Wednesday, January 5, 2011

George Pattullo, The Untamed: Range Life in the Southwest (1911)

Cover, 1911 edition
Here’s something a little different, a collection of animal stories. The writer, George Pattullo (1879-1967), was born in Ontario, Canada, and left his job as a newspaper editor in 1908 to head west. He traveled in the Southwest with photographer Erwin E. Smith, writing western stories for The Saturday Evening Post and McClure’s.

Cowboys and other humans figure in them, but an animal is at the center of each one: a horse, a steer, a mule, a coyote, a mountain lion, and so on. Pattullo humanizes them enough to give them thoughts and feelings, but these are not stories for children. It’s a Darwinian world where some are predators, some are prey, and the fittest and most cunning survive.

Stories. In “Ol’ Sam,” a mule known as Hell-on-Wheels by the Lazy L cowboys runs off with a band of wild horses. One of the cowboys, Dave, retrieves him by following the herd on foot for 24 days, exhausting them all from lack of water, feed and rest. Ol’ Sam, emaciated, finally lets himself be roped and led back to the ranch. Before he leaves, Dave shoots the horses. It’s no Disney ending.

Illustration by Charles Russell
In “Corazon,” the main character is a captured mustang. A cowboy, Mullins, attempts to break the horse, and Pattullo describes the violence used to break its spirit – from the horse’s point of view.

Mullins is nearly killed when the horse falls over backwards onto him. Then another cowboy, Reb, takes over, and with a gentler manner trains him as a prize-winning roping horse. When we last see him, Mullins is the one that is broken, afraid to ride any horse he doesn’t know.

In “The Outlaw,” another cowboy, Steve, finds a red-and-white (Hereford) calf with a blaze like a seven on his face. He calls him Come-a-Seven. It’s really a come-of-age story about surviving the hazards of being a calf. There are perils that include blackleg, screw worm, heel flies, snakebite, lack of water during summer droughts, and starvation during the winter.

Illustration by Charles Livingston Bull
There’s also the discomfort of being branded and having his ears cut. Pattullo stops short of mentioning the loss of testicles. He also delivers Come-a-Seven from the fate of the slaughterhouse, letting him escape and become an outlaw steer. Finding him years later, fully grown and living in rough country, Steve recognizes him after chasing him down, and then lets him go.

The animal whose story is told in “Sheila” is a wolfhound, who belongs to O’Donnell, range boss of the Tumbling H. She hunts down a male wolf, who injures her in a fight. Later, when they encounter each other again, she runs off with him instead.

After returning, she gives birth to two pups, bringing a degree of shame to herself for her “indiscretion.” These when they are grown run off themselves, and with their mother’s breeding in their blood, they become deadly hunters. One is eventually found, trampled to death by a stallion. The other is hunted down, with Sheila’s help, and killed with the male who sired him. Thus, Sheila redeems herself.

Illustration for "The Mankiller"
A darker tale is told in “The Mankiller.” The body of a man is found with a crushed skull, the remains partly eaten. Then the ranch boss mysteriously meets an untimely end. A man with a small holding some distance away is suspected. But his cabin is empty when men arrive to apprehend him.

Meanwhile, there is a terrible drought, and as the springs and streams dry up, the cattle are dying. The mankiller, it turns out, is a $5000 horse called Midnight. His life is ended in a ferocious and grimly described fight with a jackass named Apache. With that, the rains come and the drought is over.

Another grim tale about a horse is told in the final story, “Neutria.” It has a villainous character, Sloan, who harks back to the horse-abuser Balaam in Wister’s The Virginian (1902). Sloan is a rustler, a boozer, and all-around son of a bitch.

Neutria escapes and is eventually captured by a likable cowboy, Chappo, who is a kinder, gentler owner. They have adventures together, in which Neutria saves Chappo’s life. When Sloan comes upon the two of them, Sloan attempts to take his horse back and in the dispute that follows, he shoots the unarmed Chappo.

In the final scene, Neutria visits Chappo's grave, and nearby swings the body of Sloan, hanged from a tree for his crime. And so the collection of stories ends on this mournful note:

Often I steal back at night to the Gap trail. And there, beside the pile of stones and the cross, I whinny – whinny again. But Chappo never answers. (p. 288)

Illustration by Charles Livingston Bull
Shock value. It may surprise some readers of these stories written for McClure’s and The Saturday Evening Post that they deal with such life-and-death realities. Cowboys, we learn, kill a heifer every two days for food. The offal and other remains are left for scavengers, and are enough to feed a half dozen coyotes.

We are witness to a fight between a rattlesnake and a king snake, which ends with the death of the rattler. The king snake attempts to make a meal of his victim, but gives up because it is too big to swallow whole.
Style. Pattullo mostly tells these stories straight, but with his human characters he introduces a wry note from time to time. His cowboys often trigger a smile, as when a teamster on a roundup wagon “dozed with his hat well down over his eyes and dreamed of a dressmaker in Doghole” (p. 21).

Another time, a cowboy roused from sleep throws his boot at a coyote, who stops to sniff it and then takes off with it. The cowboy has to ride 27 miles back to the ranch in his socks to get another pair.

On the subject of roping coyotes, Pattullo says there are three rules to observe: “The first is not to rope them, and the other two do not matter” (p. 74). When a homesteader in another story says his prayers, he asks for blessings on everyone, with two notable exceptions: monarchs and the Republican Party.

Illustration for "Ol' Sam"
Wrapping up. Pattullo is faithful to the title of this collection. The stories represent an animal kingdom where humans exist on the periphery. And while he humanizes his animals to a degree, they remain for the most part wild at heart. A cowboy maxim at the start of one story asserts that “a man is as good as his nerves.” What a man must prove by his actions, the animals possess already by nature.

The land where these stories take place is often forbidding. The climate is harsh. Heat, cold, and drought can make the effort to survive precarious. Eventually the weak are consumed by the strong, whether predators or parasites. Only the buzzards don’t go hungry.

Pattullo understands that living conditions provide drama enough, and he doesn’t need to exaggerate the risks. It’s a faithful portrayal of “range life” that doesn’t romanticize or make humans the measure of what matters. The Untamed is available online at google books.

Further reading:

Coming up: W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water (1927)


  1. Thanks for the review. The book sounds kind of depressing, but from an animal's point of view it's a tough life that they go through.

  2. Very interesting. I loved animal stories as a kid, but mostly they were dog or horse stories. Not too many farm animal type stories.

  3. Oscar, I was a little surprised by the "realism" in the stories.

    Charles, me too. Black Stallion and Terhune's dog stories.