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Journey to the dusty little Texas town of Lonesome Dove and meet an unforgettable assortment of heroes and outlaws, whores and ladies, Indians and settlers. Richly authentic, beautifully written, always dramatic, Lonesome Dove is a book to make us laugh, weep, dream, and remember.
For Maureen Orth,
In memory of
the nine McMurtry boys
“Once in the saddle they
Used to go dashing . . .”
Fictions—in my case, novels only, to the tune of about thirty—starts in tactile motion; pecking out a few sentences on a typewriter; sentences that might encourage me and perhaps a few potential readers to press on.
In 1975, at home in my house in Texas, I peated out this:
WHEN AUGUSTUS CAME OUT ON THE PORCH THE BLUE PIGS WERE EATING A RATTLESNAKE—NOT A VERY BIG ONE.
Once the blue pigs and the remnants of the rattlesnake had been sashed away I devote a few sentences to Augustus’s partner, Captain Woodrow Call, who is in a nearby corral, trying to break an unruly young mare called the Hell Bitch, who catches him slightly off guard and takes a bite out of his shoulder.
Captain Call, a Stoic, says nothing about this mishap but Augustus, an Epicurean, makes several comments, none of them welcomed by Captain Call. Thus, casually, begins Lonesome Dove, by far my most popular novel, and one that allows me to join the small company of “respectable” writers whose fiction deals with the American West: Cormac McCarthy, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Tom Lee and a handful of others, below whom comes the vast desert of the pulpers, the sons and daughters of Max Brand (Frederick Faust), Louis L’Amour and many hundreds of others.
But I was not considering literary ranking or even literary merit when I wrote that first sentence about Augustus McCrae, the blue pigs and the quickly consumed snake. I was just doodling at the typewriter, hoping to find a subject or a character that might hold my interest.
For quite a few years, there was, however, no sign of the Lonesome Dove. Two other books shoved ahead of it (Cadillac Jack and The Desert Rose) and my impulse to write about these two ex–Texas Rangers was feeble at first. I didn’t even have a title, until, by a miracle, I got one. There was an old church bus sitting in seeming abandonment beside a Texas road I was driving along. The sign on the bus said LONESOME DOVE BAPTIST CHURCH. I knew, at once, that I had had a piece of luck; I drove straight home and wrote the novel. A good title can save a book, and the sign on the old fading bus saved mine; tragic though it is it has added some happiness to the world.
In the novel, Lonesome Dove is the small town in the Texas brush country from which Gus and Call, both ex-Rangers, and their crew, the Hat Creek Outfit, set out on their epic cattle drive to then sparsely inhabited Montana.
But, if one cuts more deeply, the lonesome dove is Newt, a lonely teenager who is the unacknowledged son of Captain Call and a kindly whore named Maggie, who is now dead. So the central theme of the novel is not the stocking of Montana but unacknowledged paternity. All of the Hat Creek Outfit, including particularly Augustus McCrae, want Call to accept the boy as his son.
Indeed, as I wrote on through a rather long book, I myself expected Woodrow Call to do the decent thing. I thought he would finally admit or acknowledge that Newt was his son. I kept expecting the redeeming scene to rise out of my typewriter some day.
But it never did! The closest Call would bring himself to making the admission was to give the boy his horse, the famous Hell Bitch.
And, in a later episode, the horse kills the boy, putting Newt beyond acknowledgement and making Lonesome Dove the tragic story it is.
Many moviegoers who know horses were bothered by the fact that the Hell Bitch was in fact a gelding in the film. I taxed the director, Simon Wincer—himself a horseman—about this and he said the wranglers wouldn’t allow a mare in their remuda.
And the blue pigs walked all the way to Montana just to be eaten. Life ain’t for sissies, as Augustus might have said.
—Larry McMurtry, 2010
WHEN AUGUSTUS CAME OUT on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.
“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough. He stepped down into the dusty yard and walked around to the springhouse to get his jug. The sun was still high, sulled in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for sun, and to his eye the long light from the west had taken on an encouraging slant.
Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day—and most of the months of the year—the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices—if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices—of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.
