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Authors: Terry McDonell

California Bloodstock

BOOK: California Bloodstock
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Terry McDonell
California Bloodstock

Terry McDonell has written for numerous magazines, newspapers, and online publications, including
Vanity Fair, The New York Times
, and NewYorker.​com, and is the author of
, a collection of poetry, and a memoir,
The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers
; he has also written and produced for film and television. An award-winning editor, writer, and media entrepreneur who in 2012 was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame, he has top-edited thirteen magazines, including
Sports Illustrated, Esquire
, and
Rolling Stone
; most recently he cofounded the website Literary Hub. McDonell currently serves as president of the board of the Paris Review and on the Board of Overseers of the
Columbia Journalism Review
. He was raised in California and now lives in New York City.


The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

Wyoming: The Last Poems

First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, July 1989

Copyright © 1980 by Terry McDonell

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, in 1980.

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Macmillan edition as follows:

McDonell, Terry

California Bloodstock / by Terry McDonell

p.     cm.—(Vintage contemporaries)

“Originally published…by

Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, in 1980”

–T/p verso

I. Title

[PS3563.A29143C34    1989]



Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN 9780679721680

Ebook ISBN 9780525433040






1: Taya

Chapter One

2: Buckdown

3: Slant

4: The Deal

5: The Wilderness Family

6: Spring Wolf

Chapter Two

7: Monterey

8: Sewey and the Burgetts

9: Slander

10: La Cantina del Futuro Proximo

11: California Patio

12: The Big Spit

13: Southern Style

Chapter Three

14: Taya

15: Hasta la Vista

16: Slant

Chapter Four

17: New York

18: For the Baby's Sake

19: For the Baby's Sake II

20: T. D. Jr.

21: The Artist's Progress

Chapter Five

22: Joaquin Peach

23: Family Portrait

24: Taya

25: Youth Wants to Know

Chapter Six

26: Buckdown

27: His Own Ghost

28: Fort Ross

29: Dead Animals

30: Buffalo Level

Chapter Seven

31: Bear Flaggers

32: Yerba Buena

33: Cargo West

Chapter Eight

34: Taya's Map

35: Dona Concepcion de Arguello

36: Zorro

37:Pueblo de Los Angeles

38: Peek-a-Boo

39: Taya

Chapter Nine

40: Petaluma Adobe

41: Millard

Chapter Ten

42: Counsel

43: San Joaquin

44: Rio Fresno

45: Gente de Razón

Chapter Eleven

46: Galon

47: Shaboom

Chapter Twelve

48: Sutter

49: Honest Work

50: Go Away Closer

51: American River

52: Brannan

53: Foothills

Chapter Thirteen

54: Buckalo

55: Animal People

Chapter Fourteen

56: The Edge of History

57: Eureka

58: The King of California

59: Millard's Brain

Chapter Fifteen

60: Other Changes

61: Slant Lake

62: The Immigrant's Guide

Chapter Sixteen

63: Haiku and Seek

64: Vallejo

65: Sacks Without Seams

66: As Time Goes By

67: Taya and T. D. Jr.

Chapter Seventeen

68: Buckdown

69: Free Gold

70: Demographics

71: Relative Futures

Chapter Eighteen

72: Perfect Worm Eaters

73: Sewey

74: Ass Kicking

75: Walla Walla

76: Traded

Chapter Nineteen

77: Galon

78: Main Chance

79: Sewey

80: Taya

Chapter Twenty

81: Horizon Lines

82: No See'ums

83: The Immigrant's Guide II

84: Battery Street

Chapter Twenty-one

85: Petaluma Adobe II

86: The City of Francisca Benicia Felipsa Carrillo Vallejo

87: Sausalito

Chapter Twenty-two

88: Family Reunion

89: T. D. Jr.

90: Fatherhood

91: Joaquin Peach

92: Zorro

Chapter Twenty-three

93: Christmas Cheer

94: A Strange Worm Eater

95: Sewey

96: Taya

Chapter Twenty-four

97: The Hounds

98: His Own Ghost

99: Sewey

100: Condors

Chapter Twenty-five

101: Taya

102: Come Together

103: Millard

104: The Code of the West

Chapter Twenty-six

105: Accidental Lives

106: Taya

For my mother who as far as I know invented artichokes

California is somewhere else.

—Joan Didion,

Notes from a Native Daughter


Taya wasn't from California anymore but it didn't matter. Especially now.

She climbed up into the dunes, picking her way through the pampas grass. West, off toward the palisades, she could make out a grizzly and two cubs feeding on a whale carcass that had drifted onto the beach. She looked back out over the flats and saw a pack of dogs sloshing through the shallows spooking the herons and loons. The wind gusted, fanning her hair off her back. California, she suddenly sensed, was going to swallow itself. The Worm Eaters have had it. And the Animal People too, probably. What dark thoughts for such a beautiful girl.

