July Johnson, the young sheriff of Fort Smith, Arkansas, has had a rough year. Weak from a bout of jaundice, he must endure his deputy’s jokes about his being “yellow.” His new wife’s contempt for his methodical ways stings; he cannot figure out how to please her.
One morning Peach Johnson, July’s imposing sister-in-law, demands that he find her husband’s killer, Jake Spoon, and bring him to justice. Peach is carrying a rooster that keeps straying from her yard; irritated by its pecking, she wrings its neck as she speaks, tears its head off, and tosses that useless bit into the weeds. Unnerved, July says that Jake has friends in San Antonio and that he will go after him soon.
When Ben Johnson was shot, July was at a trial in Missouri. Roscoe Brown, his deputy, feels guilty for having let Jake leave town after the confusing events of the shooting. July does not want to leave Elmira, having just married her, to pursue Jake for the accidental shooting. Elmira is older than Jake; town opinion holds that she has made a fool of July. For certain, July cannot fathom Elmira. She lectures him, when she speaks to him at all, in front of her twelve-year-old son Joe, his ally in trying to avoid her constant anger.
July returns to his cabin to find Ellie sitting in the loft, swinging her legs, as is her habit. He and Joe eat dinner without her as usual. They argue once again over whether July should pursue Jake. Ellie secretly doubts that July can find and bring Jake back. She recalls Jake from her sporting days in Dodge and knows him to be savvy at outrunning trouble. She considers July, whom she married having known him only three days, a boring man in contrast to Dee Boot. Dee was not her husband but an entertaining client who liked her and loaned her money. Elmira lies about Dee, saying he died of smallpox, to take on the guise of a respectable widow. Now she sits in the cabin all day regretting her choices and thinking of the fun she once had with Jake and Dee.
July tries to please Ellie, unaware that she is set on disliking him. She discourages him from pursuing Jake not because she would miss him, but because she detests Peach. Finally, however, she tells him to take Joe with him so that the boy can “see the world.” July has no idea that Elmira is pregnant with their child and bitter about her condition. Scared to try to abort the baby, she has decided to flee Fort Smith the day after July leaves. She hates caring for July and Joe and wants to return to the sporting life.
July prepares to leave Fort Smith. While he is hurt that neither Ellie nor Peach cares that he will be gone, he also sees how happy Joe is to be included. July feels like a wood chip being swept along a river by currents beyond its control. Yet he wants to earn his salary. Roscoe worries about being left in charge of Fort Smith again. July’s final instruction to Roscoe is to check in on Ellie, who seems to him to be unwell. Uncertainty about leaving her fills him with dread.
Six days after July’s departure, Peach Johnson and Charlie Barnes, the town’s banker, accuse Roscoe of neglecting to check on Ellie, who is missing. They insist that Roscoe find her. Charlie worries that a bear killed her, but Peach believes that she has left July. The town ferryman confirms that a woman left on a whiskey boat headed north. Now Roscoe faces months of anxiety before July returns to learn about his deputy’s failure. Pressure from town gossip and guilt over Ellie cause Roscoe to drink. One day, Peach and Charlie rouse him from drunken slumber and order him to go after July and inform him about Ellie. The next morning, Roscoe saddles a horse and heads for Texas. He feels like crying, but half the town is watching.
Analysis, Chapters 26–29
The opening chapters of Part II introduce a new setting, a new conflict, and a new cast of characters. July Johnson, who “had been raised not to complain” and so did not, faces several problems: his recent exhausting illness, an incomprehensible wife, a next-to-useless sheriff, a bossy sister-in-law, and an unsolved crime. In a novel structured around the long journey from Texas to Montana, other characters begin intersecting journeys in Part II: Elmira searches for a way out of her marriage, July tries to bring Jake to justice and his wife back to himself, and Roscoe searches for July and for some sense of his own adult capabilities. Readers need to keep in mind that the distances these characters cover were vast and that travel was fraught with inconvenience at best and danger at worst during the time of the novel’s setting.
Lorena and Jake have traveled ahead of the herd to the Nueces River, where Lorie bathes in the cold, green water. Jake is drinking to lessen the pain of his badly infected thumb. He wishes he could play cards. Lorie’s comment that he is too drunk to shuffle angers him. Deets, scouting for a good crossing point, rides up and inspects Jake’s wound. With a hot needle, he digs out the tip of the thorn and then warns Lorie to get across the river soon since a storm is coming. Though the sky is cloudless, Lorie trusts Deets’s weather sense. As Lorie crosses the river, her mare balks, frightening her, but Deets assists her and tells her to trust her horse. Lorie feels grateful to Deets and is suddenly aware that Jake did not care about her fear.
Deets advises Lorie to cook dinner and then put out the fire before the wind starts. The storm will bring lightning, so she should tie the horses well. Lorie’s fear rises again; she hates lightning and realizes that this journey will be harder than she expected. As Deets leaves to return to the herd, she asks him to tell Gus hello.