His stubborn partner, Captain W. F. Call, maintained that there was excellent shade as close as Pickles Gap, only twelve miles away, but Augustus wouldn’t allow it. Pickles Gap was if anything a more worthless community than Lonesome Dove. It had only sprung up because a fool from north Georgia named Wesley Pickles had gotten himself and his family lost in the mesquites for about ten days. When he finally found a clearing, he wouldn’t leave it, and Pickles Gap came into being, mainly attracting travelers like its founder, which is to say people too weak-willed to be able to negotiate a few hundred miles of mesquite thicket without losing their nerve.
The springhouse was a little lumpy adobe building, so cool on the inside that Augustus would have been tempted to live in it had it not been for its popularity with black widows, yellow jackets and centipedes. When he opened the door he didn’t immediately see any centipedes but he did immediately hear the nervous buzz of a rattlesnake that was evidently smarter than the one the pigs were eating. Augustus could just make out the snake, coiled in a corner, but decided not to shoot it; on a quiet spring evening in Lonesome Dove, a shot could cause complications. Everybody in town would hear it and conclude either that the Comanches were down from the plains or the Mexicans up from the river. If any of the customers of the Dry Bean, the town’s one saloon, happened to be drunk or unhappy—which was very likely—they would probably run out into the street and shoot a Mexican or two, just to be on the safe side.
At the very least, Call would come stomping up from the lots, only to be annoyed to discover it had just been a snake. Call had no respect whatsoever for snakes, or for anyone who stood aside for snakes. He treated rattlers like gnats, disposing of them with one stroke of whatever tool he had in hand. “A man that slows down for snakes might as well walk,” he often said, a statement that made about as much sense to an educated man as most of the things Call said.
Augustus held to a more leisurely philosophy. He believed in giving creatures a little time to think, so he stood in the sun a few minutes until the rattler calmed down and crawled out a hole. Then he reached in and lifted his jug out of the mud. It had been a dry year, even by the standards of Lonesome Dove, and the spring was just springing enough to make a nice mud puddle. The pigs spent half their time rooting around the springhouse, hoping to get into the mud, but so far none of the holes in the adobe was big enough to admit a pig.
The damp burlap the jug was wrapped in naturally appealed to the centipedes, so Augustus made sure none had sneaked under the wrapping before he uncorked the jug and took a modest swig. The one white barber in Lonesome Dove, a fellow Tennessean named Dillard Brawley, had to do his barbering on one leg because he had not been cautious enough about centipedes. Two of the vicious red-legged variety had crawled into his pants one night and Dillard had got up in a hurry and had neglected to shake out the pants. The leg hadn’t totally rotted off, but it had rotted sufficiently that the family got nervous about blood poisoning and persuaded he and Call to saw it off.
For a year or two Lonesome Dove had had a real doctor, but the young man had lacked good sense. A vaquero with a loose manner that everybody was getting ready to hang at the first excuse anyway passed out from drink one night and let a blister bug crawl in his ear. The bug couldn’t find its way out, but it could move around enough to upset the vaquero, who persuaded the young doctor to try and flush it. The young man was doing his best with some warm salt water, but the vaquero lost his temper and shot him. It was a fatal mistake on the vaquero’s part: someone blasted his horse out from under him as he was racing away, and the incensed citizenry, most of whom were nearby at the Dry Bean, passing the time, hung him immediately.
Unfortunately no medical man had taken an interest in the town since, and Augustus and Call, both of whom had coped with their share of wounds, got called on to do such surgery as was deemed essential. Dillard Brawley’s leg had presented no problem, except that Dillard screeched so loudly that he injured his vocal cords. He got around good on one leg, but the vocal cords had never fully recovered, which ultimately hurt his business. Dillard had always talked too much, but after the trouble with the centipedes, what he did was whisper too much. Customers couldn’t relax under their hot towels for trying to make out Dillard’s whispers. He hadn’t really been worth listening to, even when he had two legs, and in time many of his customers drifted off to the Mexican barber. Call even used the Mexican, and Call didn’t trust Mexicans or barbers.
Augustus took the jug back to the porch and placed his rope-bottomed chair so as to utilize the smidgin of shade he had to work with. As the sun sank, the shade would gradually extend itself across the porch, the wagon yard, Hat Creek, Lonesome Dove and, eventually, the Rio Grande. By the time the shade had reached the river, Augustus would have mellowed with the evening and be ready for some intelligent conversation, which usually involved talking to himself. Call would work until slap dark if he could find anything to do, and if he couldn’t find anything he would make up something—and Pea Eye was too much of a corporal to quit before the Captain quit, even if Call would have let him.
