"What name do you want to go by while you're at the ranch?"
Michael James Hartford, aka Western writer Jim Ford, thought about how to answer Jack Chance, who was currently driving him to the Last Chance Ranch. Michael had flown to Wyoming from New York City so he could learn some cowboy basics before a publicity team put him in front of a video camera in three weeks. Nobody besides Jack was supposed to know Michael was also Jim Ford, who wrote as if he could ride and rope but ..couldn't.
He wondered if he should be known as Mike while he was here. A shortened name seemed better for a cowboy, but he already had his Jim Ford persona. If he adopted too many alternate names he wouldn't remember which one he should answer to. "Michael's fine," he said. "Michael Hartford. That shouldn't tip anybody off."
"Michael Hartford it is, then. I don't think you have anything to worry about, though. Some of the hands have read your books, but they'd never believe a greenhorn like you could possibly be the guy who writes those stories."
"Yeah, I know." Michael took the blow to his ego with good humor. His lack of cowboying skills really was an embarrassing joke.
"Besides, the picture in the back of your books shows you with a mustache. That really changes how a guy looks."
"I grow that mustache before I have to make any appearances or get my picture taken. Then I shave it off. I'll have to start growing it again next week. Between that and the Stetson, I've fooled just about everybody except my family, and they're not about to broadcast the fact that I'm Jim Ford."
"I don't get that. You'd think they'd be proud of you."
Michael laughed. "They would be if I wrote deep, philosophical literature. The Hartfords are old money, loaded to the gills with culture. They don't want to claim a pulp fiction author. That's actually worked to my advantage. If nobody knows who Jim Ford really is, then nobody knows that he's never been on a horse in his life."
"That still boggles my mind. You write as if you're a real cowboy. I would have sworn you'd done all those things. What's your secret?"
"Research." Michael felt good knowing he'd managed to get it right, despite his lack of experience. "Plus I grew up reading Louis L'Amour."
"Me, too. I didn't think I'd find his equal, but you've hooked me real good. I wish my grandmother was still alive. She would have loved your books, too."
"Thank you. That's high praise."
"I mean it sincerely." Jack shook his head. "But I can't figure you out. The way you write, I can tell you love the idea of being a cowboy. How come you never got the itch to spend time on a ranch?"
"You hit the nail on the head. I love the idea of being a cowboy, but I've avoided the reality, in case it doesn't live up to my image of it." Or I don't. "I'm selling a fantasy, and if I discover that fantasy doesn't exist.."
"Damnation. You mean this visit could burst your bubble? I don't want that on my conscience."
"Hey, Jack, you're not the one forcing me into this. The publicity department is to blame." He blew out a breath. "No, that's not right, either. I created this stupid situation all on my own. I chose to write about a world I don't know firsthand, and then I accidentally became a big success at it."
Jack nodded. "I noticed. Your name keeps getting bigger on the cover."
"If my books weren't selling so well the publisher would never pay for a video of me...