Little Big Man’s Man

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Crabb’s voice seems to serve you as a kind of time machine transporting you back to a period that history books can never fully bring to life, a way of getting between the lines of the historical record.

Is not all fiction a magical means of overcoming the limitations of time, space, and physical possibility? Else what good is it?

In The Return Crabb can’t find anyone to tell about his surviving Custer’s Last Stand. Many of people in his saga simply refuse to listen, especially to anyone who actually knows anything.

Indeed, just as in real life.

Crabb hangs out with a lot of gunslingers in The Return —and differentiates among them in interesting ways. Describing the set-to that cost Ed Masterson his life, he says each would have handled disarming Ed’s killer differently. Bat Masterson would have intimidated him into handing over his gun, Wyatt Earp would have coldcocked him “at the outset,” and Wild Bill would have killed him outright. What would you say they all had in common?

A more or less meaningless distinction is sometimes made between good “gunfighters” and bad “gunmen,” to maintain which the scorecard must be kept current, day by day. Depending on the place and time, one man’s outlaw might turn up as another’s town marshal. No doubt what they all had in common was proficiency with firearms and a willingness to use it for their own benefit.

Crabb holds a high opinion of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson.

Beginning in Little Big Man , Wild Bill has always been generous to Jack, and aside from one little incident, they hit it off very well. By the time of The Return , Hickok has become vulnerable, the once-formidable gunslinger whose vision is failing, who now needs the protection of others. Thus he has furnished Jack with all that could be asked of one kind of friend, he whose formerly high status suffers a decline. On the other hand, Bat Masterson, as Crabb sees him, is invulnerable, almost imperturbable, maintaining an authority over his fellow men by mere presence, seldom even drawing a gun. But Jack’s fundamental reason for admiring both men probably has most to do with their both having been kind to him.

The Wyatt Earp of The Return is a cynical, humorless, bullying wife beater and real estate speculator who not only never shot anybody but “never liked to dirty his hands at real work” and “never suffered a scratch his life long.” Crabb doesn’t hate many people, but he sure hates Earp.

If you remember, Jack had it in for Wyatt as far back as their buffalo-hunting days on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River in 1872, as recorded in Little Big Man , when Earp “buffaloed” him for the first time—that is, struck him down with the barrel of a pistol, a favorite Earpist technique. But as readers of the authoritative article by Alien Barra in last December’s issue of this magazine were made aware, Jack Crabb is far from being Wyatt’s only critic or the sole commentator on the O.K. fight who found the Clantons and McLaurys not wholly at fault. Finally, it should be remembered that Jack’s confidante and best friend in Tombstone is Allie Earp, who dislikes her brotherin-law Wyatt.

 

Crabb has two love interests in this book, the first of which is his dog, Pard. Crabb’s affection for old Pard is emblematic of the sheer loneliness that pervades so much of the book, of the parts of Crabb that always go begging.

I think of Pard as being a canine version of Jack, and vice versa. I have always been fascinated by animals and, like most human beings who have that partiality, must guard myself against a concomitant sentimentalism, an emotion unknown to animals themselves, even to pet dogs that are capable of intense personal feelings. I remember reading some years ago of a reclusive fellow who suddenly died in a locked apartment, with no companions except his beloved dogs, which, after not being fed for a while, used his body as food, presumably without suffering the moral agony of the Donner Party survivors.

Like Crabb, I fell for his second love interest, that indefatigable angel of reproach Amanda Teasdale. The indignant Miss Teasdale appears like a gift you’ve decided to give Jack as he enters what would have been anybody else’s old age.

Amanda in her various manifestations is a formidable as well as fetching young woman, and like the maiden on Keats’s urn, she will never grow any older than she is as we see her now.

When Crabb follows Amanda to an Indian mission you do not name, he is startled by the sight of rows of Indian children, for he had “never seen so many of that race arranged in alignment.” The mission is run by a retired major. Did you have any particular mission in mind?