The High Plains is no figure of speech, John Fischer'll quickly tell you, but a dusty tableland straddling the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle that was the last part of the U.S. to be settled. His Caperton kin took up a half-section there in 1891, after the six-shooter outpointed the Comanches' fast-twanging bow and the marauding buffalo, too, was removed from the range. As a cub reporter, Fischer himself met the region's trail-blazing rancher, Col. Charles Goodnight--then 92 and newly married (to a woman of 27) and every bit the gracious demigod. Once, he'd built up and managed the finest spread in the West, not the least bothered that his British partner got a lion's share of the profits. But many a monied Britisher discovered that, hired hands or not, the cowboys weren't about to be treated like servants: Lady Aberdeen was forced to carry the family luggage and Lord Aberdeen found his boots still unpolished outside the door in the morning. If cultural conflict led to cattle rustling by the locals, it also led to the wipe-out of lawless, Mexican-settled Tascosa--by the big ranchers who bankrolled the Texas Rangers and bought up the ""nesters'"" land. Then, barbed-wire closed off the trail and fenced Tascosa in. Fischer expands on the art of stringing it, ""a more complex business than you might think."" He also dismembers the legend of Geronimo and rebuilds it, stronger; details the early perils of oil wildcatting; and lays open the water problem. ""The economic history of the [region] can best be understood as a series of mining ventures""--from the Paleolithic flint mines to ""mining grass,"" or overgrazing, to tapping the Ogalla Aquifer, an underground reservoir that has transformed the High Plains into a cattle-feeding and beef-packing nexus (whereas once steers were shipped east for a final fattening on grain). But the water level is falling fast, the cost of fuel for pumping has soared, and Fischer foresees--without regret--the High Plains returning to the leaner, harder life he left in 1933 to take a surprise Rhodes Scholarship. A buoyant, level-headed keepsake for fans of both Frank Dobie and Laura Ingalls Wilder.