The open West was a land where wanderers could find themselves a home--a home to fight for, to be changed by, sometimes to die for. Jed Ashbury was one such journeyman, taking on the identity of a dead man. Allen Ring was another: he'd won his plot of land in a card game only to find he had to win again with a gun. From a has-been boxer to a ranch hand taking on his bosses' troubles, the characters in these classic Louis L'Amour short stories are all "riding for the brand"-staying loyal to what matters, staking the West with their courage and their blood.
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August 29, 2005
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Excerpt from Riding for the Brand by Louis L'Amour
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 grand-mother'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.