This is a book about Indians. And more than anything else, it is about the way of life the Indians led before the white settlers came, and those brief few years before that way of life disappeared entirely.
But that’s not what you’d think this book was about if you read the paragraph synopsis on the back cover of the paperback.
Texas Rangers August McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, now in their middle years, are just beginning to deal with the enigmas of the adult heart—Gus with his great love, Clara Forsythe; and Call with Maggie Tilton, the young whore that loves him. Two proud but very different men, they enlist with a Ranger troop in pursuit of Buffalo Hump, the great Comanche war chief; Kicking Wolf, the celebrated Comanche horse thief; and a deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture.
Truth be told, McCrae and Call are the least interesting people in this book, less protagonists and more plot devices through which the real protagonists must pass. And who are the real protagonists? Who else but Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf—the men who are pursued, but who really drive the action in the story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins very much the way the paragraph synopsis describes—with McCrae and Call pursuing Indians and wrestling with their lover’s hearts. But there is some foreshadowing of McMurtry’s real intent going on. Here’s a scene from early in the novel, where the Rangers, high on a ridge, are looking down on an Indian buffalo hunt.
Looking down on the scene from high above, Augustus, though he couldn’t say why, felt a mood of sadness take him. He knew he ought to be going, but he could not stop looking at the scene far below. A line of Indian women were moving out from the camp, ready to cut up the meat.
Inish Scull paused a moment. He saw that his young ranger had been affected by the chase they had just observed, and its inevitable ending.
“Post coitum onme animal triste,” he said, leaning over to put a hand, for a moment, on the young man’s shoulder. “That’s Aristotle.”
“What, sir?” Augustus asked. “I expect that’s Latin, but what does it mean?”
“’After copulation every animal is sad,’” the Captain said. “It’s true, too—though who can say why? The seed flies, and the seeder feels blue.”
“Why is it?” Augustus asked. He knew, from his own memories, that the Captain had stated a truth. Much as he liked poking, there was that moment, afterward, when something made his spirits dip, for a time.
“I don’t know why and I guess Aristotle didn’t either, because he didn’t say,” Scull observed. “But it’s not only rutting that can bring on that little gloom. Killing can do it too—especially if you’re killing something sizable, like a buffalo, or a man. Something that has a solid claim to life.”
He was silent for a moment, a little square cut chaw of tobacco in his hand.
“I grant that it’s a curious thing,” he said. “The acts ain’t much alike, and yet the gloom’s alike. First excitement, then sadness. Those red boys killed their game, and they needed to kill it, too. A buffalo is to them what a store would be to us. They have to kill the buffalo to live. And they have killed it. But now they’re sad, and they don’t know why.”
Well, I don’t know why neither, Augustus thought. I wish that old man who talked about it to begin with had said why.
More on Inish Scull in a moment. But first, note the theme. Sadness at the passing of a solid claim on life. The white man experiences it in small pieces—after a “poke”, or after a kill—but for the Indians in this story—especially Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf—Aristotle’s observation succinctly summarizes the journey of their narrative arc.
Compare these early thoughts to the tone of this scene at the very end of the novel, when Kicking Wolf—famous for his ability to move silently into an enemy’s camp and steal their horses—is goaded into doing so one more time by Dancing Rabbit, a young warrior who wishes to learn Kicking Wolf’s secrets. This time, the camp is that of McCrae and Call, and the horse is nothing more than an old brown mule.
As he watched the weary men walking toward the big orb of the setting sun, Kicking Wolf suddenly had a sadness fill him. His breast felt so heavy with it that he began to envy Buffalo Hump, who was dead. He knew already that he didn’t want to steal the Texans’ brown mule, and that was not because he had any liking for Texans or pitied them their long walk. He knew the Texans would kill him, if they saw him, and he in turn would try to kill them if they made themselves easy targets. They had always been hated enemies and were hated enemies still—Kicking Wolf was grateful that he was prosperous enough and free, so that he could still hate Texans as a Comanche should. He was glad that he did not have to pretend to be friends with them to collect a mere pittance to live on.
