The Day the Cowboys Quitby Elmer Kelton
The time is 1883; the place is the Texas Panhandle. Cowboys refuse to be stigmatized as drinkers and exploited by the wealthy cattle owners who don't pay livable wages. Those very same ranchers want to take away the cowboys' right to/i>
In a Western Writers of America survey, The Day the Cowboys Quit was voted one of the top 25 Best Western Novels of all-time.
The time is 1883; the place is the Texas Panhandle. Cowboys refuse to be stigmatized as drinkers and exploited by the wealthy cattle owners who don't pay livable wages. Those very same ranchers want to take away the cowboys' right to own cattle because this ownership, the ranchers believe, would lead to thieving. So, in 1883, the dictum is set: If you're a cowboy, you can't own a cow. When rumors of such legislations travel from wagon to wagon, the cowboys decide to rally and fight for their rights - they gather together and strike.
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The Day The Cowboys Quit
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1971 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
IN LATER YEARS PEOPLE OFTEN ASKED HUGH Hitchcock about the Canadian River cowboy strike of 1883. If they were strangers he looked them over carefully before he answered, and sometimes he did not answer at all; he figured there was no way of explaining it to anyone who did not understand the nature of the old-time cowboy.
It irritated him like a prickly pear thorn imbedded under his hide that some people seemed to think cowboys spent their time loping around aimlessly on horseback and firing their pistols. Many of the men he had known in the Texas Panhandle never owned a pistol, and probably half the cowboys between the Canadian and the Pecos could not have shot themselves in the foot if they had tried. What they did most in those days was work, from before they could see in the morning until they could no longer see in the evening.
Those days, Hitch always said, a man proved himself with horsemanship. A rider a cut above average was looked up to, even by the sourest wagon cook. If a man's saddle did not have a shine to it, they knew nothing good would come of him.
Next to his way with a horse, a cowboy was proudest of his independence. He worked for other men, but they owned nothing of him except his time. He was a free soul. He could ride from the Rio Grande to the Powder River and seldom see a fence. He could start that ride with five dollars in his pocket and have three left when he finished, if that was the way he wanted to travel. Money did not rule him.
The Canadian River region of Texas then was less than ten years settled, the sandy-bottomed river cutting a deep, rough gash across the heart of that uplifted tableland known to the Spanish as Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains. It was a grand plateau, larger than some Eastern states, a vast treeless ocean of grass often flat to the eye but gently rolling when a man tested it in a wagon, finding himself alternately easing downward or putting forth extra effort to climb. A decade before, this prairie had teemed with grazing buffalo, fleet white-rumped antelope and the roving packs of gray wolves which lived among them, pulling down the halt and the lame. Across this unmapped sunny land had roamed the Comanche and the Kiowa, brothers to the wolf. They had known its hidden watering places, its changing seasons, its hunger, its bounty, its angry storms, and its quiet peace.
Now the buffalo were gone, and with them the Indian. White men's cattle by the hundreds of thousands had plodded and bawled up the long trails from South Texas, and down through Raton Pass from Colorado, spreading out over these seemingly infinite miles of open grasslands, finding water in occasional creeks and streams fringed with cottonwood and hackberry and black walnut, almost the only timber from the eastern caprock to the New Mexico breaks. Out in open country, wood was so rare that men gathered dry buffalo and cow chips for fuel wherever they found them, hoarding them in sagging cowhides lashed loosely beneath their wagonboxes.
Now most of the plains grass was claimed by right of occupancy, and already the more observant cowboys could see that it grew less tall. Dust stirred easier now, a sign of overgrazing because these great herds of longhorned cattle did not migrate with the rains and the changing seasons as had their wild and shaggy predecessors. Already men in their eagerness for gain foreshadowed their own defeat by demanding more from the land than it could produce. And those in a position to hire demanded more of other men.
Hugh Hitchcock always said cowboy independence triggered the cowboy strike. There came a time that some men decided independence was too costly when the wrong people had it, so they tried to mold others to a pattern of their own cutting. And when you crowd a man too far, he may do something in self defense that is not sensible either.
