The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry – Extract

The Last Kind Words Saloon

.1.

A hat came skipping down the main street of Long Grass, propelled only by the wind, which was sharp for March. The hat was brown felt and had a narrow brim.

“I believe that’s Doc Featherston’s hat,” Wyatt said. “He may have lost track of it while setting a limb.”

“Or, he might be over at the Orchid fornicating and let it blow out a window,” Doc Holliday suggested.

“Doubt it . . . only rich dentists such as yourself can afford the Orchid these days,” Wyatt said.

Doc drew his pistol and aimed at the hat but didn’t shoot.

“Why would a grown man want to be a dentist anyway?”

Wyatt inquired.

“Well, for one thing, the cost of equipment is low,” Doc told him. “All you need is a pair of pliers and maybe a chisel for difficult cases.”

At the mention of a chisel Wyatt turned pale—he had always been squeamish.

“I’m sorry I brought it up,” he said. “Are we going to sit here and let the good doctor’s hat blow clean away?”

A crow flew over. Doc shot at it twice, but missed. Wyatt walked out in the street and picked up the hat.

Across the street, at the establishment called the Orchid a tall woman in a purple dressing gown came out onto a little balcony and shook out her abundant black hair.

“There’s San Saba, what do you think about her?” Doc said. “I don’t often think about her,” Wyatt said. “Jessie’s all the female I can handle, and it ain’t a hundred percent that I can handle her.”

“Why do you ask?” he added.

“Just to be making conversation, I ain’t a mute like you,” Doc said. “And it’s the only whorehouse in town. They say if you can sprout up twelve inches of dick you get to fuck free.”

“Well, I can’t sprout it up and I doubt you can so let’s talk about something else,” Wyatt suggested.

Just then they heard a faint sound from the empty plains to the south of town.

“There ’s supposed to be a herd coming in today from Texas— I ’spect that’s it,” Doc said. “Where ’s your six-shooter?”

“It might be behind the bar,” Wyatt said. “It’s too heavy to carry around. If I see trouble springing up I can usually borrow a weapon from Wells Fargo or somebody.”

“Bat Masterson claims you’re the best pistol shot in the West,” Doc said. “He says you can hit a coyote at four hundred yards.”

“Hell, I couldn’t even see a dang coyote if it was that far away, unless they painted it red,” Wyatt said. “Bat should let me do my own bragging, if he can’t manage to be credible.”

“All right then, what’s the farthest distance you could hit a fat man?” Doc persisted, determined to get at least the elements of conversation out of the taciturn Wyatt, who ignored the question. In the distance it was just possible to see mounted figures, urging their horses at a dead run toward Long Grass.

“Those cowboys have probably been on the drive thirty or forty days,” Doc said. “They’re gonna want whiskey and whores, and want them quick.”

Just then there was a piercing whistle, followed moments later by a train from the east; the train had many empty boxcars and two passenger cars and a caboose. As soon as it came to a complete stop a skinny young man got off, carrying a satchel.

“There stands a dude, of sorts,” Doc said. “I wonder what the state of his molars might be.”

“Now, Doc, don’t be yanking teeth out of tourists,” Wyatt said, turning pale again at the mere suggestion of dentistry.

The rumble to the south had diminished; for a time it faded altogether.

“The cattle smelled the water—they’re over at the river, filling up,” Doc said. “The whores can sleep a little longer.”

“If you had twenty pearls would you give at least one or two to Jessie?” Doc inquired.

Wyatt ignored the question. His wife’s taste for finery was none of Doc’s business, that he could see.

One of the passenger cars was considerably fancier than the other. It was painted a royal purple. The skinny young dude took a moment to get his bearings and then came resolutely up the street.

“I wonder who’s in that blue car,” Doc said. “You don’t often see a car that fancy in these parts.”

He happened to glance to the south, where he saw two riders approaching. Wyatt noticed the same thing.

“Uh-oh,” Doc said. “It’s that damn Charlie Goodnight and his nigger.”

“You’re right—he was in that fracas in Mobetie,” Wyatt said. “They say that nigger is the best hand in the West at turning stampedes—it’s a rare skill.”

Just then Doc Featherston, owner of the bouncing bowler, walked out of the Orchid and fell flat on his face in the street.

“I guess San Saba likes the Doc,” Wyatt said. “Women sure are odd.”

Before Doc could weigh in on the oddity of women, San Saba herself walked out of the Orchid and strolled off toward the train track. The young man who had stepped off the train raised his hat to her. She took no notice of him, or of the prostrate doctor; nor did she so much as glance at the two men watching her from the porch of—according to its sign—The Last Kind Words Saloon. She went straight to the royal purple railroad car and rapped on the door, through which she was immediately admitted.

“Well, hell and damn,” Doc said.

