To Clifton House on the Canadian came a lone rider on a long-legged buckskin. He was a green-eyed man wearing a flat-crowned, flat-brimmed black hat, black shirt and chaps. The Barlow & Sanderson Stage had just pulled in when the rider came out of the lava country, skirting the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos.
He was riding easy when they first saw him but his horse was dust-coated and the sweat had dried on him. The man had a tear in his shirt sleeve and a bloody bandage on his side. He rode directly to the stable and dismounted, caring first for his horse.
Only then did he turn and glance toward the House. He wore two tied-down guns. Pulling his hat lower he crossed the hard-packed earth and entered the house. "I could use some grub," he said, "a meal now and supplies to go."
"We got anything you need. We're feedin' the stage crowd now. Go on in."
He paused at the door and studied the room before going in. There were six passengers from the stage. Two women and four men, and there were a few riders from the valley roundup and three men from a trail herd crew. Face by face he studied them. Only then did he seat himself.
The tall girl from the stage lifted her eyes and looked across the table at him, her eyes alive with curiosity as she saw the bloody bandage. None of the men appeared to notice anything, and she filled her cup again and tried her coffee. It was hot, black, and strong.
Her eyes went again to the man in black. He had removed his hat when he seated himself and she noticed that his hair was black and curly. He was a lean, powerfully built man, probably larger than he looked while seated. Her eyes trailed again to the bandage.
"You . . . you've hurt yourself!" she exclaimed. "Your shoulder!"
Embarrassed and irritated, he glanced up. "It's a scratch," he said hastily. "It's all right."
"It looks like more than a scratch to me," she persisted. "You had better have it cared for."
"Thanks," he said, his voice a shade grim now, "I shall."
There was silence for a few minutes, and then from down the table somebody said, "Don't yuh wished yuh was scratched, Ike? Mebbe the lady would fix it for yuh."
The tall man flushed slightly but said nothing, but from down the table came a new voice. "Whatever it was scratched him," the voice said, "it looks like it hit him runnin' away!"
The dead silence that followed saw the tall man turn pale and cold. He lifted his head, his green eyes going down the table to the man who had spoken. He was a tough, handsome youngster with a look of eager recklessness about him. "If you were jokin'," the tall man said, "say so."
The man beside the tall man ducked suddenly and rolled off the bench, while others drew back from the blond young man. The youngster got slowly to his feet. "I wasn't jokin'," he said, with a faint sneer. "It looks to me like you was runnin' away."
As he spoke he went for his gun, and what happened then was seen with utter, piercing clarity by all who watched. The tall man seemed deliberately to wait, to hesitate the split second it took for the blond young man's hand to strike the butt of his gun. Then he palmed his own gun and shot.
The blond man staggered, his gun, half-drawn when the shot struck him, slid back into the holster. The man backed up, sat down, and rolled over on his face, coughing blood and death.
For an instant the room was still, broken by the young woman. She stared with horror at the tall man. "You . . . you murderer! " she cried, her lips twisting.
The tall man drew back slightly, his gun still in his hand. From one man to the other, he looked. "You saw it. He asked for it. I didn't want to kill him. I wasn't hunting for trouble when I came here. I was just tryin' to eat a quiet meal. What did he want to jump me for?"
Nobody spoke for a few seconds and then an older man said quietly, "Don't blame yourself, stranger. The boy has been huntin' for trouble ever since he killed a man in Texas."
"That won't make no diff'rence for yuh," another man said. "When Tetlow hears yuh've shot his boy, he'll never rest until he nails yore hide on the fence."
The tall man drew back and holstered his gun. "I'm not looking for trouble," he said. "I'll take my supplies and leave. Just you remember that," he added. "I'm not lookin' for trouble."
He sat down at the table and using his left hand he made two sandwiches from meat and bread. Wrapping them in a kerchief, he shoved them into his chaps pocket, backed away from the table, turned and walked into the other room. Tom Stockton was waiting for him. On the counter was a sack filled with supplies. "There it is, son. I seen it, an' it was a fa'r shootin' if there ever was one. Take this stuff, an' welcome."
