Boone's Lick

Boone's Lick

3.4 23
by Larry McMurtry

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Boone's Lick is a major novel in the rich tradition of Lonesome Dove and Comanche Moon about the opening up of the American West, by its most distinguished fiction writer. It is the story of a trek, by riverboat and wagon, from Boone's Lick, Missouri to Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming. The trekkers are the Cecil Family: Ma (Mary Margaret); Rosie (half-sister);


Boone's Lick is a major novel in the rich tradition of Lonesome Dove and Comanche Moon about the opening up of the American West, by its most distinguished fiction writer. It is the story of a trek, by riverboat and wagon, from Boone's Lick, Missouri to Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming. The trekkers are the Cecil Family: Ma (Mary Margaret); Rosie (half-sister); Seth (brother of Ma's husband Dick); Shay, G.T., and Neva (teenagers); and baby Marcy and Granpa Crackenthorpe, accompanied most of the way by a priest (Father Villy) and a Snake Indian (Charlie Seven Days).

The object of the trek is to find Dick Cecil, a wagoner and freight hauler; and the reason his wife Mary Margaret wants to find him is to inform him that she's leaving him. In fact, she's leaving him for Seth, his brother, who has been her mainstay all along. After many adventures, Mary Margaret does find Dick and does tell him off, at Fort Phil Kearney - on what turns out to be the eve of the Fetterman Massacre (December 21, 1886), which provides the climax of one of Larry McMurtry's richest and most satisfying novels.

Editorial Reviews
Larry McMurtry returns to the settings and themes of his most beloved classics -- Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo, and Comanche Moon -- with Boone's Lick, a novel of the 19th-century American West inspired by the real story of the Cecil clan. As Mary Margaret Cecil undertakes to find her wandering husband, making her way from Boone's Lick, Missouri, to Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming, with her family in tow, the struggle between white settlers and Native Americans enters its decisive phase, and the Cecils find that their history -- and their fate -- is inextricably linked to that of the Indians.
In contrast to the epic sweep of the Lonesome Dove cycle, McMurtry's return to the dusty trails of the Old West is more of an elegy—compact in construction, graceful in tone, with a simplicity of expression that belies its thematic depth. Narrating the novel is fifteen-year-old Sherman "Shay" Cecil, the oldest son of a strong-willed mother and a father who has all but abandoned the family. Impoverished in Boone's Lick, Missouri, they embark on a pilgrimage to find the father, knowing that he isn't likely to welcome the reunion. Though the story initially recycles some cliches (in addition to a gratuitous appearance by Wild Bill Hickok there's the inevitable inclusion of a whore with a heart of gold), it finds its footing as it heads for the frontier. Along the way, Shay discovers essential truths about love, fate and chance, and the unexpected ways things fit together. The more he learns about his mother and his relatives, the better he understands himself. As Shay explains, "It was such unfamiliar territory that I could not even be sure I knew the difference between a big thing and a little thing..." As McMurtry recognizes, the little things are where the big things reveal themselves.
—Don McLeese
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Putting to rest the notion that with Duane's Depressed he had written his last novel, Pulitzer Prize-winner McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) launches a new series with this whimsical adventure set between Missouri and the wilderness of Wyoming. The Cecils--Mary Margaret; her brother-in-law, Seth; four children; half-sister Rosie; and Granpa Crackenthorpe--are weary of waiting 14 months for Mary's husband, Dick, to return from his work as a wagoner in Wyoming while they starve in Civil War-ravaged Missouri. The family decide to travel up the Platte River to find the wayward Dick. Outspoken Mary Margaret, a sturdy matriarch, has a less-obvious--and surprisingly romantic--motivation for embarking on the journey. Seth, a veteran of the Union army and experienced frontiersman, provides a typical McMurtry male foil to a strong female lead, expressing both rustic wisdom and bewilderment. After a brief and violent adventure with the remains of a bushwhacking gang (and an encounter with Wild Bill Hickok), the family members combat harsh winter weather and fear of Indians as they trek upriver to locate Dick. Narrated by teenage Shay, the novel is reminiscent of McMurtry's lighter fiction (Somebody's Darling; Cadillac Jack; The Late Child). Shay's guileless tone and McMurtry's patented stylistic use of humorous understatement, non sequitur, misunderstanding and misdirection deflect graphic violence, intolerable hardship and even the death of major characters. More an amusing fable of family strife than a serious story with memorable characters, this piece does not approach the substance or quality of McMurtry's better works, but his ardent fans will undoubtedly appreciate the warmth, compassion and humor that the narrative exudes. Agent, Andrew Wylie. 300,000 first printing; BOMC, Doubleday Book Club and Literary Guild alternates. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Mary Margaret Cecil has lived in Boone's Lick, MO, for more than 15 years, with her children, her elderly father, and her brother-in-law, Seth. Periodically, her wayward husband, a freight hauler on the Bozeman Trail, visits just long enough to leave her pregnant and remorseful. Discontent with her lot, Mary Margaret marshals her family and sets off up the Missouri River by flatboat and across the plains to Wyoming in search of her husband to tell him that she is "quitting him." A wonderful road story in the tradition of McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, although not nearly so prodigious, Boone's Lick has all the adventure of a classic Western--losing Grandpa to the river during a violent storm, racing against the onset of winter, burying the remains of Indian massacres--always pushing forward toward Wyoming. In December 1866, the family finally finds the errant Dick Cecil at Fort Phil Kearny, only to witness the historic Fetterman Massacre three days later. McMurtry's historical novel, told with humor and candor from the perspective of Mary Margaret's oldest son, Shay, is highly recommended for adults and adolescents alike.--Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Karen Karbo
Boone's Lick, which is the first novel in a new series, will inevitably be compared to Lonesome Dove, arguably McMurty's masterpiece. There's no question that while this first installment lacks the epic grandeur and depth of its predecessor, it nevertheless has the makings of a provocative work. Boone's Lick seems to be saying that amid the wars, bar fights and horse wrangling, romance can still manage to flourish. If anyone can tease out this truth for us, Larry McMurty is the one...McMurtry is a master at celebrating the scruffy glory that was the American West even as he's poking fun at it. . . .
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
McMurtry returns to the Old West he knows so well and loves so deeply for this first in a series.