His taciturn companion said nothing at all.

.2.

Charles Goodnight rarely troubled with pleasantries, but when he took note of the sign hanging over the saloon door he stopped and gave the sign a considered inspection.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my cowboys shoots a hole in your sign,” he said.

“When will that be, Charlie?” Wyatt asked. “Soon as the herd’s penned,” Goodnight said.

“Ain’t it a little early to be driving cattle on the plains?” Doc said. “It’s no fun driving cattle in a howling blizzard, which are not uncommon in March.”

“Driving cattle ain’t fun, blizzard or no blizzard,” Goodnight said. “But there’s no train yet to my ranch, so here I am.” “Is that your sawbones sleeping in the street?” Goodnight asked. “If it’s who I think it is he once took a boil off my rump.

I’ve traveled more comfortably ever since.”

“There’s plenty of dentistry available here,” Doc pointed out.

“Another time, maybe,” Goodnight said. “I admire that sign, though I don’t know what it means.”

“It’s my brother Warren’s sign,” Wyatt said. “I seldom understand Warren, myself.”

While they talked, Bose Ikard, Goodnight’s black foreman, saw a large bull snake edging around the porch. In his years on the plains Bose had learned a thing or two, one of which was how to catch snakes by the tail. He quickly caught the snake, swung him around his head a few times as if he were swinging a lariat, and threw him across the street, out of harm’s way.

“He’s just as neat with rattlesnakes,” Goodnight volunteered.

“Bull snakes will charge you sometimes, and I am not a good enough shot to hit a charging snake.”

“Me neither,” Wyatt admitted. “I could probably hit a buffalo, though, if there were any left.”

“We could stand here talking all day, which would not earn us a cent,” Goodnight said. “Anybody get out of that blue railroad car?”

“No, but somebody went in it, the lovely San Saba,” Doc said.

“Good, I believe I’ll join the company,” Goodnight said. He dismounted, handed his reins to Bose, who led his horse back toward the livery stable.

“How do you know you’re invited, Charlie?” Wyatt asked.

Though he had no reason to be dismayed, he was dismayed.

Charlie Goodnight, in an excellent mood, was strolling down the street to join the most beautiful whore on the plains, and somebody rich enough to travel in a fancy railroad car. Private cars in royal purple or just plain blue didn’t show up in Long Grass every day.

“Hell and damn,” Doc repeated. He was puzzled too.

.3.

“Charlie Goodnight’s known to be irascible,” Wyatt said, to Doc. “It’s rare that he’s even polite.”

“What did you say he was?” Doc asked. “Irascible, clean out your damn ears,” Wyatt said.

“It’s too much word for me, that’s all,” Doc protested. “Some days you just talk funny.”

“Look, Charlie’s got Doc Featherston on his feet,” Wyatt said. “No doubt Charlie’s grateful—for a man in the saddle as much as he is, a boil on the rump would be vexatious.”

“I expect this dude is a cattle buyer,” Doc said. “Charlie didn’t drive his cattle all the way up here just to park them in a pen.”

Goodnight ignored the dude with the satchel and walked up and rapped on the door of the fancy railroad car, which opened immediately. A tall figure shook Goodnight’s hand vigorously and rapidly pulled him in.

Wyatt and Doc caught a glimpse of San Saba before the door closed.

“Today’s off to a peculiar start, I’d say,” Wyatt said.

Before Doc could answer, the dude with the satchel came in hearing distance.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” the skinny young man said.

“Could you direct me to the newspaper office? I’m a reporter, you see.”

“Or if there’s a boardinghouse nearby I might go there first and secure a room.”

“I’m Billy Pippin,” he added.

“Before you go to the trouble we best figure out if you’re in the right town,” Wyatt said. “This is Long Grass, which is nearly in Kansas, but not quite. It’s nearly in New Mexico, too, but not quite. Some have even suggested that we might be in Texas.”

“It depends on your notion of where Texas stops,” Doc said, for clarity’s sake.

By which point young Billy Pippin looked thoroughly confused.

“The one thing that’s certain is that Long Grass has no newspaper office,” Wyatt said.

“For that matter it has no news,” Wyatt told him. “Very little happens here, son.”

“But it will have some: Goodnight and Lord Ernle are about to partner up and have the biggest ranch in the world. I work for the Chicago Tribune. I’m expected to file a story. I need a telegraph.”

“Oh, if that’s all you want there’s one right over in Rita Blanca, if you can put up with the woman who runs it— I can’t,” Wyatt said.

“Miss Courtright, why she’s the very one who encouraged me to come,” Billy Pippin said.

“Nellie Courtright could peel paint off a fence, just by talking,” Doc said.

Billy Pippin looked defeated.

“How far is Rita Blanca?” he asked.

