Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book: The Outlet

Andy Adams
Andy Adams (1859-1935) is best known for his trail drive novel, The Log of a Cowboy (1903). The manager of the bookstore in Valentine, Nebraska, who sold me a copy of that book, said it was the original Lonesome Dove. If you put the two books side by side, you can see the similarity. [Photos of the open range today are from the Library of Congress. As usual, click to make larger.]

Adams had been a cowpuncher on trail drives and wrote from firsthand experience. He intended with his fiction to correct the romanticized view of the West being created by Owen Wister and others. He lost that battle, but as a recorder of the West that was, he left us a real goldmine of information and impressions.

The Outlet (1905) is another trail drive novel, and a sequel to The Log of a Cowboy. The narrator, Tom Quirk, is a young cowboy in his twenties who gets his first job as a trail boss. He’s in charge of one of three herds being driven in the summer of 1884 from west Texas to Fort Buford on the Missouri River, in Dakota Territory.

The year 1884, as Adams points out in the preface, came at the peak of the cattle drive era. According to Adams, nearly 800,000 cattle in 300 herds left Texas for points north in that year. Many herds went to cattle ranchers on the northern prairies. Many were sold to the government to supply beef for the frontier Army posts and the reservation Indians now that the buffalo were gone.

This enterprise, he says, required the labor of 4,000 drovers and the use of 30,000 horses. Meanwhile, the combined worth of all this beef on the hoof was in the millions.
Round up, Belle Fourche, Dakota Territory, 1887
Monetizing the West. Adams had a head for business, and what he brings to the trail drive novel is an understanding of how the cattle business worked in those years. While that business had boomed for ten years and some had made fortunes, the boom was about over. The market was beginning to weaken as demand became unable to keep up with the supply.
Cattle prices were dropping, and some sellers were having trouble finding buyers. Meanwhile, the scale of the cattle business had attracted get-rich-quick speculators who knew nothing about cattle. Among them were the unscrupulous and unprincipled. It was getting harder for an honest man to make a profit.
Corruption in American business was rife at the time, as we know from Teddy Roosevelt’s various efforts to clean it up. Cronyism, bribery, and misuse of public funds were common, and a central theme of this novel concerns the impact of shady business practices on the cattle industry.
Round up, Moss Agate, Dakota Territory, c1890
It’s another twist on the East vs. West debate we find in other early western novels. Here, honest dealings among honest men of the West are being undermined by the greed and corrupt schemes of easterners and the federal government that serves their interests.
While the central character of the novel is the trail boss, Quirk, the real hero is Don Lovell, his employer. He is the one who buys the cattle in Texas to deliver at summer’s end in the north. He manages the whole enterprise, borrows the money to fund it, and makes the management decisions. He’s experienced and respected. While we stay on the trail drive with Quirk, Lovell appears at times along the way to check in.
Doesn’t sound too thrilling yet, but there’s a complication that turns into a real nail-biter. Turns out that Lovell has sub-contracted the order for delivery of the cattle, and the holders of the original contract have pulled a fast one on him. They’ve left a loophole that permits them to fill the contract themselves if it turns out to be to their advantage.
And it does. Cattle prices drop during the summer, which means they can buy them cheaper and then sell them at the higher contracted price – leaving them with a much bigger profit. (If you know about short trading on the stock market, it’s the same idea.)
Charles Siringo
The plot thickens. Suspense gradually builds as Lovell, with the help of his men, attempts to avoid getting screwed by this scheme. In Dodge City, they enlist the assistance of a detective, Charles Siringo. (The real Siringo hadn’t yet joined the Pinkertons in 1884, but it’s fun having him show up without fanfare like he does here.)
The crooks are in town shopping for herds they can deliver to the fort, and Charlie tricks them into buying two of Lovell’s. They have already hired a disgruntled former employee of Lovell’s to work as trail boss. But Lovell manages to leave town with both his cattle and the crooks’ money.
Trouble catches up with him in Ogallala as the crooks try to take possession of the herds. They have a hotshot lawyer and a lot of attitude, but it doesn’t wash in the court of a cattleman judge who throws out the case once he’s heard both sides.
From here on, it becomes a race to the fort as the crooks attempt to deliver cattle of their own. All they have to do is get there by the delivery date. By now they have a Congressman from Washington in tow, and support for a while from a contingent of cavalry.
Fort Meade and Bear Butte, Dakota Territory, 1888
Though his cattle are clearly superior, and the post commander says so, it’s pretty clear that Lovell is up against it. There are too many cards stacked against him. A special commissioner is sent out from the War Department to force the post commander to take the crooks’ cattle. And if you’re waiting for some sudden turn of fortune at the end, forget it. Lovell gets “kangarooed.”
After 357 pages, your heart sinks when this happens. But Adams has one chapter yet to go. And while the bad guys remain free to roam this crooked world, both Lovell and Quirk have better days. Lovell buys a ranch for the unsold cattle and makes Quirk foreman. Back home, a Texas jury awards Lovell recompense for his losses. In the next few years, both men thrive. But for the reader, this upbeat denouement does not remove the bitterness of their defeat.
I know, that’s a long synopsis, but Adams has such a different agenda as a western novelist. It’s worth giving some time to how it plays out. He portrays the western way of doing business as more honorable because it is grounded in the character of honest men who are also men of good will.
Dakota cowboy Ned Coy on "Boy Dick,” 1891
In the West, you trust a man because you’ve had a few drinks together and parted friends. A word and a handshake are as good as anything written on paper. The easterners in this story are bounded only by what’s written on paper. And that frees them to be openly craven in their pursuit of what they want. Adams may condemn that in this novel, but he seems to be saying, it’s the way of the world. You can’t escape it.
More next time.
Picture credits:
1) Andy Adams,
2) Charles Siringo,
All other photos from the John C. H. Grabill Collection, Library of Congress,

Coming up: Eugene Manlove Rhodes


  1. Now that sounds more like the real world eh!....But I guess it wouldnt look good in a Hollywood movie. Or it doesnt help to sell books. I remember reading somewhere about the speculation by British Entrepreneurs, getting into cattle, buying ranches, and loosing a fortune, something to do with this same thing. Then wasnt there a few bad winters? cant remember where I read it?

  2. Kinda wish we could still trust words and handshakes

  3. Cheyenne, the Brits did invest heavily in the cattle industry and the Big Snow of about 1888 wiped out a lot of herds.

    Charles, there's a book COWBOY ETHICS which makes the same point.

  4. His moralizing is interesting... I also find it interesting that the west was far more "urban" than the east! Have you read any Robert Laxall's books--basque experrienc and sheepherding in Nevada?

  5. Sage, I read Laxall's stories a couple years ago and have only vague memories of them.