Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Starring Zachary Scott, Lola Albright, Barton MacLane, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef, and Glenn Strange.




Chapter One

There was a lonely place where the trail ran up to the sky. It turned sharply left on the very point of a lofty promontory overlooking the long sweep of the valley below. Here the trail offered to the passerby a vision at this hour. Rosy-tipped peaks and distant purple mountains could be seen, beyond the far reach of the tall-grass range. Upon the very lip of the rocky shelf sat a solitary horseman. He was a man tall in the saddle, astride a strangely marked horse. Its head was held high, its ears were pricked forward with attention riveted upon the valley, as though in tune with the thoughts of its rider. Thoughts that said there lay a new country, with new dangers, new rewards, and new trails.
The rider was a tall man, narrow-hipped and powerful of chest and shoulder. His features were blunt and rugged, so that a watcher might have said: “Here is a man who is not handsome, but a fighter.” Yet he was good-looking in his own hard, confident way. He looked now as Cortez might have looked upon a valley in Mexico.
He came alone and penniless, but he did not come as one seeking favors. He did not come hunting a job. He came as a conqueror. For Ross Haney had made his decision. At twenty-seven he was broke. He sat in the middle of all he owned, a splendid Appaloosa gelding, a fine California saddle, a .44 Winchester rifle, and two walnut-stocked Colt .44 pistols. These were his all. Behind him was a life that had taken him from a cradle in a covered wagon to the hurricane deck of many a hardheaded bronco.
It was a life that had left him rich in experience, but poor in goods of the world. The experience was the hard-fisted experience of cold winters, dry ranges, and the dusty bitterness of cattle drives. He had fought Comanches and rustlers, hunted buffalo and horse thieves. Now he was going to ride for himself, to fight for himself.
His keen, dark eyes from under the flat black brim of his hat studied the country below with speculative glint. His judgment of terrain would have done credit to a general, and in his own way Ross Haney was a general. His arrival in the Ruby Valley country was in its way an invasion.
He was a young man with a purpose. He did not want wealth but a ranch, a well-watered ranch in a good stock country. That his pockets were empty did not worry him, for he had made up his mind, and, as men had discovered before this, Ross Haney with his mind made up was a force to be reckoned with. Nor was he riding blindly into a strange land. Like a good tactician he had gathered his information carefully, judged the situation, the terrain, and the enemy before he began his move.
This was a new country to him, but he knew the landmarks and the personalities. He knew the strength and the weaknesses of its rulers, knew the economic factors of their existence, knew the stresses and the 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 day and night. Into this land he rode a man alone, determined to have his own from the country, come what may, letting the chips fall where they might.
With a movement of his body he turned the gelding left down the trail into the pines, a trail where at this late hour it would soon be dark, a trail somber, majestic in its stillness under the columned trees.
As he moved under the trees, he removed his hat and rode slowly. It was good country, a country where a man could live and grow, and where, if he was lucky, he might have sons to grow tall and straight beside him. This he wanted. 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 for it he came to a land at war.
A flicker of light caught his eye, and the faint smell of wood smoke. He turned the gelding toward the fire, and, when he was near, he swung down. The sun’s last rays lay bright through the pines upon this spot. The earth was trampled by hoofs, and in the fire itself the ashes were gray but for one tiny flame that thrust a bright spear upward from the end of a stick.
Studying the scene, his eyes held for an instant on one place where the parched grass had been blackened in a perfect ring. His eyes glinted with hard humor. A cinch-ring artist. Dropped her there to cool and she singed the grass. A pretty smooth gent, I’d say. Not slick enough, of course. A smarter man, or a less confident one, would have pulled up that handful of blackened grass and tossed it into the flames.
There had been two men here, his eyes told him. Two men and two horses. One of the men had been a big man with small feet. The impressions of his feet were deeper and he had mounted the largest horse.
Curious, he studied the scene. This was a new country for him and it behooved a man to know the local customs. He grinned at the thought. If cinch-ring branding was one of the local customs, it was a strange one. In most sections of the country the activity was frowned upon, to say the least. If an artist was caught pursuing his calling, he was likely to find himself at the wrong end of a hair rope with nothing under his feet.
The procedure was simple enough. One took a cinch ring from his own saddle gear and, holding it between a couple of sticks, used it when red-hot like any other branding iron. A good hand with a cinch ring could easily duplicate any known brand, depending only upon his degree of skill.
