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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 difference 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 quickly 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. He had established Clifton House in 1867 to serve the round-up crowds and it had become a stage station. Since then and before he had seen much of the West and he had known most of it before. He knew this young man both by reputation and by intuition, and he liked him, and knowing this man and knowing Tetlow–
"It couldn't be worse. He's from Tennessee, Kilkenny, with all that means. 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 herds 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.
The Indian Wars were largely of the past, although there were still the Sioux, the Cheyenne, Nez Percé and the Apache with fight left in them, but on the land from which the Indian had been driven or from which he was being driven the white man had not found peace–or at best an uneasy peace when men rode with guns at hand and eyes alert for danger.
Cattle had come to replace the buffalo, and then bolder men had pushed their herds into the mountain valleys, valleys lush with grass that fattened cattle amazingly fast, and as these valleys began to be settled, some men drifted to the high meadows among the peaks.
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 would he stay.
Riding on, he studied the valley. To right and left lay towering ridges that walled the valley in, and to the east other peaks lifted, and west the valley swung hard around and at one corner the wall was broken sharply off to fall sheer away for more than six hundred feet. Kilkenny paused long upon the lip, looking out over that immeasurable distance toward the faraway line of the purple hills. 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!
Wind among the tall pines, among the rocks and the erosion-gnawed holes, a sound such as he had never heard, a sound like far off music in which no notes could be detected, a sound so strange that he could not stop listening. 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!
It was a strange thing to find this place now, this place where he knew he could find happiness, the place from which he would not move again. He had told himself that before he realized what it might mean, and when he did know, he nodded his head as if at last he could be sure.
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.
There was always the chance that some stranger from the plains might drift into the country and recognize him as Kilkenny, yet he was fortunate in that few men knew him well, and most descriptions of him were mistaken. There was always the chance of such a killing as the affair at Clifton's. That man had not even known who he was, just a trouble-hunting kid wanting to prove how tough he could be. But that was over, and it was miles away over some of the roughest land in the world. And here he would stay.
His fire was a lonely gleam in the vast darkness of the valley, and in the morning he saw where the cougars had come down from the rocks to investigate, and once he found the tracks of a grizzly. Killing a deer for food, he started in then to work. Living on the ground under the stars, 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. The ancient stone stage station, a veteran of Indian fighting and earlier Mormon settlement, stood near the east bank of the creek. It was a low-roofed, single-storied building with an awning that projected eight feet from the roof and offered shelter to a couple of initial-carved benches polished by the seats of many breeches.
Above the doorway was a crude sign lettered Horsehead: Stage Station. Eat & Drink. Drinks were occasionally served over the tiny six-foot bar, but no meals had been served for six years. East of the stage station was the two-story Westwater Hotel & Saloon, and it was here the elite usually ate. East of the hotel in lazy comfort were the Harness Shop, Eli Putnam, Prop.; the Barber Shop, the office of Robt. Early, Lawyer, and a scattering of other structures steadily declining in height until they reached the usual Last Chance Saloon.
Opposite the stage station was the sheriff's office and jail. The town marshal had a desk in the same office but no love was lost between the two men. Alongside the sheriff's office and facing the hotel was the assayer's office, and beyond it in a row were the Pinenut Saloon, the Emporium, the real estate office and then the Diamond Palace Saloon & Gambling Hall and a trail of further buildings.
West of the creek was a section of town all by itself, and one largely ignored by the businesses and citizens who lived on the east bank. A grove of trees, mostly cottonwoods but mixed with willows and a scattering of others, occupied the immediate bank and partly shaded the bridge. Beyond the trees were the corrals and wagon yards of the livery stable, and then the huge and sprawling stable itself. Beyond the stable was the bunkhouse, which was a place for casual sleeping, and possessing no rooms, but merely a dozen tiers of bunks, two high, and a few tables.