- Historic Sites
The Cowboy And The Critter
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
A cowboy’s aversion to bodily contact was deeply rooted and closely related to a misanthropic element in his personality. He became accustomed to space and was exceptionally vulnerable to claustrophobia. Unlike ship’s quarters, bunkhouses were roomy and usually contained accommodations for double the number of hands normally employed. When a cowhand threw down his bedroll, he was mighty particular about depositing it as far from an occupied bunk as possible. If he came too close to an incumbent, the latter was likely to order him gruffly to bed down some place else. (The cow country was proud of its tradition of hospitality, however, and sharing a bunk or bed was called “splitting the blanket.” Henry Steen used to say, “I’ll split my blanket with a hand any time so long as he uses his half when I ain’t needin’ it.”) At the feed rack, the cowhand left an empty chair between himself and those already buried in their nose bags. Late arrivals were rarely forced to wedge themselves into a crevice. Tables in most cookhouses were lengthy, and even when full handed, there was usually a completely vacant end. Places were set, of course, for unexpected visitors, strays and drifters riding the chuck line, but this does not account for the diffusive disposal of space. The cowboy had an antipathy to crowding and congestion. Critters madding at water holes, shouldering and hooking each other at feed troughs, spilling and tromping more fodder into the mud than they greedily devoured, were objects of cynical disgust.
Contrary to common notions, the cowboy did not relish handling large herds. He preferred cattle spread out. The term “roundup” has become distorted in popular imagination. What made the roundup appealing to the cowboy was that it meant getting away from the home ranch and onto the open range. Most of the agreeable work consisted of riding alone over vast areas, flushing small bunches from isolated canyons, brakes, and meadows, and relocating them until the full herd had been gathered and the new calves cut out and branded-an immense Easter-egg hunt with critters for eggs.
Branding, too, has become vulgarly romanticized, largely as a consequence of exploiting it as a spectacle for the amusement of guests at dude ranches. To the cowboy, especially the ground crew, branding was an ordeal of inescapable dust, spurting blood, and the smell of burning flesh and hair. He preferred to hold, cut, and doctor the herd in the open. When corral branding and the squeeze chute replaced the open fire, the running iron, and the wagon on the unfenced range, the cowhand didn’t relax until the gates were swung open and the impatient herd flooded onto the pasture and began to scatter out. Ed Fisher, the last range-bred cow boss of the RO, once branded the whole spring crop alone-a few head each day—out where the land hadn’t been seeded to fence posts and where grass grew without an invitation. He had his horse, his rope, a piggin’ string, a sawed-off iron, and he could get coals out of sagebrush. When we showed up around the first of June with a glorified sense of self-importance for the epic task ahead, the work of the roundup inconspicuously had been done. Ed was a cowboy.
Closely related to the cowboy’s mild claustrophobia was his nonmalignant xenophobia. Whenever strangers appeared at the mess house of the RO, the normally garrulous hands would lapse into sepulchral silence. If a visitor attempted to be sociable, the comments elicited after his departure were likely to be on the order of “that feller talked like his jaw was being attacked by heel flies.” The cowboy was a loner by choice, and in a limited respect, he was a snob. He preferred the company of his horse and the peevish critter to that of humans (excepting the punchers he rode with-and then only if they didn’t come too damn close).
The cowboy’s most admirable possession was that uncommon virtue which, for some baffling reason, is called “common sense.” Around cow camps it is called “gumption.” Gumption is attained through refined crossbreeding of some questionable virtues with some unquestionable vices. Among the former were certainly stoicism, fortitude, skepticism, and a philosophical modesty that should not be confused with humility or diffidence. In the cowboy, this composite was definitely a product of prolonged working experience with stock. “There ain’t nothin’ a hand ever learned hisself about the critter that wouldn’t be wrong,” Jean Daniels would mutter wryly, expressing in a single brushstroke the essence of the attitude indicated above. Knowledge of the critter was a lore, not a science, because the animal’s conduct, despite feral consistency, was fundamentally nonpredictable. In fact, the tendency of the animal’s behavior to follow established patterns was what made its ultimate unpredictability exasperating and sometimes lethal. It could suddenly turn from Jckyll into Hyde—from a cow to a critter.