Chapter 16
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The Cowboy Life

Patricia McKissack and her son Frederick McKissack Jr., along with illustrator Randy DuBurke, have created a graphic novel about the most famous African-American cowboy

Celebrated children’s author Patricia McKissack’s new graphic novel—written with her son, Frederick McKissack Jr.—tells the story of African-American cowboy Nat Love, who was born in 1854 in a log cabin on the grounds of a plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee. His father worked as a slave foreman for plantation owner Robert Love, and his mother ran the plantation kitchen. Nat was seven years old when the Civil War began, and when it ended four years later, his family was free. With freedom came great joy but also great privation. Nat’s father taught him and his older brother to make brooms and weave chair bottoms to support the family. They planted their own crops and taught themselves to read. Tragically, by the time Nat was fourteen his father, older sister, and brother-in-law had died, leaving Nat and his brother to care for their mother and two small nieces.

That’s when Nat left home in search of work to help his family survive. He soon discovered a knack for breaking horses, a skill for which he earned ten cents per horse. One day a winning raffle ticket brought him a hundred dollars in cash, and Nat set off to try his luck in the infamous frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas. There he hired on with a cattle team for thirty dollars a month, bought a new set of clothes and a .45 Colt revolver, and began his career as a genuine cowboy, riding the range and herding cattle to market through Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and the Dakotas. He quickly mastered the tools of his trade, becoming so proficient that he famously won the grand prize for both roping and shooting at the Great Cowboy Games of 1876 in Deadwood, South Dakota—thus earning the nickname “Deadwood Dick.”

Nat Love published an autobiography of his own in 1907, and Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack Jr. have based much of their own first-person narrative in Best Shot in the West on that source material. As a result, the reader feels especially connected to the experiences of this rugged survivor of the American West. During the highs and lows in the life of a cowboy, which included “stampedes, gun battles, and almost getting killed trying to ride monster steers and buffalo,” Nat, according to the McKissacks, “saw friends get crippled from falls or retire from old age when they were still in their thirties. I saw men drink themselves out of work, or turn to crime. But the cowboy life gave me opportunities I’d never have had if I’d remained in Davidson County, Tennessee. For one, I’d never have seen Mexico, and I’d never have learned Spanish. I’d never have seen snow on the Colorado Rockies or tasted cold water from a mountain stream. I’d never have seen wild herds of buffalo racing over the plains.” Indeed, he might never have met such luminaries of the time as Buffalo Bill Cody (“as fine a man as one could wish to meet”), Billy the Kid (who, by the time he died at age twenty-two, had “killed at least one man for every year of his life”), or Bat Masterson, who kept Nat out of federal prison when, on a whim, he tried to steal a cannon from the fort outside Dodge City.

Of course, skipping the cowboy life might also have meant skipping being nearly killed and then kidnapped by Indians. Nat’s escape from that predicament is just one of the many exciting stories the McKissacks have re-imagined here through the contemporary aesthetic of the graphic novel. Comic book artist Randy DuBurke’s colorful acrylic and pen illustrations impart a vivid sense of energy and movement to this story of bucking broncos, stampedes, and gun battles. Kirkus Reviews commends the artwork as “a perfect use of the graphic format to celebrate the life of a legendary American.” And Publishers Weekly calls Best Shot in the West “a fine introduction to a little-known piece of Americana.” The McKissacks and DuBurke have crafted the perfect blend of history, biography, and adventure for daring readers twelve and up.