Ross rolled and lighted a smoke. If he were found on the spot, it would require explaining, and at the moment he had no intention of explaining anything. He swung his leg over the saddle and turned the gelding down trail once more.
Not three miles away lay the cow town known as Soledad. To his right, and about six miles away, was an imposing cluster of buildings shaded beneath a splendid grove of old cottonwoods. Somewhat nearer, and also well-shaded, was a 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 Chalk Reynolds, his RR outfit being easily the biggest in the Ruby Hills country. The nearer ranch belonged to Bob and Sherry Vernon.
“When thieves fall out,” Ross muttered aloud, “honest men get their dues. Or that’s what they say. Now I’m not laying any claim to being so completely honest, but there’s trouble brewing in this valley. When the battle smoke blows away, Ross Haney is going to be top dog on one of those ranches. They’ve got it all down there. They have range, money, power. They have gun hands riding for them, but you and me, Rio, we’ve only got each other.”
He was a lone wolf on the prowl. Down there they ran in packs, and he would circle the packs, alone. When the moment came, he would close in.
“There’s an old law, Rio, that only the strong survive,” he said. “Those ranches belong to men who were strong, and some of them still are. They were strong enough to take them from other men, from smaller men, weaker men. That’s the story of Reynolds and Pogue. They rustled cows until they grew big and now they sit on the housetops and crow. Or they did until they began fightin’ one another.”
“Your reasoning” – the cool, quiet voice was feminine – “is logical, but dangerous. I might suggest that, when you talk to your horse, you should be sure his are the only ears!”
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 showed beauty, care, and consideration of appearances that were new to him, but beneath them there were both fire and steel – and quality.
“That’s good advice,” he agreed, measuring her with his eyes. “Very good advice.”
“Now that you’ve looked me over,” she suggested coolly, “would you like to examine my teeth for age?”
He grinned, unabashed. “No, but now that I’ve looked you over, I’d say you are pretty much of a woman. The kind that’s made for a man!”
She returned his glance, then smiled as if the remark had pleased her. So she changed the subject. “Just which ranch do you plan to be top dog on when the fighting is over?”
“I haven’t decided,” he said frankly. “I’m a right choosy sort of 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 well-shaped, and I imagine he could run, but you could do better.”
“I doubt it.” He glanced at her fine, clean-limbed thoroughbred. “I’d bet a little money he can outrun that beauty of yours, here to Soledad.”
Her eyes flashed. “Why, you idiot! Flame is the fastest horse in this country. He comes of racing stock!”
“I don’t doubt it,” Haney agreed. “He’s a fine horse. But I’ll bet my saddle against a hundred dollars that this Appaloosa will kick dust in his face before we get to Soledad!”
She laughed scornfully, and her head came up. “You’re on!” she cried, and her red horse gave a great bound and hit the trail running. That jump gave the bay the start, but Ross knew his gelding.
Leaning over, he yelled into the horse’s ear as they charged after the bay: “Come on, boy! We’ve got to beat that bay! We need the money!” And Rio, seeming to understand, stretched his legs and ran like a scared rabbit.
As they swept into the main road and in 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 blood of Arabians in his veins, and he was used to off-hand, cow camp style racing. The road took a small jog, but Ross did not swing the gelding around it, but took the desert and mountain-bred horse across the stones and through the mesquite, hitting the road scarcely a length behind the big red horse.
Men were gathering in the street and on the edge of town now and shouting about the racing horses. With a half mile to go the big red horse was slowing. He was a sprinter, but he had been living too well with too little running. The gelding was just beginning to run. Neck stretched, Ross leaning far forward to cut the wind resistance and lend impetus with his weight, the mustang thundered alongside the bay horse, and neck and neck they raced up to the town. Then, with the nearest building only a short jump ahead, Ross Haney 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.
Ross eased back on the reins and let the horse run on down the street abreast of the big red horse. They slowed to a canter, then a walk. The girl’s eyes were wide and angry.
“You cheated! You cut across that bend!”
Ross chuckled. “You could have, miss! And you got off to a running start. Left me standing still!”
“I thought you wanted a race!” she protested scornfully. “You cheated me!”
Ross Haney drew up sharply, and his eyes went hard. “I reckon, ma’am,” he said, “you come from a long line of sportsmen! You can forget the bet!”
The sarcasm in his voice cut like a whip. She opened her mouth to speak, but he had turned the Appaloosa away and was walking it back toward the center of town.
For an instant, she started to follow, and then with a toss of her head, she let him go.


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