The Return of Little Big Man

The Return of Little Big Man

by Thomas Berger

Paperback(1ST BACK B)

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Jack Crabb, hero of Little Big Man and beloved chronicler of the Wild West, is back in the saddle again. This time he meets, drinks with, and rides with Bat Masterson, Annie Oakley, and Doc Holliday, and even travels with Buffalo Bill Cody to meet Queen Victoria. Part mischief, part historical fact, The Return of Little BigMan is a true literary achievement and a rollicking good read.
— Tremendously well reviewed, this sequel is a hit with critics and readers alike.
— The perfect book for any lover of Westerns, Mark Twain, and Berger himself.
— With a lovable hero, an action-packed story, a true Wild West setting, and scrupulous historical detail, The Return of Little BigMan has crossover appeal for readers of both history and fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316091176
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 03/01/2000
Edition description: 1ST BACK B
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 611,583
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


Old Lodge Skins was the finest man I ever knew, and though I spent years apart from him, I guess it was always in the back of my mind that he would live forever, so that any time I needed to, I could go back and find him and get him to set me straight about things of the spirit, which I have found apply to all people whatever their material ways.

He killed plenty of his fellow men and scalped them to boot, and took torture, given or received, in stride, but he had what in my experience up to then, and in fact since, was unique: a firm grasp of a lot of fundamentals, and he always knew where his center was, a knowledge which has eluded me for much of my existence.

I was still in the Indian garb my Cheyenne friends had give me so I wouldn't be slaughtered on the Greasy Grass battleground, and I had stayed for a spell with Old Lodge Skins's little band in the Bighorn foothills. Some of the rest of the big encampment which Custer had rashly attacked went north with Sitting Bull after the fight was over, up to Grandmother's Land, which is what they called Canada, after Queen Victoria, whose image they saw on some medallions presented them in Years past by the Canadians.

I had had my own grievance against Custer, whose attack on the Cheyenne camp on the Washita, years earlier, had resulted in the loss of my Indian wife and child, and thought for a while I'd kill him if I could, but I never got the chance, and now that somebody had done it with no help from me, I both lacked a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of put, Pose as to what I'd do with the rest of my life.

I also had my hide to think of Now that Old Lodge Skins wasn't the to vouch for me, some of the other Indians, too young to remember in years with the Cheyenne, might get to wondering why I was hiding out amongst them, wearing a breechcloth and leggings, having been too polite for such wonderment while he was alive. Not only do Indians have natural good manners, but they reverence their elders. I was worried no that if I went back to camp and told of the old chief's death, some of the more excitable individuals might believe I rubbed him out and wanted to take over his power, all ten cents' worth of his material possessions and his wives, the latest of whom was quite young and, despite his advanced age, showing a swollen belly.

But I'd have a better chance there than looking for the U.S. At dressed as a Cheyenne, and I didn't have no access to a change o wardrobe at the moment, unless I wanted to ask a warrior to loan me some of the clothes he stripped off the corpses of the Seventh Cavalry. Any white soldiers I encountered in the region would want to know,, what I was doing there, however I was dressed, and given their state of mind after the Custer defeat, I would of had a hard time convincing them, having lost, at least temporarily, my gift for verbal invention.

Indeed the events of recent days had taken the heart out of me. I hadn't rejoiced at the sight of two hundred dead of my own kind, and there was plenty red men too who had died at the Little Bighorn, having been no enemies of mine. Now Old Lodge Skins was gone. I tell you I could have sat down and cried like a white person, or sung Indian songs of grief and mourning, or maybe both, but I did neither. That part of the world was far too perilous to let sentiment affect your provisions for safety. What I had to do was get out of there pronto, my expressions of bereavement done in silence, in the heart.

I figured if I could get unharmed down to the new settlements in the Black Hills, I could rejoin white society in a inconspicuous fashion, for people was crowding into that part of Dakota Territory on another of them gold rushes that happened periodically in the West. I had myself participated in that earlier one at Cherry Creek, Colorado, and after a lot of panning, got less gold dust than paid for the equipment, but then made the real discovery: namely, that almost all the money made from gold strikes is by them that sell miners their supplies, liquor, and women, at inflated prices.

I managed, traveling on foot and mostly by night, after about a month to get down to the mining town of Deadwood in Dakota Territory, undamaged except for being three-quarters starved because food is hard t come by in the dark without the eyes of a catamount, and I had to eat wild turnips and unripe plums and bullberries still green and hard, along with a lot of bark and weeds. I had no weapon but a real poor knife I ha begged off my recent red comrades who despite their big victory was poor as ever, a kind of standard Indian situation.

I was still wearing the skin shirt, which I might of gotten away with but not so with the breechcloth and leggings. Nor did I have sufficient money for the buying of replacements, and the people of them days, in that part of the world, generally wore the same clothes for months at a time, even when sleeping the night, having no extras, so it wouldn't be easy to swipe anything.

