Clara Allen is milking a mare when her daughters, Sally and Betsey, abandon their chores in excitement over an approaching wagon. The Allens live twenty miles down the Platte River from Ogallala and rarely see visitors other than horse-traders. The wagon is still an hour away, so Clara sends the girls to care for their father. Bob cannot speak or move after having been kicked in the head by a mustang; Clara expects him to die, as their three sons did.
Clara thinks about the battles of her marriage; her desire for a real frame house and for a piano and lessons for the girls, all paid for with her own money, divided her from her husband. Bob could not understand her desires, and she could not bear his silences. Clara’s right-hand man, an old Mexican named Cholo, taught her to gentle horses and advised Bob not to try to break the mustang. In the past Clara had been tempted to use her money to leave Bob and return to Texas, but they have thrived on the plains of Nebraska, and now Bob is dying. When Clara feeds and cleans Bob, she feels guilty for having held much of herself back from him. She loves to read and write; she once thought of writing a book, but the deaths of her sons blunted that desire.
The visitors are Zwey, Luke, and the heavily pregnant Elmira, who do not know that they have reached Nebraska. Zwey carries Elmira into the house; all she wants to know is whether Clara knows anything about Dee Boots.
Ellie’s labor is long and hard. At dawn, Clara tells the men that the birth is going hard and sends the girls to care for their father and make breakfast. When Ellie’s son is born, she passes out from exhaustion. After she awakes, she turns away from the baby; Clara carries him to the girls, who are immediately charmed. Soon Cholo comes in to say that Zwey, Luke, and Ellie have left, despite her weak condition.
Clara prepares milk for the baby, thinking that if she becomes attached to him and then he, like the other boys, dies, she will not survive. Now she must care for the baby and Bob. She feels a surge of anger: Why did Bob insist on trying to break that horse?
Zwey is confused that Ellie does not want her baby; he has always wanted one and, in his dull way, thinks that he is Ellie’s husband and that the little boy is theirs. When Luke explains, Zwey becomes sad. When Zwey bathes Ellie’s feverish face, she thinks he is Dee. In Ogallala, they learn that Dee is in the town’s jail. Zwey arranges for Ellie to see Dee. She finds him greatly changed—haggard, heavy, and scared. She tells him how she searched for him, but he sullenly turns away. Dee claims that he was just trying to scare settlers away, but he killed a boy and will soon hang. Ellie assures him that she will get him out of jail. Dee sees that Ellie is bleeding and calls for the deputy to get the doctor as Ellie faints.
July’s horse is injured; he returns to Dodge City for a new mount. He keeps thinking of a Fort Smith man whose wife became ill while he was away on business. The man missed the telegram sent to inform him of her illness and arrived home to find her funeral underway. July can still see how the man looked at that moment—as if, had he arrived home sooner, his wife would have lived.
Problems plague July. He is badly stung by ants and then bitten by a snake. His leg swells and, delirious, he talks to Roscoe. Yet he manages to reach the Platte River, where, starved and filthy, he spots Clara’s house and stumbles toward it. Cholo brings him in, and he sees the lively Clara, her happy daughters, and a clearly loved infant. When he introduces himself, she puts the facts together: this is the baby’s father. July cries when he learns that Ellie is gone, shocking the girls, who have never seen a man cry. Clara tells him about the baby, whom she named Martin, despite her fear that he will take the infant and leave, but he cannot comprehend this event.
While July sleeps, Clara holds the baby, thinks about Bob, whose condition is deteriorating, and muses that July looks very young to have been through all he has experienced.
Analysis, Chapters 76–78
These chapters introduce another important setting in the novel—the Allen home, down the Platte River from Ogallala—and the people who live there. Readers meet the remarkable Clara Allen, whom not only Gus but almost all who know come to love, and her family and household. This chapter brings the end of some story lines: Ellie’s pregnancy ends in the birth of her unwanted baby, and her search for Dee ends at his jail cell, where she collapses under the weight of the one dream she thought could free her. July’s pursuit, too, ends when, weak and ill, he stumbles into Clara’s care. However, new story lines begin, too, for Clara and her daughters, who suddenly have a little baby on their hands, and for July, grappling with the idea that he has a son.
