Even living in Texas for the last 25 years I've ignored Larry McMurtry (except for the film of The Last Picture Show), but I had bought a copy of Lonesome Dove in paperback which has been on the shelf for years. I was wanting a long, compelling novel so started this one on a whim. At first I figured I'd made a mistake—not interested in cowboys and “rough humor”.
But I soon got completely involved and ended up spending my entire Saturday with the mini-series playing on TV in the background if not actually watching it. I loved it, the book more than the mini-series which of necessity simplified and smoothed the edges.
It's the story of Augustus Macrae and Woodrow Call who were Texas Rangers and Indian fighters in their prime and, in the present, after the Civil War, are bored of the life they settled down to in Lonesome Dove, a tiny settlement on the Rio Grande, where they rustled and retrieved horses and
cattle from wealthy Mexicans across the border. The two are the oddest of old time friends: Gus is observant, kind, outgoing, a philosopher who always told you more than you wanted to know. He's been spending his days drinking whiskey on the front porch and laughing over his pigs. Call is strong, silent, determined, almost Puritanical in his outlook on work and personal morality. It's soon clear that Newt, a young man of 17 whose live with the Lonesome Dove gang since his mother died is Call's child and though Newt grows into a fine young man, Call can never bring himself to acknowledge him, even with Gus's prodding. Gus's talking drives Call nuts as his silence gets to Gus. Each in his way is tired of the current life, ready for one more adventure. Call dreams of driving a herd of cattle into Montana and becoming the first rancher in an unsettled territory.
The book follows them—and an assortment of cowboys and other characters who travel with them or meet them on the way—on this journey, driving horses and cattle (and Gus's pigs) up through the middle of the country, crossing one river after another, starting with the Nueces (where a young Scot turned cowboy of necessity is killed in a nest of water moccasins) and ending when they cross the Power River into Montana and reach the Yellowstone and even the Milk.
On the journey the reader gets to know Dish Bogett, the best of the hands who's hopelessly in love with Lorena, the whore in the Lonesome Dove saloon and Pea Eye, who went rangering with Gus and Call in a past life, a Deets, the Negro who's the best scout of the bunch, an Po Campo, the cook who tempts the to eat grasshoppers dipped in molasses. There's Allan O'Brien, brother to the dead boy, with his lovely voice, and Lippy Jones, and Needle Nelson, and Jasper Fant who's Newt's rival, the Spettle brothers one of whom dies....
There are three women characters (and I admit I was particularly interested in the women): Lorena starts out from the saloon at Lonesome Dove, traveling with Jake Spoon, another old Ranger and Indian fighter with Gus and call who casually promised to take her to San Francisco. They follow along side the herd—Call doesn't want a woman in camp—but Jake leaves her alone to go to San Antonio to gamble and she's captured by Blue Duck—the baddest of the bad men in the West who sells her to a couple of brutal outlaws and Kiowas. It's Gus who rescues her and brings her back from the brink. Clara they meet up with in Ogallala, Nebraska where she's nursing a paralyzed and dying husband on a horse ranch. In an odd way she's happy doing his work, realizes she better with horses than he was, but she longs also for Gus who was the love of her youth. Gus had agreed to the trip in part because he wanted to find Clara who had turned down his proposal 16 years before. And finally, Ellie, who'd married Sheriff July Johnson—without loving him, still in love with Dee Boot, an outlaw. Finding herself pregnant and July, maneuvered by his sister to chase a killer, gone, she takes off on a whiskey boat up the Arkansas River in the direction of Ogallala—and Boot (who it turns out is about to be hung), putting herself under the protection of a buffalo hunter of enormous size and strength, if a little dim.
Gus really captivated me, though by the end I'd come around to Call too, but about half way through I began dreading that Gus would die and wanting to stop reading before that happened. I suppose it was clear that he would die, but I'm not sure how I was so sure.