Cowpunching: it's still a tough, dusty, bruising craft; Panhandle Cowboy, by John R. Erickson. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press. $12.50.

"Panhandle Cowboy" is not a spellbinder. No, sir. It's a square-jawed, straight-shootin' account of what it means to be a ranch hand in today's West. And, with so many "urban cowboys" struttin' about nowadays, it's just the kind of book needed to kill a few misconceptions while breathing life into new legends.

The book is by and about John Erickson's four-year stint as manager of the Crown Ranch, 5,000 acres of grassland and a few hundred stubborn cattle in the Oklahoma Panhandle. The spread is the discarded plaything of a bored millionaire. As such it is not without certain accouterments one might expect of an affluent owner.

But quite apart from the luxury of a comfortable, attractive house, life out on the range is still a bruising, dusty, frustrating craft. This modern-day cowpuncher has spun his tale in a light, conversational style. While not finely polished, his writing has honest simplicity and mountain-brook clarity.

Erickson's real-life characters, whether horses or cowpokes, are as fascinating and incorrigible as an old-West legend. And Erickson spins his yarn with such warmth that the selling of his favorite bronc is enough to make even the toughest redneck cry in his saddle.

Indeed, it is in the saddle that the reader must endure the weakness of Erickson's prose. The chapters devoted to roaming the range at roundup time in pursuit of cantankerous cattle are just plain overworked. The arduous roundups become as drawn out for the reader as for the cowhand, even though initially the roundup seems interesting. But the grade-school vocabulary employed isn't enough to breathe life into the repetitive scenes.

The black and white photographs by Bill Ellzey are as simple and homespun as the story.

Despite the occasionally monotonous style, Erickson does manage to pack the book with informative nuggets on ranching. Perhaps more important, one discovers that there's more to the world of the cowboy than a Saturday night two-step across Gilly's dance floor. A cowboy's long, hard hours demand toughness; in that sense the imagery of the old western movies is not so far from real life.

A cattleman today has a few more modern conveniences, but the cows are just as ornery, and the life of the cowboy takes almost as much "true grit" as John Wayne made you think it did.

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