In 2001, Roger D. Hardaway, an associate professor at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, noted: "Perhaps the biggest discrepancy between the myth and the reality of the cowboy legend was that the black cowboys were almost totally ignored by the mythmakers of the Eastern publishing houses and the Hollywood movie sets."
Hardaway was right: Estimates suggest that as many as a quarter of 19th and early 20th century cowboys were African American. Nat Love was one of those overlooked legends, a man born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854, who was given the name Deadwood Dick after he won mustang riding, roping and shooting contests in that Dakota Territory town on July 4, 1876, just days after Custer's disastrous battle at the Little Bighorn.
According to his 1907 autobiography, Love visited the site of Custer's last stand, drove cattle through Arizona, Texas, Wyoming, Nebraska and Old Mexico and rubbed shoulders with frontier legends such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank and Jesse James, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Now, Joe R. Lansdale, the much-acclaimed Texas writer of mysteries, science fiction and westerns, has brought his own take to the Nat Love story with his new novel, "Paradise Sky."
Lansdale approaches Love from a different perspective, focusing on his early years, after slavery and in the Western territories.
His protagonist starts out life as Willie Jackson, the teenage son of a freed slave-turned-sharecropper in East Texas. When Willie's on a walk into town to get provisions, his eyes happen to rest on the backside of the hatchet-faced third wife of Sam Ruggert, a bitter drunkard who in a response that foreshadows the fate of Emmett Till and countless other black youth for decades to come, hastily assembles a gang of cronies to avenge Willie's assault on white womanhood. Having already seen a lynching at age 10, Willie doesn't stick around. He steals a horse and goes to the family farm, where his pa gives him an old gun and urges him to run.
Willie does, although some hours later he doubles back to find his family's homestead burned to the ground, Pa and some livestock with it. Knowing he can't win a battle with the well-armed vigilantes, he goes on the run, stumbling across the isolated farm of Tate Loving, a white preacher and Civil War veteran who has come to the conclusion that the biblical stories used to justify American slavery are bull and, moreover, that God is no more than a "big watchmaker, and we were the innards of his watch, and this here earth we stand on is the watch's slippery surface."
The philosophical and kind-hearted Loving hides Willie, then mentors him in the classics, astronomy and, more significantly, how to handle guns. All is fine for several years, until the young man is recognized by a visitor who has seen the wanted poster Ruggert issued — which forces him on the run again, into Indian Territory, where he changes his name to Nat Love in honor of his mentor and joins the buffalo soldiers.
There he survives a hair-raising Indian ambush, deserts his post and eventually lands in Deadwood, where he earns the respect and friendship of the legendary Wild Bill Hickok and the fictional Bronco Bob (an ethical sharpshooter and would-be dime novelist) as well as the affections of Win Finn, a strong and independent black woman "whose kiss moved me from earth to sky."
But the vigilantes are never far away, and in due time, they exact a terrible revenge on those Nat loves, propelling the cowboy again onto the plains, where he must confront not only Ruggert, in whose hateful mind "the South will rise again," but also his own most deeply held beliefs about the nature of God, the value of life and the limits of revenge.
This isn't Lansdale's first time writing about black cowboys or Nat Love — elsewhere, he's acknowledged that reading Love's autobiography in the 1970s spurred a passionate interest in the lives of black cowboys and buffalo soldiers, and earlier stories and a novella have featured similar characters and circumstances. But in "Paradise Sky," Lansdale delivers a more richly imagined, picaresque hero, whose adventures as cowboy, Indian fighter, sharpshooter, and U.S. marshal rival those of the real-life black cowboy and Pullman porter on whom he is modeled, or at least as he portrayed himself in print.
By slyly juxtaposing the adventures of the "real life" Deadwood Dick with the fanciful novels Bronco Bob pens, Lansdale unwittingly highlights the fun house-mirrored gap between the embroidered facts of Love's autobiography and the inventions of this equally fantastic novel.
Some readers may long for an edgier, more historical Nat Love to emerge — the Nat who professed a preference for hard whiskey instead of the sarsaparilla Lansdale gives him, who railed against slave owners in his autobiography with more passion that this kinder, folksier Nat, calling them "perfect devils in human form." Yet Lansdale has pulled out all the stops to deliver a rip-roaring tale completely in keeping with dime novel traditions and the cinematic hyperbole of "Blazing Saddles" or "Django Unchained." One hopes, in the process, that his efforts lead to greater curiosity about, and sustained literary interest in, the lives of real black cowboys and their contributions to the history of the American West.
Joe R. Lansdale
Mulholland Books; 400 pp., $26
Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has written a black history book of days, four mysteries and edited several anthologies.