BRITISH COMICS

(Rover Homepage)

KEEPER OF THE BRANDS

First episode taken from The Rover issue: 1375 November 3rd 1951.

A masked stranger appoints himself guardian of the book that Old Memory Mason has died for!

MEMORY MASON

Max Farrell of the Seventy-Six Ranch, came trotting briskly down the narrow trail on his half-broken horse. He was a thin man with a back as straight as the handle of a branding-iron. Beside him rode a plumper, younger edition of himself, with the same grey eyes and resolute chin. “Say nothing about The Smiler,” murmured the rancher, as they turned a bend and sighted the lone house at the end of Hat Creek. “Leave that to me.” His son nodded, and the clatter of the horses’ hoofs brought a bent, white-haired man to the door of the house. For a moment he peered out at them from under his bushy eyebrows, then his leathery old face twisted in a smile, and he raised a hand in greeting. Memory Mason had once been a big man, but his shoulders were stooped now with age. His white hair hung almost to his shoulders. He was clad in simple black without a gun-belt, and his eyes had the thoughtful look of a scholar. He came to meet the newcomers as they dismounted and hitched their horses to his rail. “Howdy, folks! Drop in and have a cup o’ coffee,” he invited. “Pot’s on the boil.” “Thanks, Memory,” said the rancher. “We came by to ask you to put a new brand registration in the book.” Memory Mason beamed, and glanced towards the younger man. “Yes, for Tom here,” said Farrell. “I’ve fixed him up with a cabin and a nice range of stock over at White Oaks. He’s starting on his own, with his own brand.” The house had stone walls and a wooden roof, two rooms downstairs and two above. Memory Mason invited them into his spotless living-room, and crossed to a battered bureau in the corner. From this he lifted an old, scarred ledger. It was about an inch thick, and stained with age, but the unused pages inside were clean. Memory Mason turned to a new page, picked up a quill pen and dipped it in an ink-pot. “Tom Farrell,” he wrote at the top of the page. “White Oaks.” For twenty years, Memory Mason had been keeper of the brands. He had never charged a cent for his services, but the ranchers saw to it that he wanted for nothing. By his strict honesty, his gentleness and good neighbourliness, he had made himself loved in that part of the West. “Gosh!” exclaimed young Tom Farrell. “I bet this record has saved some arguments and fights at round-up times.” “It sure has!” agreed his father, while Memory Mason continued to smile. “I wouldn’t like to say how many disputes have been settled by Memory and his book. There’s bound to be arguments at round-up times, especially when the cattle have been running wild for the best part of a season and the brands are nearly grown out. But Memory always turns up and settles all doubts. His book and his Memory never fails.” The old-timer was getting them some coffee. His voice was soft as he said: “I’m glad to have been of service. How are things around town, Max? Any news?” There was just the slightest hint of anxiety in his voice, and the visitors exchanged swift glances. Max Farrell cleared his throat. “Ye-es, I’m afraid it’s not good news about The Smiler, Memory. The old man did not look up, but his gnarled hand tightened on the pot from which he was pouring the coffee. “What’s he been up to now?” he asked patiently. “Seems he got into an argument with a gambler over at Twin Butts, and shot him dead. The sheriff arrived at that time an’ tried to draw on The Smiler. ‘Fraid he was shot dead, too, Memory,” Max Farrell told him. Memory Mason closed his eyes for a moment. “My poor son!” he whispered, and turned to the others with their steaming cups of coffee. “Here you are, all piping hot! What—what did you say happened to Smiler afterwards?” “I don’t know,” murmured the rancher. “He rode away during the excitement—heading south. If there’s anything in the world I can do, Memory—” “Nothing you can do, Max, thanks!” was the quiet reply. “We all have our worries, and The Smiler was a good son once, before he got mixed up with that Red Rupe gang. Well, I sure wish you success in your new ranching venture, Tom. You’ve got in only just in time. I hear there’s some chance of an alteration in the Land Laws out here.” “An alteration—what alteration?” demanded Max Farrell. “I don’t know. It was just a rumour I heard. Few of the ranchers on the Flats have registered as landowners, but surely the law will take care of them when the time comes. It’s men like you and your neighbours, Max, who’ve opened up the West.” Max Farrell growled under his breath. “You’ve had your share in it if anyone in these parts has, Memory. Well, thanks for everything. We must be going, but—I forgot!” He fished in his pocket and brought out a packet. “A couple ounces of tobacco for you. I thought maybe you hadn’t been to town recently.” The old man’s eyes filled with moisture as he took the tobacco. It was in little ways such as this that his neighbours paid him for being the Keeper of the Brands. His two visitors rode away, and once they were out of sight the rancher growled: “It’s just too bad that the nicest and gentlest man in Texas has for a son the most notorious gunman in the West! It’s just too bad.”

