The sun was not an hour high when Linus Rawlings came upon the trail of the Ute war party. The high walls of the narrowing valley of the Rio Grande barred all escape, and Linus knew he was in trouble.
A man of infinite patience, he was patient now, sitting his line — backed buckskin in the dappling shadow of the aspens. Behind him trailed three packhorses carrying his winter’s catch of furs, while before him the mountain slope lay bright with the first shy green of spring.
Nothing moved along that slope, nor in the valley below, only the trembling leaves of the aspen. Linus, never one to accept the appearance of things in Indian country, remained where he was.
Against the background of the aspens he was invisible as long as he remained still, for his clothing, the horses, and their packs were all of a neutral color, blending well with their surroundings. Methodically, his eyes searched the slope, sweeping from side to side, taking in every clump of brush or aspen, every outcropping of rock, each color change in the grass.
It had been a long time since Linus Rawlings had skylined himself on the top of a ridge, or slept beside a campfire. He had known men who did both things … they were dead now. It was no accident that he always stopped with a background against which his shape could offer no outline.
When in Indian country you never took a risk, whether you suspected an enemy to be near or not. You learned also to make a fire that was small, on which to prepare your meal, and after eating to shift your camp a few miles and sleep in darkness, without a fire.
Such things as these were the simple rules of survival in the Indian country; and besides these, there were others — never to take a step without a weapon, as well as to observe the movements of birds and animals as indications of danger. Linus no longer even thought about the necessity of doing such things, for they had become as natural as breathing.
He saw that the Ute war party comprised a dozen Indians; and if they were headed for a raid on the Spanish settlements to the south, they might well plan a rendezvous with other Indians along the trail. They were only minutes ahead of him, and the question was … did they know he was behind them?
He studied the slope with a skeptical eye. Behind his lazy, easygoing façade, Linus Rawlings’s mind had been sharpened and his senses honed by 32 years of frontier living. Born in the dark forests of western Pennsylvania, where his family had been among the first to settle, Linus had moved west with his father to Illinois when only 15, and shortly after his father’s death he had taken up with a keelboat outfit and had gone west to trap fur.
In the 16 years that followed he ranged from the Kootenai River in Montana to the Gila in Arizona, from the shores of the Pacific to the eastern slopes of the Black Hills. He trapped in company with Jim Bridger, Uncle Dick Wootton, Bill Williams, Joe Walker, Osborne Russell, and Jedediah Smith. In those years he left the mountains only twice, aside from a brief visit to the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Those two trips away from the mountains were to St. Louis and New Orleans.
Now Linus searched out the probable line of travel of the war party and studied it with care, but he could see no movement, nothing. But he recalled what Kit Carson had told him many years before: When you see Indians, be careful. When you do not see them, be twice as careful.
Linus had great respect for the Indian. The Indian knew the wilderness, and how to live with it. No cat could move more quietly, no hawk had a keener eye; for the Indian lived by and with his senses, and a man could survive in Indian country only by being a better Indian.
Time lagged … the morning sun touched the ridges behind him with gold. The grass was still; only the aspens trembled. A packhorse stamped impatiently, a bee buzzed lazily in the low-growing brush.
His rifle lay in front of him across the saddle, the muzzle pointing downslope, his right hand grasping it around the action, thumb resting on the hammer.
Below him and to the right was another, somewhat larger clump of aspen. He gauged its height and his own position. To reach it he need be visible for no more than a minute.
A slight breeze moved behind him dancing the aspen leaves and stirring the grass, and when the breeze and its movement reached him, he moved with its movement, keeping the first clump of aspen behind him. He paused again when he had rounded the second clump, then started down the slope on the opposite angle to that he had been using.
A short distance ahead the narrow valley narrowed still more; then it widened out until it finally opened upon the plains. If the war party knew of him and planned an ambush, that would be the place. Not in the narrows, but just before they were reached or just after leaving them.
When approaching a dangerous place a traveler’s attention is directed ahead, toward the likely spot for an ambush, and he overlooks the seemingly innocent ground he is just about to cross. After passing a dangerous place, there is a tendency to let down.
Linus was in no hurry. The fleshpots of the East could wait a few hours or a few days longer. Using infinite care and holding well to the side of the valley, he worked his way along the bottom of the valley, following the river and keeping close to the trees or under them.
When he reached the place where the Utes had crossed, he drew up and allowed his horses to drink, and when they had drunk their fill he dismounted and drank himself, choosing a spot upstream from the horses. He was rising from the ground when he heard the shot.
Excerpted from Chapter 1 of How the West Was Won by Louis L’Amour. Copyright © 1962 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. and Cinerama, Inc. Copyright renewed 1991 by Turner Entertainment Company and Cinerama, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. To get a copy of the book, visit www.Grit.com/store or call 866-803-7096.