Cowboy for a Rainy Afternoon by Stephen Bly – Excerpt and Review

CHAPTER 1
The Matador Hotel died on July 5th, 1965, but they didn’t bother burying it until last fall.

New Mexico heat blanketed Albuquerque that July like too many covers in a stuffy cabin.  The kind of day that you sweat from the inside out and feel sticky dirt in places that you don’t ponder much except in the shower.  I reckon that four-bladed overhead fan that squeaked like an unfed cat failed to console Shorty McGuire.   Doc Boyce said he passed on durin’ the night, but no one discerned it until they observed the empty back table at the Round-Up Café.  For the last nineteen years of his life, Shorty lived in a second-floor room at The Matador.  At straight up 6:00 a.m. ever’ mornin’ he ate two eggs fried hard under the faded picture of Theodore Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

As a boy, I calculated that Shorty McGuire and the others must be pushing a hundred-years-old when I met them for the first time in 1954.

I reckon I surmised wrong.

The Albuquerque Herald reported that Hadley (Shorty) McGuire was only 86 when he died on that July day in 1965.  The Herald is right most of the time.

As the last of that bunch at the Matador, there was no one left to take his trappings, so Whip Johnson and me cleaned out Shorty’s goods a few days after his funeral.  Whip managed the hotel in the 60s for his Uncle Durwood Johnson who gained some fame in the Southwest on the rodeo circuit after the war.  He won the hotel on a bet on a black half-thoroughbred stallion down in Magdalena.

The floor of Shorty’s little room with one four-pane slide-up window was carpeted solid with six to eight inches of newspapers, not a one newer than 1939.    He claimed that cowboyin’ didn’t provide the time to read much, so he saved them for his retirement.  I never did know if he got caught up.

We didn’t have the nerve to give his tattered clothing to the Rescue Mission, so we chucked them into the hotel incinerator.  We crated his boots, wooly chaps and battered Stetson, then donated them to the state museum.   I had a notion they would want to display the gear of an old-time cowboy.  But they stored them in a back room for a few years, then sold them at an auction to raise money for a modern art statue that looks like the scrap-iron pile out behind my barn.  If I’d known they were selling Shorty’s belongings, I’d have bought those suckers myself and buried them, rather than let some car dealer in Denver drive off with ‘em.  But that’s the way the past is.  You can’t hang on to it all.  What survives gets stolen by strangers who have no blasted idea of what they hold in their hands.

The tobacco-stained furniture in Shorty’s room belonged to the hotel, but Whip decided to replace it all and re-carpet.  So they moved in newer furniture, but I don’t think the room was ever repainted.  Whip and me always thought that room smelled like Lordsburg, but that might be its location on the south side of the hotel, facing the Santa Fe tracks.

I never went back to the hotel after that day.  The hippies ran it in the early 70s, then some drug dealers.  I think one of them big moving companies bought the place and used it for storage for a decade or two before they tore it down last year.  All them red bricks got shipped to the west side for deluxe estate fencing around an upscale gated community.  I hear they decided to build urban condos on the old hotel site for rich city folks, but I can’t figure what kind of people would want to live in downtown Albuquerque.

At least, not nowadays.

I still have Shorty’s rim-fire saddle hangin’ in my tack room.   It was one of the first ones Estaban Chavez built, when he still had that shop behind the Chinese laundry in Las Cruces.  Lots of folks have wanted to buy it over the years, but it doesn’t belong to me.  Some day Shorty’s kin will show up wantin’ his things, and I’ll have it ready.  I keep the leather oiled.  Shorty died almost forty years ago, but I’ll hang onto it for him.

That’s the way things are done around this part of the country.

It’s one of the lessons I learned in the lobby of the Matador Hotel.

REVIEW

The next chapter goes back 40+ years to when the narrator was child, spending a rainy afternoon with his grandpa’s cowboy friends. Reading this book put me in the middle of a fading hotel lobby with a bunch of delightful old men, listening to their colorful adventures and reminiscences of the old West.  Their topics include the Code, roping & riding, hard-livin’ and hard playin’. But this isn’t just a collection of stories, Bly introduces a sure-enough forties-style mystery into the mix as well. And he kept me guessing until the very end.


Stephen Bly’s descriptive narrative put me right in the middle of the action – whether it’s at the hotel desk, on a narrow red rock cliff or in a grimy, smoke-filled dance hall. I could hear the bawling calf and taste the dust and blood on my lips as their stories unrolled like an errant ball of yarn. And the smells! Whether it’s the pungent mix of Old Spice and chewing tobacco or the earthy musk of a cow herd, you are there in the middle of the action.

I loved this book. It reminded me of the black-and-white cowboy shows I watched  as a child: Zorro, Roy Rogers, The Cisco Kid – I know, I’m telling my age. But these guys talked about the real West. There isn’t always a happy ending to their stories. Sometimes the good guy doesn’t make it and sometimes the bad guy gets away – just like real-life.

And, I love that Bly makes it all happen in the space of one rainy afternoon.

Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon: Novel As Memoir

By Stephen Bly
Copyright©2010

The Matador Hotel died on July 5th, 1965,
but they didn’t bother burying it until last fall.
The plot for Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon developed like homemade stew in a crockpot. A slow simmer. Then, the image of the 1950s kitchen filled with sweet aromas and sights and sounds. Hours later all the parts seemed ready.

