From: Part One
Here I sit, in the evening dews you'll get some sopping big ones up here on the Yellowstone. I thought I'd write my hope a note before the light goes.
I call you my hope because you are, Janey. I will send your Daddy some money to get you a new dress for school it's best to look nice, Janey, though I'm a sad one to say it. Last night I got drunk as a duck and rolled down the hill into a puddle a pig couldn't have been muddier. If it had been later in the year I expect I'd have froze.
I dread the winters now although I've been all over these plains in the worst blizzards without a care. In my young days it would never have occurred to me to worry about such a little thing as the weather. "Powder River let 'er buck!" Blue used to say I never did know what he meant by it but it sounded good at the time.
Blue showed up at Dora's, in Miles City, otherwise I might have escaped the puddle. Blue brings out the rowdy in me, he has since the day I met him down in Abilene or maybe it was Dodge, those cow-town days seem long ago now, Janey.
Blue fell in love with Dora in Abilene, I expect he is still in love with her but why go into it? It ain't Dora he married. After Blue comes for a little visit he's a great one for little visits Dora will mope around and cry for two or three days. She'll hole up with Fred, that's her parrot, she says Fred's her only true friend but that's mush, Janey, I'm a true friend to Dora DuFran as she is to me.
I'd go to hell for Dora and she knows it, but she forgets about it when Blue rides off, I don't blame her, he is a reprobate. Ha, that's about as big a word as I would ever try to spell in a letter to my daughter, I fear it might upset you how poor your mother spells.
Well, Janey, the light's fading and I don't have much of a fire. I've gotten too lazy to gather much firewood, not that there is much on these plains. It never bothered me to sleep cold, though I will have to make better fires when winter strikes.
Tomorrow I'm heading down to Wyoming, I've heard my friends Ragg and Bone are living with the Shoshone. I wonder what they're living on, it couldn't be much, the Shoshone don't have much.
I miss Ragg and Bone, they've seen me through my life, Janey, them and Dora. I just have to go look for them when they wander off. It was Jim Ragg who finally introduced me to your father I mean your real father, Wild Bill. I had to buy Jim twenty drinks before he would consent to introduce me, but I could get the drinks cheap and your father was the handsomest man in Dodge, still would be if he'd lived. I bought the drinks gladly but Ragg didn't introduce me gladly, I think he was scared. Ragg was a mountain man and liked to brag about all the massacres he'd seen, but saying hello to Wild Bill Hickok was another matter.
Wild Bill was known to be moody and if his mood turned cloudy he might just set down his drink and kill you. I had no worries, I knew Wild Bill wouldn't kill me, of course I admit that didn't mean he wouldn't have killed Jim Ragg.
Well, introduce is another big word, I think I got it correct though, I better stop this letter before my luck changes. Luck can change any time, it changed for Dora the day Blue met that half-breed daughter of Granville Stuart's they say Mr. Stuart was a great man and had done great things but to me he's an old ruffian, he hung those men on the Musselshell and some of them was only boys. Maybe they did steal his damn cow ponies, I don't care, boys that young don't deserve no hanging. I weep every time I think about those boys' mothers, and how they feel.
You will be a mother someday, Janey, and have your sorrows too, who can outrun sorrow? Not me, Janey, and not Dora DuFran, not since Blue married Granville Stuart's pretty little half-breed daughter. I hope no man will do you so, Janey I don't even want to think about it.
Dora tried yesterday to give me Fred, she says I need a friend and a parrot's better than nothing, but I wouldn't take him. He's not a bad parrot, though he can't say anything except "General Custer" who taught it to him or why he wants to say it I don't know. You'd think living with Dora all these years Fred would have learned a more interesting stock of words, not that they'd be words I could put in a letter to you, Janey.
It's my pride that I can afford to send your Daddy money so you can be raised among decent people, not the riffraff and ruffians you'll find out here these days. There are people who would include your mother in such a description in fact most people would.
But I didn't take Fred, I think Dora would miss him, she's the one who should be thinking a parrot's better than nothing, because Fred and nothing's about what she's got. I have Ragg and Bone, they are my true friends. Why they would think there might still be beaver down in the Shoshone country I don't know. It's a sign to me that the boys have drunk one too many rounds if there were beaver along the old Wind River why wouldn't the Shoshone have eaten them, what else do they have?
What it's really a sign of, Janey, is that people can't give up hoping for what they once had, youth or you name it. When Jim and Bartle come west the west meant beaver now they're old and the beaver have been gone for twenty-five years but the boys can't admit it, at least Jim can't. They still think there's a creek somewhere boiling with beaver that God saved for them. It's just how people are, Janey, they cling to foolish hopes.