Gus wonders how the hands and herd will handle it the first big storm of the drive. Hell Bitch is antsy; she feels the weather changing. Call sends Newt to tell the points to hold the herd till the storm passes, but Dish scorns the storm’s threat. As Newt rides toward Soupy, sand starts blowing, blinding him and causing the cattle and horses to run. Then the lightning begins, and Newt sees that he is still with the herd. Bolts thunder to the ground. Newt spots Dish, but they cannot find Soupy. Newt then sees something he has never imagined: tiny balls of blue lightning seem to perch on the horns of some cattle. Deets rides up and warns him to stay away from the cattle. The rain begins, first large drops and then sheets through which Newt rides blindly, trusting his confused horse to know what to do. Horse and rider struggle along a muddy gully as the rain finally turns to drizzle. Newt is relieved to have survived his first storm and proud of Mouse for not slipping into the gully.
Despite Deets’s warnings, Jake fails to tie the horses, merely hobbling his horse and the mule but arguing that Lorie’s mare will not go far. When the storm starts, Lorie’s mare spooks and runs. Lorie, teeth clenched in fear, wonders what it would be like to be struck by lightning. She tries to shelter under a mesquite tree, but Jake pulls her away just before a bolt strikes it. They crouch under a muddy river bank, waiting—in Lorie’s fearful mind, at least—to die. The tree under which they had camped on the other side of the river is struck, too, and Jake says they have Deets to thank for their lives. And yet, Lorie thinks, Jake did not thank him.
By dawn the storm has passed, and the exhausted crew faces the first river crossing. Gus is missing, but Pea Eye recalls seeing him riding east at dawn. The herd suffered few losses; Dish kept it together, impressing even Call. The blue pigs survived the storm, as did the Texas bull, an aggressive animal that frightens the hands.
Gus rides to Lorie and Jake’s camp, where Lorie is spreading out their gear to dry. She is glad and a little surprised to have survived the night, and Jake has headed out, characteristically in the wrong direction, to look for her mare. Lorie lies in the grass as Gus cooks bacon and thinks that she looks more beautiful and relaxed now that she is out of Lonesome Dove. Indeed, Lorie feels at ease in the outdoors and comfortable with Gus’s company. Gus fires his gun to summon Jake back to camp and offers Jake breakfast when he arrives. Churlish about Gus’s presence, Jake claims that he and Lorie are going to San Antonio. Gus says he will look after Lorie while Jake loses his money and points out that he might be spotted by the law. Lorie objects, too: it is bad luck to go back to a place from one’s past, she believes. Jake slaps her and orders her to pack. Embarrassed, she goes, thinking of her hidden money.
Gus chides Jake over his treatment of Lorie, but Jake argues that either he is in charge or Lorie must leave. Gus tells Lorie, before he returns to the herd, that if Jake fails her, she should come find him. Afterwards, Jake mopes and says that Lorie provoked him to hit her. She tells him to go and gamble in San Antonio if he likes, but she will stay in camp. She is disenchanted with the shallow, childish gambler.
Analysis, Chapters 30–34
These chapters describe the first big trial of the crew and the reactions of various characters to the storm. The seasoned hands take the wind, sheets of rain, and lightning in stride, while the new hands endure the misery of the mud, tremble at the lightning, and are glad just to have survived. The abilities of certain characters are on display: Deets’s ability to treat Jake’s wound and his sure advice about the weather and Dish’s ability to keep the massive, undisciplined herd together show these men to be pros at their work.
Readers also see in these chapters Lorena’s increasing understanding that Jake will not take care of her and in fact does not care for her except as a sexual outlet. Lorie sees with bitterness that Deets and Gus are better men than the one to whom she has joined her fortunes.
Following Old Dog, a seasoned cow, the herd moves sluggishly in the heat toward the Nueces. Another storm is coming. Swatting away mosquitoes, Sean wishes he were on a boat to Ireland. Call is irritated by Jake’s uselessness, and Dish worries about Lorie. Gus sympathizes with Dish, thinking of his own deep and unrequited love for Clara. He recalls Clara’s command for him to come and see her ten years after her marriage so that her children can know him. Since then, sixteen years have passed. Gus considers settling near Clara’s family one day.
The crossing starts smoothly, but as the last of the cattle approach the river, a terrible scream rings out. Call and Pea race into the river toward Sean, who is being bitten by many water moccasins. He slips from his saddle into the water, but Pea pulls him out. Deets has heard of nests of water moccasins; these must have been stirred up by the storm. The herd drifts as the hands in the rear hesitate to cross. Newt weeps for his friend as he and Call ride after the herd. Gus and Deets sit by the dying boy. Though Deets has seen many deaths, this one unnerves him. Before Allen can cross, Sean dies. Allen blames himself—he should have left Sean in Ireland. After all the cattle and hands cross the Nueces, Deets and Pea dig a grave by a live oak. The crew must move on; a real funeral, they explain to Allen, is not practical on the trail.
Analysis, Chapter 35
The novel effectively communicates some of the difficulties and dangers of a cattle drive; Sean’s death is the first real loss the crew suffers, only a little ways out of Lonesome Dove. But other losses are in the minds of some of the men. Deets thinks of other deaths he has witnessed; Allen thinks of the people and land he left behind; and Gus sympathizes with Dish as he recalls the marriage to another man of the one woman he deeply loved. The passage of time and remorse over lost chances mark the novel throughout.
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