Cow People records the fading memories of a bygone Texas, the reminiscences of the cow people themselves. These are the Texans of the don't-fence-me-in era, their faces pinched by years of squinting into the desert glare, tanned by the sun and coarsened by the dust of the Chisholm Trail. Their stories are often raucous but just as often quiet as hot plains under a pale Texan sky.
A native Texan, J. Frank Dobie had an inborn knowledge of the men and customs of the trail camps. Cattlemen were as various as the country was big. Ab Blocker was a tall, quiet man who belonged totally to the cattle and the silent plains. But big men often had big lungs. "Shanghai Pierce was the loudest man in the country. He would sit at one end of a day coach and in normal voice hold conversation with some man at the other end of the coach, who of course had to yell, while the train was clanking along. He knew everybody, yelled at everybody he saw."
Texas bred tall men and taller stories. There was Findlay Simpson, who played havoc with fact but whiled away the drivers' long, lonely evenings with his tales. Old Findlay told of a country so wet that it bogged down the shadow of a buzzard, and of cattle that went into hibernation during rugged winters; he once spun yarns for three days straight, outlasting his listeners in a marathon of endurance.
All real cow people—from the cattle drivers to the cattle owners—lived by a simple code based on the individual's integrity. Bothering anyone else's poke or business uninvited was strictly forbidden, and enforcement of this unwritten law was as easy as pulling a trigger. Honesty was taken for granted, and a cowman's name on a check made it negotiable currency.
Yet Texas had its "bad guys"—the crooks, the thieves, even the tightwads. "A world big enough to hold a rattlesnake and a purty woman is big enough for all kinds of people," wrote Dobie. This is the world whose vast and various population the reader will find in Cow People.
The usual makes social history. The unusual makes interesting reading. It may be untypical; it is likely to be representative. However singular some characters and narratives in chapters that follow may sound, they are out of reality. No attempt at the "definitive" has been made. My aim is to reveal human beings. Nearly all the characters are dead. They represent vanished ways and a vanished tempo. Yet no life of one time is alien to another time. Herodotus and Chaucer come nearer belonging to the present age than certain troglodytes in the United States Senate.
On a ranch down in the brush country of southwest Texas, I was born and reared to the life herein represented. My father and his brothers were ranchers and drove up the trail to Kansas. My mother was born to ranching. My grandparents on both sides of the house were cow people. I grew up on good books. At college, English poetry entered my life and I wanted to teach it. For three years I served as instructor of English at the University of Texas. All along I was dabbling at writing. Two years of Field Artillery in World War I put fibers in my brain.
In 1920 I took charge of my Uncle Jim (J. M.) Dobie's ranch of fifty-six thousand acres attached to two hundred thousand acres of leased land. We kept two crews of Mexicans going: an outfit of vaqueros and one of fence-builders and tankers. Here for the first time I became conscious in a writing way of the people I had all my life belonged to. Cattle prices slid to the bottom and cattlemen, my uncle included, were going bankrupt. I went back to the University of Texas. I belonged to ranch land and ranch people, but wanted something beyond. I fitted into university teaching. It allowed me free time. My purpose was to gather into a book traditional tales of Texas. That meant talking with people who belonged to the land, though many owned not an acre of it. That meant writing. Horizons kept expanding. They keep on expanding. With perspectives afforded by literature and history, by experience and civilized life, I have for about a third of a century been putting into writing the land on both sides of the Rio Grande, expanding north into Canada and south to the pampas, the animals, the people, their stories. Life at Cambridge University during World War II expanded my perspectives.
Early in the 1920's I began setting down on paper narratives by old-time men of the soil and the saddle. As one talked, I might jot down proper names, but seldom took notes. Immediately after hearing what was meat to me, I would go apart and write out, either by hand or on typewriter, the talk while it was still hot and detailed in memory. To write down, not write about, has been a continuing aim. Spinning out opinions is dead easy. Some of the character sketches and incidents that follow have been in my files a long time; some have appeared under my name in magazines and newspapers. To fortify myself, I have read most of the travel books and reminiscences of the Americas touching on cattle and cattle people.
Too much reading—even good reading—and too much listening to canned amusement stifle personal narrators. The best ones associate with themselves. They tell out of experience. Before airborne murder of silence atrophied oral communication, what he said and what she said were common to it. Honest directness of speech, revealing an easy intimacy with ranch life, never has been common to journalism or to big-selling fiction.
One night, about 1940, on my way to Little Rock, Arkansas, an airplane deposited me in Fort Smith, where I had to wait for a bus the next day. Having plenty of time, I set out after breakfast to explore three bookstores listed in the back of the telephone directory. The first turned out to be a furniture store that sometimes acquired books with used furniture; the few on hand were worthless. The second specialized in stationery, and all the books it had could have been utilized by a business college. As soon as I stepped into the third, my eyes picked out three shelves of books. The first was stocked with Bibles, the second with cookbooks. The third was longer, crowded with Zane Grey novels, many titles in duplicate.
For more than a hundred years, tracing their lineage back to dime novels, the cowboys of popular Westerns, of pulp magazines, of Hollywood pictures, and now of television gun-smokers have come no more from homes of people than the Aphrodite sprung from sea foam came. They have never known humanity, sucking calves, before-daylight freshness, evening shadows. Cow people true to life and occupation as in The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams, in Pasó por Aquí by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, and in autobiographies up to the standard of Agnes Morley Cleaveland's No Life for a Lady and Ike Blassingame's Dakota Cowboy never pass the requirements of film and TV. I am not counting on Cow People's coming up to those requirements.
All of us live in debt to each other. Human nature is so healthy that few are oppressed by the feeling of debt. On many pages that follow I mention names of individuals who told me this and that. The person to whom I owe most is a critic of style and a thinker named Bertha McKee Dobie. She has overlooked every line and influenced me to exercise the never sufficiently accomplished art of omission.