Monday, September 6, 2010

Book: The Outlet, part 2

Last week I talked about Andy Adams’ theme of how the Old West way of doing business was being subverted. Today, let’s look at what else is going on in this novel. [Photos from Library of Congress. As usual, click to enlarge.]

The other story. Like Adams’ earlier novel The Log of a Cowboy, we get to ride along on a summer-long cattle drive from Texas to the north. Much of the length of the novel is about the logistics of moving a large herd of cattle. And for plain historical value, the novel has a lot to contribute.
B&M Railroad, Dakota Territory, 1891
The railroads have gotten in on the action, and Texas drovers can have their cattle shipped by train to the Red River crossing into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Prices for this service are steep, and in the novel’s opening scene, Lovell declines to do business with them.
Later, we learn that a derailment has caused the death and injury of many cattle being transported by rail. Stress caused by poor conditions of travel has also been the cause of shipping fever – these losses being absorbed by the cattlemen, not the railroads.
Branding cattle, 1891
Before leaving the home ground, a herd has to pass inspection of the local county inspector. Inspection served the chief purpose of making sure that the herd included no cattle belonging to someone else. The herd also had to be marked with a road brand – showing their current owner. There was a charge for this inspection, and Quirk the trail boss plays one county inspector off against another to get each to lower his fee.
Sometimes the story digresses to include something that comes straight from a cowhand’s storehouse of cow and horse knowledge. As Quirk’s herd starts out in West Texas, he discovers that the horses have ticks in their ears. He explains how this happens, the symptoms, and how to treat it (a preparation for blisters mixed with axle grease).
The westward spread of fenced-in settlements creates an obstacle in some places. Water is no longer freely available in these areas, and drovers find they have to pay to let their cattle drink. Some trails have been so heavily used that for a mile and more across there’s not a single blade of vegetation. They have to trail the herds far to one side or the other.
Beef issue to Indians, Pine Ridge, 1891
One river crossing in Dakota Territory gives them trouble. The banks are steep and hard to negotiate. Fifty or so head of cattle get stranded against one of them, and the cowboys have to strip down and plunge in to push them downstream to where they can climb out of the water.
Then cloudbursts in the mountains flood the river and the men get separated from the wagons. They have to go without food, and sleep without their bedrolls until the floodwaters recede.
Texas fever (carried by cattle ticks) shows up as a plot element as the herds reach the north. Montana ranchers have set up a quarantine area in the Power River basin to prevent herds from entering their state until after the first frost. Lovell’s herds pass to the east, through the Dakota Territory, so they get to the fort OK.
The crooks’ herds, however, take the Power River route out of Wyoming and get quarantined with the other waiting herds. Because the crooks have a government contract, they claim not to be bound by state regulations (damn that Washington), and after attempts to stop them, they get through. 
By the way, you can follow the entire trip on a map of the middle states that shows the many rivers they cross. Their route more or less follows the divide between the Central and Mountain time zones.

Changing horses in rope corral, 1890
Amusements. Drinking and gambling are the preferred pastimes of the range cowboys when they hit town. Here the narrator describes Dodge City:
In ’84 Dodge, the Port Said of the plains, was in the full flower of her wickedness. Literally speaking, night was turned into day in the old trail town, for with the falling of darkness, the streets filled with people. Restaurants were crowded with women of the half-world, bar-rooms thronged with the wayfaring man, while in gambling and dance halls the range men congregated as if on special invitation. The familiar bark of the six-shooter was a matter of almost nightly occurrence; a dispute at the gaming table, a discourteous word spoken, or the rivalry for the smile of a wanton was provocation for the sacrifice of human life. (p. 117)
Adams also makes reference to a “crib” (brothel) and its “madam,” a hangout of a villain in the novel, who likes his “whiskey and women.”
On the trail, the men get a day off now and then to celebrate something and relax. The cook marks the day with a special meal. In one case each of the cowboys gets a berry pie made in the dutch oven.
Dinner time on round up, c1890
The evening hours pass with storytelling, as the men take turns with long monologues about adventures and dogs. A story too good to be true might get disputed before the teller can finish the tale. (We found this same oral tradition among the real-life cowboys in Fiddleback sixty years later.)
On one of these occasions, a violin is brought out and the men dance. The men who dance the women’s parts, Quirk reports, mimic the dancehall girls they’ve seen along the way, unbuttoning the fronts of their shirts. Meanwhile, the “sterner” of each of the partners may make “amourous advances.”
The ritual needling of other men for amusement occurs a few times in the novel. When one of the men gets a little “chesty” (full of himself) or makes an embarrassing mistake, he can count on being ribbed by the other men. It’s a requirement of the repartee to have a comeback that betrays no anger and shows your pride is still intact.
Women. Adams’ world in this novel is a man’s world. No one has a sweetheart. No one seems even to have mothers or sisters. “Ladies” get a mention, but as one of the men learns in Ogallala, these are the women of easy virtue.
One old visitor gets to talking with the foremen and puts in a rare good word for women, though only as domestics. “It takes a woman to get a good supper,” he says, “and cheer it with her presence, sitting at the head of the table and pouring the coffee”  (p. 153) That’s it.
Bull train, Dakota Territory, 1890
If Quirk speaks fondly of anyone, it’s an old friend, Paul Priest, known as The Rebel. Paul is a foreman for one of Lovell’s other herds, so the two men rarely see each other on the drive. When they do, as is the custom with any well-liked visitor, they “share blankets” when it comes time to turn in.
In the final chapter, during five years on Lovell’s isolated ranch in the north, Quirk says nothing of the need for any companionship. Then he gets a visit from the Rebel who has trailed another herd there from Texas. “I was delighted to meet my old bunkie,” he says, “and had him remain over until the last outfit went home, when we reluctantly parted company” (p. 370).
Adams may have been simply a man’s man, as some men are. It’s recorded that he never married and died with no heirs.
More next time.
Picture credits: All photos from the John C. H. Grabill Collection, Library of Congress,
Coming up: Eugene Manlove Rhodes


  1. Ron, these are great photos of the cattle business in the 1890's. I like the fact that Andy Adams downplays the role that women played in cowboy's lives. So many western pulp and paperback novels have the love interest added to such an extent that it is not believable at all. Most cowboys did not have contact with pretty girls, except for the prostitutes in town, or perhaps the women doing the laundry or clerking in the stores,etc. Certainly the ranch owner was not going to let the hired hands hang around or date his daughters. Many of the cowboys must have been very transient or just a step up from being nothing more than a hard drinking, tough talking, drifter. Also many land owners did not want their women folk near the men who were often Mexicans, Indians, so called half breeds, or black cowboys. Back in the 1800's these feelings were widespread and did not change until modern times.

    I know the B-westerns often portrayed the cowboys as a white, good looking, singer who wanted to do good deeds. The reality was far different.

  2. That was fantastic! More please? Its always good to see something that perhaps has a real grain to it!

  3. Walker, thanks for your generous comments. I've read that someone who was able to get data from old ranch records in Texas determined that the average length of employment for a cowhand was three years. As much as a third of them drifted on after just one year. Your comments about the love life of cowboys is borne out by my reading, as well. I know of only one exception; Teddy Blue Abbott managed to marry one of his boss's daughters against her father's wishes.

    Cheyenne, big thanks! There will be a final part in this discussion of THE OUTLET next time.