“Too far to walk,” Wyatt said. “But there’s buggies for hire if you’re rich.”

“No, no, I’m not rich,” Billy objected. “I’m just trying to file a story about this merger—the English lord and the Texas rancher, you know.”

Just then, to their surprise, San Saba stepped out of the railroad car. Four pigeons perched on her arm. One by one she held them up and released them. Two flew east and two flew south.

“They’re messenger pigeons, I’m scooped for sure,” Billy Pippin said. “Lord Ernle really means to get the news out.”

“News from pigeons! Where will the damned birds go?” Doc asked.

“One to Kansas City and probably one to Fort Worth,” Billy said.

“Hawks might get one—’spect why he sent out two,” Bose said.

“I’ve never supposed a damn pigeon could find its way to Fort Worth, and I ain’t convinced it will,” Wyatt said.

“Besides that, how does San Saba get to know a lord?” Doc asked. The migrations of beautiful women had always interested him.

“He bought her from a sultan—they say she’s a virgin,” Billy Pippin said. “My bosses want to know if it’s true.”

“A what?” Doc said, thinking he must have heard wrong. How many virgins spent their time running whorehouses on the plains?

Before they could discuss it further there was a rumble from the south.

“The cattle got penned, cowboys are coming,” Bose said. Wyatt moved quickly for the first time.

“I need to wake up my wife, she’s the best bartender in Long Grass,” he said.

“Save me a toddy,” Doc said, but by then Wyatt was long gone, into the Last Kind Words Saloon.

.4.

“You just made me a bartender so you could keep track of me in the afternoon . . . the slack time.”

“And the morning, and around midnight,” Wyatt said. “Besides, a little education don’t hurt,” he added.

“Bartender’s school in Kansas City ain’t exactly education,” Jessie pointed out. It irritated her that her husband was so hard to talk to. Three or four complaints in a row and he’d usually slap her, and once or twice he’d done worse, which is why she was careful to keep the bar between them most of the time. He wasn’t tall enough to reach her all the way across the bar, but she knew he had it in him to hit her hard.

Twice when she had pushed him over the limit—which she did mainly to find out what his limit was—he had hit with his closed fist and knocked her sprawling. It took talent to make Wyatt lose his temper, but Jessie knew just how to do it, and did it mainly just to have something happening. Pouring whiskey from bottle to glass was boring work. Needling Wyatt was the way to start something; or would have been if Wyatt ever took the trouble to make up with her. Then she might have taken him in hand and gotten him active, but only if she was quick to take him in hand; otherwise he’d go to another saloon and get drunk—after which she might not see him for days.

Wyatt had a big reputation as a gunfighter, which puzzled Jessie, because as far as she knew he had never actually killed anybody. When she asked him about it he said that he had never needed to, and perhaps never would.

But Jessie had no doubt that Wyatt would kill somebody, someday, for something or for nothing. There was something hard in Wyatt that wasn’t in his brother Morgan or his brother Virgil, though they were actually lawmen for real, Morgan usually a sheriff and Virg usually a deputy. But whoever was the official marshal, Wyatt was the real law, even though he had never officially been hired, much less elected.

“Vote for Wyatt, no,” Doc said, when Jessie pinned him down about the matter. “Only a fool would vote for Wyatt.”

“But they’d vote for you, wouldn’t they?” she asked. Jessie liked Doc, although she knew he was rarely sober.

“If I cared to charm them, yes,” Doc said. “But there’s no place I’d care to be elected at, so it’s back to the cards. Wyatt thinks I’m the best poker player in America. Jessie, what do you think?”

Jessie liked to keep Doc talking, in case he might accidentally touch her or something, and if they ever accidentally touched in the right place, then he’d be hers, Wyatt or no Wyatt.

“You ain’t afraid of Wyatt, are you, Doc?” Jessie asked.

“Jessie, I don’t give enough of a damn to be afraid of anything,” Doc said, and he looked as if he might know what she was thinking.

Then he laughed.

“Women, women, women,” he said. “Why are you thinking of doing the one thing that might make Wyatt Earp kill you?”

“To see if he’s alive,” she said.

“To see if he cares.”

“And you can’t figure that out without risking gunplay?”

“I haven’t so far,” Jessie said.

“When I try to talk to Wyatt he just walks out and the next thing I know he’s down the street, drunk, with that little shotgun of his.”

“It’s his weapon of choice,” Doc said. “It’s ideal for whacking noisy cowboys in the noggin so they can be drug off to jail. Wyatt usually does the whacking and leaves the dragging for Virgil.”

“You’re not being a lot of help, you know,” Jessie said. But Doc just sat there staring into space until Jessie thought to hell with it and walked away.

.5.

“I was raised by the eunuchs,” San Saba said. “There were fifty in the seraglio, Mr. Goodnight.”

