Holed up in a cabin in the Idaho hills, the mysterious man who calls himself Trent isn't looking for trouble. It comes looking for him. A trigger-happy kid named Cub Hale has emptied his gun into an unarmed man. Then he comes swaggering after Trent. The girl who runs the gambling hall tries to get him to hightail it. But Trent isn't buying.
Trent came to Idaho seeking solitude. He built a cabin, broke a few wild horses, and quietly put his pas behind him. Then King Bill Hale began laying claim to all the land around Cedar Bluff. When Hale's son kills one of Trent's neighbors, Trent quickly steps forward to lead the fight. Their property had been legally filed on, but Bill Hale has the men, money, and political power to steal it from them. What Hale doesn't realize is that Trent also has connections. With evidence that can ruin Hale's scheme, Trent must find a way past Hale's gang of thugs to the men who can help him. However, if he succeeds, his violent past will be revealed; if he fails, the others may forfeit their land. But Trent could forfeit his life.
LOUIS L'AMOUR (1908-1988) was born in Jamestown, North Dakota. He left school at 15 to travel the world. While in his thirties, he began writing novels about life on the Western frontier. His first big success, "Hondo," was made into a John Wayne movie. L'Amour wrote 100 books in all, which sold over 200 million copies worldwide, and several short stories.
Chapter One Smoke lifted from the charred timbers where once the house had stood, and curled wistfully in memory of the great barn Moffit had built to store hay and grain against the coming winters. The corral bars were down and the saddle stock had been run off. Where Dick Moffit''s homestead had been that morning there was now only desolation, emptiness, and death. Dick Moffit lay sprawled on the hard-packed earth of his barnyard, the earth deeply clawed in the agony of death. Even from where he sat on the long-legged buckskin, the man known as Trent could see Moffit had been shot at least six times. Three bullets had gone in from the front, the other three fired directly into his back by a man who stood over him. And Dick Moffit had been unarmed. The small green valley lay still in the lazy afternoon sun, a faint heat emanating from the burned timbers. So this was the way a dream ended! Dick Moffit had sold a good business back East to try his luck at stock-raising in the far West, something for which he had longed since boyhood. The man who called himself Trent walked his horse slowly around the burned-out farm. Four or five men had come here, one of them riding a horse with a split right-rear hoof. They had shot Moffit down, then burned his layout. Yet, where were his children? What about Sally Crane, who was sixteen? And young Jack Moffit, who was but fourteen? There was no evidence of them here, and although the killers might have taken Sally away, they would undoubtedly have killed Jack. There were no other bodies, nor were there any recent tracks of the children. Those that remained and could be distinguished at all were several days old. Thoughtfully Trent turned away. The buckskin knew the way they turned was toward home and quickened his pace. There were five miles to go, five miles of rugged trails through mountains and heavy timber and with no clear trail. For this was the way of the man called Trent, that he leave no definite trail wherever he went, and each time he came or went from his mountain hideaway he used a different route, so far as was possible. He did not expect to be trailed by anyone at this time, but then, many a good man was now dead who had not expected to be followed. This could be it. Always, of course, he had known the day would come, for trouble had a way of seeking him out, try as he would to avoid it. For too many months now everything had gone too well. The rains had come when needed, the grass had grown tall, his few cattle were growing fat. When in town, he had completed his business and bought his supplies then returned home. Of course, there had been rumors that King Bill Hale climbed the high meadows, and there was surprise that he had not moved to drive them out. Slightly more than a year ago he had moved into this high green valley and built his cabin. He found no cattle ranging there, nor signs of them, nor were there sheep. It was a high, lonely place, and the places the others had chosen were much the same, although lower down than his own place. No drifting cowpunchers came this high, and only rarely a lion or bear hunter. His only neighbors were other nesters like himself--Moffit, the Hatfields, O''Hara, Smithers, and a scattering of others. In the vicinity of Cedar Bluff there was but one ranch. One, and only one. On that ranch and in the town, one man ruled supreme. He rode with majesty, and when he walked, he strode with the step of kings. He never went out unattended, and he permitted no man to address him unless he chose to speak first. He issued orders and bestowed favors like an eastern potentate, and if there were those who chose to dispute his authority, he crushed them without hesitation. With some the pressure of his disfavor was enough. With others he simply offered them a price and their choice was simple: sell out or be forced out. King Bill Hale had come west as a boy, and even then he was possessed of capital. In Texas he bought cattle, hired the best available men, and drove his herd to Kansas, where he sold at a handsome profit. He learned