February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
It was the time we were working out of the Diamond Hook, Davy Stevens’ starve-out operation at Cloverdale in northern Nevada. Cloverdale was the cluster of sod and tarpaper shanties the RO Ranch was using as a line camp late that particular fall, and Davy Stevens was the eighty-year-old cowman who held title to the spread. The RO and the Diamond Hook outfits shared a corridor of range through the San Antone sand hills, and we used to help Davy with his riding. Holly Richardson and I had cut three hundred two-year-old heifers from the RO bunch and had herded them down to Miller’s Flat where they could winter on rabbit brush, browse, and alkali. The range down that way was usually free from snow cover. They would scrounge and learn to make out.
We had dropped them, loaded our tired horses into the stock truck that had been left for us, and, with indecent haste, bumped back to Cloverdale, where we submerged ourselves in the luxury of lumpy, rat-stained mattresses in place of gravel, downy sage, and rabbit pellets.
Long before daylight had wiped out all but a couple of lingering stars, we were awakened by old Jean Daniels’ gruff chuckle. (He never slept beyond 3 A.M.) “Your girls is back.”
How Jean could tell the bellowing of a heifer from that of a fullgrown cow was something I never figured out, but sure enough, there they were, bawling outside the west pasture fence.
Let me make the situation clear: we had all but taken root in our saddles inching those surly laggards along the dusty flat at a pace that would have made a snail impatient. Fifty frying miles. Three forty-hour days. And now in a single night the ornery brutes had retraced the full distance it had taken those three days to travel!
“You should’ve stayed with ‘em until they was settled,” Jean said.
“Kee-rist, Jean,” Holly protested, “we located ‘em on water an’ everything....”
“You don’t never trust ‘em,” Jean muttered, giving us the benefit of his experience. “They’re critters .”
Critter” is a term seldom found in action-packed oaters in which the cowboys usually manage to avoid encountering cows. But to the hand with no time for draw-downs and shoot-outs at dawn or sunset because he had been pounding leather long before and long after these approved hours for gunplay, “critter” was an indispensable part of his working vocabulary. He did not employ the term loosely. Like all cowboy lingo, “critter” has a tightly fenced context-one of the few points that slipped the noose of Ramon Adams in his otherwise perceptive Dictionary of the Range, Cowcamp and Trail . Although obviously a corruption of “creature,” a word referring to all God’s loved ones, great or small, the cowboy restricted “critter” to the cow. “The whole bovine family,” writes Will James, “whether they’re papas or mamas, sons or granddaughters, all are called cows by the range rider, or critters.” James illustrates the exclusive nature of the word by recounting a dispute with another line rider as to whether a speck on a distant ridge was a horse or a critter. James bet a dollar it was a critter. The object of controversy turned out to be a horse, and James lost the bet.
James deserved to lose his dollar for allowing slack to gather in his prose. “Cows” and “critters” are not synonymous terms. The former is a neutral noun, the latter packs a judgment on the animal’s character. Unless the speck on the ridge was a perverse bunch-quitting stray, it could not have been a critter; it had to be a cow. Cattlemen, by which is meant bucolic capitalists, would refer to their stock as “cows,” thinking of them collectively as marketable units of beef-on-the-hoof. It was only the cowboy who called cows “critters”—and then only when he was dealing with them as willful entities reacting with varying degrees of obstinacy to his efforts to educate them. No cowboy would ask a rancher, “How many critters do you run?” but he could easily remark, “John Casey runs the worst bunch of critters that ever busted out of hell’s corral!” Summoning Will James back to the witness stand, “The critter … is the mean-eyed, sharp-horned, kink-tailed animal that cowboys or any others that know her don’t fall in love with. She’s ungrateful, independent and ornery … she sure don’t never show any appreciation. Just let the green grass come and see what happens. There won’t be no mild nor thankful look in her eye for the hay that was handed her when the drifts was deep, and she won’t beller no thanks for being pulled out of the bog she got into, instead she’ll hit for the brush at round-up time and chase the cowboy back on his horse if he tries to … get her out.”
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.