The two pigs had quietly disregarded Augustus’s orders to go to the creek, and were under one of the wagons, eating the snake. That made good sense, for the creek was just as dry as the wagon yard, and farther off. Fifty weeks out of the year Hat Creek was nothing but a sandy ditch, and the fact that the two pigs didn’t regard it as a fit wallow was a credit to their intelligence. Augustus often praised the pigs’ intelligence in a running argument he had been having with Call for the last few years. Augustus maintained that pigs were smarter than all horses and most people, a claim that galled Call severely.
“No slop-eating pig is as smart as a horse,” Call said, before going on to say worse things.
As was his custom, Augustus drank a fair amount of whiskey as he sat and watched the sun ease out of the day. If he wasn’t tilting the rope-bottomed chair, he was tilting the jug. The days in Lonesome Dove were a blur of heat and as dry as chalk, but mash whiskey took some of the dry away and made Augustus feel nicely misty inside—foggy and cool as a morning in the Tennessee hills. He seldom got downright drunk, but he did enjoy feeling misty along about sundown, keeping his mood good with tasteful swigs as the sky to the west began to color up. The whiskey didn’t damage his intellectual powers any, but it did make him more tolerant of the raw sorts he had to live with: Call and Pea Eye and Deets, young Newt, and old Bolivar, the cook.
When the sky had pinked up nicely over the western flats, Augustus went around to the back of the house and kicked the kitchen door a time or two. “Better warm up the sowbelly and mash a few beans,” he said. Old Bolivar didn’t answer, so Augustus kicked the door once or twice more, to emphasize his point, and went back to the porch. The blue shoat was waiting for him at the corner of the house, quiet as a cat. It was probably hoping he would drop something—a belt or a pocketknife or a hat—so he could eat it.
“Git from here, shoat,” Augustus said. “If you’re that hungry go hunt up another snake.” It occurred to him that a leather belt couldn’t be much tougher or less palatable than the fried goat Bolivar served up three or four times a week. The old man had been a competent Mexican bandit before he ran out of steam and crossed the river. Since then he had led a quiet life, but it was a fact that goat kept turning up on the table. The Hat Creek Cattle Company didn’t trade in them, and it was unlikely that Bolivar was buying them out of his own pocket—stealing goats was probably his way of keeping up his old skills. His old skills did not include cooking. The goat meat tasted like it had been fried in tar, but Augustus was the only member of the establishment sensitive enough to raise a complaint. “Bol, where’d you get the tar you fried this goat in?” he asked regularly, his quiet attempt at wit falling as usual on deaf ears. Bolivar ignored all queries, direct or indirect.
Augustus was getting about ready to start talking to the sow and the shoat when he saw Call and Pea Eye walking up from the lots. Pea Eye was tall and lank, had never been full in his life, and looked so awkward that he appeared to be about to fall down even when he was standing still. He looked totally helpless, but that was another case of looks deceiving. In fact, he was one of the ablest men Augustus had ever known. He had never been an outstanding Indian fighter, but if you gave him something he could work at deliberately, like carpentering or blacksmithing, or well-digging or harness repair, Pea was excellent. If he had been a man to do sloppy work, Call would have run him off long before.
Augustus walked down and met the men at the wagons. “It’s a little early for you two to be quittin’, ain’t it, girls?” he said. “Or is this Christmas or what?”
Both men had sweated their shirts through so many times during the day that they were practically black. Augustus offered Call the jug, and Call put a foot on a wagon tongue and took a swig just to rinse the dry out of his mouth. He spat a mouthful of perfectly good whiskey in the dust and handed the jug to Pea Eye.
“Girls yourself,” he said. “It ain’t Christmas.” Then he went on to the house, so abruptly that Augustus was a little taken aback. Call had never been one for fine manners, but if the day’s work had gone to his satisfaction he would usually stand and pass the time a minute.
The funny thing about Woodrow Call was how hard he was to keep in scale. He wasn’t a big man—in fact, was barely middle-sized—but when you walked up and looked him in the eye it didn’t seem that way. Augustus was four inches taller than his partner, and Pea Eye three inches taller yet, but there was no way you could have convinced Pea Eye that Captain Call was the short man. Call had him buffaloed, and in that respect Pea had plenty of company. If a man meant to hold his own with Call it was necessary to keep in mind that Call wasn’t as big as he seemed. Augustus was the one man in south Texas who could usually keep him in scale, and he built on his advantage whenever he could. He started many a day by pitching Call a hot biscuit and remarking point-blank, “You know, Call, you ain’t really no giant.”
