Authors: Louis L'Amour
“You killed Wilkins,” Polti growled harshly, and triumph shone in his eyes. “Somebody search his saddlebags! You all knew Wilkins had him some gold dust he used to carry around. I bet we’ll find it.”
“You seem right shore,” Lance suggested. “Did you put it in my bag while I was in the Trail House? I saw you slippin’ out.”
“Tryin’ to get out of it?” Polti sneered. “Well, you won’t. I’m goin’ to search them bags here and now.”
Lance was very still, and his green eyes turned hard and cold. “No,” he said flatly. “If anybody searches them bags, it won’t be you, and it’ll be done in the presence of witnesses.”
“I’ll search ’em!” Polti snapped. “Now!”
He wheeled, but before he could take even one step, Lance moved. He grabbed the thin man and spun him around. With a whining cry of fury, Polti went for his gun, but his hand never reached the holster…
Very early in his career as a pulp writer, in the period just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Louis L’Amour created a series character named Pongo Jim Mayo, the master of a tramp steamer in Far Eastern waters, in L’Amour’s words “an Irish-American who had served his first five years at sea sailing out of Liverpool and along the west coast of Africa’s Pongo River, where he picked up his nickname. He’s a character I created from having gotten to know men just like him while I was a seaman in my yondering days.” After the war, when L’Amour began to specialize in Western fiction, he wrote most frequently under the pseudonym Jim Mayo, taking it from this early fictional character. One of L’Amour’s earliest series characters in his Western fiction was the gunfighter Lance Kilkenny, who figured in two of his early pulp short novels. “The Rider of Lost Creek” by Jim Mayo appeared in
(4/47). It was expanded and changed when it subsequently was published as an original paperback in 1976.
“A Man Called Trent” by Jim Mayo appeared in
(12/47). L’Amour subsequently reworked “A Man Called Trent” into
The Mountain Valley War
, published as an original paperback in 1978.
This edition marks the first time “The Rider of Lost Creek” as originally published has ever appeared in paperback since its first magazine publication. There is a special magic in these original short novels, and it has been a pleasure for me to have gathered these fine Western stories together in book form.
A lone cowhand riding a hard-pressed horse reined in at the hitching rail before a Dodge barroom. Swinging from saddle, he pushed through the batwing doors, slapping the dust from his hat.
“Make it rye,” he said hoarsely, as he reached the bar.
When the raw, harsh liquor had cut the dust from his throat, he looked up at a nearby customer, a man known throughout the West as a gun expert—Phil Coe.
“They’ve begun it,” he said, his voice rough with feeling. “They’re puttin’ wire on the range in Texas.”
“Wire?” A burly cattle buyer straightened up and glared. “Huh, they won’t dare! Wire ain’t practical! This here’s a free range country, and it’ll always be free range!”
“Don’t make no difference,” the cowhand who had just entered insisted grimly. “They’re a-doin’ it.” He downed a second shot, shuddered, then glanced up slantwise at Coe. “You seen Kilkenny?”
He spoke softly, but a hush seemed to fall over the room, and men’s eyes sought each other questioningly. Somewhere chips clicked, emphasizing the stillness, the listening.
“No,” Coe said after a minute, “and you better not go around askin’ for him.”
“I got to see him,” the cowpuncher insisted stubbornly. “I been sent to find him, and I got to do my job.”
“What you want with Kilkenny?” demanded a short, wide-faced young man with light hair and narrow, pig-like eyes.
The cowpuncher glanced at him and his own eyes darkened. Death, he knew, was never far away when anybody talked to this man. Along with Royal Barnes, Wild Bill Hickok, and Kilkenny himself, this Wes Hardin was one of the most feared men in the West. He was said to be fast as Hickok and as cold-blooded as the Brockman twins.
“They want guns in the Live Oak country, Hardin,” the cowpuncher said. “There’s a range war comin’.”
“Then don’t look for Kilkenny,” Coe said. “He rides alone, and his gun ain’t for hire.”
“You seen him?” the cowpuncher persisted. “I got word for him from an old friend of his.”
“I hear tell he tied up with King Fisher,” someone said.
“Don’t you believe it,” the cattle buyer stated flatly. “He don’t tie up with nobody.” He hesitated, then glanced at the cowpuncher. “I did hear tell he was down in the Indian Territory a while back.”
“Who’d you get the word from?” Coe asked the cowpuncher quietly. “Might be somebody here knows Kilkenny and could pass the word along.”
“Just say Mort Davis is in trouble. Kilkenny won’t need no more than that. He sticks by his friends.”
