The Day the Cowboys Quit

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It's the rare western book that invites a Marxian analysis, but Elmer Kelton, who died recently, was the rare western writer.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit"takes place at the intersection of rugged American individualism and the collective efforts of the undercapitalized to improve their lot.

The book renders a cowboys' strike - a fascinating concept - that actually happened, on ranches in the Canadian River region of west Texas circa 1883.

By Kelton's lights, the strike occurred in the crucible of corporate encroachment upon the cattle industry that brought an end to the free range. Rationalization and greater efficiency in the beef business left the liberty loving cowboys with a beef of their own and they struck in response to it.

This novel is a beautifully paced, tightly constructed page-turner that manages to treat deeper afflictions in the American condition for those who want to see them, without boring those who just want a good western yarn.

Here's an exchange between the central protagonist, Hugh "Hitch" Hitchcock and the Kansas City corporate rancher Prosper Selkirk, who notes that:

"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."

A political writer might take pages to explain this naturally occurring friction so skillfully dispatched in a few terse exchanges by Kelton.

What do the "big ranchers" want? New rules forbidding the use of a company horse for personal affairs or keeping one's own mount without management's consent; the expulsion of "tramps and idlers" from the cowboy camp’s traditional protective care; and the outlawing of a ranch hand’s, "owning...
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