- Historic Sites
The Cowboy And The Critter
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
A considerable quantity of literature, some of it presumably serious, has portrayed the cowboy as an individual with scant regard for life—a sort of upland gangster type. Actually, he prized life highly, but his acute awareness of its brevity, brutality, and uncertainty prevented him from treating it as though it were pheasant under glass. He didn’t consecrate life; he lived it while he had the chance. His work required the five senses to be constantly on point. Alertness became a habit, and he lived his full life accordingly. There were no middle-aged cowboys. Middle-age is a condition of urbanite despair to which cowboy life was immune. If a hand survived the follies of infancy and adolescence and lived to be thirty, he’d learned enough to curry himself into his eighties without surrendering much vigor, stamina, or gumption. He was capable of packing his ulcers around with him for years. Cuidado (“Beware!”) was not a word a cowboy admitted into his vocabulary with casual indifference. He learned it from the vaquero, and the critter reminded him of it every day. It should not be forgotten that the cowboy was a craftsman, and the true craftsman is never careless . It was because the cowboy understood and respected chance that he refused to trust it. Chance was a critter. When cowboys gambled, they were prepared to lose.
Zest, alertness, and vitality are not qualities to be measured on a scale. They are absolutes. When they are gone, the kid from Laredo lies cold as the clay. A story is told of a Tonopah preacher who was delivering a funeral sermon over the casket of an old range veteran long and widely known in Nye County. The garrulous clergyman was waxing unctuously eloquent. “Old Dan is not dead,” he declared, “he has just taken the highest trail.…” The sardonic voice of another old puncher sounded from a rear pew of the church, “I got a hundred sez he’s dead!”
Gumption, stripped of excess tallow is the ability to stare down the double-barrel of reality and offer it the best possible deal.
There are still ranch hands and there are still cows, but there are clearly no longer cowboys and no longer critters. The two were mutually dependent upon each other, and they hit the highest trail together.The critter, as usual, took the lead. The Longhorn was replaced by domestic breeds. Deprived of freedom to roam, bred and crossbred to shorten legs and increase body weight to the point that were it again forced to fend for itself on open range it would fail to survive, the cow deteriorated into a mobile vegetable. Shorn of its horns by carpentry, chemistry, and genetics—turned into what cowhands used to contemptuously call a “muley ”—branded and doctored in squeeze chutes, glutted with hay, grain, and feed supplement, and marketed before it reached its prime, this pitiful, hothouse nullity has no chance to become a mature cow, let alone a critter. The extinction of the critter, more than any other factor, doomed the cowboy. The symbiotic relationship that made them into a spectacular combination was categorically destroyed. The challenges that produced the cowboy vanished and the skills he had perfected survived only as “stunts” to be performed under conditions in no way reproducing those of the range.
The historian’s duty is to rescue the past from abuse by the present—a difficult task. Academic scholarship is worth about as much as a four-card flush when it comes to instilling its subject with living tissue. But despite their lifeless abstractions, documented fables, and denatured fantasies, professional historians have been less malign in their treatment of the cowboy than have producers of film and fiction. The latter have made the cowboy preposterous. He was not a dancing bear, a gun-slinging buffoon, or a handsome heroic ham. The top hands I have known would have felt less ill at ease in a mausoleum than in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. The cowboy did not need synthetic glamour to give him stature. His stature emerged from the proud practice of his craft, not from drinking prowess, the fast draw, or the ten-gallon hat. The cowboy did not wear a costume . He dressed for work. Jean Daniels never owned a Stetson. He cherished the striped caps that engineers on steam locomotives used to wear. He spent most of his ground time welding busted ranch equipment and pacifying his ulcer with sour mash. He roped underhand from Whitey, an all-around cow horse with a back like the initial of this writer’s last name. “Him and Whitey together,” Henry Steen used to say, “is too thin to throw a shadow!” Jean always hind-footed his critter, and I seldom saw him spill a loop. He was a cowboy.