THE DESTROYER OF THE PAST

Neither the rancher nor his son knew that they had been watched from behind a line of trees on the skyline by a group of nearly a dozen horsemen. Foremost of these horsemen was a tall, blond, middle-aged man with a single-action Colt on either hip. John Chisum was his name, and he wore swivel-holsters, which enabled him to shoot from the hip without drawing. He was the owner of the big Bar-Nothing Ranch, which bordered on the east side of Laredo Flats. Those with him were a hard-bitten, evil-looking bunch. “Dunno why you didn’t let us rub out these two, Chisum,” growled one called Pete Mako. “It would’ve saved time.” John Chisum silenced him with a frown. “I give orders here, Mako,” he snapped. “We’ve got to work to plan. Right before us lie the Laredo Flats, fifty miles square of the nicest grazing in Texas. Something like twenty two ranches share it between ‘em, and they’ve all got their brands registered with that old fool down there at the creek. Not one of them has ever brought his land from the government. There’s never been any question of buying it. Nobody’s ever asked them to buy it.” Most of the men listened intently, for they respected John Chisum for his cunning as well as his ruthlessness. “What these blamed fool ranchers don’t know is that the new Land Law is going to grant the land to whatever man has his cattle running over the territory,” continued the owner of the Bar-Nothing. “That would give them all the land—if their cattle were running there when the Land Court arrives in the district, but that’s not going to happen my buckos!” He flashed them an evil grin. “I’ve had my eye on the Flats ever since I first rode through the district,” went on John Chisum. “If anybody’s cattle are running over this territory when the Land Court arrives, it will be mine. The Schoolmaster there—” he nodded at a wiry little man whose face was a mask of scars—“will alter the brands on all the cattle to our own Bar-Nothing brand. Those brands which can’t be altered—well, we’ll have to destroy those cattle.” Chisum chuckled. “But first there’s one little job to be done down there.” He nodded towards the lone house by Hat Creek. Smoke rose from the chimney. Memory Mason had just put on some more wood. “That’s easy,” growled Pete Mako, fingering his gun. “I’ll fix him.” “Yes, you can fix him,” agreed Chisum, “but that’s not enough. That record book in which he keeps his brands, and every other record he’s got in that house must be destroyed. You’d best burn the whole house down. Take Vane an’ Baxter with you.” Mako nodded to his two companions, and the three of them spurred their horses down the hill towards the creek. Memory Mason was washing up the cups that he had used for his visitors when he heard the new arrivals outside. He looked through the window, and some of the colour drained from his face. “Something to do with my son,” he whispered to himself, then straightened his back and made for the door. They were leering at him from his garden path when he appeared on the threshold. Pete Mako was the spokesman. “Howdy, old-timer! Someone told us your name was Mason.” “They call me Memory Mason,” was the quiet reply. “Memory Mason, think o’ that!” drawled the gunman. “Someone also told us you keep a record o’ all the cattle-brands in these parts. That’s what we’re interested in. We want to settle an argument.” Relief showed in the old man’s face. He beamed and held the door open for them. “Come in, come in! I shall be pleased to settle any argument about brands or ear-marks,” he said. “Let’s see this record!” snapped Pete Mako, following him in. “Certainly!” Memory Mason stepped to the bureau and brought out the battered register. “It’s a complete record—complete. I’ve even added one new brand to-day see?” The three men closed around him. Pete Mako turned the leaves of the book and nodded. “Is this the only record you keep?” he asked. “No other lists?” For the first time Memory Mason looked at him doubtfully. “Why, no, of course not,” he said. “But what did you want to know particularly?” “Just where this here book was kept,” smiled the gunman, and with one swift movement he jerked out his Bulldog revolver and