from Max Evans' introduction
The true West lies far from Hollywood and the racks of romanticized genre
novels. It's a place every bit as compelling as the reel version,
though its story is told much less frequently. So for those who care
about the real ranching West, it should be front-page news that Max
Evans, the celebrated author of some of the most authentic Western writing (The
Rounders, The Hi-Lo Country) joined with Candy Moulton, respected
writer and editor, to co-edit the new book, Hot Biscuits.
Max Evans' Introduction(excerpts reprinted with permission from University of New Mexico Press)
To the Wonder of Reality
I think we are all guilty, during our lives, of putting something off that is extremely important to us. There is nothing easier to make than an excuse, and nothing more difficult to accept after it is too late.
That is the mistake I almost made while considering this collection. For over two decades I thought about gathering a group of stories from the real working West, written by the very people who performed that tough, mostly unappreciated labor. Since I had set some minimum requirements in my often-numb skull about the qualifications of the writers -- I had easy access to plentiful excuses.
First I expected the cowboy to have drawn wages for, at the very least, five years. I know that ranchers can't afford to pay a hand for long if he or she can't deliver.
Since cowgirls have different chores around the ranch house, and often add cowpasture cowboying to their other duties, I decided they had to have been raised on a ranch, or joined their husbands on a double hire-out for the aforesaid five years. Simple formula, huh?
However, when I added in the gift of being able to write a short story of a certain quality my formula disintegrated.
I easily found a few who had already proven their writing skills to a degree. But I kept on making excuses such as my own writing deadlines, research trips and study, having too much fun, and endless other excuses. Now, getting fifteen to twenty damned good short stories together from the men and women who actually got down in the dirt and lived the reality seemed beyond me, since I I badly needed a woman writer or co-editor. I looked for that special woman, but never felt quite right, and mainly they didn't qualify in the cowgirl department. Then, to my thickheaded surprise I thought of Candy Moulton, writer of nine fine books, writer for many magazines from livestock publications to Sunset. Here was a woman who had been raised on a ranch, and presently lived in the heart of ranch country a dozen miles from a small Wyoming town; her husband helped run a cattle ranch and they owned cattle and horses of their own. Not only that, she was the highly respected editor of Roundup Magazine.
I had run out of excuses. There was only one left. If Candy said "no" I'd probably go on dreaming instead of doing.
I was stunned when she seemed as excited as I was. I told her briefly some of the difficulties we were going to have in gathering this little bunch of real cowboy/cowgirl writers and attain the quality I'd spent so many years planning. Candy, like the good cowgirl writer-editor she is, was undaunted, pawing the ground, raring to go.
[After an explanation of the difficulty in finding qualified writers, Max Evans continues:]
...You see Candy and I had agreed that we have never seen a collection with the strict restrictions ours must have. We, of course, had seen scores of Best of the West, The New West, on and on into the hundreds. Most were about a fantasy West that never was and never will be -- but fun reading in most cases. However, we remained adamant in our choices. Why not just once in all history have a book of stories straight from the horse's mouth, with the taste and tang of horsehair, and the jolt one feels when an old pony has bucked up in the domain of birds and hits the ground driving down like a thousand pound bomb? Why not make a rodeo run at smelling the fresh cow shit and seeing the brush and rocks peel the hide? Why not truly know what it takes to survive a lifetime, a year, or a day on a real working outfit? Why not indeed?
... Why not just once in all history have a book of stories straight from the horse's mouth, with the taste and tang of horsehair, and the jolt one feels when an old pony has bucked up in the domain of birds and hits the ground driving down like a thousand pound bomb? ...
There is plenty to fight out there, besides our fellow humans, such as wild cows, and flesh-killing droughts and blizzards, unforeseen diseases, and livestock prices below any hopes of a single dollar's profit. Five generations of bending work and sacrifice can be lost to a mortgage banker in the time it takes to sign his name. What makes these endless endurance tests worthwhile is the promise of the glorious sunrises and sunsets, the grace and stability of a good working cow horse, a helpful neighbor, a good soaking rain, a country dance, a drink in a cow town bar with those who have ridden the rocks, and popped the brush, cut and stacked hay for the winter, repaired the water gaps, fixed the windmills, and busted the ice on water tanks for the livestock's winter drinking and survival.
