Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears
Matthew P. Mayo
Two Dot, 2009
What are the limits that a person can bear? If you had the chance to leave a world of poverty, oppression, and little hope and start a new life full of opportunity, what would you be willing to endure?
If you answer, "I'd be willing to endure anything," stop and read Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears, and then ask yourself the question again.
Cowboys is a collection of fifty stories picked by Mayo as the most harrowing and dramatic events that occurred in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the West. These chronicle the grizzly attacks, the massacres undertaken by both Native and white Americans, the starvation, the expeditions gone horribly wrong, and the occasional occurrence of cannibalism. In some ways, I think a more appropriate title for this book should have been something along the lines of Heartbreak and Heroism, with a Few Stories About People that Should Have Been Nominated for the Darwin Award.
It is staggering to think of what these people went through. I would have jumped the first stagecoach going east after enduring some of the things these people did. But it was to our advantage that they stayed put - it was their courage and tenacity that formed the foundation of the West and helped make our nation what it is.
Mayo's gift for detail makes for riveting reading. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to have a grizzly bear slice the skin off your back like it was peeling an orange, or what it would feel like to be scalped but only after you'd been punctured with arrows AND shot, or to watch your husband and son be devoured by starving wolves, then you'll have your answers in Cowboys. Needless to say, you won't forget these stories anytime soon.
Mayo, who was recently a finalist for a Spur award for his short story "Half a Pig" that appears in the anthology A Fistful of Legends, is a gifted and skillful writer. Many of the stories in here are just as good as "Half a Pig," especially the stories about the Sand Creek Massacre; Bass Reeves, the black law officer who had to arrest his own son for murder; Marie Doran (who, with her sons endured fifty days in a winter camp and then wandered in the wilderness for another month before being found); and an unfortunate Native American who was posthumously named Head-Smashed-In. (Many of the stories are enriched with dialogue created by Mayo.)
There are a lot of stories on people I hadn't heard of, and I appreciate that they were included in here along with the more famous incidents like the shoot-out at the OK Corral and the battle at Little Big Horn. I hope that Mayo will seriously think about taking some of these stories and expanding on them into either non-fiction works or historical novels.
All in all, Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears is a great read if you're interested in mountain men, pioneer life or Native Americans, or if you just appreciate what our predecessors endured in order to make the West habitable. Just don't think that this book will be one that you can read before going to sleep at night.