"Thanks," the tall man hesitated, "but I want to pay."
"I'll take it hard," Stockton said grimly. "Yuh take this an' go along. It's little enough I can do for Kilkenny !"
Although he hissed the last name gently, the tall man looked quietly around. "Don't say that name!" he said. "Don't mention it!"
"I won't," Stockton replied, "but there's others in there may. Johnson," he nodded toward the dining room, "is from the Live Oak country. He may know yuh."
"Thanks again." Kilkenny turned, then he paused. "This Tetlow--who is he?"
Tom Stockton leaned his big hands on the counter and his face was grave. "It couldn't be worse. He's the old bull o' the woods, a big, hard old man, but aristocratic, intelligent, smart, and a politician. Worse, he comes of a feuding family. He'll not rest until he gets you, or you him."
Kilkenny nodded. "I see. What's he doing here?"
He's not here, not yet. But he's comin'. South of here on the flat he's got six thousand head of cattle. That's the second herd. The first one was four thousand head. He's got two more herd comin'."
"He'll need a lot of land for that many cattle," Kilkenny said. "I hope he's got it spotted."
"If he hasn't," Stockton replied, "he'll get it." He jerked his head. "That one, the one you shot. He was tall-talkin' around here. Said if they didn't get the land any other way they knew how they could get it. And he slapped his gun when he spoke."
"It's been done," Kilkenny said.
Stockton nodded gloomily. "Which makes it mighty tough on the little man who can't hire gunmen. Knowin' somethin' about Tetlow, however, I'd say that he wouldn't fall back on guns until politics failed. He's a smooth one, an' like I said--he's a politician.
To the high valleys then, came a lone rider, a man who rode with the caution born of riding long on strange trails in a land untamed and restless with danger.
Lonely, largely overlooked, but excellent grazing in spring, summer and early fall, the valleys were the last land to be taken. It was to one such valley that Kilkenny rode, and when he drew up and looked around him, he made his decision. This was the home he had been seeking, on this land he would stay.
It was then that he first became conscious of the sound, a faint scarcely discernible whispering. Holding himself erect, he listened intently. It was the wind! The whispering wind!
He turned then in his saddle and looked back over the valley he had found. At least two thousand acres! Grassy and lush with growth, water aplenty, and that whispering! The valley of the whispering wind!
Yes. Here he would stop. Here he would cease being the restless drifter that he had become, a man fleeing from a reputation, fleeing from the reputation of a killer. But in this place he would stay, and he would find peace--if they let him.
His fire was a lonely gleam in the vast darkness of the valley, and in the morning he laid the foundations of his home, choosing flat stones from the talus of the ridges, carefully laying the foundation and the floor. When a space for three rooms was carefully laid, he crushed limestone, and with sand made a crude mortar and began building the walls from selected chunks of rock.
It was slow, bitterly hard work, but he enjoyed it, and during that first month in the high meadow there was no sound or sight of anything man had done but what he did with his own hands. While he worked, he thought carefully of what he would do now. The house was nearing completion, and he had cleaned the waterholes and walled up the spring near the cabin.
Soon he must go to a settlement for supplies and ammunition. He felt a curious hesitancy about that, for he had no desire to go. Always now he found himself remembering the queer horror on that girl's face after he had shot Tetlow. True, she did not understand what it meant. She was new to the West. Still, it was not pleasant to have one looked at with such horror.
Who was she? She was without doubt beautiful--very beautiful.
As beautiful as . . .? He shook his head. No. There was no other like Nita, and there would be no other like her.
On the first day of the seventh week in the high meadow. Kilkenny saddled up and started for town. He knew nothing of the place. Horsehead, they called it, and while riding toward it he had heard it mentioned but no more. He did not even know how to get there, but must find his way through the canyons.
