It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice but, as he had succeeded once, the man known as James T. Kettleman was about to make his second attempt.
If he did not succeed this time he would never know it, for he would be dead.
When a man has but a few months to live, he can, if he so wills, choose the manner of his going, and Kettleman had made such a choice. He was now on his way to a place of which he alone knew, and there he would die. He would die as he had lived -- alone.
It was ironic that he who hated the West should return there to die, but like a wild animal which knows when death is upon it, he was seeking a dark and lonely place where he could die in peace, and in his own way.
The train rushed westward through the cold, clear night, carrying the man steadily toward his final destination.
A very pretty young woman, who had got on at Santa Fe, sat a few seats ahead of him and across the aisle. The girl was tall, gracefully slender, and her brown eyes had a way of looking directly at a man that was frank without boldness. Her name was Nancy Kerrigan. He overheard it when she was giving directions for packages to be placed in the baggage car.
They were climbing steadily. Ahead were high mesas, more lava, and occasional ruins. Soon the train would slow for a long steep grade. When that time came he would step off the train in the darkness. Then James T. Kettleman would cease to exist -- although actually he had ceased to exist a few days ago, in Virginia.
To disappear the first time had been relatively easy for the lanky, seventeen-year-old youngster he was then.
No one noticed him when he came into the saloon at the Crossing that night with Flint. It was not until the brief silence that followed the blasting of guns that their attention was drawn to him by the cocking of his gun.
The men who killed Flint had scarcely seen the boy until that moment, but, within the space of five seconds, five of them were shot dead and two were dying. Two more were wounded, but would live to carry the memory of that shocking five seconds to their graves.
And in the darkness after the lights had been shot out, the boy had carried Flint from the room. There was a doctor at an Army post twenty miles away, but they were never to make it.
Legend was born that night in Kansas, and the story of the massacre at the Crossing was told and retold over many a campfire. Of the survivors, neither would talk, but one of the dying men had whispered, "Flint!" It was rumored that Flint was the name of an almost legendary killer who was occasionally hired by big cattle outfits or railroad companies.
There had been more than fifteen hundred dollars in Flint's pockets when he died on that rain soaked Kansas hillside, following the shooting at the Crossing. The boy who was to become James T. Kettleman had sixty dollars of his own, which he used to buy an outfit of store clothes in Kansas City.
He traveled to New York and sold his four horses for an additional four hundred dollars. With this stake he started in business.
The train whistled and he got to his feet and stretched, the movement drawing the attention of the young woman. "It is some distance to Alamitos," she told him.
When he smiled his face lighted up. "It isn't the stations one has to worry about," he said, "it's the side tracks."
He caught her puzzled glance, and smiled again, strolling to the back of the car.
Nancy Kerrigan was disturbed by the comment, yet she thought of its truth. So many people became side-tracked and missed the things that were worthwhile. She glanced at the man again. He was a striking man, but he looked lean and savage.
James T. Kettleman returned to his seat. Another ten minutes...
In the fifteen years following that night at the Crossing he had built his small stake to many millions, making many enemies and no friends in the process. He married a wife who tried to have him killed, and had no children.
Now he was stepping out of that life as he had stepped into it, leaving nothing behind that mattered. Nor would he take anything with him, not even a memory that he cared to keep.
Thirty years earlier, when he was two years old, he had been picked from the brush near a burned wagon train. There were no other survivors. Nothing remained to tell who he was, and those who found him had no interest in learning. During the next four years he was handed around from family to family and finally abandoned on a cold night in a one-street Western town.
Kettlemen walked to the rear of the car again, glancing back at the occupants. All were asleep, or apparently asleep. The train was slowing for the long climb. Lifting his bags through the rear door he closed it carefully behind him. The stars blinked coldly from an almost clear sky, the wind blew long across the high grass plains.
He threw his bags to the roadbed and put a leg over the rail, hesitating one brief instant to look back into the dimly lighted car. This was the end of everything and the beginning of nothing. He put the other leg over the rail and dropped to the roadbed.
Slipping the haversack over his shoulders, he retrieved the two bags and, climbing from the shallow cut where the track ran, he started off across the plain toward a high, comblike ridge, crested with trees.
A sharp pain struck him suddenly and he stopped abruptly, bending far over and retching violently. He dropped to his knees, caught by a sudden weakness, and remained there, frightened at the agony. Later there would be more pain, but in the last days, his doctor had said, there would be less of it.
Among the pines he searched for and found a hollow protected from the wind. He broke twigs from the lower trunks of the trees and built a small fire. He took a kettle from his gear and put on water for coffee. He changed into jeans, a wool shirt, and a sheepskin coat. He put on flat heeled hiking boots and got out his two pistols, one of them he belted on.
