Ecuador – “Just a little sunshine, just a little rain”

Stan Lynde Hiking in the Caja National Forest, Ecuador-Photo by Lynda LyndePerhaps the premier artist of the Old West was Montana’s own Charles M. “Charlie” Russell.

Known as “The Cowboy Artist,” Russell created more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians, and landscapes of the American West. Most followers of all things Western know of his paintings, sculptures, and writings. His 1918 painting, “Piegans,” sold for $5.6 million at a 2005 auction.

What fewer people are aware of are Charlie’s more “earthy” portrayals of cowboy life, including a hand-lettered water color piece now a part of the Amon Carter collection in Fort Worth, Texas. Entitled “Just a little sunshine, just a little rain,” Russell portrays in four small paintings some of the ups and downs of cowboy life.

The first picture shows a cowhand on day herd.

The cattle graze easy on a sunlit plain, the rider slouching in his saddle. Russell has entitled this picture, “Just a little sunshine.” Picture two shows the cowboy riding herd in the rain, huddled in his yellow slicker, the day wet, cold, and miserable. Title? “Just a little rain.” Picture three shows the cowhand well in his cups being helped out of his clothes by a soiled dove in a cowtown bordello. Title: “Just a little pleasure.” Fourth picture portrays the cowboy back on the range, in obvious distress because of a “social” disease. The title? “Just a little pain.”

First, my apologies for the over-long delay in getting back to those of you who follow my blog.

When Lynda and I retired to Ecuador on the last day of 2012, we believed it would only be a week or two before I got back to you. That was before I learned that our life in Ecuador would have a slightly different, but equally accurate, version of “Just a little sunshine, just a little rain.”  No riding day herd in the rain, and no bordellos, but…

During our first few weeks in Ecuador, we found the country incredibly beautiful, its people warm-hearted and friendly.

Just a little sunshine…

No daylight saving time, the sun comes up at 6 a.m. and goes down at 6 p.m. every single day. Temperatures are approximately 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime to 55 at night. Rains are gentle, and quickly pass. Winds are mild and moderate.

Just a little rain…

During our second week in Quito, I suffered an attack of bronchitis that took me to the emergency room for an all-day treatment, including oxygen supplementation, X-Rays, and medication. Still feeling shaky, I was dismissed at the end of the day and returned to the B & B where we were staying.

Just a little pleasure…

We take in the sights in Quito, including the exact location of the equator, a museum or two, and trips to neighboring cities and towns. Volcanoes loom above farms built on lush hillsides, deep canyons reveal rushing rivers and lakes, local leather craft and woven fabrics are offered at low, low prices. Food is delicious, plentiful, and varied. We move briefly to a rooftop apartment in the colorful pueblo of Cotacachi.

We explore other parts of the country, including Loja and Cuenca. We find Cuenca to be a perfect fit for us–a city of rich and diverse cultures, and a blend of the historic and modern. We move there and rent a high-rise apartment alongside the Tomebamba River. We travel twelve and a half miles north to the spectacular Cajas National Park. With mountains reaching from 9,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level, ice cold lakes, streams, and waterfalls, roving herds of alpacas and lamas, and abundant wild flowers, we find the Cajas a remarkable and very special place.

 Just a little pain…

My bronchitis returns with a vengeance. A local doctor treats me with medication, oxygen, and physical therapy. I begin to recover, but oh, no! Now Lynda has bronchitis, too, no doubt having caught it from me! For a week or so, we’re both sufferers together, and then, finally, we’re over it.

We begin to explore our new city. We dine out at a restaurant or two. We attend a concert by the local symphony. We talk of a photographic tour, perhaps some time at the beach. And then my long-time acquaintance and constant companion, my prostate “problem,” suddenly goes to condition RED! I’m fortunate indeed to find a world-class urologist and all-around great guy, Dr. Jose Medina, who doesn’t sugar-coat my condition. He has me tested, calls me in, and says, “You need operation. NOW.” He admits me to his clinic, performs the needed prostatectomy, and I go post-op at his clinic and then back at our apartment. I heal up.

