The Cowboy And The Critter

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It was the time we were working out of the Diamond Hook, Davy Stevens’ starve-out operation at Cloverdale in northern Nevada. Cloverdale was the cluster of sod and tarpaper shanties the RO Ranch was using as a line camp late that particular fall, and Davy Stevens was the eighty-year-old cowman who held title to the spread. The RO and the Diamond Hook outfits shared a corridor of range through the San Antone sand hills, and we used to help Davy with his riding. Holly Richardson and I had cut three hundred two-year-old heifers from the RO bunch and had herded them down to Miller’s Flat where they could winter on rabbit brush, browse, and alkali. The range down that way was usually free from snow cover. They would scrounge and learn to make out.

We had dropped them, loaded our tired horses into the stock truck that had been left for us, and, with indecent haste, bumped back to Cloverdale, where we submerged ourselves in the luxury of lumpy, rat-stained mattresses in place of gravel, downy sage, and rabbit pellets.

Long before daylight had wiped out all but a couple of lingering stars, we were awakened by old Jean Daniels’ gruff chuckle. (He never slept beyond 3 A.M.) “Your girls is back.”

How Jean could tell the bellowing of a heifer from that of a fullgrown cow was something I never figured out, but sure enough, there they were, bawling outside the west pasture fence.

Let me make the situation clear: we had all but taken root in our saddles inching those surly laggards along the dusty flat at a pace that would have made a snail impatient. Fifty frying miles. Three forty-hour days. And now in a single night the ornery brutes had retraced the full distance it had taken those three days to travel!

“You should’ve stayed with ‘em until they was settled,” Jean said.

“Kee-rist, Jean,” Holly protested, “we located ‘em on water an’ everything....”

“You don’t never trust ‘em,” Jean muttered, giving us the benefit of his experience. “They’re critters .”

 

Critter” is a term seldom found in action-packed oaters in which the cowboys usually manage to avoid encountering cows. But to the hand with no time for draw-downs and shoot-outs at dawn or sunset because he had been pounding leather long before and long after these approved hours for gunplay, “critter” was an indispensable part of his working vocabulary. He did not employ the term loosely. Like all cowboy lingo, “critter” has a tightly fenced context-one of the few points that slipped the noose of Ramon Adams in his otherwise perceptive Dictionary of the Range, Cowcamp and Trail . Although obviously a corruption of “creature,” a word referring to all God’s loved ones, great or small, the cowboy restricted “critter” to the cow. “The whole bovine family,” writes Will James, “whether they’re papas or mamas, sons or granddaughters, all are called cows by the range rider, or critters.” James illustrates the exclusive nature of the word by recounting a dispute with another line rider as to whether a speck on a distant ridge was a horse or a critter. James bet a dollar it was a critter. The object of controversy turned out to be a horse, and James lost the bet.

James deserved to lose his dollar for allowing slack to gather in his prose. “Cows” and “critters” are not synonymous terms. The former is a neutral noun, the latter packs a judgment on the animal’s character. Unless the speck on the ridge was a perverse bunch-quitting stray, it could not have been a critter; it had to be a cow. Cattlemen, by which is meant bucolic capitalists, would refer to their stock as “cows,” thinking of them collectively as marketable units of beef-on-the-hoof. It was only the cowboy who called cows “critters”—and then only when he was dealing with them as willful entities reacting with varying degrees of obstinacy to his efforts to educate them. No cowboy would ask a rancher, “How many critters do you run?” but he could easily remark, “John Casey runs the worst bunch of critters that ever busted out of hell’s corral!” Summoning Will James back to the witness stand, “The critter … is the mean-eyed, sharp-horned, kink-tailed animal that cowboys or any others that know her don’t fall in love with. She’s ungrateful, independent and ornery … she sure don’t never show any appreciation. Just let the green grass come and see what happens. There won’t be no mild nor thankful look in her eye for the hay that was handed her when the drifts was deep, and she won’t beller no thanks for being pulled out of the bog she got into, instead she’ll hit for the brush at round-up time and chase the cowboy back on his horse if he tries to … get her out.”