Cowboy Justice

posted in: Will Rogers | 0

They hung their compadre, Jake Spoon.

I was shocked yet somehow satisfied.  It made sense.  Jake had never been a sympathetic character.  He lacked virtue of any kind.  He was a wayward soul.  Then he broke the ultimate cowboy taboo–rustling horses–and had to pay the ultimate price.  But for his old rangering buddies, Gus and Call, to carry out the execution?  This must be what one means by “cowboy justice”–swift and sure.

So was Larry McMurtry‘s treatment of the event in his book, Lonesome Dove: swift and sure.  The lead-up took time, in retrospect, but the hanging took just a single chapter.  The deed was done; then the plot, as well as the protagonists, moved on.  The matter-of-fact abruptness was part-and-parcel with the meaning of the event.  This is what honorable men of the West did.

Come to find out McMurtry pinched the incident from an Owen Wister novel that preceded his own by eighty years.  Wister’s treatment is entirely different from McMurtry’s, though.  At first, his eponymous hero (called “the Virginian” throughout) shows characteristic resolve in executing his old friend, Steve.  But soon the cracks appear in his emotional armor.  He broods for days and sinks into a depression.  Wister spends multiple chapters and dozens of pages covering the execution and its aftermath.  It is as if, through his narrative, he “protests too much,” knowing his Eastern readers will be shocked by the vigilante justice he portrays.

Indeed, Will Rogers–often compared at the time to the Virginian–objected strongly to the episode.  When asked his reaction to the book, Rogers replied, “Yep, I read it–leastwise, part of it.  …and we were mightily interested in this yere story until we got to the part where that main guy–that Virginian, with his black hair and brown eyes–catches his pal cattle rustlin’ and hangs him.  Say, we threw that book away.”  So much for “cowboy justice” in the eyes of the America’s “cowboy philosopher.”

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