A simple heart like Pea could never understand such behavior. It gave Augustus a laugh sometimes to consider that Call could hoodwink a man nearly twice his size, getting Pea to confuse the inner with the outer man. But of course Call himself had such a single-track mind that he scarcely realized he was doing it. He just did it. What made it a fascinating trick was that Call had never noticed that he had a trick. The man never wasted five minutes appreciating himself; it would have meant losing five minutes off whatever job he had decided he wanted to get done that day.
“It’s a good thing I ain’t scairt to be lazy,” Augustus told him once.
“You may think so. I don’t,” Call said.
“Hell, Call, if I worked as hard as you, there’d be no thinking done at all around this outfit. You stay in a lather fifteen hours a day. A man that’s always in a lather can’t think nothin’ out.”
“I’d like to see you think the roof back on that barn,” Call said.
A strange little wind had whipped over from Mexico and blown the roof off clean as a whistle, three years before. Fortunately it only rained in Lonesome Dove once or twice a year, so the loss of the roof didn’t result in much suffering for the stock, when there was stock. It mostly meant suffering for Call, who had never been able to locate enough decent lumber to build a new roof. Unfortunately a rare downpour had occurred only about a week after the wind dropped the old roof in the middle of Hat Creek. It had been a real turd-floater, and also a lumber-floater, washing much of the roof straight into the Rio Grande.
“If you think so much, why didn’t you think of that rain?” Call asked. Ever since, he had been throwing the turd-floater up to Augustus. Give Call a grievance, however silly, and he would save it like money.
Pea Eye wasn’t spitting out any mash whiskey. He had a skinny neck—his Adam’s apple bulged so when he drank that it reminded Augustus of a snake with a frog stuck in its gullet.
“Call looks mad enough to kick the stump,” Augustus said, when Pea finally stopped to breathe.
“She bit a hunk out of him, that’s why,” Pea said. “I don’t know why the Captain wants to keep her.”
“Fillies are his only form of folly,” Augustus said. “What’s he doing letting a horse bite him? I thought you boys were digging the new well?”
“Hit rock,” Pea said. “Ain’t room for but one man to swing a pick down in that hole, so Newt swung it while I shod horses. The Captain took a ride. I guess he thought he had her sweated down. He turned his back on her and she bit a hunk out.”
The mare in question was known around town as the Hell Bitch. Call had bought her in Mexico, from some caballeros who claimed to have killed an Indian to get her—a Comanche, they said. Augustus doubted that part of the story: it was unlikely one Comanche had been riding around by himself in that part of Mexico, and if there had been two Comanches the caballeros wouldn’t have lived to do any horse trading. The mare was a dapple gray, with a white muzzle and a white streak down her forehead, too tall to be pure Indian pony and too short-barreled to be pure thoroughbred. Her disposition did suggest some time spent with Indians, but which Indians and how long was anybody’s guess. Every man who saw her wanted to buy her, she was that stylish, but Call wouldn’t even listen to an offer, though Pea Eye and Newt were both anxious to see her sold. They had to work around her every day and suffered accordingly. She had once kicked Newt all the way into the blacksmith’s shop and nearly into the forge. Pea Eye was at least as scared of her as he was of Comanches, which was saying a lot.
“What’s keeping Newt?” Augustus asked.
“He may have went to sleep down in that well,” Pea Eye said.
Then Augustus saw the boy walking up from the lots, so tired he was barely moving. Pea Eye was half drunk by the time Newt finally made the wagons.
“ ’I god, Newt, I’m glad you got here before fall,” Augustus said. “We’d have missed you during the summer.”
“I been throwin’ rocks at the mare,” Newt said, with a grin. “Did you see what a hunk she bit out of the Captain?”
Newt lifted one foot and carefully scraped the mud from the well off the sole of his boot, while Pea Eye continued to wash the dust out of his throat.
Augustus had always admired the way Newt could stand on one leg while cleaning the other boot. “Look at that, Pea,” he said. “I bet you can’t do that.”