Deadwood at this time was more or less one long ditch of, depending on the weather, mud or dust, lined on both sides by saloons. They had spared from the axe one or two tall pines like what the Indians used for lodgepoles -- another reason the Black Hills was precious land, the plains being treeless - a few stores, a number of harlotries, and a bathhouse.

I took the lay of the land in the wee hours of the morning, by which time the streets was deserted and even the soiled doves had turned down the lamps in their rooms, else I might of tried to get past the madam (who was always a hard case) and talk one of the girls into extending me a little loan. I've had some experience of ladies of pleasure and while they won't give sexual favors for free, because that's a professional matter, they are otherwise at least as generous to needy men as are respectable women, maybe more so, having even more reason to look down on the male sex, encountering few customers who are either sober or have bathed in the previous year.

Then I heard a groan coming from inside the bed of a wagon in the street out front of one of the saloons, not so much parked as abandoned, at an angle and without a horse. There was enough moon by which, if I stood on tiptoe and looked over the side, to see some fellow flopped there, either drunk or dying, in them days both being pretty routine in a gold town.

I asks, "Partner, what ails you?"

In response I got a stream of indecent abuse, so apparently he did not require medical treatment. "All right, then, you son of a bitch. I'll fight you," I says. I didn't mean it. It was just a test and earned me some nor abuse, but this time it was too slurred even to identify the words.

I boosted myself up into the wagon and proceeded to strip off the drunk's outer clothes, a wool shirt and a pair of pants that stank worse than anything I ever smelled until his filthy long underwear met the air.

I drug these garments back up into the high woods back of the town, where I had hid, and soaked them the rest of the night in a cold mountain stream. Next morning they still stank though not as much, and somewhat less as the sun heated up and begun to steam them dry. If they shrunk some as well, all to the good, for I wasn't so large as him I stole them from. I buried my Indian attire and went down into town again, now dressed at least as good as most of the other people on the main or in fact the only drag in Deadwood.

I hadn't ate real food in ever so long, and being that drunk had enormous feet, I hadn't taken his boots but continued to wear them Cheyenne moccasins that might be questioned by the inevitable people who like to make trouble, especially when the liquor's flowing. I was in grievous need of funds, now I was amidst whites once more. In an Indian camp I could of walked right in and got my needs met free of charge, no questions asked, except "Where are you going?" and "What do you want?" which, however they were answered, entitled you to the basics. This was true even of an enemy band: if you could get in before you was killed, they had to be hospitable to you, for being a guest outweighed any other identity. It was owing to such practices that they proved at a disadvantage when dealing with people of a superior civilization.

The wagon where the drunk had been was still in its old position, half blocking the road, but not one person had troubled to move it out of the way, driving their own conveyances through the narrow space left at one side, which meant one-way traffic and a lot of cursing and probably a fight sooner or later, so I put my back into it and rocked the wagon out of the ruts and pushed it to the side of the roadway. I probably wouldn't of been so public-spirited had I not known some qualms about swiping the owner's clothes, for I never been a thief except when I had no other choice. I did this even though he wasn't nowhere in sight.

But then I heard a groan and climbed up and looked into the wagon box, and there he was, in his long underwear (even filthier by day than in moonlight), squinting in the sun under a dirty hand raised as shade. I had left his boots alongside him after determining they wouldn't fit me, and he grabbed them now and pulled them over his filthy socks. He licked his lips and rubbed the cactus patch of his beard. He hadn't yet noticed having no outer clothing.

Then he discerned me and made a sickly grin. "I beg your pardon, sir," says he. "I didn't know it was your wagon. I wasn't trying to steal it, I swear. if I pissed in it, I swear I will clean it up so you'll never know. Same for puking or shitting, though if the last-named, it is likely it's still in my pants." Only now did he notice what he was wearing or rather what he was not, his grin turning more shamefaced, and he felt around under him, like his clothes might be bunched up there.

I didn't feel right, but not so much as to return his shirt and pants, which obviously he didn't recognize. "Tell you what I'm willing to do," I says. "I'll go back to your camp and bring you some articles of clothing."

"I wouldn't think of putting you out further," says he, crawling to one side and throwing a long leg over. The trapdoor in his long johns lacked a button or two and, flapping, afforded the sight of his hairy arse. He dropped to the roadway on hands and knees and stayed that way awhile, groaning and blaspheming. "God damn the people who can sell rotgut of that quality. I could never of gotten away with it when I was in the business myself."

"Let me help you, partner," I says. "You go over and sit on that stump, and I'll go fetch some clothes if you'll tell me where."

He complained again about his entrails, and then he says, "Way it is, I don't have no clothes but them I was wearing last time I looked but have mislaid since." With difficulty he got to his feet by a process you might call climbing up himself.