The two of them were watching Lord Ernle enjoying a footbath.

“Very important to keep the feet clean,” he went on. “Many infectious evils come in through the soles of the feet.”

“Fifty eunuchs?” Goodnight said; the morning was rich in surprises.

“My mother was the Rose Concubine, which was a very high position in the harem. But one day she refused the sultan, which was not done.”

Goodnight waited.

“He had her blinded, sewn in a sack, and thrown off a cliff into the Bosphorus. I was kept a virgin until the sultan got around to me. Fortunately Benny showed up and bought me.”

“Rather filthy specimen, that sultan,” Lord Ernle said. “Hamid something. I couldn’t see wasting such beauty on Orientals. But that’s a long story and I think Charlie and I ought to be thinking about our announcement.”

“Okay,” Goodnight said. “There’s a newspaperman wandering around here already and there’ll soon be a passel more. I’m sure Nellie Courtright will soon be along—she runs the telegraph in Rita Blanca, which ain’t far—at least not as the crow flies.”

He was trying to learn a new virtue: patience. He was known all over the West for exactly the opposite quality: impatience; and, in his impatience, he was known to be exceedingly profane—and loud to boot. His own wife, Mary Goodnight, had threatened to leave him twice because of the cussing, although in neither case was it her he was cussing.

Though impatient, Goodnight wasn’t daft. He had met Lord Ernle in Chicago, where an effort was made, although a feeble one, to form a stockmen’s association, and he liked Lord Benny Ernle immediately, while recognizing that he wasn’t an ordinary partner. He was the tallest man in England, and also the richest: one of his many country houses, he told Goodnight, required thirty-eight gardeners.

“Weeds, I suppose,” Goodnight said, but Lord Ernle didn’t hear him. He was left to wonder what thirty-eight gardeners did. Though he had known Lord Ernle only a few months he realized that he would be wasting his time trying to understand English ways; maybe his wife would have better luck when they met up, as they would soon.

“What’s the word on my house? San Saba and I are looking forward to moving in soon,” Lord Ernle said.

Even before the partnership with Goodnight had fully evolved, Lord Ernle had made himself a legend in the West by ordering the construction of a vast castle on a bluff overlooking the Canadian River. Miles of train track had been laid just to bring workmen and equipment to the castle site. Though still a vast shell, travelers who happened on it were left speechless by the scale. Even Mary Goodnight had been struck speechless, a rare occurrence in Charlie’s experience.

“I fear I had no time for architecture,” Goodnight said. “But I did bring up about fifteen hundred yearlings for us to put in play.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Goodnight,” San Saba said. “We left a foreman there to see that construction is moving along. I even have photographs. There’s a lot to do yet but it’ll get done in time.”

“I rarely do worry,” Goodnight said, while wondering exactly what role San Saba—once maybe the most beautiful woman in Asia, now no longer in Asia—would have in this hastily evolved partnership. Though gossiped about endlessly in the cow country, not much was actually known about her. She called Lord Ernle Benny, but what did that mean? There was said to be measuring of penises at the Orchid, but was it true and if so what did that mean?

“What about the savages, Charlie?” Lord Ernle inquired.

“All subdued, I trust?” Goodnight shook his head.

“The Comanches are through—they’ve accepted reservation life,” he said. “With the Kiowa it’s a shakier situation. There are twenty or thirty renegades who keep breaking loose and causing trouble.”

“Why not raise a private militia and go wipe the devils out?” Lord Ernle said. “I’m sure there are plenty of fine killers for hire in these parts.”

“Yes, but most of them are worse than the Kiowa,” Goodnight said.

“The Texas Rangers are trying to corral them, but they’re sly rascals,” Goodnight said. “There are lots of pistoleros we could get but they are a mixed blessing, Ben.”

“Will Mrs. Goodnight be visiting us at the castle?” San Saba asked. “I’m anxious to meet her.”

“She’ll show up, I can’t say when,” Goodnight said, remembering a sharp little exchange he had with his wife as he was leaving to gather the herd. He had suggested that they live in a tent for a while, until he could build them a house of their own.

“You want me to live in a tent?” Mary said, with an unfriendly cast to her expression. “Your partner and his concubine live in a fine mansion while I live in a tent? How is that fair, Charlie?” “I doubt she’s his concubine,” he said. “And I’ll get us a house started as soon as I get the money from this cattle sale.” “I didn’t learn algebra just to live in a tent,” Mary said—a remark that puzzled him a good deal, since Mary had never so far burst into algebra. Where did she learn it, and why?

The question was amenable to no immediate answer, since Mary Goodnight turned and walked away.


Excerpted from The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Copyright © 2014 by Larry McMurtry.
First published 2014 by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York. First published in Great Britain 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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