Gene Autry Went That-a-Way
Madonna Dries Christensen
Jack Redfield? My childhood playmate, holding a book signing in a major bookstore? Jackson T. Redfield, according to the book cover.
As the western matinee hombres used to say, “I’ll be horn swoggled.”
On the other hand, his writing a western novel came as no surprise. As a kid, with permanent dibs on being Gene Autry, Jack set up scenes, wrote scripts and directed our games. He assigned me to portray Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, but I never reigned in our neighborhood. I felt more like Smiley Burnette, Autry’s dopey on-screen sidekick.
Jack had us act out whichever movie we’d most recently seen, or he’d adapt one of the Zane Grey westerns he read constantly. From his director’s chair, a stump left after a tornado snapped off a black walnut tree, he’d say, “Roy, see those two clothesline poles? Between them’s the door to the saloon. That no account bank robber is in there and we’re gonna capture him.
I’ll go in first and you follow, guns drawn.”
In the fall, when homeowners raked mountains of leaves into the alley, he’d say, “That’s our canyon,” and we’d hide within a warren of soft rocks and snipe at cattle rustlers. At night, we lit a bonfire and cooked weenies and pork and beans for our grub. We didn’t cease our western games when the weather turned cold; we built snow forts as havens from the bad guys. Our guns were carved from wood, with ammunition cut from old bicycle inner tubes. Stretched from front to back of the gun, the strips, when released, packed a wallop.
Sometimes Jack cast my kid sister and her girlfriends in roles as mothers, saloon hostesses, or kidnapping victims. He recruited younger boys to play villains. After we had “done them in,” they’d sit and watch the story play out and cheer for us good guys.
Our cowboy games lasted until the fall we began seventh grade, when I decided this was kid stuff and hung up my six shooters and put Trigger out to pasture. Jack appeared to have done the same, but now and then I’d see him sitting on his stump, strumming his mail-order guitar. He was still Gene, sitting around the campfire singing Back in the Saddle Again, with Champion munching grass nearby.
Jack sometimes affected a bow-legged gait that suggested he rode horses on a regular basis. The only horses he’d ever straddled were the sawhorse stallions we rode in the backyard, or the plastic steed outside the Sears store that cost a nickel to ride, and those on the carousel at the summer carnival. Wanting nothing to do with the pastel, flowery horses, we mounted black, brown or gray broncos with their teeth bared, their nostrils flared, and their front legs reared for action.
We remained friendly after we quit playing games. We biked to the sandpit to swim, we swapped comic books, or I’d show him my latest baseball cards. But Jack wasn’t interested in baseball; he’d rather tune his radio to a static-filled western music station in Del Rio, Texas, than to anything related to sports.
By the end of the summer before our first year in high school, I had to crane my neck to look up at Jack. “I’m five-eleven, in my boots,” he boasted. We’d both let our boyish crew cuts grow out. Jack’s sandy hair had enough curl so he could style it (or not; it looked as if he’d combed it with his fingers). I couldn’t keep a wave in my straight, mousy brown crop even with two dabs of Brylcreem.
On opening day of school, I decked out in the Fifties dress code: Levi’s, a blue vee-neck sweater over a white t-shirt, and white bucks, everything pristine. Jack strode out of his house wearing perfectly faded and broken-in Levi’s secured on his lanky frame by a leather belt with a bronze buckle bearing the image of a steer’s head. A charcoal vest that looked suspiciously like part of his dad’s Sunday suit partially covered a white western style shirt with pearl buttons, and tassels on the pockets. In addition to the boots that made him taller, a white cowboy hat gained him another several inches. Regardless of his increased stature, he looked as if he were costumed for a western movie, minus the holsters and chaps; the kind of Red Ryder outfit we each got for Christmas when we were about seven.
Poor guy; the other kids were going to make fun of him, consider him an oddball. Whoa; was I wrong. Girls couldn’t keep their eyes off him, and before the day ended I heard an older girl say, “He’s got that James Dean dare-to-be-different look and attitude.”
“And he’s so quiet, and sensitive,” another added.
So that was the look and manner Jack was going for: James Dean, costumed for his just completed role in Giant. Jeez, from pudgy Gene Autry to James Dean? How could the rest of us boys compete with the movie star look that attracted girls like fruit flies to cidery apples?
A month later, James Dean’s death in a car crash fueled Jack’s popularity. He became an instant grief counselor for the gaggle of weepy girls who hung around him. I didn’t have a chance with any neat girls that whole school year.
