Cowboy Character: Courage
Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.
Larry McMurtry depicts a top hand in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove as a “skinny little waddie” who was terrified of crossing rivers. “The fear of drowning in him was strong,” McMurtry writes. And after witnessing the roiling of water moccasins over one of the cowboys in the Nueces River this skinny puncher was on the verge of quitting.
No doubt the fears of Jasper Fant echoed the fears of many cowhands driving cattle from Texas to railheads north of the Red River. Not that they feared riding into a mass of cottonmouths—that’s the stuff of fiction—but the terror of drowning, of having your horse lose its footing and pulling you under, or of cattle milling and pawing you in the middle of a river was very real. McMurtry illustrates this fear before the Hat Creek outfit crosses the Yellowstone River.
Jasper Fant had somehow picked up the rumor that the Yellowstone was the size of the Mississippi, and as deep. All the way north everyone had been trying to convince Jasper that it didn’t really make any difference how deep a river was, once it got deep enough to swim a horse, but Jasper felt the argument violated common sense. The deeper the river, the more dangerous—that was axiomatic to him. He had heard about something called undercurrents, which could suck you down. The deeper the river, the farther down you could be sucked, and Jasper had a profound fear of being sucked down. Particularly he didn’t want to be sucked down the Yellowstone, and had made himself a pair of rude floats from some empty lard buckets, just in case the Yellowstone really did turn out to be as deep as the Mississippi.
For all his dread of drowning, Jasper never quit. It’s a testament to his courage. And to all who trailed cattle north.
River crossings weren’t the only dangers old-time cowboys faced. Besides “setting out to sea” on a prairie as vast and featureless as the ocean, the open range had other hazards in store. Sudden, violent storms produce lightning, tornadoes, and hail large enough to crack your skull. Teddy Blue Abbott tells of losing his horse and hiding under his saddle during one such deluge.
The first night after we crossed the river with the FUF herd, I was on night guard, ten to twelve, and it came up an awful hailstorm. I told my partner, a kid from Boston, to ride to one side and take the saddle off and hold it over his head. And pretty soon I had to quit, too, and hold my saddle over my head. There were still dents in that saddle when I traded it off in Buffalo, Wyoming, a year later. Nobody knows now what those storms were like because nobody has to stay out in them anymore, but believe me, they were awful. If you had to take that drumming on your head, it would drive you crazy.
I lost my horse that night because a big hailstone hit my hand, and it hurt so bad I let go the reins as he plunged. The rest of the night I was afoot and helpless.
And then there was the fear of stampedes. Teddy Blue tells of a man whose horse stepped in a prairie dog hole during a run. They didn’t miss him until the next morning, when the cattle were run out: “The horse’s ribs was scraped bare of hide, and all the rest of horse and man was mashed into the ground flat as a pancake. The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter. . . . But the awful part of it was that we had milled them cattle over him all night, not knowing he was there. That was what we couldn’t get out of our minds.”
Other less dangerous hazards awaited cowpunchers. If you worked in south Texas you couldn’t avoid becoming a brush popper. “The country south of San Antone is brush country,” Teddy Blue complained. That country is filled with “mesquite and cactus and thorn and I don’t know what else, but I know everything that grows has thorns on . . . and some of those thorns are an inch long.” After forgetting to put on his chaps and gloves during a nighttime stampede, “When daylight come and we got them all together, we hadn’t lost a head. But I was a bloody sight. I had a big hole in my forehead, and my face was all bloodied, my hands was cut to pieces . . . and my knees were in the worst shape of all. I kept picking thorns out of them the whole ride to Kansas.”
To be a cowboy was to be courageous. “The universality of courage was an earmark of the cowboys’ trade,” Philip Rollins wrote. “Bravery was a requisite both to entering and to pursuing the vocation.” It was then as it is now an indispensable characteristic.
When a man “lost his riding nerve,” as he occasionally did from his own serious illness or from witnessing [a] distressing accident to a loved companion . . . he sometimes lost it forever, and with it his calling. . . .