As his face went past me I peered at him with new interest. His cheeks was smeared with dirt and his eyes was bloodshot. When he grinned all his front teeth was missing. I knew that nose and chin. "Your name wouldn't be Bill Crabb, would it?"

Now you might think he'd be surprised, but instead he says with all the confidence in the world, "The very man. My reputation has pre, ceded me. You have me at a disadvantage, sit. Are you an officer of the law?))

"I'm your brother Jack," says 1.

Without a change of expression, he leans over and vomits on the toes of his boots. He straightens up, wiping his lips on the sleeves of the long johns* "You was saying?"

"I'm Jack. Your brother. Long-lost."

It's a real feat to acquire a haughty expression when you're in his state but I swear he did as much.

"Hmm," says he, squinting down that long nose he got from our Pa, whereas mine is snub like our Ma's.

"Anybody can claim anything."

"Meaning it's so great to be related to you somebody would lie about it?" I asks, which would of been insulting to anyone of respect, which could never be said of my brother Bill. "Last time I saw you was years ago down on the buffalo range, where you was selling whiskey dosed with rattlesnake heads. I believe it was a gent named Wyatt Earp saved your hide before the buffalo hunters could string you up.'

"What I recall about Earp was it was me who taught him to shoot a sixgun." Bill had a real annoying chuckle, which started like a hacking cough and ended in a shrill hee-haw. "Shoulda seen him in them days, held a gun like a girl. Didn't know where the trigger was. And he was yella to the core. Nothin' I could do about that."

"What I want to know is, do you recognize me at all?"

Bill stared awhile, twisting his lips. "I'll say this, I can hardly swally, I'm so dry. My memory works better after a drink or three." He purses his lips and looks real smug. "After five or six I'll recall anything I'm told to."

I was standing apart from him, on account of the stench, and luckily so when he had begun to puke. "I doubt anybody but me would claim kinship with you, Bill. There can't be much profit in it." I was sorry I said it as soon as it was out: why assert a connection with a man so you can insult him? But no matter what you said to Bill, he would use it for him' self, without doing himself any real good. Funny how that works. No' body thinks anything of you, so you tell them what they ought to think, and the result is they think even worse. I run into plenty more of that sort in life, but my brother was a notorious example.

Standing there now on the main street of Deadwood in his underwear from which his behind was showing, he cocks his chin real superior like and says, "You might wanta get your dirty little paws on my claim. It ha pens to be the richest hereabout. If I wanted to work that hard, I could. take out a bucket of dust every day, nuggets the size of peach stones."

"Bill," I says, "I'm dead broke and without prospects myself," realizing however that a give-and-take with him would always be useless. "But we're family, and I'll give you a hand soon as I'm able, which better be soon, for I haven't ate in a while. Now, where are you holing up?"

He takes me down an alleyway between the saloons and around back to where there's a big overturned, rotting hogshead which he called home. There was some burlap sacks inside and a piece of originally re blanket, on top of which laid a yellow dog who bared his teeth at me until Bill told it I was O.K. The animal then come out and smelled m moccasins, no doubt picking up the scent of Indian dogs, for its tail wen rigid for an instant, but finally it wagged its tail and went back into the barrel and laid down in the middle, so that when my brother crawled i he had to push it aside. But I guess its idea was to stay as close to him a possible. Dogs make good friends for the likes of Bill, for they don't have a critical faculty and also like stuff that stinks.

"You just stay here awhile," I says, stating the obvious, "and I'm going to see how the Crabbs can come up in the world," stating what might seem laughable at that moment. Bill was somewhat older than me though, I figured, still under forty. I doubt he would ever recognize me as the little kid who went off with the Cheyenne, but when you're in his condition what do you care who your well-wishers are? I had seen Bill a couple times in the years between, selling whiskey to the Indians who hung around some fort and then again in that incident involving Wyatt Earp some time after, but to be fair, he hadn't never recognized me and I sure didn't ask him to.

So leaving my brother where he was, sleeping with his dog - to tell You the truth, it looked real snug in there - I went out to the Main street, wearing his clothes, still slightly damp from their overnight soaking. I felt more hopeful than I had in some time, being reunited with Bill, who in better circumstances I would no doubt have avoided any association with. But I decided now to straighten him out, make some money somehow, and acquire a place for us to live. Deadwood seemed as good as any, for it was all new, such as it was, where everybody was starting out more or less from the same level. What I had to do was figure out a profession for myself. Looking along that street, all that immediately come to mind was something connected with whiskey, gambling, and Whores. There was plenty room for legitimate business establishments, but to set up a shop you had to be grubstaked to lay in your stock, and credit is mighty hard to come by in a gold-strike area. At the moment I didn't look much better than Bill had when wearing the same clothing, too big on me besides, and I had not washed a lot on the route down here. I hadn't shaved in ever so long, either, but the way my whiskers rowed I still looked more dirty than bearded to the quick glance I give my visage now and again when kneeling to drink in a stream slow. moving enough to reflect an image.

