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E LMER KELTON San Angelo, Texas The Myth of the Mythical West It is truly an honor for me to be asked to come here among this respected body of professionals and accept an award for my historical fic­ tion. It is something I would never have anticipated in my early days of writing pulp-magazine fiction for a penny or a penny-and-a-quarter a word. In those days I wondered if I should let anyone know what I was doing, or if I should keep my guilty secret. Pulp fiction was not highly regarded in academic circles, or many other circles, for that matter. The West and its history have been dear to me ever since I was a boy because I grew up in an atmosphere that was an extension of the classic cowboy period. Both sides of my family had been cattle people for several generations back. Two of my paternal great-grandparents went out to West Texas in the 1870s with a covered wagon and a string of horses to home­ stead in Callahan County. A great-grandfather on my mother’s side had been a cattleman in the Indian Territory in the late 1800s and into the early part of this century, then moved his operation down into Central Texas for the duration of his life. My Callahan County great-grandfather died when his oldest child— my grandfather— was about twelve years old. Granddad, who had been born in a log cabin, had to give up school and go to work as a cowboy. He broke horses and mules for Scott and Robertson, a noted early ranching company in the Abilene country. He remained a cowman and horseman all his life, and he brought up my father and my uncle in that tradition. As a young bachelor cowboy, Granddad worked northward to the famous X IT , and he drifted southward on the lower Pecos River to work for Bill West. I eventually got to know Bill West as a very old man living in a San Angelo hotel, going off occasionally on long cruises to see other parts of the world. He made no bones about the fact that as a young man he had ridden a fast horse and swung a wide loop, and if that loop accidentally- 4 Western American Literature on-purpose happened to land on an unbranded calf or yearling belonging to someone else, it belonged to Bill West when it got up with a new brand on its hide. People I knew could still locate the dugout in which he had lived in Concho County. They said he left that county on a fast horse, a little ahead of a posse. He wound up down in the Ozona country, where he became a major landowner and banker. Once when the county was celebrating a birthday, a reporter inter­ viewed him in his bank. He asked, “Is it true, Mr. West, that you helped organize Crockett County?” “It is, young m an,” he said proudly. “And when the first grand jury convened, I was the first s.o.b. they indicted.” He might have taken on mythical proportions in the stories told about him, but he was a real flesh-and-blood person with a bright gleam of youthful mischief still shining in his eyes when I knew him. I have thought of him more than once when I was writing a story, and have tried to let some of that light shine in my characters. As a kid on the McElroy Ranch at the edge of the oilpatch near Crane, Texas, my whole world was cattle, horses and cowboys. Until I was old enough to start school, I was only marginally aware that anything existed except ranches and oilfields. Even the oil boomtowns were an extension of the rough-and-tumble old mining boomtowns of the earlier West. Life in them was not a great deal different except that the automobile age had come into being and made the oil booms not only possible but necessary. My mother’s father— who died too young for me to remember him— was originally a cowboy in Oklahoma and New Mexico...


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