Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Day the Cowboys Quit

I hope you all had a safe and happy Labor Day- and that everyone paused to remember what the holiday is for, the celebration of the American worker. And nobody typifies the American worker more than the working cowboy- the real thing, even if nowadays he is more likely to herd cows with a pickup truck. It occurred to me yesterday that the Elmer Kelton novel I am about to discuss is the ideal Labor Day reading for a western fan- and if you're one of those folks who've never read it, I strongly urge you to do so. And add Kelton's The Time It Never Rained to your queue as well.

The Day the Cowboys Quit is one of those handful of novels that consistently makes it to the top of writers' and critics' all-time best westerns lists, and justifiably so. It has also made the reading lists of many university classes (I'll be taking over the teaching of Western U.S. History at my school after this year, and I plan to assign it.)

The plot revolves around the loosely fictionalized historical event known as the Tascosa Cowboy Strike of 1883. As he often does, Kelton plops us down in the middle of great social change; the rough-and-ready cattlemen of the early days are being fenced in by syndicates from Back East and the growing cities of the Midwest, men who understand business and capitalism and ledgers but know nothing about the cattle business and the men who made it run on the ground- men who had built a sense of community in which, once you were stove up, your old partners would do all they could to still keep you around.

The new managers introduce a litany of restrictive laws: cowboys were not allowed to use company horses for personal use, or build their own herds, or allow those who were not completely physically able anymore to hang around camp, not to mention cutting wages. Here is part of a conversation between corporate rancher Prosper Selkirk and the protagonist, the cowboy Hugh "Hitch" Hitchcock:

[Selkirk]"If I invest my entire fortune in a bad venture and lose it, nobody guarantees to take care of me the rest of my life. When a man gets on one of those bad horses he knows the risks: he implies his willingness to accept that risk when he agrees to the job."

[Hitch] "He accepts the job because he's partial to eatin'.'
"The same reason I take a risk and invest capital."
"There a difference between a man's limbs and his money."

The cowboys decide to go on strike. I found a copy of the real cowboys' demands at this site:

We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:
First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.
Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.
Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.
Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.

Note that GOOD cooks should get $50 a month.

I'll have to let you read the book yourself to find out how it turns out. many of you no doubt already have- I'd love to hear your comments about it.

I have taken a quote from Elmer Kelton as one of the guiding principles of my writing, and this book in particular exemplifies it: "I don't write about good guys in white hats fighting bad guys in black hats. I write about two guys in gray hats, one trying to bring about change and the other resisting it."

    --Troy D. Smith


  1. Elmer was a blazing talent, head and shoulders above the rest of us, yet he never appeared to realize it. Anything of his is superior, including The Day the Cowboys Quit.

  2. Loved Elmer, always the perfect gentleman, even to us wannabes. You picked two of his best. They reside on my shelf, along with other Kelton novels.

    1. I had the privilege to speak with Elmer Kelton at a WWA Conference, just before he died. We had a long conversation about writing. The two books mentioned are indeed superior works of fiction.


  3. I have read Kelton, but these two have not made it to the top of the list. It sounds like they will be moving there fairly quickly. Thank you for bringing additional well written reading to my attention. Doris