- Historic Sites
The Cowboy And The Critter
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
A long list of philanthropic services rendered the ungrateful critter by the company of mounted friars who minister to her incessant needs can be added: innoculation against a plethora of potential diseases; dipping and spraying against the afflictions of flies, grubs, and assorted pests; doctoring for pinkeye, foot rot, lumpy jaw, gotch ear, blue tail, bloat, red water, staggers, and spangs; pumping water during droughts, breaking ice on frozen water holes in sub-zero weather, and constructing windbreaks against northers; planting trees for back scratching, rump rubbing, and shade-all these plus a myriad of unique, nonclassifiable acts of attention such as the time Henry Steen rescued a critter that had wedged itself upside down in a trough, or the time Zane Hyatt sawed another loose from the outhouse at Cloverdale that it had no business investigating in the first place.
Despite such abundant benevolence, the cow has very little to be thankful for, and gratitude toward mankind is not a virtue one should reasonably expect it to display. Any generosity shown the cow is strictly utilitarian. Hay pitched when the drifts were deep was not forked out as an act of charity. Starved cows produce no return on investment, and all the cures inflicted without anesthetics are something the animal would willingly forgo. All the sinister grooming is directed toward ultimate butchery. Cows instinctively know this (there is much evidence that cows possess ESP), and consequently their reluctance to co-operate in their own eventual destruction should not be regarded as an indication of defective character. “Critter,” though a derogatory expression, is not entirely an epithet. The critter was the cowboy’s Miltonic Satan-a salty adversary. Until this luckless victim of man’s carnivorous greed was roped at both ends and pinioned by a member of the ground crew, one knee thrust against its neck, one hand gripping a foreleg and the other yanking up its snout, it was not safe to relax in the saddle and roll a smoke. Anchored to the prostrate critter and temporarily secure in his leather throne, the cowboy could reflect upon the diverse imbroglios of existence.
Pat Fee, who would haul the devil from a live volcano, skin him, and throw him back if I were to refer to her as a “cowperson,” once wrote to me from her remote spread on the fringe of the Black Rock Desert: “Cattle have formed the character of the American cowboy. Old cowboys are usually sour, profane, disdainful and skeptical. Why? From dealing with obnoxious cows and homicidal horses. Everything that has been said about cowboys needs re-examining! Has anybody ever written that most cowboys have ulcers? Chuckwagon food, too much raw whiskey, bad water, but above all, worry and frustration from contending with the goddam cows.”
No cowboy’s character, of course, was solely the result of association with cows. His popular image is congeneric with the horse rather than with the critter, and it is from the former that he acquired much of the vulgarized glamour that has ossified into a mass fixation. Except for an occasional stampede or as something to be rustled, cows are nonessential in casting horse operas. Hitched outside saloons, horses stand braced for the flying mount (which Jean Daniels used to say “was a helluva lot less common around a cow outfit than the flying dismount"), the daring getaway in the cloud and clatter of dust and hoofs, the mad descent down the canyon wall, the splash across the ford, the scramble up the ridge, the prolonged pursuit over prairie, plain, pampas, and prickly pear. Nevertheless, it was the unruly critter that turned the horseman into a cowboy-a vaquero, a buckaroo.