Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Bandit's Trail

Max Brand



  Max Brand®

  Copyright © 1924 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. © renewed 1952 by Dorothy Faust. © 2013 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material. Copyright © 2013 by Golden West Literary Agency

  E-book published in 2018 by Blackstone Publishing

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-4708-6128-5

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-4708-6127-8


  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520

  Chapter One

  Señor Don Sebastian Valdivia prided himself upon his ability to be all things in all countries. In Rome he was indeed most Roman—in Paris he was more Parisian than the French—in England he could play golf and yawn in the faces of ladies and drink Scotch and soda in tall glasses—in Switzerland he could use an Alpine stock where the hardiest ventured, and talk the language of every canton in that variegated land—in his own Argentine he could be the king that his ancient family and his measureless estates entitled him to be—and now that he was in these United States, for the moment, he boasted that he was more democratic than democracy.

  Since the scene was the great Southwest where horizons grow wide and men grow big, he was turned out in the very fashion of the hour—or at least his conception of it. Upon his legs were fine leather chaps set off with silver conchas. About his waist was girded a cartridge belt that supported a holster and a pearl-handled Colt—which he could use if occasion demanded. Upon his back was a blue silk shirt; his sombrero with its high-peaked Mexican crown was banded about with golden filigree; a crimson bandanna spotted with green flowed copiously about his throat. His saddle was such a treasure as would have made the heart of any Mexican caballero swell with jealousy, and the horse that he bestrode was a glorious stallion whose thoroughbred strain was dashed with just enough mustang blood to put a shining devil in its eyes.

  Riding through the crowd that flocked about the old ranch house, bidding on various items in the long list of the sale, Señor Valdivia carried his forty-five years as erectly as any youth and felt himself quite a part of the picture. He would have been most astonished had anyone told him that compared with the others, he was like the colored frontispiece in a book without other illustrations. Indeed, no one dared even to hint such a fact to such a grandee, and if the rich man noted some differences between himself and the cowpunchers and ranchers in their overalls and well-rubbed coats, he would have attributed it to the natural distinction that exists between men of blood and position and wealth compared with the nameless herd. So he went on his way sublimely indifferent to the faces around him, attributing their faint smiles and wrinkling eyes to a natural admiration of the striking figure that he made.

  His secretary, Juan Carreño, rode at his side, dressed like a somewhat tarnished copy of his master and keeping skillfully half a horse’s length behind Valdivia. Señor Valdivia sat his horse at the outskirts of the crowd and watched the bidding on the plows and rusted cultivators and sewing machines and mowing machines and horse rakes. What had cost $150 new, now went for $5 to $7, but Señor Valdivia did not bid. The trip to the Argentine might be considered expensive. Besides, he had not the slightest conception of what his huge cattle ranch in that southland might need in the way of implements, and, even if he had, he would not have bothered his head with the buying of them. Such matters were to be left to the discretion of his general manager and that gentleman’s assistants. For his part, he had ridden to the sale only because a rumor had reached his ears that valuable horses were to be disposed of here. And horses were the hobby of Señor Valdivia.

  Señor Valdivia knew them from all angles. He had hunted foxes across the grass lands of England. He had hunted again in wild Ireland on big-boned Irish horses. He had ridden Arabs of ancient blood and shuffling gait across the deserts of their native land. He had wagered his tens of thousands of francs at Longchamps and smiled at his losses; he had wagered his thousands at Epsom and smiled at his winnings. He had maintained a stud in Austria to work out some fanciful ideas of his own connected with the breeding of the equine race.

  On this particular trip to the States his one purpose, if he really could ever be said to have a greater purpose than amusement, was to pick up horses that might be used by his ranch riders in the distant southland. He had already collected two hundred. He wanted still more, and the ship that was to convey them south was already chartered and lay in the harbor of New Orleans awaiting his pleasure. Such was the scale on which the señor worked his will—kingly in all things—like a king in this, also. Time pressed upon him now. But he could not resist the temptation of this last sale before he departed.

  But there was a dreary interval before the horses were produced. First came the furniture of the house, from enlarged photographs of the ancestors of that extinct family to the rocking chair with the tattered lace headrest in which Grandmother Garrison had sat while she knitted stockings and dreamed upon the world. These things were bought by a junk dealer who also acquired most of the agricultural implements.

  “Suppose that we return to the town and come back this afternoon when the horses will be offered?” suggested the secretary, whose spirit was failing him.

  But the master was iron. Fatigue was to him a thing unknown, and at the end of the fifth hour the points of his waxed mustache bristled out as sharply as when he started forth in the cool of the morning. For he was one of those rare fellows who always seem impervious to blowing dust and burning suns. There was always a hint of color in his sallow cheeks. There was always that champagne sparkle of liveliness in his eyes.

  “I must tell you for the hundredth time, Carreño,” he said, “that culture is in the mind, not in the body, and that the mind never drinks more freely or more deeply than when the customs of foreign lands are under observation.”

