"When The Day the Cowboys Quit was first published in 1971, one critic declared that it was out of character for cowboys to strike and that therefore the novel was a transparent attempt to place modern-day labor-management problems in the context of a western."
Not so, Kelton wrote: the novel is based on historical incidents, including the actual cowboy strike, and more generally upon the inroads that laissez faire capitalism made upon the individual freedoms of the historical cowboy.
Traditionally men joined up with an outfit on a handshake agreement, were loyal to it and in turn earned the trust of those who ran it. Cowboys owned their own horses and tack, were allowed to run their own stock in the company remuda, with the hope of one day having their own spreads. Such men partnered up to larger outfits, and they drove their cattle together to markets. "Howdy, partner," was more than just a catch-phrase.
The western cattle industry prospered to the point that it attracted rich easterners, who bought up the bigger ranches. "The elevated status of the cowboy was not recognized by many of the newcomers, who saw him as no different from their employees in a shoe factory or a cotton mill. They began imposing rules of employment which took away freedoms and privileges the cowboy had regarded almost as a birthright."
They denied cowboys the right to own their own stock, including the owning of their own horses. No longer could the cowboy ride off seeking a better deal elsewhere, for he rode the company horse and if he should quit, he was stranded and afoot--dependent upon the company for his transportation, and thus for his next meal.
The value in the traditional cowboy arrangement was that a man took pride in his horsemanship; he did a better job breaking and training his own horses to work the cattle, and thus took more pride in his work. All of that now disappeared with the poor choice of stock the company insisted upon. The western code of trust between owner and employee vanished, and cowboys were treated as chattel, as numbers on a ledger. Although those who worship laissez faire do so giving lip service to freedom for all, just the opposite is the goal. What they really want is control.
Americans admire the western rugged individualist and the maverick small businessman on the screen or in novels; but in real life, laissez faire capitalism encourages big business to collude and stamp them out, to destroy them at every turn.
This was Elmer Kelton's first literary western and the first to appear in hardcover. His characters are well drawn, and his dialog is superb. All of his previous westerns were shoot-em-ups, higher quality than most maybe, but still written to the same pulp formula. His later novels were of finer stuff, and I'll be writing about them some wednesday soon.