But you will need to be studying your lessons and not wearing out your eyes reading my old gloomy words.
Don't worry about your mother, Janey, I have always got by. I'm hardy, I scarcely even coughed after sleeping in that mud puddle though I admit if it had been later in the year I wouldn't have been so lucky.
I've got my young horse Satan and my buffalo dog. Satan's a good horse and the dog Cody is a fine hunter, often he'll bring a rabbit and once he brought in a badger. I didn't know about eating badger, I took it to my friend Mrs. Elkshoulder and she cooked it in a hole in the ground, it tasted fine.
I call the dog Cody after Billy Cody Buffalo Bill, I guess you've heard of him. There's a man with luck on his side if there ever was one, he'd have been dead years ago if it wasn't for luck. He ain't tough, there's hundreds of Indians who could kill him easily but he's still alive.
Billy's been writing lately, he's trying to get me to go with the Wild West show he started but I ain't that desperate I guess.
I am the Wild West, Janey, no show about it, I was one of the people that kept it wild, why would I want to make a spectacle of myself before a bunch of toots and dudes?
Not me, Janey, I'd rather sleep in a mud puddle every night and rowdy it up with Blue and the other cowpokes.
Goodnight, Janey, I'll stop I don't want to scribble on and wear out your pretty eyes.
Copyright © 1990 by Larry McMurtry
From Chapter One
Jim Ragg was skinning a prairie dog, wondering if the fire would last until he got it skinned. A Wind River breeze a gale, by most standards surged down the gray canyons and sucked at the fire.
"Let's go somewhere else," Bartle Bone suggested.
"Right in the middle of supper?" Jim asked.
"No, I just meant eventually," Bartle said. "There's grit and then there's Wind River grit. I prefer the first kind."
"I think this prairie dog might have been sick," Jim said. "It moved kind of sluggish, like you do when you're sick."
"Well, if it was sick I'd prefer to go hungry," Bartle said. "I'm not up to digesting a diseased animal tonight."
Bartle was combing his fine beard. Among his few treasures was a fragment of comb he had snitched from a whore in Cheyenne. His beard was another treasure, at least in his view. Many western beards were filled with dirt, grease, and bits of debris, but he strove to keep his immaculate no easy task in a rough, often waterless, land.
Bartle was determined, though. He also possessed a fragment of mirror, which he had taken from a dead Sioux after the Custer battle. He and his friend Jim had been in the Sioux camp only the day before the battle, and soon heard of it; they had been among the first to observe the carnage. Bartle had taken nothing but the fragment of mirror, though the battlefield was strewn with the valuables of dead men.
All around them, as they stood stunned amid the bodies, Sioux and Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ree were carrying off their dead, singing as they lashed corpses to horses. Bartle had heard much Indian singing, but there was no precedent for the Custer battle, and the death songs that day were of a different timbre, one he had never heard before and would never hear again.
The singing mingled with the wind as the grass waved over the dead. One of the dead Sioux had a piece of mirror in his hand. Bartle saw the flash of sunlight on the shard of glass and, thinking it curious that an Indian had gone into battle holding a mirror, and then died holding it, had stopped and taken the glass. Then he went on walking among the twisted dead.
"I might be the only one who profited from the Custer fight," he said. "I got this mirror and look what a difference it made to my beard.
"Maybe the man who had it was responsible for flashing signals," he added. After much reflection, he had decided that best explained the mirror.
"That's just a guess," Jim said. "I don't see no reason to move just because you don't approve of Wyoming sand. Or are you telling me that you're ready to adopt the settled life?"
"I sure don't want to adopt it until we get someplace where there's something better to eat than sick prairie dogs," Bartle said, watching critically as his friend fixed the prairie dog to a spit.
Jim didn't answer. He squatted by the campfire and stared into space the darkening, howling space of the Wind River valley.
Bartle put his comb and mirror away barbering was a chancy affair, given the poor light and strong wind. The wind from the west howled around them. It whined, it keened, it sang, so strong at times that it was necessary to turn one's back to it in order to breathe satisfactorily.
"This country ain't so bad," Jim said. "The Shoshone like it."
"They may like the country but they don't like us," Bartle replied.
"Why, I never had a hostile word from a Shoshone," Jim said, somewhat startled by his friend's remark. "What makes you think they don't like us?"
"They're Indians," Bartle reminded him. "No Indians like us. The rich Indians don't and the poor Indians don't. The young Indians don't and the old Indians don't. The men Indians don't and the lady Indians don't."
