Look at the language not through it.
The Kid’s Ride
“Look at the language not through it.”
I wish I had recorded where I saw that bit of advice so I could give credit, but I didn’t so I can’t.
The Saga of Billy the Kid: The Thrilling Life of America’s Original Outlaw by Walter Noble Burns
I spotted this Amazon Kindle book in one of my daily emails from BookBub for 99₵.
Billy’s fame began in the Lincoln County War. Lincoln County in southeastern New Mexico has a storied past as part of the old west, most prominently the war and Billy the Kid. I have visited Lincoln County, got caught up in this bit of American history and read a couple books about Billy and the war.
I didn’t (and still don’t) need another book about Billy the Kid, and I knew nothing about Walter Noble Burns. But this book was on Kindle for 99₵, deliverable in mere nanoseconds, so what the heck.
What a wonderful surprise. Burns does a masterful job of setting up the characters and the place before Billy shows up. “Masterful’ is an understatement.
“Look at the language not through it” kept popping into my head as I found myself focusing out of the story onto this writer’s mastery of the craft. Vocabulary, sentence structure, cadence, pacing, paragraphing, all done with seemingly effortless precision.
Late in the book, after being tried and convicted of murder, Billy escapes from captivity and rides out of Lincoln. Here is Burns’ description of that ride.
The Lure of Black Eyes
Due west from Lincoln the Kid rode. A mile and a half out he turned north-by-west into Baca road. Here Bonito Cañon widens into a beautiful valley. Down across the bottom-lands and vegas he passed, his horse at a swift gallop. The hay meadows, full of new grass, spread about him enameled with wild flowers. Now and then a jackrabbit stood on its haunches and eyed him curiously. An occasional field lark piped an accompaniment to his pony’s drumming hoofs.
The drowsy murmur of the Bonito River began to fill his ears, its winding course for miles up and down the valley marked by groves of walnut, box-elder, cottonwood, and willow. Here and there in the distance, he had a glimpse of a white slant of rapids or a long reach of shining water. Never drawing rein, he splashed across the stream where, under shade of trees, it poured over golden gravel at the Baca ford.
On the benches of land beyond, he kept on through the ploughed fields, at the edges of which stood the adobe houses of Mexican farmers. Through a deep gap in the bulwark of colossal yellow piñon-splotched hills ahead loomed Capitan Mountain, deep in purple sleep. On a height over which the trail climbed he turned in his saddle for a farewell look at Lincoln. Far across the sunlit valley, the little town, half-buried in blooming orchards, seemed a picture of peace. He wondered what was happening there, what furor of excitement his escape had aroused, what hurried plans of pursuit were taking shape. His distant view from the hilltop was the last he ever had in life of the mountain village that had been the scene of his most thrilling exploits and desperate adventures. A moment more and the valley was left behind and he was swallowed up between the towering walls of Baca Cañon.
A few miles up the cañon where the trail turned west along the foot of the mountain range stood the little adobe jacal of Jesus José Padilla. Directly above it, Capitan peak went up to the blue sky in heavily wooded, tumultuous slopes. The clatter of hoofs brought old man Padilla to the door.
Walter Noble Burns (1866–1932) was a writer of Western history and a Western fiction author. Wikipedia lists him as a historian, author, researcher, journalist, active in the period 1900–1932.
As I develop as a writer, I find myself more and more ‘looking at the language’ as much as reading the story and finding real joy in that. When I stumble upon something like this, all I can think is ‘God, I wish I could write like that.’
I couldn’t resist. I had to take this ride for myself, vicariously of course. I pulled up Google Maps and got directions from Lincoln, NM to Capitan Mountain, NM. I used the satellite view and a bicycle as my vehicle. It is still there: the trail (now a road), the valley, the river, the ford (now a bridge), and of course the mountain. I couldn’t spot Padilla’s house though. Oh well, nothing’s perfect.
Word Count: 773