Hill Country Chronicles
By Clay Coppedge
The History Press (2010, $19.99)
Texas’ Hill Country covers about 25 counties in the central part of the state, including Travis County, home to Austin. It’s a region as thick with legends and characters as it is with Ashe junipers, better known as cedars to those who live here.
The region, its legends and characters, and even the cedars get covered in Clay Coppedge’s Hill Country Chronicles. Coppedge, a journalist and freelance writer, has put together a collection of essays that tell the story of this rugged and sometimes forbidding land, an area pivotal to Texas’ history.
Coppedge is a storyteller at heart, and some of the best pieces in the collection are those in which he tells the stories of the region’s characters, such as outlaw Johnny Ringo. If the name rings a bell, that’s because Ringo is associated with the Clanton Gang and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. Although Ringo gained notoriety as an outlaw, some sources claim he never fired a shot in Tombstone.
Ringo did fire a shot or two, as Coppedge writes, while making a stay in Burnet, Texas, where he was arrested Christmas Day for firing a shot across the city square. Texas’ Hill Country was also where Ringo probably earned his reputation as an outlaw during the Hoodoo War, a bloody feud over cattle between recent German settlers and their American-born neighbors.
Ringo, Coppedge writes, shot and killed Jim Cheyney, a resident of the area, after Cheyney had invited Ringo and his partner Bill Williams in for breakfast.
Coppedge also delves into Texas heroes such as Jim Bowie, telling the story of how Bowie may have come into possession of his namesake knife. “A good bit of evidence suggests that the real Bowie knife of legend and lore was designed and made in Arkansas blacksmith named Thomas Black . . . . Black’s design was long and heavy and was distinguished by an evil little upturn at its tip and scooped top blade.”
Coppedge’s stories range far and wide through the region. He writes about its people, its places — Luckenbach, for instance, the blink of a town made famous by Waylon, Willie and the boys — and its critters: from armadillos and unappreciated mules to the state dinosaur, the Pleurocoelus. And he does it often with dry humor and insight, which makes the book worth a read.