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Fischer, Joan (ed.) / Wisconsin people & ideas
Volume 52, Number 2 (Spring 2006)

Percy, Benjamin
In the quiet depths of cattle land,   pp. 47-48


Page 47

I WAS A COWBOY WHEN I first 
read The Virginian. This was the 
summer before I went to college, 
and I spent my days breeding, 
breaking, branding, shoeing, 
herding, and castrating cows and 
horses, cleaning stalls and bucking 
hay bales into pickup trucks. I 
wore a belt buckle the size of a 
frying pan and more often than not smelled like a barn. There 
were those at the Lazy H outfit who considered cowboy too 
antique and glitzy a title, and instead called themselves 
horsemen or hands-but I liked cowboy, and that's what we 
were. 
The ranch foreman, Joe Kellogg, gave me the book as a grad- 
uation gift. He said it was his favorite, and seeing as I wanted 
to become a writer, I ought to wean myself on the best litera- 
ture had to offer. Joe was 50, mustached, and as deeply tan 
and wrinkled as a piece of jerky. The book was similarly 
weather-beaten. He handed it to me and said, "Reading this 
will make a man out of you." 
Five years before, my father said something similar when he 
whipped fastball after fastball at my face, teaching me to stand 
tough in the batter's box and fight those inside pitches. Got to 
admit, I initially greeted The Virginian with roughly the same 
enthusiasm as a knuckleball to the teeth. 
You work all day moving irrigation pipe and herding cows 
and mending barbed-wire fences, and you can get yourself a 
beer in Central Oregon, no matter if you're 18; and at this time 
I was more interested in the Someplace Else Tavern-with its 
pool table and mechanical bull and girls with moisture clinging 
to their cleavages-than reading some dog-eared book. 
But at Joe's pestering, I began it. And once I began, the 
pages fluttered by so swiftly they made a breeze on my face. 
Right then, more than anything in the world, I wanted to tug on 
my leather chaps and ride for the mountains, spurring my 
horse forward at such a speed his hooves would rise off the 
pasture, into the sky, and we would be flying-50, 100, 150 
years into the past-to an era when "days [looked] alike, and 
often [lost] their very names in the quiet depths of Cattle 
Land," when women wore scarlet knickers, when grizzlies and 
Indians lurked around every corner, when poker games 
inevitably went bad, and the six-shooter was the tool to fix all 
problems. 
I don't know how to say it any better than this: the book 
made me ridiculously happy. And as corny as this sounds, it 
changed me. 
Originally published in 1902, Owen Wister's The Virginian is 
the first fully realized Western. The mythical cowboy figure- 
the man of few words, the man of action, the man who gets the 
girl and brings justice to the frontier, the man we know so well 
from countless films and pulp novels-makes his first appear- 
ance here. 
He is the Virginian, a nameless and "slim young giant, more 
beautiful than pictures," who has "plainly come many miles 
from somewhere across the vast horizon." If you imagine a 
yellowed map of the United States, and if you imagine a red 
arrow moving across it-accompanied by old-time piano 
music-from the civilized East to the untamed West, tracing 
the passage of the hundreds of thousands who in that era 
heard the call "Go West!" and went, many of them braving the 
wilderness only to be buried in it, you have the Virginian's 
journey to Wyoming. 
From the beginning I felt a profound jealousy of him. 
Fourteen years old and he lights off for the territories, where 
every breath is "pure as water and strong as wine" and where 
WISCONSIN  PEOPLE  &  IDEAS  SPRING  2006  47 
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