- Cowboys, Cops, Killers, and Ghosts: Legends and Lore in Texas ed. by Kenneth L. Untiedt
Every culture creates its own coterie of storytellers, vocal embodiments of predilections made either awesome or tame by their fount’s oddities. Unhurried places breed calm chroniclers; grand spaces, like combustible Texas, engender the most colorful bards. Twenty-four such writers appear in Cowboys, Cops, Killers, and Ghosts: Legends and Lore in Texas, making it an often uneven, if frequently entertaining and occasionally edifying, anthology.
This collection’s stories, slotted into four categories, are unsurprisingly only tenuously linked. The adventures of the scarred and (once) creatively robed Samuel “Booger Red” Privett Jr. are recounted with a colloquial flair, yet they seem to have little to do with the traditionally eclectic Texas wedding or the absorbing nuptial rites of Texas Knanaya Catholics. Cops, lawyers, gunfighters, and serial killers do indeed fall under one topical umbrella, but they have no obvious connection to a folksy woman’s affection for a pet bull. Perfect fits these tales are not.
Nonetheless, subtle ties can be discerned. Story after story exudes a frank love of Texas’s natural endowments, from its Kaolinite clay caves to fossil reefs in the Guadalupe Mountains. Such fondness extends to more artificial creations, including Marfa’s ghost lights, unassuming country churches, fading albeit comely small towns, and Galveston’s lively public schools. This collection’s unifying message might be best found in a teacher’s recounting of her students’ ancestral sagas, each heir to a distinctive past, and the resolve of a hunting fisherman. In fact, these fledgling narrators and this amateur ichthyologist are rather funny.
Unfortunately, darker intimations lurk, left unexplored. The South’s loss in the Civil War did not just feel “sore to most southerners” (15). This well-intended euphemism obscures a riven era’s unsavory details. At the same time, an “Unreconstructable Rebel” (47) should be critiqued for more than his murderous escapades. Likewise, an amusing account of early twentieth century jury selection should not conclude without a discussion of the men (and women) never chosen, as they were not welcomed in the diner filled with “white men” (78) from which so many jurors were culled. “Godly” (239) and “God-fearing” (241) are adjectives that, when attached to men who slew and dispossessed, beg for context or at least quotation marks. While the cowboys’ lives during the Great Depression justify [End Page 320] delineation, that epoch’s baneful effects deserve more than brief acknowledgements. A retired police officer’s perspective about the city he protected is illuminating, but the terms “misdemeanor rape” (63), as here defined, and “Neighborhood Oriented Policing” (63), as here denigrated, do not. Even in folklore, when a writer hems and haws, such loose ends should be tended.
Romantic inclinations always color a people’s remembrances, and fond delusions are often perpetuated by the best storytellers. Naturally then, this diverting tome, spun by beguilingly vernacular tongues, paints a slightly fantastical history. Although oversights abound, it celebrates a cardinal truth: the oddest of humankind—and other things besides—have lived in Texas.