A Cowboy mayor, legislator, governor or -- dare we say during an election year -- president would not turn first to economically or politically lethal force against those who exploit the weak, but such a leader would leave no doubt that those who put our communities at risk or despoil our lands do so at their own peril. If the Cowboy Myth were reinvigorated, perhaps the federal agencies, mineral corporations and real estate developers would perceive Western civic leaders as others saw Conagher: "You do your job, you're honest, and you never backed off from trouble." Any community would be justifiably proud to have such leaders.
But isn't fierce autonomy, rather than duty to others, the core of the Cowboy? This Mythic hero is unwilling to trade freedom for security; his life is one of passionate independence. As Conagher says, with just a hint of melancholy, "I got no friends anywhere. Only whiskey friends, and that kind don't stay by you." But at the same time, he is unwaveringly loyal, telling the man who hired him, "I'll work my tail off and cash in my chips some dark night riding herd on another man's cows, but when they write my epitaph they'll say, He rode for the brand ..." Conagher's loyalty doesn't derive from academic analysis but stems from a deep-seated sense of duty, empathy, and community: "He had never given much thought to truth and justice or the rights of man, but he did not like what seemed to be happening here, and anything that happened to an outfit he rode for, happened to him."
Applied to leaders and citizens in the contemporary West, this means we must take responsibility for ourselves and one another, blaming nobody else for our problems and relying on ourselves for the solutions. As candidates aspire to public office, we must ask if they ride "for the brand" -- for the people. Leaders must be autonomous and possess a sense of duty to craft programs, laws and policies on behalf of the public, rather than allow mineral companies or real estate developers to define and (maybe) solve the problems. At a national level, perhaps what we need in the White House is an authentic Cowboy (not to be mistaken for a president who saddles up for corporations and rides away from his role while fostering economic suffering, environmental degradation and international terrorism).
Conagher was a "thirty-dollar cowhand" who could not even afford a pair of new boots -- and Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming are the only states in the nation without Jaguar or BMW dealerships. But dire poverty is another thing entirely; living on food stamps or making a home of a horse trailer demeans the human condition. But the promises of material growth -- more businesses, highways, tourists, mines or you-name-it -- cannot deceive a people who understand that the quantity of possessions is no substitute for the quality of life, that character counts for more than money. As much as it might frustrate economists, the self-proclaimed priests of modernity, Cowboys and Westerners know that the value of clean air, abundant wildlife and open space -- gloriously austere and brutally humbling steppes -- is not convertible to cash. But the Mythic hero also understood that not everyone had to have the same version of the good life.
How would the Cowboy respond to the changing social mores that some folks believe threaten the Western way of life? "None of my affair," Conagher said, "... and as long as nobody bothers me, I'll bother nobody." Good advice. But Conagher goes one step further. The Cowboy judges a person not by appearances but by actions. Contrary to the politically correct view that the Mythic Cowboy was sexist and racist (a perception supported by an uncharitably selective reading of stories or viewing of movies), Conagher respects the settler woman far more than he does most of his male associates: "(It) took sand to stay on a place like this with two kids, and no money coming in. It took real old-fashioned grit." One might even say, true grit.
And as for Indians, "You can't yield to an Indian. He will kill you out of contempt as much as for any other reason, but he respects courage, and he respects a good argument." Ever the existentialist, Conagher expects authenticity. I have to imagine that he'd vote for a gutsy woman over a pandering male, ride with a capable minority instead of an incompetent white (as did John Wayne in The Cowboys), and value the integrity and hard work of a man without being concerned with who shared his bunk. But doesn't the live-and-let-live approach combined with the Cowboy's itinerant nature bode poorly for the well-being of the land?
How the itinerant nature of the Cowboy accords with his perception of the land is vitally important if we are to take seriously the role of this Myth in the modern world. After all, to those who are unrooted, the degradation of the land wouldn't seem to matter. Some would even argue that this is precisely the attitude that allowed Europeans to despoil nature in a wave of settlement across the frontier, culminating in today's fly-by-night companies that rapaciously exploit the West's mineral resources. But, as with the other Cowboy qualities, there is a sense of balance. The widow that Conagher finds so engaging says what the Cowboy feels: "One evening Evie was coming in from milking and he was sitting on the stoop watching the sun set on the hills. 'It is very beautiful, Mr. Conagher,' she said. 'I like to watch the wind on the grass.' " She knows, as does he, that the land is not pretty, but it is beautiful -- a distinction that the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold embraced. Ultimately, when it came to nature, the Cowboy was a pragmatic idealist -- the role of humans was neither exploitation nor preservation but, in the deepest biblical sense, stewardship.
Conagher knows that the harsh, vagrant life of the cowboy is the prerogative of youth: "It was a hard life, a bitter, lonely life after a fellow got beyond the kid stage." So the Cowboy, if he survives his adventures and matures into a body of leathered skin and mended bones, must reflect on his journeys and on his experiences with weather, grass, wildlife and livestock. And in so doing, he finds a place to complete his life: "The waiting would not be bad if it was on a man's own place, where he could watch his own cattle graze and could be in some kind of peace." After all, to be a man is not just to journey into the world but to make something of the world, and this "something" is more of a sanctuary than a monument.
To be honest, I like Deb Donahue a great deal. I've guest lectured in her law classes; I respect her keen mind, and I relish her sharp wit. But I'm afraid that she roped me into her circle of black-hatted villains when she wrote, "(T)he myth of the Old West and its cowboys is alive and well, thanks in part to the continuing efforts of writers, filmmakers, chambers of commerce, and even scientists and academics." Being a member of three of these disreputable gangs, perhaps it's not surprising that I hope that the Cowboy Myth is as alive and well as Deb seems to fear. However, I worry that it is eroding under the withering critiques of economic rationalism and scientific positivism.
I worry because without a story to guide the culture of the West, we are unlikely to coalesce as a people in order to save our communities and lands. We are unlikely to act with the fortitude of Conagher, as he explained his worldview to a friend before the climatic shootout: "This here's a hard country. But it's a good country, Scott, and it'll be better as soon as we hang or shoot a few more thieving skunks."
Jeff Lockwood devoted nearly 20 years to the study of rangeland grasshoppers as a faculty member at the University of Wyoming. He recently metamorphosed into a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the university. He is the author of several books. His writing has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, a John Burroughs Award and inclusion in Best American Science and Nature Writing.