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September 15, 2008


Noodling on the news — How the West was won

On the third planet from the sun, the following appeared in the New York Times on September 14:

In some sense, Ms. Palin has become a metaphor for Alaska itself, and as grand a landscape as Alaska is, the current discussion is less about a geographical location than about a state of mind, or states of mind.

Elsewhere, in a parallel universe, a group of men sat around a campfire, tired from riding the range all day. It was a scene familiar to American moviegoers, straight out of “Blazing Saddles.” A fierce wind blew down the prairie, stirring up little eddies of dry dirt. A coyote howled in the distance. Overhead, the stars shone a chilly light. The men shivered and drew closer to the fire. One of them spoke.

“Did you ever hear the story of how John McWayne rescued Sarah Paleface? It’s a true story. I heard it from McWayne himself. It was a cold night like this, and he was heading for camp after a hard day of Royal Mountie work. He was feeling kinda low, because he’d only captured three outlaws from sun-up to sun-down, far from the round dozen he usually sent off to the hoosegow.

“Because he was feeling kinda low, he wasn’t watching where he was going. He just let his horse take itself along the trail toward camp. Royal Mountie McWayne rode along, lost in thought, remembering the long-gone days when a man’s derring-do counted for something.

“Suddenly, from the other side of a row of bushes, he heard a voice. A woman’s voice.

“‘Help! Somebody help me!’ the voice said.

” McWayne sat up tall in his saddle and looked around. His sharp eyes were unable to pierce the dark. He turned his horse in the direction of the voice and rode slowly off the trail.

“‘Who’s there?’ he called softly, not wanting to stir up trouble if trouble was waiting beyond the bushes.

“‘Help!’ the voice said again. “It is I, Sarah Paleface.’

“Sarah Paleface! The fairest female in all the West! And she needed his help.

“McWayne squeezed past the bushes and found himself next to a train track. How could he have forgotten that the B&B Railroad had completed the line only the day before? The first train was due to roll through in just a few minutes.

“‘Sarah Paleface!’ he called. ‘I’ll help you. Where are you?’

“‘Down here.’

“Her sweet melodious voice was faint and fearful. What had happened to her? He looked down and saw, nearly under his horse’s feet, the lovely features of Sarah Paleface, peering up at him from a cocoon of white rope. She was tied firmly to the tracks.

“‘Who has done this dastardly deed to you?’ he shouted, as he leaped to the ground. ‘Never fear! John McWayne is here!’

“‘It was those dreadful B&B men,’ she sobbed. ‘They thought they could have their way with me because I’m just a home-loving girl from the West. But they soon found out that big-city bullies are no match for small-town virtue.’

“McWayne pulled out his trusty Bowie knife, shiny from years of use, and began to cut through the stout bonds holding her immobile. Sarah Paleface gazed up at him, her dark eyes filled with gratitude. The rope was thick. Precious minutes passed as he worked to free her.

“From far off in the distance came the faint whistle of a locomotive. McWayne doubled his efforts.

“The whistle grew louder. He could hear the roar of the engine as well. Sarah Paleface said nothing. She continued to look up at him calmly, her face showing the faith she placed in him.

“The train rounded a nearby bend and headed toward the figures on the track. McWayne worked his knife faster. And faster.

“With one last swipe, he cut through the bonds and pulled her loose. They tumbled backward into the bushes as the train roared past, showering them with heat and gravel. They were safe.

“Sarah Paleface sat up and brushed her wayward hair back from her forehead. ‘You saved my life,’ she said softly. And then she reached one soft pink hand, pulled his grizzled face toward her, and gently kissed his check.

“‘I can never properly thank you,’ she added. ‘But if you take me home, my father will reward you handsomely.’

“As John McWayne helped her to his waiting horse, he smiled. ‘Aw shucks, ma’am,’ he said. ‘It was the least I could do.

“Now ain’t that the greatest story?” the voice continued. “And don’t it make you proud to be a man of the West?”

The men around the campfire shuffled in their seats. Finally, one of them spoke up. “Ya know, boss, that ain’t quite the way I heard it. The way I heard it was like this… it wasn’t Sarah Paleface who was tied up on the railroad tracks. It was Royal Mountie McWayne. It was Sarah Paleface who saved his life.”

But that’s just one woman’s opinion. Thanks for reading.