to fight and to use a gun, and that often a man had to fight to hold what was his. He learned to drive a bargain that was tight and cruel, and to despise weakness. He saw the strong survive and the weak fail, and he determined then to be not only strong but strongest. He had come to Cedar Bluff, which was on the ragged edge of nowhere, and he drove off those who peddled whiskey to the Indians and the cattle rustlers who used it as a hideout. He drove off the few Indians in the area, and when one honest rancher refused to sell, Hale promptly reduced his offer to half, then bought the one supply store and refused credit. When that was not sufficient, he refused to do business with the rancher under any conditions. Cedar Bluff and Cedar Valley lived under the eye of King Bill Hale, a strong man and an able one. His ranch prospered, his trading post did well, and he built the Cedar Hotel, a gambling house and saloon he called the Mecca, and then he started a stage line. He owned sixty thousand acres of good grazing land, which he had bought for prices ranging from a few cents to a dollar an acre. He controlled, by virtue of holding all accessible water, at least a hundred thousand more acres. He had, aside from enough inherited money to begin at the top, almost unbelievable luck. Of the three trail drives he made to Kansas, not one stampeded, the weather was always good, and the Indians far away. King Bill Hale, however, did not believe in good fortune and was sure he possessed some inherent quality that accounted for his success. He had been astute, but so had others. He had come along at a time when the cattle business was booming and even some stupid men were making money as a result. He bought beef cattle in Texas for three or four dollars a head and sold them in Kansas for twenty-eight to thirty-five dollars. In a chancy business where stampedes could scatter cattle all over the range, and where lack of good grazing and water could turn them to little more than hide and hair, he had experienced only success. Now that he was surrounded by those whose success depended upon him, he was free with his money and favors granted, and harsh to all who were not subservient. He thought of himself as a good man and would have been shocked at the implication of anything otherwise. Those not as successful as himself were "saddle tramps," "nesters," or those who worked for him, who were tolerated if not praised. Whenever he rode out, he had tough, hard-scaled Pete Shaw, an excellent cattleman who rode for the brand, and his son, "Cub" Hale. Behind them trailed the so-called Gold Dust Twins, Dunn and Ravitz, gunmen. The man who called himself Trent rarely visited Cedar Bluff. The supplies he required were few, the two packhorses more than adequate to carry all he needed for three or four months, and he knew that sooner or later there would be someone from the outside who would say, "That''s Kilkenny!" Men would turn to look, for the stories of the strange, drifting gunfighter were many, although few men lived who could describe him or knew the way he lived. He had no desire for notoriety, no need to be known as a gunfighter, and that he had become so was through no choice of his own but rather a simple combination of traits such as a natural skill with weapons, a cool head and steady hand, as well as remarkable coordination and the experience of years in judging both men and situations. Mysterious, solitary, and shadowy, he had literally been everywhere. He drifted in and out of cow camps and mining towns, usually unknown, and often a subject of discussion around campfires where he was himself present. Occasionally the moment would come when for one reason or another he must draw a gun, and then for one brief and bloody moment Kilkenny stood revealed for who he was and what he was. His activities had been many and varied, but no more so than those of many another man of his time and situation, for most men did what was necessary at the time and most were skilled at a variety of trades. He had been a trapper and a buffalo hunter, an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, a stage driver, a shotgun guard on stages, a cowhand, foreman on a cattle ranch, a tie cutter, a track layer, and a variety of other things. Once involved in a shooting, he never remained in the area, but was gone within the hour if his presence was not demanded at an inquest, and such affairs were few. In Cedar Bluff he used the name of Trent, and in the high peaks he had found the lush green valley where he built a cabin, ran a few head of cattle driven in from Oregon, and broke wild horses that roamed the utterly wild country to the westward. It was a lonely place, so when he arrived he hung his gun belts on a peg in the cabin and from that time on carried only his rifle. When in Cedar Bluff, he went only to the general store and occasionally to a small boardinghouse where meals were served, avoiding the Mecca. Most of all he avoided the Crystal Palace, the new gambling house and saloon owned by Nita Riordan. The cabin in the pines was touched with the red glow of a setting sun when he stepped down from the buckskin and slapped the horse cheerfully on the shoulder. "Home again, Buck! Feels good, doesn''t it?" He stripped the gear from the horse and turned him into the corral, then carried saddle and bridle into the log barn. He forked hay to the horse, and the marmot in the pile of rocks near the entrance to the trail chewed on some tidbit an