Zane Grey’s stories were mainly written to entertain. Entertainment was achieved through action- and romance-driven stories. For a story written in the early 1900’s, there was quite a bit of cussing and violence. Readers should be aware of changes in word-usage. Commonly used words back then are considered racist today. Views expressed in The Trail Driver romanticize cowboys and discriminate against women, Native-Americans and African-Americans. In most ways The Trail Driver is representative of the propaganda of its day (Wisniewski/Nakamura).
By the time of the cattle-drives, most of the Plains Indian tribes had been decimated in the genocide of Native American (Jawort). The Comanche were too busy trying surviving the American Army to fight cattle drives for anything but survival (Miheshua, p. 14).
The Trail Driver enters the US at a turning-point of the cattle-drives (1871). It was first published as a serial in McCall’s Magazine, Oct. 1931—Feb. 1932 and later published as hard-cover by Harper & Bros in 1935. Friesen points out that Zane Grey got the crossing of the Chisholm Trail at Doan’s Store wrong. Other than that, Grey seems to have his facts straight. (VC Friesen, ch. 27).
Adam Brite is a Euro-American, middle-aged, single and childless man. He has just made a profit off a run on the Chisholm-trail and seeks to further that profit by a second run. This time he is overly optimistic in buying 4500 head of long-horns (ornery buggers) plus about 200 mustangs for his remuda.
“A 12-man crew could manage a herd of 2,000 to 3,000 head. The trail boss was the ultimate authority on the trail, like the captain of a ship, and was paid $100 to $125 a month. Of the rest of the crew, the cook was the most important, earning about $60 per month.” (Texas Almanac)
Adam’s role in the story is that of father-figure. He joins in the work and tries to not play favorites. In many ways Brite’s role is to point out to the reader what might be going on inside people’s heads: “that the Uvalde cowboy had been shot through the heart by something vastly different from a bullet.” Sometimes he pranks Joe or Reddie if the mood hits him. I guess Adam is a greedy, kind-hearted racist man who was somewhat aware of his own racism.
The foreman Adam got himself has an excellent reputation. Like any good owner, he lets Texas Joe Shipman handle the crew as Joe sees fit. Joe is “tall amber-eyed, tawny-haired young giant might well play havoc with the heart of any fancy-free girl“. Fortunately, he is much more than that. He has to keep the feisty crew in check. Like he says: “I reckon I gotta make myself disliked,” The person he struggles most with (in true Zane Grey romance style) is Reddie Blayne. Joe organizes defense and offense against cattle-rustlers (Russ Hite and gang) and deals with Commanches. His worst problems are the combination of weather and long-horn cattle. .
Joe brings his friend Less Holden along “No better ever forked a hawse. But Less is the wildest hombre.” We don’t see much of Less during the story. His character is one on the outskirts of the crew and its adventure. Less calls himself a “walking calendar” due to his ability to figure out what day it is. The explanation is quite mundane, but I do not want to be a spoil-sport.
Alabama Moze is the cook. “It took no second glance for the boss to be assured that this cook was a treasure“. He brought his own stocked chuck-wagon. In addition to being the place where food is made, the cowhands sleep under it if it rains. Alabama’s job is tough. In addition to getting up hours before the drivers and wranglers, Alabama has to haul wood whenever it was available or use dried cow/buffalo-turds for his fire. At times the chuck-wagon has to be hauled across rivers that sometimes went wild. Alabama is African-American. Grey shows us how African-Americans were usually (Massey, SA) treated on cattle-runs, “... On the trail it was not usual for any rider to share the tasks of a negro. Manifestly Pan Handle Smith was a law unto himself…”. Being the cook, Alabama was probably treated better than regular African-American cow-hands. He is the only one of the crew whose fate we do not learn.
Pan Handle Smith is a gun-fighter and “might have rode up this Trail with Jesse Chisholm an been doin’ it ever since.” Giff MacShane told me that Pan is Pecos Smith in West of the Pecos. When Adam hires him, Smith is looking to get out of San Antonio. Gun-fighters weren’t bad guys/gals per se. “Pan Handle Smith had been outlawed, but he had really been more sinned against than sinning.” During the story, Smith calms tempers in both cattle and feisty teen-agers and supports Shipman as foreman.
The Uvalde quintet are “de finest an’ fightenest boys I ever seen,“. Their leader is Deuce Ackerman who “appeared to be the most forceful personality“, a quality needed to handle his friends. We see more of him than the other four. San Sabe comes a close second. San Sabe “had Indian or Mexican blood, and his lean shape wore the stamp of vaquero.” He has a lovely voice and it works wonders “That was the magic by which the trail drivers soothed the restless long-horns.” Rolly Little is “small and round. He had yellow hair, a freckled face, and flashing brown eyes, as sharp as daggers.” Ben Chandler is a “typical Texas youth, long, rangy, loose-jointed, of sandy complexion and hair, and eyes of clear, light blue“. His drinking problem gets him into serious trouble with Deuce, Joe and Adam. Roy Hallett is the last of the five. He is “a quiet, somber, negative youth“.
