Andy Adams’ The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days (1903) is the granddaddy of all the cattle-drive novels ever written. Adams intended the book as an antidote to the unrealistic treatment of Western life in Owen Wister’s vastly popular The Virginian, which was published the previous year (in Adams’ view, Wister foisted a hero on the public who was a “cowboy without cattle”). Adams was so successful that many reviewers failed to notice his own story’s artifice, speaking instead of the novel as “the truth” and the “real thing.” J. Frank Dobie went so far as to claim that “if all other books on trail-driving were destroyed, a reader could still get a just and authentic conception of trail men, trail work, range cattle, cow horses, and the cow country in general” from its pages.
Certainly Adams — who worked as a cowboy in Texas for eleven years — stuck mainly to the facts in his account of a cattle drive from South Texas to the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, some two thousand miles away. The trail outfit consists of fifteen men with wonderful names like Tom Quirk, Jim Flood, Quince Forrest, and Fox Quarternight. During their months-long odyssey, they deal with bad weather, stampeding cattle, raging rivers, beggarly Indians, and stock thieves. One cowboy, Wade Scholar, drowns during the crossing of the North Platte below Fort Laramie. In the rough-as-cobs trail towns, the men encounter other “dangers.” At the Dew-Drop-In dance hall in Ogallala, Nebraska, they observe “the frailty of women in every grade and condition.” Upon the return of some of the group from high times in Dodge, Kansas, the cook tosses into the fire an embroidered handkerchief and a garter brought back by the errant cowboys, saying, “Good whiskey and bad women will be the ruin of you varmints yet.”
Adams uses campfire tales to introduce other stories and anecdotes, but above all, the novel deals with work on the unfenced prairies before the coming of barbed wire. For the men who went up the trail, the cattle drives stood as the high point of their lives. In “A Dry Drive,” the most-anthologized chapter of the book, Adams’ narrative skill makes the most of facts and imagination. The men hit a long stretch of arid countryside in Central Texas, and the cattle, without water for several days, begin to lose their sight. With the help of some invented geography, the herd backtracks to a series of so-named Indian Lakes, seven in all, about eighty miles north of San Antonio. Of course, no such lakes existed, but so compelling is the story of the blind cattle that one wants to believe they did. For those readers interested in learing about what trail driving was really like, The Log of a Cowboy remains as fresh and sunlit a place to start as it was a century ago.