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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 half mile 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 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."
Behind the house, the mountains lifted abruptly, steep, ragged slopes broken by ledges and dikes, covered with rough growth and dead-fall timber. Directly behind the house, only the top spread of its walls visible, 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 . . . a reg'lar army."
"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."
"She's got to sleep, ain't she?" Brewer asked.
"She sleeps, I suppose, but nobody ain't figured out when. Lay a finger on that gate and she'll part your brisket with a fifty-caliber bullet.
"The way folks tell it Old Man Talon figured someday they'd have to stand siege so he laid by enough ammunition and grub, too, to supply an army."
The three men eyed the house, irritation mixed with admiration, then turned to the coffeepot on their small fire.
"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 in those canyons there's some of the finest land anywhere, watered by mountain streams and walled by mountains. 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."
"How come they got so much?"
"Talon was the first white man to settle in this country. When he and his partner came out here there was nothing but Indians and wild game. His partner was after fur, but not Talon. He seen this place and latched onto it, knowing that a hundred thousand acres out here was no good without water from the mountains.
"Talon and his partner built a cabin and wintered here, the partner taking all the fur, Talon keeping house and land. Come spring, the partner pulled his stakes, but Talon stayed on, fit Injuns, hunted buffalo, trapped a mite, and caught himself some wild horses.
"A few years passed by and the wagon trains started coming through. Talon had grub. He had raised him some corn, and he had jerked venison by the ton, and he swapped with the travelers for their wore-out cattle.
"He held his stock back in the canyons where he had no need for hands, and on that rich grass with plenty of water he built himself some herds. Somewhere along the line he taken off for the east and married up with this Tennessee hill woman. The way I hear it she was some kin to his old partner."
"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.
"She said she wasn't going to kill him, she wanted him to live a hundred years, regrettin' ever' day of his life what he'd done. 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."
The wind picked up, slapping their slickers against their chaps, and the three men began rigging their tarp to hold against the wind. It was going to be a bad night.
From time to time they turned to look at the great, gloomy old house, far away on its wind-swept knoll, bleak, lonely and harsh, like the woman who waited within.
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 a fire and put on water for tea.
From time to time she returned to peer through the shutters. It wouldn't be so bad if she had somebody to spell her, but the last of them died, and she'd buried him with her own hands, and now she was alone.
She was old now, old 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 a gun and mean. She needed a mean man now, to handle that bunch, and Milo could do it.
Milo taken after her kin. No Talon was ever that mean. The Talons were strong men, hard-working men and smarter than most. They were fighters, too, game as they camethose she'd met or heard tell ofbut Milo was mean.
Any man who crossed Milo Talon was taking a risk. He was her youngest and a good boy, but he'd take water for no man. If you wished for trouble with Milo you'd best come a-shootin'.
Em Talon was tall and gaunt. Her one regret as a girl was that she fell just short of six feet. Her brothers had all been six-footers, and she'd wished to be at least that tall, but she'd fallen short by a quarter of an inch.
Her dress was old, gray, and nondescript. Her shoes had belonged to pa, but big as they were they were comfortable on her feet. Em Talon was sixty-seven years old and she had lived on the MT ranch for forty-seven of those years.
She'd been living alone in a cabin in the Cumberlands when pa came riding up to the door. A fine, handsome man he was, in store-bought clothes, shining boots, and riding a blood-bay gelding that stepped like a dancer.
He drew up outside the fence near where she was cutting flowers. "My name is Talon," he said, "and I'm looking for Em Sackett."
"What do you want with her?"
"I've come courting, and I've come a long way. I was partner to a cousin of hers out in the shining mountains."
She studied him with thoughtful eyes. "I am Emily Sackett," she said, "and you won't do much courtin' a-settin' up on that horse. Get down and come in."
She was twenty years old that summer, by mountain standards an old maid, but two weeks later they were married and had a fine honeymoon down New Orleans way.
Then she rode west beside Talon into a land of buffalo and Indians. When she rode up to the ranch house she could not believe what she saw. The house was there, larger than any other she had ever seen, even in New Orleans . . . and there wasn't even a cabin or dugout within a hundred miles, nor a town within two hundred or more.