When Gus returns from tracking the Suggses, Lorena is greatly relieved. He explains what happened to Jake, but she seems not to care. She cannot sort Jake out from the other men in her past now. Pushed to a new degree of fearfulness by Gus’s absence, Lorie reveals her terror of Clara. Gus tells her not to worry because Clara has already refused him, but Lorie again offers sex. Gus merely kisses and holds her.
Newt cannot stop thinking about Jake’s last moments, and all the hands are quiet. When Bert blames Lorie for Jake’s downfall, Dish defends her, and they fight till Call stops them. As on many occasions, Deets comforts Newt, this time by saying that Jake is in “the peaceful place.” Call is also tortured by Jake’s demise and wonders how he might have prevented it.
As they approach the Platte, Gus and Call talk about what will happen in Ogallala. Will Gus leave Lorie there? The men talk around the campfire about wages and card-playing debts; they intend to gamble and whore in Ogallala.
Analysis, Chapters 78–79
These chapters describe reactions to Jake’s death and set the scene for the herd’s arrival in Ogallala, which promises fun for the hands but threatens Lorie’s love for Gus. Dish’s actions in Chapter 79 make it clear that time, distance, and ordeals have done nothing to weaken his deep love for Lorie.
When Elmira’s fever breaks, she sees Zwey, outside in the rain, watching her through the window of the doctor’s house. Patrick Arandel, the doctor, says that Zwey has not left his post; Luke has gone to Santa Fe. He says that Dee Boots has been hanged—and good riddance. Arandel assumes that Ellie’s baby died. She realizes that she had forgotten about the baby, Clara, and July.
As Ellie recovers, Arandel never asks for money, which makes her nervous. One day, July walks in, crying in his relief. Ellie curses her bad luck and refuses to speak to July. July tells her about Joe and Roscoe; the terrible facts do not touch her at all. He says that the baby is fine, and when she does not react, he knows, his heart breaking, that she does not care at all about him or their life. He says that he will return to check on her again soon and will bring the baby.
As soon as July rides off, Ellie tells Zwey to get the wagon ready so that they can leave for St. Louis. Zwey is happy that Ellie chose him over July; but he worries because he has heard that the Sioux are dangerous to the east. He tells Ellie about his fears, but she no longer fears anything other than July catching up with her. If July follows her again, she will tell Zwey to kill him.
July returns to Clara’s house, so sad and bewildered that Clara refrains to scolding him for forgetting to pick up her longed-for mail and magazines. Clara asks July to help her clean Bob. July worries that it is wrong for him to handle Bob’s body, but Clara reassures him that it is “just nurse work.” He stumbles out, and when she touches his forehead to check for fever, he jumps. Clara acknowledges July’s loss but argues that Ellie has made her choice. She offers July a job.
July returns to Ogallala the next day to make sure that that Clara may raise Martin, but Ellie is gone. July is frantic to go after her but is exhausted. When he returns to Clara’s house, she is not surprised that Ellie is gone and asks July to help her shuck corn. He does so.
July gets up late, still weak and sad, and goes to help Cholo and Clara geld horses. He still intends to pursue Ellie once he is stronger, but Clara urges him to work for her and help her raise Martin. She suggests that Ellie married him for a change of scenery and then regretted her decision. July feels useless around the baby, but at dusk, he still cannot decide to go after Ellie since she might reject him again. Perhaps he should “let her be.” He goes in to dinner.