“That’s right.” The cattle buyer nodded emphatically. “Mort nursed him through a bad time after Kilkenny gunned down the three Webers. Mort stood off the gang that come to lynch Kilkenny. Iffen Kilkenny hears Mort needs help, he’ll ride.”
“Funny Royal Barnes never hunted Kilkenny for killin’ the Webers,” someone suggested. “With Barnes bein’ half-brother to the Webers and all,”
“That’d be somethin’…Barnes an’ Kilkenny,” another agreed. “Two of the fastest gunmen in the West.”
Conversation flowered in the room, and through it all the name of Kilkenny was woven like a scarlet thread. One man had seen him in Abilene. Two men had cornered him there, two bad men trying to build a tough reputation. They had drawn, but both had died before they could fire a shot. Another man said he had seen Kilkenny hold his hand out at arm’s length with a poker chip on its back. Then he had tipped his hand slowly, and, when the chip fell free, he had drawn and fired before the chip reached the level of his waist.
“He’s faster’n Hickok,” someone else said dogmatically, “and he’s got the nerve of Ben Thompson.”
“What’s he look like?” still another demanded. “I never seen the feller.”
“Nobody agrees,” the cattle buyer said. “I’ve heard a dozen descriptions of Kilkenny, and no two alike. He never makes hisself known until the guns start shootin’, and he fades right after. Nobody knows him.”
“This wire won’t last in Texas,” a lean, raw-boned
Texan changed the subject to say. “That Live Oaks country nor this ’n’, either, they ain’t made for wire. It’s free range and always will be. The buffalo was here before the longhorn, and it was free grass then. It always has been.”
“I don’t know,” someone else said doubtfully. “There’s farmers comin’ out from the East. Hoemen who’ll fence their own ground and break the sod for crops.”
“This country ain’t right for farmin’, I tell you,” a young cowhand said. “You ever foller a trail herd? If-fen they ever plow this plains country up, it will blow clean to Mexico!”
But even as the men in Dodge talked and condemned wires, along the right way in Botalla, in the Live Oak country, lay huge reels of it, gleaming and new. Literally miles of it, on great spools, unloaded from wagon trains and ready to be strung. Reports implied there would soon be a railroad in Texas. Fat beef, good beef, would soon be in great demand. In this year of 1880, 40,000 tons of steel barbed wire of the Haish and Glidden Star varieties were to be sold to Texas ranchmen.
In the bar of the old Trail House in Botalla, rancher Webb Steele smashed a ham-like fist upon the bar. “We’re puttin’ it up!” he shouted. “Hoss high, pig tight, and bull strong! If them who don’t like it want war, it’s war they’ll get!”
“Who fences Lost Creek Valley?” some hardened soul demanded. “You or Chet Lord?”
“I’m fencin’ it!” Steele declared, glaring about the room. “And if necessary my riders will ride the fence with rifles!”
Outside the barroom a tall man in black trousers,
black shirt, and a worn buckskin vest walked a rangy yellow horse down the one street of Botalla, then swung down in front of the Trail House. The buckskin relaxed, standing tree-legged, head hanging in weariness. The tall man loosened the cinch, taking in the street with quick, alert eyes.
It was merely the usual double row of false-fronted buildings he saw, almost every other one a saloon. He knew that men along the walk were looking at him, wondering about him, but he seemed not to notice.
He could feel their eyes, though, like a tangible touch, lifting from his low-slung, tied-down guns to his lean brown face and green eyes. They were noting the dust in the grain of his face, the dust on his clothing, the dust on the long-legged buckskin. They would know he had traveled far and fast, and that would mean he had traveled for a reason.
When he stepped up on the walk, he closed his eyes for an instant. It was a trick he had learned that would leave his eyes accustomed to inner dimness much more quickly than would otherwise be the case. Then he stepped through the doors, letting his eyes shift from left to right, taking in the room in one swift, comprehensive glance. There was no one he knew. No one here, he was sure, knew him.
Webb Steele, brawny and huge, strode past him through the doors, his guns seeming small, buckled to his massive frame.
“I’ll have a whiskey,” the tall man said to the bartender. He took off his flat-crowned black hat to run his fingers around the sweaty band, then through his black curly hair. He replaced the hat, dropped his right hand to the bar, then glanced about.
Several men leaned on the bar nearby. The nearest,
a man who had walked to the bar as Steele left, was a slim, wiry young fellow in a fringed buckskin jacket and black jeans stuffed into cowhide boots.
The young man had gray, cold eyes. He looked hard at the stranger. “Don’t I know you?” he demanded.
The green eyes lifted in a direct expressionless look. “You might.”
“Want a job?”
“Ain’t you a cowhand?”
“I’ll pay well.”