Horsehead sprawled in lazy comfort along both banks of a creek called Westwater and the town's main street crossed the creek at right angles.
Lance Kilkenny rode down from the hills into the east side of town, riding on until he reached the stage station, where he dismounted and tied the buckskin at the hitch rail. Pausing there, he took out the makings and rolled a smoke, scanning the town with careful eyes, alert to any attention he might be getting and curious about the town itself.
Ducking under the hitch rail he settled his hat back in place and glanced at the loafer standing in front of the stage station. "Nice little town you've got here," he suggested.
The loafer glanced at him out of the corners of his eyes, then at the two low-tied guns. "I reckon," he agreed, wiping the back of his hand across the mouth, "You seen Dolan?"
"Don't know him," Kilkenny said. "Who's he?"
The loafer stretched, then jerked his head toward the west side of town. "A good man to know if yuh figure to stick around." Turning, the man sauntered away.
Kilkenny watched him go, then turned east toward the hotel. Turning into the Westwater Hotel, he sought out the dining room and dropped to a seat at a table near the back of the room. He glanced curiously at the menu, then looked again, for here in this cow country hotel was a menu that would have favored any cafe in Paris.
Kilkenny glanced up to see a square-shouldered man of medium height standing about him. On the man's vest was a sheriff's badge. Kilkenny's eyes went from the badge to the rough-hewn features. The mustache was white, trimmed, and clean. The eyes were a cool blue, now faintly quizzical and amused.
"Yes," he responded, "I sure am. Sit down, Sheriff."
"Thanks." The sheriff dropped into the chair across the table. "My name's Leal Macy. Whenever a stranger wearing two guns comes into town I try to make his acquaintance. Going to be around long?"
Macy looked at him again, more carefully. "We need good men. This is good country. Planning on ranching?"
"Uh huh. In a small way."
There was a moment of silence, then Macy asked, "Might I ask where? I haven't seen you around before."
Kilkenny nodded with his head toward the northwest. "Over there." He turned his green eyes toward the sheriff. "An' I haven't seen you around before, either. However, Macy, let's get this straight. As sheriff you've seen these guns I pack an' you're probably wonderin' what all I want around here. I want to be let alone. I've picked the loneliest place I can find and I've hole up there. Unless something unusual happens, I'll be in town no more than once a month after I get located. I don't hunt trouble, an' I've never been drunk in my life. You'll have no trouble with me. I figure to run a few cattle and to mind my own affairs--but I want to be let alone."
"Fair enough," Macy nodded agreeably. "Know anybody in town?"
"Not a soul. And I have spoken to only one man before you. He volunteered the information that I should see Dolan."
Leal Macy felt a little shock of excitement go through him and he looked again at this tall man, measuring him, wondering. Then he said, more carefully, "If I were you, I'd not see him. Not now, anyway. Let it ride until your next trip. Dolan," he added, "is a tough case, and around that place of his you'll find most of the rag ends and bobtails of the country. Drifters, rustlers, gunmen, outlaws, and just no-goods."
"Is he on the rustle?"
"If he is, nobody ever caught him at it. Dolan's an ex-army sergeant. A good fighting man, shrewd, and very able. He rode with Sheridan."
"So did I,' Kilkenny replied quietly.
He looked up suddenly, hearing the door close, and for a long moment he made no move. In the door stood the young woman of Clifton's and her eyes were on him, wide with recognition. He arose quickly. "How do you do, ma'am? I hope you've been well?"
Her eyes held his, filled with uncertainty. Then she nodded and crossed to a table not far away. Macy said nothing but he was obviously interested.
From time to time he glanced up and twice he met the eyes of the girl of Clifton's. What he wondered, was her name? Was he stopping here?
He hesitated, then put the question to the sheriff. "Thought you knew her," Macy said. "As a matter of fact, she's just out here from the East. She's a niece of Bob Early, the town's best lawyer. Her name is Laurie Webster.
