Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.
For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.
Robert Flynn has built a richly humorous, poignantly tragic novel around a cattle drive that forces cowboys to herd cattle on foot, to lower themselves to milk a wild longhorn, to tend a baby as well as a herd. At the center of the tale is Lampassas, the storekeeper who has heard the tales of the trail so often he knows the route by heart. Risking all for one last grand adventure, he heads for Trail's End with a herd of straggly, bony longhorns and an odd company of hands: Jamie, his reluctant son; Preacher, a self-ordained revivalist; Gattis, a farm boy never meant to wear cowboy boots; June, a stable hand who finds confidence and courage from his six-shooter; and Pretty Shadow, a drifting cowboy seeking the love of his early youth. Add to this group Covina, a riotously bold but appealing girl with an illegitimate baby, and you have the wildest, most improbable trail driving crew ever. At once magnificent and absurd, Lampassas holds the long drive together in the face of stampedes, drouth, flood, and horse thieves.
"It's the first feller that does something that is the hero, and the last feller that does it that is the fool," Preacher tells Lampassas. But Lampassas and his crew are made great by the enormity of their folly, the strength of their dream.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
North to Yesterday
By Robert Flynn
TCU PressCopyright © 1985 Robert Flynn
All rights reserved.
LAMPASSAS reined up his rat-tailed, jug-headed, cow-hocked pinto horse on the little rise beside the lone, gnarled mesquite which had not yet admitted the end of winter. He brushed back the upturned brim of his full-crowned, still vaguely white hat, and grabbing the ends of the blue bandana tied about his neck, wiped the sweat from his forehead. Lampassas was a little man, wrinkled, dried up, and soured, and even on his horse he looked old and frail. But Lampassas did not feel old and frail. He felt like a young man full of destiny. He was swollen with dreams. Big with fulfillment. The horse lifted him above the earth; carried him swiftly and powerfully to his goal.
Lampassas stood up in the stirrups to stretch his legs and looked back. Behind him, across the valley, green with the first spring rains, the Preacher led out with the wagon. And behind the wagon were June and Pretty Shadow on the point. And behind them was a string of cows, their long horns tossing in the sunlight, as far as the eye could see. Behind the last cow and the men in the drag, beyond the cloud of dust that followed the herd, was a gray country store, smelling of hams, and pickles, new leather, and sour beer, dusty shelves packed with air-tights of peaches, apricots, and plums. Out back, through the bedroom and kitchen behind the store, and the weedy yard where larkspurs once had bloomed, beneath a live-oak tree, on land which now belonged to a stranger, was a single grave.
For Lampassas, this moment had been a long time coming. Hitching his leg up over the saddle, he sat back to savor it.
Lampassas had fought with the Confederacy in the West and had come back from the war without having really been away, having lost the war without ever losing a battle. He came back like the others; with nothing, to nothing, wanting nothing. Everything had been finished, or put aside and forgotten, so that now there was nothing to do. So that until something got started, he would drift, crossing and recrossing through country he was already familiar with, working a little, and waiting.
Lampassas got a job chasing wild cattle out of the brush where they were hiding, and rounding them up for a big drive up north where they were worth more than a dollar and six bits for the hide. When a sizable herd had been rounded up, the men were separated into two crews: one crew to drive the herd to Baxter Springs, and one crew to have another herd rounded up, cut, and branded by the time the first crew got back. Lampassas was left behind hunting cows. He didn't mind. He didn't have anywhere to go anyway. He was waiting.
When the drovers returned, they told tales not of Baxter Springs but of another town. Abilene. They told of getting up with the meadowlarks and going to bed with the whippoorwill; of going to sleep to the wail of the coyote and the song of the night herders. They talked of the loneliness, stampedes, river crossings, and dry drives of the trail; and of the fancy dealing, cheap whisky, and cheaper women at the end of the trail. Lampassas decided to go see for himself, but by the following spring he was too valuable a brush popper to go up the trail. For the next three years the outfit turned to rounding up the cattle and letting others drive them to the railhead. But Lampassas was determined to go up the trail himself. The next drive, the big one, the one he would remember all his life, to Wichita this time, he was to have been segundo, assistant to the trail boss. But that was the year he went to the Christmas Ball at the general store and met the storekeeper's plain-faced daughter, Marfa.
People had come to the Christmas Ball from fifty miles around, about four men to every girl, woman, and grandmother, but Lampassas didn't mind the competition. He hadn't come to dance anyway. He sat and watched the cowboys standing in line, maneuvering to get the young women when their turn came. He watched the girls whirling around the room, smiling. He tapped his foot to the music of the fiddle. He was already over thirty years old, and shy as a bridled mustang. But Marfa handled that.
"You haven't danced one dance, and neither have I, so let's dance this one together."
Lampassas danced the way he sheared sheep, not at all. But Marfa pulled him onto the dance floor. "I'm not afraid if you're not," she said, and they stomped their feet until the music stopped.
"Excuse me, ma'am, I've got to get out of here," Lampassas said when the music stopped. His face had darkened to the roots of his hair, and his stiff collar was choking him.
Marfa picked up her shawl and followed him outside. "I won't ask you to do that again," she said.
"It was for them," she said. "Now if they ask me, I'll refuse."
They walked around to the back of the store and sat down on the steps of the porch. There was a room extending on either side of the back porch so that it was well protected from the wind. Lampassas pulled a bottle of whisky out of his coat and took a drink to warm himself and settle his nerves.
"Don't ever do that again in my presence," Marfa said.
"Whatever a man does when he is alone is his business, but whatever he does in a lady's presence is her business."
"I'll remember that," Lampassas said, thumping the corkback in the bottle with the palm of his hand and putting the bottle in his coat pocket.
Marfa nodded her head with satisfaction. "Now that we've got that settled, let's talk about Christmas. I believe that Christmas is for children, and grown-ups shouldn't expect too much," she said. Lampassas didn't rightly see how he could disagree, seeing how she was a lady, and seeing how he wasn't going to hang up his socks in the bunk house this year anyhow.
Marfa wasn't a real plain-looking woman. Her skin was smooth, her forehead broad, her nose fine and not rough. Her eyes were gray but not plain. Her mouth was rather straight, but when she smiled she wasn't plain at all but warm and friendly. But some men didn't like the way she set her mouth when she said something. The way she talked made her plain. She was a real plain-talking woman.
"How many days do you have off?"
"I get four ever year, but generally I save one or two days for the Fourth of July."
"A man your age ought to have something better to do than get drunk on the Fourth of July."
Lampassas blushed and ducked his head. "I reckon I do," he said.
"You'll be spending your four days here?" she asked. He nodded. "Will I be seeing you?"
Inspired by the whisky and the conversation, Lampassas tried to take her in his arms, but she refused. "No," she said. "We just met."
"I think I could dance now," he said.
"Go ahead. I'm going to bed," she said, and standing up, she crossed the porch and entered the room on the west side. Lampassas followed her and took off his hat to say goodnight, but she closed the door in his face. Throwing the hat down on the porch, Lampassas kicked it out in the yard.
Lampassas finished the whisky, threw the bottle in the chaparral, picked up his hat, went around to the front of the store, and went inside, intending to push his way to the front ofthe waiting line, take the prettiest girl, swing her around the floor a couple of times, kiss her in front of everybody, and fight anyone who didn't like it.
Once inside the crowded, stuffy room, Lampassas decided he didn't feel like dancing or fighting either. The noise and the hot, stale air made him feel tired and dizzy. He made his way along the wall to the far corner where the counter, barrels, and boxes of goods had been shoved out of the way to make room for the dancers, sat down with his back to the counter, laid his head on a sack of flour, and went to sleep. He was awakened occasionally by the music and dancing, or by an argument which erupted between the men only to be quickly settled by the ladies. Once he was awakened by the whisky and went outside and into the brush a commendable distance from the store, gallantly by-passing the privy, which was reserved for the ladies and the store-keeper, who grudgingly allowed the use of his store for the ball but refused to suffer any consequent inconveniences. Lampassas returned to the store and stretched out comfortably on the top of the counter with a flour sack under his head.
As was his habit, Lampassas awoke at dawn, stood up, and stretched. The sore-fingered fiddlers finished the last dance. The sore-footed cowboys sat down to rest. The women went into the kitchen to fix breakfast. When the women returned with platters of fried steaks, flapjacks with molasses, biscuits, and pots of coffee, Marfa was with them. She filled Lampassas's plate, and after all the men were served, she fixed a plate for herself. Lampassas carefully placed his hands on her thin waist, boosted her up on the counter, and sat down beside her, where they ate in silence.
After breakfast the dancing resumed except for a few women who begged off to wash the dishes. Lampassas invited Marfa to dance, but she suggested they go walking instead. There wasn't any place to walk to. There were only three buildings in the settlement: the store, the blacksmith shop, and the blacksmith's house; and you could see from the porch everything you wouldsee in a lifetime of walking through the brush. But Lampassas walked Marfa up and down the road, back and forth through town, that day and every day until Lampassas had to go back to the ranch. At night they sat on the front or back porch of the store, whichever was out of the wind, and they talked while Marfa's father thumped around inside and grunted about people who came to the store and didn't buy anything.
They talked of religion. "I think the Presbyterians are too hard, and the Methodists are too frivolous," she said. "Mostly I'm Baptist." They talked of politics. "I'm not saying that Abraham Lincoln wasn't a great man. All I'm saying is that Sam Houston was a better one and should have been President," she said. They talked of morality. "It seems to me that a man who wanted the respect of his wife and children wouldn't drink whisky." Or, "I know men have different notions, but a man shouldn't trifle with a woman's affections. A woman has to wait for a man to come to her, so he should make his intentions clear."
The last night before riding back to the ranch, Lampassas took Marfa's hand, kissed her on the cheek, and promised her he'd try to see her before he left on the drive that spring.
"I've seen men go up the trail and come back so diseased up they couldn't never marry a decent woman," Marfa said.
Lampassas promised her he wouldn't come back like that.
"I've seen men come back never satisfied to settle down and build something, but always hankering to be off again for the city, drinking and playing cards," she said.
Lampassas promised her he wouldn't come back like that either.
"Seems to me if a man could do without whisky, and if he was thinking to marry, there wouldn't be any need in him going up the trail at all."
Lampassas backed out of going up the trail, and after the spring roundup, he took a day off to marry Marfa. He found a preacher who was taking a herd of cattle to Caldwell and brought him to town to perform the ceremony. He forgot to ask if the man was a Baptist. Lampassas moved his wife out to the linerider's dugout. It was just a hole in the side of an embankment, but it had a wooden door, and a wagon sheet over the earthen roof that kept some of the dirt and water and most of the snakes and centipedes from coming through. Lampassas was proud of it, and Marfa didn't complain.
Lampassas wanted to make the drive the following year. "I don't think a man should go off and leave a woman to have a baby by herself," Marfa said. Lampassas didn't go. He worked the roundup. He represented the brand at more distant roundups. He rode to Squaw Creek and back looking for signs of drifting cattle. "I don't think I'd better stay here any longer with you gone off two or three days at a time," Marfa said. Lampassas borrowed the wagon and moved her into the little room in the back of the store where she had grown up.
Lampassas was driving cattle from dried-up Squaw Creek to Huacho Tanks, where there was still water, when the baby was born. A boy. Five days old when Lampassas first saw him, small, sickly, gasping for breath. "He's been like that since he was born," Marfa said. "Can't get his breath. He won't live two days in that dugout." Lampassas drew his pay, put the rest of their belongings on his horse, and moved into the back of the store, where he, Marfa, and the baby, Jamie, lived in a bedroom on one side of the porch, and Marfa's father lived on the other, with the kitchen between them. Because he lived in the settlement, in the back of a store, people stopped calling him Lampassas and he became plain Marvin Darsey.
Marvin Darsey worked a few weeks during the roundups each year, and the rest of the time he sat around the store listening to Marfa's father tell how Sam Houston had ruined the country, and how the Baptists were sending everybody to hell. He was a cranky old man and would hide things like lucifers or lamp wicks if he knew someone was going to ask for them, and say he didn't have any. Most folks just traded with him for spite, and because it was fifteen miles to the store over at Wall Town. Lampassas never said anything to the old man. He listened, carried groceries, and drove the wagon for supplies.
After the old man died, Marvin stopped working the roundups and tended the store, organizing the goods the way he would have organized a cow hunt. He cleaned up the store, finding a tin of rusty needles and a dried-up ham the old man had hidden and then forgotten. When he was through, the goods were arranged in methodical order: groceries to the left, saddles, clothing, and hardware to the right. Marvin dusted the store, checked to see what supplies he needed, and sat on the front porch waiting for customers. Other than the cleaning, nothing had changed. The store offered the same unimaginative variety of items, only now the customers could find things themselves.
Marfa and Jamie moved into her father's room. Marfa raised Jamie, taught him how to read and write, kept books for the store, and tried to raise flowers, watering them at sunup and sundown. Sometimes, early in the morning, Marvin would get up with her, help her water the flowers, and walk her back to his room. "I've got a hundred things to do today," she'd say. Sometimes, after Marvin had put out the lamp in the front of the store and finished his chaw on the front porch, he would crawl into Marfa's bed, being careful not to sit on Jamie. "You'll wake the boy," she would say. But Marvin had discovered that she was not a plain woman.
There wasn't much to running the store. Every month or so the ranches would send around a hand with a wagon and a list of supplies. Lampassas would fill it as best he could, making whatever substitutions he felt suitable. When they asked for cough syrup he substituted whisky; for tonic, sulphur and molasses; for perfume, vanilla flavoring; and when a new wife asked for a large china urn, he sent a crock chamber pot.
When one of the ranches sent for supplies, Marvin and the hand would load the wagon, and then Marvin would sit on the porch and chew while the hand ate an air-tight of peaches and talked about the grass, and the number of cows branded, and that hammer-head horse that had run him through the corral and busted him up to where he was driving a wagon.
When a cowboy came through, down on his luck, having lost all his money in the gaming halls or the little huts along the railroad tracks at the end of the trail, Marvin would give him cheese and crackers and an air-tight of tomatoes, and they would talk of life along the Musselshell, and the Yellowstone, and at Abilene, Ellsworth, and Trails End. Marvin would listen while the man dreamed of one more chance to make one more drive to get enough money ahead to start a brand of his own.
But the men in shiny black boots and brushed black suits, who came in to drink whisky and to buy flour by the hundred-pound sack, who paid cash for two months' supply of food for six hands, were the men who had taken their own cows up the trail and had brought the money back to buy up land and to stock their ranges. Marvin sat on the porch watching the huisache fade into darkness and listening to them talk, while his wife watered the flowers in the back yard and his son scratched the alphabet on a slate.
Excerpted from North to Yesterday by Robert Flynn. Copyright © 1985 Robert Flynn. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.