The Rangeland Avenger - Max Brand - ebook
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If you enjoy a fast moving western dealing with vengeance and well-deserved payback, you'll like The Rangeland Avenger by Max Brand. A soft spoken but ruthless gunman cuts a path of deadly payback across the Wild West in this exciting adventure.Frederick Schiller Faust (1892-1944) was an American fiction author known primarily for his thoughtful and literary Westerns. Faust wrote mostly under pen names, and today he is primarily known by one, Max Brand. Others include George Owen Baxter, Martin Dexter, Evin Evans, David Manning, Peter Dawson, John Frederick, and Pete Morland. Faust was born in Seattle. He grew up in central California and later worked as a cowhand on one of the many ranches of the San Joaquin Valley. Faust attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he began to write frequently. During the 1910s, Faust started to sell stories to the many emerging pulp magazines of the era. In the 1920s, Faust wrote furiously in many genres, achieving success and fame, first in the pulps and later in the upscale "slick" magazines. His love for mythology was, however, a constant source of inspiration for his fiction and his classical and literary inclinations. The classical influences are particularly noticeable in his first novel The Untamed (1919), which was also made into a motion picture starring Tom Mix in 1920.

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THE RANGELAND AVENGER

Max Brand

Thank you for reading. In the event that you appreciate this book, please consider sharing the good word(s) by leaving a review or contacting the author.

This book is a work of fiction; its contents are wholly imagined.

All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.

Copyright © 2018 www.deaddodopublishing.co.uk

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter: 1

Chapter: 2

Chapter: 3

Chapter: 4

Chapter: 5

Chapter: 6

Chapter: 7

Chapter: 8

Chapter: 9

Chapter: 10

Chapter: 11

Chapter: 12

Chapter: 13

Chapter: 14

Chapter: 15

Chapter: 16

Chapter: 17

Chapter: 18

Chapter: 19

Chapter: 20

Chapter: 21

Chapter: 22

Chapter: 23

Chapter: 24

Chapter: 25

Chapter: 26

Chapter: 27

Chapter: 28

Chapter: 29

Chapter: 30

Chapter: 31

Chapter: 32

Chapter: 33

Chapter: 34

Chapter: 35

CHAPTER: 1

~

OF THE FOUR MEN, Hal Sinclair was the vital spirit. In the actual labor of mining, the mighty arms and tireless back Of Quade had been a treasure. For knowledge of camping, hunting, cooking, and all the lore of the trail, Lowrie stood as a valuable resource; and Sandersen was the dreamy, resolute spirit, who had hoped for gold in those mountains until he came to believe his hope. He had gathered these three stalwarts to help him to his purpose, and if he lived he would lead yet others to failure.

Hope never died in this tall, gaunt man, with a pale-blue eye the color of the horizon dusted with the first morning mist. He was the very spirit of lost causes, full of apprehensions, foreboding, superstitions. A hunch might make him journey five hundred miles; a snort of his horse could make him give up the trail and turn back.

But Hal Sinclair was the antidote for Sandersen. He was still a boy at thirty—big, handsome, thoughtless, with a heart as clean as new snow. His throat was so parched by that day’s ride that he dared not open his lips to sing, as he usually did. He compromised by humming songs new and old, and when his companions cursed his noise, he contented himself with talking softly to his horse, amply rewarded when the pony occasionally lifted a tired ear to the familiar voice.

Failure and fear were the blight on the spirit of the rest. They had found no gold worth looking at twice, and, lingering too long in the search, they had rashly turned back on a shortcut across the desert. Two days before, the blow had fallen. They found Sawyer’s water hole nearly dry, just a little pool in the center, with caked, dead mud all around it. They drained that water dry and struck on. Since then the water famine had gained a hold on them; another water hole had not a drop in it. Now they could only aim at the cool, blue mockery of the mountains before them, praying that the ponies would last to the foothills.