"New to the West," he added, "but a fine horsewoman. The best I've seen except Nita Riordan."
Kilkenny felt the shock clear to his heels. He held himself a minute, afraid to speak, and then he said carefully, "Who did you say?"
"Nita Riordan. She's got the KR spread, southwest of here. Runs the ranch herself, although she's got a foreman that knows his business. She rides astride like a Western woman. I hear she came from the Live Oak country, down near the Rio Grande."
"That right? The name sounded familiar, but I guess I was mistaken."
Macy chuckled good-humoredly. "Friend," he commented, "if you ever saw this girl you'd never forget her. Spanish and Irish, and beautiful! All woman, too, but one who can take care of herself. She handles a pistol like a man, and a Winchester, too. But no nonsense about her, and nobody makes her any trouble. That foreman of hers is like her shadow. He's a big Mexican, and I've seen him shoot heads off quail with his six-shooter."
"Been here long?"
"Not very. About seven or eight months. She came in here and bought out old Dan Marable, but since she took over you'd never know the place. She's built a big new house, new stables and has brought some new stock into the country. I'm afraid she'll have trouble now, though, with this new outfit comin' in."
Macy drank his coffee. "She's running cattle on that country south and west of town, clear back to Comb Ridge. It's good graze and she'll do all right if she doesn't have trouble with this new outfit."
When the sheriff had gone, Kilkenny's attention went to the girl at the nearby table. He hesitated, wanting to speak to her, wanting to explain. But the information Macy had given him crowded out all else.
Nita Riordan was here! Her brand was the KR, but he refused to let himself believe what that K might mean. Kilkenny and Riordan . . . but there were so many reasons why a particular brand might be used. Yet she would soon know he was here, and without doubt they would meet.
He arose and crossed to Laurie Webster's table. "I beg your pardon, Miss Webster," he said, "but I would like to apologize for causing you any discomfort back down the trail. The fight was forced on me."
"I know. And can you ever forgive me? To have it happen right before me . . . it was awful. But I do understand that you had to do it."
"Thanks." He stepped back. "Maybe we'll see each other again."
He walked out. It was bright and sunny in the street and there was a fresh smell of hay, dust and warm lumber. It was time to get his supplies and go, yet he delayed unwilling to leave so soon.
Suppose Nita came into town this morning? Suppose, even now, she was in one of the stores? Yet, if they did meet, what could he expect? He had run away because he was afraid of what his guns might do to their love for each other, how inevitably he would some day be killed. At the time it had seemed the thing to do.
He crossed to the Emporium and brought the supplies he needed. He crossed the bridge to west town and drew up at the livery stable.
"Got a pack horse for sale?"
"See Dolan. He's the man with horses to sell."
Kilkenny hesitated. Dolan might know him. A lot of men had ridden with Sheridan, but the last thing he wanted was to be recognized in this town. Yet to pack the supplies he wanted he needed at least one more horse.
The man indicated the corrals. "He might sell that paint."
The fellow got up, taking his pipe from his mouth. He was a small man with work-hardened hands. "Seen the marshall yet?"
"Macy? Yes, I've seen him."
"He's the sheriff. I mean the marshall, Harry Lott. If you ain't seen him, you will. He aims to get the jump on strangers. Says the way to run a town is to keep it buffaloed."
"How do he and Macy get along?"
"They don't. Macy's a solid citizen."
The man still hesitated. "My name's Hammett. Tell you what I'll do. I'll see if Dolan has a pack horse to sell."
"It'll be a favor."
Kilkenny walked to the corral and studied the horses. They were not the kind to be found on any cattle spread, but chosen animals, the sort preferred by outlaws who needed speed and bottom. He had walked around the corner of the corral when a big, heavy-shouldered man strode down to where he had been standing and looked around. He had a long, hard-jawed face. He wore two guns tied down and was roughly and carelessly dressed. On his vest was a badge.
