The Daybreakers

By Louis L’Amour


Chapter Seven


This was raw, open country, rugged country, and it bred a different kind of man. The cattle that went wild in Texas became the longhorn, and ran mostly to horns and legs because the country needed a big animal that could fight and one who could walk three days to get water. Just so it bred the kind of man with guts and toughness no eastern man could use.

Most men never discover what they’ve got inside. A man has to face up to trouble before he knows. The kind of conniving a man could get away with back east wouldn’t go out here. Not in those early years. You can hide that sort of behavior in a crowd, but not in a country when there’s so few people. Not that we didn’t have our own kinds of trickery and cheating.

Jonathan Pritts was one of those who mistook liberty for license and he figured he could get away with anything. Worst of all, he had an exaggerated idea of how big a man he was…trouble was, he wasn’t a big man, just a mean one.

We banked our money with the Express Company in Santa Fe, and then we saddled up and started back to Purgatoire after more cattle. We had us an outfit this time. Dapple was still my horse, and a better no man was likely to have, but each of us now had four extra mounts and I’d felt I’d done myself proud.

The first was a grulla, a mouse-colored mustang who, judging by disposition, was sired out of a Missouri mule by a mountain lion with a sore tooth. That grulla was the most irritating, cantankerous bit of horse flesh I ever saw, and he could buck like a sidewinder on a red-ant hill. On the other hand he could go all day and night over any kind of country on less grass and water than one of Beal’s camels. My name for him was Sate, short for Satan.

There was a buckskin, a desert horse used to rough going, but steady. In many ways the most reliable horse I had. His name was Buck, like you might expect.

Kelly was a big red horse with lots of bottom. Each horse I paid for out of my own money, although Sate they almost gave to me, glad to be rid of him, I expect.

First time I straddled Sate we had us a mite of a go-around. When I came off him I was shook up inside and had a nosebleed, but I got off when I was good and ready and from that time on Sate knew who was wearing the pants.

My fourth horse I bought from an Indian.

We’d spent most of the day dickering with Spanish men, and this Indian sat off to one side, watching. He was a big-framed Nez Perce from up Idaho, Montana way.

He was at the corral at sunup and by noontime I’d not seen him have a bite to eat.

“You’re a long way from home,” I said, slicing off a chunk of beef I’d had fixed for a lunch and handed it to him.

He looked at me, a long, careful look, then he accepted it. He ate slow like a starving man who can’t eat a lot at first because his stomach shrinks up.

“You speak English?”

“I speak.”

Splitting my grub down the middle, I gave him half, and we ate together. When we’d finished he got up. “Come – you see horse.”

The horse was a handsome animal, a roan with a splash of white with red spots on the white, the kind of horse they call an Appaloosa. Gaunt as his owner he stood a good sixteen hands. Looked like this Indian had come a long way on short rations.

So I swapped him my old rifle (I’d bought a .44 Henry the day before) and some grub. I threw in my old blanket.

We were out of Santa Fe when we found a spot in the bend of a creek among some rocks. When we’d forted up they left it to me to scare up some fresh meat as we planned to live off the country and stretch out store-bought rations.

That Montana horse could move. He could get out and go, lickety-brindle, and he was smart. We passed up antelope because no matter what folks tell you it’s the worst kind of Rocky Mountain meat. Old-timers will tell you that cougar meat is best. Lewis and Clark said that, and Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Uncle Dick Wooton, Jim Baker…they all agreed.

Morning, with a bright sun over far hills, shadows lying in the folds and creases of the country, sunlight on cottonwood leaves and sparkling on the river water…a meadow lark calling. Montana horse and me, we sure loved it. We took off along an old deer trail. This was higher country than before, the plateaus giving way to long ridges crested with pines and slopes dotted with juniper or piñon.

Suddenlike, I saw a deer…and then another. Tethering Montana horse I moved up with my rifle.

Feeding deer are easy to stalk if a man is careful on his feet and doesn’t let them get wind of him. When deer put their heads down to graze, you can move up on them, and you can keep moving, very quiet. When their tails start to switch they’re going to look up, so you freeze in position. He may be looking right at you when he looks up, and he might look a long time, but if you stand right still, after awhile he will decide you’re a harmless tree or stump and go back to feeding.