This is not to say that the cowboy was bred to this “cow culture” like a coyote to brush country. Charlie Russell’s yarn about the Eastern girl who asked her mother, “Do cowboys eat grass?” pushes Darwin too far. Few original cowboys were born to the range. In the mid-nineteenth century, America was still predominantly agrarian, and forerunners of the breed were familiar with cows and horses long before they wandered westward. Veterans of the Confederate cavalry who seeped into Texas in time to exploit the ripening cattle trade were already sufficiently toughened to life in the saddle to acquire readily the skills of Mexican vaqueros. They learned even more from their bouts with the critters that haunted the thornbush and brandished horns that could span nine feet. Recruits to the burgeoning craft were boys who had been reared on Midwestern farms, in New England towns, or even in cities and villages of the Old World. Their basic character traits were already formed, and the cow country only appealed to the same impulses that led venturesome adolescents to run away to sea or to join the circus. Once a “shorthorn” made his decision to throw in with a cow outfit, however, the vocation initiated an inexorable process of natural selection, weeding out those whose appetite for cowboying was quickly sated. Frank Harris lasted one drive and concluded the English edition of On the Trail by stating bluntly, “I had enough of cattle driving.…” Weeks of staring between a horse’s twitching ears at the excrement caked on the backsides of calves faltering in the drags could snap a raw hand’s mainspring. Jean Daniels used to claim that all it took to make a cowhand “was someone who could live without sleep, without grub, without water, and enjoyed taking his bath reg’Iar in alkali dust.” If tedium was broken, it was when a hand dabbed his rope on a thousand-pound critter for the first time and rapidly began figuring odds on whether he’d be jerked to the mending shack or the grave. A recruit who survived four seasons and was willing to sign on for another roundup had the makings of a cowboy. Even if he decided to “saddle the breeze,” the intricacy and intensity of the relationship formed between man, animal, and the elements—the totally consuming nature of participation in the work of “the outfit”—was an experience unlikely to fade from memory.
The spurious lessons Harris claimed to have picked up from his year working with cows were only moral embroidery for the American version of his Reminiscences . Such Schoolbook virtues, if learned at all, could be acquired from any number of exacting occupations. The provocative question is “What peculiar breed did cowpunching produce—and why?” Not much sociological expertise is required to recognize that life on the briny deep, under the big top, or at home on the range would attract, repel, and temper individuals in different ways.
Aboard ship, marine discipline prevails. An able-bodied seaman whose response to authority resembled that of a cowboy would spend his life in the brig. Likewise, ambulatory carnivals catering constantly to the whims of the crowd demanded routines and attitudes which a cowboy would have found unbearable. Some similarity between the behavior of sailors on shore leave and cowboys loose on the town might be attested, but the comparison would be superficial. Drunken barroom brawls involving cowhands are products of banal literary imaginations. They despised fistic encounters and contemptuously labeled them “dogfights.” The cowboy was almost fastidious about the care of his hands. He used them for roping, hog tying, earmarking and cutting, for braiding reatas, and for managing his horse. Many top hands wore gloves—except those like Jean Daniels who argued that growing new skin was cheaper. If a dispute had to go beyond an “augurin’ match,” the cowhand preferred a gun-not because he was eager to throw lead, but because it eliminated bodily contact and minimized physical inequalities. Unlike clumsy, prolonged pummeling with fists, a gun was dignified, its decisions quick and unequivocal. Besides, it wasn’t often necessary to use it. Its visible presence alone had a sobering effect. Courtesy has gone out of fashion because discourtesy no longer incurs risk.
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.
On one memorable occasion Holly and I were bringing a batch of recalcitrant heifers off the head of Reese River. The country is rough, precipitous, and the slopes of the steep canyons are strewn alternately with groves of mahogany and great patches of tightly matted quaking aspen. We wanted to bring them down into the relatively open stream bed of South Twin. Cattle under herd in mountainous terrain have a tendency to set a brisk pace directly along the contours of the ridges. They are difficult to control, because they are picking the game trails while the rider is bouncing about on his snorting horse, fighting brush and shale, trying to keep above and abreast of the leaders simultaneously. If a rider loses his bunch, they can skirt the side hills and slip over a divide into another drainage basin. If they ever emerge onto the flat, they can be forty miles from where he wanted them.