I ain't mentioned that as of midmorning the street was crowded with men and vehicles. I hadn't paid much attention to them while attending to my brother, and if anybody was offended by or even noticed him dressed in his underwear with his arse showing, they didn't indicate such. That kind of place is made up entirely of greedy people who can only see a dollar and for most of them even that is only a dream. Fact is, most people who run to gold strikes was losers.

Now, while I'm standing there on the board sidewalk in front of an establishment bearing a crude handpainted sign, "The Congress," which was more likely to be another saloon rather than a legislative chamber, though glass windows was rare in Deadwood, so I couldn't see inside, who should step out through the door but a frock-coated tall figure who was right familiar to me.

Under the broad-brimmed sombrero, he looked considerably older than when I had last seen him just the previous early spring in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. His hair was still shoulder- length, but it had gone wispy at the ends, as was his drooping mustache, and his once clear gray-blue eyes was red-rimmed and kinda watery. His face was real pale. That long hooked nose of his had got pointier.

"Wild Bill Hickok," I says. "So you got here too." Now that I seen him, I recalled we had talked of prospecting for gold in Deadwood.

The keen nostrils at the end of that long nose was twitching, and he backs away. "Is that stink coming from you, hoss? Have you shat in your clothes?"

I was more than embarrassed. "I'm down on my luck, Bill," I says, "wearing borrowed clothing and ain't ate in some time. I don't know if you heard yet, Custer and most of the Seventh was rubbed out by the hostiles up in Montana. I happened to be there but got away with my life due to a Cheyenne I knowed ......

Hickok had backed away a few more paces as I spoke. He was shaking his head, his long tresses brushing the shoulders of his swallowtail-"Hoss," he says, breaking in, "I never shot anyone for telling tall stories of that nature, which I've done myself to greenhorns, but I've knocked him down. If a handout is what you need, then you oughta ask and not try to make a fool of me." He sweeps away the coat with his left hand and plucks a silver dollar from the lower pocket in his fancy vest. Bill was famous for his sartorial tastes, as well as his personal cleanliness. "I will stake you to a bath, shave, and a trim."

I didn't persist with my story but right away says, "Thank you kindly. I wonder if you would mind if I get something to eat with some of the money?"

Wild Bill slowly blinks those sore-looking eyes and goes again into the vest pocket with two left fingers and finds me another dollar. This one felt funny, and I looked and saw it was knicked at one edge, but I guess it was still good, and I thanked him again.

"After a plate of bread and beans, you'll have enough left to pick up a shirt and pants where they sell used clothes, down the street. Then burn what you're wearing now."

He turns and moves away, though not with the assured stride of old. Also he stayed on the walk, instead of the middle of the street, which he had once been famous for using so he could scan the area for possible bushwhackers and also keep a certain distance between him and them who might fire on him from ambush. But one thing I was sure about: namely, that when he played poker he still sat with his back to a wall.

I had no reason not to act on his suggestion, having some pride in my appearance when I could afford as much, and I returned to my brother's barrel-home so clean-washed and -shaved I bet I'd have to identify my-self to him all over again. I was wearing a pair of canvas pants in reason-ably good condition and almost clean along with a flannel shirt that was wore through at the elbows but had no discernible odor. These with the other goods heaped in the tent of the old-clothes dealer had been sold by gold-rushers who had run out of funds, either because they never panned any dust or lost it all gambling. Imagine what the original owners had got for a pants and shirt that cost me seventy cents altogether. That dealer throwed in a beat-up old hat with so greasy a sweatband I tore it away.

I had enough left for coffee and two orders of beans and bread, the second of which I made sandwiches from and brung them back for my brother Bill. Even so, believe me when I say prices was greatly inflated at Deadwood, as at all gold towns.

When I got to the hogshead, no Bill was in evidence, his yellow dog being there all alone and lonely. It never snarled at me this time, knowing me now, but sank its head real low and whimpered.

The one order given me by Wild Bill I had not obeyed was to bum the pants and shirt I took off, for they belonged to my brother and was balled under my arm at the moment.

"Dammit," I says now to the dog, "where has he gone in his underwear?" The answer I got was another whine. After the kindly face and big brown eyes, what was most noticeable on this animal was his prominent ribs, all of which you could count at a distance. "I'm going to look for him. While you're waiting, eat yourself one of these bean sandwiches." Now that was a real sacrifice, for it had been all I could do to save some food for Bill, being still famished myself, but I took this here dog as part of my family responsibility, and he was likely to be more reliable than my brother.

