Charlie Russell and I have been on good terms since I was a kid. I admired his paintings of the Old West, and my personal opinion is he’s better than Remington.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I began reading what he’d written, and the book, Trails Plowed Under quickly became one of my favorites.
First, it’s by no stretch of the imagination a novel. There’s few, if any points to the many stories that make it up. Instead, it sounds more like a collection of tales and life experiences lived by the author or people he knew.
Before I dive into the book, a word of warning. IT FORCES YOU TO SLOW DOWN AND READ IT. Why? Well, it’s the language. It’s written in some hack-sawed, backwoods version of the English language. It’s as if Russell took the dictionary, tossed it into a blender and hit the chop button, and then used whatever came out to tell the stories.
And because you have to slow down, you enjoy the stories.
One of them that comes to mind is called “When Mix Went to School.” This is not a story you want your local school board to read. Modern day educators and social workers would be scandalized it this happened today. In this one backwoods town, they have the old one room schoolhouse. Problem is, backwoods places tend to create tough people, and the kids that go to this school are no exception. The kids have already sent more than a few teachers packing, most after having had the tar beaten out of them. The kids think this is great. The parents are damned if their kids are going to grow up being uneducated. So a couple of them go into the city and find a new teacher. The guy is a teacher second, an out of work prize fighter first. First day at school, he warns them that he won’t tolerate anything. One of the kids gets out line, and when he calls up the kid, the whole class comes with him. As Mix tells it, “It looked like the battle of Bull Run.” Kids were going down every which way, and the last thing he remembered was seeing a comet cut a hole through the Moon.
After that, they all got an education.
He also talks about liars he’d known and the stories they told. Some of them are hysterical.
And then there’s the “Legend of Reel Foot,” a cripple that freaked the local Native Americans out so much, that his deformity saved his life.
One thing the book does very well is it shows the West for how it really was. Russell mixes humor in with fact, as well as tells stories that history has dropped by the wayside. He talks about life in the saddle, and he brings that life to us so we can understand it.
I don’t know how true some of these tales are, but you’ll sure enjoy reading them.