- Historic Sites
The Cowboy And The Critter
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
This episode was routine compared to many-some accompanied by sinister consequences. It should be clear, at any rate, that cowboy fortitude didn’t come from the Scout manual. It was a product of constant confrontation with unreasoning reality. It was the only attitude left that made sense after every possible response to adversity—rage, disgust, self-pity—failed to pay off. Instead of hunting up a dog to kick, the cowboy learned to keep his wits in easy reach. He realized, too, that there were a lot of times when that “didn’t help none neither.” His thoroughgoing skepticism went so far as to support his innocent superstitions. “It may not do no good,” Henry Steen admitted when Jean raked him over for tucking a rabbit’s foot into his shirt pocket every time he climbed aboard a raw bronc, “but it sure don’t do no harm.”
Such clarity of perception was another ingredient of gumption, and the cowboy stuck to it. A situation which might appear to tender minds as one of desperation never drove a seasoned hand to the cracking point. He accepted fate without becoming a fatalist. Holly Richardson’s mare once dropped dead under him out by the potholes on the edge of the baking alkali flats. She’d become overheated, and he’d let her drink bad water. He stripped saddle, blanket, and bridle from the corpse and packed his gear fifteen miles across the naked grid. It was a scorching September day. “Creepin’ jeezus,” the cow boss exclaimed when Holly staggered into camp, “you should of left that slick-fork out there and gone back for it with a fresh horse and a mule.”
“It give me sump’n to sit on when I got tired,” Holly replied.
Around a cow outfit, grumbling was managed without surrendering composure. Closely related to Jean’s law of indetermi; nacy, as derived from the nature of the critter, was the more general observation “Nothin’ never gets so bad it can’t get plumb worse.” The time Henry got himself ripped up by a mad cow before she could be choked down and dragged from the corral, Carl Haas delivered up the conventional cliché. “Could of been worse,” he said as Henry’s segments were gathered into the pickup and hauled off to the Tonopah Hospital.
“Yeah,” Holly solemnly agreed, “he could of been kilt.”
“Worser than that,” Carl added, “it could of been me.”
The cowboy never indulged in useless and insincere pity, but faced with a grim situation he could be counted upon to contribute more than tea and sympathy. Nevertheless, virtues are counterparts of certain inverse traits inappropriately called vices. To avoid leaving posterity with an unbalanced portrait of the cowboy’s character, some of these negative qualities warrant attention. In short, we must look at the cowboy as a “critter.”
Stoicism can manifest itself as intractability-if not downright stubbornness. Healthy skepticism, properly weathered, is indistinguishable from cynical irreverence. The measured modesty that is a by-product of the uncertainty principle is a source of much of the cowboy’s misanthropic exclusiveness and of his distrust of everything institutional. Iron fortitude, appearing without fanfare and often garbed like a rodeo clown, can improperly be interpreted as soulless inclemency. Gumption was as much a compound of these unseemly imperfections as it was of impeccable virtue. Probably more. Overdoses of faith, hope, and charity could dehorn a hand in a hurry.
Mother Nature is not one of religion’s effective missionaries. Atheists may or may not have occupied foxholes, but it can be stated with certainty that a high tally of infidels could be run up among those who rode the range. Routine cattle work presented riders with so many grisly tasks and so much horror that the notion of justice, sacred or profane, was plainly absurd. A compassionate deity was as comprehensible as a softhearted horsefly. The same brand of rational empiricism that supported Henry Steen’s defense of his rabbit’s foot led the cowboy to reject the existence of God but to acknowledge the existence of the Devil. “Evidence is a mite lean fer the former, but a hand wouldn’t have no trouble proving up his claim fer the latter,” Jean Daniels would argue during sessions of cow-camp theology.
The range presented an inexhaustible record of unwitnessed tragedy. Everywhere, withered hides clung to the crumbling scaffoldings of gray-white bones—midget tents pitched across the arid wasteland, visited only by the ubiquitous magpie and other scavengers of the purple sage. Carcasses in bogs, ravines, and caved-in mine shafts, carcasses heaped against corners of drift fences where blizzard-trapped animals, their backs to the scourging wind, perished in mass misery, carcasses strewn around water holes baked into yellow crusts by years of drought, carcasses in the buckbrush, in swampy meadows, amid the mountain timber—these and countless other testaments to the savagery of the elements constantly sharpened the cowboy’s awareness of the harshness of life. The surface inclemency of the cowhand was a psychological necessity. His morbid wit cloaked repressed sensitivity. It was a defiant assertion of immunity to the outrages perpetrated by the forces of evil and a device for scoring a moral victory over them.