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THERE WAS A lonely place where the trail ran up to the sky, turning sharply away at the rimrock where a man could see all the valley below, a splendid green of forest and meadow fading into the purple of the farther mountains. It was a place where a man could look down upon eagles, soaring far below, yet thousands of feet above the valley's floor. Here at sundown a man came riding.
Bill Canavan rode a horse strangely marked, a true leopard Appaloosa . . . white with black spots except for a splash of blue roan on the left hip. He drew up where the trail turned, and sat his saddle, looking over the valley below. The gelding, nostrils spreading to catch whatever scent there was, pricked its ears and looked eagerly toward the wide valley below.
The rider was a tall man, narrow of hip and broad of shoulder, his features blunt and rugged, not handsome but strong. There was a tough, confident look about him, and he looked upon this valley now as Cortez might have looked when first he saw the Valley of Mexico.
Bill Canavan came alone, but he did not come seeking favors, nor even work. He came as a conqueror.
For Bill Canavan had made his decision. At twenty-seven he was sitting in the middle of all he owned, a splendid Appaloosa gelding, a fine California saddle of hand-tooled leather, a .44 Winchester rifle and two walnut-butted Colt .44 pistols. These were his all. Behind him was a life that began with birth in a covered wagon rolling westward, a boyhood in the gold and silver boom camps of California, Nevada, Montana and Colorado, a cattle-drive over the Chisholm Trail, another over the Goodnight-Loving Trail, shotgun guard on a stage and scouting Indians for the Army.
He had fought rustlers and Kiowas, Comanches and Apaches, Sioux and Blackfeet, with nothing to show for it but a few scars here and there and his memories of hunger, thirst, cold, of hard winters and dry range and long dusty drives. All it had brought him was trouble and hard riding. Now his decision was made. He was going to ride for himself and fight for himself.
His cool dark eyes scanned the valley below, and his appreciation of terrain would have done credit to a general. And in his own way he was a general, and his arrival was an invasion, yet the only force he commanded was himself.
Bill Canavan was a young man with a plan. He wanted not wealth but a ranch, a well-watered ranch in good stock country, and he intended to settle for nothing less. The fact that he was down to his last three dollars meant nothing, for his mind was made up. And back down the trail there were men who could tell you that Bill Canavan with his mind set on something was a force with which to reckon.
Yet he was not riding blindly into a strange land. For, like the tactician he was, he had gathered his information carefully, judged the situation, the terrain, the time and the people, and now he was ready.
This was new country, but he knew the landmarks and the personalities. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of its rulers, knew the economic factors of their existence, knew the stresses and strains within it. He knew that he rode into a valley at war, that blood had been shed and that armed men rode its trails night and day. Into this maelstrom he rode, a man alone, determined to have his own from the country.
The wolves were at war over the carcass of the land, and he, a stranger, fiercer predator, was moving to the attack.
He turned the gelding away from the rim and started down the trail through the pines, a trail soon to be dark, a trail somber, majestic in its stillness under the columned trees.
As he rode into the trees he removed his hat and slowed his horse to a walk. It was a good country, a country in which a man could live and grow, and where if he was fortunate he might have sons to grow tall and straight beside him.
This was what he wished for. No longer did he look for far horizons. He wanted his own hearth fire, the creak of his own pump, the heads of his own horses looking over the gate bars for his hand to feed them. He wanted peace, and seeking it he had come to a land at war.
A faint smell of woodsmoke drew his attention to the edge of the meadow. He drew up, then walked his horse over to where the fire had been. The earth was much trampled and the grass torn. Studying the scene, his attention held for an instant on a blackened ring at one side and back from the fire.
His eyes glinted with hard humor. "A cinch-ring artist," he said to the gelding, "dropped her there to cool and singed the grass." A pretty handy man, no doubt, but not a wise one. A smarter or less confident man would have pulled up that handful of blackened grass and thrown it into the fire.
There had been two men here, his eyes told him. Two men and two horses. A big man with small feet . . . the impressions were deeper and he had mounted the largest horse.
He studied the scene. This was a new country for him and it behooved a man to understand the local customs. He grinned at the thought. If cinch-ring branding was one of the local customs, it was an unusual one. In most parts of the country it was an invitation to a hanging. The cinch-ring artist was apt to find himself at the wrong end of a rope with nothing under his feet.
The procedure was simple enough. One took a cinch-ring from his own saddle gear and, holding it with a couple of sticks-after it was red-hot, of course-he used it like any other branding iron. A good hand with a cinch-ring could easily duplicate any known brand, depending only on his degree of skill.
Bill Canavan glanced around. If he were found on the spot it would require explaining, and at the moment he had no intention of explaining anything. Swinging the gelding, he rode down the trail once more.
