Captain Berserko Writes a Better Ending
Credit: Kurt Markus
McGuane once described himself as "a neurotic fiction writer who'd like to be a cowboy." More than 20 years later, his boots are worn and he sports a white Stetson hat, Wranglers, a checkered shirt, and a belt with a broad buckle.

We ride down a rutted track, past the house and outbuildings, across a bridge over the West Boulder, along the grove of trees where McGuane will one day be buried among the bones of beloved dogs and horses, then pass through a gate and out into an open field.

McGuane first went out West as a 16-year-old in the mid-'50s, working as a hired hand on a Wyoming ranch owned by a girlfriend's father. When he returned home after that summer, his father talked him into playing a "cruel joke" on his mother, who was away visiting family in Massachusetts. "'Call her and tell her you went on a cattle drive and you're in Mexico and you're not coming back,'" he said. "So I told her," McGuane says. "And she said, 'I knew this was going to happen.'"

The girlfriend of that summer is long gone, but his love for the land he surveyed remains. "I knew the minute I set foot out here, once I saw the wild rivers and the expansive landscape, there was never going to be anyplace else," he says. "I get needled a lot by the rest of the family, but this is the niche I'll die in. I just love being here. And I'm sorry I don't have another hundred years on this property."

The grade steepens. The horses pick their way around stones and brush, McGuane weaving his mount in and out of the party.

He arrived in Montana with his wife and son in the late '60s after finishing graduate school at Stanford, using a postgraduate fellowship to subsidize a spell of trout fishing. He had nearly sold his first novel, but at the last instant E.L. Doctorow, then an editor, passed on the book. McGuane, devastated, dashed off another novel in six weeks, sent it to his friend Harrison, then headed to Mexico to fish and consider what he might do with his life. One day an armed man approached him on the beach and McGuane thought: I'm dead. Instead, the man – as it turned out, a Western Union operator – said, "Señor, your novel has been accepted."

When Hollywood optioned that novel, The Sporting Club, the money set him up on a little ranch at a time when they went for $30,000 or so. In order to gain credibility with the locals, he started roping steers in weekend rodeos.

"If I could beat them during the rodeos, the whole geography changed," McGuane says. "You had to take far less guff." So he took up roping with his usual vengeance. "It was a little like learning to fish," he says. "You had to figure some of it out, get a few tips, and then there was an arena where they had practice cattle. At least two nights a week, I'd go rope steers."

He didn't catch many for a year. "But it's like anything else," he says. "You practice: You make your loop, you slide it up, you straighten your rope, you make your loop, you throw it, you keep your thumb out of the dally, make your dally on the horn, pull your hand back so in case the dally slips, it's not going to rip your hand off. If the steer hits too hard, you gotta slow it down. It's 15 different things that you can learn, like a golf swing or anything else."

He was starting to learn about horses, too, which became one of the great passions of his life. "You have to ride real hard and fast, standing up in your stirrups," he says.

On a bluff in the distance, McGuane points out the vision-quest site of the 19th-century Crow chief, Plenty Coups. In the summer, the trail there is thick with rattlesnakes. A neighbor found what is thought to be Plenty Coups's ceremonial buffalo knife on the property. McGuane and Laurie spent the night at the spot on New Year's Eve before the millennium, watching the sun rise over their land.

"One reason the vision quest meant something to me," McGuane says, "is because I had read the Gospel of Thomas, which has the same message as the Plains Indians, which is that we come from light. As you get older, you lose the ability to gather it. I can see why people head for the Sun Belt. You want light, you want to go back to where you came from."

He likes to envision what Indian life on their place would have looked like. The Shoshone lived here before the Crow. "Using archaeological evidence, this guy built a Shoshone bow from wood and sheep rawhide," McGuane says, with his usual interest in how things are made. "The damn thing shot 400 yards."

He tells a story about an ancient rancher up the valley who grew up on the Cheyenne reservation. "This old man said, 'Here's what the Indians are like.' He said, 'I was down there and one of the old Indians died, and his nephews took him out in the wintertime, and they put the corpse on a sled, and they were pulling it along a ridge, and tears were streaming down their faces, and they were taking him to a place where they could chop a hole in the ice and bury him. They loved this old man, and they had him all bundled up in a blanket.'

"They're going along the ridge, and whoever was pulling the sled dropped the rope, and the sled started bouncing down the hill. And the old rancher said, 'The Indians were rolling on the ground with absolute helpless laughter.' And he said, 'That's what Indians are like.'"

McGuane, laughing, says, "And I thought, 'Boy, oh boy, I feel like an Indian.'"

We reach the top of the mountain with its 360-degree view of the ranges surrounding us. McGuane points them out: the Bridgers, the Absarokas, the Crazies, the Gallatins.

On the way down, the horses spook when they pass by a fawn's leg lying in the tall grass on the side of the trail. Laurie spots five cows in a draw below, half a mile away, and McGuane gallops away to force them down the mountain to grassland closer to the river.

"Buster Welch has this principle of schooling horses," McGuane says later, back at the house. "Never ask the horse to do something it's going to do anyway. I've seen Buster send horses back because they're too well broke. He said they're listening to the rider all the time. A good horse will want something to happen on its own, and a seed of creativity is that feeling of wanting something to happen."

The horses have taught him to trust such intuition and otherworldly intelligence in his writing – that the imagination should never be too well broke.