Lynda and I look for, and find, the apartment of our dreams, furnish it, and move in. We are in what I believe is the best part of the city, we have great neighbors on the floor below,  perfect landlords. Once again, life is good.

Just a little (more) pain…

By the middle of April, my voice has grown more and more hoarse. In fact, by most evenings I’m unable to make myself understood at all. Doctors diagnose my problem as a paralyzed vocal cord. I’m sent to a pulmonologist, who orders blood tests, scans of my chest and throat, and biopsies. The examination brings bad news, a diagnosis of squamous cell lung cancer. The good news is that the tumor seems to be confined to the top lobe of my left lung. It has not, as far as we know now, spread to other parts of my body. More good news–Cuenca, Ecuador is the home of a world-class cancer center (SOLCA) that attracts sufferers from the United States, Great Britain, and Europe, as well as patients throughout Ecuador.

Referred there by my pulmonologist, I have taken a battery of diagnostic tests, and will meet tomorrow with the team of oncologists addressing my case to learn the test results, and the team’s recommendations for treatment.

If you believe in prayer, I earnestly solicit yours on my behalf. If you don’t believe in prayer, I’d appreciate your good wishes.

It seems to me that Charlie Russell’s title,

Just a little sunshine, just a little rain. Just a little pleasure, just a little pain

is a metaphor for everyone’s life journey. Mine has been a very good journey indeed. May yours contain an abundance of sunshine and pleasure, and only such rain and pain as you may need to provide you with the perfect, balanced life. I’ll keep you informed with regard to my medical problems, life in Ecuador, Montana and the Old West, and life and love in its many forms through this blog. Thanks for following me, and for your support of my work these many years.

Hasta luego!

























































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A Word from Stan & Lynda

A humble post to our fans, friends and family – we plan to get back to you after we get settled in Ecuador.
We’re doing last moment details for our journey.
And…most of all, thank you for all of your good wishes for our journey to Ecuador.
As soon as we are able we will be back online and communicating.
Thanks for understanding. We truly appreciate you.
You are a big part of our lives, and Stan will be hard at work on the next Merlin Fanshaw adventure as soon as we have a place to live and we’re reconnected to the Internet.
He already has the next book outlined and he is chomping at the bit to be reunited with Merlin Fanshaw at his computer (a new Dell laptop).

Via Con Dios!

Stan and Lynda Lynde

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The Red Ryder BB Gun

My dad was a hunter, and a good one. Growing up at our small home on Lodge Grass Creek, it was our milk cow, family garden, and Dad’s rifle that saw our family through the hard, dark days of the Great Depression.

Like many another Montanan then and now, Dad lived for elk season. When winter’s first serious snows swept in over the Big Horns, elk herds moved down to lower elevations. From the town, foothills, and valleys, the hunters–our friends and our neighbors–moved up to meet them.

As a kid, I picked up on the excitement as Dad prepared for the hunt. I watched as he loaded his saddle, bedroll, and grub box into the ranch pickup. I saw him gather his long johns, his wool shirt, “California” pants, heavy coat, chopper’s mitts, black silk scarf, and Scotch cap. I saw him take his rifle out of its place in the closet and clean it by lamplight. I looked on as he counted his cartridges and sharpened his knives.

At age eight, I caught the fever. I wanted to be a hunter, too.

When Dad came home from the mountains, he always seemed different somehow. His clothes smelled of wood smoke and pine and horseflesh. Burned red by wind and sun, his face bore a tangle of whiskers. Wind-swept distance and high lonesome vistas were still in his eyes. As I remember it now, Dad’s hunts were usually successful. I knew there would be meat for the winter at our house. Dad was happy, and that made me happy, too.

Handing me his rifle, he’d give me a one-armed hug and say, “Run a patch through that old meat getter, Son…Clean her up!

And I’d fetch the solvent, tie a clean white patch to a length of sturdy string, and clean her up.