Of course none of this was California's fault. It must have started out there somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada when Buckdown and Slant made the deal and wound up sleeping with the same woman. At least that's where it started for Taya. She knew that now.


Buckdown hated animals, all of them. Said he wanted to kill them all. Confronted by such a colossal lack of
, the primitives he dealt with could not draw the line where their shock stopped and their fear began. And coupled with the fact that Buckdown had imaginatively developed his own profane sign language, this managed to hold him in a powerful light, especially among the purveyors of big dreams. Indeed, he was perceived as one of the only big guns on the pelt scene to offer interesting potential as an ally as well as an enemy. Thus one Big Bowl, a high-rolling Western Shoshone, was considered shrewd when he determined to marry one of his many daughters to the mountain man to insure certain trade arrangements. The year was 1830.

Buckdown had been wondering if marriage might
head off what had been sneaking up on him lately: his own wretched life. It was his little secret of course, but the simple pleasures of riding, stalking, shooting (blood slurping?) had gone flat on him. It had come upon him slowly over his years under the big sky, but now as surely as the sun rose every morning, each sunset sucked him deeper into the indifferent vacuum of a lonely man. He had become bored with scenery. At dusk in some empty basin or on some solitary ridge he would go about the business of feeding himself and then sit cross-legged through the twilight and into the darkness until suddenly it was dawn and he had not slept a wink. So sure enough, when Big Bowl suggested a wedding, the idea hit Buckdown with the precision of a rifle hammer locking into place behind a powder cap. That is, with a click. Certainly he was not the first to marry out of something other than love. Plus, he needed something to do at night.


Buckdown stood tranced throughout the ceremony and pleased his new in-laws enormously with a posture that at least appeared to be resolute while his mind played forward over the possibilities. No one had any idea what perverse jingle-jangles were dancing behind his glazed eyes, and a good time was had by all; even the bride, who danced in place with sexy little shuffle steps.

On through the skindancing and the bone music and the dog-eating, Buckdown stood with his bride. He looked from moment to moment almost shy and bewildered then terrified and crazy and laughing.
Chattering gaggles of adolescents and old-timers assaulted the couple with loving pinches and playful pokes to the genitals, or clicked out proxy advice from the Animal People. The warriors sat off alone or in tight little clusters smoking the sweet pipe loads provided by Big Bowl. The afternoon stretched out. Which turned out to be just fine with Buckdown.

Maybe his bride's dancing had spooked him. Maybe he had been alone for too long. Anyway his gulping doubts had bubbled up. In fact, the loping fantasies that had so lathered his instincts earlier gave way to a nervousness that definitely had his goat by bedtime. And sadly into the night under the conjugal robes there came nothing past some exploratory petting. Too bad, and imagine the mutual chagrin when Buckdown finally, in the sweats of rationalization, rolled muttering away from his bride.

I will not mate like an animal, he said.

By morning he could barely look at her, let alone talk it over. He had lost the power of speech. Nothing to do then but get the hell out; and he took off. Embarrassed by his mute foolishness she followed him, never more than a half-mile behind, beseeching the Animal People in song not to defer her youth. Ridiculous perhaps, but in this hide-and-seek parallax the newlyweds headed west. At least it was Buckdown's favorite direction.

They rode through bright, windy days into a wilderness so vast and quiet from horizon to horizon that the sky stretched low enough over the curve of
the earth for Buckdown to reach up and touch it from the saddle. But he never felt like it.

Then suddenly there was Slant, sitting on a rock in the middle of what he was bemoaning as nowhere.


Considering his circumstances, Slant was remarkably well-dressed, sporting as he did a cream-colored antelope suede frontier suit. Such outfits were produced east of the Potomac for gentlemen who wished to affect the look of those who had been west of the Missouri. Never mind that it was filthy, Slant's had obviously been tailored to the highest refinement. You could tell by the details: arrow-darted cuffs, flapped pockets, jodhpur inseam patches, and epaulets. It was a real dandy suit.

In Buckdown's bachelor days, he would no doubt have jumped all over Slant. But as it was, Buckdown was more than a bit distracted by the empty hatch of his honeymoon. And remember that since his first guilty morning as a husband, he had had nothing to say.

What a retard, Slant thought, after running through his sophisticated repertoire of salutations and ice breakers, while Buckdown stared blankly at him with all the charm and effectiveness of a plugged rifle barrel.

Reining up her pony between them with the appropriate introductions, Buckdown's bride looked to Slant like the princess she was. He bowed like a cavalier
and became the first and only man ever to call her Mrs. Buckdown.

Noting that something was suddenly up, Buckdown turned, grimly flirtatious, to his wife and told her that it was good to see her again.

Good to hear from you, she whispered back.

The Deal

Apparently Slant had been traveling with an expedition of explorers and businessmen as the company's secretary and naturalist, his general responsibility, as he saw it, being to chronicle the opening of the West. Then one day, for reasons that remain obscure, they had confiscated his journals and ditched him. And there he was.