Still Hal Sinclair could sing softly to his horse and to himself; and, though his companions cursed his singing, they blessed him for it in their hearts. Otherwise the white, listening silence of the desert would have crushed them; otherwise the lure of the mountains would have maddened them and made them push on until the horses would have died within five miles of the labor; otherwise the pain in their slowly swelling throats would have taken their reason. For thirst in the desert carries the pangs of several deaths—death from fire, suffocation, and insanity.

No wonder the three scowled at Hal Sinclair when he drew his revolver.

“My horse is gun-shy,” he said, “but I’ll bet the rest of you I can drill a horn off that skull before you do.”

Of course it was a foolish challenge. Lowrie was the gun expert of the party. Indeed he had reached that dangerous point of efficiency with firearms where a man is apt to reach for his gun to decide an argument. Now Lowrie followed the direction of Sinclair’s gesture. It was the skull of a steer, with enormous branching horns. The rest of the skeleton was sinking into the sands.

“Don’t talk fool talk,” said Lowrie. “Save your wind and your ammunition. You may need ‘em for yourself, son!”

That grim suggestion made Sandersen and Quade shudder. But a grin spread on the broad, ugly face of Lowrie, and Sinclair merely shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ll try you for a dollar.”

“Nope.”

“Five dollars?”

“Nope.”

“You’re afraid to try, Lowrie!”

It was a smiling challenge, but Lowrie flushed. He had a childish pride in his skill with weapons.

“All right, kid. Get ready!”

He brought a Colt smoothly into his hand and balanced it dexterously, swinging it back and forth between his eyes and the target to make ready for a snap shot.

“Ready!” cried Hal Sinclair excitedly.

Lowrie’s gun spoke first, and it was the only one that was fired, for Sinclair’s horse was gun-shy indeed. At the explosion he pitched straight into the air with a squeal of mustang fright and came down bucking. The others forgot to look for the results of Lowrie’s shot. They reined their horses away from the pitching broncho disgustedly. Sinclair was a fool to use up the last of his mustang’s strength in this manner. But Hal Sinclair had forgotten the journey ahead. He was rioting in the new excitement cheering the broncho to new exertions. And it was in the midst of that flurry of action that the great blow fell. The horse stuck his right forefoot into a hole.

To the eyes of the others it seemed to happen slowly. The mustang was halted in the midst of a leap, tugged at a leg that seemed glued to the ground, and then buckled suddenly and collapsed on one side. They heard that awful, muffled sound of splintering bone and then the scream of the tortured horse.

But they gave no heed to that. Hal Sinclair in the fall had been pinned beneath his mount. The huge strength of Quade sufficed to budge the writhing mustang. Lowrie and Sandersen drew Sinclair’s pinioned right leg clear and stretched him on the sand.

It was Lowrie who shot the horse.

“You’ve done a brown turn,” said Sandersen fiercely to the prostrate figure of Sinclair. “Four men and three hosses. A fine partner you are, Sinclair!”

“Shut up,” said Hal. “Do something for that foot of mine.”

Lowrie cut the boot away dexterously and turned out the foot. It was painfully twisted to one side and lay limp on the sand.

“Do something!” said Sinclair, groaning.

The three looked at him, at the dead horse, at the white-hot desert, at the distant, blue mountains.

“What the devil can we do? You’ve spoiled all our chances, Sinclair.”

“Ride on then and forget me! But tie up that foot before you go. I can’t stand it!”

Silently, with ugly looks, they obeyed. Secretly every one of the three was saying to himself that this folly of Sinclair’s had ruined all their chances of getting free from the sands alive. They looked across at the skull of the steer. It was still there, very close. It seemed to have grown larger, with a horrible significance. And each instinctively put a man’s skull beside it, bleached and white, with shadow eyes. Quade did the actual bandaging of Sinclair’s foot, drawing tight above the ankle, so that some of the circulation was shut off; but it eased the pain, and now Sinclair sat up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “mighty sorry, boys!”

There was no answer. He saw by their lowered eyes that they were hating him. He felt it in the savage grip of their hands, as they lifted him and put him into Quade’s saddle. Quade was the largest, and it was mutely accepted that he should be the first to walk, while Sinclair rode. It was accepted by all except Quade, that is to say. That big man strode beside his horse, lifting his eyes now and then to glare remorselessly at Sinclair.