From the Publisher
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Probably his best "western" since Lonesome Dove.

Chicago Tribune A fun saga....Classic McMurtry: A down-home adventure with fictional characters mingling with istorical figures.

The New York Times Book Review This is McMurtry at his best.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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4.86(w) x 8.34(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Uncle Seth was firmly convinced that bad things mostly happen on cloudy days.

"A thunderhead or two don't hurt, but too much cloudy weather makes people restless and mean, females particularly," he remarked, as we were walking down to the Missouri River.

"They don't make Ma mean, she's mean anyway," G.T. said -- he had acquired the habit of contradiction, as Uncle Seth liked to put it. G.T. could usually be counted on to do the unexpected: only yesterday he jumped up and stabbed Granpa Crackenthorpe in the leg with a pocketknife, probably because he got tired of hearing Granpa complain about the food. The knife didn't go in very far, but even so, Granpa's pallet looked as if a shoat had been butchered on it. G.T. ran away and hid in the thicket, but Ma gave him a good thrashing anyway, when he finally came in. Quick tempered as he was, G.T. was still scared of the dark.

"It's best to walk small around Mary Margaret," Uncle Seth allowed. "You just need to walk a little smaller on cloudy days."

The three of us had strolled down to the river in hopes that we could catch or trap or shoot something Ma could cook -- something with a good taste to it, if possible. We had been living on old dry mush for about three weeks, which is why Granpa complained. I had a fishing pole, G.T. had a wire-mesh crawdad trap, and Uncle Seth had his Sharps rifle, which he kept in an oilcloth sheath, never allowing a drop of rain to touch it. He had been a Union sharpshooter in the war between the states and could regularly pop a turtle in the head at seventy-five yards, a skill but not a useful skill, because the turtles he popped always sank. If anybody got to eat them, it was only other turtles.

The clouds hung low and heavy over the big muddy river that day; they were as dull colored as felt. It was just the kind of weather most likely to cause Uncle Seth to dwell on calamities he had experienced in the past.

"It was nearly this cloudy that day in Richmond when I tripped over that goddamn wagon tongue and shot off half my kneecap," he reminded us. "If the sun had been shining I would have been alert enough to step over that wagon tongue. It was the day after the war ended. I had no need of a rifle, but that gloomy weather made me fearful. I got it in my head that there might be a Reb or two in the neighborhood -- a Reb who hadn't heard the good news."

"If the war had just been over one day, then there might have been," I said. It seemed reasonable to me.

"Son, there wasn't a Reb within thirty-five miles of us that day," Uncle Seth said. "I could have left my rifle in the tent, but I didn't, and the upshot of it is that I'll be gimpy for the rest of my life."

G.T. had just eased his crawdad trap into the water, near the muddy shore.

"If you'd shut up I might catch some crawdads," he said.

