West Is Where the Heart Is
Jim London lay face down in the dry prairie grass, his body pressed tightly against the ground. Heat, starvation, and exhaustion had taken a toll of his lean, powerful body, and although light-headed from their accumulative effects, he still grasped the fact that to survive he must not be seen.
Hot sun blazed upon his back, and in his nostrils was the stale, sour smell of clothes and body long unwashed. Behind him lay days of dodging Comanche war parties and sleeping on the bare ground behind rocks or under bushes. He was without weapons or food, it had been nine hours since he had tasted water, and that was only dew he had licked from leaves.
The screams of the dying rang in his ears, amid the sounds of occasional shots and the shouts and war cries of the Indians. From a hill almost five miles away he had spotted the white canvas tops of the Conestoga wagons and had taken a course that would intercept them. And then, in the last few minutes before he could reach their help, the Comanches had hit the wagon train.
From the way the attack went, a number of the Indians must have been bedded down in the tall grass, keeping out of sight, and then when the train was passing, they sprang for the drivers of the teams. The strategy was perfect, for there was then no chance of the wagon train making its circle. The lead wagons did swing, but two other teamsters were dead and another was fighting for his life, and their wagons could not be turned. The two lead wagons found themselves isolated from the last four and were hit hard by at least twenty Indians. The wagon whose driver was fighting turned over in the tall grass at the edge of a ditch, and the driver was killed.
Within twenty minutes after the beginning of the attack, the fighting was over and the wagons looted, and the Indians were riding away, leaving behind them only dead and butchered oxen, the scalped and mutilated bodies of the drivers, and the women who were killed or who had killed themselves.
Yet Jim London did not move. This was not his first crossing of the plains or his first encounter with Indians. He had fought Comanches before, as well as Kiowas, Apaches, Sioux, and Cheyenne. Born on the Oregon Trail, he had later been a teamster on the Santa Fe. He knew better than to move now. He knew that an Indian or two might come back to look for more loot.
The smoke of the burning wagons bit at his nostrils, yet he waited. An hour had passed before he let himself creep forward, and then it was only to inch to the top of the hill, where from behind a tuft of bunch grass he surveyed the scene before him.
NO LIVING THING stirred near the wagons. Slow tendrils of smoke lifted from blackened timbers and wheel spokes. Bodies lay scattered about, grotesque in attitudes of tortured death. For a long time he studied the scene below, and the surrounding hills. And then he crawled over the skyline and slithered downhill through the grass, making no more visible disturbance than a snake or a coyote.
Home was still more than two hundred miles away, and the wife he had not seen in four years would be waiting for him. In his heart, he knew she would be waiting. During the war the others had scoffed at him.
“Why, Jim, you say yourself she don’t even know where you’re at! She probably figures you’re dead! No woman can be expected to wait that long! Not for a man she never hears of and when she’s in a good country for men and a bad one for women!”
“No,” he said stubbornly. “I’ll go home. I’ll go back to Jane. I come east after some fixings for her, after some stock for the ranch, and I’ll go home with what I set out after.”
“You got any young’uns?” The big sergeant was skeptical.
“Nope. I sure ain’t, but I wish I did. Only,” he added, “maybe I have. Jane, she was expecting, but had a time to go when I left. I only figured to be gone four months.”
“And you been gone four years?” The sergeant shook his head.
“Forget her, Jim, and come to Mexico with us. Nobody would deny she was a good woman. From what you tell of her, she sure was, but she’s been alone and no doubt figures you’re dead. She’ll be married again, maybe with a family.”
Jim London had shaken his head. “I never took up with no other woman, and Jane wouldn’t take up with any other man. I’m going home.”
He made a good start. He had saved nearly every dime of pay, and he did some shrewd buying and trading when the war was over. He started west with two wagons with six head of mules to the wagon, knowing the mules would sell better in New Mexico than would oxen. He had six cows and a yearling bull, some pigs, chickens, and utensils. He was a proud man when he looked over his outfit, and he hired two boys to help him with the extra wagon and the stock.
Comanches hit them before they were well started. They killed two men, and one woman and stampeded some stock. The wagon train continued, and at forks of Little Creek they were hit again, in force this time, and only Jim London came out of it alive. All his outfit was gone, and he escaped without weapons, food, or water.
He lay flat in the grass at the edge of the burned spot. Again he studied the hills, and then he eased forward and got to his feet. The nearest wagon was upright, and smoke was still rising from it. The wheels were partly burned, the box badly charred, and the interior smoking. It was still too hot to touch.
He crouched near the front wheel and studied the situation, avoiding the bodies. No weapons were in sight, but he had scarcely expected any. There had been nine wagons. The lead wagons were thirty or forty yards off, and the three wagons whose drivers had been attacked were bunched in the middle with one overturned. The last four had burned further than the others.
He saw a dead horse lying at one side with a canteen tied to the saddle. He crossed to it at once, and tearing the canteen loose, he rinsed his mouth with water. Gripping himself tight against further drinking, he rinsed his mouth again and moistened his cracked lips. Only then did he let a mere swallow trickle down his parched throat.
Resolutely he put the canteen down in the shade and went through the saddle pockets. It was a treasure trove. He found a good-sized chunk of almost iron-hard brown sugar, a half dozen biscuits, a chunk of jerky wrapped in paper, and a new plug of chewing tobacco. Putting these things with the canteen, he unfastened the slicker from behind the saddle and added that to the pile.
