Read Dead Man's Walk Online

Authors: Larry McMurtry

Tags: #Texas Rangers, #Comanche Indians, #Action & Adventure, #Western Stories, #Westerns, #General, #Literary, #Historical, #McCrae; Augustus (Fictitious Character), #Fiction, #Cultural Heritage, #Texas, #Call; Woodrow (Fictitious Character)

Dead Man's Walk

BOOK: Dead Man's Walk
3.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

By Larry McMurtry
Part I
Matilda Jane Roberts was naked as the air. Known throughout south Texas as the Great Western, she came walking up from the muddy Rio Grande holding a big snapping turtle by the tail. Matilda was almost as large as the skinny little Mexican mustang Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call were trying to saddle-break.
Call had the mare by the ears, waiting for Gus to pitch the saddle on her narrow back, but the pitch was slow in coming. When Call glanced toward the river and saw the Great Western in all her plump nakedness, he knew why: young Gus McCrae was by nature distractable; the sight of a naked, two-hundred-pound whore carrying a full-grown snapping turtle had captured his complete attention, and that of the rest of the Ranger troop as well.
"Look at that, Woodrow," Gus said.
"Matty's carrying that old turtle as if it was a basket of peaches." "I can't look," Call said. "I'll lose my grip and get kicked--and I've done been kicked." The mare, small though she was, had already displayed a willingness to kick and bite.
Call knew that if he loosened his grip on her ears even slightly, he could count on getting kicked, or bitten, or both.
Long Bill Coleman, lounging against his saddle only a few yards from where the two young Rangers were struggling with the little mustang, watched Matilda approach, with a certain trepidation.
Although it was only an hour past breakfast, he was already drunk. It seemed to Long Bill, in his tipsy state, that the Great Western was walking directly toward him with her angry catch. It might be that she meant to use the turtle as some kind of weapon--or so Long Bill surmised.
Matilda Roberts despised debt, and carried grudges freely and at length. Bill knew himself to be considerably in arrears, the result of a persistent lust coupled with a vexing string of losses at cards. At the moment, he didn't have a red cent and knew that he was unlikely to have one for days, or even weeks to come. If Matilda, who was whimsical, chose to call his debt, his only recourse might be to run; but Long Bill was in no shape to run, and in any case, there was no place to run to that offered the least prospect of refuge. The Rangers were camped on the Rio Grande, west of the alkaline Pecos. They were almost three hundred miles from the nearest civilized habitation, and the country between them and a town was not inviting.
"When's the next payday, Major?" Long Bill inquired, glancing at his leader, Major Randall Chevallie.
"That woman acts like she might set that turtle on me," he added, hoping that Major Chevallie would want to issue an order or something. Bill knew that there were military men who refused to allow whores within a hundred feet of their camp--even whores not armed with snapping turtles.
Major Chevallie had only spent three weeks at West Point--he left because he found the classes boring and the discipline vexing. He nonetheless awarded himself the rank of major after a violent scrape in Baltimore convinced him that civilian life hemmed a man in with such a passel of legalities that it was no longer worth pursuing. Randall Chevallie hid on a ship, and the ship took him to Galveston; upon disembarking at that moist, sandy port, he declared himself a major and had been a major ever since.
Now, except for the two young Rangers who were attempting to saddle the Mexican mare, his whole troop was drunk, the result of an incautious foray into Mexican territory the day before. They had crossed the Rio Grande out of boredom, and promptly captured a donkey cart containing a few bushels of hard corn and two large jugs of mescal, a liquor of such potency that it immediately unmanned several of the Rangers. They had been without spirits for more than a month--they drank the mescal like water. In fact, it tasted a good deal better than any water they had tasted since crossing the Pecos.
The mescal wasn't water, though; two men went blind for awhile, and several others were troubled by visions of torture and dismemberment. Such visions, at the time, were not hard to conjure up, even without mescal, thanks to the folly of the unfortunate Mexican whose donkey cart they had captured. Though the Rangers meant the man no harm--or at least not much harm--he fled at the sight of gringos and was not even out of earshot before he fell into the hands of Comanches or Apaches: it was impossible to tell from his screams which tribe was torturing him. All that was known was that only three warriors took part in the torturing.
Bigfoot Wallace, the renowned scout, returned from a lengthy look around and reported seeing the tracks of three warriors, no more. The tracks were heading toward the river.