In addition, Adam is joined by Hal Bender, “the tenderfoot from Pennsylvania, appeared to be a hulking youth, good natured and friendly, though rather shy“, and Whittaker (no first name) was “a red-faced, sleepy-eyed, young rider of twenty-two, notable for his superb physique“. Finally, at Pecan Swale, their first stop, their last addition in the form of Reddie Bayne arrives: “Before the rider stopped Brite answered to a presagement not at all rare in him—that there were meetings and meetings along the trail. This one was an event.” Brite is correct in his presentiment. No Reddie, no The Trail Driver.
Shortly after the arrival of Reddie, Grey reveals that Bayne is a girl. While not common, women on the trail were a known phenomenon. They chose this tough life for many reasons. “An’ I got the idee pretendin’ to be a boy would make it easier. Thet helped a lot. But I’d always get found oot.” Turns out the last boss who found her out wants her back. Wallen, a rancher from Braseda, is a nasty guy. He rides into the camp at Pecan Swale demanding Reddie: “… I want this rider, Reddie Bayne. He come to me in a deal I made with Jones at Braseda.” At this point the crew learns that Reddie is a girl. Adam has known it for some time.
Wallen is joined by Ross Hite. Ross is a cattle- and mustang-rustler. “Humph! Mebbe Hite is at the haid of this new game,” declared the boss, seriously. “Cattle-drivers sometimes lose half their stock from stampeders. I’ve heahed of one whole herd bein’ stole.” To add to the tension of the story, Grey throws in Comanche raiders.
The Indian mustangs were haltered to the saplings at the edge of the glade. What a ragged, wild-eyed bunch! They had nothing but halters. These they strained against at every rifle-shot. And more than a few of them faced the covert where the drivers lay in ambush. They had caught a scent of the whites. Heads were pointed, ears high, nostrils quivering.
Even the weather conspires to make life miserable for the drivers. In real life, the weather and ornery nature of the long-horns were enough of a challenge on most drives.
The night fell dark, with rumble of thunder and sheet lightning in the distance. The tired cattle bedded down early and held well all night. Morning came lowering and threatening, with a chill wind that swept over the herd from the north. Soon the light failed until day was almost as dark as night. A terrific hailstorm burst upon the luckless herd and drivers. The hailstones grew larger as the storm swept on, until the pellets of gray ice were as large as walnuts. The drivers from suffering a severe pounding passed to extreme risk of their lives. They had been forced to protect heads and faces with whatever was available. Reddie Bayne was knocked off her horse and carried senseless to the wagon; San Sabe swayed in his saddle like a drunken man; Texas Joe tied his coat round his sombrero and yelled when the big hailstones bounced off his head; bloody and bruised, the other drivers resembled men who had engaged in fierce fistic encounters.
I still enjoy Zane Grey’s stories, but keep on wondering how I would read them if I was Native American or African American. Whenever gender bias comes up, I’m jarred out of the flow. That is most likely a good thing and might well have to do with my sense of fairness evolving. Reading stories that were written almost 100 years ago, is always a strange experience. Noting that many stories today are still as problematic is kind of depressing.
During its heyday, between 1867 and 1884, some five million cattle and an equal number of mustangs were moved along the trail.
- Croatian: Gonič stada; Translator: Omer Lakomica; Rijeka, Otokar Keršovani, 1966
- Czech: Jezdci z pastvin; Translator: Jaroslava Vojtěchová; Praha: Olympia (to 1992), 1965
- Finnish: Aavikon ratsastaja; Translator: Werner Anttila; Porvoo, Helsinki, W. Söderström, 1939
- German: In der Prärie; Translator: Dr. Franz Eckstein, Berlin, Th. Knaur Nachf, 193
- Sie kämpften sich durch; Translator: Hansheinz Werner; München: F. Schneider, 1969
- In der Prärie; Translator: Hansheinz Werner; München: Heyne, 1981
- Hungarian: A vöröshajú leány; Translator: Ruzitska Mária; Budapest, Palladis, 1937
- Italian: La lunga pista; Translator: Simonetta Damiani; Milano, Sonzogno, 1968 (Cover artist: Guido Crepax)
- Norwegian: Texas Joe; Translator: Claes Henrik Jaeger; Oslo, Ingar Weyar Tveitan, 1958
- Chisholm-ruten; Translator: Claes Henrik Jaeger; Oslo, Fredhøi, 1982
- Portugese: O guia da montanha; Translator: Fernanda Pinto Rodrigues; Lisboa: Ag. Port. de Revistas, 1959
- Spanish: El conductor de manadas; Translator: Lino Novás Calvo / José Luis Fernández; Barcelona, Juventud, 1937