Wagon by wagon he searched, always alert to the surrounding country and at times leaving the wagons to observe the plain from a hilltop. It was quite dark before he was finished. Then he took his first good drink, for he had allowed himself only nips during the remainder of the day. He took his drink and then ate a biscuit, and chewed a piece of the jerky. With his hunting knife he shaved a little of the plug tobacco and made a cigarette by rolling it in paper, the way the Mexicans did. Every instinct warned him to be away from the place by daylight, and as much as he disliked leaving the bodies as they were, he knew it would be folly to bury them. If the Indians passed that way again, they would find them buried and would immediately be on his trail. Crawling along the edge of the taller grass near the depression where the wagon had tipped over, he stopped suddenly. Here in the ground near the edge of the grass was a boot print!
His fingers found it, and then felt carefully. It had been made by a running man, either large or heavily laden. Feeling his way along the tracks, London stopped again, for this time his hand had come in contact with a boot. He shook it, but there was no move or response. Crawling nearer he touched the man’s hand. It was cold as marble in the damp night air.
Moving his hand again, he struck canvas. Feeling along it he found it was a long canvas sack. Evidently the dead man had grabbed this sack from the wagon and dashed for the shelter of the ditch or hollow. Apparently he had been struck by a bullet and killed, but feeling the body again, London’s hand came in contact with a belt gun. So the Comanches had not found him! Stripping the belt and gun from the dead man, London swung it around his own hips, and then checked the gun. It was fully loaded, and so were the cartridge loops in the belt. Something stirred in the grass, and instantly he froze, sliding out his hunting knife. He waited for several minutes, and then he heard it again. Something alive lay here in the grass with him!
A Comanche? No Indian likes to fight at night, and he had seen no Indians anywhere near when darkness fell. No, if anything lived near him now it must be something, man or animal, from the wagon train. For a long time he lay still, thinking it over, and then he took a chance. Yet from his experience the chance was not a long one.
“If there is someone there, speak up.”
There was no sound, and he waited, listening. Five minutes passed—ten—twenty. Carefully, then, he slid through the grass, changing his position, and then froze in place. Something was moving, quite near!
His hand shot out, and he was shocked to find himself grasping a small hand with a ruffle of cloth at the wrist! The child struggled violently, and he whispered hoarsely, “Be still! I’m a friend! If you run, the Indians might come!”
Instantly, the struggling stopped. “There!” he breathed. “That’s better.” He searched his mind for something reassuring to say, and finally said, “Damp here, isn’t it? Don’t you have a coat?”
There was a momentary silence, and then a small voice said, “It was in the wagon.”
“We’ll look for it pretty soon,” London said. “My name’s Jim. What’s yours?”
“Betty Jane Jones. I’m five years old and my papa’s name is Daniel Jones and he is forty-six. Are you forty-six?”
London grinned. “No, I’m just twenty-nine, Betty Jane.” He hesitated a minute and then said, “Betty Jane, you strike me as a mighty brave little girl. There when I first heard you, you made no more noise than a rabbit. Now do you think you can keep that up?”
“Yes.” It was a very small voice but it sounded sure.
“Good. Now listen, Betty Jane.” Quietly, he told her where he had come from and where he was going. He did not mention her parents, and she did not ask about them. From that he decided she knew only too well what had happened to them and the others from the wagon train.
“There’s a canvas sack here, and I’ve got to look into it. Maybe there’s something we can use. We’re going to need food, Betty Jane, and a rifle. Later, we’re going to have to find horses and money.”
The sound of his voice, low though it was, seemed to give her confidence. She crawled nearer to him, and when she felt the sack, she said, “That is Daddy’s bag. He keeps his carbine in it and his best clothes.”
“Carbine?” London fumbled open the sack.
“Is a carbine like a rifle?”
He told her it was, and then found the gun. It was carefully wrapped, and by the feel of it London could tell the weapon was new or almost new. There was ammunition, another pistol, and a small canvas sack that chinked softly with gold coins. He stuffed this in his pocket. A careful check of the remaining wagons netted him nothing more, but he was not disturbed. The guns he had were good ones, and he had a little food and the canteen. Gravely, he took Betty Jane’s hand and they started.
They walked for an hour before her steps began to drag, and then he picked her up and carried her. By the time the sky had grown gray he figured they had come six or seven miles from the burned wagons. He found some solid ground among some reeds on the edge of a slough, and they settled down there for the day.
After making coffee with a handful found in one of the only partly burned wagons, London gave Betty Jane some of the jerky and a biscuit. Then for the first time he examined his carbine. His eyes brightened as he sized it up. It was a Ball & Lamson Repeating Carbine, a gun just on the market and of which this must have been one of the first sold. It was a seven-shot weapon carrying a .56-50 cartridge. It was only thirtyeight inches in length and weighed a bit over seven pounds.
The pistols were also new, both Prescott Navy six-shooters, caliber .38 with rosewood grips. Betty Jane looked at them and tears welled into her eyes. He took her hand quickly.
“Don’t cry, honey. Your dad would want me to use the guns to take care of his girl. You’ve been mighty brave. Now keep it up.” She looked up at him with woebegone eyes, but the tears stopped, and after a while she fell asleep.
There was little shade, and as the reeds were not tall, he did not dare stand up. They kept close to the edge of the reeds and lay perfectly still. Once he heard a horse walking not far away and heard low, guttural voices and a hacking cough. He caught only a fleeting glimpse of one rider and hoped the Indians would not find their tracks.
Excerpted from The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour, Volume 7 by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2009 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.