A NEO-TAKE ON THE OLD WEST

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It's tough to imagine a cookbook that brings together such dishes as masoor dal, buffalo gourd mash, and scrambled eggs and brains.

But Ric Lynden Hardman has done it in "Sunshine Rider" by making the recipes just one ingredient in his novel, which is also a happily-ever-after saga from the Old West, a satire on modern times, a treatise on vegetarianism, and a coming-of-age yarn.

The fellow who carries all these threads from 1880s Texas to other points west is Wylie Jackson, an orphaned teenager being raised by his Aunt Clara. His parents were killed at Vicksburg during the Civil War, which might have been tolerable had his father been a soldier. But he "served" the Confederacy as a cotton broker, and Wylie carries that shame close to his heart. He yearns to be a doer, like the larger-than-life John Boardman, who's about to lead a cattle drive from Odessa to Wichita. So you can imagine his excitement when Aunt Clara arranges a job for him as assistant cook.

But his elation is tempered when Alice Beck, a childhood friend who can still kick his butt when she needs to, ropes him into taking Roselle the cattalo -- half cow, half buffalo -- along for the ride. Roselle started out the offspring of a failed effort by Jesse Beck, Alice's father, to breed his way to wealth and fame. Now she's merely Alice's favorite pet, and Alice wants Wylie to stop off in Enid, Okla., and deliver Roselle to a cousin who'll keep her from the slaughterhouse.

At the start of the drive, the beast is a burden to Wylie, not only in the flesh but emotionally: What if the cowhands find out Roselle's along because a girl made him take her? His shame is why he tries to act as tough as he does, even when his first chance to leave the chuckwagon for the trail requires him to slaughter a half-day-old calf -- avoiding the skull so as to preserve the brains -- just because the critter's a nuisance to the drive.

He eats the brains scrambled in eggs the next morning and keeps them down -- even asks for more, out of spite. But the killing and the eating is transforming, and Wylie swears off meat forever. (He doesn't go vegan, though; a couple of chapters later, he's eating wild onion soup thickened with eggs.)

The change also affects his relationship with Roselle, who starts to grow on him even as she triggers a stampede and then is the cause of Wylie's fleeing the drive in haste and in shame one night. Fleeing is what Wylie does; he's been trying to outrun his lily-livered lineage all his life.

Wylie's travels give Hardman plenty of room to ruminate. When contemplating the Rubicon, he observes that history is a "first-come-first-served affair." Of the present, he mocks political correctness and how trials are taken as entertainment. Not surprisingly, given the subtitle, Hardman compares animal and human intelligence, with the former winning out on the strength of its never having gone to civil war. As for which animals are stupid, he says, "I saw how needful it was to downgrade the intelligence of those beasts you were planning to kill and eat."

Hardman has a delightful knack for description, such as when he's introducing Purple, "a blocky drover whose back was as chesty as his front. . . . There didn't seem to be any use for the collar on his shirt except to give the illusion he had a neck."

"Sunshine Rider" does have flaws. Hardman has not yet mastered the delicate art of foreshadowing; too many times, he points all too clearly to where the story is going.

And he asks the reader to suspend an awful lot of disbelief. Wylie is able to figure how many cattle are on the drive, how many hands will tend them, and how many horses are being brought for the task from the volume of ingredients in a bread pudding. And when Wylie's partner loses his mount amid the stampede, Wylie gallops over, grabs him with one hand and slings him onto his saddle -- even though just days before he was as tender a foot as there is.

Ultimately, though, the delicious whimsy exemplified by the recipe for Blue Lightning Chili con Carne is what makes "Sunshine Rider" palatable. Its ingredients include "six wind-broke, used-up runty steers," 3 tons of kidney beans, a ton of canned tomatoes, 4 pounds of salt, 10 pounds of red chili pepper, and one bay leaf.
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