Old cowboys in later years argued no end over the causes of the strike, and the starting of it. To each it began in a different place and a different way. To Hugh Hitchcock, looking back, it started the day Rascal McGinty and the Figure 4 rep went to their guns over ownership of a roan cow.
He always remembered the kind of day it was — the sun bright over the gentle roll of the open plains, the sky blue as a pretty woman's eyes, the brown winter grass starting to show tinges of springtime green, the first prairie flowers bursting scarlet and yellow and white. He remembered Rascal McGinty and that red face of his and red hair and a temper to match them both. Rascal was riding Sweetheart, an ill-named mustang bay he had traded for, a long-tailed pony ugly as a mud fence but able to stay with a man to the last crossing — an honest horse that would work his heart out, but only after he had done his damnedest to bust the rider first. That bay was a lot like Rascal.
Hitch always recalled that Dayton Brumley was riding a Figure 4 sorrel called Blaze for the crooked streak that ran from forelock down to a snip nose. Blaze had fox ears and three stocking feet and an R Slash branded on his left hip, and moved with as smooth a saddle gait as Hitch ever saw.
He forgot in later years just what Dayton Brumley looked like. After all that time a man couldn't be expected to remember details.
She wasn't much of a cow; she had seen too many hard winters, and the scrubby calf punching its long nose futilely at her near-dry udder showed she had been less than choosy in the bull she associated with. But to a syndicate outfit like the Figure 4, its bookkeepers dreading each encounter with the Kansas City board of directors, every calf branded meant dollars of capital gain on the ledger. To a wage-working cowboy like Rascal McGinty or his brother Law, trying to build a shirttail herd for themselves, even a crippled cow or a blind one was of value so long as she could yet conceive and deliver. When Dayton Brumley rode into the "stray" herd and called the cow's brand a Figure 4, Rascal stood straight up in his stirrups. His voice carried halfway across the gather.
"The hell you say! That cow's an LR, sure as ever was."
Hugh Hitchcock heard, and the voice was a warning flag. Hitch was wagon boss on the W's "river division," that part of the ranch which lay nearest the Canadian, and the McGinty brothers worked under him. He knew Rascal's emotions lay always near the surface, the volatile cowboy quick to laugh or quick to explode like the Sharps Big Fifty that had cleared these plains and river breaks of buffalo. No one could ever judge which direction Rascal would jump.
A cowboy came spurring. "Hitch, you better git over yonder. There's apt to be trouble." Instinctively they always looked to Hugh Hitchcock; that was why he was wagon boss.
Dayton Brumley ignored Rascal and again called the pair as property of the Figure 4. On open range before barbed wire cut all of Texas into pastures, cattle of many brands mixed together. Boundary lines were an invisible thing; the cattle drifted wherever they found the grass green and the water good. At roundup time the big ranches sent their chuckwagons and teams of men to the various divisions, and they sent cowboy representatives to neighboring outfits' wagons, each to watch out for the interests of the brand that paid him. The calves were branded according to the marks of ownership on their mothers, and when a calf became weaned and still had no brand, it was by custom considered a maverick, belonging to the man on whose range it was found. In practice it more often belonged to the man whose loop caught it first. One purpose of the roundup, then, was to leave as few mavericks as possible for the quick-loop men.
Identification of the cow was usually easy, for a cowboy who couldn't read his own name soon learned the brands of the ranches around him. But sometimes a brand healed poorly or haired over heavily. That was a time for negotiation, and failing agreement it was a time when someone must arbitrarily play the role of judge and declare ownership by reasoning, instinct or favor.
Rascal McGinty's nose was slightly flattened. He always claimed the damage had been done by a horse, but Hugh Hitchcock had long suspected it happened in a fistfight.
"Go slow, Rascal," Hitch said quietly as he pushed his gray horse between the two men. A young W rider named Joe Sands had a rope around the calf's neck and was waiting for Hitchcock's judgment before he dragged the animal out to the men afoot by the branding fire. The roan cow was bawling and making as much fuss over her offspring as if it had been blueblooded Durham stock brought down from the east.
