Day’s rip-snortin’ narrative re-lives Hays to K.C. trail

By Edgar Wolfe, c’28, g’50

This article originally appeared in the September 1977 issue of Kansas Alumni magazine.

The Last Cattle Drive by Robert Day is a book with some minuses, many more pluses and much promise. There are not many authors around with more vigor, honesty and humor, and I expect Day’s subsequent books to be even better.

I have read several reviews of this book and all were favorable, but none remarked upon the author’s style, upon how very well he can write, how clear his eye is, how adequate yet economical his language:

The sun was low enough that I could see the sun and the horizon at the same time. It was getting orange and pretty. With two trucks behind us, three men on horses, and a narrow, well-fenced road to work, we picked up the pace a little and set the herd into a faster walk, sometimes a trot. We’d trot a mile and ease off a mile. I could feel the sun burning on my neck as we turned east out of Wilson. The shadows of one fencepost were stretching to reach the next fencepost. The trucks came up tight behind the herd and cast their shadows over the backs of the stragglers.

What is being described is an early phase of Spangler Tukle’s cattle drive from his ranch near Hays to the Kansas City stockyards, wonderfully taking place, not in the 19th century, but in this decade, in the 1970s. When you think about that a little, you will agree with what Leo Murdock, the young school teacher narrator, turned cowhand for the summer, told his boss, that they’d never get through Kansas City, Kansas, never in fact get closer than Bonner Springs. But they did, and most of the novel is devoted to telling us how. It is all made reasonably credible, or sufficiently so that the book is a lot of fun.

Especially for Kansans, I should think, though there will be those who are turned off by the often utterly indelicate language employed by Spangler Tukle and often by the narrator, too, though no one can top Spangler. But this is realism, this is accurate characterization, and often truly funny, like things to be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Spangler is a notable character, often extreme and outrageously unreasonable in his actions and reactions, as when he shoots and burns the lawnmower that won’t start and then sends Leo with it to the rendering plant. Often, though, Spangler’s antagonisms do him credit and his gripes have basis, as when he inveighs against our traditionless, too rapidly changing “fiberglass and plastic” civilization. Anyhow, he is an astonishing and unforgettable man.

Opal, 100 pounds of “stoic and fierce” wifeliness, manages Spangler some of the time. She plans the trip, shoots at a news helicopter that spooks the steers on the Bonner Springs bridge, and turns the consequences of Spangler’s last intemperate action into profit.

Other characters: Leo himself, who is young and interested in experience—up to a point. He is not interested, obviously, in any more experience, on her terms, with Heather, an old girl friend, in spite of the temporarily engaging way she has of shedding her clothes at the drop of a hat. Then there is Jed, the laconic old cowboy, who is said to be “the only one who knew what we were doing when we took the herd east.”

The animals are of considerable interest. There are Rabies the cat, who had bitten Spangler but retained his head, which might well have been chopped off and sent to the state for examination, and who accompanies the drive, smelling up his cage and never developing rabies; and Tic-tac-toe, the “bingy” heifer, who crouches behind cow chips and grass clumps and thinks she is hiding; and Chief, Leo’s “gentle” horse, who intelligently bites him after Leo has cinched the saddle wrong and worn “a hole the size of a quarter in his hide.” These and the steers are presented without sentimentality, but the reader with imagination may feel for them much as he does for old Jed, who dies.

Just as in such classic tales as Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews and Huckleberry Finn, there is time in this story of a journey for incidents and conversation which in themselves do not advance the plot—like the visit to the Garden of Eden in Lucas, which is ever so comic and interesting for its own sake, or the story of that uncertainly accidental killing by Rancher North of his son, who was just as “bingy” as Tic-tac-toe, the heifer. Inclusions like these belong and are justified. I am almost sorry that there are not more of them. 

(The Last Cattle Drive, by Robert Day, c’64, g’66. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977. $7.95. 222 pages.)

To mention one fault that I think the book has, there is, I think, a certain lack of proportion. In books of this sort, there are always the preliminaries and then the main account of the journey.

In Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the preliminaries account for about one tenth of each book. In The Last Cattle Drive, the preliminaries amount to nearly forty percent of the whole. I wouldn’t want to dispense with Day’s very interesting preliminaries, but I confess to being sorry that we don’t have about 75 pages’ worth of additional adventures en route to Kansas City.

But that is to compliment the book even while I am criticizing. It is applause. It is asking for an encore.

—Wolfe, a poet, novelist and longtime KU professor of English, retired in 1977 and wrote occasionally for Kansas Alumni. He died in 1989. Bob Day paid tribute in “I look out for Ed Wolfe,” Kansas Alumni, Issue No. 5, 2012.