The Hard and Bloody West



The Ladder of Rivers, by Harry E. Chrisman


One of my grandfather’s brothers married an Olive woman, and in digging into that, I discovered that one in the Olive family had a famed but checkered past. Who, you ask? One Isom Prentice Olive, known in his day as Print Olive – a cattle rancher during the brief, freewheeling days of the Midwest cowboy.

This isn’t a book of fiction. Chrisman has done a stupendous, journalistic job of ferreting out almost everything there is to know about Print and his immediate family, beginning with his father Jim Olive and mother Julia.

Chrisman’s tale speaks of feral Mexican cattle that roamed the Texas and New Mexico plains, and the Olives were among the first to round up as many as 10,000 of these cattle at at time. They made fortunes selling them, largely to those in the east, who had developed a taste for beef.

But there were problems. Herding so many cattle at a time to the various markets made their herds targets of rustlers. The Olives were merciless in dealing with such poachers, and their willingness to shoot rustlers landed Print and his sons in jail on several occasions. Too, the family was handcuffed by the increasing westward migrations of settlers, and they have to constantly mover northward, into what had been Indian territory in order to have the free hand in ranching they felt they deserved.

Chrisman is clearly a fan of the Olives, and the sense I get from his story is of one who tells the family’s facts, but who tends to whitewash them as he writes. Clearly, the Olives were controversial characters – they worked hard, were generous to their own, but they avenged even the smallest slights, and hunted down the perpetrators of any theft of what they saw as their property by rights.

The prose here is awkward, unpolished for the most part, but there’s one thing Chrisman does to make his story come alive within his thin writing skills: he imagines dialogues between the characters. Thus a difficult  read becomes  quite a charmer. Too, the author turned up many photos in his research, and a trove of these are included with the text. He even includes a roughly drawn map of the ranching territories.


My rating 15 of 20 stars


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