I worked my way up to within fifty yards of a good big buck and then I lifted my rifle and put a bullet behind the left foreleg. There was another deer no further off and on my left, and as I fired at the first one I swung the rifle just as he was taking his first jump and my bullet broke his neck as he hit ground.

Working fast, I butchered those deer, loaded the choice cuts into their hides and mounted Montana horse. When I came out of the trees a couple af miles further on a half-dozen buffalo were running across the wind. Now no buffalo runs without reason.

Pulling up on the edge of the trees I knew we’d be hard to see, for that roan and me with my buckskin outfit fitted into the country like part of it. No man in this country ever skylines himself if he can help it.

Sometimes the first man to move is the first to die, so I waited. The sun was bright on the hillside. My horse stamped a foot and switched his tail. A bee hummed around some leaves on a bush nearby.

They came in a single file, nine of them in a row. Utes, from the description I’d heard from Cap. They came out of the trees and angled along the slope in front of me.

Now most times I prefer to stand my ground and fight it out for running can make your back a broad target, but there are times to fight and times to run and the wise man is one who can choose the right time for each.

First off, I sat still, but they were riding closer and closer to me, and if they didn’t see me their horses would. If I tried to go back into the trees they’d hear me.

Sliding my rifle across my saddle I said a prayer to the guardian angel of fools and covered maybe thirty yards before they saw me. One of them must have spoken because they all looked.

Indians can make mistakes like anybody. If they had all turned and come at me I’d have been fairly caught. But one Indian got too anxious and threw up his rifle and fired.

Seeing that rifle come up, I hit the spurs to Montana horse and went away from there, but in the split seconds before I hit him with the spurs, I fired. As I’d been timing my horse’s steps I’d shot at the right time and I didn’t miss.

My shot took out, not the Indian shooting at me but the one who seemed to be riding the best horse. My shot was a hair ahead of his and he missed when Montana horse jumped.

We took out…and I mean we really lit a shuck. There was nothing around there I wanted and what I wanted most was distance from where I was.

With that first Indian down I’d cut my sign right across their trail and now they wanted me mighty bad, but that horse didn’t like Utes any better than I did. He put his ears back and stretched out his tail and left there like a scared rabbit.

My next shot was a miss. With Montana horse traveling like he’d forgot something in Santa Fe, there wasn’t much chance of a hit. They had all come right at me with the shooting and I saw unless I did something drastic they had me so I swung and charged right at the nearest Indian. He was fifty yards ahead of the nearest Ute and which shot got his horse I don’t know, but I fired three or four shots at him.

Dust jumped from the horse’s side and the horse went down throwing his rider over his head into the grass, and when I went by at a dead run I shot into that Indian as I rode.

They were messed up for a minute or two, switching directions and running into each other, but meanwhile I rode through a small creek and was out on the open prairie beyond.

We were eight to ten miles from camp and I wasn’t about to lead these Utes full tilt into my friends. And then I saw a buffalo wallow.

Slowing Montana horse we slid into that wallow and I hit ground and threw my shoulder into the horse and grabbed his off foreleg, hoping to throw him, but Montana horse seemed to know just what I wanted and he went down and rolled on his side like he had been trained for it…which he probably had, the Nez Perce using Appaloosas for war horses.

Dropping to one knee, the other leg stretched out ahead of me, I drew a careful bead on the chest of the nearest Ute and squeezed off my shot.

There was a minute when I believed I’d missed, and him coming right into my sights, then his horse swung wide and dumped a dead Ute into the grass. There was a bright stain of blood on the horse’s side as he swung away.

It was warm and still. Patting Montana horse I told him, “You rest yourself, boy, we’ll make out.”

He rolled his eyes at me like he understood every word.

You would never have believed that a moment ago there was shooting and killing going on, because suddenly everything was still. The hillside was empty, those Indians had gone into the ground faster than you would believe. Lying there, knowing any moment might be my last, I liked the feel of the warm sun on my back, the smell of parched brown grass and of dust.