Naturally, I dreamed of having my own rifle someday. I imagined myself loading up my “meat getter” with bright brass cartridges like Dad’s and heading out for the high country in pursuit of the wily elk. But I knew that until that day came I’d have to make do with a length of broom handle for a rifle and merely pretend I was a hunter.

Until Christmas morning the year I was ten.

As the newspaper counted down the shopping days, I knew exactly what I wanted for Christmas. I knew I was still too young for a real rifle, but I’d seen the advertisements in the paper. My heart hoped, while my mind said “not a chance.” Like Ralphie Parker in Gene Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, the object of my desire was a genuine Red Ryder BB Gun!

I knew all the stats–The Red Ryder carbine was a lever action spring piston air gun with a gravity fed magazine that held 650 BBs. It had Red Ryder’s name burned into the stock. It had adjustable sights–sort of–and boasted a lanyard ring and a leather thong on the left side of its receiver. Its effective range was about the same as a thrown rock–10 yards, more or less.

It was a thing of beauty, in my eyes, and I just knew it would be a joy forever.

I wanted one. I coveted one.

I dropped hints. I showed Mom the ad in the newspaper. I did my chores without being nagged, and I tried to do them perfectly. I talked to Dad man to man about rifles in general and the Red Ryder air rifle in particular. I didn’t even pick on my sister. Well, not much, anyway. I went around, striving consciously–self consciously–to be good. It was hard work, but I believed it would be worth all that unnatural effort if only…

And then, on Christmas morning, there it was! Even before I unwrapped the gift with the tag that read “To Stanford from Mother and Dad” I knew! That long cardboard box in its bright wrapping could be nothing else! I was about to become a rifleman, and then a hunter! Oh, happy day!

And so it was. Cautions from Mom. Training from Dad. Targets only, they said. Boxes and cans and bottles. Don’t shoot at birds. Well, okay, you can shoot at magpies. Crows too. But no songbirds. No rabbits. No dogs or cats or sisters. Fair enough. I accept their terms. I swear, solemnly. My safari begins.

For the next several days, the Red Ryder BB gun hardly ever left my hands. Like an outlaw on the dodge, I even slept with my weapon. I drew targets on paper and aimed for the bull’s eye. I stalked magpies and crows, realizing how impossible it would be to get within ten yards of them with anything that even looked like a gun. I shot a grasshopper.

My self-inflicted wound 

One day in the waning days of World War II, I had a moment of temporary insanity. Heedless of my dad’s strong warnings, I drew a picture of Hirohito on a matchbox and placed it on the ground before me. Cocking my trusty carbine, I took careful aim between the emperor’s eyes and pulled the trigger. FOONK! went the air rifle. SNAP! went the sound of the BB’s impact. WHACK! came the blow of the ricochet. Actually, it was more like FOONK-SNAP-WHACK, fast and together.

I staggered, stunned. I felt as if I’d been struck in the mouth, hard. Reaching my hand up to my mouth, I found I had been. The shot I’d intended for the emperor had struck flagstone beneath the target and had bounced back to break off my front tooth!

I’d like to say my first thought was, “Eureka! I’ve been struck by a ricochet! Some day I’ll create a comic strip about a cowboy turned lawman and his gunfighter friend! That’s it! I’ll call the strip Rick O’Shay!

I’d like to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. What I thought at the time was, “What an idiot I am! How am I going to explain my  broken tooth to Mom and Dad? Will they disown me if I tell them what really happened?

In the end, I couldn’t think of any explanation but the humiliating truth. Expecting to have my Red Ryder BB gun confiscated and be grounded for life, I confessed and waited for the axe to fall.

Mom was concerned, pointing out (like Ralphie’s folks in A Christmas Story) that I could have lost an eye. Dad reacted in the way I dreaded most, with a bewildered shake of his head and a look of disbelief that any son of his could be so stupid.

The dentist capped my tooth, and I graduated a few years later to a single-shot .22 and the beginnings of more serious–and responsible–gun handling. I learned to hunt by practicing on magpies and prairie dogs. I moved on to the grownup version of the Red Ryder carbine, the Winchester Model 94 , hunting mule deer in the hills above the ranch and white-tailed deer in the willows and cottonwoods along the creek.