Then there is the prayed-for green grass of spring, the new calves, bucking, whirling, running, tails up with the promise of growth to come. These are some of the little things that can cause a real working cowgirl/cowboy to listen to the irresistible call. That is what Candy, myself, and the writers have tried so hard and honestly to explore here.
There have been almost as many stories by academics about the beginning of the Western novel as the legend of that little punk killer, Billy the Kid. Folks, that is a bunch. They correctly tell us that Ned Buntline, and his made-up little dime novels came first, and then the boost or boom really began with Owen Wister's The Virginian in 1902.
Of course so many others followed that they are countless. Some writers such as Zane Grey and Max Brand on up through Louis L'Amour who gave unnumbered millions pleasurable escape worldwide. In fact, Louis L'Amour was the greatest promoter since Hemingway and rapidly crowded most of everyone of this genre from the bookracks. I met him a couple of times. He was a damned nice fellow. So sincere. I read his first book, Hondo. He did over a hundred more, but the one I'd read seemed to be his best. The movie from his book, from his treatment and someone else's screenplay, made John Wayne and associates a lot of money. Louis's books made him well known and he never let up until the day he died. At least in that respect he was similar to a working cowboy/cowgirl. Who knows, maybe he helped kill the genre. Maybe he kept it barely breathing. Whether we like it or not he became very near the sole proprietor of the shoot-em-up Western.
Now, let us get one thing finally straight. Please. There is as much difference in writing the traditional Western and the real working cowgirl/cowboy stories as there is in fine Italian olive oil and West Texas crude. You just can't quite do the Working West right unless you've been there and tasted the dirt, over a long period of time.
... There is as much difference in writing the traditional Western and the real working cowgirl/cowboy stories as there is in fine Italian olive oil and West Texas crude...
I can hear the hurting howls now about the domain of creativity being the only source of talent projected by the human mind. Surely, that is true in some cases. Two quick examples are Honore de Balzac and the currently neglected Somerset Maugham. Those two certainly turned their observations into powerful visions of the human comedy.
In our own West, we have two obvious examples of keen observers and they are among the few exceptions, of course: Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton.
Larry McMurtry was born to a North Texas ranching family, but never worked five years for cowboy wages -- if at all -- yet wrote a first-rate western book, Lonesome Dove. It became what most critics feel is the greatest western film to ever inhabit a television screen. It will hold its own against any other mini-series made so far for this medium.
Where McMurtry has staked a claim on the the historical North Texas, Elmer Kelton has produced several working ranch novels of West Texas that are just fine.
Elmer Kelton was born on a ranch in Andrews County, Texas, and soon thereafter moved on south to Crane, then to San Angelo to spend the rest of his life. Because of, by his own descriptions, extreme near-sightedness and glass ankles, he never took to actual cowboying himself. But like Balzac and Maugham, he was there to observe it piercingly, The Time it Never Rained is a top example. Kelton had a giant loop of his own over the vastness of the real ranch lands of West Texas.
On the other hand, such an internationally prominent figure as film director Steven Spielberg was quoted by Tom Brokaw in a recent USA Today thusly: "Steven Spielberg says he used to believe that the best stories came out of the human imagination, but after Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan he now believes the best stories come out of real human experience."
That is certainly true in writing the real working West. You just can't do it without the lack of experience showing -- too much.
It seems to me that the formula for writing our subject is experience plus imagination plus innate writing ability. If one of the three is missing, it won't work. That is, of course, the reason we've had so few, so very few, writers of the vast working West. So few, in fact, that the important advancers such as literary academics and critics simply didn't recognize it when they see it, and most dismiss it forthwith. Now, it is not their fault, this lack of recognition or cognition.
...the formula for writing our subject is experience plus imagination plus innate writing ability. If one of the three is missing, it won't work...
Most of the publishers and film producers simply don't know the difference between the Faux West and the Real West -- that is the Working West.
So far they have not cared enough to learn the truth. So the plain reader, the academics, and the critics who are the ultimate deciders rarely get a look at these working women and men in authenticated settings that can provide as much entertaining drama, in fiction, as the wildest of shoot 'em ups. I must admit, however, that the non-fiction writers have produced and equaled in both quality and numbers any other segmented section in the world. There are simply too many good ones to attempt a list. A few are Bernard DeVoto's Across the Wide Missouri, David Lavender's Bent's Fort, Robert Utley's biography of Sitting Bull, H. H. Bancroft's thirty-six books on the West, and most recently Dale L. Walker's unique and enthralling Pacific Destiny.
