Twenty years back, I was a lawyer working at one of those huge firms where middle-aged men (like me) worked when they were twenty years younger than they are today. During one grueling week, I worked all night long, and then the next day, and then the next night, until the dawn came and I found myself in the emergency room. In my case, I discovered (the fairly obvious fact) that drinking coffee like water to stay awake for days at a time is not good for me.

The emergency room doctors sent me to bed to recuperate. Before my wife left for work on my first morning of my convalescence, she slipped a VHS tape into our VCR.

“This is a show my sister taped for us,” she said.

It was back in the era before TiVo and TiVo-esque devices, when people videotaped TV shows and forced them on their friends and family, an annoying phenomenon, but in this case a blessing.

The show was The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., a Fox series about a 19th century Harvard-trained lawyer turned old West bounty hunter, played by Bruce Campbell back when, like me, he was young and handsome (or, in my case, young and more-handsome-than-I-am-now). Within the first few minutes, a banker/robber baron criticized Brisco’s change of career as a “shameful waste” of an education, and Brisco replied, without missing a beat, “Better than a shameful waste of an entire lifetime.”

At that particular moment in my life, this meant a lot to me; and I was hooked.

Brisco County fell into the “Western Science Fiction” category, and it was not the first, but it was the first time that I really cared.

Brisco was on the trail of the outlaw gang that killed his father (that great Western hero Marshall Brisco County Sr.), and along the way he came into contact with the adorable Dixie Cousins, a gangster moll and sometime-dancehall singer who first stole, then won, his heart; a glowing orb from the future; a small-town Western sheriff who bore an uncanny resemblance to Elvis Presley (years before the real King would be born); a gang of kung fu Chinese mobsters; and a mysterious boardinghouse eerily reminiscent of the Bates Motel.

Some people might call this a bag of anachronisms.  Sometimes it was. In one episode, a bomb exploded in Brisco’s hotel room, and he quipped, “I thought this was a non-smoking room.” It was a stupid joke, and something that would have been meaningless to a man in 1893. But in most cases, I think there was something smarter at work, a sort of overarching theme to the show that asserted that a hint of the 20th century was blowing around in the wind of 1893, a seed amusingly planted in the soil of the old West.

Because it was great and because I loved it, of course, it was canceled at the end of a year, at which point Jonathan Matson, my agent – a patient pillar-of-the-industry who had stuck with me throughout my journey from journalist to lawyer – suggested, grasping at straws, that I propose a novelized continuation of the Brisco series to the program’s executive producer, Carlton Cuse.

I pitched the idea first to Bruce Campbell, who pledged his support. Then a short letter to a CAA agent received a surprisingly quick response and won me a lunch of turkey tetrazini with Cuse in the commissary at CBS, where he was developing Nash Bridges for Don Johnson.

For Brisco’s further adventures, I invented a turn of the century war that would split the continent in two. To join our Harvard bounty hunter and his faithful companion, Lord Bowler, I invented another sidekick, a third wheel named Watt O’Hugh, a crusty old gunslinger whose aim is always deadly accurate, but who disclaims any particular skill. I believe in ghosts, he says: ghosts who steady his trigger finger and steer errant bullets away from his heart.

Cuse seemed to give me a tentative green light; but a few weeks later, he split with his agent, and our project died. Matson suggested that I keep Watt O’Hugh alive along with the war I’d invented, tell his backstory and wind the whole thing up at the turn of the twentieth century, as originally planned. I began writing the first book of the trilogy, set in 1873, but I didn’t finish it till 2011, the better part of two decades later, and long after Matson and I had last spoken.

Lazy and impatient, I published it myself as The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, and most readers and critics seemed to like it, and I figured I should finish the trilogy.

I’m nearly done with Book 2, and approaching Book 3, the climactic chapter of my saga, in which the 20th Century dawns, and the Sidonian War roars across North America like a tornado.

At this point, Watt O’Hugh is meant to fight alongside Brisco County, loyal soldiers, both.

What is to be done?

The simple fact is that I have lived with the Watt O’Hugh story for so long now that it has taken on a life of its own.

To wit: over a year ago, when I gave a reading at the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary – once a prison, and now a museum – I asked to see cell number 17, which had once held Watt O’Hugh and his cell-mate, the other-worldly Billy Golden.

And there it was. Watt O’Hugh grew even more real for me.

Yes, I know that Watt is fictitious; intellectually, I know he never stayed in that cell. But in his world, he did. And in his world, he met Brisco County Jr. around 1902 or so.  And the two fought together in the great Sidonian War, the young bounty hunter, Brisco, and O’Hugh, the weathered old Civil War vet. Hoping for the best, when Book 1 was published, I wrote on my blog that “if I can sell enough copies of my book, I’m going to see if Warner Bros. will allow an appearance by Brisco in Book 3, which is going to be set around the turn of the 20th century.” Well, I had a good run for a while, sales-wise, but Warner Bros. has not come calling (yet).

I cannot change the story. But legally I cannot tell you the whole story.

The ironic thing is that Watt O’Hugh has come across so many great figures of the 19th century in his strange and varied career — from banker J.P. Morgan, playwright Oscar Wilde and outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez to the evil mathematician Leopold Kronecker and the famous and unbelievably beautiful Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson – and it is all detailed at length in the pages of the first two books. Nothing prevents me from telling it all to you, because no one owns the dead.  But Warner Bros. owns Brisco County Jr.

So the only thing that I cannot tell you about is the adventure that gave rise to them all, the battles Watt O’Hugh fought at the side of Brisco County Jr., as the new century blossomed.