She was called Em and Talon's name began with a T, so they took MT for a brand, now known far and wide as the Empty.
Pa was gone now, but it was many a fine year they'd had together. Pa was dead, and the man who'd killed him sat yonder in the town with two broken knees and a heart eaten with hatred for the woman who crippled him.
Flanner had hated Talon from the moment he saw him. Hated and envied him, for Talon already had what Flanner wanted. Jake Flanner decided the easiest way to come by what he wanted was to take what Talon had.
At first he tried to frighten the grim-jawed old man, but there was no fright in him that anybody ever located, so he had killed him or had him killed, sure that Em would pull out when her husband was dead. No woman could ever stand in his way . . . but there she stood.
It was cold in the big old house, and the rooms were dark and shadowed. A little of the last light of evening filtered through the heavy shutters. The house was dusty, and the air was stale and old. When a woman had to stand guard all day little time was left for housekeeping. She who had kept the neatest house in the Cumberland hills now had only a kitchen in which she dared live.
Talon had been a builder, as his family had been. He had come down from French Canada to build a steamboat for river traffic. The first of his line to live west of the Atlantic had been a ship-wright, and since then they had all been ship-wrights, mill-wrights, bridge-builders and workers with timber.
Pa had built keel boats, several steamboats, a dozen mills and bridges, and finally this house. He built with his own hands and he built to last. He had felled the timber, seasoned it, and shaped each piece with cunning hands. He dug the cellar himself and walled it with native stone, and he had prepared for every eventuality he could think of.
Looking out now Em saw the men huddled under their tarp, lashed by wind and rain. In each flash of lightning she could see something else. Every rocka dozen at leastwas painted white with black numerals on the side facing the house. The numerals represented the range, the number of yards from the door to that particular rock. Pa was a thoughtful man, and he preferred his shooting to be accurate.
Yet now pa was gone and she was alone, and her sons did not know how desperately she needed them.
She was exhausted. Her bones ached, and when she sat down she only managed to get up with an effort. Even making tea was a struggle, and sometimes when she eased her tired body into a chair she thought how easy it would be just to stay, to never make the effort to rise again.
It would be easy, too easy, and nothing had ever been easy for her.
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 Jake Flanner could hire more men. He could keep them out there until exhaustion destroyed her and her will to resist.
So far she had managed catnaps, which had been enough since the old often require less sleep than the young. Yet one day she would nap a little too long and they would come up the trail and put an end to her.
They would fire the house. That was the simplest way for them. They could then say the house caught fire and that she died with it. The explanation would be plausible enough, and whoever came to investigateif anyone camewould be anxious to get the job over with and go home.
The nearest law was miles away, and the trails were rough.
Emily Talon had but one hope. That the boys would come home. It was for that she lived, it was for that she fought.
"Hold the ranch for the boys," pa had always said. Had he any idea how long it would be?
Of their six sons, only two were living when pa died. The oldest died at sixteen when a horse fell on him, and the second had been killed by Indians on the plains of western Nebraska. A third had died only four weeks after birth, and the fourth had died in a gun battle with rustlers right here on the Empty.
The two who remained were far apart in years as well as their thinking. Barnabas had wanted to go away to Canada to school, and had done so. When his school was nearly completed he 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 fifteen he had hunted down and killed the rustler who killed his brother on the Empty. A year later he killed a would-be herd-cutter in the Texas Panhandle. 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. His 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 lightning, and she saw no movement, heard no sound other than the rain.
She feared rain, for during a heavy rain storm she could not hear or see nearly so well. And her watchers were snug in their holes under the rocks.
Flanner and his men were not yet aware of the part played by her watchers. Inside the gate, yet near it, there were piles of rocks gathered from the prairie and adopted as homes by several families of marmots. Quick to whistle when anything strange moved near, they had warned her on more than one occasion, and her ears were tuned to their sound.
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.
During those first hard years she had worked with rope and horse like any cowhand. She hunted meat for the table, helped to stretch the first wire brought on the place, and helped pa at the windlass when he dug his well.