... So the plain reader, the academics, and the critics who are the ultimate deciders rarely get a look at these working women and men in authenticated settings that can provide as much entertaining drama, in fiction, as the wildest of shoot 'em ups...
There is indeed another urgent matter related to the people and stories included here. We have no choice but to face a terrifying fact: the working cowgirl/cowboy West is rapidly being altered into chopped up blocks of ranchettes, mobile home clusters, and little exotic game parks that will soon be filled with seriously inbred animals.
It is deteriorating with such speed that every day, week, and month we have fewer and fewer down-in-the-dirt people to live or portray that very special way of life.
The Working West began with the Spanish vaqueros from south of the border and their well-trained Indian cowboys moving cattle into America to help maintain food for the religious missions their priests were building. Some of the cattle escaped or were abandoned and they bred themselves into massive wild herds, especially in South Texas.
The need for meat back East created a big, lucrative market. The gathering, trailing, and turning of the cattle into steaks and money created America's first homegrown cowboys. These herders were of every nationality and ethnicity known at the time.
Great open range cattle empires were founded. Empires of cows, cowboys, and a few extra-durable cowgirls came into prominence and made history worldwide. That was the first segment of the Working West. The second phase came with the invention of barbwire, but even after fencing it was still a horseback West. There were often huge areas of open country between fences. The third great change followed the vast mechanization necessary to help win World War II. The pickup truck altered it immensely yet again. This cut the time of work with horses in most places by about half, but ranches still couldn't operate without them. The fourth fragmentation is the New West, as so many learned people have chosen to call it.
The gut truth -- with the learned and a lot of the ranchers in denial -- is that the New West comes with the break-up of home ranches, families, and so many of our valiantly earned traditions -- into supposedly controlled environments.
The result of the aforesaid actions on such a massive scale is equal to an earthquake of about ten (10) on the Richter scale. Along with two-way radios, cell phones on horseback, high tech camcorders, broadband, wireless this and that, and e-mail, the electronic New West has now arrived.
What dismays the most is the danger that the changes have barely begun.
It threatens to be as all consuming as the great plague of the Dark Ages, combined with the whamming of a huge asteroid into our precious western earth.
As the Working West shrinks with such sad swiftness, we have left a tiny window of time. Some of those who once lived it, and those few who are so agonizingly still working it with bloodied souls, must put it down on paper when and where possible. If we fail to act with immediacy the truth will continue to dissipate and be distorted with frightening rapidity.
In the process of assembling this book Candy and I had a surprising revelation. Almost every story had homemade biscuits included as an integral, natural, daily part of the Working West. They were possibly more important than coffee and certainly guns. I recalled so many rural kids whose school lunches consisted of three biscuits. Two of them would include some kind of meat, such as sowbelly, and one would be a dessert filled with peanut butter or some kind of fruit jam or jelly, sometimes both. I ate the above for several years with anticipated pleasure.
...Almost every story had homemade biscuits included as an integral, natural, daily part of the Working West. They were possibly more important than coffee and certainly guns...
A woman who could make superior biscuits received more respect than the mayor and chief of police combined in the nearest town. A few men, scattered hundreds of miles around, became famous for their sourdough biscuits and bread. Of such small things came great traditions.
When I was a kid/cowboy up on Ed Young's Rafter EY on Glorieta Mesa, south of Santa Fe, so long ago, there was a cook I remember with great fondness and respect. I put it down in the introduction to my three novels in the tragicomedy included in a trilogy of the Working West called Rounders 3.
Here it is exactly:
Ed Young's wife was known as Mother Young. The term was used with enormous respect. I never knew why I started helping her after supper, but thanks to any and all great spirits for the privilege. I'd chop and gather wood for the next day and fill the hot water reservoir on the side of the huge wood burning cook stove, fill all the water buckets for drinking, washing, and cooking, help clean the supper table, and then the real treat -- stand and dry dishes for her. We talked and talked -- even about books, paintings, and sissy stuff like that.