In the end, I find I’ve come full circle to where it all began, joining friends and hunting partners Jim Wempner, Roland Cheek, John Ulberg, and others in the pursuit of deer, antelope and elk. With them, I’ve tried to pass on a love and respect for the wild places and the game that inhabits them to my sons and to others.

I’ve shared my thoughts on hunting with the readers of my comic strips, Rick O’Shay and Latigo, and even though I no longer hunt I have a lifetime treasury of memories to draw on.

That Red Ryder BB gun I received on that long ago Christmas was an all-time favorite gift.

And it led me to at least a thousand more.


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Happiness is Optional

Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.                                                                                          –Unknown

Members of the American Happiness League (my name for the folks who write self-help books telling us how to be happy) assures us we can all live happily ever after if we’ll just follow the steps they’ve outlined for us.Some members of the League tell us we’ll be happy if we acquire the products they sell–a big house in the city, a cabin at the lake, a family sedan, an SUV, a boat, an ATV, a flat screen TV, a VCR, an iPod, an iPad, a Blackberry, designer clothing, a pedigreed dog, a couple of cats, a partridge in a pear tree.

They remind us that as Americans, the Declaration of Independence grants us the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All we need do to achieve happiness, they imply, is pursue it like mad until we catch it.

Not so.

Chasing after happiness virtually guarantees we won’t find it. After a lifetime of striving to acquire all the toys that make up the Happiness League’s version of the American Dream, we find we have acquired instead:

Debt. Health Problems. Broken Relationships.

I knew a man some years ago–I’ll call him “Fred”–who delighted in asking new acquaintances, “What good is happiness? Can it buy money?”

His question brought a variety of responses from people. Blank looks. Expressions of apprehension, as if they’d just met an alien, or a zombie.

“Fred” didn’t really expect an answer. His question was meant to make people think. 

About money. Priorities. Happiness.

I remember watching a little girl chase butterflies in a meadow some years ago. Laughing and running, the child followed a butterfly from one clump of grass to another for several minutes, but of course she didn’t catch it. Then, when she gave up the chase and sat down to catch her breath, a butterfly landed lightly on her arm. The joy in her eyes told the story. Happiness had caught her.

“Fred” would not have been surprised. Not only did he believe the best things in life are free, he believed they come to us only when we stop chasing them.

“When this life ends and we meet our Maker,” he said, “God is going to ask just two questions.”

Did you have a good time? And How did you treat your brother?

Did you take time to appreciate and enjoy my creation, all the beautiful things I prepared for you?

Flowers in a meadow.


A child’s laughter.

Bird song.



And did you see your brother as I see him? Did you try, at least, to share his burdens and help him along his way?

Did you love your neighbor as yourself?

If you did, you have pleased me. You allowed the happiness I planned for you from the beginning to find you, and surprise you with joy.

At least, that’s the way “Fred” saw it.

I always knew how “Fred” felt about things, not because of what he said, but because of what he did.

How he was.

“Fred” never tried to force his beliefs on me, but he had learned a few things about life, and he believed he had to share what he knew.

One of the things he knew is that happiness is a choice we make. We can pursue happiness until we grow weary, or we can stop striving and allow it to find us.

Happiness is optional.





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My heroes have always been cowboys.

And they still are, it seems.

Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of,

Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.

                                                — Sharon Vaughn

Back in what my grandkids consider “the Olden Days,” I was a pre-teen collector of comic books.

“Big surprise,” you say. “Weren’t we all?”

Yes, I guess most of us were. There were no smart phones or Ipods in those days, and a Blackberry was merely something to eat. If you ask my grandkids, it was an age not long removed from the age of the dinosaur.

But anyway, my buddies and I bought, read, collected, and traded comic books back then, at a time when superheroes were just coming in. Two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, came up with the idea for a character called Superman, who fought crime and upheld truth, justice, and the American Way.

They sold the concept to DC Comics for a reported $130 and the Man of Steel went on to become a cultural icon.