Pea Eye was so used to seeing Newt stand on one leg to clean his boot that he couldn’t figure out what it was Gus thought he couldn’t do. A few big swigs of liquor sometimes slowed his thinking down to a crawl. This usually happened at sundown, after a hard day of well-digging or horseshoeing; at such times Pea was doubly glad he worked with the Captain, rather than Gus. The less talk the Captain had to listen to, the better humor he was in, whereas Gus was just the opposite. He’d rattle off five or six different questions and opinions, running them all together like so many unbranded cattle—it made it hard to pick out one and think about it carefully and slowly, the only ways Pea Eye liked to think. At such times his only recourse was to pretend the questions had hit him in his deaf ear, the left one, which hadn’t really worked well since the day of their big fight with the Keechis—what they called the Stone House fight. It had been pure confusion, since the Indians had been smart enough to fire the prairie grass, smoking things up so badly that no one could see six feet ahead. They kept bumping into Indians in the smoke and having to shoot point-blank; a Ranger right next to Pea had spotted one and fired too close to Pea’s ear.
That was the day the Indians got away with their horses, which made Captain Call about as mad as Pea had ever seen him. It meant they had to walk down the Brazos for nearly two hundred miles, worrying constantly about what would happen if the Comanches discovered they were afoot. Pea Eye hadn’t noticed he was half deaf until they had walked most of the way out.
Fortunately, while he was worrying the question of what it was he couldn’t do, old Bolivar began to whack the dinner bell, which put an end to discussion. The old dinner bell had lost its clapper, but Bolivar had found a crowbar that somebody had managed to break, and he laid into the bell so hard that you couldn’t have heard the clapper if there had been one.
The sun had finally set, and it was so still along the river that they could hear the horses swishing their tails, down in the lots—or they could until Bolivar laid into the bell. Although he probably knew they were standing around the wagons, in easy hearing distance, Bolivar continued to pound the bell for a good five minutes. Bolivar pounded the bell for reasons of his own; even Call couldn’t control him in that regard. The sound drowned out the quiet of sunset, which annoyed Augustus so much that at times he was tempted to go up and shoot the old man, just to teach him a lesson.
“I figure he’s calling bandits,” Augustus said, when the ringing finally stopped. They started for the house, and the pigs fell in with them, the shoat eating a lizard he had caught somewhere. The pigs liked Newt even better than Augustus—when he didn’t have anything better to do he would feed them scraps of rawhide and scratch their ears.
“If them bandits were to come, maybe the Captain would let me start wearing a gun,” Newt said wistfully. It seemed he would never get old enough to wear a gun, though he was well into his teens.
“If you was to wear a gun somebody would just mistake you for a gunfighter and shoot you,” Augustus said, noting the boy’s wistful look. “It ain’t worth it. If Bol ever calls up any bandits I’ll lend you my Henry.”
“That old man can barely cook,” Pea Eye remarked. “Where would he get any bandits?”
“Why, you remember that greasy bunch he had,” Augustus said. “We used to buy horses from ’em. That’s the only reason Call hired him to cook. In the business we’re in, it don’t hurt to know a few horsethieves, as long as they’re Mexicans. I figure Bol’s just biding his time. As soon as he gains our trust his bunch will sneak up some night and murder us all.”
He didn’t believe anything of the kind—he just liked to stimulate the boy once in a while, and Pea too, though Pea was an exceptionally hard man to stimulate, being insensitive to most fears. Pea had just sense enough to fear Comanches—that didn’t require an abundance of sense. Mexican bandits did not impress him.
Newt had more imagination. He turned and looked across the river, where a big darkness was about to settle. Every now and then, about sundown, the Captain and Augustus and Pea and Deets would strap on guns and ride off into that darkness, into Mexico, to return about sunup with thirty or forty horses or perhaps a hundred skinny cattle. It was the way the stock business seemed to work along the border, the Mexican ranchers raiding north while the Texans raided south. Some of the skinny cattle spent their lives being chased back and forth across the Rio Grande. Newt’s fondest hope was to get old enough to be taken along on the raids. Many a night he lay in his hot little bunk, listening to old Bolivar snore and mumble below him, peering out the window toward Mexico, imagining the wild doings that must be going on. Once in a while he even heard gunfire, though seldom more than a shot or two, from up or down the river—it got his imagination to working all the harder.
“You can go when you’re grown,” the Captain said, and that was all he said. There was no arguing with it, either—not if you were just hired help. Arguing with the Captain was a privilege reserved for Mr. Gus.
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 864 pages
- Hachette Book Group