This is a reference to many other Comanche leaders, who were giving up the old way of life in order to become wards of the white man’s state on the reservations. Buffalo Hump, who had just been killed by his son, and Kicking Wolf, and are among the very few who are still clinging to the old way of life.
Yet he felt sad, and ,as the Texans stopped to camp, while dusk made the long plain indistinct—shadows here; last streaks of sunlight there—the sadness filled him until he felt he would burst. There, nearby, were Gun In The Water and Silver Hair McCrae, men he had fought most of his life and would gladly fight again if he could. He had stolen many, many horses from them, or from companies of rangers they rode with. Once he and Buffalo Hump had set a prairie fire that had nearly caught the two men and burned them and their company. There had been shots exchanged, arrows show, lances thrown, and yet the two rangers were still alive; and so was he.
Sadness like the kind that McCrae felt on top of the rise, looking down on the buffalo hunt—sadness at the passing of a solid claim on life.
Kicking Wolf remembered, as he watched the black man hobble the brown mule, that once, only a few miles from where they were, he had stolen the Buffalo Horse, right from under Big Horse Scull’s very nose. He had stolen him and taken him to Mexico, a venture that had cost Three Birds his life and led to his own derangement, his time of seeing two where there was one.
This describes a major episode in the novel—Kicking Wolf stealing Inish Scull’s prized horse, and taking him as a gift or bravery and tribute to a Mexcian outlaw. It is practically the central event around which the rest of the story turns.
It had been a great thing, the stealing of the Buffalo Horse, a great horse whose fate had been to be eaten in Mexico by many small dark people. Some of the old men still sang about Big Horse Scull and the Buffalo Horse—he sang about it, too, when there were great feasts and dancing, a thing that had not been common since the buffalo went to the north, where they would not have to smell the whites.
Remembering his great feat made Kicking Wolf want to sing—the urge to sing rose in him and mixed in his breast with the sadness that came in him because he realized that the time of good fighting was over. There would be a little more killing, probably; Quanah and the Antelopes might make a little more war, but only a little more. The time of good fighting was ended; what was left for the Comanches was to smile at the white men and pretend they didn’t hate them.
This sadness is greater than the sadness that McCrae and the white men feel. While the sadness of the whites is more familiar to us, the sadness of the Comanche touches us more achingly because it is more distant. Because what they have lost is gone forever, and what the white man has lost when he feels his sadness returns again with the next battle or the next poke.
Stick with me as I quote these closing paragraphs, because they do what McMurtry is often so good at. Thematic meaning suffuses the outwardly simple actions of plot and character.
Kicking Wolf did not want to smile at the white man. He wanted to die somewhere on the llano, alone, in a spirit place, as Buffalo Hump had tried to do. Not only that, he did not want to steal the puny brown mule, either. Why would a man who had once stolen the Buffalo Horse want to steal a skinny brown mule? It would be an insult to himself, to do such a thing.
So he waited until the moon rose and turned to go back to the gully and the horses, only to discover that Dancing Rabbit, the foolish boy, has disobeyed and followed him.
“What are you doing? I told you to watch the horses,” Kicking Wolf said. “If those Texans were not so tired they would steal our horses.”
“I only came because I wanted to watch you steal the horse,” Dancing Rabbit said. “I just want to see how you do it.”
“It is not even a horse!” Kicking Wolf said. He grew so angry that he almost forgot to whisper—but then he remembered the Texans and led the foolish boy farther away, to reprimand him.
“It is only a mule,” he pointed out, once it was safe to talk. “It was near here that I stole the Buffalo Horse. I am not going to steal a mule.
“You steal it, if you want it so badly,” he told the boy.
Dancing Rabbit knew he had not skill enough to steal the mule. Besides, he didn’t want the mule—he merely wanted to watch as Kicking Wolf stole it.
“Just show me how you approach it,” he pleaded. “Just show me how, in case I see some Texans with a fine horse I could steal.”