Other superheroes quickly followed–Batman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Captain America–and teens and pre-teens all over America became faithful followers of their favorites. In the small reservation town where I lived, the lines fell into two camps. Kids were devoted either to Superman (sort of like being a Yankees fan) or Batman.

If memory serves, my buddy Keith was a fan of the Man of Steel, while I was committed to The Dark Knight. Oh, I liked Superman, of course–what’s not to like? Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound–all handy qualities to possess.

But I knew I couldn’t really be Superman, much as I admired him. I couldn’t fly. A bold but bone-headed attempt from the roof of our barn convinced me of that. Even at age ten I knew something about firearms, and I was pretty sure bullets wouldn’t bounce harmlessly off my chest. And even though I wasn’t bad at the high-jump in those days, I knew I couldn’t even clear the outhouse in a single bound.

And even though Billy Batson, in the Captain Marvel comic books, was only a kid like me, all he had to do was shout the magic word SHAZAM! and suddenly he was Captain Marvel himself, with all the big guy’s superpowers and his red-and-yellow suit. My buddies and I ran around saying SHAZAM! until our throats were sore, but we never turned into Captain Marvel. We must not have said it right.

But Batman was my guy.

I could see myself as Batman. On the back pages of the comic books, Charles Atlas promised that I (even I!) could transform my pipe-cleaner body to a physique that would prevent bullies from kicking sand in my face and cause every girl in the county to swoon dead away. (Except my sister, Chris. After watching me plummet into the manure pile behind the barn, superhero cape and all, she wasn’t easy to impress.)

Later, I found new heros at the movies.

As a pre-schooler my heroes had been working cowboys from neighboring ranches and our own. But now came Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, Sunset Carson, Lash LaRue, and the rest. These movie cowboys ran down the bad guys in thrilling horseback chases, played guitars and sang some, and rode well-groomed and curried horses that seemed as intelligent as Einstein.

I graduated to other movie heroes–Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. They didn’t sing much in their movies, but they were stalwart and true. They let the outlaws draw first, shot guns out of their hands, and sometimes winged the durned polecats. They frequently overcame the villains in furious fist-fights that seemed to go on forever, standing tall at the end and looking well-groomed and fresh as a daisy.

By the time I was in high school, I began to become more aware of real heroes. The big brothers of my classmates came back from World War II and took their places again in our small community. They were quieter than when they’d left. They didn’t talk much about the war. Some returned with a thousand-yard stare, and scars on their bodies and souls. And as I learned (not from them) what some of them had seen and gone through, I found a new definition for hero.

‘Hero’ is a word they never call themselves.

Call them heroes and they say hell no, they weren’t heroes, but they had known some.

Over there.

The ones who hadn’t come back.

Other wars have come and gone. Other kids’ fathers, brothers, sisters, and mothers have gone to war. As always, many have come back wounded in body and in spirit. They still don’t call themselves heroes. They say, if they say anything, that they just did their job. They served us. They served their country, even though their country has not always served them well.

It seems to me the world has grown darker in recent years.

The superheroes of the comics have changed. Superman and Batman are portrayed today as flawed beings, assailed by self- doubt and conflicted even about right and wrong. Movies now feature anti-heroes who are little different from the villains. They use trickery and violence to achieve their ends, and often the “hero” wins only by being nastier and more violent than the villain.

Who are today’s heroes?

Men and women of our military, certainly. First responders. Firefighters. Policemen. Teachers. EMTs. Doctors and nurses. But maybe there are others we don’t usually think of as heroes. Maybe a “hero” is just a person, as John Wayne described, “who is scared to death, but saddles up anyway.”

Maybe a hero is a single dad who works two or three jobs to support his kids, and cleans house at night after he’s tucked them in their beds. And does it day in and day out, not because he has to, but because he wants to.

Or maybe a hero is a young mother, a cancer survivor, who has just learned from her oncologist that she’ll have to undergo yet another round of chemotherapy and radiation.

Or a grandfather and grandmother who are spending their “Golden Years” bringing up their grandchildren because their parents can’t or won’t.