The pistols were Smith & Wesson .44 Russians. He thrust the second gun into his waistband. Out of the longer case he took a high-powered custom-made rifle and assembled it, then a shotgun. He loaded the remaining clothing, food, and ammunition into the big haversack.
He made a bed of pine boughs, spreading a thin ground sheet and blankets atop the boughs. Then he warmed some soup and drank it, and the gnawing pain in his stomach subsided a little. He carried the two bags into the woods and buried them under some thick brush.
Every move of his disappearance had been carefully prepared. Quietly he transferred some funds, shifted stock from one company to another, and made arrangements to cover every need in case he should live longer than expected.
The wind moaned in the pines. He replenished the fire, and lay back in his blankets. Looking through the pines he could see a single star. He could be no more than thirty miles from Flint's hideout in the malpais.
He awakened sharply, every sense alert. He heard a distant shout, and then a reply so close he jumped from his blankets.
"He can't be far! Search the trees!"
Swiftly he drew on his boots and swung the gun belt around his lean hips, then shrugged in the sheepskin. There was no time to eliminate signs of his presence here, so he simply faded back into the deeper shadows, taking the shotgun with him.
Brush crashed. A rider pushed through, then another.
"Hell! That ain't his fire! He had no time!"
"Somebody waitin' for him, maybe."
"Whoever it was" -- the second rider's voice was sharp with command -- "had no business on this range. Throw that bed on the fire."
Kettleman stepped from the shadows, the shotgun ready in his hands. "The blankets are mine. And if he lays a hand on that bed, I'll blow you out of your saddle."
"Who the devil are you?" The older man's tone was harsh. "What are you doing here?"
"Minding my own business. See that you do the same."
"You're on my range. That makes your being here my business. Get off this range, and get off now."
The man called Kettleman felt a hard, bitter joy mounting within him. Why die in bed when he could go out with a gun in his hand? He could cheat them all now, and go as Flint had gone in a blaze of gunfire.
"This is railroad land, owned and deeded, and surveyed. Now understand this: I don't give a damn who you are. You can start shooting and I'll spread you all over that saddle."
He felt the shock of his words hitting them. The fact that he held a shotgun on them at less than twenty paces was an added factor.
"You're mighty sudden, friend." The man in command held himself carefully, aware that he faced real trouble, and sensing something irrational in the sharpness of the counter-attack. "Who are you?"
"I'm a man who likes his sleep. I take it you're hunting somebody, but with all that noise he's probably hidden so well you couldn't find him anyway. You act like a lot of brainless tender-feet."
"That's hard talk, for a stranger."
"There's nothing strange about this shotgun. It can get almighty familiar."
A voice called through the trees. "Boss? Are you all right?"
"Tell them to go about their business," Kettleman said. "And then you do the same."
The rider turned his head. "Beat it Sam. I'll be along in a minute. Everything is all right." The rider dismounted, then turned to his companion. "Bud, you ride along and help the others. I'll meet you at White Rock." Bud hesitated.
"It's all right, Bud, there will be no trouble with this man. Never tackle a man who doesn't care whether he lives or not. He will always have an edge on you."
He was short, with square shoulders. His hard, dark eyes studied Kettlman.
"My name is Nugent. I'm a cattleman."
Nugent was accustomed to respect and Kettleman's impatience angered him. "My advice to you is to clear out. We don't take to hard-talking strangers."
Deliberately, Kettleman yawned. "Get the hell out of here, I want to sleep."
Unable to think of a reply that might not get him killed, Nugent walked to his horse and mounted.
"I'll see you later," Nugent said when he was in the saddle. "If I didn't have a squatter to chase, I'd --"
"Squatter?" Kettleman smiled at him. "Why you're only a squatter yourself. You came in here a few years ago and started running a few cattle on land that didn't belong to you. Now of a sudden you are talking of squatters. You're a pompous little man with a bellyful of importance. Now get out of here."
Blind with fury, Nugent wheeled his horse and rode away. By the Almighty! He would get his hands and come back, and...
Something went over him like a dash of ice-cold rain.
How did this stranger know all that ? Who was he?
Kettleman rolled his bed swiftly, slung his haversack and blanket roll and, picking up his shotgun and rifle, he started along the ridge. It was still some time until daybreak, but if Nugent did come back he had no desire to be caught sleeping.
Thomas Nugent. He knew the name from the files. There was not a ranch in the area about which he was uninformed. Because of the proximity to Flint's old hideout, he had paid particular attention to the vicinity.
He had been walking only a short distance when he found the hunted man.