put three bullets in Memory Mason’s chest. The old-timer hit the floor. The other men stood unmoved as their comrade stirred the still form with his foot and made sure no life remained. “That’s that!” he grunted. “Put that book in the fire, an’ scatter some o’ those ashes an’ wood around the room. It shouldn’t take long to burn this outfit to the ground. They worked quickly, dragging out the glowing embers from the fire and throwing them into chairs, on to the table, into corners, cupboards, and even into the scullery at the back. They pulled together articles of clothing, papers, and everything they believed would burn readily, and piled these over the flames. Smoke poured from the windows and surrounded the little house. The killers open the back windows to increase the draught, left all the doors open, and went out to their horses. It was the smoke, rising higher than the trees beyond the creek, that was sighted by the lone rider coming from the north. A young, hard-faced man with bushy eyebrows and keen grey eyes, he reined in his big roan for a moment and stared. Then he kicked in his blunt spurs and headed at full gallop round the creek. He brought his horse round parallel to the fence that closed in Memory Mason’s garden. Hauling his mount almost on to its haunches, he cleared the fence as he left the stirrups, and went up the pathway at a run. The smoke was billowing through the doorway. The newcomer paused only to tie a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, then dived inside. The first thing he saw was the body on the floor. He dropped on one knee and made a swift examination. Memory Mason was dead, there was no doubt about that, and there was no doubt about the manner of his killing. Thanks to the open windows, the flames had been blown away from the body. Curtains and inner woodwork were already alight, but there was no sign of the upper floor catching fire. The newcomer was about to carry the corpse out into the open when he happened to glance towards the fireplace. Something drew him to it, and he risked burning his fingers as he plucked out a scorched, but unburnt portion of the stiff cover of the Book of Brands. For a few moments he glared at this. With the nearby poker, he prodded the charred remains in the fire, but there was not one page remaining of the record which had taken Memory Mason twenty years to compile. He put down the poker and ducked low through the choking smoke to look closer at the open bureau in the corner. Then he heard the quick clatter of hoofs outside, and the loud voices of men. Quickly, the intruder stepped back into a corner cupboard where Mason had kept two home made brooms and a bucket. The door would not quite close on the brawny bulk of the man who hid there, but it screened him from the view of the three men who came stumbling in. Coughing and gasping, they were tying handkerchiefs over their faces. “Doggone it, what did Chisum expect us to do—go through the place with a curry-comb?” Pete Mako was saying. “The book’s destroyed—there’s all that’s left of it. We’ll take this to show Chisum.” With his foot he kicked the unburnt covers of the Book of Brands into the centre of the floor, then glowered about him. He saw that the flames had not done all he had expected. “Chisum said we’ve got to make sure there ain’t no other papers referrin’ to the brands,” said one of the others. “He says not a scrap o’ evidence about the brands or the ear-marks must be left here.” “Huh!” snorted Pete Mako. “If he’s so very particular, it’s a pity he didn’t come here an’ do the job himself.” He stamped through to the kitchen, which was stone-floored and had not suffered as badly as the living-room. Beside the kitchen door was a steep ladderway leading upstairs. Pete Mako turned his head. “Take a look up there,” he growled. “Bring down any papers or books you find. We’ll make a bonfire right here in this room of anything likely to cause trouble.” He opened the door of a cupboard in the kitchen, and lifted out a can, removed the stopper, sniffed the contents, and nodded with satisfaction. It was kerosene, just what they needed to freshen up the fire and make a complete job of burning the house.

