The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time
© 1956 Edward Abbey
When stock wrangler Jack Burns heard tell that his old friend Paul had gotten himself thrown in the can, he knew there was only one thing to do: get himself thrown in so he could arrange for a jailbreak. So, riding north he goes on his not-so-faithful horse, Whisky. Two problems: one, Paul doesn’t want to be jailbroken, because it’s only a two-year sentence and that’s a lot easier for his young family to bear than a lifetime of being hunted. Two, the sheriff isn’t an old-timey fellow with a tin star and nothing else. He’s got helicopters.
The Brave Cowboy is a western in the modern era, and ends fairly badly for those who pay more attention to the ‘western’ part than the ‘modern’ part. One of Edward Abbey’s earlier works, it features two quasi-anarchists, one of whom is imprisoned for resisting the draft, and several other characters whose paths violently intersect toward the tale’s end. It’s a sad story, almost announcing the Death of the West. Burns isn’t a lantern-jawed hero on a white horse, but he holds to an older sense of honor, and he counts among his friends more recognizably ‘good’ characters. (Paul is such a fellow, a pillar of his community who refused to comply with the Selective Service: not because he objected to soldiering, he objected to the government’s assumption of ownership over citizens’ lives.) Abbey’s terrain description is more functional than poetic here; his talent for conveying the ecstatic beauty of western vistas may have still been in the honing. What’s not absent is Abbey’s attitude, his righteous beef against the government and corporate power, against anything oversized and overmighty: half the book is a chase scene through the New Mexico wilderness, as Burns on his horse defies and eludes the local cops, State Police, and even the Air Force, while living off the land.
Dated and crude, but it’s hard to lose with a cowboy fighting the Man. Burns may be a prefigure of Hayduke, from The Monkey Wrench Gang — there’s even a horse named Whisky in Abbey’s sequel to MWG, Hayduke Lives! Another note: this book was the basis of Lonely are the Brave.
A few interesting covers: