Yale-educated, he had the predictable racial and ethnic prejudices of his class. As Jon Tuska has pointed out in Twentieth Century Western Writers, the mythic drama of the West for him was the U.S. Cavalry and the Indian Wars. Still, like many early western writers, there is a deep ambivalence in him for nearly everything else about western expansion.
Sundown is from Crow stock and living in Montana. He has worked as a scout for the U.S. Army and as a trader in skins at a trading post. Any additional income is likely to come from gambling and dealing in stolen horses. He has been married six times and has many children. The most recent is the infant of a white woman who left the child with him and departed by train for parts unknown.
Most of his wives have been purchased by him—for 25 ponies in one case. Then they may be sold after a time to someone else—$100 for that same wife. One was killed while trying to skin a buffalo that turned out to be not quite dead. Another was killed by a Sioux, after only a year of marriage, as she picked wild plums.
Scout. There is a long account of a trek on horseback through winter snows, delivering an order from Fort Keogh to Fort Buford, a distance of over 150 miles. Nearly freezing along the way, Sundown is finally so cold he cannot get on his pony. After briefly joining two Indians, he parts company with them, predicting correctly that they will be attacked on their route by hostile Assiniboine.
Wolves following him, he is too cold to fire a rifle at game for food. He finally stumbles starving into a friendly Indian camp after falling through the ice trying to cross a stream. Stripped and covered in snow, he is slowly brought back to life.
Expanding on his beliefs in the supernatural, he speaks of the Indian awareness of spirits in the trees and canyons. They are there to be seen in the campfire, he says, where white men see only the coffeepot. Lost in the snow once, he is led on by a spirit when he’s nearly given up hope. He can see across great distances at sundown (thus, his name), an ability that may be aided by the pair of field glasses he secretly keeps. But, he argues, they are not the medicine.
Surprisingly, among white men he has most respect for the Roman Catholic priest. More than others, this white man actually cares for Indians. His only fault is that he is too concerned with preparing for death. The Indian, Sundown explains, is more interested in staying alive. Sundown’s main grievance against most whites is their obsession with material possessions, money, and their “dam railroad.” A reader senses that Remington shares some of these same feelings.
|The mystery of the thunder
His portrayal of Sundown Leflare shows the half-breed as both alien and an object of fascination. Remington’s narrator is curious and nonjudgmental, but he finds little common ground between them. It’s easy to see Sundown as a kind of melancholy, exotic figure, alone in an often-hostile world, living by his wits—like an accident of nature. Remington would return to this subject of cross-cultures in a novel about a white man raised by Indians, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902).
Sundown Leflare is currently available free online at google books and Internet Archive. Also for the nook.
Illustrations from the book by Frederic Remington
Photo of Remington, Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902)