 

THE STRANGER WHO REMEMBERED

In the other cupboard, the young man with the hard face and bushy eyebrows was listening to every word and watching every movement. One of his hands toyed with the Colt .41 that he wore on his right hip. Crashing noises and whoops of laughter came from upstairs, where the other two members of the gang were pulling out drawers. There was a clatter on the stairs, and Del Vale came stumbling down with a toy boat under one arm, and a dummy revolver whittled out of white wood in his hand. There was a grin on his swarthy face. “Look what I’ve found! There must have been a boy here once. The old fool kept these toys. Sentimental ol’ cuss! Look at these—” From a pocket he dragged a bundle of dog-eared letters wrapped in faded blue ribbon. “From someone called Mary. His wife I guess. He’d kept ‘em all these years.” He tossed the bundle of letters on to the pile of articles which Pete Mako was building against the inner wall. It was Mako’s intention to soak these things with oil before setting fire to them. In the corner cupboard the tight-lipped young stranger slowly drew his Colt. The can of kerosene was passed over, and Pete Mako drew back a step in order to throw the liquid over the piled treasures of the dead man. In so doing, he stepped on one of Memory Mason’s out-stretched hands and nearly tripped. He turned and kicked viciously at the offending arm. There was a crash from the corner of the room. The cupboard door had been flung back to the wall, and the young stranger with the bushy eyebrows had stepped out. His grey eyes blazed, his teeth were bared. The big Colt was loose in his hand. “You rat!” he snarled, and as Pete Mako dropped the can and snatched for his gun, the newcomer fired. Crack! The bullet took Mako between the eyes just as he was bringing up his revolver. The other two gunmen, startled only for a fraction of a moment, grabbed simultaneously for their own six-shooters. The young man in the corner dropped on one knee as they fired, and both bullets thudded into the wall behind. Then the stranger pulled the trigger twice more with incredible swiftness. It would have been impossible to have judged the time between his two shots, yet each had found a different target, one in the heart of Ollie Baxter, the other upwards through the jaw of Del Vane into his brain. The victor of that brief gunfight remained on one knee until the others had fallen side by side, then he rose and snapped his Colt back into its holster. There was the same hard, inhuman look in his eyes as he looked from one dead gunman to another, but this look faded, and his eyes misted over as he stepped across to Memory Mason and lifted him in his arms. “You deserve better company than this old-timer,” he muttered and carried Mason outside into the garden, where he set him down under what had been the old man’s favourite tree. Back into the room of death he went, stepping over the three bodies. Again he knelt, this time in the corner where the toys, books, and photos had been tossed. One by one he collected the toys and books. There was tenderness in his expression, and memory in his eyes as he turned the battered toys over and regarded certain chips and marks. The books he looked through slowly in the fading light. On the title-page of each was scrawled in boyish handwriting: Jeff (Smiler) Mason. A sigh escaped him as he gathered everything into a pillowslip, which he tied at one end. Out he went to his waiting horse, and put the pillowcase and its contents into the saddle-bag. There was something else to be done before it grew dark. He went into the house to fetch a blanket, in which he wrapped Memory Mason. Then he jerked to his feet and hurried round the house. From a recess near the back door he took a spade, carried it back to the big tree in the front and there dug a grave. It was almost too dark for him to see by the time he reverently placed the wrapped body in its last resting place, and his lips moved silently for some minutes before he filled in the earth and patted it down. One long look he gave the little house nestling there in the shadows, and turned away. His foot was in the stirrup when he suddenly seemed to remember something. He stopped, stiffened, then swung about and ran towards the house. The lower rooms were in darkness. He fumbled for matches as he passed through to the steep ladderway that led above, but he did not light one until he reached the room at the top. It was a boy’s room, although it had been turned upside down by the gunmen who had ransacked it. There were cuttings in bright colours on the walls, and the bed was too small for a man. On one wall was a small lasso and a miniature gun-belt. In a corner stood an aged fishing-rod. The man who held the match blinked his eyes rapidly as he looked about him, then he turned towards a small cupboard behind the bed. It had already been opened, but the young stranger struck another match and by the light of this, found a crack between the boarding at the back. He got his thumb in this and pulled out one piece of boarding. The match went out before he could put his hand into the opening behind, but he did not need light to find the old exercise book which was folded there. Carefully he brought it out, and struck yet another match to examine it. It was a careful copy, in young boy’s writing, of the Book of Brands which had been burnt downstairs. It was not complete, for it had finished several years before, but it showed the location, brands, and ear-marks of the first twenty ranchers to settle in the Laredo Flats. Satisfied, the young man put the book carefully into an inner pocket, then hurried downstairs and out to his horse. This time he rode away without a single glance behind him.

 

Keeper of the Brands 6 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1375 – 1380 (1951).                                    

 

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007