  Carreño, said some who had malice in their hearts, had been chosen by his master as secretary because he presented a contrast that was so flattering to the king of the Pampas. He was a dumpy youth who still lacked something of his thirtieth year, but there seemed more weariness of age in his dull, flat eyes than in the sparkling glance of Valdivia. He was one who did not find it possible to contradict Valdivia even in his own heart of hearts. He was like some churchmen. He revered high position and established custom so much that to deny the righteousness and the all-pervading wisdom of the Valdivia was like denying the same qualities in the Creator.

  Now he winced a little and blinked the running perspiration out of his eyes, but he nodded in agreement. “Yet as you yourself said yesterday, sir, a land of such barbarians …”

  That was his only weapon against the tyrants. He kept in his mind an unexpurgated text of all the past sayings of the Valdivia, and in time of need he could draw forth with either hand a stout quotation and level it at the head of the master like a gun. The master now shrugged his shoulders.

  “Yesterday was yesterday,” he said. “Today is today. Your body has always been fat, Carreño. Take care of your brain, my lad. Take care of your brain.”

  Just what was meant by this last warning Carreño did not understand.

  “Very well, señor,” he said, and fell back to his accustomed place to ponder that last remark. Yet it remained a mystery. Once or twice dawn seemed to be flickering upon the verge of his struggling i
ntellect, but the light went out and remained in darkness. But, for that matter, the Valdivia usually left him in such a condition. Therefore the burden was the less heavy.

  Noon came. A lunch was brought out of two sandwiches, a pickle, an apple, all wrapped in strips of brown butcher’s paper. The crowd sat down in circles wherever it could find shade, and poor Carreño found himself compelled to squat in the dust and sink his teeth in this miserable fare. The dancing heat waves before him flowed into another picture of little round tables, of striped, broad awnings, of saunterers under parasols, and somewhere the delicious music of ice chiming against thin sides of glasses.

  “Alas, Paris,” Carreño sighed.

  Sometimes, into his brain darted the wild suspicion that his master was not quite balanced. Otherwise he could never have left such a place for such a torment as this, with the thick, stale sandwiches, and the hungry flies buzzing and darting, and the hot wind lifting the dust in clouds. But when the thought fluttered into his brain it was chased furiously out again. For this was hardly less than heresy; this was indeed almost atheism.

  Poor Carreño. He looked to his master and saw him sitting, cross-legged, in the dust—he—the Valdivia! And by his side, a tall, limber-backed cowpuncher answering the vivacious conversation of Don Sebastian with grunts and shrugs of the right shoulder—the left having probably been broken in a fall from horseback. But there sat Don Sebastian talking as blithely as though this were a charming boulevard café. The secretary shook his head and told himself, for the millionth time, that it was better to observe and note down than to try to comment upon such matters.

  In this, perhaps, he was right, for no one could have understood the Valdivia—not even Don Sebastian himself. Neither would the rich man have desired to do so, for what he understood he detested, and he was continually looking for new corners simply in order that he might get around them.

  The lunch was quickly finished and washed soggily down with lukewarm water, flavored with a few drops of vinegar. Then the sale recommenced still more drowsily, still more hotly.

  The heat of the morning had been a mere prelude and warming of the oven. Now the baking of human flesh began.

  However, Don Sebastian would miss nothing. He pruned his little mustaches stiffly out on either side and advanced into every corner his inquisitive glances. He had not the slightest idea that he would ever use this knowledge. But he loved information for its own sake and for its very uselessness he loved it all the more. He was as full of statistics as an almanac, as full of anecdotes as a joke book, and if his statistics were out of date and his jokes stale, he cared not a whit. They amused him in the getting.

  There was an end to torture at the last, and finally the horse sale began. The crowd packed closely around a large corral into which, from time to time, the horses were brought, one man leading the more docile saddle ponies, and two men controlling the colts and the vicious part of the stock.

  Even Carreño now threw off his dullness and began to prick up his ears, for though Carreño was rather more of a pig than a man, yet even pigs are interested in horses—or should be. As for Señor Valdivia, he was like a man at a play, smiling and nodding as the exhibits were brought on, one by one.

  Chapter Two

  They brought on the poorer stock first, for the auctioneer who stood on a box just outside of the fence knew his business and how to work up his crowd to a fever pitch of excitement with the smallest possible means. And the stock of the Garrison Ranch gave him an opportunity such as rarely was in his hands. For there was not an animal on the place without a dash of the thoroughbred, and in many cases the blood was high indeed. The horses that the cowpunchers rode to their common daily tasks were never more than half mustang and even some of these were pictures of beauty. They were snapped up eagerly by the attending ranchers and even a cowpuncher, here and there, put in a bid, particularly those who had worked for years on the Garrison place and knew the animals and loved them under the saddle. And many a wise-headed horse that was none the best in looks was furiously bid for by two or three contending cowpunchers until some sharp-headed rancher, perhaps, guessed at the hidden qualities of the animal and stepped in to buy.

