Ride the Dark Trail

The old house stood on the crest of a knoll and it was three hundred yards to the main gate. No shrubbery or trees obscured the view, nor was there any cover for a halfmile beyond.

The house was old, weather-beaten, wind-harried, and long unpainted. By night no light shone from any window, and by day no movement could be seen, but the watchers from the hill a half a mile away were not fooled.

"She's there, all right. You lay a hand on that gate and you'll damned soon know she's there. She's setting up there in that old house and she can shoot."

Directly behind the house lay the mouth of a canyon opening into the mountains beyond.

"Old Man Talon built that house to last and when he built it, it was the finest house between New Orleans and Frisco. He had thirty tough hands then.

"How many's she got now?" Matthew asked.

"Not more'n two or three. The best of her land and the sources of all her water lie back of the house, and there's no way to get at it except right through the ranch yard. And that ol' devil ain't about to let anybody get by."

"Flanner's right. The on'y way is to keep at her, every hour of every day and night. Sooner or later she's got to sleep, and then we'll get in. Behind that house there's some of the finest land anywhere. No ol' woman's got the right to keep that land to herself, to say nothin' of the hundred thousand acres out here on the plains that they lay claim to."

"Talon's dead?"

"Dry-gulched, they say. Nobody knows who done it."

"Is it true? Did she bust Flanner's knees?"

"Uh-huh. Flanner figured when her old man died that Em Talon would pull for the states, but she never done it. Moreover, she had her an idea Flanner had killed Talon.

"Flanner came out to run her off, and she let him come right on in. When he was maybe a hundred yards off she stopped him with a bullet to his feet and then she told him for what he was. . . or what she figured him to be. Then she cut down on him with that big fifty and busted both knees. Jake Flanner ain't walked a step since, not without them crutches."

Emily Talon leaned the Sharps against the doorjamb and peered through the shutters. Cold rain slanted from a darkening sky. Served them right, she reflected grimly, they'd have them a miserable night out there. She walked back to kindle the fire and put on water for tea.

She was old now and tired. If only the boys would come home! She wanted both of them to come, but she told herself she was an evil old woman to want Milo most of all, Milo because he was a fast hand with gun and mean. She needed a mean man now, to handle that bunch, and Milo could do it.

She was exhausted. Her bones ached, and when she sat down she only managed to get up with an effort. She had nursed three children with a rifle across her knees. She had driven two cowhands back to the ranch, both of them gut-shot and moaning. The first man she killed had been a renegade Kiowa, the last man a follower of Jake Flanner. There had been several in between, but she never counted.

They were going to win. She could not last forever, and Jack Flanner could hire more men. They would fire the house. That was the simplest way for them. They couldsay the house caught fire and that she died with it. The nearest law was miles away and the trails were rough.

Emily Talon had but one hope. That the boys would come home. "Hold the ranch for the boys," pa had always said. Had he any idea how long it would be?

Barnabas had wanted to go away to Canada to school, and had done so. When his school was nearly completed had had gone off to France to finish and had lived there with relatives. He had served in the French army, or something of the kind.

Milo was younger by eight years. Where Barnabas was cool, thoughtful and studious, Milo was impetuous, energetic, and quick-tempered. At seventeen he had gone off to join the Confederate army, had become a sergeant, then a lieutenant. The war ended and they heard no more of him.

Nor had they heard from Barnabas. The last letter had come from France several years before.

Em Talon added sticks to the fire, then shuffled into the front hall to peer through the shutters. There were intermittent flashes of heat lightening, she sawno movement, heard no sound other than the rain.

Returning to her chair she eased herself down and leaned back with a sigh. There had been a time when she had ridden free as the wind across these same plains, ridden beside Talon, feeling the wind in her hair and the sun warm upon her back. Nothing had frightened her in the old days, but then pa had always been close by, and now pa was gone.

Slowly her tired muscles relaxed. Thunder rumbled out there, and the heat lightening showed brief flashes through the cracks of the shutters. She must take another look soon. In a little while.

Her eyes closed. . . only a minute, she told herself, only for one brief, wonderful minute.