I first saw this movie shortly after it was made in 1991 and immediately went out and bought the book upon which it was based. Louis L’Amour was better known as a writer of traditional westerns but here he includes a bit of romance along with punching cows and riding the range.
After Evie Teale (Katherine Ross) and her family arrive at their new home in Arizona, her husband rides off almost immediately to buy what they plan to be the start of their cattle herd. Shortly after that a stage drives through the area and the manager makes Evie a deal to be a stopping place for food and rest until the stage line builds its own station. It’s extra money the family can use as it’s been too long now without word for Mr. Teale to be anything but dead.
When the stage cowboys drive in some horses, Evie meets Con Conagher (Sam Elliott), a tough older cowpuncher who admires her from afar. But what does he have to offer such a fine woman? So he hires on to the Tay (Ken Curtis) outfit and along with one other man, fights off the rustlers who plan to kill the old man and take over his cows.
But he, like several other cowboys, is chasing after sagebrush and the notes which some lonely woman is writing and trying to them to drift across the wide open spaces of the county. Will he admit what Evie already knows, that he does have something to offer her?
Conagher is a straight up and honest man. When he takes a man’s pay, he rides for the brand. It’s all he knows and his honor is bone deep. He thinks that killing a man when there’s another way to settle the problem is crazy and we see several instances of that. We also see that in the end, it saves his life after a final run in with the rustlers who actually admire him as a man. Elliott has a lived in, weathered face such as I would expect to see on a middle aged cowboy and his gravely voice is one I could listen to all day.
Evie is a woman of nerve and grit. It’s never made plain if the move west was as much her idea as Mr. Teale’s but when she’s left on her own with her stepchildren, she buckles down and gets the job done all while trying to do right by Laban and Ruthie. Hers is a dignified beauty and strength which Ross shows throughout the story. I love how her dresses are obviously meant to look homemade unlike so many worn by actresses in those old 1960s westerns.
In truth this is more a western than a romance. Conagher and Evie share little actual screen time but when they do, the quiet connection between them is obvious. Shoot, Con spends more time with his horse than he does with Evie but the fact that he’s willing to chase after sagebrush shows that he’s got a romantic streak.
There are several secondary actors who are probably known more by face than name including Ken Curtis and Buck Taylor (both of Gunsmoke fame) and Buck’s father Dub Taylor (in decades worth of westerns) as well as James Gammon and Barry Corbin (Brenda Leigh Johnson’s father on “The Closer”). All of them turn in great performances and are a pleasure to watch.
And then there are the great open spaces of the West where you can hear the wind in the grass and cedars. I love that everything is a little rough and slightly ragged around the edges here. That scenes are shot by firelight and we get a real sense of how jostling a wagon ride was and how hard it was to keep clean when you were a cowboy trailing through the dust after cattle.
The western payoff is all through the movie and considering it was originally done for television, I think they did a fine job. The romance payoff takes the whole film but the first, and final, kiss is well worth waiting for. B