Riding for the Brand
He had been watching the covered wagon for more than an hour. There had been no movement, no sound. The bodies of the two animals that had drawn the wagon lay in the grass, plainly visible. Farther away, almost a mile away, stood a lone buffalo bull, black against the gray distance.
Nothing moved near the wagon, but Jed Asbury had lived too long in Indian country to risk his scalp on appearances, and he knew an Indian could lie ghost-still for hours on end. He had no intention of taking such a chance, stark naked and without weapons.
Two days before, he had been stripped to the hide by Indians and forced to run the gauntlet, but he had run better than they had expected and had escaped with only a few minor wounds.
Now, miles away, he had reached the limit of his endurance. Despite little water and less food he was still in traveling condition except for his feet. They were lacerated and swollen, caked with dried blood.
Warily, he started forward, taking advantage of every bit of cover and moving steadily toward the wagon. When he was within fifty feet he settled down in the grass to study the situation.
This was the scene of an attack. Evidently the wagon had been alone, and the bodies of two men and a woman lay stretched on the grass.
Clothing, papers, and cooking utensils were scattered, evidence of a hasty looting. Whatever had been the dreams of these people they were ended now, another sacrifice to the westward march of empire. And the dead would not begrudge him what he needed.
Rising from the grass he went cautiously to the wagon, a tall, powerfully muscled young man, unshaven and untrimmed.
He avoided the bodies. Oddly, they were not mutilated, which was unusual, and the men still wore their boots. As a last resort he would take a pair for himself. First, he must examine the wagon.
If Indians had looted the wagon they had done so hurriedly, for the interior of the wagon was in the wildest state of confusion. In the bottom of a trunk he found a fine black broadcloth suit as well as a new pair of hand-tooled leather boots, a woolen shirt, and several white shirts.
“Somebody’s Sunday-go-to-meetin’ outfit,” he muttered. “Hadn’t better try the boots on, the way my feet are swollen.”
He found clean underwear and dressed, putting on some rougher clothes that he found in the same chest. When he was dressed enough to protect him from the sun he took water from a half-empty barrel on the side of the wagon and bathed his feet; then he bandaged them with strips of white cloth torn from a dress.
His feet felt much better, and as the boots were a size larger than he usually wore, he tried them. There was some discomfort, but he could wear them.
With a shovel tied to the wagon’s side he dug a grave and buried the three side by side, covered them with quilts from the wagon, filled in the earth, and piled stones over the grave. Then, hat in hand, he recited the Twenty-third Psalm.
The savages or whoever had killed them had made only a hasty search, so now he went to the wagon to find whatever might be useful to him or might inform him as to the identity of the dead.
There were some legal papers, a will, and a handful of letters. Putting these to one side with a poncho he found, he spotted a sewing basket. Remembering his grandmother’s habits he emptied out the needles and thread, and under the padded bottom of the basket he found a large sealed envelope.
Ripping it open he grunted with satisfaction. Wrapped in carefully folded tissue paper were twenty twenty-dollar gold pieces. Pocketing them, he delved deeper into the trunk. He found more carefully folded clothes. Several times he broke off his searching of the wagon to survey the country about, but saw nothing. The wagon was in a concealed situation where a rider might have passed within a few yards and not seen it. He seemed to have approached from the only angle from which it was visible.
In the very bottom of the trunk he struck paydirt. He found a steel box. With a pick he forced it open. Inside, on folded velvet, lay a magnificent set of pistols, silver plated and beautifully engraved, with pearl handles. Wrapped in a towel nearby he found a pair of black leather cartridge belts and twin holsters. With them was a sack of .44 cartridges. Promptly, he loaded the guns and then stuffed the loops of both cartridge belts. After that he tried the balance of the guns. The rest of the cartridges he dropped into his pockets.
In another fold of the cloth he found a pearl-handled knife of beautifully tempered steel, a Spanish fighting knife and a beautiful piece of work. He slung the scabbard around his neck with the haft just below his collar.
Getting his new possessions together he made a pack of the clothing inside the poncho and used string to make a backpack of it. In the inside pocket of the coat he stowed the legal papers and the letters. In his hip pocket he stuffed a small leather-bound book he found among the scattered contents of the wagon. He read little, but knew the value of a good book.
He had had three years of intermittent schooling, learning to read, write, and cipher a little.
There was a canteen and he filled it. Rummaging in the wagon he found the grub box almost empty, a little coffee, some moldy bread, and nothing else useful. He took the coffee, a small pot, and a tin cup. Then he glanced at the sun and started away.
Jed Asbury was accustomed to fending for himself. That there could be anything wrong in appropriating what he had found never entered his head, nor would it have entered the head of any other man at the time. Life was hard, and one lived as best one might. If the dead had any heirs, there would be a clue in the letters or the will. He would pay them when he could. No man would begrudge him taking what was needed to survive, but to repay the debt incurred was a foregone conclusion.
Jed had been born on an Ohio farm, his parents dying when he was ten years old. He had been sent to a crabbed uncle living in a Maine fishing village. For three years his uncle worked him like a slave, sending him out on the Banks with a fishing boat. Finally, Jed had abandoned the boat, deep-sea fishing, and his uncle.
He walked to Boston and by devious methods reached Philadelphia. He had run errands, worked in a mill, and then gotten a job as a printer’s devil. He had grown to like a man who came often to the shop, a quiet man with dark hair and large gray eyes, his head curiously wide across the temples. The man wrote stories and literary criticism and occasionally loaned Jed books to read. His name was Edgar Poe and he was reported to be the foster son of John Allan, said to be the richest man in Virginia.
When Jed left the print shop it was to ship on a windjammer for a voyage around the Horn. From San Francisco he had gone to Australia for a year in the goldfields, and then to South Africa and back to New York. He was twenty then and a big, well-made young man hardened by the life he had lived. He had gone west on a riverboat and then down the Mississippi to Natchez and New Orleans.
In New Orleans Jem Mace had taught him to box. Until then all he had known about fighting had been acquired by applying it that way. From New Orleans he had gone to Havana, to Brazil, and then back to the States. In Natchez he had caught a cardsharp cheating. Jed Asbury had proved a bit quicker, and the gambler died, a victim of six-shooter justice. Jed left town just ahead of several of the gambler’s irate companions.
On a Missouri River steamboat he had gone up to Fort Benton and then overland to Bannock. He had traveled with wagon freighters to Laramie and then to Dodge.
In Tascosa he had encountered a brother of the dead Natchez gambler accompanied by two of the irate companions. He had killed two of his enemies and wounded the other, coming out of the fracas with a bullet in his leg. He traveled on to Santa Fe.
At twenty-four he was footloose and looking for a destination. Working as a bullwhacker he made a round-trip to Council Bluffs and then joined a wagon train for Cheyenne. The Comanches, raiding north, had interfered, and he had been the sole survivor.
He knew about where he was now, somewhere south and west of Dodge, but probably closer to Santa Fe than to the trail town. He should not be far from the cattle trail leading past Tascosa, so he headed that way. Along the river bottoms there should be strays lost from previous herds, so he could eat until a trail herd came along.
Walking a dusty trail in the heat, he shifted his small pack constantly and kept turning to scan the country over which he had come. He was in the heart of Indian country.
On the morning of the third day he sighted a trail herd, headed for Kansas. As he walked toward the herd, two of the three horsemen riding point turned toward him.
One was a lean, red-faced man with a yellowed mustache and a gleam of quizzical humor around his eyes. The other was a stocky, friendly rider on a paint horse.
“Howdy!” The older man’s voice was amused. “Out for a mornin’ stroll?”
“By courtesy of a bunch of Comanches. I was bullwhackin’ with a wagon train out of Santa Fe for Cheyenne an’ we had a little Winchester arbitration. They held the high cards.” Briefly, he explained.
“You’ll want a hoss. Ever work cattle?”
“Here and there. D’you need a hand?”
“Forty a month and all you can eat.”
“The coffee’s a fright,” the other rider said. “That dough wrangler never learned to make coffee that didn’t taste like strong lye!”
That night in camp Jed Asbury got out the papers he had found in the wagon. He read the first letter he opened.
When you get this you will know George is dead. He was thrown from a horse near Willow Springs, dying the following day. The home ranch comprises 60,000 acres and the other ranches twice that. This is to be yours or your heirs’ if you have married since we last heard from you, if you or the heirs reach the place within one year of George’s death. If you do not claim your estate within that time the property will be inherited by next of kin. You may remember what Walt is like, from the letters.
Naturally, we hope you will come at once for we all know what it would be like if Walt took over. You should be around twenty-six now and able to handle Walt, but be careful. He is dangerous and has killed several men.
Things are in good shape now but trouble is impending with Besovi, a neighbor of ours. If Walt takes over that will certainly happen. Also, those of us who have worked and lived here so long will be thrown out.
The letter had been addressed to Michael Latch, St. Louis, Missouri. Thoughtfully, Jed folded the letter and then glanced through the others. He learned much, yet not enough.
Michael Latch had been the nephew of George Baca, a half-American, half-Spanish rancher who owned a huge hacienda in California. Neither Baca nor Tony Costa had ever seen Michael. Nor had the man named Walt, who apparently was the son of George’s half brother.
The will was that of Michael’s father, Thomas Latch, and conveyed to Michael the deed to a small California ranch.
From other papers and an unmailed letter, Jed discovered that the younger of the two men he had buried had been Michael Latch. The other dead man and the woman had been Randy and May Kenner. There was mention in a letter of a girl named Arden who had accompanied them.
“The Indians must have taken her with them,” Jed muttered.
He considered trying to find her, but dismissed the idea as impractical. Looking for a needle in a haystack would at least be a local job, but trying to find one of many roving bands of Comanches would be well-nigh impossible. Nevertheless, he would inform the army and the trading posts. Often, negotiations could be started, and for an appropriate trade in goods she might be recovered, if still living.
Then he had another idea.
Michael Latch was dead. A vast estate awaited him, a fine, comfortable, constructive life, which young Latch would have loved. Now the estate would fall to Walt, whoever he was, unless he, Jed Asbury, took the name of Michael Latch and claimed the estate.
The man who was his new boss rode in from a ride around the herd. He glanced at Jed, who was putting the letters away. “What did you say your name was?”
Only for an instant did Jed hesitate. “Latch,” he replied, “Michael Latch.”
Warm sunlight lay upon the hacienda called Casa Grande. The hounds sprawling in drowsy peace under the smoke trees scarcely opened their eyes when the tall stranger turned his horse through the gate. Many strangers came to Casa Grande, and the uncertainty that hung over the vast ranch had not reached the dogs.
Tony Costa straightened his lean frame from the doorway and studied the stranger from under an eye-shielding hand.
“Señorita, someone comes!”
“Is it Walt?” Sharp, quick heels sounded on the flat-stoned floor. “What will we do? Oh, if Michael were only here!”
“Today is the last day,” Costa said gloomily.
“Look!” The girl touched his arm. “Right behind him! That’s Walt Seever!”
“Two men with him. We will have trouble if we try to stop him, señorita. He would not lose the ranch to a woman.”
The stranger on the black horse swung down at the steps. He wore a flat-crowned black hat and a black broadcloth suit. His boots were almost new and hand tooled, but when her eyes dropped to the guns, she gasped.
“Tony! The guns!”
The young man came up the steps, swept off his hat, and bowed. “You are Tony Costa? The foreman of Casa Grande?”
The other riders clattered into the court, and their leader, a big man with bold, hard eyes, swung down. He brushed past the stranger and confronted the foreman.
“Well, Costa, today this ranch becomes mine, and you’re fired!”
“I think not.”
All eyes turned to the stranger. The girl’s eyes were startled, suddenly cautious. This man was strong, she thought suddenly, and he was not afraid. He had a clean-cut face, pleasant gray eyes, and a certain assurance born of experience.
“If you are Walt,” the stranger said, “you can ride back where you came from. This ranch is mine. I am Michael Latch.”
Fury struggled with shocked disbelief in the expression on Walt Seever’s face. “You? Michael Latch? You couldn’t be!”
“Why not?” Jed was calm. Eyes on Seever, he could not see the effect of his words on Costa or the girl. “George sent for me. Here I am.”
Excerpted from The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour, Volume 3 by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2005 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.