I’ve recently reread Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne–for the third or fourth time. As I closed the book, I stopped and wondered, “What is it about this book that I find so appealing?” The action is slow, the setting is not exotic, the characters don’t do anything exceptional. I was raised in Dallas, as were my parents, so that explains why I opened a book set in Texas in the first place. (Leaving Cheyenne is not about a city in Wyoming.) But the story takes place in cattle country, and I’m a city girl. I finally decided—it’s got to be the characters.
Leaving Cheyenne is the story of best friends Gideon Fry, Johnny McCloud, and Molly Taylor and their lifelong love triangle. Part One, told in Gid’s point of view, begins in about 1920 when he’s 18 or 19 years old. Gid’s widowed dad owns a ranch and raises cattle, and he tries to teach his son to be a serious, hardworking rancher too. For example, when Gid buys a saddle for Johnny in return for a favor, his dad says, “You’re giving a hundred-and-fifty-dollar saddle to a thirty-dollar-a-month cowboy. That wouldn’t make sense to a crazy man. And it sure don’t to me.”
Part Two is told in Molly’s viewpoint and takes place about twenty years later during World War II. Throughout the book, Gid and Johnny vie for Molly’s affections, but she won’t marry either one. Instead, she marries Eddie, a ne’er do well. But she has a son and Gid is the father. Later she has a second son, fathered by Johnny. Referring to Johnny, Molly narrates: I was the only woman Johnny has ever been able to count on, and I usually tried to give him what he needed—it wouldn’t have been very loving of me not to. Molly is widowed when her husband Eddie is killed in an oilfield accident.
In Part Three, Johnny narrates. Another twenty years have passed by then, and he and Gid are still friends, now in their early sixties. Gid is a successful rancher; Johnny is still his hired hand. Gid has become even more serious than he was as a young man (he has turned into his father), while Johnny is still easy-going and enjoys life. Both still love Molly, and she still loves both of them yet she refuses to marry either one, saying, Eddie was enough husband for me.
Throughout the book, the three friends take care of each other, their friendship strong. When Gid is ill, Molly nurses him back to health. Both men help Molly through the rough patches in her life. Altogether, the poignant story of the lifelong relationship between these three strong people spans more than forty years.
In spite of their human foibles, these fictional folks share a vast supply of a rare commodity—common sense. Yes, they make stupid mistakes. But their errors are understandable and spring from a kind of logic. In addition to Larry McMurtry’s beautiful writing, maybe that’s what makes the characters seem so real and appealing, and why I read Leaving Cheyenne one more time.
You’ll need to know the definition of one word if you decide to read McMurtry’s books. Tank. In this context it’s not a war vehicle, nor is it a large receptacle for holding liquid (like a gas tank in your car). It’s a manmade pond, created to provide water for cattle.
There is at least one politically incorrect passage in this book. However, it reflects the attitudes of the time and place of the book’s setting.
Larry McMurtry is the author of more than three dozen books, including Lonesome Dove (Pulitzer Prize winner), Terms of Endearment, as well as the screenplay for the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” Leaving Cheyenne was written in 1962.