This bunch had made up its collective mind to elude us, but we had them outfoxed. We thought. Ahead was a mammoth talus slope about a quarter of a mile wide at the base and narrowing to a point at its apex. Between the peak of the talus and the foot of the cliff that rose sharply above it was a skirt of stunted aspen. If the leaders crashed this thicket before we headed them off, they could worm through and bust for Mexico. We could not have turned them, because there would have been no way to get in front of them. Hampered by the talus below and the cliff above, we could only helplessly have followed their tails. Cows make tunnels through thickets which afford them snug escape routes while horse and rider, their heads tangled in a network of branches, are effectively checked. The critters knew all this and were cunningly edging toward their little green gateway to freedom. But while they were reading our minds, we were reading theirs.
“Stay on their ass,” Holly shouted confidently. “I’ll scoot ahead. All we have to do is keep above ‘em. When they hit that there rockslide, they won’t have no place to go but down .”
I agreed. The talus slope was an effective barrier. It would have stopped a mountain goat.
Only it didn’t stop our critters. The leaders hit the slide, hesitated while they eyed Holly poised vigilantly above, cast a backward glance at me, and proceeded to stumble deliberately into the rock.
“Them dirty, festerin’, no-good, sonsabitching fodder-muckers … !” Holly cut loose a torrent of profanity that would stupefy the current generation that seems to suffer from the delusion that it discovered the four-letter word.
The critters reached the middle of the slide and came to a standstill. All we had to do was figure how to get them out. One thing for sure was that we didn’t want them to continue across onto the far shore. They had to be brought back . We had two advantages. Goaded by a man on foot behind them, they could scent their way over their own tracks. Also, they would be enticed by the horses stationed at the edge of the slide as decoys. Even had the horses been able to mince their way through the slide without crippling themselves, they would have been no use to us in the rocks.
Holly argued that one of us should stick with his horse to prevent the critters from bolting uphill and into the quakers if they decided to come out, so I worked around the stranded cattle on foot to get into position to haze them back. They wouldn’t budge. They let me push, poke, prod, and lather their rumps with my coiled rope. No go. After meditation and consultation (we hadn’t yet gotten around to prayer), we agreed that Holly’s presence on his horse was spooking them. So he climbed down and joined me, leaving Roany with dropped reins in a spot that he could get to fast should the critters suddenly plunge out. Everything had been calculated as fine as a snakeskin. Except that a half hour later when they began an unheralded exodus, they headed straight for us , ignoring our flailing ropes, our fanning hats, and our angry hollers. Right on past us they went, and out the far side as if we had been of no more account than a pair of juniper stumps. Off for the Mato Grosso. The Panama Canal wasn’t going to stop them. Holly squatted down and bawled . My delirious laughter was akin to his tears.
We limped back to the horses, who nickered with sympathy. When it concerns the critter, a cow horse shares its rider’s sentiments.
Hours later, as we neared camp, we met Jean descending another canyon with our runaways in tow. He’d spotted a plume of dust along the shoulder of a ridge where “it hadn’t orter had been.” He knew they were critters that had dodged some bedeviled rider and he cut their caper short. The way a top hand can appear from nowhere in time to stop the hanging is uncanny.
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.
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).
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.
“The Old Sonovabitch don’t need me to practice on no more,” Jean once remarked with a somber, chuckling cough. We were chewing raw turnips and discussing a favorite range topic, the ceaseless activity and energy of the Devil. “There’s plenty more critters left in the corral fer him to rope.” It was the only time I’d ever heard the old man utter anything that savored of self-pity, and at the time I was puzzled and a speck uncomfortable. A few days later he put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off. It was an act of neither cowardice nor despair. There was an element of humorous scorn revealed by the gesture that it is impossible for me to depict. He wasn’t defiant, but he didn’t intend to await slow starvation with the onset of winter snows, and he wasn’t going to remain stove up in a Reno hospital, dependent upon the petulant attention of others. He knew that sick people are secretly hated. Jean had plenty of gumption. In his way, he was a hero.