The story grew out of fond memories from my childhood. What makes it real personal is that I was 10-years-old in 1954, just like the narrator. And I did hear numerous accounts about the “old days.” At that time, Johnny Appleseed was a legendary hero. I learned about him at the knee of my Indiana grandma. She figured anyone who dedicated himself to planting apple trees must be a good guy.

I often get asked where I grew up. Readers of my westerns suppose I was born and raised in some rough and tumble part of the west amid gunfights and wild adventures. Well, they’re somewhat right. Home for me was a ranch north of Visalia, California, in the great San Joaquin Valley.

“That doesn’t sound like the wild west,” they say.

They’re wrong. From Joaquin Murietta to the Dalton Brothers, Visalia Saddles to the Miller and Lux Ranch … that valley’s filled with western history. One of my favorite tales involved the gunfight and capture of Sontag and Evans at Stone Corral, a few miles down the road from our home.
Cribbage and cowboys. . .I figured I fit right in.

It seems quite natural for me to write about a grandpa and the game of cribbage. My grandpa taught me to play when I was 4-years-old. I played him once or twice a week until he died when I turned 15. In the book Pop’s name is Theodore and his wife is Katie, same as my grandparents.

Talk slow and think deep. It’s part of the Code of the West. Some scoff at the notion of an unwritten set of rules that honest men lived by. Politically correct history books deny the Code’s existence. Those authors and professors didn’t grow up in the West. I remember in the mid-1980s standing at the graveside of my uncle. At the time, his place encompassed around 14,000 acres. As I looked down at the coffin of my Uncle Buster, an old-timer slid up beside me. “He was a good man, son. He lived by the Code.”

There’s a quiet buzz from antique ceiling fans, like six thousand crickets,
all out of tune. You don’t even notice, until there’s silence.

Woolworth’s department stores provided lots of pleasure for kids like me. Like a Dollar Store, they included a soda fountain lunch counter, better merchandise, and a friendly clerk behind every counter. By 2001, the company focused on sporting goods and changed its name to Foot Locker, Inc. A classic example of a company that adapted to the market needs.

In today’s consumer shopping mall world, it’s hard for some to envision the incredible thrill of merchandise-packed Five & Dimes. I couldn’t believe so many products existed. I’m not sure kids today can experience anything near that excitement. A $.49 badge? That’s what Little Brother, the 10-year-old narrator, gets. A little spendy for 1954. I remember getting a 25-cent a week allowance, provided I did all my chores, in a time when $1.00 per hour provided a decent wage.

My bedroom teemed with White Owl cigar boxes, my granddad’s favorite cigar. He didn’t smoke them much; mainly he chewed them. And because I lived across the road from him, I got many of his boxes. Lots of childhood treasures can be stored in a cigar box.

Folks today think that 1954 existed in some other galaxy, on some other planet.
Maybe they’re right. It’s hard to believe that world and this one are made of the same stuff.
I can’t tell you about television in 1954. We didn’t have one yet. Didn’t matter. Didn’t need one. When I came home from school, I did chores or played outside until dark and Mom made me come indoors. Now, that does sound like a century ago.

I did not know cowboys named Quirt, Bronc, Thad, Shorty, Coosie or Pop. But I knew men much like them. In fact, most folks called my Grandpa Wilson “Pop.” I once met an old-timer in Magdalena, New Mexico, who had been a sheriff in the 1930s. He still packed a pistol and watched the door, just in case someone he sent to prison got out and scouted him for revenge. I based my character, Quirt Payton, on him.
All the aged cowboys I ever met wore long-sleeved shirts, usually some faded shade of white, with the collar buttoned. This kept the dirt out when he rode down the trail or behind a herd of slow-moving cows. Also, an old beat-up Stetson and yellowed cigarettes stained their fingers.

I don’t suppose the current generation has ever ridden in the open trunk of a car, nor let the air down in the tires to drive down a railroad track (and they call skateboarding an extreme sport). At one point, the six cowboys in the novel, plus Miss Diane Anderson, and the boy narrator, pile into a ’49 Plymouth, without seatbelts. I could have been the poster child for the need of such safety devices. I fell out of my parents’ car, going about 55 miles per hour, in 1949. I spent 10 days in the hospital nursing a major concussion.

At least one of the stories happened to me. In 1994, in Telluride, I was told by the hotel clerk I couldn’t get a room. He intimated I wasn’t their kind. My gruffy appearance after a week’s research in the wilds didn’t impress them. So, I drove all the way to Cortez for a room, arriving about midnight. To say I was ticked is an understatement.

It’s like I’m right there in the room with these old-timers. Some of these scenes I do recall first-hand. I remember going to see a friend of my grandfather’s at a 4-story hotel in central California in the mid-1950s. His room was carpeted with out-dated newspapers that he hadn’t got around to reading yet. Such images last forever.

My favorite things to do when the weather threatens and I can’t play golf: oil the saddles, clean the Winchesters, or write a novel about the Old West.

In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon I discover that maybe I wasn’t born 100 years too late.

Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon (hardback, Center Point) will be released: June 2010. Available through http://www.amazon.com/ or www.BlyBooks.com

For your chance to get a copy of Cowboy for a Rainy Afternoon, just comment on this or any post during the Blyfest. (Be sure to put your email address in the post or sign in using Blogger or Gmail so that I can contact you if I pull your name.)


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