He swallowed that sandwich in one and a half bites, living for the instant as a dog does, and in expectation of more, but I put the other sandwich in the pocket of my pants, which as always was too roomy for me, cinched at the waist with a length of rope and folded up at the cuffs, and went out along the street, trying each of the saloons, of which already at that time there must of been two dozen or more within a mile and a half As time went on, somebody told me at a later day, the number rose to seventy-six. Some of them I looked into had a bar consisting of a wooden plank supported by a barrel at either end, a bottle or two, and tin cups you'd never see washed out between drinkers if you watched all day. They didn't have no windows usually, so was lighted by oil lamps at high noon in blazing sunshine outdoors. The bartender might not have a towel or apron - fact is, he was often dressed like his customers, even to the hat - but he was never without a prominent shotgun, leaning close to hand. This was used mostly as a pointer to indicate the door when the level of bad feeling amongst the drunks sounded like it would take an-other form than mere verbal abuse. But since only two or three people per week was shot to death in Deadwood at this time, it was not considered necessary yet to hire an officer of the law.

I didn't have no more money and therefore could not afford a drink, which in some of these places was as much as a dollar per shot, being at that price presumably something on the order of real whiskey, whereas the cut-rate joints, at fifty cents per, no doubt served up the kind of concoction of tobacco juice, gunpowder, pepper, and snake venom which my brother Bill had sold as liquor in his heyday.

I hadn't looked in more than three or four places when through the open door of the next one in line come the hurtling figure of somebody wearing only a suit of filthy underwear, followed by the sole of a big boot. My brother had enough momentum to take him on across the walk and down the couple feet to the dust of the street, which in that spot was actually a mess of mud, probably because a horse had staled there.

Now I tell you Bill was the sort of person who if you owned a place of business you wouldn't want as a customer, for stench and appearance aside, he likely wouldn't have no money and would be there only to beg, borrow, or steal. But he was my brother, and that you can't let your kin be treated badly by others is a self-evident truth. So after I had pulled Bill out of the muck, propped him up against the wheel of a parked wagon, and put his clothes in his lap, I told him for godsakes stay put for a spell, and I went into that saloon to deal with the son of a bitch who had, if for understandable reasons, insulted my family.

But this was the darkest place I had been yet, and for a while I couldn't make out anybody but a table full of poker players back a ways, under the light of a hanging lamp, and one of them was Wild Bill Hickok.

For a number of reasons I did not want to disturb Wild Bill, who took his poker real serious, so I postponed dealing with the matter of honor and returned outside, where I expected I would not find my brother, but in fact Bill was still slumped where I left him. I got him to his feet and into the shirt and pants, and maintaining as little physical contact with him as I could, steered him back home through the wheeled and pedestrian traffic, and more than once he lurched towards oncoming wagons but was snatched back at the last minute and was kicked once by a horse and again by a cursing man who however was belted with both a pistol and an unscabbarded butcher knife, so my protests would of been foolish.

I got Bill back to his barrel and tried to feed him the bean sandwich, but he got stubborn like a drunk will and clamped his jaws together so tight I would have needed a crowbar to pry them open. I ended up giving half the sandwich to the yellow dog and ate the rest myself With the Indian knife I sliced some extra material from the tails of my too-long shirt and trouser bottoms, and used it for bonds to fasten Bill's ankles together and also his wrists, so he couldn't untie the former, and telling him to sleep it off went back to the saloon known as the No. 10, which before long was the most famous in Deadwood.

Wild Bill was just leaving the poker game as I arrived, and was asking them standing at the bar if anyone wanted to take his seat, and one fellow went over and pulled the stool up to the table. He had a sandy mustache and there was something wrong with his eyes too, which in his case was slightly crossed.

"You're greatly improved, hoss," Wild Bill says to me, inspecting me at close quarters. "You was the worst I seen until that drunk staggered in here in his underwear a while ago and Harry kicked him out the door." He indicated the bartender with a nod, and he rubs his sore eyes with the back of his left hand. He buys me a shot of whiskey, which I drank real slow, as I had not tasted any for ever so long. Even so I felt its vapors hit my brain shortly after the first sip.

Wild Bill introduced me to the bartender, man name of Harry Sam Young, and told me he knew him too from back in Kansas.

"This town's full of friends," he went on. "California Joe, Colorado Charley Utter, White-Eye Jack Anderson, they're all here. But the real news is I recently got married." He got a refill from Harry Young. I was still working on my first. "Which reminds me." He looks around like he's worried somebody's listening in, and decides maybe the' might yet, and asks me to step aside for a confidential matter.

Coming into the bright sunlight from a semidarkness smelling of lamp oil, liquor, and sweat was probably more the cause of my swimming vision than even the fiery hooch (which in case you never knew it is an In- than word, though not Cheyenne).

Wild Bill's own eyes was squeezed into sightless slits, and it's funny that what I thought of was how helpless he would be if someone was to shoot him at such a moment.

He takes me by the elbow of my shirt and bends down and in a subdued voice he says, "Hoss, I seem to recall being in your company once in a certain kind of establishment, or am I wrong?"