It was bitter work walking through that sand. The heel crunched into it, throwing a strain heavily on the back of the thigh, and then the ball of the foot slipped back in the midst of a stride. Also the labor raised the temperature of the body incredibly. With no wind stirring it was suffocating.

And the day was barely beginning!

Barely two hours before the sun had been merely a red ball on the edge of the desert. Now it was low in the sky, but bitterly hot. And their mournful glances presaged the horror that was coming in the middle of the day.

Deadly silence fell on that group. They took their turns by the watch, half an hour at a time, walking and then changing horses, and, as each man took his turn on foot, he cast one long glance of hatred at Sinclair.

He was beginning to know them for the first time. They were chance acquaintances. The whole trip had been undertaken by him on the spur of the moment; and, as far as lay in his cheery, thoughtless nature, he had come to regret it. The work of the trail had taught him that he was mismated in this company, and the first stern test was stripping the masks from them. He saw three ugly natures, three small, cruel souls.

It came Sandersen’s turn to walk.

“Maybe I could take a turn walking,” suggested Sinclair.

It was the first time in his life that he had had to shift any burden onto the shoulders of another except his brother, and that was different. Ah, how different! He sent up one brief prayer for Riley Sinclair. There was a man who would have walked all day that his brother might ride, and at the end of the day that man of iron would be as fresh as those who had ridden. Moreover, there would have been no questions, no spite, but a free giving. Mutely he swore that he would hereafter judge all men by the stern and honorable spirit of Riley.

And then that sad offer: “Maybe I could take a turn walking, Sandersen.

I could hold on to a stirrup and hop along some way!”

Lowrie and Quade sneered, and Sandersen retorted fiercely: “Shut up!

You know it ain’t possible, but I ought to call your bluff.”

He had no answer, for it was not possible. The twisted foot was a steady torture.

In another half hour he asked for water, as they paused for Sandersen to mount, and Lowrie to take his turn on foot. Sandersen snatched the canteen which Quade reluctantly passed to the injured man.

“Look here!” said Sandersen. “We got to split up on this. You sit there and ride and take it easy. Me and the rest has to go through hell. You take some of the hell yourself. You ride, but we’ll have the water, and they ain’t much of it left at that!”

Sinclair glanced helplessly at the others. Their faces were set in stern agreement.

Slowly the sun crawled up to the center of the sky and stuck there for endless hours, it seemed, pouring down a fiercer heat. And the foothills still wavered in blue outlines that meant distance—terrible distance.

Out of the east came a cloud of dust. The restless eye of Sandersen saw it first, and a harsh shout of joy came from the others. Quade was walking. He lifted his arms to the cloud of dust as if it were a vision of mercy. To Hal Sinclair it seemed that cold water was already running over his tongue and over the hot torment of his foot. But, after that first cry of hoarse joy, a silence was on the others, and gradually he saw a shadow gather.

“It ain’t wagons,” said Lowrie bitterly at length. “And it ain’t riders; it comes too fast for that. And it ain’t the wind; it comes too slow. But it ain’t men. You can lay to that!”

Still they hoped against hope until the growing cloud parted and lifted enough for them to see a band of wild horses sweeping along at a steady lope. They sighted the men and veered swiftly to the left. A moment later there was only a thin trail of flying dust before the four. Three pairs of eyes turned on Sinclair and silently cursed him as if this were his fault.

“Those horses are aiming at water,” he said. “Can’t we follow ‘em?”

“They’re aiming for a hole fifty miles away. No, we can’t follow ‘em!”

They started on again, and now, after that cruel moment of hope, it was redoubled labor. Quade was cursing thickly with every other step. When it came his turn to ride he drew Lowrie to one side, and they conversed long together, with side glances at Sinclair.

Vaguely he guessed the trend of their conversation, and vaguely he suspected their treacherous meanness. Yet he dared not speak, even had his pride permitted.

It was the same story over again when Lowrie walked. Quade rode aside with Sandersen, and again, with the wolfish side glances, they eyed the injured man, while they talked. At the next halt they faced him. Sandersen was the spokesman.

