Calder Brand - Janet Dailey


April 29, 1879, twelve years earlier

AS THE SKYPALED OVER THE TEXAS PRAIRIE, JOE LAYIN HIS BEDROLL, drifting in and out of sleep. His ears caught the rustle of quail foraging in the long grass. He could hear the faint lowing of cattle, the snort of a horse, and the snores of the men sleeping around him.

Ahead lay another day on the trail—one more day of dust, danger, and unending work from dawn until dark. But for Joe, it would also be a day of secret celebration. Today was his sixteenth birthday.

He had no calendar to remind him. But he’d kept a careful count of the days. No mistake. He was sixteen for sure now—not a boy anymore but a man, doing a man’s work.

Three weeks had passed since he’d left his family’s Texas farm to become a cowboy on a big cattle drive—a drive owned and bossed by Mr. Chase Benteen Calder, who usually went by his middle name, Benteen. The work was filthy and grueling, the dust and rain miserable at times. But Joe was used to hard work. And even through the worst of it, there was no place he would rather be—even if he was only the wrangler’s helper, the lowest job in the outfit. From the first taste of coffee in the morning to the soothing songs of the night watch as he sank into sleep, this was the life.

It was an exciting time to be a young man. The end of the Civil War, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the defeat of the native tribes had opened vast areas of the country to travel, commerce, farming, and ranching. The virgin prairies of the Northwest were ideal for grazing cattle, and Americans were quick to seize the advantage.

The Calder drive was one of many that moved Texas-born longhorn cattle along the trails leading north. Some herds went as far as the railroad towns in Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, where they were loaded onto trains, shipped east, and sold. Others, like this drive, would continue on to the untamed territories of Wyoming and Montana, where the cattle could graze on the lush, rich grasslands that were there for the taking—lands that, in their way, were more valuable than gold.

This was a time for conquest and adventure—and Joe was thrilled to be part of it.

Stealing a little more precious time, he lay in his bedroll, giving his lanky body a chance to come fully awake. In the gray light, he could see the dark outline of the chuckwagon and the sleeping forms of the men lying around it. Farther back, two covered wagons sat in the shadows. Benteen Calder and a man named Ely Stanton were moving their wives and possessions to new homes. The Calders would be starting a ranch with the cattle on their Montana land claim. The Stantons would be leaving the drive in Dodge City and heading for Iowa, where Mrs. Stanton had family.

Joe stretched, preparing to get up. Only then did he feel an unaccustomed weight across his legs. He raised his head to see a five-foot bull snake crawling across his bedroll.

With a startled yelp, Joe jerked upright. One hand fumbled for the pistol he kept under his pillow. Still groggy, he found it and might have blown the creature to kingdom come; but by the time he’d gathered his wits and cocked the gun, the snake had slithered off into the grass.

The cowboys bedded around him were awake and laughing.

“Hey, kid, you almost had yourself a bed partner there!” Shorty Niles said. “Another minute and he’d have crawled right into the sack with you.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t pull that trigger,” Jesse Trumbo teased. “You could’ve shot yourself in the foot.”

“You’re lucky it wasn’t a rattler,” Yates, the wrangler said. “That was a pretty good holler you let out. Were you scared?”

“Not scared. Just spooked.” Joe rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The cowboys enjoyed playing good-natured tricks on each other, and Joe, as the youngest man on the cattle drive, got more than his share. Had one of the men dropped the scary but harmless reptile on his bedroll? He’d bet against it this time. There were plenty of snakes around, and they were attracted by warmth. But he would never know.

Rusty, the grizzled cook, had risen early and was working between the chuckwagon and the campfire. The aroma of coffee mingled with the smell of bacon and sourdough biscuits cooked in a cast-iron Dutch oven made