Lott looked across the street toward Dolan's, then settled down to wait. Kilkenny rolled a smoke. Hammett came out of Dolan's and stopped on the step. Lott called to him and Hammett crossed the street. Kilkenny could hear their voices. "Where's the man who rode this horse?"
"He said something about getting a drink," Hammett said. "Stranger to me."
"What's he look like?"
"Looks all right. But nobody to monkey with. Looks mighty salty."
"He got to Savory's?"
"Didn't see. He ain't in Dolan's."
Lott walked past Hammett and headed for Savory's Saloon. Hammett watched him go, then caught up the buckskin's reins and brought him to Kilkenny. "Dolan said you could have the paint for fifteen bucks, but you'd better ride out of town until Lott gets over his sweat. He's drinkin' and huntin' trouble."
"Thanks." Kilkenny handed fifteen dollars to Hammett, then got into the corral and roped the paint. Putting on a halter and lead rope, he mounted his own horse and with a wave to Hammett, rode through the trees into the creek. He would avoid crossing the bridge in case the sound drew Lott back to the street.
At the Emporium he bought a pack saddle and loaded up, keeping a watchful eye out for Harry Lott. Irritably he realized he was only avoiding an issue that must soon be faced.
At a thunder of hoofs he turned to see a dozen riders charge into the street. A pistol bellowed, then another. They swung down in front of the Diamond Palace and the Pinenut and charged inside, yelling and laughing. The tall man in black who had led them remained in the street. With him was a wiry man, slender and gray-faced. His eyes seemed to be almost white.
The tall man bit the end from a cigar and Harry Lott came up the street. "Who made that racket?" he demanded. "Who was shootin'?"
The reply came, ice-cold and domineering. "Those were my men, Marshal, and the shooting was harmless. They will come to town often, and we will have not trouble. Understand?"
Harry Lott's eyes glowed. This man, Kilkenny saw, was a killer. Yet he saw more than that. The gray-faced man had moved to one side. The movement drew Kilkenny's attention and for the first time he saw the man's face in the sunlight. It was Dee Havalik.
In the Sonora cattle war his ruthless killings had won him the name of Butcher Havalik. Unassuming in appearance he was deadly as a rattler and blurred lightening with a gun.
Harry Lott had not even noticed him. Lott was watching the older man, and Lott was in a killing mood.
Why he did it, Kilkenny would never know. Perhaps he wanted to see no man murdered. He spoke softly, just loud enough for Lott to hear. "Careful, Lott! The other one's Havalik!"
Lott stiffened at the name, and Kilkenny saw his eyes shift, then return to Tetlow. "And who are you?" Lott demanded of the older man.
"You mark well the name." The old man stood a little straighter. "I'm Jared Tetlow! And I've fifty riders, enough to sweep this town off the map!"
Harry Lott was no fool. And at that moment he saw the third man. It was the big man Kilkenny had seen earlier in the Westwater dining room. He was fifty yards away, only his face and rifle muzzle showing over the back of a horse. That rifle was leveled at Harry Lott.
It was a cold deck, and Lott knew it.
"Keep your men in line," he said, "and we'll have no trouble." Turning on his heels he walked toward the Emporium, slanting his eyes toward Kilkenny.
Tetlow and Havalik went inside. The man with the rifle loafed in front of the barber shop.
Lott studied Kilkenny suspiciously. "You saved my neck," he said. "They had me in a cross fire."
"I don't like to see a man murdered."
"I heard about Havalik." Lott had buck teeth and a heavy body. "Who are you."
"I've been called Trent. Seems like a good name."
When he had packed his supplies he swung into the saddle and rode out of town, taking the route across the bridge, past Dolan's and turning right into the hills when he passed Savory's.
The tall old man with the autocratic manner was Jared Tetlow, father of the man he had killed at Clifton's! And such a man would be desperate and implacable enemy. And this man commanded the guns of Dee Havalik!