Usually, when you’re just a kid, being stuck in school on a beautiful spring day doesn’t seem like the perfect way to sit out the sixth grade. But for the Crossdraw Kid and his gang, this April Fool’s Day would be one that they would never forget. Hopalong Cassidy and Montie Montana were going to put on a Western show right in their schoolyard. As the boys and some of the girls looked out the window, they could see the ranch hands finishing setting up the animal pens and the trick-roping arena for Montie, the crown prince of the roping cowboys.
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Every eye was on the clock as it slowly clicked its way towards the 11:00 bell that would signal freedom. Sister Jean Delores had it in her mind that the class would learn an extra 10 words in Latin before the bell. Not with Hoppy waiting in the yard, they wouldn’t. The Kid was sure she had never played “cowboys and Indians” as a child. He shuddered as a picture of the good sister, resplendent in her black habit and shooting a pair of sixguns in the air, crossed his mind. He knew this thought was going to cost him a few extra prayers that night.
Texas Max was the first one of the boys to start. By sitting a certain way in his chair and rubbing the seams of his bulletproof, rip-proof, stainproof, atomic-bomb-proof Catholic school corduroy pants together, Max could make a sound like tearing paper. Needless to say, the rest of the gang took up the clarion call. The class sounded like a bunch of crickets underwater. The girls, crisp in their blue and white uniforms, started to giggle.
Sister Jean Delores, all 4 feet 10 inches of her, turned and, in one fluid motion, threw a piece of chalk at Texas Max, who broke the 11th Commandment and ducked. The chalk, now with a mind of its own, headed right for Eilene Janssen’s big, beautiful, lake-blue eyes. Crossdraw, without thinking, reached up and intercepted the deadly missile, and in an act of bravado that is still whispered about, gently tossed the chalk back to the sister—and took a bow. Thus, The Kid also broke the same dreaded 11th Commandment: Don’t ever mess with the nuns. God must be a cowboy, because the bell finally rang.
The whole school was seated on lunch tables and benches in a semicircle around the arena, with little kids in the front and big kids in the back. This natural selection put Crossdraw and the gang right in the middle. The school’s principal, Sister Mary Francilia, yardstick in hand, patrolled the perimeter like a Marine drill sergeant, waiting for one of the boys to get out of line.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, here he is, in person, your favorite cowboy star—HOPALONG CASSIDY and his wonder horse, TOPPER!”
Hoppy rode into the ring dressed in black from head to toe, sitting atop his beautiful white stallion. The crowd went wild. He dismounted and Topper was led away. Hoppy walked right up to the crowd, and for the next 20 minutes, in his unique voice and style, basically told us all to be good boys and girls. We should mind our parents and the nuns and remember to drink our Adohr milk. With that, the cowboys passed out small cartons of milk to everyone and Hoppy exited stage right. I thought, “What? Hoppy, do something! Shoot somebody! Punch a cowpoke! Anything!” But no, he didn’t do anything spectacular. He didn’t even show off his shootin’ irons.
The crowd was getting restless and The Kid was just about to volunteer to take a bunch of second graders to the bathroom when Montie Montana came charging into the arena spinning two huge ropes while standing on the saddle of his horse, Baron. What a showman! Montie proceeded to rope anything that moved. One rope, two ropes, three ropes; horses, cows, goats, chickens and a first grader, who cried. He even roped Sister Mary Francilia’s yardstick, but, unfortunately, he ended up giving it back to her.
The Young Eilene
Montie then asked the lovely, talented Eilene Janssen to help with his show. Eilene had been in movies since she was a baby. In the late 1940s, Republic Pictures announced a nationwide search for two youngsters to portray a “junior” Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in their own series of films: The Rough Ridin’ Kids. After a long search, they signed 13-year-old Michael Chapin to play Red and 11-year-old Eilene to play Judy. This exciting Western series of films includes Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas, The Dakota Kid, Arizona Manhunt and Wild Horse Ambush. After the series, she starred opposite Shirley Booth in About Mrs. Leslie and played Bridey at 15 years old in The Search for Bridey Murphy. Eilene’s last movie Western was Escape from Red Rock, co-starring with Brian Donlevy.
With the decline of Western movies in the 1950s, Eilene easily moved to television, appearing in dozens of shows, including The Gene Autry Show, The Range Rider, Tales of Wells Fargo, Sugarfoot, Hopalong Cassidy and The Rifleman. She then played the role of Donald O’Connor’s girlfriend on the Texaco Star Theater series for CBS.
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Crossdraw had worked with her at Republic Pictures, and obviously worshipped her from afar. Eilene and Montie did several rope tricks where she would skip in and out of the huge loops. For his finale, he asked two other kids to come forward. Four stepped up, including Texas Max.
“Well, there are now five of you, and I only have two hands and four ropes,” Montie said as he spun them over his head. “I guess there’s only one thing to do.”
He called to Crossdraw in the crowd and asked him to join him on the back of Baron. The Kid had known Montie forever, but he couldn’t believe that he was now a part of the act. He mounted up and took another lariat from the saddle pommel and swung it in a small circle over his head. Remembering everything that Yakima Canutt had taught him, The Kid didn’t look too bad. If it had only ended there!
“All right, boys and girls, here’s what were going to do,” Montie yelled as he rode to one end of the schoolyard. “You five good-looking kids spread yourselves out, and The Kid and I will gallop by and rope all of you.” With that, Montie and The Kid took off like the wind, five lassos whirling overhead. With two lariats in each hand, Montie was able to rope the first four kids. Now it was up to Crossdraw. Eilene stood alone, untied and unafraid.
The Kid threw and connected: She was his. But then, in one of those moments where a young boy’s brain turns to cowchips, The Kid jumped off the back of Baron, ran to Eilene and wrapped the rope around and around her. Just as he was about to step back and raise his hands to what he expected would be cheers from the crowd, a lasso came from nowhere and encircled Eilene and the Kid. Montie dallied the rope around the saddle horn and Baron backed up. The rope grew tighter and tighter, bringing Eilene and Crossdraw nose to nose. The Kid was about two years away from really appreciating the position he was in. Eilene would never, ever appreciate it!
Suddenly, the always graceful Eilene tripped over Crossdraw’s feet and fell backwards, bringing The Kid with her. The rope took up the slack and the pair slowly settled to the ground, still nose to nose, arms and legs akimbo. Now the crowd cheered. The nuns went ballistic. Sister Mary Francilia was on The Kid as fast as a minor miracle. How she could get him untied and whack him with her yardstick at the same time has, to this day, never been fully explained.
All in all, the day was a rousing success. But The Kid never again received a Valentine from the girl with the big, beautiful, lake-blue eyes. Over 55 years later, however, as the writer/producer of the Golden Boot Awards—the Oscars of Westerns—Crossdraw presented her with her very own Golden Boot at the Beverly Hilton for her contributions to Western heritage.
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This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.