  The auctioneer supplied the stimulus with well-chosen words. His voice was unimpaired by his efforts of the morning, and if some of the edge had been taken from it by much talking, he had restored its volume by a discreet drink of moonshine whiskey, colorless, strong as lye. He had been in his youth a singer of some ambition and had even appeared for a time on the vaudeville stage until too much beer and too little study had wrecked his opportunities. But he could still carry the air for an improvised quartet and occasionally “fake” a tenor to the delight of an audience of cowpunchers. Or, what he lacked in voice, he could make up with enthusiasm and his manner. It was known that he had been upon the stage, and the reputation made his bearers deaf to his faults. But if the gold was gone from his tones, there was still volume enough to roar and ring over the corral above the occasional neigh of a frightened or lonely horse. His tongue was never still. It rattled like the chattering dice in a gambler’s box, only breaking into a wailing note when he announced a new bid.

  His little eyes flashed continually from one side to the other, surveying every face, and not a change of expression that might mean an approaching bid escaped him. Instantly his attention was focused upon the prospect, and all his talent went to draw forth the larger sum. In his own way, he was an artist. He wore a derby hat, grease marked at the brim from much handling with unclean fingers. It was pushed far back on his head, and the downright rays of the sun had painted the end of his blunt, fat nose a brilliant red. He wore a wing collar, but he had long ago discarded the necktie and undone the collar in front for the sake of more air, so that now the ends of his collar curled up around his face. From many violent gestures, too, his coat sleeves had worked into thick wrinkles above his elbows and displayed a length of purple-striped shirt.

  He carried a sort of truncheon, which was an old, broken cane with a great knob, and with this he beat time to the bids upon the top rail of the fence. He had a word for every turn of events, for every creature that was brought before him. A spindle-legged two-year-old was brought in, snorting, flirting at the dust with a restless forehoof, staring at the audience out of red eyes.

  “There’s a horse that is a horse,” Jim Bradley, the auctioneer, said. “Look at them legs. What d’you say, gents? Look at them legs! There’s bone for you … there’s substance … startin’ a horse like that under a hundred dollars is a crime. There’s a horse that’ll fill out to a whale. Did you say twenty-five? Twenty-five it is. Who gives fifty? Who gives me fifty? Sound as a fiddle … straight as a string! Who gives me forty? Gentlemen, this here is an outrage. Ain’t there nobody left in ol’ Texas that knows a horse? Give me five dollars, then! Who’ll make it thirty? Thank you, Mister Kelly. There is somebody in Texas that knows a horse. Goin’ to Mister Kelly for thirty! Gents, this is only startin’. This ain’t no common cow horse. This is the makin’ of a racer! Who says thirty-five? Thank you, Mister Smythe. But Kelly ain’t goin’ to let you have him. He knows a horse, I tell you. Now, Mister Kelly … forty! Now forty-five! We’re gettin’ up to where we should’ve started from.”

  He began to jab his truncheon first toward one and then toward another, wrenching the bids from them, until the perspiration poured down his face in streams. One would have thought that apoplexy must claim him, but still he went on through the long, dusty, hot moments.

  “Here’s a mare with the look of a mother in her eyes. Look at her, boys. There’s a mare that’ll give you horses to ride on. Good an’ roomy … disposition like a saint of heaven … look out, Joe!”—as the saint out of heaven nearly whipped the head from the shoulders of a too curious bystander with her flashing heels. “Lovely nature, but some spirit. Nobody wants a horse that can’t take care of itself on the range.”

  The colts were worked
through, the matured horses and mares were brought on and disposed of, and half a dozen times Señor Valdivia said to Carreño one word: “Buy!” That meant that the animal was to be purchased regardless of the price. And it was done. Carreño had an irritating habit. His bids went in fives only.

  For instance: “An upstandin’, hundred percent horse … a credit to Texas … this horse is a gentleman, friends. This horse is out of Thunder Blossom by Bay Ridge. They ain’t no common or garden blood in this horse, gents. This here horse could stand stud on any man’s ranch. He’s got the blood lines. He’s a racer. Do I hear five hundred? One hundred? I don’t, hear you, Mister Garret. No, I ain’t goin’ to hear you laughed at for biddin’ a hundred dollars for a horse that ain’t got his like west of the Mississippi.”

  “One hundred and five,” said Carreño, who had received his marching orders from his master.

  “And fifty!” Garret called.

  “And five,” said Carreño.

  “Which says two hundred?” bellowed Jim Bradley.

  “Two hundred!” Garret cried.

  “And five.”

  “Three hundred!” Garret yelled angrily.

  “And five.”

  “Five hundred dollars!” shouted the rancher.

  “And five,” said Carreño, showing his white teeth while the fat of his face wrinkled back in a smile.

  And Garret turned with an oath and strode from the crowd.

  So it was always with Carreño. To have wasted a dollar of his master’s money by making a bid higher than was absolutely necessary would have been, in his eyes, the blackest of crimes as well as a manifest folly.

  In the meantime, the herd in the reserve corral grew smaller and smaller, and still the audience had not thinned.

  “Why does everyone stay?” Señor Valdivia asked of a neighbor, for he himself was ready to depart with his purchases.