Analysis, Chapters 80–81
These chapters mark a turning point for July Johnson; his quests to find Jake and Elmira end at the Allens’ house. No one could convince July that Elmira was determined to separate herself from him; but at last, exhaustion, Ellie’s pained reaction to his presence, and Clara’s certainty that Ellie will not abide him persuade July to give up not only the pursuit but also the answers to the questions that have plagued him during his travels. He will not get answers, but he will get the chance to start a new life. In fact, a motif in the novel is unanswered—and perhaps unanswerable—questions. An author can wrap up all the loose ends of a plot, providing the answers that characters (and readers) seek to the questions that drive them. This novel, however, like real life, acknowledges that people often are left wondering “Why?” and “Why me?”
As the herd moves toward the Platte River, the men can talk of nothing but Ogallala, gambling, and whores. Newt and Rainey, who will go into town this time, listen intently. Deets, however, is uncomfortable in the “thin” light of the northern skies, and Gus is preoccupied with thoughts of Clara. Gus and Lorie are now sexually engaged, and Gus knows that he has caused her to love him. He envies the hands, who, free from attachments, can think lightly of visiting Ogallala’s whores; though he is very fond of Lorie, her love has become burdensome.
The crew comes across soldiers whose leader, Captain Weaver, is angry that they have led the herd into an Indian war. Call and Gus explain that they are Rangers who understand about Indians and that they are taking the herd to Montana. The army’s scout, Dixon, insults Deets, arguing that an African American man cannot be a scout, but Call defends Deets. Weaver informs Call and Gus that Indians recently killed a buffalo hunter and a woman who were traveling east as well as a family of settlers. Weaver wants to buy horses from the Hat Creek remuda, and when Call refuses to sell, Weaver tries to requisition them. He sends a young soldier to get them, but the soldier fears Call. Call advises Weaver on dealing with Indians, but Weaver wants no advice from a “goddamn cowboy.” Weaver rides off after Call makes it clear that Deets is not available to the army, either.
Later that day the herd crosses the Platte near Ogallala, and six hands go into town. Gus offers to take Lorie to town and buy her new dresses, but she will not go. Gus finds that he misses Jake’s easy company. He wonders if he should visit Clara. What if she is worn out or used up? And Lorie has become sweet and beautiful to him. But Clara did ask him to be a friend to her children. Gus goes to town to buy Lorie clothes and, while there, defends a young prostitute from an abusive gambler. The prostitute fears that her madam will punish her because Gus hit a client on her behalf. Gus gives her twenty dollars and leaves, depressed. Back in camp, he finds Lorie crying, convinced he has left her for Clara.
When the six hands return, Newt, Pea Eye, Pete Spettle, and the Raineys take their turn in town. Gus takes the wagon to pick up supplies, and Lippy and Call go along. Once in Ogallala, Newt and the Raineys do not know what to do. They are too nervous to go to a saloon; they are saving their money for whores. But then they buy candy in the general store, eat the whole sack, and buy two more sacks. They see Dish, who walks them to a saloon to negotiate prices with the whores.
As they talk, Dixon comes out with several soldiers. He wants to buy Dish’s mare, Sugar, as much his pet as his horse. When Dish says that Sugar is not for sale, Dixon spits tobacco on Dish’s neck and chest. Dish tells Dixon to dismount and fight, but Dixon pulls his pistol and hits Dish twice in the head with the butt. Dish collapses. Dixon reaches for Sugar’s reins and dumps the saddle, telling the boys to send the bill to the army. When Newt grabs the reins and tries to hold Sugar, Dixon whips him with his quirt. Pete Spettle jumps in the fight; Dixon breaks his nose.
Sugar’s squeals bring Call and Gus to the scene. Call rides Hell Bitch through the soldiers, knocking Dixon’s horse down. Call then tackles Dixon, putting his boot in the scout’s face. Newt has never seen such fury in Call, who drags Dixon to a blacksmith’s anvil and bashes his head against it. Gus drops a rope over Call’s shoulders and pulls him away. In his rage, Call does not recognize Gus and almost attacks him as Gus tells the soldiers to take Dixon and go. Newt is still gripping Sugar’s reins, which Dish now takes, thanking him. Call, calm now, can hardly recall the fight. The townspeople watch, silent, and the hands, too, are stunned by Call’s killing rage.
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