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.
pard"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
Told with McMurtry's unique blend of historical fact and sheer storytelling genius, the novel follows the Cecil family's arduous journey by riverboat and wagon from Boone's Lick, Missouri, to Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming. Fifteen-year-old Shay narrates, describing the journey that begins when his Ma, Mary Margaret, decides to hunt down her elusive husband, Dick, to tell him she's leaving him. Without knowing precisely where he is, they set out across the plains in search of him, encountering grizzly bears, stormy weather, and hostile Indians as they go. With them are Shay's siblings, G.T., Neva, and baby Marcy; Shay's uncle, Seth; his Granpa Crackenthorpe; and Mary Margaret's beautiful half-sister, Rose. During their journey they pick up a barefooted priest named Father Villy, and a Snake Indian named Charlie Seven Days, and persuade them to join in their travels.
At the heart of the novel, and the adventure, is Mary Margaret, whom we first meet shooting a sheriff's horse out from underneath him in order to feed her family. Forceful, interesting, and determined, she is written with McMurtry's trademark deftness and sympathy for women, and is in every way a match for the worst the west can muster.
Boone's Lick abounds with the incidents, the excitements, and the dangers of life on the plains. Its huge cast of characters includes such historical figures as Wild Bill Hickok and the unfortunate Colonel Fetterman (whose arrogance and ineptitude led to one of the U.S. Army's worst and bloodiest defeats at the hands of the Cheyenne and Sioux) as well as the Cecil family (itself based on a real family of nineteenth-century traders and haulers).
The story of their trek in pursuit of Dick, and the discovery of his second and third families, is told with brilliance, humor, and overwhelming joie de vivre in a novel that is at once high adventure, a perfect western tale, and a moving love story -- it is, in short, vintage McMurtry, combining his brilliant character portraits, his unerring sense of the west, and his unrivaled eye for the telling detail.
Boone's Lick is one of McMurtry's richest works of fiction to date.