Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive from far South Texas through the central Great Plains and hostile Indian country to virgin grazing land in Montana. Along the way, the characters either grow and change or deepen to reveal further elements of themselves.
Part 1 introduces the characters and begins the cattle drive. Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are two middle-aged former Texas Rangers who for several years have been operating a cattle ranch headquartered in the town of Lonesome Dove on the Rio Grande River. Lorena Wood, the beautiful town prostitute, works at the Dry Bean saloon; most of the men are in love with her. Lorena herself is fond of Jake Spoon, also a former Texas Ranger and friend of Augustus and Woodrow, who has drifted into a life of grifting and low companions. Jake, who is on the run from Arkansas, where he killed a man accidentally, turns up in Lonesome Dove and renews his relationship with Lorena. Jake proposes to Woodrow that they enlarge the cattle herd and take it to Montana, where there is choice unused grazing land. In fact, Jake wants to stay on the run and be near his former ranger friends so that they will protect him if the law catches up with him. Lorena makes Jake promise that he will take her to San Francisco, and she plans to accompany the herd for part of the way. Woodrow and Augustus also have hidden reasons for going on the drive; Woodrow wants to see and conquer new territory for one more time in his life, and Augustus hopes that he will meet his great love, Clara Allen, along the way.
Woodrow and Augustus increase the number of their herd by raiding a Mexican ranch across the river and rustling the stock of a Mexican bandit who has stolen from them in the past. Among the hands who go on the trail drive are Josh Deets, a black cowboy who rode with Woodrow and Gus in their rangering days; Dish Boggett, who is in love with Lorena; the Irish immigrant O’Brien brothers; Newt, Woodrow’s son by a prostitute; and the cowhands Jasper Fants and Pea Eye. The men begin the drive with the ominous knowledge that they have a long way to go and will be beset by dangers both unknown and known (most obviously hostile Indians, including the psychopathic loner Blue Duck).
Part 2 introduces a major subplot. July Johnson, the young sheriff of Fort Smith, Arkansas, knows that the killing Jake committed was accidental; Jake fired his gun in self-defense but missed and hit the victim, July’s brother Ben. Ben was the mayor of the town, however, and his wife Peaches forces July to track Jake down. To do so, July must leave his recent bride, Elmira, who has already grown tired of July and is happy to see him leave. July is joined on his trek through Texas following Jake’s trail by his middle-aged deputy Roscoe Brown, Joe Boot, who is July’s stepson, and a young orphan girl, Janey. While July heads southwest into Texas, Elmira, who is pregnant, leaves Fort Smith and goes northwest in search of her former lover, Dee Boot, who is Joe’s father.
As soon as the cattle drive begins, tragedies and disasters overtake the cowboys. While the cattle ford a river, one of the O’Brien brothers rides into a nest of water moccasins and is bitten to death. Hailstorms, rain, and drought alternately plague the herd and its owners. Blue Duck, the Indian Woodrow and Augustus had dreaded they would meet, kidnaps Lorena and takes her away to a gang rape by Indians and comancheros. Augustus rescues Lorena from her captors, and in response, she falls in love with him. July Johnson and his friends also run afoul of Blue Duck, who kills all of them except July.
Jake, ashamed that he has allowed Lorena to be taken, runs away from his friends and begins to ride with a group of outlaws who are not only thieves but murderers. When Woodrow and Augustus catch up with Jake, they have no choice but to hang him with the rest of the criminals, a shocking event that ends part 2.
Part 3 features the end of a number of relationships and the flowering of new ones. Elmira, July, Augustus, and Lorena all wind up in succession at the farm of Clara Allen, which is conveniently located where many trails cross. Elmira has her baby there and then goes to the nearby town where Dee is awaiting hanging. After his death, she heads back across the plains, but she is killed by Indians. July arrives, and Clara, whose husband lies dying after having been kicked in the head by a horse, tries to convince July that Elmira’s baby is his and that he should stay on the ranch and help her run it. Augustus and Lorena come to Clara’s house, and Clara refuses Augustus’s romantic overtures. Augustus leaves Lorena at Clara’s for her recuperation.
When Augustus rejoins the herd, the novel moves to its climax. Deets is suddenly and mistakenly killed by an angry Indian. While Augustus and Pea Eye are out exploring, they are attacked by a band of hostile Indians. Augustus is seriously wounded by an arrow in his leg, and he sends Pea Eye back to the herd for help. Augustus makes it to a town, where his leg is amputated, but gangrene has set in, and he begins to die. Woodrow, whom Pea Eye reaches, is there for the death of his friend, and he promises Augustus that he will return Augustus’s body to a spot by a river in Texas where Augustus had a memorable picnic with Clara. When the herd reaches Montana, Woodrow selects a site for a ranch, and both cattle and men prosper, with Newt gaining more and more responsibility and growing into a man in the process. When spring comes, Woodrow begins to fulfill his pledge to Augustus; before leaving, he gives his beloved horse, the Hell Bitch, to Newt. He also stops at Clara’s, where she castigates him for not living up to his responsibilities to Newt. Woodrow also witnesses the demise of Blue Duck, and when he returns to Lonesome Dove after burying Augustus, he finds that the owner of the Dry Bean has burned it down, disconsolate over the loss of Lorena.
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