Riding for the Brand
Louis L’Amour writes stories that take off like a bullet.
Like Easter Eggs those words turned up on any flat surface where my father found a quiet moment away, popping up magically on nightstands, coffee tables, and toilet tanks around my boyhood home, moving about as though upon invisible gremlin legs. Those words were as much a part of my Dad as the beer in the fridge, or the Mustang under the tree in the backyard. There were different books, but always that same heading in bold print across the back cover. When my parents separated, “Louis L’Amour writes stories that take off like a bullet” left with my father, and Louis L’Amour disappeared from my concerns... for a while.
The summer following the fifth grade was spent with my father. I had just read “Shane” and “The Red Badge of Courage” in school, and loved them. Having little to do while my father worked, I picked up a book from his bedside table one morning. It was a short paperback, similar to “Shane.” I read it through before my father returned home from work that day. When he did come home I couldn’t wait to ask if he had other books similar to this one?
He led me to a long shelf with paperbacks lined neatly across it, each with the name Louis L’Amour below the title, giving the appearance of a huge matching set. They were thin novellas with exciting titles like “Hondo,” “How the West Was Won,” and “The First Fast Draw.” He slid one from the shelf entitled, “Down the Long Hills.” I was hooked from the first paragraph, as Louis’ books do indeed “take off like a bullet.” The hero was a boy my age who gets lost on the prairie with a young girl and his father’s horse to care for. What got me hooked though was not so much the great plot, but the telling of it. I smelled the Sioux camp as the boy approached it; leathery, and wild. I felt the cold, lowering sky, and I watched as gray tendrils of smoke rose from the teepees to meet it. I shivered with Hardy as he looked longingly from outside the camp at his captured horse while slow, heavy snowflakes whispered down between them.
I read book after book that summer, and continued on with them when summer ended, and my sister and I were back home. I found a used book store which swapped two-paperbacks-for-one, so I started my own Louis L’Amour collection. During those many times when I could not afford a new book, or even a swap, I read those I had collected over again until the covers cracked, and the bindings failed.
Little did I know that I was receiving an added bonus from those exciting tales. Louis’ characters were the American pioneers; men and women who worked to survive. For them failure meant death. His characters were honest because the land demanded it. They worked hard, and fought hard because those were the right things to do. I was reading about those characters during an impressionable time, a time with no male figure in our house to guide or discipline a rebellious adolescent. Louis’ characters showed me the way.
Ten years of my life were spent with a paperbacked book tucked into my jeans pocket, readily available. I wanted to be like the characters Louis L’Amour created. Forty years later I still strive to be like those characters... hard-working, honest, and brave. His characters mentored me, showing me the importance of dependability. It wasn’t the pay that made them men, but their acceptance of responsibility. If you agree to take the job, then give it all you have... you “ride for the brand.” I wanted to be a man too, so when my opportunity arrived I showed up every day like they did. I gave it all I had, even when I thought the job was worth more than I was being paid. That work ethic instilled in me by a not-so-simple cowboy writer has paid-off in spades for me throughout my life.
I seldom read Louis anymore. I moved on to more challenging, if not better, reading, but I treasure those days and nights spent in Shalako, or Ulvade, or Under the Sweetwater Rim with Tell Sacket, Nita Riordan, or “Hardy”, the boy in “Down the Long Hills” who felt compelled to go find his lost horse.
So, if by chance you are looking for a light read, or a descriptive author who will carry you away to another world... or better yet, if you are a young man who needs direction, do yourself a favor. Try the man whose stories, “take off like a bullet.”