Slant explained the absurdity of it all, insisting that he had been undeservedly fucked over by not one, but count 'um, forty-six of his own countrymen and a nigger. But no matter, now that he had met the Buckdowns. Slant, you see, was a gentleman and a journalist with connections to any number of story papers in the East. What he was looking for, he said, was the literature of history; and boy did he bet that the Buckdowns had some stories between them. And, oh yes, there was good money in good stories.

Buckdown said he knew a few and, aiming to brag his way into his wife's respect, invited Slant to ride along. There was more to it, of course. When he had noticed Slant's interest in her, he had also noticed that the most important thing that was up was between
his legs. For her part, Mrs. Buckdown thought Slant just as crazy and interesting as her husband had seemed when he first came loping into her father's salt camp.

As it turned out, the three of them entered into an agreement of sorts and began collaborating on various levels. There was the literature of history which, on the surface at least, had gotten the ball rolling; there was the communality of rough travel through a landscape all but overrun by beasts and birds that also appeared to be heading west; and there was sex.

It seems that Buckdown was turned on by his wife turning on Slant, which was so easy she didn't have to try, which, in turn, sort of turned her on. And from there it was just an easy sashay into the wanton metaphysics of the big easy question: Why not?

They started diddling like minks, not that there was anything tacky about it. No, even that first night it was all relatively soft and refined, not to mention good for mental health. And out where they were there was precedent, if you believed the Animal People.

The Wilderness Family

Strange, so strange the dymanics of sin and the doings of sinners. Soon Slant and Buckdown were spending hours in front of the fireplace in a dugout cabin high in the mountains, the former asking rude questions and taking notes, the latter mostly bragging. Meanwhile, the little woman, as Slant had
taken to calling her, went about the wood gathering, rabbit snaring, and various other chores necessary to keep the three of them alive through the winter.

When she thought about it, she became somewhat befuddled by the structure of her married life, but she certainly wasn't bitter. Her father, she would tell herself, had more than one wife at a time; and, as he had once told her, the daughters of eagles are eagles too. Besides, she aimed to please and enjoyed doing it with the two of them taking turns (always Slant first) in the furry darkness.

She pulled the pattern of their days and nights together around her body like a robe, and when she began laughing in the mornings they became like a family. She would tease, and both Buckdown and Slant would act like grateful children, making up secrets to tell her and showing off.

That's the way it went with the three of them high on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada from the fall of 1830 to the spring of 1831. It seemed natural enough.


When the snow began to melt and slide into the rivers, the manuscript was close to complete in rough draft and she was eight-months pregnant. The growing family felt content and prosperous. Buckdown insisted on taking over the wood gathering. Slant joked that even the beasts wandering around them in the wilderness were pleased with the weight of what had been accomplished. She laughed and agreed.

At night, their even breathing drifted through the trees, and they dreamed together of a ferocious wolf
with knives in his mouth who kept an eye on the surrounding woods for them.

Days, while the wolf slept, found them almost giddy with pride, bouncing happily through the chores which they had come to view as favors for each other. Most afternoons they made long walks up and down the swollen gorges, making plans.

Buckdown had spent years in the wilds without noticing the smell of sage or the soft lavender shading that explosions of lupin threw along the skirts of granite cliffs. It was as if he had suddenly tripped over the concept of spring.

Slant was naturally a bit more sophisticated about it. He observed all manner of furry little creatures darting out into the fresh season and was reminded of obscure and pornographic Persian poetry.

Walking brightly between them, she guessed that she was the first woman, certainly the first Shoshone woman, to live on the sunny side of what Slant called a
ménage à trois
. She picked out a name and hoped for a daughter.

Spring Wolf

When she died in childbirth the two men felt a shock as instant and infuriating as they had not known since their own birth days. Slant turned surly and morose. Buckdown fell wildly into despair. They argued over who had loved her more and accused each other of not paying attention. So preoccupied were they with where to fix the blame that the child, a tiny
girl baby with shiny eyes and pale freckles across her cheekbones, almost died on them.

After much bitter conjecture about specific responsibilities and the meaning of life in general, the two men could no longer stand the sight of each other. Both considered murder. Finally one morning after discovering the decaying carcass of a large wolf less than a hundred yards below the cabin, Buckdown went wandering alone out along the traplines he had ignored for so many months. Slant went south with both the manuscript and the child. They thought they were through with each other, finished. But destinies have a way of mingling, especially when beautiful children are involved, and they were to meet again on the cusp of another life.

Significant in the ultimate turn of events was the publication, in 1835 by Harper & Bros., of
The Frontier Adventures of Francis Buckdown: As Written from His Own Dictation by T. D. Slant, Esq.
The book received mixed reviews and sold poorly in New York. It did better along the frontier and later in Europe, although it was difficult to find. It cost a nickel.

BOOK: California Bloodstock
8.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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