“We’ve about made up our minds, Hal,” he said deliberately, “that you got to be dropped behind for a time. We’re going on to find water. When we find it we’ll come back and get you. Understand?”

Sinclair moistened his lips, but said nothing.

Then Sandersen’s voice grew screechy with sudden passion. “Say, do you want three men to die for one? Besides, what good could we do?”

“You don’t mean it,” declared Sinclair. “Sandersen, you don’t mean it! Not alone out here! You boys can’t leave me out here stranded. Might as well shoot me!”

All were silent. Sandersen looked to Lowrie, and the latter stared at the sand. It was Quade who acted.

Stepping to the side of Sinclair he lifted him easily in his powerful arms and lowered him to the sands. “Now, keep your nerve,” he advised. “We’re coming back.”

He stumbled a little over the words. “It’s all of us or none of us,” he said. “Come on, boys. My conscience is clear!”

They turned their horses hastily to the hills, and, when the voice of

Sinclair rang after them, not one dared turn his head.

“Partners, for the sake of all the work we’ve done together—don’t do this!”

In a shuddering unison they spurred their horses and raised the weary brutes into a gallop; the voice faded into a wail behind them. And still they did not look back.

For that matter they dared not look at one another, but pressed on, their eyes riveted to the hills. Once Lowrie turned his head to mark the position of the sun. Once Sandersen, in the grip of some passion of remorse or of fear of death, bowed his head with a strange moan. But, aside from that, there was no sound or sign between them until, hardly an hour and a half after leaving Sinclair, they found water.

At first they thought it was a mirage. They turned away from it by mutual assent. But the horses had scented drink, and they became unmanageable. Five minutes later the animals were up to their knees in the muddy water, and the men were floundering breast deep, drinking, drinking, drinking.

After that they sat about the brink staring at one another in a stunned fashion. There seemed no joy in that delivery, for some reason.

“I guess Sinclair will be a pretty happy gent when he sees us coming back,” said Sandersen, smiling faintly.

There was no response from the others for a moment. Then they began to justify themselves hotly.

“It was your idea, Quade.”

“Why, curse your soul, weren’t you glad to take the idea? Are you going to blame it on to me?”

“What’s the blame?” asked Lowrie. “Ain’t we going to bring him water?”

“Suppose he ever tells we left him? We’d have to leave these parts pronto!”

“He’ll never tell. We’ll swear him.”

“If he does talk, I’ll stop him pretty sudden,” said Lowrie, tapping his holster significantly.

“Will you? What if he puts that brother of his on your trail?”

Lowrie swallowed hard. “Well—” he began, but said no more.

They mounted in a new silence and took the back trail slowly. Not until the evening began to fall did they hurry, for fear the darkness would make them lose the position of their comrade. When they were quite near the place, the semidarkness had come, and Quade began to shout in his tremendous voice. Then they would listen, and sometimes they heard an echo, or a voice like an echo, always at a great distance.

“Maybe he’s started crawling and gone the wrong way. He should have sat still,” said Lowrie, “because—”

“Oh, Lord,” broke in Sandersen, “I knew it! I been seeing it all the way!” He pointed to a figure of a man lying on his back in the sand, with his arms thrown out crosswise. They dismounted and found Hal Sinclair dead and cold. Perhaps the insanity of thirst had taken him; perhaps he had figured it out methodically that it was better to end things before the madness came. There was a certain stern repose about his face that favored this supposition. He seemed much older. But, whatever the reason, Hal Sinclair had shot himself cleanly through the head.

“You see that face?” asked Lowrie with curious quiet. “Take a good look. You’ll see it ag’in.”

A superstitious horror seized on Sandersen. “What d’you mean, Lowrie?

What d’you mean?”

“I mean this! The way he looks now he’s a ringer for Riley Sinclair. And, you mark me, we’re all going to see Riley Sinclair, face to face, before we die!”

“He’ll never know,” said Quade, the stolid. “Who knows except us? And will one of us ever talk?” He laughed at the idea.

