The Rider of Lost Creek
A lone cowhand riding a hard-pressed horse stepped down from the saddle and whipped the dust from his hat by a few stiff blows against his chaps. He stood for an instant looking up and down the street, crowded with buckboards, saddle-horses and men. It was ten o'clock in the morning but Dodge was a twenty-four hour town with thirty thousand head of cattle held on the grass outside of town, and move coming in every day.
Pushing his way through the bat-wing doors, he crossed the almost empty room to the bar. "Rye," he said, and glanced quickly around the room.
Only two men stood at the bar at this hour, a burly cattle-buyer and a drummer. Several other men played cards at the scattered tables, all within range of this voice.
"Have you seen Kilkenny?"
There was a sudden stillness in the room. A cattleman at the nearest poker table picked up his cards, glanced at them, folded them into a neat packet and placed them on the table. "No, I haven't seen him, and I'm not likely to. . . Nor are you. He's a man who prefers to be left alone, and if you know anything about Kilkenny you know he's a good man to leave alone."
"I've been sent to find him," the puncher said stubbornly, "an' I'm to stay at it until I do."
A man had moved to the bar beside him. He was a square-shouldered young man with a look about him the cowhand did not like. Moreover, he knew the man by sight as did a good many Texas men. Wes Hardin was a veteran of the Sutton-Taylor feud and one of the most feared men in Texas.
"What do you want with Kilkenny?" Hardin asked.
"Looks like a range war shapin' up in the Live Oak country," the puncher told them.
"Don't look for Kilkenny, then.," the cattle-buyer advised. "He's a man who minds his own affairs. He wouldn't be a paid warrior for any man."
"This is different," the puncher replied. "My boss is an old friend of his."
The bartender stopped mopping the bar and refilled the cowboys glass. "On the house," he said quietly. "Give us a name. There might be somebody here would pass the word along. . . and it's the only way you'll find him."
"Mort Davis," the cowhand tasted the rye. "Just tell him Mort Davis is in trouble. Kilkenny won't need more than that, for he's said to stick by his friends."
"That's what they say," the cattle-buyer commented, "and I do recall some story about Mort Davis."
"Hell," Hardin replied, "everybody knows that story! Kilkenny had a shoot-out with the three Weber boys and wiped them out, then some of their outfit chased him down . . . he was badly wounded . . . and Mort Davis had taken him in and was caring for him when that outfit came in and tried to take him away from Mort to lynch him.
"Mort Davis told them where they could go, and stood them off with a Spencer fifty-six until they decided they could have more fun somewhere else with less trouble. You don't forget a man like that. . . and Mort was a complete stranger to Kilkenny until he rode in there, half-dead."
"The word was out that Royal Barnes was huntin' Kilkenny," somebody commented.
"Wouldn't that be something! Royal Barnes and Kilkenny!
"The difference is," the cattlebuyer replied, "that Barnes parades it. Kilkenny never did."
"Where can a man get a bite to eat?" the cowhand asked.
"They're fixin' breakfast for the boss right now," the bartender said, "and I'll just have them put on something extry."
When the bartender saw the puncher sit down at a table by himself, he filled a cup with coffee and walked over. "This is a good place to hear the news," he said quietly. "If I was you I'd just keep your eyes open."
"Thanks," the cowhand gulped the coffee, glancing around the room as he did so. Through the fog of conversation he heard casual talk of Kilkenny. The mystery of the man fascinated them, and yet from all Mort had said, and from what the cattle-buyer had added, Kilkenny sought no mystery and no reputation.
A big, broad-shouldered man with graying hair walked over and sat down with him, tucking a napkin into his collar. "You the rider from Texas? I'm John Hohner." He gestured about him. "I operate this place."
"I am huntin' Lance Kilkenny," the cowhand said.
"He's a good man. You ride for Mort Davis? I knew Mort, some years back. Tall man. . . blond?"
"He's no such thing," the cowhand said. "He's a medium short man with dark hair and a broken nose."
"All right," Hohner agreed, "but I can't trust any drifter who comes in here looking for Kilkenny. The man has enemies . . ."
"I thought they were mostly dead," the cowhand said.
"There's no question of that. I've seen him in action twice, and I would never have believed the man lived who could get into action so fast or shoot so straight. I don't know where he is, but I do know how to get word to him."
"Just so he comes. You tell him to ride careful, for they'll be out to kill any man they don't know on the idea that if he isn't one of theirs he must naturally be an enemy. If I get back to the ranch with my hair, I'll need all the luck in the world."
"All right," Hohner replied. "If you need anything for the trail, just tell Ray at the bar. He'll see that you have it."
Hohner paused a moment and then said, more quietly, "Son? If I were you I'd put all those ideas about a girl and a few drinks out of my mind. If you want to live to see Texas you'll leave within the hour."
"Huh? Are you crazy? I just got in, an' the boss said--"
"I don't care what he said. Your boss isn't in Dodge. By now there isn't a man on the street who doesn't know there's a rider in town from Texas hunting Kilkenny. And among those men who know are three of Webb Steele's riders who've been up here recruiting gun-hands.
"Now I've got a horse outside the back door. That horse is a fast black with a lot of guts and its wearing an HR brand. That horse now wears your bridle, saddle and rifle, and if you're half as smart as I think you are you'll ride north out of town to where Jake Breslin is holding the HR herd. You'll stay there until about sundown. And then you'll ride east, about three or four miles and then cut south for Texas, avoiding any cattle herds you find.
"I'd ride all night, if I were you. There another HR herd coming up the trail and you should run into it about three days south of here. Swap horses there and keep going."
The cowhand stared glumly at his food. "Hell!" he said, "And I was all ready for--"
"There's other days and other times. As well as other girls. . . if you live."
"By now at least one of those Steele riders is watching your horse, which is in the livery stable. I had it put there within ten minutes after you walked into this place. They will have at least one man watching the trail south, and at least one more hunting you here in town."
"I had no idea," the cowhand muttered. "I didn't figure there'd be any of that outfit in town."
"There is," Hohner said quietly, "and they have hired at least two Colorado renegades already. The word is that Steele intends to ride roughshod over Chet Lord as well as Mort Davis and a few others. He's hired some real rough lads from over on Macho Creek, and he's ready."
"Gimme another cup of coffee and I'll hit the saddle," the cowhand said. He knew very well that one purpose of the oncoming range war was the avowed intention of the two big outfits to possess themselves of Davis' ranch. Davis' range was the best piece of grass from the Rio Grande to the Red. . . at least in the minds of the local ranchers.
The cowhand finished his coffee, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and got to his feet.
"Be careful," Hohner warned.