Cattle Punchers: How the Real Ones, Described by Andy Adams, Compare with the Picturesque Cowboys of Fiction. (NY Times September 5, 1903)
American novelists and playwrights have, to the best of their ability, made his familiar with the picturesque and romantic, and, be it said with all due respect and appreciation for their efforts, slightly rose colored aspects of the cattlemen or cowboys who formed so important a part of life on the western plains until very recent years. Yet, fascinating and interesting as their Cowboys almost invariably work, and measurably true to the real thing as it was hoped that they were, there has probably always been a lurking suspicion in the minds of the coldly practical that such a character as the hero of “The Virginian” (two sided their recent, typical, and also deservedly much praised example of the cowboy fiction) could never have trailed cattle anywhere outside the pages of a romance. In spite of Mr. Owen Wister’s talent and his manifest familiarity with the scenes and conditions involved, his central figure is a compound of ice and fire that could with difficulty– the lay reader suspects– have engaged in a highly mundane duties of a practical cow puncher, and that suspicion gathers strength after reading “The Log of a Cowboy,” by Mr. Andy Adams.
No such doubt even remotely assails one’s mind with regard to the men who appear in this unique narrative, written by one who was himself, as recently as 1882, a member of that now almost obsolete profession. The unmistakable marks of reality are to be found in every page, and, though many of the trappings of the conventional cowboy, with which we have been made familiar in the past, are stripped from him by the plane, matter of fact method of treatment employed by Mr. Adams, one does not loan hesitate to accept his version as the correct one. It is the cowboy at work, and very earnestly at work, that is shown in this book, and the reader soon learns that this is a phase of the creature very different from those usually presented to him– the cowboy at play or in love. The real cowboy can do all three with a will, but he does not allow them to conflict with one another.
The “Log” is the record, almost day by day, of the manner in which, in the summer of 1882, a herd of 3100 cattle was driven from a point in Mexico on the Rio Grande River into the reservation of the Blackfoot Indians in Montana. The system to which such tasks have been reduced may be inferred from the fact that, though having from April 1 until September 10 to reach his destination, 2,400 miles distant, the form and actually made the delivery of its heard two days earlier by covering an average of 15 miles daily. The “outfit” consisted of a cook, with his “chuck wagon,” drawn by four mules; 14 men, and the “remuda”– 10 horses to each man, with two extra for the foreman. The route lay along what was called “The Old Western Trail,” and follow the path of least resistance, lying between the Rocky Mountains and the western tributaries of the Mississippi. The necessities along the way were water and forage for the cattle and the remuda, and the preservation in tact of the “Circle Dot” herd. It sounds simple, but the complexities of the undertaking appear, one by one, as the journey northward proceeded. Everything that could happen did happen, though Mr. Adams is giving an account of veritable trip in which he took a responsible share of the work.
There were wild stampedes among the nervous cattle; there were flooded rivers to offer dangerous fording; there were hostile Indians and while he cattle thieves to fight shy of; there were long marches when lack of water and the consequent suffering in the herd made the prospect of safely driving it to Montana look extremely doubtful. But the remuda– an admiral named by the way, for the moving force of such undertakings– was equal to the strain of all these happenings, and the reader can but regard with admiration the resourcefulness and faithfulness with which the men discharged their duties. On the trail, nothing could exceed their devotion to the work in hand, and it is only when they came close to something denominated by the name of town, and were allowed to make a holiday, and that anything like the proverbial cowboy lawlessness and daredevil appear. Then the men who have all along seemed quiet, obedient, and particularly helpful and considerate with their mates, are suddenly transformed into a swaggering, quarrelsome company bent on stirring up pandemonium.
The calm and matter of course way in which the author describes these departures from the cowboy routine is a good commentary on the cowboy point of view. Killing a man, or a dozen men, for that matter, on account of some real or fancy insult seems to be a matter of no moment on the trail, and was apparently indulged in more as a mild form of excitement than anything else. The instant it is described, the outcome stated, with evident satisfaction, if one of “our outfit” is suitably avenged, and not a regret is expressed for the six shooters, whose worst defense was in two cases in this narrative, a request for less noise in the dance hall, or a remark to the effect that General Ulysses S. Grant had no rivals in his knowledge of the game of war. On the other hand, getting into a town was also an occasion for the exhibition of the cowboy’s most boyish capacity for having fun and spending, without a thought of the future, his hard-earned wages. The general attitude was expressed by “Bull Durham.”
“The first thing I do when we strike that town of Silver Bow,” said Bull Durham, as he was putting on his last shirt, “is to discard to the skin and get me new togs to a finish. I’ll commence on my little pattering feet, which will require $15 moccasins, and then about a six dollar checked cotton suit, and top off with a seven dollar Brown Stetson. Then with a few drinks under my belt and a rim-fire cigar in my mouth, I admired to meet the governor of Montana, if convenient.”
The monotony of the long days and nights on the trail was relieved whenever chance offered. Storytelling and card plane around the campfire where the stock diversions, but what the Cowboys called “falling weather”– that is, rainy weather– or any other serious accident in the outfit would often cause such a gloom to settle over their spirits that it taxed all their foreman’s resources to keep peace and order in his outfit. On one such occasion, a visitor drifted into camp, who could make “the bear sign,” or, in plain English, doughnuts. The visitor announced that he was an artist on the Bears signed
Miller arose, took him by the hand, and said: “That’s straight, now, is it?”
“That’s straig. Making the bear sign is my long suit.”
“Mouse.” Said Miller to one of the boys, “go out and bring in his saddle from the stable and put it under my bed. Throw his horse and the big pasture in the morning, he stayed here until spring. And the first spirit spring grass. I see his name goes on the payroll. This outfit is shy on man who can make the bear sign. Now, I was thinking that you could spread down your blankets on the hearth, but you can sleep with me tonight. You go to work on this specialty of yours right after breakfast in the morning, and show us what you can do in that line.”
He did go to work in the morning and for five days he made “bear sign” from morning till night, one batch after another, and the outfit ate them “just sweet enough and browned to a turn” until they could eat no more. The fame of them spread abroad, and maintain 30 miles and more from other camps, drawn by the appetizing reports of the “bear sign man.”
Enough has been said to show that Mr. Adams has at last really done for the cowboy, who is destined soon to belong only to the past, with several of his predecessors have been erroneously hailed as doing; that is, has made a portrait of this most picturesque figure in the western life that can be handed down to posterity as authentic in every small detail. “The Log of the Cowboy” is a valuable addition to that department of literature to which the historian and student go for reference, and it seems safe to say that no one could have presented this particular line of information better than has been done by Mr. Adams.