"Why, crawdads can't hear," Uncle Seth said. "You sass your elders too much, G.T. A boy that starts off sassing his elders is apt to end up on the wrong end of a hang rope -- at best you can look forward to a long stretch in the territorial prison."

He was a tall, fidgety man, Uncle Seth. No part of him was ever really still -- not unless he was dead drunk, a not unusual condition for him. Pa said there was a time when Seth Cecil could walk faster and keep walking longer than any man on the plains; of course, that was before the accident, when Pa and Uncle Seth were partners in the freighting business, hauling goods from the Missouri River to the forts up in the north. Even now, with half a kneecap, Uncle Seth wasn't what you'd call slow. He could still manage a pretty long stride, if he had some reason to be in a hurry -- it irked him that Pa, who was his younger brother, made him a stay-at-home partner, rather than letting him go upriver with the freight. I think it irked him so much that he and Pa might have come to blows, if Ma hadn't made it plain that she would only tolerate so much, when it came to family quarrels.

"I can still drive a wagon, you know, Dickie," Uncle Seth pointed out, the last time Pa was home. "Hauling freight ain't that complicated."

"I know you can manage a wagon, but could you outrun a Blackfoot Indian, if it came to a footrace?" Pa asked. "I doubt you could even outrun a Potawatomi, if it was a long footrace."

"Why would I need to outrun a Potawatomi, or a Blackfoot either?" Uncle Seth asked. "I admit I'd be in trouble if a bunch of them closed in on me, but then, so would you."

G.T. didn't really have the patience to be a good crawdad fisherman. Ten minutes was all he gave it before pulling his trap out. It held one crawdad -- not a very large one.

"One crawdad won't go far," he said. "I expect there are a million crawdads in the Missouri River, and here I ain't caught but one."

"They ain't in the river, they're in that slimy mud," Uncle Seth pointed out -- it was just then that we heard a gunshot from the direction of the house.

"That was a rifle shot," Uncle Seth said. "I expect Mary Margaret finally drew a bead on that big bobcat that's been snatching her chickens."

"You're wrong again," G.T. said, pointing toward the house. "Sis wouldn't be running that fast if it was just a bobcat."

G.T. didn't exaggerate about Neva's speed. She was fairly flying down the trail. Neva was only fourteen but she had been long legged enough to outrun anybody in the family -- even Pa -- for the last two or three years. When our smokehouse caught on fire Neva ran all the way into Boone's Lick before any of us could even find a bucket, and was soon back with a passel of drunks willing to try and put the fire out. Fortunately, it wasn't much of a fire -- all we lost was an old churn somebody had left in the smokehouse.

Still, everybody who saw Neva go flying down the road that day talked about her run for years -- some even wanted to take her to St. Louis and enter her in a footrace, but that plan fell through.

"Who do they think they're going to find in St. Louis who wants to run a footrace with a little girl from Boone's Lick?" Uncle Seth asked at the time, a question that stumped the town.

This time Neva arrived at the river so out of breath that she had to gulp in air for a while before she could talk.

"She's outrun her own voice," G.T. said. He was slow of foot himself, and very impressed by Neva's speed.

"Easy girl, easy girl," Uncle Seth said, as if he was talking to a nervous filly.

"It's a big bunch of thieves!" Neva gasped, finally. "They're stealing our mules -- ever one of our mules."

"Why, the damned ruffians!" Uncle Seth said. A red vein popped out along the top of his nose -- that red vein nearly always popped out when he got anxious or mad.

"We heard a shot," he said. "I hope nobody ain't shot your Ma." He said it in a worried voice, too. Despite what he said about women and clouds, we all knew that Uncle Seth was mighty partial to Ma.

"No, it was Ma that shot," Neva said. "She killed a horse."

"Oh -- good," he said. "The world can spare a horse, but none of us can spare your mother."

"Gimme your rifle, I'll go kill them all," G.T. said, but when he tried to grab the Sharps, Uncle Seth snatched it back.

He looked downriver for a moment. Boone's Lick was only half a mile away. He seemed to be trying to decide who to send for help, Neva or me. G.T. had already started for the house, with his crawdad trap and his one crawdad. G.T. wasn't about to give up his one crawdad.

"Honey, when you catch your breath maybe you ought to run on down to Boone's Lick and bring Sheriff Stone back with you," Uncle Seth said. "It's the sheriff's job to deal with horse theft, and mule theft too."

"I don't need to bring the sheriff, because he's already there," Neva said. "It was the sheriff's horse Ma shot."

"Uh-oh. Where was Sheriff Stone at the time?" Uncle Seth asked.

"Sitting on his horse," Neva said, in a tone that suggested she considered it a pretty stupid question. "It fell over when Ma shot it and nearly mashed his leg."

