Because it was a warm day for early autumn, the children ate their lunches in the schoolyard. Ten-year-old Frederic munched absently on the thick ham sandwich his mother had packed. His best friend, Pete, sat beside him, picking at a piece of fried chicken. Usually Fred was the first one to finish lunch so that he could play with his friends. But today his mind was preoccupied.
“Hurry, Fred,” called a girl with golden braids. “We’re going to play red rover.”
“He’s on our team today,” argued a freckle-faced boy.
Fred raised his hand to quiet them. “I’m not playing today,” he said. “Go ahead without me.”
Fred was always picked first for any game. He was not only the best player but also the biggest for his age. The children wanted to argue, but they knew it was no use. Once Frederic Remington made up his mind, that was that! Whooping and hollering, his classmates ran to the shade of the oak trees and began their boisterous game. Fred looked sideways at Pete, who looked disappointed.
“I need your help,” Fred told his friend.
Pete’s eyes brightened. “Anything!” said Pete, brushing bits of chicken from his overalls. “You just name it.”
“I want you to walk over to that tree and back again until I tell you to stop,” said Fred.
“And … ?”
“Just walk,” Fred repeated, and he pulled a pencil and some scraps of paper from his pocket.
Back and forth Pete tramped, looking more and more sheepish on each trip. All the while, Fred studied and sketched the movement of Pete’s arms and legs and the angle of his head. Faster and faster Fred’s pencil went until Pete finally halted in front of him. Fred handed him the scraps of paper filled with sketches.
“Boy!” shouted Pete. “They really look like me!”
Fred snatched one of the papers and hastily drew buckskin and feathers on the figures.
“Now you are an Indian,” he said.
“Whoopee!” hooted Pete.
Then Fred asked Pete to run, and Pete did so eagerly. He ran. He sprinted. He leaped and jumped. When Master Jason, the schoolmaster, rang the bell for classes to begin, Pete collapsed exhausted into his seat.
Fred waited until the last minute before he stuffed his drawings into his pockets, slid into his desk, and started reciting the dreaded multiplication tables. Mercifully, mathematics period was finally over.
“Get out your grammar primer,” said Master Jason as he paced in front of his huge oak desk. A few children fanned themselves in the heat, but Master Jason looked unruffled, even in his high-neck shirt and alpaca coat.
Fred did as he was told. But as the lesson droned on, he found himself staring out the window at the nearby woods. He dreamed of cavalrymen and Indians. Soon he was filling the empty margins of the primer with drawings.
Frederic was so engrossed that he didn’t hear the schoolmaster.
This time the schoolmaster’s finger poked sharply into Fred’s shoulder. Fred was so startled that he forgot to close the marked-up reader.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked Master Jason sternly.
Without thinking, Fred blurted out, “The Indian’s legs are too short!”
The boys gasped, and several girls giggled behind their schoolbooks.
“I will see you directly after school,” the schoolmaster told Fred.
For the rest of the afternoon Fred tried hard to concentrate on his lessons. When the rest of the children filed out the door, Fred remained in his seat. Master Jason came toward him. “You were right,” the schoolmaster said quietly. “The Indian’s legs are too short. However, you draw very well, Frederic Remington. Your work shows such promise that perhaps someday you will be an artist.”
“Th-thank you, sir,” answered Fred, unsure if he had been dismissed.
“However,” said Master Jason, moving to his desk. “We simply cannot allow you to practice in our schoolbooks.” The schoolmaster reached down into his drawer.
Frederic shuddered. He was sure that Master Jason was reaching for the ruler to smack his hand. Instead, the schoolmaster unfolded a huge piece of paper. On one side were colorful advertisements and columns of print. But the other side was white and smooth.
“If you will cut this into smaller pieces and tack them to a thin board,” said Master Jason, “you will have the makings of a fine sketch pad. Perhaps then we can save our primers.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” Fred returned the schoolmaster’s smile. He had never had such fine paper. The penny pads he used were rough and always oatmeal gray.
In a flash Frederic was out the door and dashing down the road. The world had never looked so bright or the woods so green. He took the shortcut home, leaping fences and hopping over fat tree stumps.
Once home, he flung the front door wide and called a breathless explanation to his mother. Before she could answer, Fred grabbed her sewing shears and Papa’s hammer and tacks and lit out for the barn.
There, in a stable stall that smelled of warm oats, young Frederic cut and sawed and pounded until he had a smooth, white sketch pad. Even as he admired his handiwork, his fingers itched to fill the glossy pages with drawings.
He settled himself on the stable floor, unmindful of the dust and cobwebs, and drew out his pencil. There would be horses, of course. Frederic had drawn horses since he was old enough to hold a pencil. He hated the stony figures he saw in picture books. His would be muscular draft animals and sleek, racing steeds. Fred shut his eyes and let his memory draw him back to Grandfather Sackrider’s house next to the Canton County fairgrounds and racetrack. He opened his eyes and drew bulging muscles and straining haunches, flashing hooves and flying tails. On and on his pencil scratched on the pad.
It was Mama. The fading sunlight was casting shadows on the rough stall boards, and Fred knew it must be suppertime.
Only the promise of Mama’s fine food and Papa’s stories could pull Fred from his drawing. Colonel Remington, Fred’s father, had been a Union officer during the Civil War and was now the owner of a newspaper, the St. Lawrence Plaindealer. Every day he brought home tales of wagon trains heading west and cattle drives and cavalrymen and Indians. Fred jumped up, clutched the sketch pad under his arm, and headed for the house at a dead run.
At the door of the dining room Frederic slid to a stop and slapped the dust from his breeches. His father and mother were already seated at the table, talking softly.
“You mustn’t encourage Frederic with this foolish drawing,” Mama said.
“It’s harmless, my dear,” her husband assured her. “If you would look at the boy’s work, you would see that he is remarkably talented.”
“That may be true,” said Mrs. Remington, “but Frederic must learn how to make a living.”
“He will, all in good time,” said Colonel Remington. “I hope someday he will be my partner in the newspaper business. For now, let us give him his harmless fun.”
Mrs. Remington folded her hands and nodded in agreement.
“Who knows,” said Colonel Remington with a wink. “Someday the lad and his drawings might well be famous!”
Colonel Remington did not live to see his words come true. But the rest of the world has benefited from Frederic Remington’s artistic genius. As a young man he was lured to the Old West with its broncos, cowpunchers, buffalo, and Indians. He felt that it was his mission to capture this era of a young and wild America before it was gone forever. In all, Remington left us over two thousand paintings and drawings, twenty-five bronze sculptures, and numerous articles and books.