I am the Wild West, no show about it. I was one of the people who kept it wild.
Larry McMurtry returns to the territory of his Pulitzer Prize–winning masterwork, Lonesome Dove, to sing the song of Calamity Jane's last ride. In a letter to her daughter back East, Martha Jane is not shy about her own importance. Martha Jane—better known as Calamity—is just one of the handful of aging legends who travel to London as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in Buffalo Girls. As he describes the insatiable curiosity of Calamity's Indian friend No Ears, Annie Oakley's shooting match with Lord Windhouveren, and other highlights of the tour, McMurtry turns the story of a band of hardy, irrepressible survivors into an unforgettable portrait of love, fellowship, dreams, and heartbreak.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Archer City, Texas
Date of Birth:June 3, 1936
Place of Birth:Wichita Falls, Texas
Education:B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.
Read an Excerpt
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
What People are Saying About This
Houston Chronicle Not since Lonesome Dove has [Larry McMurtry] written so movingly about the disappearance of the West.
The New York Times A wonderfully warm and touching elegy to the passing of the frontier...a salute to the dying West, as rendered through McMurtry's wonderfully quirky characters.
Newsday Buffalo Girls is as pure and sweet as a waltz played on a cold night. You'll love it.