Uncle Seth absorbed this information calmly. If he was surprised, he didn't show it.

"Oh, I see, honey," he said. "It's Baldy Stone that's stealing our mules. I guess that's just the kind of law you have to expect in Missouri. Let's go wade into them, Shay."

I was surprised that Ma had shot the sheriff's horse, but my opinion wasn't asked.

"Do you still want me to go to Boone's Lick?" Neva asked, as Uncle Seth and I started for the house.

"Why, no, honey -- no reason to run your legs off," Uncle Seth said. "The law's already at the freight yard -- who would you get if you were to go to Boone's Lick?"

"Wild Bill Hickok," Neva said -- it was clear she had already thought the matter out.

"He's usually in the saloon," she added. I saw right then, from the look on her face, that she intended to go see Wild Bill, whatever Uncle Seth advised. Neva might be young, but she had Ma's determination, and there were not many people, young or old, male or female, with more determination than Ma.

"I'm impressed by your steady thinking, honey," Uncle Seth said. "Bill could be a big help, if he was in the mood to be, but this cloudy weather might have put him off."

"You're the only one that minds clouds," Neva said. She had got her wind back and looked ready for a tussle.

"If there weren't no clouds it would never rain, and if it didn't rain nothing would grow, and if nothing grew, then the animals would all starve, and then we'd starve," Neva said, giving Uncle Seth one of her cool looks.

Uncle Seth didn't say anything. He saw that Neva had backed him into a pretty tight corner, where cloudy weather was concerned. G.T. was already halfway to the house, too.

"A pistolero like Bill Hickok is likely to have his moods, whatever the weather," he said. "I try not to interfere with Bill and he tries not to interfere with me. I think we better just go home and see why Baldy Stone thinks he has the right to requisition our mules."

Neva immediately started trotting down the riverbank toward Boone's Lick. I wasn't surprised, and neither was Uncle Seth.

"There's no shortage of hardheaded women in the Cecil family," he said, mildly. "If you hit one of them in the head with a rock it would break the rock."

Our cabin wasn't far from the river. Pa and Uncle Seth had been raised on the Mississippi River, in the Ioway country; both of them lived by rivers until their hauling business forced them out onto the plains from time to time. Despite his gimpy knee Uncle Seth was only a step behind me when we came around the chicken yard. There was no sign of Ma, and no sign of our mules, either, but there was plenty of sign of Sheriff Baldy Stone, a short man who had grown very round in the course of his life.

Sheriff Baldy was trying to unsaddle his dead horse, a large roan animal who had fallen about twenty steps from our cabin door. It was a big horse. The sheriff had the girth unbuckled but when he tried to pull the cinch out from under the horse it wouldn't budge.

G.T., who had beat us home by a good margin, was standing nearby, but he didn't offer to help. After tugging at the cinch several times without having any effect, Sheriff Baldy abruptly gave up and sat down on the corpse of his horse to take a breather. He was almost as out of breath as Neva had been when she showed up down by the river.

After resting for a minute, the sheriff looked up at Uncle Seth and gave a little wave -- or it may have been a salute. The sheriff had only been a corporal in the war, whereas Uncle Seth had been a captain.

"Well, Seth, she shot my horse and here I sit," Sheriff Baldy said. "Do you realize I courted Mary Margaret once, when things were different?"

"I've heard that rumor -- I expect she still has a sweet spot for you, Baldy," Uncle Seth said.

"A sweet spot? I don't think so," the sheriff said.

"It would explain why she shot the horse and not you," Uncle Seth pointed out.

The remark struck G.T. as funny. He began to cackle, which drew a frown from the sheriff. Just then Ma came out the door, with the baby in her arms. The baby, a girl named Marcy, was cooing and blowing little spit bubbles. Ma handed her right over to Uncle Seth, at which point Marcy began to coo even louder. Pa was so busy upriver that he hadn't even been home to see the baby yet -- for all little Marcy knew, Uncle Seth was her pa, if she even knew what a pa was, at that age.

"Now, Mary Margaret," Uncle Seth said, "you oughtn't to have handed me this child. There might be gunplay to come, depending on how mad Baldy is and what he's done with our mules."

"No gunplay, no gunplay," Sheriff Baldy said. "Getting my horse shot out from under me is violence enough for one afternoon. You can hold ten babies if you want to, Seth."

Ma walked around the dead horse, looking down at it thoughtfully. She didn't say a word, either kind or unkind, to Sheriff Baldy. When she got round to the rump of the horse she leaned over and tested it with her fingers, to see if it might have a little fat on it, rather than just being all muscular and stringy.