"That's putting it pretty strong," Jim said.
"Even if the Shoshone liked us there would be no reason to stay," Bartle said. "There's no beaver in the river anyway. I doubt one has been here for a hundred years. It ain't the kind of river beavers like."
"There's creeks in those mountains though," Jim said, gesturing to the north. He sniffed at the prairie dog, which so far did not smell rotten. "If we do find beaver it'll be in the mountains, not out here on the flats."
Bartle said nothing. Lately, to Jim's distress, he had become more and more reluctant to talk about beaver.
"I mean to examine ever creek in the west before I give up on beaver," Jim said, as he had many times.
Bartle Bone, usually cheerful, felt a wearying sadness in his breast. The subject of beaver was a sore one, and had been for years. To Jim Ragg, it was a religion. Bartle had once felt the same, but his faith had long since been lost; now and again, though, he felt the sadness of the faithless.
As young men he and Jim had enjoyed three splendid years as beavermen, and several more that were passable, if not exactly splendid. But a quarter of a century had passed since those years. Other beavermen, friends of their youth, had long since died, been killed, or departed to safer lives. Few of the few who were left had any brains to speak of, any memory. Their talk, when they were sober enough to talk, was of the Custer battle, or else of Black Hills gold. Hardly a one could remember back twenty-five years to a time when millions of beaver still splashed in the cool streams of the west.
Jim Ragg was one of the few. He remembered every river, from the Oregon gorge to the headwaters of the Rio Grande. He remembered the cold ponds, the traps, the pelts. Of all the mountain men left, Jim Ragg was the only one as far as Bartle knew whose imagination hearkened only to beaver.
Gold didn't interest Jim, silver bored him, cattle disgusted him. Indian fighting gave him no pleasure, gambling made him restless, even his whoring was brief. Beaver meant more to Jim than women, cards, fortune, or anything else the Wild West had to offer.
But there were no beaver, as there were no buffalo, which meant for a true beaverman such as Jim Ragg that there was really no longer a West. In the flash of their own lives, a flash already dimming, it had been used up. It was a peculiar situation, and a sad one, Bartle felt. The snows still lay on the mountains, the grass still waved on the plains, the sky was still blue and deep as time; only a few details had actually changed the beaver gone, the buffalo gone, the Indians whipped and yet, when those things went the glory went also. The last time the two of them had straggled into Denver a bartender had shown them a poster of Billy Cody's Wild West show. Jim Ragg sneered he had never had any use for Billy Cody but Bartle had felt rather queer, and retired to a corner to drink a brandy. Halfway through the bottle he figured out what was queer.
"What Wild West?" he said, to a little blonde whore who stopped to tease him. "What Wild West? If Billy Cody can make a poster about it then there ain't no Wild West." At that point the whore skedaddled she hadn't liked his mood.
Since then Bartle Bone had felt a little lonely, even in company of lifelong friends such as Jim Ragg or Calamity Jane, the problem being that he nursed a truth he knew neither of his lifelong friends could stand to hear. There was no Wild West that was the truth but suggest as much to Jim Ragg and there'd be a fistfight; mention it to Calamity and a gun battle might ensue.
Not being able to discuss the matter with his true companions left Bartle feeling a little sad, but on the whole a little sadness was preferable to fistfights and gun battles, two sports he had lost his taste for.
"I wish you really liked to talk," he said to Jim. "I could improve your education considerable, if you really liked to talk."
"I don't mind talk," Jim said, though in fact an excess of talk did make him nervous.
"I didn't say you minded it, I just said I wished you liked it," Bartle replied. "But you don't, so I give up. Is that rodent cooked yet?"
"I'm doing the best I can," Jim said. "It's a small fire."
"I guess we oughta go look up Calamity," Bartle said. "She'll know the news. Calamity always knows the news."
"She might be too drunk to remember it, though," Jim said. "She needs to wean herself from all that drinking."
The prairie dog looked so unappetizing that he regretted he had even bothered to shoot it, much less cook it.
"There could be a passel of news," Bartle said. "We could be at war with China for all you know. The Chinamen could have captured San Francisco by now, or even Texas."
"I've never been to San Francisco, let 'em have it," Jim Ragg said. Texas was another matter, but it seemed unlikely to him that the Chinese had captured Texas. If there was war in Texas, half the old men of the west would have rushed to the fight.
"Even if there ain't no news I miss Calamity, and I have seen enough of the Wind River to last me awhile," Bartle said. "What's your mood?"
"Hungry, mainly," Jim said.
Copyright © 1990 by Larry McMurtry