"That's right, Bill, you and me went to a whorehouse."

He flinches and says, "Keep your voice down, willya?"

I had not been shouting, but I did as asked, and went on. "That was right after you shot Strawhan's brother, which was the damnedest thing I ever witnessed. Not only did he have the drop on you, he was about to shoot you in the back. You seen him in the mirror. My God, you was fast."

He showed a thin smile, lifting his head and opening his eyes away from the sun. "I'm not that good any more, hoss. I don't say I'm bad, but I don't see as well as I used to. They still get me to shoot coins on edge, but nowadays it's dollars, not the dimes of the old days."

reflected that one of the dollars he give me had that nick in it. "I saw you put ten loads into the 0 in the sign across Market Square in K.C., a hundred yards away."

Wild Bill continues his distant smile. "The Odd Fellows' sign," says he. "I couldn't do that nowadays. I'm taking something for my eyes. It makes me pale, and maybe it is doing something to my well-being.... But here's what I wanted to tell you, hoss: If you remember that sporting house, well, I'd as soon you forgot about it insofar as I am personally involved."

Now Wild Bill Hickok wasn't the sort of man from who you would deny a favor requiring as little effort as this, so I hastened to reassure him.

"I got nothing against sporting women," he goes on. "Some of them been real good friends of mine. Fact is, the wagon train we brought up here from Cheyenne stopped at Laramie and loaded on Dirty Emma, Sizzling Kate, and others who have set up shop down the street here, should you have a natural need." Now his smile became something you might of seen on a preacher. "Now I'm married I have changed my ways." He looked real high-minded, lofty eyebrows, pious mouth under the drooping mustache. "Agnes," says he, "owned her own show, she and her previous husband, one of the noted clowns of the time until some little bastard shot him through the heart on account of not getting in free one day."

Wild Bill had told me about Aggie on a previous occasion, so I was able to say, "I do believe she is a celebrated equestrienne," using the word as he originally did, and he was right pleased now.

"That's right, hoss, also a tightrope walker, but them days is behind her now. You might of heard of Adah Isaacs Mencken, who is renowned for a theatrical presentation called Mazeppa, where she is tied buck naked to a horse that runs around the stage. Well, those who saw both of them in the part gave their preference to Agnes, and she never rode naked, I'll tell you that: she always wore tights that looked that way." He frowns. "I don't even like that, for I know there were sons of bitches who thought she was naked." He clears his throat. "Well, like I say, that's a thing of the past. No wife of James B. Hickok, Wild Bill, is ever going out t' work. I want her home in our little nest, sweet Agnes of mine."

He had taken to calling himself by the whole two names together, like it was some legal matter of correct identification, and maybe it was, for Wild Bills were all over the West in that era, at least one of them a white man who claimed to have joined the Cheyenne at an early age - no, not me, but obviously some goddam liar.

"I'd be proud to meet her, Bill. Has she come along with you to Dead- wood? Or is she back in Cheyenne?"

Wild Bill snorted. "Neither, hoss. She's a fine lady. I wouldn't let her set foot in a hog wallow like this. I just come here to make money. She's back in what they call the Queen City, Cincinnati, Ohio, waiting for my return."

I figured she must be a real beauty to tame him like this, but not to compare with Mrs. Elizabeth Custer, who I seen only once, but long enough so that she become my ideal of femininity. Now of course she would be a widow, which you might consider a rotten way for me to think at this early time, but in fact I couldn't imagine the likes of Libbie Custer looking in my direction and even seeing I was there.

"Say," Wild Bill says now, "come on back to my wagon and I'll show you her picture."

We walked not far along Deadwood Canyon to what was still then the outskirts of town and found there, amongst a goodly number of tents that constituted the residential district, a covered wagon that was a bit smaller than the vehicle in which me and my family come West years earlier. I believe this one was from the Army.

Bill climbs up inside and comes back out with a photo, which he hands down. "Now tell me if that isn't the finest-looking woman you ever seen.

Wild Bill was not the kind of man I would have disagreed with even if he wasn't lovesick, so I was as complimentary as I could be, but as it happened I admit I found his Agnes to be remarkably plain in appearance, at least as she was represented by the camera, which is not to say doubted what he said about her talent.

"What you might wonder is why a person of her high type would be interested in me," he says with what I took as real modesty for a man many ladies had had a crush on, including my own crazy sister Caroline, but then I never knew any dead shot on either side of the law that did not attract more women than anybody peaceful. "I'm trying my hand at something more dignified than what I done previously, and also more profitable. You can't put aside much on a lawman's eighty-to-a-hundred per month, and you can always get shot for your trouble."

