A skilled cowhand makes a name for himself on the Plains in this excerpt from Louis L’Amour’s “Catlow.”
Catlow ( Bantam, 2004) by Louis L'Amour follows the adventurous life of fictional cowhand and outlaw Bijah Catlow. This excerpt is from Chapter 1.
Wherever buffalo grazed, cattle were rounded up, or mustangs tossed their tails in flight, men talked of Bijah Catlow.
He was a brush-buster from the brazada country down along the Nueces, and he could ride anything that had hair. He made his brag that he could outfight, outride, outtalk, and outlove any man in the world, and he was prepared to accept challenges, any time or place.
Around chuck-wagon fires or line camps from the Brazos to the Musselshell, men talked of Bijah Catlow. They talked of his riding, his shooting, or the wild brawls in which, no matter how angry others became, Bijah never lost his temper — or the fight.
Abijah was his name, shortened in the manner of the frontier to Bijah. He was a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, hell-for-leather Irishman who emerged from the War Between the States with three decorations for bravery, three courts-martial, and a reputation for being a man to have on your side in any kind of a shindig, brannigan, or plain old alley fight.
A shock-headed man with a disposition as open as a Panhandle prairie, he was as ready to fight as an Irishman at a Dutchman’s picnic; and where the wishes of Bijah Catlow were crossed he recognized the laws of neither God nor man. But the law had occasion to recognize Bijah Catlow; and the law knew him best in the person of Marshal Ben Cowan.
By the time Bijah and Ben were 15 years old, each had saved the other’s life no less than three times; and Bijah had whipped Ben four times and had himself been whipped four times. Ben was tough, good-humored, and serious; Bijah was tough, good-humored, and wild as any unbroken mustang.
At 19, Ben Cowan was a deputy sheriff, and at 23 a Deputy United States Marshal. By the time Bijah had reached the age of 23 he was a known cattle rustler, and an outlaw with three killings behind him.
But it was no criminal instinct, inherited or acquired, that turned Bijah from the paths of righteousness to the shadowy trails of crime. It was a simple matter of frontier economics.
Bijah Catlow was a top-hand in any man’s outfit, so when he signed on with the Tumbling SS’s, it was no reflection on his riding. He hired out at the going wage of $30 per month and found, but the sudden demand for beef at the Kansas railheads turned Texas longhorns from unwanted, unsought wild creatures into a means to wealth and affluence.
From occasional drives to Missouri, Louisiana, or even Illinois, or the casual slaughter of cattle for their hides, the demand for beef in the eastern cities lifted the price per head to 10 or more times its former value.
Immediately the big ranchers offered a bonus of $2 per head for every maverick branded, and Bijah Catlow, who worked with all the whole-hearted enthusiasm with which he played, plunged into the business of branding cattle to get rich.
He was a brush-popper and a good one, and he knew where the wild cattle lurked. He was a good hand with a rope and he owned some fast horses that knew cattle as well as he did, and nobody knew them better. The first month after the bonus was initiated, Bijah Catlow roped and slapped an iron on 87 head of wild cattle.
During the months that followed, Bijah was busier than a man with a dollar watch and the seven-year itch (when he isn’t winding, he’s scratching) and he averaged $200 to $250 a month. In those days nobody made that kind of money on the range, or much of anywhere else. And then the bottom dropped out.
The owners of the big brands got together and agreed that the bonus was foolish and unnecessary, for it was the hands’ job to brand cattle anyhow. So the bonus came to an end.
From comparative affluence, Bijah Catlow once again became a 30-a-month cowhand, and he led the contingent that quit abruptly.
His argument was a good one. Why brand cattle for the ranchers? Why not for themselves? Why not make up their own herd and drive through to Kansas? After all, most of the mavericks running loose on the plains of Texas came from Lord knows where, for cattle had been breeding like jackrabbits on those plains ever since the days when the first Spanish came there. Nobody could claim or had claimed ownership of those cattle until suddenly they became valuable. Moreover, throughout the War Between the States most of the riders had been away at war and the cattle that might have been branded had gone maverick, and many of their owners had never returned from the War.
The cattle were there for whoever claimed them — so Bijah Catlow banded together a group of riders like himself and they went to work, inspired by Bijah’s wholehearted zeal and unflagging energy.
He threw himself into the work with the same enthusiasm with which he did everything else, and it was his zest that fired the ambition of the others. Morning, noon, and night they worked, and at the end of two months they had a herd of nearly 3,000 head ready for the trail.
Bantam Books will be publishing, through 2018 and 2019, a large quantity of new material from Louis L’Amour as part of a project called “Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures.” Bantam has published the first volume of LOUIS L’AMOUR’S LOST TREASURES available in the Grit bookstore.Volume 2 will follow in 2019.
The Lost Treasures project was created to release many works Louis L’Amour was never able to publish during his lifetime.
From the book CATLOW by Louis L’Amour. Copyright © 1963 by Louis & Katherine L’Amour Trust. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. To get a copy of the book, visit the GRIT Store or call (866) 803-7096.
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