"Why, it is a horse. That's a surprise," Ma said lightly.

"Of course it's a horse, thoroughly dead!" the sheriff said. "You shot it out from under me before I could even open my mouth to ask for the loan of your mules. What did you think it was, if not a horse?"

"An elk," Ma said, with a kind of faraway look in her eye. "I thought it was a big fat elk, walking right up to my door."

She paused. She had lost flesh in the years of the war -- everybody had.

"I thought, no more mush, we're going to be eating elk," she said. "Granpa can stop complaining and I can be making a little richer milk for this baby -- she's not as chubby as my other babies have been."

Sheriff Baldy sat there on the dead horse with his mouth open -- a bug could have flown right into his mouth, if one had been nearby.

"You mean you didn't shoot it because we were borrowing the mules?" he asked. "I was going to explain why we needed the mules, but you didn't give me time. You stepped out the door and the next thing I knew this horse was dead."

Ma made no reply -- she just tested the rump in another place with her fingers. Baby Marcy was still bubbling and cooing.

"Well, I swear, Mary Margaret," Sheriff Baldy said. "This was a big roan horse. How could you get it in your head that it was an elk?"

Ma still had the faraway look in her eye. It worried me when she got that look, though I couldn't really have said what it was I was worried about. I think it must have worried the sheriff too.

"I guess I was just too hungry to see straight, Eddie," she said, calling Sheriff Baldy by his first name. At least I guess it was his first name. I had never heard anyone use it before.

"I'm hungry and my family's hungry," Ma went on. "Horse meat's not as tasty as elk, but it will do. Whatever I owe you we can put toward the rent of the mules."

She started for the house, but the look on the sheriff's face must have made her feel a little sorry for him, because she turned at the cabin door and looked back at him for a moment.

"We've got a little buttermilk to spare, Eddie, if you'd like some," she said, as she opened the door.

"I'll take the buttermilk," Sheriff Baldy said.

He got off the dead horse and we all followed Ma through the door.

Copyright © 2000 by Larry McMurtry

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review McMurtry at his best: colloquial, poetic, gently elegiac.

David Hendricks San Antonio Express-News McMurtry once again takes his readers on a vivid, unforgettable journey through the Old West....Each page has some insight or twist that can pierce a reader's soul.

Meet the Author

Larry McMurtry is the author of twenty-nine novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove, three memoirs, two collections of essays, and more than thirty screenplays. He lives in Archer City, Texas.

Brief Biography

Archer City, Texas
Date of Birth:
June 3, 1936
Place of Birth:
Wichita Falls, Texas
B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.

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Boone's Lick 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
atzbech More than 1 year ago
Love Larry McMurtry, but he should have stayed in bed for this one. Not a very interesting story. Not much action at all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend for HER story. A woman with determination. McMurtry's details and humor pass the hours quickly. Also recommend Telegraph Days.
Lori-from-Iowa More than 1 year ago
I have always like Larry McMurtry's books. I think as a writer he captures the times well. I enjoyed this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fun to read and probably a fairly accurate account of living in the West.
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UncleHammy More than 1 year ago
I found Boone's Lick a little disappointing. I was expecting more. The story follows a family's trek across the plains from Boone's Lick, MO to Fort Kearney in Wyoming. Along the way they encounter, well pretty much nothing. They get to Fort Kearney, the climax of the story happens (kind of an anticlimactic ending) then the book is done.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Boones Lick is a very good book and I recommend this book to anyone who loves western stories. Larry McMurtry is a very good writer. Right now I am reading The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry and is a very good book so far.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Boone's Lick is not Larry McMurtry's best novel, but it is a good read. Not too many women would have tolerated what Mary Margaret Cecil did, and the story of how she got her clan from Missouri to Wyoming is an interesting one...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I started this book and it was pretty good. It was somewhat interesting. But the entire novel I found myself wondering when it was going to get better. The first half was the only good part. I have read much of this authors works and he is my favorite writer. But I think he could have done better. It certainly is no Lonesome Dove or Dead Man's Walk.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this book for my father in law for Christmas. Christmas day, after the family had come and gone.....he picked it up and didnt close it til he had read it completely!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Boone's Lick very much. It is an interesting story and told very well by an accomplished writer. However, I wonder if anyone besides a recognized and respected author like Larry McMurtry could get away with the awful ending? The story was told and the story ended. Please stop right there. No need to tell what happened to everyone in the cast; leave something for our imagination. If someone in Hollywood likes it, maybe they will do the ending justice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Keeps kissing u and deepens the kiss then i take my shirt off