Dancing Rabbit wants to continue Comanche traditions, but there are no more horses for them to steal, and Kicking Wolf doesn’t want to pretend. Pretending to live is worse than dying.
“I stole the Buffalo Horse,” Kicking Wolf said, several more times, but, in the end, he gave in and did what Dancing Rabbit wanted. He sat with the young warrior most of the night, watching the moon arch over the still prairies. He saw Famous Shoes come back and lay down to rest. He watched as the Texans—exhausted, all of them—fell asleep. Even Gun In The Water, whose habit was to stand guard outside of camp, did not stand guard that night.
Gun In the Water is the Comanche’s name for Woodrow Call. And Famous Shows is an Indian tracker—a Kickapoo—that often travels with the Texans.
“When will you do it?” Dancing Rabbit asked him several times. “It will be light soon.”
He was worried that Kicking Wolf wouldn’t do it; but then he looked again and Kicking Wolf was gone. The old man had been sitting quietly, a few feet away, but now he was gone.
Then, to his astonishment, he saw Kicking Wolf standing by the mule, stroking its neck. The black man who had tethered the mule was sleeping only a few yards away, but the mule was calm and so was Kicking Wolf. The old man stood by the mule for a few minutes, as if talking quietly to it, and then he disappeared again. He had been by the mule, but now he wasn’t. Dancing Rabbit had no idea where the old man had gone. Hastily he made his way back to the gully where the horses were, only to find, when he reached it, that Kicking Wolf was there and had already mounted his horse.
“We had better go,” Kikcing Wolf said. “The Kickapoo will see my track first thing in the morning. I don’t think they will follow us, but I don’t know. Gun In The Water might chase us on the mule.”
“I didn’t see you move,” Dancing Rabbit said, when they were riding together. “You were with me and then you were with the mule. I didn’t see you move.”
Dancing Rabbit can’t do what Kicking Wolf does. He can’t even perceive it. That way of life really is gone.
Kicking Wolf smiled. It had been pleasant to do his old trick again, to walk without making a sound, to go up to a horse, or, in this case, a mule, to touch it and make it his while the owner slept nearby. It was a skill he had that no other Comanche had ever equaled. Though he had had to travel a long way across the llano in dry weather, it was good to know that he still had his old gift. It made up a little for Broken Foot and the cramps in his leg and the sadness of knowing that the old ways were gone.
“I don’t move,” he said, to the credulous young man who could still not quite believe what he had seen. “When the time is right I am just there, by the horse.”
“But I saw you—you were with me and then you were by the horse. I know you moved,” Dancing Rabbit said.
“It isn’t moving—it is something else,” Kicking Wolf said.
Dancing Rabbit pestered him all the way home, wanting to know how Kicking Wolf did what he did when he approached a horse; but Kicking Wolf didn’t tell him, because he couldn’t. It was a way—his way—and that was all.
If it was up to me, the novel would’ve ended right there. The final chapter the follows, in which the Texans wake to discover that their camp had been invaded, is an anti-climax in the extreme. They are as insensitive to the Indian’s solid claim on life as they are to the presence of Kicking Wolf among them.
The Symbol of the Captive Bear
There is another chapter mid-way through Book III that also poignantly describes this passing of the Indian way of life. The Comanche are being scattered—some are going off to live on the white man’s reservations, others are going off to try and continue the Comanche way of life, and others are denouncing both and turning into bandits. Blue Duck is one of the bandits, and Idahi is one who is looking to preserve the Comanche way of life. When they meet in Blue Duck’s bandit camp, Idahi discovers that Blue Duck is keeping a bear captive—tied with a chain around its neck to a tree.
“I wish you would let the bear go,” Idahi said. “It is not right to tie a bear to a tree. If you want to kill him, kill him, but don’t mistreat him.”
“I drug that bear out of a den when he was just a cub,” Blue Duck informed him. “He’s my bear. If you don’t like the way I treat him, you can go kill him yourself.”
