I’ve written before about the symbolism of the hanging scene in Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”, which first appeared on TV  in 1989.

It dawned on me, while writing a piece last week addressed to the new Republican members about crimes in the Congress, that many members on the Democrat side may never have seen this film, or read the book, and maybe never even have heard of it. It was over 20 years ago.

Let me set this up. Jake Spoon was one of the founding fathers of the Texas Rangers, having ridden with Captains Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call since before the Civil War. A good lawman and cowboy, personable as all get-out, Jake was, well, a cad, always looking for the easy fix, shirking hard work, and peering up every skirt he could. In other words, Jake was a lot like Bill Clinton, with a “screw ’em where you find ’em, leave ’em where they lay” sort of attitude about women, a “Taker” (from the Kris Kristofferson’s song). (This poem’s worth reading.)

Jake reunited with Gus and Woodrow in time to be a part of a cattle drive north, stranded a girlfriend to be carried off into Indian slavery along the way, then joined up with a band of killers “just to get across the territory” who proceeded to kill three drovers, steal their horses, then hang and burn two sodbusters just for the thrill of it.

Jake didn’t like this one bit, mind you. Nor did he participate. But you see, neither did he ever do anything about it. Weighing his options of maybe having to shoot his way out of these guys’ sight, then have to wander across part of the prairie alone, he decided to wait it out. At every crossroad where he could’ve chosen a different path, he didn’t.

Sound familiar?  This is where the film clip takes up:

As I said, there were several symbolic aspects in that hanging, but I want to raise only one here. The operative clause of the dialogue, you see, is

“You ride with outlaws, you die with outlaws. You crossed the line.”

Let that sink in. Many of you are riding with outlaws.

But, I know, many of you will say, “Well, yeah, so prove it.” My answer to you is, “No, disprove it to yourselves.”

That may be the part you don’t understand here.

Did you see a judge, a jury in this film? Jake Spoon’s only defense was “I didn’t see no line, Gus…” His face gave away his knowledge he couldn’t talk his way out of what was about to happen. The others didn’t even get that much of an appeal. In the end, Jake chose to die with dignity, which made everyone tear up, but his attempt at last-minute nobility belied the far far greater lesson here, and that is the absolute inevitability of his fate, and the unbending duty of his friends to carry it out.

Most of you think that that sort of thing is a quaint remembrance of a time past. You can act as if you don’t know anything about the criminals you’re running with. You can parse the language all you want to show there was no crime, much less criminals. You can lean back and snooze, relying on the system, and your pals, to make sure no guilt attaches to you if it ever does come out.

Well, a man ought to do what he thinks best.

What you need to know is that once you cross the line, everything else is a crap shoot. There are no certainties.  When you commit or abet a crime you can never be sure it’s just going to be a smooth march to the courthouse; arraignment, bail, lawyer, trial, community service, etc..

You have a duty to yourself 1) find out if in fact you have fallen in with bandits and 2) take appropriate action to protect your own hide.

I doubt what you see in this film will occur again, but you must understand, a native justice is about to rear its head again in America that hasn’t been seen since frontier days, and you will have no say-so if you get caught in the sweet loving arms of frontier justice.

It will have no sympathy for the process and only for the justice.

For you see, an old-time lawlessness is descending on our land caused in part, because the angrier the people get, the more those criminals I mentioned above sic their dogs on them in the streets. Don’t say you don’t know this is so.

We will win, the only question is ; which side of the line will you be on?