The Cowboy Storyteller/History Thru Western Eyes
By Stephen Bly
For Granddaddy and his cowboy pals, History was real.
You could see it in their cowboy eyes. You could hear
it in their stories. You could touch it when you brushed
against their Colts or Winchesters, chaps or Stetsons. You
could taste history’s fine dust ever’ time a dirt devil swirled
off the hills and down Central Avenue. And on that day in
1954, I could smell history in the 2nd story hallway of the
From Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon
Every cowboy’s a storyteller. It goes with the culture. And cowboys don’t need campfires to tell their tales. A sidekick or a good horse who seems to listen will do. That provided another reason why horses were so important for a cowboy. Years later, autos didn’t quite do it—to draw out a windy tale. Like a good movie or book, an oral story captivates attention and uses up long hours on the trail.
In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, the permanent residents of the aging Matador hotel in Albuquerque include 5 old cowboys, in their 70s to 90s. Every week these five, plus a 10-year-old’s grandfather, play cribbage in the lobby. But that’s not the real focus. Their chief pleasure centers on talk of their horse riding and cow roping days. Those who paid attention heard their hearts too. And every yarn is. . .almost true.
Mountain man Jim Bridger called his stories ‘stretchers.’ Old guys have a habit of wanting to digress when telling their tales. My challenge as a writer was to be true to their nature and sympathetic to my readers. Spend a morning near the old-timers booth at your own local Pine Tar Café and you’ll know what I mean.
The eldest was born during the Civil War. All of them cowboyed from the late 1880s until the 1940s. They tell first-hand stories of what the West was truly like, from their point of view.
There’s no telling how many times these cowboys told their stories and they don’t tell them the same each time. That’s the beauty of oral history. It’s not a static photo of the past, but a running monologue that’s filtered through the memory and heart of the one who lived it. The story’s alive, so you can experience it for yourself.
All history is filtered through the eyes of the beholder. That’s one of the joys of being a writer. . .filtering through your own world view. Everyone does it. Mine happens to be Christian.
Some say history is distorted in the minds of the teller. The stories are slanted, even fabricated, to portray the West as the author wants it to remembered. The same critique could be used of modern historians. The difference? The old-timers were there. They lived it. The wildest thing most modern historians have done is order a triple-shot for their espressos. Some books written by people who were there: Charlie Siringo and Andy Adams.
For me, history is not the story of grand ideas or broad sweeps describing movements, events or social progress. History is the story of individual people. Not all are famous, but each helps define who we are today. . .and why we think and act the way we do.
The old cowboys at the Matador Hotel in Albuquerque share one layer of New Mexico’s history, a fairly modern era. My favorite New Mexico governor is Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben-Hur. The story is told that Wallace set out to study the Bible in order to prove it wrong. But in the process, he discovered Jesus to be Lord of his life. The book proved to be a statement of his faith, rather than his atheism. I like the idea that the author of Ben- Hur also sat down and tried to negotiate with Billy the Kid. What interesting, eclectic people tramped out west back in those early days.
Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon unfolds more than windy stories. Sit in the Matador lobby with Quirt, Bronc, Thad, Shorty, Coosie and Pop and listen to their oral history. Quirky characters packed the Old West and these guys met most of them. They even knew the infamous Stuart Brannon, “the toughest sober man” whom they never saw flinch, even in a fierce gunfight.
On one rainy afternoon, Little Brother sits with the six men, listening to their tales, their romps through past memories. They delight in this captive audience. Their horse riding days long gone, the boy gave them a chance to tell their stories fresh and new. Meanwhile, a drama unfolds, a story brews in the lobby that propels them into one last cowboy stand. After all those stories, Little Brother gets to be part of one himself.
Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon can be ordered through www.Amazon.com or www.BlyBooks.com or through your local bookstore (Ingram Distributors) or library.
If you are reading this on Facebook, it has originated from Roxanne Rustand’s “All creatures great and small” blog at http://roxannerustand.blogspot.com Come on over and say howdy!