He said it with a sly little smile. Idahi knew he was being taunted, and that he was in danger, but, where the bear was concerned, Idahi suffered no doubt and had to disregard such considerations.
“He’s my pet bear,” Blue Duck added. “If I was to turn him loose he wouldn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how to hunt anything but dogs.”
Idahi thought that was a terrible comment. No bear should have its freedom taken away in order to be a pet. He himself had once seen a bear kill an elk, and he had also had two of his best stallions killed by bears. It was right that bears should kill elk and stallions; it was a humiliating thing that a bear should be reduced to killing dogs in a camp of sullen outlaws. Idahi didn’t know what life he was going to have now, anyway. He had left his people and did not intend to go back. He could go to one of the other free bands of Comanches and see if they would accept him and let him hunt and fight with them, but it might be that they would refuse. His home would be the prairie and the grasslands; he might not, again, be able to live with his people. It seemed to him that he ought to do what he could to see that a great animal such as a bear was treated in a dignified manner, even if it meant his own death.
“If you would turn him loose I wouldn’t have to kill him,” Idhai said.
“It’s my bear and I ain’t turning him loose,” Blue Duck said. “Kill him if you want to.”
Idahi decided that his life was probably over. He got up and began to sing a song about some of the things he had done in his life. He made a song about the bear that he had seen kill an elk. While he sang the camp grew quiet. Idahi thought it might be his last song, so he did not hurry. He sang about Paha-yuca [his chief, who had decided to take his people onto a reservation], and the people who would no longer be free.
Then he walked over to his horse, took his rifle, and went to the willow tree where the bear was chained. The bear looked up as he approached; it still had blood on its nose from the beating Blue Duck had given it. Idahi was still singing. The bear was such a sad bear that he didn’t think it would mind losing its life. He stepped very close to the bear, so he would not have to shoot it a second time. The bear did not move away from him; it merely waited.
Idahi shot the bear dead with one shot placed just above its ear. Then, still singing, he took the chain off it, so that it would not have, in death, the humiliations it had had to endure in life.
I ask you, what is the captive bear but another symbol of the Indian way of life that has passed?
Inish Scull is a character that deserves his own trilogy. I’d say almost a third of the novel is dedicated to him. The battle of will and wits that he wages with Ahumado (the deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture) is worth the price of admission alone. When it’s done—or at least when Scull thinks it is—McMurtry offers us the following from Scull’s point of view.
But the fight was over. He had seen many men—generals, captains, privates, bankers, widowers—arrive at the moment of surrender. Some came to it quickly, after only a short sharp agony; others held to their lives far longer than was seemly. But finally they gave up. He had seen it, on the battlefield, in hospital, in the cold toils of marriage or the great houses of commerce; finally men gave up. He thought he would never have to learn resignation, but that was hubris. It was time to give up, to stop fighting, to wait for death to ease in.
It’s a great moment at the climax of Scull’s battle—which like all great literary battles, is more internal than external. You find yourself rooting for him the entire way, and when he resigns, you realize that he lasted far longer than you would’ve done in the same circumstances.
Misery That Knows No Bounds
One last thing I consistently like about McMurtry’s fiction.
William, her husband, had been away, driving some stock to Victoria, when the four Comanches burst into her cabin and took her. The babe at her breast, little Sal, they had killed immediately by dashing her head against a log. Eddie, her oldest boy, hurt his leg in the first scuffle—the pain was such that he couldn’t stop whimpering at night. Maudy would hear him crying even as she endured her torments. On the sixth day the Comanches lost patience with his crying and smashed his head in with a gun butt. Eddie was still breathing when they rode on—Maudy prayed someone would find Eddie and save him, but she knew it was an empty prayer. Eddie’s head had been broken; no one could save him even if they found him, and who would find a small dying boy in such emptiness?
It is amazing to me how passages like these can affect me. In the world that McMurtry writes about, suffering and misery knows no bounds, and he is able to write about it in a way that is not maudlin, but raw and untempered.