Her contributions were everywhere. She made the rag rugs that covered the floors, built the lamp stands from the tree cactus or old wagon wheel hubs, painted the pictures that hung on the wall, cooked, cleaned, doctored, washed, ironed, and in true essence held the whole damned outfit together, as thousands of others like her did, and still do.
I don't know why I left out the specialness of Mother Young's biscuits with larruping cream gravy, but I realize now that it was a thoughtless omission of a small but important part of ranch life.
So, I called Candy Moulton and asked her if she thought Hot Biscuits should be the title of our book. We had a few laughs.
She said, "What else? They show up in almost every story."
I was thrilled at her keen observation. All we'd asked from each of our qualified writers was a short story about the Working West set any time between 1920 and the present.
Another thrill we had coming was the unbelievable luck of receiving stories all different from one another. They covered a range as wide as the Rockies, from a murder mystery to a unique horse trainer, to a family joined in a desperate battle against a grass and forest fire, to a world famous violinist, and a gruff old man.
You will find here stories filled with all the exciting lore of reality on working a ranch, surviving the harshest elements, and the endless forms of love that come from getting down in the dirt, the soil of the soul, and the eternal song of truth.
from the introduction to Hot Biscuits
reprinted with permission from University of New Mexico Press
Hot BiscuitsEdited by Max Evans and Candy Moulton
Eighteen Stories by Women and Men of the Ranching West
The true West lies far from Hollywood and the racks of romanticized genre novels. It's a place every bit as compelling as the reel version, though its story is told much less frequently. So for those who care about the real ranching West, it should be front-page news that Max Evans, the celebrated author of some of the most authentic Western writing (The Rounders, The Hi-Lo Country) joined with Candy Moulton, respected writer and editor, to co-edit the new book, Hot Biscuits.
The writers in this collection of short stories had to pass a strict credentials test: men had to have at least five years of paid ranch hand experience and women had to have been double hire-outs for that period or raised on ranches. The qualified writers' stories result in a wide variety of unique tales that touch every aspect of the trials, challenges, and joys of cowboying and ranching life. Despite the originality of each story, almost every one has one thing in common with the others: hot biscuits, the staple of life that the editors realized showed up so often that it became the book's catchy title.
Since Cowboy Poetry often tells the tales of the real ranching life, it is not surprising that several of the best stories are penned by the five writers who are also top Cowboy Poets (Virginia Bennett, Sally Bates, Gwen Peterson, Helen C. Avery, and Willard Hollopeter). Virginia Bennett's "Nightwatch" is a nearly cinematic ghost tale with well drawn characters and a plot that grips the reader more tightly with each word. Its ending is...well...pure poetry. The "spook" in Sally Bates' "Spooky Cook" has to do with a horse, not a ghost, and her perfectly wrought description of "just another day" in a ranch wife's life says more about cowboys than anything you could learn from the big screen.
J. P. S. Brown, who has been a cowboy "all but three of his seventy-one years" finds a way to get the soul of a cowboy on paper in his "Cowboys Fly." For all of those "Why would you want to be a cowboy?" questioners, his story has the answer. The packer in Slim Randle's "Night Ride" says "A string like this one, on a moonlit night, alone, can earn a packer a doctorate in this unique craft," and the writer's own High Sierra packing experience shines through. But his expertise in the also unique craft of writing brings forth descriptions that you remember long after finishing the rewarding story, such as a night that is "another gem in the necklace of life" and the observation "There is an unspoken holiness in silence."
Co-editors Max Evans and Candy Moulton each have stories, and Evans' introduction "To the Wonder of Reality" and Moulton's afterword "Cowboy Truths" are thoughtful and impassioned bookends to these satisfying stories. Other contributors include Elaine Long, Sinclair Browning, Lori Van Pelt, Gram Lee, Dick Hyson, Taylor Fogarty, Curt Brummett, Jimbo Brewer, and Paula Paul.
In a perfect world, this groundbreaking collection would open up opportunities for the publication of more stories of the real West, not by those who imagine it, but by those who live it. Hot Biscuits' depth and variety entertains in countless ways as it achieves the important, crucial need to preserve authentic stories of an endangered way of life.
Review by Margo Metegrano
Managing Editor, CowboyPoetry.com
Hot Biscuits is published by the University of New Mexico Press, $24.95, ISBN: 0-8263-2889-X, available from all bookstores and Amazon.com.
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