Smoky the Cowhorse

Smoky the Cowhorse

Will James (1927)

Read to: K - 4th grade

Read independently: 3rd+ - 6th grade

Whew, after several challenging books I was so glad to have a book with such a straight forward title with the expectation that the story would be just as straight forward and relaxing. Happily I was NOT disappointed, even though it was not quite what i expected. Several months before, in the summer before we started reading the Newbery list, we read one of the Hank the Cow Dog series and for some reason I expected it to be like that. It did take me a while to really feel an attachment to Smoky - I was never a girl who took much interest in horses.

The writing style makes you think of a Montana cowboy with a straw in his mouth tellin' a story around the campfire on a cattle drive. (Really, I think it is set in the southwestern United States, Arizona is mentioned specifically at one point.) Throughout the book there are a few words that are consistently cowboy-ized: eddication (education), crethure (creature), mammy (mommy), and et (ate), for example. There are also a few asterisked footnotes like one that explains "hospital stuff" means old cattle that are not turned out to range in the winter (p. 214).

The story starts off with Smoky being born during a summer season in which the ranch's horses are set loose on the range to roam and enjoy nature. And Smoky enjoys it very much. For the entire first chapter, 21 pages, Smoky frolics across the range in a way that is as enjoyable as watching two puppies frolic. By page 30 (Ch. 2) ponies are being broken and branded. Quite possibly this is a new concept to most children. Most of the narration is seen through the horses' eyes but even so the process of breaking is not too scary or intense for the reader yet sufficiently conveys the fear and uncertainty the horse might've felt.

There is a lot of emphasis on the four seasons in this book - something that naturally affects a horse (and other outdoor animals) greatly. In Texas we say there's the week of winter and then there's the rest of the year so escaping into a book that has full and unique seasons was delightful, especially as my 6y0m son was still wearing shorts to school into November.

By the third chapter it is evident that a group of horses behaves a lot like a group of people - someone will jockey for leadership, there will be differences of opinion, fights, and even jealousy of siblings. One quarter of the way into the book we meet Clint who is well described on page 83 as:

...horses was the life of him. He loved 'em for all he was worth and the greatest pleasure in the world for him was in just being with a corral full of 'em, ... . The satisfaction he'd get out of seeing some four year old colt learn the things he'd teach meant a heap more to him than the wages he drawed for that work, and there was times as he'd be breaking some right brainy gelding and watch the horse pick up fast ont he eddication he'd give him, when he'd feel real attached to the pony. He'd hate to give him up when the time came for all half broke horses to be turned over to the round up wagons...

When Clint meets Smoky he realizes he's beyond taken with this dream horse. The omniscient narrator tells us: "...that pony had got holt of his heart strings ... he felt him to be the kind he'd steal if he couldn't buy, and if he could neither steal nor buy he'd work for." (p. 84-85) Clint considers keeping Smoky rough so nobody else can ride him. The narrator tells us on p. 85, "That was no way for Clint to feel maybe, but that's sure enough the way he figgered on doing rather than lose the horse to anybody else; - that feeling was past skin deep with him and that I think excuses hi some."

It seems like these passages set Clint up to be criminal-like but he winds up getting to claim Smoky as his honestly and Clint is really a consistently warm and caring cowboy character. And it's so heart-warming to see the relationship between Clint and Smoky form and grow. They have an unspoken connection that a lot of human couples only dream of. Their connections even covers sickness (and health) such as in Ch. 7 when Clint has an accident and Smoky goes above and beyond what a normal horse would do to take care of Clint and get him to safety.

Not all days are so exciting. By the time page 200 arrives the book has covered six or so years in the life of a horse. And just when you start to wonder how this is all gonna come to close, Smoky is stolen! After spring, summer and fall with no sign of Smoky, Clint decides to quit his job (since we've been told he's older its probably more like retirement). And without so much as a line break we see Smoky running from his captors. It's unclear but I assume it is right after his capture and not a full year later, but as an example of writing style and readability, I excerpt here:

Clint rode on for the Rocking R through that summer and fall, and always as he rode, he kept...hoping that...he'd run acrost his one horse, Smoky. (p. 216)

It wasn't till fall round up was near over that Clint began losing all hope of ever seeing Smoky again...(p. 216)

...[Jeff] noticed the railroad map laying by his foot and smiled.

'I figgered you would,' he says, 'now that Smoky is not with the outfit no more.'

The first of winter had come and hit the high mountains of the southern country. Big, dark clouds had drifted in, drenched the ranges down to bedrock with a cold rain, and hung on for days. Then the rain had gradually turned to a wet snow, kept a falling steady, and without a break, till it seemed like the country itself was shivering under the spell.

