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Something Spectacular

 

Everyone recognizes the tune, but the titles and stanzas vary. It’s commonly called “The Cowboy’s Lament,” and it commonly begins, “As I walked out in the streets of Laredo.” Marty Robbins and other country stars have recorded it that way. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s good to know the cowboy song along these lines originated not in Texas but in Dodge City, Kansas, and begins, “As I walked out by Tom Sherman’s barroom.”

That’s the way Frank Maynard wrote it, the way he sang it to fellow cowboys on the ranges of the southern plains, and the way he published it, under the title “The Dying Cowboy,” in his booklet of poems, Rhymes of the Range and Trail. In doing so Maynard, a working cowboy, adapted from a song lots of cowboys knew, “The Bad Girl’s Lament,” which in turn was a variation on an older English song, “The Unfortunate Rake.” So it goes with folksongs.

And so the story is told in a new book from Texas Tech University Press, Cowboy’s Lament: A Life on the Range, edited, I am proud to say, by my fellow Plains Folk columnist, Jim Hoy. Jim has written in the past about Maynard’s claim to fame in penning “The Cowboy’s Lament,” but the book provides much more detail, and considerable good reading, on the life of this old-time cowboy.

Frank Maynard was born and raised in Iowa, but ran away from home as a teenager in order to see the open plains. Then his family moved to southern Kansas, and Maynard became a plainsman through-and-through. He hunted buffalo, traded with the Indians, herded cattle, and got into enough scrapes to fill up a book. Which was what he did with them, except the book wasn’t published in his lifetime. Jim has rediscovered the manuscript in family hands and brought it through to print, along with Maynard’s poems and other writings.

Jim recounts the search for Maynard’s manuscripts and the biography to go with them, which makes an intriguing detective story in itself. Maynard, too, is an excellent writer, which makes his tales from the plains of the 1870s go down easy. Texas Tech has made an altogether excellent book out of the work. From my reading of it, two things stand out about the life and work of Frank Maynard, plainsman and cowboy.

First, the Great Plains were a wide-open and chaotic place in those days. This is hard to imagine, maybe more so for someone who has grown up in the region, so neatly gridded by section-range-township and seamed by modern highways. Places like the Gypsum Hills, a great locale for holding herds, and the upper Arkansas River, a regular crossroads of hoofed transport, sound magical in Maynard’s narrative. Most of all, there are the transactions and collisions of many peoples: Cheyennes, Osages, Choctaws, young cowboys tending herds, angry German farmers confronting them, and bandits and rustlers and brawlers and vigilantes of all kinds. It makes your head spin to think about life in such a moment of history.

And the other thing that strikes me is the intensity of Maynard’s longing for that open range—he write a poem called “Farewell to the Plains.” He married the girl of his dreams and settled down in Colorado Springs, but you get the feeling he had regrets about giving up the life wild and free. I’ve seen the same thing in the reminiscences of Virginia Bill Hamilton, of Dakota Territory, and in fact, those of countless veterans of the open range. They knew they had been part of something spectacular that would never come round again.

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