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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Did Old Jules Sandoz kill someone back in the old country, and if so, who?

Almost ten at night and the house is still like an oven. Don has gone to bed and I’ve been rampaging round with my fly swatter. We are suddenly being pestered by what look like plain old house flies, except that they suck blood. Not all of them, but sufficient for me to have waged total war on them.
Don and I have had a pretty lazy day. This morning he wanted to take me out to breakfast, but when we got down to Merriman we were reminded – by the large CLOSED sign in the window - that the Sand Café doesn’t open Mondays. I was reminded of Lola’s place in Buffalo Gap, Texas (pop. 499) which I stumbled upon in 2001 – the year I drove up the 100th meridian from near Laredo clear through to the Canadian border, and back. Lola closed on Monday’s but left a key for her regulars so that they could come in, make coffee (25 cents in the jar, thankyou) and talk with the mailman. They made me very welcome – and the mailman drew me a map showing me how to get around Abilene, which, in his opinion, was to be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, there was no key at the Sand Café, so we drove to Gordon and breakfasted there.

Don’s a great talker, with a fund of wonderful stories about his family – which he traces back almost four hundred years – and the history of the American West. His folk migrated through the Cumberland Gap in the wake of Daniel Boone. He had great uncles who were cattle drovers, coming up the long trail from Texas to Montana, and gunfighters. And of course he knows a huge amount about Mari Sandoz, having come to Chadron in 1990 with the aim of establishing a dedicated Center at the college. It was only earlier this year that I mentioned his name there, said that I was a friend of his, and was greeted with, ‘That guy’s a legend around here!’

I had a question for Don. I was sure – I am sure – that some years ago when I was researching in Mari’s papers at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, I came across a reference to Old Jules having shot a man in  Switzerland, possibly a brother. Had I imagined it? Did Don know anything about it? Yes, he said, he too understood that Jules had shot a man – although he didn’t think it was a brother. And then he added, ‘I always figured he must have done. Think about it.’ And he went on to point out that Jules was a fastidious dresser back in the old country, a student doctor, and that the purported reason for his argument with the family was his demand for a higher allowance from his father. How could he live the life of a scholar, he had argued, when he had so little money that he had to do his own domestic chores? Does this tally, Don, asked, with a man who left the country, crossed the Atlantic, and travelled west until there were no settlers, nor, more importantly, any law?

Don’s point was that most people who went west in the first wave – that is, beyond the line of settlement – were on the run, from a woman, from debtors, or from the law.

And of course we know that Jules was an excellent shot, that he was prepared to defend himself at the point of a gun.

Well, more to chew on. And that’s the pleasure of having a visit from a guy like Don, who moves on today. He’ll be staying at the Olde Main in Chadron for a few days, then going on to Colorado to his son’s place. From there he’ll be heading back to Oklahoma (or is it Texas?) for his biennial Green family reunion.

As for me, it’s back to the lonesome business of writing. I have of course talked about what I’m doing with Don; and, as ever, he has had helpful things to say. He suggested a couple of possible publishing outlets I should be talking to and, more usefully, reminded me that I should be able to tell them what the potential market is for the book I am planning. Like most writers, I am aware of this, but I need to be reminded of it from time to time. It is so very easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for a new project and forget to look at it from a commercial point of view.

And talking of commerce, I must congratulate the good business practice of my agent – and our sound judgement in selecting them. Three days ahead of publication, i.e., yesterday, they deposited the sum due to me upon the appearance of our fourth book. My previous agent would have taken another month, perhaps more, and in all probability would have got the sums wrong. The thing that most impressed me when Mike Pannett and I visited Curtis Brown’s offices and met their Chief Exec, Jonathan Lloyd – this was getting on for eighteen months ago now – was the way he introduced us to people. He told them our names, said that we were very successful authors, and added, ‘And they’re interviewing me with a view to hiring us. I’m hoping they do.’ My previous experience with agents had been that they seemed to think they were doing me a favour in deigning to speaking to me.

Now, my daughter’s epic charity trek. I haven’t got the full details yet, only a couple of text messages, but it all went wrong. It seems that two of her team, whom she had always feared were inadequately prepared, started going more and more slowly before dropping out. And after 52 miles she too went lame. Such a pity. Still, her messages did end on a defiant note: ‘next year…’

Well, it’s 0720h, it’s 78 degrees and it’ll soon be too hot to do what I need to do next: drive up to the ranch and get online.

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