Hitch expected to find Rascal crackling in anger; instead the unpredictable cowboy was grinning like a possum. "The Figure 4s need to buy ol' Dayton a set of eyeglasses, Hitch." Nobody ever called Hitchcock Hugh except his mother. "I know that old cow," Rascal claimed. "I can recollect the color of every calf she's given to me and Law."
Hitch's natural inclination was to accept Rascal's word because they had been friends so long, but he knew that was not the right and proper way. "Let's have a look at her." He rode slowly around the cow, frowning at the earmarks. She had more than one. He leaned from the saddle for a close look at the brand. "Somebody done a bad job with the iron. Way it's haired over, she could be either one or neither one. I been tellin' you, Rascal, your LR brand is too much like the Figure 4."
"Tell them," Rascal grinned. "Me and Law, we had our brand first. Let the Figure 4 change theirs." The thought pleased him because the Figure 4 outfit was reputed to own forty or fifty thousand head.
Dayton Brumley, crowding forty, was an employee too far removed from policy-making to comment. Stubbornly he said, "I call her a Figure 4."
Another cowboy trotted up on a nervous-eyed dun. Law McGinty, four or five years younger than Rascal, demanded, "What is it, Rascal? That rich damnyankee outfit tryin' to steal our cow?"
Brumley colored. At least Rascal hadn't accused him of stealing. "Boy ..." he said threateningly.
Rascal made a placating gesture to his brother. "Don't bust your cinch, button. Hitch is fixin' to set things straight."
Hitch had an uncomfortable feeling Rascal was taking advantage of friendship, putting Hitch in a position where he must stand up for a preconceived judgment. He said, "We'll stretch her and take a good look." He dropped his loop over her horns and took up the slack, then motioned for Law to catch her hind feet. They laid her down helpless on the ground, and Hitch dismounted. He depended on the gray, Walking Jack, to keep the rope taut. He purposely had put Law on the heels because that obliged the cowboy to stay in his saddle and out of trouble; if Law allowed any slack on the heels, the cow could kick loose from the rope and get up. She would not be in good humor.
On his knees Hitch carefully ran his fingers over the brand, trying to feel through the hair any scar that didn't show to the eye. This was complicated by the fact that he was missing the tip of one finger, pinched off between a rope and a saddlehorn a long time ago. A missing finger or a gimpy leg were marks of a working cowboy. He shook his head. "Still can't tell."
Rascal stepped from his saddle, fishing in his shirt pocket. "I said I know that old cow, and I'll prove it." He brought out a pair of tweezers and began plucking hair.
Hitch came near smiling despite the potential seriousness of the matter. Probably not another man on the roundup was so certain of argument that he would carry tweezers. Though Rascal was a W cowhand, he was also an owner of sorts whose nature called for him to protect his interests with whatever degree of belligerence seemed appropriate.
It bothered Hitch, assuming responsibility for a dispute like this. No court could consider him completely neutral. He and Rascal and Law McGinty had known each other before they had come to the Panhandle. They had helped Charlie Waide bring his W herd up here from cattle-poor South Texas brush country in the late '70s. At thirty, Hitch was a little younger than Rascal, older than Law. Rascal was as good a roper as Hitch and unquestionably a better bronc rider. Yet Rascal had evidenced no hard feelings when Charlie Waide set Hitch up as second in command only to himself. Rascal had seemed to accept it as proper, for there was an indefinable character in Hugh Hitchcock that caused cowboys — even better ones — instinctively to follow him. Law McGinty, then a kid of eighteen or so, had taken a sour view of Rascal's being passed by and temporarily fell out with Hitch over it, but Rascal had told him fiatly, "Charlie knows what he's doin'."
