- Historic Sites
The Cowboy And The Critter
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Management at the RO Ranch assaulted the ecological equilibrium in Smoky Valley by combining the flow of North and South Twin Rivers into a six-mile concrete ditch to carry the streams in a direct line across the alluvial fan to the newly extended alfalfa fields below. The purpose was to reduce water loss from percolation and evaporation. Riding near the outlet of this new sluice channel one day during the spring runoff, I spotted a group of calves kneeling as if in prayer. Calves are no more prone to piety than cowhands—it was a flagrantly unnatural posture. Moreover, there were no cows in sight, so I loped over to see what was up. As I approached, they made no attempt to scatter—which was unusual. Suddenly the situation became sickeningly clear. Staring at me from the pond were six calves with their front legs sheared off at the knee joints. While drinking from the upper end of the ditch, they had been swept off their feet by the swift current. Cows get up by folding their front legs under them and hoisting their hindquarters erect—the reverse of a horse. The small calves hadn’t been able to follow through against the force of the water, and their slender legs had been worn off by friction against the abrasive concrete. There was nothing to do but ride to the ranch, pick up a rifle, and put them out of misery.
Watching cattle sink helplessly into quicksand, or plunge to destruction over rimrock, or “die-up” during blizzards, or drown while swimming rivers was a significant feature of the cowboy’s job which seldom receives treatment in Western fiction except as a melodramatic episode adding thrilling touches to a thoroughly implausible plot. These experiences were far from colorful to the cowboy, and his commentary upon them was restricted to the immediate circle of his fellow riders. If he did not brood over them, he reflected upon them privately, and they shaped his philosophical attitudes. Remorse was regarded as futile selfindulgence. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the cowboy lacked a sense of justice. He possessed one—subtle and profound.
In unusual (poetic) circumstances when justice appeared to take a hand in the game, the cowboy greeted it with enthusiasm, but continued to regard the intercession as accidental. Justice simply lacked a will of its own. One had the choice of leaving the day of reckoning to chance, or acting as the self-appointed agent of destiny. Justice was something that had to be applied . By someone . Because of his misanthropic and empirically justifiable distrust of most humans and of all institutions, the cowboy figured he’d have to secure justice himself. “Justice,” remarked a former saddlemate after having shot a porcupine whose quills, I protested, could not have been identified as the ones protruding from an unfortunate calf’s nose, “is what I personally dish out.” This attitude should not be construed to mean that the cowboy advocated taking the law into his own hands. “Law” was another critter. Its coincidence with justice was also accidental, and the cowboy placed no confidence in it. The attitude explains such synonyms for the six gun as a one-eyed judge, peacemaker, equalizer, talking iron, peerless persuader , and the like. It eliminated hairsplitting. It could blaze a quick trail to heaven and give a hand the down payment on a halo. But the cowboy was never an easy recruit for a lynch mob. Quite the contrary. His misanthropy rendered him suspicious of lynching parties as well as of courts, and his intrinsic skepticism made him wary of premature judgments. He was no bigot. When he eventually acquired a conviction, it was usually a sound one.
When meting out justice, the cowboy shared jurisdiction with his horse. That is, the horse co-operated as an active partner rather than as a mindless vehicle used to pursue escaping rustlers. The ease with which a cow horse seemed to subscribe to the same code as its rider even confounded old gristle-heels long accustomed to equine intelligence. Horses would bite the rumps of sluggards loitering in the drags. They were selective in applying the persuasive power of their teeth and hoofs. I have seem them bite ill-mannered steers and gently nudge small calves. Anecdotes recounting the judicial and punitive expertise of celebrated cow horses offered fertile opportunities for what was called “blanket stretching.” To the cowboy, his horse was a peer. Consequently, it was never referred to as a critter unless a hand wished to insult it in the same manner with which he sometimes referred to the cook (when the latter was well out of earshot).