Maybe a hero is any person who stands up for what is right, in spite of the criticism and mockery of the crowd.

I think heroes are all around us.

Maybe you know a few.

Maybe you are one.






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Confessions of an Eternal Transient

Long, long ago–sixty years ago, to be precise–on a Pacific Island far, far away, a friend and shipmate offered an observation and a prediction. He said I had “the look of the eternal transient” about me, and that during my lifetime I was destined to live “in many different places.”

I laughed and said “No Way.”

After my hitch in Uncle Sam’s Navy, I planned to return to Montana and stay put–except for maybe a visit to New York so I could become a famous and beloved cartoonist, or an occasional pleasure trip out to Hollywood (California) or over to Paris (France).

I had spent most of my childhood on the high plains and mountains of Montana, living with my folks in a variety of sheep and cow camps, and in a succession of ranch houses, cabins, shacks, tents, sheepwagons, and dugouts. I never minded the somewhat nomadic life we led, but somehow I thought that when I grew up I’d settle down in one place and live happily ever after, more or less.

Yeah, Right.

In April of 1997 The Lady Publisher and I moved our home and business for the fourth time since our marriage, this time from Kalispell to Helena, Montana, and I moved into my thirtieth home since leaving the Navy in 1955.

So, if you read this, shipmate, let the record show you were right, and I was wrong.

You were a helluva prophet, my friend.

As of this writing, the Lady Publisher and I are thinking about the possibility of another, part-time move–to a place where snow either (a) does not fall, or (b) quickly melts when it does. Here in Montana, snow tends to be of the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” type. It falls, can’t get up without help, and I wind up helping it up and off my driveway with a snow shovel. Spending a few winter months somewhere down south before returning north for a Montana summer has a definite appeal.

Lynda is considering retirement from her career as Real Estate broker, and would return full time to promoting and marketing both my Merlin Fanshaw westerns and my other books as well. We’ll let you know more as our plans develop.

Meanwhile, the latest novel in the Fanshaw series, The Big Open, will be out in paperback early in August and can be ordered through Amazon and createspace.

Set in the big, open country of eastern Montana in 1889, the book finds Merlin taking off his badge after a tragic accident and turning his back on his law enforcement career. Hired as a cowhand by ranch woman Billie Hart, Merlin is soon drawn into a deepening conflict between Billie and a ruthless cattleman who will stop at nothing to possess her ranch. When violence threatens, Merlin takes a stand, and exorcises the ghosts of his past.

Meanwhile, I just caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. By golly, I do have a sort of ”transient” look!


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Sharing Our Passions

My pre-school granddaughter finishes her drawing and carefully prints a crayola signature. Eyes shining, she hands me her masterpiece–a bright yellow sun, a lumpy white cloud, two strange orange flowers, and an enormous purple rabbit. Drawn almost exactly the way she draws cats, I know instantly it’s a rabbit. I can tell by its ears.

When I was her age, I used to hope people would like my drawing. But first, I hoped they wouldn’t have to ask me what I’d drawn.

Breathless, my granddaughter awaits my approval. I know she’s wondering if she’s going to have to tell me what her subject is.

“My,” I say. “That’s a nice bunny.”

She rewards my critique with a smile, bright as her yellow sun. My granddaughter has shared her art with me, and a bit of her soul.

We never outgrow our need to share.

Our passions become pastimes, hobbies, and careers. They give pleasure and meaning to our lives. Like my granddaughter, we like to show others our skills and talents. We seek out people who share our interests–Cajun cooking, scary movies, classic cars, the Dallas Cowboys, golf.

I have a friend who loves the classic aircraft of World War I–the Niewports, the Spads, de Havillands, Fokkers, and all the other fledgling warplanes that paved the way for today’s Migs, Eurofighters, Raptors, and Lightnings.

My friend posts pictures of aircraft on Facebook. He shares photos and videos of the planes with other enthusiasts, and he delights in watching the restored warbirds in flight.

