Saturday, October 6, 2012

Old Tangle Eye (1954)

Old Tangle Eye
Ralph E. Johnston, il. William Moyers
1954, The Junior Literary Guild and Houghton Mifflin

John Merrill was an Illinois farmer bound for Colorado, where there was fair, fertile country lying at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains.  The grass gew tall and thick and there his plow would turn up, for the first time, the heavy black soil to the warming sunshine.

John's 12-year-old nephew, Steven, is along for the ride.  His father, George, had gone west a year earlier and written home that he now had a ranch and had even found gold.  Steven's mother died years earlier, so he and his father had lived with John and his family - wife Cynthia and daughters Mary and Margaret - and now it's natural that everyone should follow George west.

But when the family arrives in Cheyenne, the end of their train ride from Illinois, George Merrill is nowhere to be found.  They set out alone for Colorado only to be waylaid by Musgrove, who tries to strongarm them into selling the ranch for far more than it's worth.  He's driven off by Dan Curtis, a young man who lives near Merrill's ranch.  He helps them travel there, and re-establish themselves when they discover that the ranch buildings have been burned.  His friendship consoles Steven somewhat for the mysterious absence of his father.

The title comes from the name locals have for one of the few remaining buffalo in the area, a man-killer whose shaggy forelock has grown so tangled it obscures his vision.  Tangle Eye will leave a man alone if he's mounted on a horse, but will chase down and try to trample a man afoot. The pioneers tolerate him largely because his presence is good luck to the local Ute tribe. 

At any rate, Steven is given a pony, the roan mare Strawberry.

No matter how many tasks he had, Steven found time each day for a long gallop upon Strawberry.  The better he became acquainted with the gentle little mare, the more he loved her.  He brushed her until her coat glistened, he combed her mane and tail until they hung in a glossy, rippling splendor.  Strawberry returned his affection; she would come trotting up to him when he called to her from the corral fence.

In time, Musgrove is explained, as is the mystery of George Merrill's disappearance.  Written capably and with good pace, this book also has a more even treatment of female characters than many Westerns, and maintains a more realistic view of the young hero.  It's really a western with a few specific horse scenes rather than a full-out horsey book. 

About the Author
I found almost nothing about Johnston.  He appears to have written a few other Western/cowboy books, but that's it.

About the Artist
Moyers, like Steven, moved west to Colorado as a kid.  He worked at Disney, illustrated hundreds of books and ended up specializing in cowboy art.

And a photo borrowed from the US Fish and Wildlife's National Digital Library, of bison grazing under a very big sky.

Credit: Ryan Haggerty/USFWS.  From the US Fish and Wildlife National Digital Library at

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