Courage was needed elsewhere than on the bucker’s back or amid the cattle. The cowboy by the nature of his work was required, from time to time, to endure pitiless Northern blizzards, to traverse the equally pitiless Southern desert, to fight the bandit or the Indian, to go ahorse upon the mountain’s cliffs or amid the river’s whirlpools, to ride madly over ground pitted by the gopher and the badger, to face death often, and much of the time alone.
Some wise old Westerner defined a cowboy as “a man with guts and a horse.”
Courageous cowhands were also described as having “gravel in their gizzards,” being “as gritty as fish eggs rolled in sand,” knowing how to “die standing up,” possessing “more guts than you could hang on a fencepost,” or simply having “sand.” Whatever your sobriquet for them, this adage is true for old-timers and new-timers alike: “One of the first rules of [a cowboy’s] code was courage.” So wrote cowboy historian Ramon Adams. “Men who followed this life would not tolerate a coward, for one coward endangered the whole group. Through the hundreds of ways of making the life of a coward unbearable, he was soon eliminated. If a man had a spark of courage to start with, the life he lived on the range and the inspiration he gained from his fellow workers soon developed it to a high degree.”
Ours is not a courageous age, not because we live in a an age of normative peace, devoid of conflict or challenges that call forth bravery, but because we live in an age that devalues courage. We define courage down. Today, every little discomfort endured with some modicum of dignity is considered courageous. A splinter pulled from a finger without crying becomes an act of bravery. That might be true for a five-year-old, but not for a twenty-five-year-old. It is courageous, we say, whenever someone bucks the system, gives the bird to the Man, or decides to be different. We extoll, equally, the courage of the athlete on the field and the cancer patient in the hospital. But when everything is courageous, nothing is courageous.
To be lionhearted is to suffer. Yet, as John McCain notes, “Suffering is not, by itself, courage; fearing what we choose to suffer is.” According to McCain, a Navy combat pilot who was shot down during Viet Nam and tortured as a POW, true courage is to “risk life or limb or other very serious personal injuries for the sake of others or to uphold a virtue.”
To feed a hungry nation, old-time cowboys on the trails from Texas to Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana met McCain’s definition. Modern-day cowboys risk serious personal injuries to accomplish the same goal. Both set themselves at risk for the sake of others—and to uphold the virtues they hold dear: a code of ethics. Your daily life might not call out for courage, but that doesn’t mean there won’t come a time when courage is needed. When (and if) that time comes, will you be able to find your courage? If you’re unsure, here are a baker’s dozen ideas for developing a more courageous life
Determine to stand firm in the face of fear and danger.
Love what is good and right, hate what is evil and wrong.
Value virtue more than security.
Defend your dignity and honor.
Imagine living as a coward and list the shame that would come with such a life.
List the hills you’re willing to die on.
Name your fears.
Put your fears into perspective.
Determine to face one fear and master it.
In facing your fear, break it into stages and do the easy things first.
Enlist the aid of others and borrow their courage.
Read the biographies of courageous men and women and find what made them so.
Create a personal motto or code of ethics that aligns with your virtues. I did this many years ago to remind me of two virtues I hold in highest esteem, virtues I think illustrate the essence of what it means to be a cowboy: Be brave. Live free.
Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said, “Courage can’t be counterfeited—it’s a virtue which escapes hypocrisy.” If and when the crucible comes, it will prove whether you are cowardly or courageous. Prepare for the crucible today so you can meet it with courage tomorrow—the cowboy way.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 148, 196, 266, 726–7.
E. C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith, We Pointed Them North (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, Co., 1991, reprint), 67, 97–98, 105–6.
Philip Ashton Rollins, The Cowboy: An Unconventional History of Civilization of the Old-Time Cattle Range (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1936), 65–66.
Ramon F. Adams, The Cowman and His Code of Ethics (Austin: The Encino Press, 1969), 4.
John McCain with Mark Salter, Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life (New York: Random House, 2004) , 14, 199.
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