Three of the Utes were down in the grass and there were six left. Six to one might seem long odds but if a man has nerve enough and if he thinks in terms of combat, the advantage is often against sheer numbers. Sheer numbers rob a man of something  and he begins to depend…and in a fighting matter no man should depend. He should do what has to be done himself.

My canteen was full and I’d some jerked meat in my saddlebag, lots of fresh meat, and plenty of ammunition.

They would try to come over the rise behind me. That crest, only a couple of feet away, masked my view of the far slope. So I had out my bowie knife and began cutting a trench. That was a nine-inch blade, sharp enough to shave with, and I worked faster than ever in my born days.

It took me only minutes to have a trench that gave a view of the back slope, and I looked around just in time. Four of them were coming up the slope toward me on foot and running bent over. My shot was a miss…too quick. But they hit dirt. Where there had been running Indians there was only grass stirring in the wind.

They would be creeping on their bellies now, getting closer. Taking a chance, I leaped up. Instantly, I spotted a crawling Indian and fired, then dropped into my hole with bullets spearing the air where I’d been. That was something I couldn’t try again, for now they’d be expecting.

Overhead there were high streamers of white clouds. Turning around I crawled into my trench, and just in time. An Indian was coming up that back slope, bent over and coming fast and I let him come. It was high time I shortened the odds against me, so I put my rifle in position, reached down to ease my Colt for fast work in case the others closed in at the same time. That Ute was going to reach me with his next rush.

Some were down, but I doubted if more than one was actually dead. I wasn’t counting any scalps until I had them.

Minutes loitered. Sweat trickled down my cheeks and my neck. I could smell the sweat of my own body and the hot dust. Somewhere an eagle cried. Sweat and dust made my skin itch, and when a big horsefly lit on Montana, my slap sounded loud in the hot stillness.

Eastern folks might call this adventure, but it is one thing to read of adventure sitting in an easy chair with a cool drink at hand, and quite another thing to be belly down in the hot dust with four, five Indians coming up the slope at you with killing on their minds.

A grasshopper flew into the grass maybe fifteen yards down slope, then took off at once, quick and sharp. That was warning enough. Lifting the rifle I steadied it on that spot for a quick shot, then chanced a glance over my shoulder. Just as I looked back that Ute charged out of the grass like he was bee-stung.

My guess had been right, and he came up where that grasshopper had lit.  My sights were on the middle of his chest when I squeezed off my shot and he fell in plain sight.

Behind me their feet made a whisper in the dry grass and rolling over I palmed my Colt and had two shots off before I felt the slam of the bullet. The Utes vanished and then I was alone but for a creeping numbness in my left shoulder and the slow welling of blood.

Sliding back from the trench I felt sickish faint and plugged the hole with a handkerchief. The bullet had gone through and I was already soaked with blood on my left side. With bits of handkerchief I plugged the bullet hole on both sides and knew I was in real trouble.

Blinking against the heat and sudden dizziness I fed shells into my guns. Then I took the plug from my canteen and rinsed my mouth. It was lukewarm and brackish.

My head started to throb heavily and it was an effort to move my eyebrows. The smell of sweat and dried grass grew stronger and overhead the sky was yellow and hot as brass. From out of an immeasurable distance a buzzard came.

Suddenly I hated the smells, hated the heat, hated the buzzard circling and patient – as it could be patient – knowing that most things die.

Crawling to the rim of the buffalo wallow my eyes searched the terrain before me, dancing with heat waves. I tried to swallow and could not, and Tennessee and its cool hills seemed very far away.

Through something like delirium I saw my mother rocking in her old chair, and Orrin coming up from the spring with a wooden bucket full of the coldest water a man could find.

Lying in a dusty hole on a hot Colorado hillside with a bullet hole in me and Utes waiting to finish the job, I suddenly remembered what day it was.

It had been and hour...or had it been more? It had been at least an hour since the last attack. Like the buzzards, all those Utes needed was time, and what is time to an Indian?

Today was my birthday…today I was nineteen years old.


 Tyrel Sackett



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