Not three miles away lay the cowtown known as Soledad. To his right, and about six miles away, was an imposing cluster of buildings shaded beneath a fine grove of old cottonwoods. Somewhat nearer and also shaded was a somewhat smaller ranch.
Beyond the rocky ridge that stretched an anxious finger into the lush valley was Walt Pogue's Box N spread.
The farther ranch belonged to Charlie Reynolds; his CR brand was the largest in the area. The nearer ranch belonged to Tom and Dixie Venable.
"When thieves fall out," he said aloud, "honest men get their dues. Or so they say. Without laying any claim to being more than average honest, I've got a hunch I'll be around to pick up the pieces. There's trouble coming, and when the smoke of battle blows away I'll be top-dog on one of those ranches.
"They have it all. They have range, money, power. They have gunhands riding for them, but you and me, Rio, we've only got each other."
Down there the wolves ran in packs, but he would circle the packs alone, and when the moment came, he would move in.
"There's an old law, Rio, that only the strong survive. Those ranches are held by men who were strong. Some of them still are. They were strong enough to take the land from smaller, weaker men. That's the story of Reynolds and Pogue. They rustled cows until they grew big enough and now they sit on the housetops and crow. Or they did until they began fighting each other."
"Your reasoning," the cool voice behind him was feminine, "is logical, but dangerous. I would suggest that if you must talk to your horse you be sure his are the only ears present!"
She sat well in the saddle, poised and alert. There was a quirk of humor at the corners of her mouth, and nothing of coyness or fear in her manner. Every inch of her breathed of quality, but a quality underlaid with both fire and steel.
"That's good advice," he said. "It's a bad habit a man gets into, talkin' to his horse. Comes of riding alone too much."
He was looking at her with very real appreciation. Women of any kind were scarce, but such women as this-
"Now that you've looked me over," she suggested cooly, "would you like to examine my teeth for age?"
He was not embarrassed. "No, ma'am. Now that I've looked you over I'd say you're pretty much of a woman. The kind of a woman who's made for a man!"
She smiled, obviously pleased, but she changed the subject. "Just which ranch are you thinking about? Where do you intend to be top-dog when the fighting is over?"
"Well, now. I haven't rightly made up my mind. I'm a right choosy man when it comes to horses, ranches and women!"
"Yes?" She glanced at the gelding. "I'd say your judgment of horses isn't obvious by that one. Not that he isn't a beauty, but I think you could do better. I never did favor those off-colored horses."
"I doubt if I could do better," Canavan said. "And I'd bet a little money he could outrun that beauty of yours, here to Soledad."
Her eyes flashed. "You're an idiot. Flame is the fastest horse in this country! He comes of racing stock!"
"He's a fine horse, but I'd bet my saddle against a hundred dollars that my Appaloosa will kick dust in his face before we get to Soledad."
There was scorn in her laughter. "You're on!" she said, and her red horse gave a great bound and hit the trail running. That jump gave the bay a start, but Bill knew his gelding.
"Come on, boy! We've got to beat that horse! We need the money!" Rio, seeming as always to understand, stretched his legs and ran like a scared rabbit.
As they swept into the main road, and into full sight of Soledad, the bay was leading by three lengths. But despite the miles behind it, the Appaloosa loved to run and he was running now.
The gelding had the blood of Arabians in his veins, and he was used to rough country and the off-hand style of cow camp racing. The road took a small jog but Bill Canavan did not take the horse around. Instead, he cut through the rocks and mesquite and hit the road scarcely a length behind the big red horse.
In Soledad, men were coming out into the street now, watching the racers come toward them. With a half mile to go the red horse was slowing. He was a sprinter, but he had been living well with too little running, while the gelding was just beginning to run. Neck stretched out, the gelding ran hard and Canavan leaned far forward to cut the wind resistance and lend some impetus with his weight. The mustang pulled up alongside the bay horse, and neck and neck they raced up to the town. With the nearest building only a few jumps ahead, Canavan spoke to the Appaloosa.
"Now, Rio! Now!"
With a lunge the spotted horse was past and went racing into the street, leading by a length.
Canavan eased up and let his horse run down the street abreast of the red horse. They slowed to a canter, then a walk. The girl's eyes were wide and angry.
"You cheated! You cut across the bend!"
He chuckled. "You could have, ma'am. You got off to a running start, left me standing still!"
"I thought you wanted a race!" she said scornfully. "You cheated!"
Bill Canavan pulled up sharply, his eyes hard. "Obviously, ma'am, you come from a long line of sportsmen! You can forget the bet!"
The sarcasm cut like a whip. She opened her mouth to speak, suddenly ashamed of the way she had acted. After all, she had taken advantage at the start, and it was only fair-
He had turned his horse away and was walking off down the street, and for an instant she was about to follow. Impatiently, she tossed her head. Let him go, she thought . . . who does he think he is, anyway?
Yet she turned once more to look back. Who was he, anyway?