“What outfit you with?”
“I’m not with any outfit,” the young man said sharply. “I
the Tumblin’ R.”
The young man’s face flamed and a queer, white eagerness came into his eyes. “I don’t like the way you said that!” he snapped.
“Does it matter?” drawled the tall man. For an instant the young rancher stared as if he couldn’t believe his ears, and he heard men hurriedly backing away from him. Something turned over inside him, and with a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach he realized with startling clarity that he was facing a gun battle, out in the open and alone.
An icy chill went down his spine. Always before when he had talked, loud and free, the fact that he was Chet Lord’s son had saved him. Men knew his hard-bitten old father only too well. Then, there had been Bonner and Swindell. Those two men had affronted
Steve Lord and later both had been found dead in the trail, gun in hand.
Suddenly the awful realization that he must fight swept over Steve Lord. Nothing his father might do afterward would do any good now. He stiffened. His face was tense and white as he stared into the cold green eyes of the stranger.
“Yeah,” he snapped, “it matters, and I’ll make it matter!”
His hand hovered over his gun. For an instant, the watchers held their breaths. The tall man at the bar stared at Steve Lord coolly, then Steve saw those hard green eyes change, and a glint of humor and friendliness came into them.
With a shrug the stranger turned away. “Well,” he drawled, “don’t kill me now. I hate to get shot on an empty stomach.” Deliberately he turned his back and looked at the bartender. “How about another whiskey? The trail shore does make a feller dry.”
Everyone began talking suddenly, and Steve Lord, astonished and relieved, dropped his hand to his side. Something had happened to him and all he knew was that he had narrowly escaped death from a shoot-out with a man to whom blazing guns were not new.
The tall man at the bar lifted his eyes to the mirror in time to see a thin-bodied fellow with close-set eyes slide quietly from his chair and go out the side door. No one seemed to notice him go except the tall stranger who noted the intentness of the man’s eyes, and something sly in his movements.
The stranger swallowed his drink, turned on his heel, and walked outside. The thin man who had left the Trail House was talking with three men across the
street in front of the Spur Saloon. The tall man saw the eyes of the three pick him up. Swiftly screening their faces, he strolled on.
Idling in front of the empty stage station a few minutes later, he saw Steve Lord coming toward him. Something about the young man disturbed him, but although his eyes lifted from the cigarette he was rolling, he said nothing when Steve stopped before him.
“You could have killed me,” Steve said sharply, staring at him.
“Yeah.” The tall stranger smiled a little.
“Why didn’t you? I made a fool of myself, talkin’ too much.”
The stranger smiled. “No use killin’ a man unnecessarily. You may be Chet Lord’s son as I heard, but I think you make your own tracks.”
“Thanks. That’s the first time anybody ever said that to me.”
“Mebbe they should have.” The stranger took a long drag, and glanced sideward at Steve. “Knowin’ you’re pretty much of a man often helps a feller be one.”
“Who are you?” asked Steve Lord.
The stranger shrugged. “The name is Lance,” he replied slowly. “Is that enough for you?”
“Yeah. About that job. We’d like to have you. I may not be gun slick but I know when a man is.”
“I don’t reckon I’ll go to work just now,” observed the man who said his name was Lance.
“I’d rather have you on our side than the other,” Steve said honestly. “And we’ll pay well.”
“Mebbe I won’t ride for either side.”
“You got to! Those that ain’t for us are against us.”
Lance smoked quietly for a moment. “Tell me,” he finally said, “what kind of a scrap is this?”
“It’s a three-cornered scrap actually,” Steve said. “Our outfit has about forty riders, and Webb Steele has about the same number. We split the Live Oak country between us. By the Live Oak, I mean the territory between the two ranges of hills you see out east and west of here. They taper down to a point at the border. Webb Steele and us Lords both have started puttin’ up wire, and no trouble till we get to Lost Creek Valley, the richest piece of it all. Good grass there, and lots of water.”
“You said it was three-cornered. Who’s the other corner?”
“He don’t matter so much.” Steve shrugged. “The real fight is between the two big outfits. This other corner is a feller name of Mort Davis. Squatter. He come in here about three year ago with his family and squatted on the Wagontire water hole. We cut his wire, and he cut ours. There she stands right now.”
Lance studied the street thoughtfully, aware that while he was talking with Steve Lord, something was building up down there. Something that smelled like trouble. The three men with whom the thin man had talked had scattered. One was watching a boy unloading some feed, one was leaning on the hitch rail, another was studying some faded medicine show posters in a window.
Abruptly Lance turned away from Steve. There was something behind this, and he intended to know what. If they wanted him, they could have him.