On Skip Hollandsworth’s “The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob” (Texas Monthly, November 2005)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: Peggy Jo Tallas was a kind soul. She was wild in her younger days, always looking to escape the humdrum for adventure. But as she matured, she had seemed to settle down. Never married, she lived with and cared daily for her ailing mother. No one would have suspected she would be the one to disguise herself as a man, rob lots of banks, and go to jail. Nor would they suspect she’d continue to rob them in her old age.

For any writer, if the main character of the story has refused to talk, disappeared, or has died, telling the whole story will always be challenging. But hardly a barrier. In Skip Hollandsworth’s 2005 story “The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob” from Texas Monthly, Hollandsworth trumps this issue.

In his story, I’d like to highlight Hollandsworth’s “classic storytelling” approach. Save for the opening two sections, it’s primarily written chronologically. This approach is not necessarily golden for all stories, but with this one, it seems to be the key.

By the end of Hollandsworth’s two opening sections, we know that Peggy Jo will have gone to jail for her first 1991 robbery, which Hollandsworth highlights in his lead. And we also know what happens 15 years later: Peggy Jo returns to robbing banks at 60 years old. We even know exactly how she robbed her last bank.

And this is where Hollandsworth leaves off to begin the chronology, starting all the way back with Peggy Jo’s childhood best friend, who tells stories from their teenage years in the late ‘50s. He continues into the ‘70s, illustrating her free-spirited, wild nature, letting us into her life, then speeding the story up with, “And suddenly, just like that, it was 1984, and Peggy Jo was forty years old, with lines tracking out from the corners of her eyes and a touch of gray slipping into her hair.” Here is where he transitions into why Peggy Jo began robbing banks. But what we are led to believe throughout the whole story, a theme that continues until the very last line, is that she did it because of her free-spirited, adventurous nature, which is why stories of her decades-ago young past are essential to the story and essential in their chronology.

Although we already know that Peggy Jo will return in her old age to rob a bank in East Texas, it creeps up on us so naturally in the chronology of the story that we almost don’t recognize that Hollandsworth has returned to the scene at which he left off in the beginning of the story. But now, Hollandsworth reveals more details, and we soon learn that this is the “last ride” of Peggy Jo—or “Cowboy Bob,” the name FBI investigators gave her when she robbed in disguise during her heyday. The beauty of it is that we don’t see Peggy Jo as a ruthless bank robber, but we still see her free spirit shining through. Impressively, through some weighty reporting Hollandsworth is able even to tell us what Peggy Jo could have been doing as she sat in her RV, while police surrounded her from the outside—smoking a menthol Merit at the kitchen table, maybe looking at old family photos.

Throughout the story, Hollandsworth had maintained a quick pace, moving from scene to scene with purpose, keeping the ball rolling. But now, his pace slowed so much that he naturally gave Peggy Jo a graceful feel. When Hollandsworth writes, “Finally, Peggy Jo went back to her bedroom, where a .357 Magnum loaded with hollow point bullets was hidden underneath a pillow,” he leads us to believe for a second she that would commit suicide. But instead, she grabs the toy gun. The key to the remainder of the scene is Hollandsworth’s use of subtlety, letting the action speak for itself. No adverbs or sad, sullen description of Peggy Jo’s expressions or her tone of voice. Just verbs. “She walked to the door and opened it … ‘You’re going to have to kill me.” … “But then she took a step out of the RV, and from the doorway her hand emerged, holding the toy pistol. Just as she began to lower it, four officers fired.”

Her dying moments are reported the same, with an effortless weight added to them:

“Once she hit the ground, however, she somehow found the strength to pull off her sunglasses. For a moment, she lifted her head. That May morning, the light was like honey. A soft breeze blew across the yard. From somewhere came the sound of pigeons cooing. Peggy Jo looked up at the dense new foliage of a sweet gum tree that rose above her. Then she closed her eyes and died.” 

Notice how frank and un-dramatized the last line is. It doesn’t need any added emotional appeal. This effortless effect is something Hollandsworth does all throughout. Check out some more of his crime stories–chilling stuff.