Other friends love music. They listen to Mozart, Bach, Springsteen, Willie, Waylon, U2. Some perform music themselves. They play violin, piano, and cello, harmonica, guitar, and accordian. They sing. Their passion is music, and they love to share their passion.

My own passion came early.

When I was my granddaughter’s age, I turned from drawing bunnies to drawing and writing about cowboys and Indians, horses and cattle, “mean men” and heroes. My love for all things western became a way of life and a career, and it hasn’t changed or lessened in the better part of a century.

I still delight in sharing my passion–with kindred spirits, the merely curious, or anyone who’ll let me.

I love to write about the sights and sounds that lift my spirits–horses running free in red rock country, the sharp smell of bruised sage, and of dust in a sun-baked corral. I like to tell about the patter of raindrops on a bunkhouse roof, of smoke and dreams rising into the night sky through the smoke flaps of a tepee, and of cowboys telling tales both tall and true by firelight.

I share because I care.  About the West, its history, its people, and its values.

I always will.


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Belonging To Our Stuff

I have too much stuff. Maybe you do, too.

I have stuff I don’t need. I have clothes I don’t wear; I have watches that don’t work. I have shoes that don’t fit. I have keepsakes I’ve never liked that I can’t get rid of.

Why not?

Somebody–I forget who–gave them to me. What would they think if I gave away, or threw away, their gifts?

Yeah, right. Like they’d really care.

Okay. One morning I get on the bathroom scales and the scales say, “One at a time! Please! One at a time!”

So I work out like a Russian gymnast, eat more lettuce than a family of rabbits, and I lose thirty pounds.


In celebration, I go out and buy clothes that fit the new me. However, I prudently keep the old “fat” clothes. Why? Do I think I’m going to gain back the thirty pounds? Do I plan to gain it back?

In the top drawer of my dresser I have a single, widowed cufflink, its mate long lost. Waste not, want not, I tell myself. I keep the link, I guess in case I ever acquire a dress shirt with only one sleeve. On second thought, maybe I already have such a shirt. I haven’t checked my closet lately.

Lynda and I had a house fire in 1990, in which we pretty much lost all our stuff. I stepped out of the blazing house (good idea!) and into the sub-zero December morning wearing only my jammies and a frightened expression. That was the last time I had only the stuff I needed and nothing more. Today, some twenty-odd years later, my life is back to normal. Once again, I have more stuff than I need. Much more. Tons more.

We’ve turned over a new leaf at our house. We’re downsizing. We’re taking stuff to the dump. We’re donating stuff to charity. We’re forcing ourselves to not come back from Good Will with more stuff than we took there. We’ve thrown out useless things, like the threadbare old flannel shirt that I love, and the paint-spattered old shoes with the holes in the soles.

We’ve hosted garage and yard sales, getting up at first light to display our treasures to the early-bird shoppers. We’ve haggled and negotiated. We’ve argued the value of lava lamps and 45 rpm recordings by Frankie Vail. (Did you know they have both an “A” side and a “B” side?)

We’ve watched potential buyers appraise our offerings–unaware of the memories they hold. And as the sun sinks in the west we’ve made our final transactions, not really paying someone to take the stuff off our hands, but almost. And as we carried the leftovers back into the house and counted our profits, we’ve discovered our income was about four dollars below minimum wage, and that we still had most of our stuff.

What is it about people and stuff? Do we really believe possessing more stuff will make us happy? Or have we learned the opposite is true? Are we really happier owning the big house of our dreams, with the big mortgage, the four car garage, the boat, and the RV, the ATV, and the SUV? Or are all these just more stuff to take care of?

And if happiness does lie in the abundance of our possessions, why are so many of our best memories of times when we had very little–growing up in a poor but loving family, starting life with hardly anything but dreams and love as newlyweds?

For twenty years or so, my day job has been writing novels about a young cowboy-turned-lawman named Merlin Fanshaw in 1880s Montana. Merlin’s possessions are a couple of horses, a saddle, a change of clothes, and a Colt’s revolver and Winchester rifle, the tools of his trade.

