Saddle up, Shmoopers, and get ready to ride with the Hat Creek Cattle Company. Life is lazy in hottest town this side of the Texican border: Lonesome Dove. Augustus McCrae drinks and talks to pigs. Captain Woodrow F. Call bosses people around. And Lorena the whore does what whores do best: play poker. Everyone has it made in the shade—what little shade there is—until Jake Spoon rides into town.
Jake Spoon, former Texas Ranger alongside Gus and Call, has roped himself a bright idea: to relocate to Montany. That's cowboy-speak for Montana.
The men wrangle up some horses and some cattle for the biggest cattle drive since… ever. It's a lot of cows. While the other men rope steers, Jake ropes himself a gal: Lorena. She wants to go to San Francisco, and Jake basically wants to go anywhere but Lonesome Dove. He's being pursued by July Johnson, the sheriff of Fort Smith, Arkansas, because he accidentally shot and killed July's brother (whose name isn't September, August, or any other month).
With a team assembled, Call leads the way north from Lonesome Dove to Montany. They have to cross rivers, take shelter from hailstorms, and brave giant clouds of grasshoppers along the way. The weather in Texas is truly unpredictable. And these are Texas-sized grasshoppers, so they're huge.
Gus comes along because he hopes to stop in Ogallala, Nebraska, where Clara Allen, the love of his life, lives. Gus was upset years ago when Clara married another man, Bob Allen. What Gus doesn't know is that Bob is comatose after being kicked in the head by a horse. Ouch. Clara has been raising her two daughters by herself. And she's often sad because all three of her sons died young, of illness.
One fateful day, Lorena is kidnapped by an evil man who goes by the name Blue Duck. Blue Duck intends to sell Lorena to an Indian tribe, and mistreats her in a variety of ways. Jake Spoon completely abandons her—and the cattle company—so it's up to Gus to get her back. Gus crosses paths with July Johnson, who helps Gus save Lorena. And by "helps," we mean "stands there while all his friends get killed by Blue Duck." But at least Gus rescues Lorena, and he returns with her to the cattle drive.
July decides to give up his search for Jake Spoon because he receives word his wife, Elmira, ran away. Not only did she beat feet, but she's running for two. That's right: she's pregnant. July tracks Elmira to Ogallala, Nebraska, and spends the night at Clara Allen's farmhouse. Talk about a small world. Clara tells July that Elmira passed through and gave birth to her baby inside the house. Then Elmira abandoned the baby, and Clara has been taking care of the little guy since. Is there anyone Elmira won't run from?
Yes, there is: Elmira left to look for the man she actually loves, Dee Boot. Elmira finds Dee just as he's about to be hanged. Dee got into a fight with a guy at a bar and killed him, and Dee's days are numbered. That number is one, because the next day, Dee is hanged and Elmira is distraught. July finds Elmira, but she still doesn't want to be with his boring butt. Elmira rides eastward and is killed by Indians, a fate preferable to sitting around drinking buttermilk with July Johnson.
July, upset that the wife who never loved him is dead, stays with Clara, who is raising his baby, anyway. Clara treats July and Elmira's baby as if it is her own, because she misses her own dead boys. July helps with chores around her farm. Well, he tries to. He's still kind of useless.
Okay, after that long detour, we're back to the cattle drive. The men cross paths with a pack of evil bandits. They have robbed, killed, burned property, and, worst of all, stolen horses. So Gus and Call decide to catch the men and hang them. It comes as a surprise that Jake Spoon is with them. But considering what a lazy freeloader Jake Spoon is, maybe it's not that surprising, after all. Call hangs all the men, including Jake.
The guys ride on, eventually through Nebraska, where Gus—along with Lorena, Call, and Newt, the youngest boy on the drive—decide to pay a visit to Clara. Gus tells Clara he would marry her if that useless husband of hers would ever just do the right thing and die. Clara, who likes to keep things clear, tells Gus she knows a marriage between them wouldn't work, even when Bob is dead. Clara and Gus are both too headstrong. But she offers to give Lorena a room so the poor woman won't have to suffer any more on the long, hard trail. Clara also thinks Call should tell Newt he's his father.
We haven't got to that yet, because Call hasn't got to it. He doesn't want to admit to the young orphan that he's actually his dad. Gus tells Newt that Call is his father, but it isn't the same if his own dad won't admit to it. What's his problem? That really chaps Newt's hide.
After a few casualties and tragedies along the way, the cattle company finally reaches Montana. It's as beautiful as Jake said it was, even though he's not there to see it anymore. The cattle company's lead scout, Deets, is killed by an Indian tribe, leaving Gus to take the point position. He, too, is shot with an arrow, and he's forced to practically crawl to the nearest town. By the time he gets there, it's too late to save both legs. But instead of going on with life on a pair of stumps, Gus decides to choose death.
No, no, that's just dust in our eyes, we swear.
Gus's final wish is for Call to take his body to a grove where he used to charm Clara. A grove all the way back near Lonesome Dove. So Call, still too chicken to tell Newt his true parentage, gives Newt his best horse and puts him in charge, which is the next best thing, we guess. But Newt is still bitter that the Captain won't claim him.
Call travels all the way back South. Along the way, he delivers the news of Gus's death to Lorena and Clara, who are sad that he's dead. Clara's husband, Bob, finally dies, and July Johnson gives her the lamest marriage proposal ever. She turns him down but says she might reconsider after a year, if he would just stop being so lazy and useless.
Gus travels on. Somewhere near New Mexico territory, he sees Blue Duck, who has been captured, hanged for his crimes. Call buries Gus exactly where he wants to be, and then he finds himself back where he started: in Lonesome Dove.