Finally, and after many long days, the dark clouds begin to get lighter and lighter and started lifting and drifting on - then one evening, the sun got a chance to peek thru and smile at the country again. It went down a smiling that way and after it disappeared over the blue ridge a new moon took its place for a spell, and like as to promise that the sun would smile again the next day.

And it did, it came up bright and real fitting to that Arizona country. The air was clear as spring water in a granite pool, and as still. The whole world seemed dozing and just contented to take on all the warmth and life the sun was giving. A mountain lion was stretched out on a boulder, war and comfortable, where the day before he'd been in his den all curled up and shivering, then a few deer come out of their shelter, hair on end and still wet thru, but as they reached the sunny side of the mountain it wasn't long when it dried again, and layed smooth.

Further down the mountain and more on the foothills, a little chipmunk stuck his head out of his winter quarters and blinked at the sun. he blinked at it for quite a spell like not believing, and pretty soon came out to make sure. He stood up, rolled in the warm dirt, and in more ways than one made up for the long days he'd holed away. Other chipmunks came out, and then he went visiting, more seeds was gathered as he went from bush to bush and even tho he already had a mighty big supply already stored away, he worked on as tho he was afraid of running short long before spring come.

He was at his busiest, and tearing a pine cone apart for the nuts he'd find inside, when he hears something a tearing thru the brush and coming his way. Away he went and hightailed it towards his hole, and he'd no more than got there when he gets a glimpse of what looked like a mountain of a horse and running for all he was worth. - A long rope was dragging from his neck. (p. 219-220)

Not until p. 224 we read, "Many months had passed" so we can assume it was not a year and a half. In the scheme of the book it probably doesn't really matter exactly how much time passes - I just thought it was poor form for an award-winning book.

What's more important is the character Smoky shows as a captive. He continues to use the intelligence he showed under Clint's hand but taps into his wild nature and puts up a fight against the outlaws in a way he never fought against Clint. On page 236 we get a wonderful insight into the changes that take place within Smoky:

From that day on Smoky's heart begin to expand towards natural size once more - But it wasn't the same kind of heart that had once been his, - that first one had died, and this one had took root from abuse, growed from rough treatment to full size, and with hankerings in it only for finding and destroying all that wasn't to his linking. And there was nothing to his liking no more.

A few pages later, the last we see of Smoky with his captor they fight and "...he was just the splinter of a second too late, and the six-shooter was buried in the ground as Smoky, like a big cougar, pounced on him." (p. 239) Again we don't know how much time passes but the next chapter begins with posters announcing the bucking horse known as "The Cougar" coming to a town of Gramah. Even as a grown-up it took me a while to be sure that The Cougar was a new name for Smoky. With only 70 pages left in the book it seemed an odd time to introduce a new horse character - but as smart as we've been told that Smoky is, it seems like he would've found his way back home instead of getting captured again. On page 249 the transition is spelled out in this passage:

He wasn't at all the same horse that'd face a cowboy some eight years or so past. He hadn't wanted to fight then, he'd just wanted to get away and be left alone and he'd only fought the rope that held him, and even tho his suspicions of hate of the human had been natural he hadn't seen anything about that cowboy he wanted to disfigure.

He'd done a mighty neat job of bucking in the Rocking R corrals and made Clint pay attention to his riding pretty well; but his bucking then, even tho it was hard, didn't compare much with the bucking of The Cougar. He'd just been bucking thru instinct, it was the natural thing for a brainy range horse to do, and when he bucked it wasn't for meanness but just to see if he couldn't get out from under that rig and man. He'd felt like it didn't belong up there in the middle of him, and he'd only wanted to make sure that it all could stick.

He'd given it all a mighty good test of course, but as compared with the way Smoky had acted with how he was now acting as The Cougar, it would match well with a man playing a peaceful game of solitary and a gambler dealing for his life with some hated enemy.

The new captor subtly surmises that Smoky is a "man killer", like a mountain lion, and that's why he's nicknamed The Cougar. In his new identity Smoky achieves quite a bit of notoriety - so much that you think Clint, wherever he is, will hear of him. Especially because The Cougar's career goes at least five years. After five years as The Cougar, smoky realized he was treated well, not like with his first captor, and he had nothing to feed his hatred so he calmed down a bit. The handlers assumed it was natural aging.

So when Smoky is done as The Cougar he's left behind and turns into a stable horse that tourists ride. He makes a lot of people happy until one day he accidentally didn't get water before he goes out with his regular customer. Something overcomes him and he goes on a long run which gets him overheated. He takes water from a stream but cools too quickly and the illness that ensues he never recovers from. So he's sold, "toe a man who bought old horses and killed 'em for chicken feed." (p. 286)

Actually though he is quickly re-sold and becomes a work horse for a man who does not take very good care of him. The story ends like a good chick-flick, with a near miss and then a long awaited Clint-Smoky reunion and they live out their old age happily ever after.