He brought a bottle with him when he clumb down from the wagon, and we sat on a couple wooden boxes, former Army ammunition crates. He took a big gulp himself and then passed the bottle to me. That whiskey was nowhere near the quality of that which Harry Sam Young had poured for us at No. 10, but Wild Bill didn't seem to notice. I could hardly get it down or keep it there.

"I ever tell you about my time as a showman?" Wild Bill asks.

"Wasn't you at Niagara Falls with a herd of buffalo?"

"That's right," he says and takes another slug from the bottle. "But later I traveled around the East for a time, performing in a stage play with Bill Cody, but I forgot my lines half the time even though they was the same night after night and I was playing myself, so it didn't call for much acting on the face of it. But the fact is, hoss, the hardest thing I ever tried to do was to be a make-believe Wild Bill Hickok. It got to be too much for me to be the real myself pretending to be the fake Wild Bill, speaking words written by some little fellow that never been west of Chicago, and shooting blank rounds, which foul up a barrel real awful. I got to drinking too much and having some fun to pass the time, like using live ammunition and firing too close to the toes of them real actors, and they whined to Cody, who asked me to tone it down. But I couldn't take it for long, even though the pay was real good, the best I ever made. I ain't got Bill Cody's way with horseshit. Nothing against Bill, God bless him, he always dealt straight with me, but he's got a natural talent for showman- ship. I don't, that's for sure." He swallowed more of that awful whiskey and was just offering me the bottle when somebody spoke nearby.

"This is what you been doing?" asked a peevish voice. It come from a fellow not much bigger than me but all duded up in fringed buckskin and wearing a pearl-handled pistol in a fancy holster held by a tooted belt with an enormous silver buckle. His hair was long and fair, as were his mustache and pointy little beard. "Sitting here with him and that bottle?"

"Simmer down, Charley," Wild Bill said in a mild tone. "Me and him are old friends from Kansas. Shake hands with - "

But as this dandy turned up his nose at the idea of meeting me, the shaking did not take place.

"My pardner Colorado Charley Utter," Bill said, when the other went into a tent that was pitched nearby. Most of the other Deadwood tents was tom and tattered, but the canvas of this one looked brand-new and was taut-stretched and well pegged. "We got plans for an express service between here and Cheyenne."

I had never seen Wild Bill so bluffed by anybody else. The next instant, out comes Charley Utter from his tent, saying, "Goddammit, Bill, you been sleepin' in my blankets again? They're all messed up."

Wild Bill smirks and shrugs. "I'm real sorry, pardner. They , re nicer than that scratchy old Army blanket of mine."

"I want you to stay out of there," Utter says.

In the old days Wild Bill would have laughed in the face of a little fellow like that, as he had laughed at me first time I flared up at him. But now the once fearsome gunfighter only repeated his apology. When Utter went back into the tent, where he could be heard fussing with his property, Bill says to me, "He's a good friend and has got a real head for running businesses. My own specialty is the ideas: I don't always have the knack for the practical details." He tilts his head back till the rear of the brim of his big hat, touching him between the shoulders, stops him, at which he removes the sombrero so as to align his throat with the verticaled bottle, and he drains the remaining liquid in the latter down the former. Now that he is momentarily bare-headed for the first time since I become reacquainted with him, I see his hair is thinning in front, and I got a right funny feeling, for Custer too was losing some hair on top, which is why the Indians claimed they never scalped him. Never knowing baldness themselves, redskins see it as still another strange and distasteful thing about whites, whereas they find cutting off an enemy's crowning glory and hanging it on their belt perfectly normal and even admirable, and when I lived as a Cheyenne I admit so did 1. Having emptied the bottle, Wild Bill tossed it over his shoulder into the area between his wagon and Charley Utter's tent, and no sooner than he did so, out come Colorado Charley, who picked it up and brought it back to hand to Wild Bill without a word.

"Oh," Wild Bill says. "Sorry about that."

"If you're back here this time of day," says Utter, "you already lost the money you was advanced."

Hickok replaced his hat. "You wouldn't believe the hands I had, Charley."

Charley hooked his thumbs in that fancy gunbelt. He hmmphed and said, "It's like that every single day, ain't it?"

Wild Bill got to his feet real slowly. He didn't seem to be drunk though

he had undoubtedly been drinking for hours before he topped it off with the remainder of that bottle. But he could still apparently hold his liquor as of old.

He tossed the empty bottle up into the wagon and clumb up to follow it. "I'm going to catch forty winks, so I'm rested for tonight's game." Then, on hands and knees, he looked down at me. "Hoss, if you ain't got a place to stay, why there's lots of room here, and I got an extra blanket if you don't mind the smell of horse."

"Right nice of you, Bill," says 1. When he had crawled back into the interior, I told Colorado Charley I wouldn't do it if he objected, for I wasn't in no position to make enemies at this time.

"Hell, that's between he and you," Charley said in a kinder tone than he had used theretofore. "I noticed you ain't a drinker."