Many Rangers thought Bigfoot's point somewhat picayune, since the Mexican could not have screamed louder if he had been being tortured by fifty men--the screams made sleep difficult, not to mention short. The Great Western didn't earn a cent all night. Only young Gus McCrae, whose appetite for fornication admitted no checks, approached Matilda, but of course young McCrae was penniless, and Matilda in no mood to offer credit.
"You better turn that mare loose for awhile," Gus advised. "Matty's coming with that big turtle--I don't know what she means to do with it." "Can't turn loose," Call said, but then he did release the mare, jumping sideways just in time to avoid her flailing front hooves. It was clear to him that Gus had no intention of trying to saddle the mare, not anytime soon. When there was a naked whore to watch, Gus was unlikely to want to do much of anything, except watch the whore.
"Major, what about payday?" Long Bill inquired again.
Major Chevallie cocked an eyebrow at Long Bill Coleman, a man noted for his thorough laziness.
"Why, Bill, the mail's undependable, out here beyond the Pecos," the Major said. "We haven't seen a mail coach since we left San Antonio." "That whore with the dern turtle wants to be paid now," one-eyed Johnny Carthage speculated.
"I've never seen a whore bold enough to snatch an old turtle right out of the Rio Grande river," Bob Bascom said. In his opinion, it had been quite unmilitary for the Major to allow Matilda Roberts to accompany them on their expedition; though how he would have stopped her, short of gunplay, was not easy to say. Matilda had simply fallen in with them when they left the settlements. She rode a large grey horse named Tom, who lost flesh rapidly once they were beyond the fertile valleys.
Matilda had no fear of Indians, or of anything else, not so far as Bob Bascom was aware. She helped herself liberally to the Rangers' grub, and conducted business on a pallet she spread in the bushes, when there were bushes. Bob had to admit that having a whore along was a convenience, but he still considered it unmilitary, though he was not so incautious as to give voice to his opinion.
Major Randall Chevallie was of uncertain temper at best. Rumour had it that he had, on occasions, conducted summary executions, acting as his own firing squad. His pistol was often in his hand, and though his leadership was erratic, his aim wasn't. He had twice brought down running antelope with his pistol--most of the Rangers couldn't have hit a running antelope with a rifle, or even a Gatling gun.
"That whore didn't snatch that turtle out of the river," Long Bill commented. "I seen that turtle sleeping on a rock, when I went to wash the puke off myself. She just snuck up on it and picked it off that rock. Look at it snap at her. Now she's got it mad!" The snapper swung its neck this way and that, working its jaws; but Matilda Roberts was holding it at arm's length, and its jaws merely snapped the air.
"What next?" Gus said, to Call.
"I don't know what next," Call said, a little irritated at his friend. Sooner or later they would have to have another try at saddling the mare--a chancy undertaking.
"Maybe she means to cook it," Call added.
"I have heard of slaves eating turtle," Gus said. "I believe they eat them in Mississippi." "Well, I wouldn't eat one," Call informed him. "I'd still like to get a saddle on this mare, if you ain't too busy to help." The mare was snubbed to a low mesquite tree-- she wound herself tighter and tighter, as she kicked and struggled.
"Let's see what Matilda's up to first," Gus said. "We got all day to break horses." "All right, but you'll have to take the ears, this time," Call said. "I'll do the saddling." Matilda swung her arm a time or two and heaved the big turtle in the general direction of a bunch of Rangers--the boys were cleaning their guns and musing on their headaches. They scattered like quail when they saw the turtle sailing through the air. It turned over twice and landed on its back, not three feet from the campfire.
Bigfoot Wallace squatted by the fire-- he had just finished pouring himself a cup of coffee.
It was chickory coffee, but at least it was black. Bigfoot paid the turtle no attention at all--Matty Roberts had always been somewhat eccentric, in his view. If she wanted to throw snapping turtles around, that was her business. He himself was occupied with more urgent concerns, one of them being the identity of the three warriors who had tortured the Mexican to death.
A few hours after coming across their tracks he had dozed off and dreamed a disturbing dream about Indians. In his dream Buffalo Hump was riding a spotted horse, while Gomez walked beside him. Buffalo Hump was the meanest Comanche anyone had ever heard of, and Gomez the meanest Apache. The fact that a Comanche killer and an Apache killer were traveling together, in his dream, was highly unpleasant. Never before, that he could remember, had he had a dream in which something so unlikely happened. He almost felt he should report the dream to Major Chevallie, but the Major, at the moment, was distracted by Matilda Roberts and her turtle.