His possessions are few, but his abundance is in his friends, the plains and mountains of Montana, and the help and hope he brings to others. From what my readers tell me, Merlin’s abundance is the kind many of them envy, and would gladly share–at least in their imaginations.

Works for me. Maybe less stuff really is the right stuff.

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1989. The 17 Bar, Billings, Montana.

A friend and I sit at a table with two old-time cowboys, one in his late eighties and the other past ninety. The conversation turns to the problems of the day, which we agree are many. We talk of other days, times when life was better or in retrospect seemed to be. We sip our adult beverages and fall silent for a time. Then, breaking the silence, the ninety-year-old speaks.

“The good old days,” he says, “were when we was young.”

“When we was young?” Sure, I thought. Young, wild, and full of beans. Young, when it seemed there wasn’t a horse that couldn’t be rode or a girl who couldn’t be won. Young, reckless, and loose as ashes in the wind. Young when the world seemed young too, when anything seemed possible, and where death, if a feller thought about it at all, was still way out there in the future, beyond the most distant horizons of his mind.

But what about the “good old days?” Were the times really better, or did they only seem that way? How about the turn of the century when that old cowboy was born, say 1903? A better time, right?

Well, yes and no.

In 1903:

The average life expectancy was 47 years.

Only 14 percent of American homes had a bathtub.

Only 8 percent of American homes had a telephone.

There were only 8,000 cars in the U.S. and only 144 miles of paved roads.

The average U.S. worker made between $200 and $400 per year.

Sugar cost four cents a pound. Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen. Coffee cost fifteen cents a pound.

The five leading causes of death in the U.S. were:

  1. Pneumonia and influenza
  2. Tuberculosis
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Heart disease
  5. Stroke

There were only 230 reported murders in the entire U.S.

Only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school. One in ten U.S. adults couldn’t read or write.

Good old days?

I wondered. How about the year I was born, 1931?

Yeah, right.

Drought. The Dust Bowl. Bread Lines. Unemployment at 16.3%.

Average wage for those who have a job is $1850 a year.

2500 U.S. banks fail. Foreclosures force people from their homes.

A new car costs $640 and gasoline is 10 cents a gallon.

Bread is 8 cents a loaf. Hamburger is 11 cents a pound.

A first-class postage stamp is 3 cents. A penny postcard is, well, a penny.

The four leading causes of death in the United States are:

  1. Heart disease.
  2. Cancer.
  3. Pneumonia.
  4. Infectious and parasitic diseases, including influenza, tuberculosis, and syphilis.

Average life expectancy is 58 years. Good old days? During the time of the world’s greatest economic collapse? Not so much.

All right, what about the present? Are these the Good Old Days?

Again, not so much.

“The United States is presently facing economic disaster on a scale few nations have ever experienced. We no longer produce what we need to sustain ourselves. We import much more than we export. We are selling off our assets and taking on massive debts to sustain a standard of living we can no longer afford.” (

The average life expectancy is 78.7 years for men and 80.l years for women.

There are 300 billion automobiles in the U.S.

91% of Americans use cell phones.

99% of Americans own television sets. Average number of television sets per household: 2.24.

Average U.S. household income is $51,413 per year.

The five leading causes of death in the United States (65 and over):

  1. Heart Disease.
  2. Cancer.
  3. Chronic low respiratory diseases.
  4. Stroke.
  5. Alzheimer’s disease.

Most recent statistics report 14,748 murders per year.

All right, so maybe the Good Old Days have less to do with a particular time or place than they do with our attitudes.

Life happens, ready or not.

Events and circumstances come into our lives uninvited.

Bumps in the road cause us to stumble. Road blocks spring up and stop our progress. We take detours we didn’t plan for. Setbacks stop our progress or help us to grow. Try as we may, we can’t control the events that come our way. But we can control how we react to the events that come our way.

Looking at it that way, maybe the old cowboy was right after all.

Maybe the good old days are when we’re young.

Young at heart.

Generous in spirit.

Positive in outlook.


Choosing gratitude.

May all your days be Good Old Days.







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Cottonwood Clarion



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