Love Will Lead You Back: Deets
Deets’ job with the Hat Creek Outfit is to be the scout. He makes sure they pick the right trail, cross rivers at the right time, and take shelter even when it doesn’t look like a storm’s a coming.
There are so very many great sentences about Deets, but here’s one of my favorites. The words are so poetic, while being entirely plot-driven: “Deets was good at mending things, and one night as he was mending Newt’s bridle Newt said what was on his mind.” So in this tight little sentence, Deets mends both an actual bridle and Newt’s troubled mind. It’s not poetry for the sake of poetry. It’s poetry as plot. That just makes my heart happy.
Deets is one of two Black men in the book. Frog Lip is the other, and he’s a coldblooded killer. I appreciate that McMurtry’s characters move beyond the common tropes. Deets is a man of his time period. He earns every bit of respect he has from the men, and yet, he doesn’t earn it unconditionally. It’s the 1870s, after all.
The “n-word” does appear. It’s almost never said by nice people. For example, the Suggs brothers say it. Here’s what Gus says back to them: “You don’t appreciate a professional when you seen one. Men Deets hangs don’t have to dance on the rope, like some I’ve seen.” Let’s stop and recognize that Gus, a Texas Ranger with a medal from the governor, calls Deets a professional.
A similar thing happens when Dixon, a cavalry officer and a scamp, insults Deets, and then asks to take him. “No,” Call said. “I’d be afraid you’d mistreat him.”
It’s not perfect. It’s not without some degree of prejudice. But it’s honest. The truth is that Deets has a better life out West with ex-Texas Rangers, Call and Gus, than he would have had in a lot of other places.
The first sign that Deets has earned respect is that Gus puts his name on the official Hat Creek Outfit Emporium sign. Not right away, of course. Not until Deets sulks, but hey, let’s appreciate the fact that Gus recognizes the sulk and figures out what it was about and remedies it by adding Deets’ full name to the sign.
“Why, I’m Josh. Can you write that, Mr. Gus?”
“Josh is short for Joshua,” Augustus said. “I can write either one of them. Joshua’s the longest.”
“Write the longest,” Deets said. “I’m too busy for a short name.”
Deets dies holding a young Indian boy, lanced by a somewhat older Indian boy. All the hands are shaken, even those who aren’t exactly the most enlightened men. They grieve even though they are puzzled at their grief.
“Dish Boggett hadn’t said much to Deets, either, but he had often been cheered, from his position on the point, to see Deets come riding back through the heat waves. It meant he was on course, and that water was somewhere near. Dish wished he had said more to the man at some point.”
And now we get to the point — the only point in a book full of deaths — where I cried. When Call writes his own sign over Deets’ grave and Gus hangs his medal on it:
SERVED WITH ME 30 YEARS.
FOUGHT IN 21 ENGAGEMENTS WITH THE COMANCHE AND KIOWA.
CHERFUL IN ALL WEATHERS, NEVER SHERKED A TASK.
Here’s where McMurtry is such a good writer. Before Call writes these words in chapter 90, he says a good deal of it to himself way back in in chapter 8:
“Deets had ridden with him for years, through all weathers and all dangers, over country so barren they had more than once had to kill a horse to have meat, and in all those years Deets had given cheerful service.”
The best epitaph is the one you’ve been writing in your head for years.