During the next summer, Jack’s mother died. Not long after, he and his dad left on vacation. “We’ve been wantin’ to see the Black Hills,” Jack said. When they hadn’t returned by the time school started, I asked Jack’s uncle, who owned their house, where they were. His noncommittal “out west,” suggested that the rumors about Mr. Redfield leaving behind unpaid bills were probably true.
That was the last I heard of Jack. Until now, almost twenty-years later. Fate had dropped me into a scene with an old friend, and I’d have to write my own script this time.
Inside the bookstore in Missoula, Montana, where my company had a land deal pending, I located a copy of Jackson’s book, Under the Badlands Moon. The jacket photo showed a smiling, good-looking man with longish but nicely-groomed hair and an impressive handlebar mustache. According to the cover blurb, this was Jack’s third western novel, set in the early 1900s, with a continuing character, Sturgis Healy, United States Marshall. Writers whose names were unfamiliar to me had penned lines of praise for Jack’s work. They called his prose spare, historically accurate, in the tradition of Zane Grey. One wrote, “Redfield’s protagonist, Sturgis Healy, is a man’s man, but women readers are charmed by his romantic and sensitive side.”
There was that word sensitive again.
The author’s bio revealed a Jack of all trades: guitarist and singer, composer, poet, ranch hand, rodeo bronco buster, cattle drover, wheat harvester, and, like me, a husband and father of two daughters. He’d graduated from Montana State, had bit roles in two movies, founded a western writer’s workshop, and his chapbook of cowboy poetry had garnered awards and accolades. Our childhood games had reaped pay dirt for him.
Tucking a copy of Jack’s book under my arm, I went to find his other novels. The first, One Man Posse, introduced Sturgis Healy, and the second, Graveyard Rendezvous, continued the lawman’s adventures. The poetry section didn’t yield Jack’s chapbook, but poetry wasn’t my favorite reading anyway.
After purchasing my books, I headed for the rear of the store. Seated at a table with a stack of books and a western hat in front of him, Jackson wore a fringed leather jacket and a braided string tie with a turquoise and silver clip.
A portly man in line shielded me from Jack’s view. When the man collected his autographed book and walked away, Jack ducked his head to the floor for something. I quickly placed my open book on the table. He surfaced, took a swig of water from a bottle and then picked up his pen. With a brief glance at me and then down again, he asked, “How would you like this signed?”
“How about ‘To Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys.’”
Jack’s head jerked up, and his weathered face crinkled in amusement. He squinted, sizing me up, then formed an imaginary pistol with his thumb and forefinger and took aim. Rising behind the table, still taller than me, he curled his upper lip and snarled, “Put ‘em up, you yellow-bellied varmint. I’ve been trackin’ you half my life and here you walk right into my trap.”
Undaunted, I pulled a pair of invisible six-shooters. “You dirty double-crossing ornery cuss; you ain’t takin’ me alive.”
“Have it your way, you sneaky son of a coyote. Let’s you and me go outside and settle this score once and for all.”
Off to my left, a white-haired woman put her hand to her mouth. “My goodness,” she said to a companion, “I’ve never been to a book signing where they acted out scenes. This is fun.”
Leaning close to my old friend, I muttered, “I hope your dialogue in the book is better than this hokey stuff.”
Jackson laughed and came around the table. We engaged in a hearty handshake and some equally hokey chatter about how great we each looked and isn’t this something, running into each other; small world, isn’t it?
He pulled out a chair next to his. “Sit here. I’ll be finished in a half hour. There’s a saloon three doors down with our names on a couple of stools.”
“Your treat, Gene. You’ve hit the big time.”
With the drama over, Jackson reached for the elderly woman’s book and said, “Good evening, Ma’am. How would you like this signed?”
"Oh, my,” she fluttered. “I don’t know. I love your stories. They take me back to the days when I was a country school teacher.”
“Ah, the kindly schoolmarm. I have a soft spot for teachers. What’s your name?”
Jackson scribbled a few lines and added his signature, J.T. Redfield, with the JTR larger than the other letters, making it look like a cattle brand. He handed over the book; the woman read the inscription, smiled, and thanked him.
“My pleasure. Thanks for coming.” He touched his finger to his brow as if he were tipping his hat.
“Howdy, Pardner,” he said to his next customer, a teenaged boy. “How would you like this signed?”
Grinning, I sat back and crossed my arms on my chest, watching Jack Redfield turn on his inimitable cowboy charm.
Madonna Dries Christensen has earned many writing awards, including three Pushcart Prize nominations. Her new historical fiction, Singing Sisters, the story of a 1930s all-girl band, is on the recommended reading list for the University of Wisconsin’s writing workshop: Fiction With A Past. The book is available at www.iUniverse.com or by order through major bookstores and Amazon.com. Contact Madonna.