He had been watching Wild Bill from his tent. "Never to excess," I said, which was true except when it wasn't.

"You don't look like you've had the best luck lately."

"Thank you for noticing," I says, but then decided it sounded too sarcastic, so added: "That ain't the half of it."

"Well, spare me the facts," Charley says hastily. "I got an offer for you. There are them in Deadwood who like it fine without law, and maybe I agree with them up to a point, but some think Wild Bill come up here to be marshal, like he was in Abilene, and will clean up the town. They're wrong about that, but I hear they might be gunning for him. Nobody's going to come at him straight on, I tell you that. He might of lost some of his powers, but he's still better than anybody hereabouts." Charley fingered his fair mustache and goatee. I found it amazing that he looked as clean and shiny as he did in that place. "What worries me is he might get absentminded while playing cards." He glanced with concern up at the wagon and spoke in a lowered, confidential-type voice. "Also lately he's been feeling real low. He told me the other day he thinks his days is numbered."

"He ain't the Wild Bill I once knowed," I told him. "I'll swear to that. But maybe he'll change if he begins to win at poker."

Colorado Charley screwed his face up. "He told me he wrote a letter to the same effect to that new wife of his. Now, ain't that some weddin' present!" He had raised his voice some to say this, and he glanced up at the wagon again as he lowered it. "Now, what I want to offer you ... Your name is - ?" I told him, and he continued. "I'll pay you to keep an eye on him. I'll give you a dollar a day, which seems to me mighty generous considering all you got to do is watch his back."

I can't be condemned for trying to sweeten the deal. "Bodyguarding Wild Bill Hickok ought to pay a little better than that."

"Did I say bodyguard? Bill don't need none, and from the looks of you, you couldn't do much anyway, and I ain't going to supply you with no firearms. What I'm talking about is just keeping an eye on him - and just when he's playing cards. Rest of the time I'm with him, or California Joe Milner or his other friends. You see something funny going on be- hind his back, you give a holler. He'll do the rest himself. He can still use a gun better 'n anybody who'd go up against him: he can see that good." I didn't like his insults, but a dollar a day would keep me and my brother going till something better turned up, so I accepted his offer but did ask why he trusted me. How'd he know I wasn't one of them who wanted Wild Bill rubbed out?

"You'd of made your move by now," says Colorado Charley.

He wasn't necessarily right about that, but not wanting him to mistrust me after all, I didn't say anything more on the subject, but I did promise to show up that evening at the No. 10 Saloon and watch Wild Bill's back, then walk him home and collect my dollar.

I went back into town now and found my brother sleeping in his hogshead, tied up the way I left him, and that dog pranced out, expecting me now to bring him food on every visit. Seeing I didn't have none for him, he goes back to curl up alongside Bill. I could have used a nap myself, having been up most of the night on my reconnoiter of Dead- wood by moonlight and the trip to and from the hills, but I could not of stood the smell inside the barrel even if there would have been room for me, so I sat outside with my back against the staves, and napped off and on, but I was too spooked by my recent experiences to sleep soundly with my brother's peace of mind.

All right reserved. Copyright © 1999, by Thomas Berger.

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The Return of Little Big Man: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
chmessing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tried to read this for a book club at the office, but couldn't finish it. The movie based on the first book was fun, the second book was just too much of the same, again, and again...The writing style was irritating.
elkoref on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Finally got around to finishing this, having had a copy since it's original publication, and being a huge Berger fan. It's much as you would hope to expect from the title - the incredibly aged Jack Crabb outwitting his previous biographer (the late Ralph Fielding Snell) by faking his demise, and setting down more of his story on his own terms.What made it difficult for me to read this straight through (I stopped at the near-halfway point several times) was the book's general lack of a strong central plot, being a kind of fictional autobiography. As in Little Big Man, Jack Crabb wanders here and there, always tending to stumble upon famous characters and events, which gets a little too predictable, perhaps, although the author never fails to bring interest and humor to these episodes.I was pleasantly surprised once I finally pushed beyond my previous stopping points, as the story does obtain greater focus once Jack latches onto Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. This had never been an historical episode of particular interest to me, but I found this part of the story much more involving than I would have thought. It also seems a natural progression of the over-arching theme of the two books, being the place of the Indian in the face of advancing (and now conquering) white men.The character of Sitting Bull was also a revelation, reminding the reader (and Jack) of Old Lodge Skins, though not as central as that character. The account of his murder is horrifying, and quite moving.Probably the most enjoyable parts of the book, I would say, deal with how the Indian just thinks differently than the white man - his idea of a joke, or why talking about when something happened in the past might be considered impolite. As in the first book, Berger manages to present the Indian as human, neither exalted nor demeaned.Crabb promises yet more "true" stories to tell by the end, and of course we believe him, and hope it won't be too long a wait.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont know. Devil? You should know by now im not good at guessing!