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Telegraph Days: A Novelby Larry McMurtry
"I hope you're carpenter enough to build an honest coffin," I told Jackson, my younger brother. About an hour ago, I would guess, our father, Perceval Staunton Courtright, had foolishly hung himself from a rafter in the barn.
From the rope burns on his hands, it seemed likely that Father changed his mind at the last minute and tried to claw his way back up to the rafter, where he might have rid himself of the inconvenient noose — last-minute mind changes were a lifelong practice of Father's. In this case, though, the mind change had come too late, meaning that Jackson and I were faced with the necessity of burying Father in windy No Man's Land, a grassy part of the American West that, for the moment, no state claimed.
My younger brother, Jackson, was just seventeen. Here we were, the two surviving Courtrights, having already, in the course of our westering progress, buried two little brothers, three little sisters, an older sister, three darkies, our mother, and now look! Father's tongue was black as a boot.
"I'm a fair carpenter, but where will I get the lumber?" Jackson asked, surveying the vast grassy prairie. We were just south of the Cimarron River, in a part of the plains populated by no one, other than Jackson and myself — and I, for one, didn't plan to stay.
"Use some of this worthless barn," I told my brother. "It's only half a barn anyway, and we won't be needing it now." Father had first supposed that the prairies beside the Cimarron might be a good place to start a Virginia-style plantation, but he wisely discarded that notion while the barn was just half built. Now, with Father dead, we were down to Percy, our strong-minded mule, and a flea-filled cabin with glass windows. Ma had insisted on the glass windows — it was her last request. But she was dead and so was our gentle, feckless father. We had no reason to linger on the Black Mesa Ranch — the name Father had rather grandly bestowed on our empty acres.
I was twenty-two, kissable, and of an independent disposition. My full name was Marie Antoinette Courtright, but everyone called me Nellie. Mother told me I got named after Marie Antoinette because Father happened to be reading about the French Revolution the night I was born — my own view is that he anticipated my yappiness and was secretly hoping the people would rise up and cut off my head.
Jackson began to rip boards off the barn. He handed me a pick and a spade, implements I accepted reluctantly.
"Being a lady, I try to avoid picks and spades," I mentioned.
"I guess you've kissed too many fellows to be calling yourself a lady," Jackson remarked, picking up a crowbar — or half a crowbar. At some point, mysteriously, our family crowbar got broken in two; this setback annoyed Father so much that he threw the other half in the Missouri River.
"It's not my fault you're off to a slow start in the kissing derby," I told him.
"Where would I get a girl to try and kiss, living way out here?" he asked.
For once Jackson had a point. My various cowboys could always slip away from their herds long enough to provide me with a spot of romance, but very few young ladies showed up on the Cimarron's shores.
"I expect you'll get your chance once we get settled in Rita Blanca," I assured him.
Jackson looked a little droopy as he laid out Father's coffin. We Courtrights are, in the main, not a very sentimental lot. But burying brother after brother, sister after sister, and now parent after parent, as Jackson had been required to do, was the kind of work that didn't put one in the whistling mood. I marched over and gave my brother a big hug — he didn't sob aloud but he did tear up.
"I expect I'll miss Pa more than you will," he said, with a catch in his voice. "Pa, he always had a story."
"It's just as well he didn't hear you call him Pa," I reminded Jackson.
Father had no patience with abbreviation, localisms, or any deviation from pure plantation English; but Jackson was right. Father always had a story.
When we were at home, he was always reading stories to the little ones, but once we left Virginia and headed west, the little ones soon commenced dying — a common thing, of course, for westering families, but a heavy grief nonetheless. It broke our mother's heart. All along the Western trails, in the years after the Civil War, families that got caught up in westering died like gnats or flies. Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, California Trail — it didn't matter. The going was deadly. The brochures the land agents put out made westering seem easy — sparkling water holes every few miles, abundant game, healthy prairie climate with frequent breezes — but in truth, there were no easy roads. Death traveled in every wagon, on every boat. Westering made many orphans, and picked many parents clean.
Jackson and I were young and healthy — that was our good fortune. Neither of us shied from hard work. I set aside being a lady and had the grave half dug by the time Jackson finished the coffin. We buried Father in a buffalo robe he had bought from an old Osage man. Then we rolled him in the coffin and eased the coffin into the earth. Dust was on its way to dust.
"We ought to sing a hymn at least," Jackson suggested.
Hymn singing makes me mopey — I have a good voice but a poor memory for the words of songs. Since Jackson and I had not been churchly people we could not quite string together a whole hymn, but we did sing a verse or two of "Amazing Grace," and then we sang "Lorena," in memory of the thousands of fallen heroes of the South. Since our vocal chords were warmed up we finished with a rousing version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It was a Yankee hymn, of course — Father, who fought with Lee at the Wilderness and elsewhere, might not have approved, but Father was dead and his fight was over. Maybe it was time to let bygones be bygones — singing one another's songs was a start.
Across the Cimarron, to the northwest, the July sun was shining hard on Black Mesa, the only hill anywhere around. Rita Blanca, the little town we had decided to head for, was more than thirty miles away. Percy, our strong-minded mule, hated long stretches of travel and would balk and sulk most of the way. But Percy would just have to put up with a lengthy travel, since neither Jackson nor I felt like spending another night in the flea-filled cabin.
"Let's go partway and camp," Jackson suggested. "It's a full moon. It'll stay light till almost morning."
Having no one to keep us, or say us nay, that is exactly what we did.
Copyright and#169; 2006 by Larry McMurtry
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