"Good morning, Miss Roberts, is that your new pet?" the Major inquired, when Matilda walked up.
"Nope, that's breakfast--turtle beats bacon," Matilda said. "Has anybody got a shirt I can borrow? I left mine out by the pallet." She had strolled down to the river naked because she felt like having a wash in the cold water. It wasn't deep enough to swim in, but she gave herself a good splashing. The old snapper just happened to be lazing on a rock nearby, so she grabbed it. Half the Rangers were scared of Matilda anyway, some so scared they would scarcely look at her, naked or clothed. The Major wasn't scared of her, nor was Bigfoot or young Gus; the rest of the men, in her view, were incompetents, the kind of men who were likely to run up debts and get killed before they could pay them. She sailed the snapper in their direction to let them know she expected honest behaviour. Going naked didn't hurt, either. She was big, and liked it; she could punch most men out, if she had to, and sometimes she had to; her dream was to get to California and own a fine bordello, which was why she fell in with the first Ranger troop going west.
It was a scraggly little troop, composed mostly of drunks and shiftless ramblers, but she took it and was making the best of it. The alternative was to wait in Texas, get old, and never own a bordello in California.
At her request several Rangers immediately began to take off their shirts, but Bigfoot Wallace made no move to remove his, and his was the only shirt large enough to cover much of Matty Roberts.
"I guess you won't be sashaying around naked much longer, Matty," he observed, sipping his chickory.
"Why not? I ain't stingy about offering my customers a look," Matilda said, rejecting several of the proffered shirts.
Bigfoot nodded toward the north, where a dark tone on the horizon contrasted with the bright sunlight.
"One of our fine blue northers is about to whistle in," he informed her. "You'll have icicles hanging off your twat, in another hour, if you don't cover it up." "I wouldn't need to cover it up if anyone around here was prosperous enough to warm it up," Matilda said, but she did note that the northern horizon had turned a dark blue. Several Rangers observed the same fact, and began to pull on long johns or other garments that might be of use against a norther. Bigfoot Wallace was known to have an excellent eye for weather. Even Matilda respected it--she strolled over to her pallet and pulled on a pair of blacksmith's overalls that she had taken in payment for a brief engagement in Fredericksburg. She had a tattered capote, acquired some years earlier in Pennsylvania, and she put that on too. A blue norther could quickly suck the warmth out of the air, even on a nice sunny day.
"Well, we've conquered a turtle, I guess," Major Chevallie said, standing up.
"I suppose that Mexican died--I don't hear much noise from across the river." "If he's lucky, he died," Bigfoot said. "It was just three Indians--Comanches, I'd figure. I doubt three Comanches would pause more than one night to cut up a Mexican." About that time Josh Corn and Ezekiel Moody came walking back to camp from the sandhill where they had been standing guard. Josh Corn was a little man, only about half the size of his tall friend. Both were surprised to see a sizable snapping turtle kicking its legs in the air, not much more than arm's length from the coffeepot.
"Why's everybody dressing up, is there going to be a parade?" Josh asked, noting that several Rangers were in the process of pulling on clothes.
"That Mexican didn't have no way to kill himself," Bob Bascom remarked. "He didn't have no gun." "No, but he had a knife," Bigfoot reminded him. "A knife's adequate, if you know where to cut." "Where would you cut--I've wondered," Gus asked, abruptly leaving Call to contemplate the Mexican mustang alone. He was a Ranger on the wild frontier now and needed to imbibe as much technical information as possible about methods of suicide, when in danger of capture by hostiles with a penchant for torture.
"No Comanche's going to be quick enough to sew up your jugular vein, if you whack it through in two or three places," Bigfoot said. Aware that several of the Rangers were inexpert in such matters, he stretched his long neck and put his finger on the spot where the whacking should be done.
"It's right here," he said. "You could even poke into it with a big mesquite thorn, or whack at it with a broken bottle, if you're left without no knife." Long Bill Coleman felt a little queasy, partly because of the mescal and partly from the thought of having to stick a thorn in his neck in order to avoid Comanche torture.
"Me, I'll shoot myself in the head if I've got time," Long Bill said.
"Well, but that can go wrong," Bigfoot informed him. Once set in an instructional direction, he didn't like to turn until he had given a thorough lecture. Bigfoot considered himself to be practical to a fault--if a man had to kill himself in a hurry, it was best to know exactly how to proceed.

BOOK: Dead Man's Walk
3.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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