Dayton Brumley hunched over Rascal, critically watching his work with the tweezers. If he saved them a hundred such cows the Figure 4 would not raise his wages a dollar, but he had an old-time cowboy loyalty: when you worked for a ranch and accepted its pay, you stood up for it to the turn of the final card. If you couldn't be loyal to an outfit, you called for your time and rode away.
Rascal's tweezers caused a definite outline to begin showing through the hair. "Like I told you, Hitch, she's comin' up an LR, plain as the tobacco in ol' Dayton's mus-tache."
Brumley grunted angrily. "Because he's got the tweezers."
Hitch could tell the thing was still dangerous. "Settle down, boys. One cow ain't worth a fight."
In his saddle, Law McGinty said, "Not to an outfit that's got fifty thousand like her. But to a little man grindin' himself to the bone for thirty dollars a month she's worth a fight. You ought to know."
Hitch knew; he had a brand too. Many of the cowboys who had first come north onto these plains had established small herds of their own to run on the free grass with those of the men they worked for. Charlie Waide had been so nearly broke when he came here that he had been able to keep only those men willing to take pay in calves instead of cash. Hitch had owned two shirts and one pair of ragged britches then; he hadn't even had enough money to get a blacksmith to make a branding iron for him. So he had taken Charlie's W iron, branded it, then turned it upside down and stamped it again to make a combination he called the Two Diamonds. Now he had a little one-section claim over on a creek where he had built a dugout he almost never used. He had a hundred and thirty or forty Two Diamond cows and their calves grazing the red clay breaks and the short-grass prairies. Most of it was still state land, the grass belonging to the man whose cow happened to eat it.
Hitch decided Rascal had picked long enough. He ran his fingers over the brand and was seventy-five percent sure. "Dayton, it looks like an LR to me."
He saw triumph in the McGinty brothers' faces. But Brumley was adamant. "It looked like a Figure 4 till he took the tweezers to it. If I'd of had the tweezers it'd still be a Figure 4."
Rascal's hands knotted into fists. "You callin' me a cheat?" Brumley didn't say so out loud, but the answer lay plain in his eyes. Rascal took a step toward him, and Law swung a leg over the cantle.
Hitch moved quickly. "Law, you stay up there and keep that rope tight. Rascal, you and Dayton go cool off. In opposite directions. We got work to do here."
Rascal gave no ground. "Whichaway you callin' that calf?"
Hitch thought he had made it plain enough. He saw a heavyish man riding around the herd toward them, and he felt relief. "Yonder comes Charlie. We'll have him confirm it, then we'll hear no more about this cow."
Solemn-faced, Charlie Waide climbed down from the saddle. He took his time as if he were older even than his late fifties. He was careful in bringing his left hand from the saddlehorn, for his arm had been stiff since a Yankee saber had slashed it in the war. There hadn't been a day in eighteen years that it hadn't brought him pain. "I come in after ridin' twenty miles from the eastern division and find somebody pawin' sand," he said irritably. "What in hell's the matter here?"
"No trouble, Charlie." Hitch wanted to spare him worry; Charlie had enough of that. "Just been a little question come up over the brand of this cow."
Charlie Waide glanced impatiently at Rascal and Brumley, then knelt and ran his fingers over the brand. "I'd call her an LR."
The red-haired cowboy laughed. Rascal could afford to, now that the judgment had gone his way. But Hitch took no chances. "Rascal, I'll see that the calf is branded for you. I want you to go to the wagon and find out how much Trump lacks havin' dinner ready."
It was a useless errand, for Trump Tatum always had dinner ready at straight-up noon and would be cussing if he didn't see cowboys on the way. But Rascal took the order without question. He rode off, his back straight, his hat cocked a little to one side, a picture of justice triumphant.
Dissatisfied, Brumley said, "Charlie, I'll have to talk to the company about this."
Waide's eyes narrowed. He had been boss too long to be crossed. "You do that."
Excerpted from The Day The Cowboys Quit by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1971 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men's Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.
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This was my first Elmer Kelton book and I really enjoyed it. Reading books has never been real easy for me but this one never lost my interest. He has a style that is so easy to read. I'm definitely going to try another one!