I haven’t read a whole lot of Elmer Kelton’s Western fiction — in fact, this is only the second novel of his I can recall reading — but that needs to change. I really enjoy his style of writing, his level of detail that paints the picture without bogging down, and his strong characterization.
The Day the Cowboys Quit is not a shoot-em-up Western, nor is it a sprawling epic. It’s a very realistic account of a cowboy strike and its immediate aftermath in the Texas panhandle circa 1883. Our hero is Hugh Hitchcock. Hitch is one of those ramrod straight cowboys with an unbending code of ethics. When he gives his word that rancher Charlie Waide won’t join the other big outfits in posting new, restrictive rules for cowhands, Hitch has to stick to it when events unfold and force Charlie’s hand. From there it’s a pretty familiar story of cowboys and little ranchers against the big boys, except instead of a gun battle at the end we get a court case.
I’d have gone four stars on this one, but the ending, while realistic and believable, felt a little flat. I guess the kid in me wanted Hugh and his friends to pick up guns and start blasting away, as out of character as that was. I’d explain more, but that’s spoil some things.
For those who like realism in historic fiction, I highly recommend this one. If you’re looking for Josey Wales, move on, pardner.