“I dunno,” whispered Sandersen. “I dunno, gents. But we done an awful thing, and we’re going to pay—we’re going to pay!”

CHAPTER: 2

~

Their trails divided after that. Sandersen and Quade started back for

Sour Creek. At the parting of the ways Lowrie’s last word was for

Sandersen.

“You started this party, Sandersen. If they’s any hell coming out of it, it’ll fall chiefly on you. Remember, because I got one of your own hunches!”

After that Lowrie headed straight across the mountains, traveling as much by instinct as by landmarks. He was one of those men who are born to the trail. He stopped in at Four Pines, and there he told the story on which he and Sandersen and Quade had agreed. Four Pines would spread that tale by telegraph, and Riley Sinclair would be advised beforehand. Lowrie had no desire to tell the gunfighter in person of the passing of Hal Sinclair. Certainly he would not be the first man to tell the story.

He reached Colma late in the afternoon, and a group instantly formed around him on the veranda of the old hotel. Four Pines had indeed spread the story, and the crowd wanted verification. He replied as smoothly as he could. Hal Sinclair had broken his leg in a fall from his horse, and they had bound it up as well as they could. They had tied him on his horse, but he could not endure the pain of travel. They stopped, nearly dying from thirst. Mortification set in. Hal Sinclair died in forty-eight hours after the halt.

Four Pines had accepted the tale. There had been more deadly stories than this connected with the desert. But Pop Hansen, the proprietor, drew Lowrie to one side.

“Keep out of Riley’s way for a while. He’s all het up. He was fond of Hal, you know, and he takes this bad. Got an ugly way of asking questions, and—”

“The truth is the truth,” protested Lowrie. “Besides—”

“I know—I know. But jest make yourself scarce for a couple of days.”

“I’ll keep on going, Pop. Thanks!”

“Never mind, ain’t no hurry. Riley’s out of town and won’t be back for a day or so. But, speaking personal, I’d rather step into a nest of rattlers than talk to Riley, the way he’s feeling now.”

Lowrie climbed slowly up the stairs to his room, thinking very hard. He knew the repute of Riley Sinclair, and he knew the man to be even worse than reputation, one of those stern souls who exact an eye for an eye—and even a little more.

Once in his room he threw himself on his bed. After all there was no need for a panic. No one would ever learn the truth. To make surety doubly sure he would start early in the dawn and strike out for far trails. The thought had hardly come to him when he dismissed it. A flight would call down suspicion on him, and Riley Sinclair would be the first to suspect. In that case distance would not save him, not from that hard and tireless rider.

To help compose his thoughts he went to the washstand and bathed his hot face. He was drying himself when there was a tap on the door.

“Can I come in?” asked a shrill voice.

He answered in the affirmative, and a youngster stepped into the room.

“You’re Lowrie?”

“Yep.”

“They’s a gent downstairs wants you to come down and see him.”

“Who is it?”

“I dunno. We just moved in from Conway. I can point him out to you on the street.”

Lowrie followed the boy to the window, and there, surrounded by half a dozen serious-faced men, stood Riley Sinclair, tall, easy, formidable. The sight of Sinclair filled Lowrie with dismay. Pushing a silver coin into the hand of the boy, he said: “Tell him—tell him—I’m coming right down.”

As soon as the boy disappeared, Lowrie ran to the window which opened on the side of the house. When he looked down his hope fled. At one time there had been a lean-to shed running along that side of the building. By the roof of it he could have got to the ground unseen. Now he remembered that it had been torn down the year before; there was a straight and perilous drop beneath the window. As for the stairs, they led almost to the front door of the building. Sinclair would be sure to see him if he went down there.

Of the purpose of the big man he had no doubt. His black guilt was so apparent to his own mind that it seemed impossible that the keen eyes of Sinclair had not looked into the story of Hal’s broken leg and seen a lie. Besides, the invitation through a messenger seemed a hollow lure. Sinclair wished to fight him and kill him before witnesses who would attest that Lowrie had been the first to go for his gun.

Fight? Lowrie looked down at his hand and found that the very wrist was quivering. Even at his best he felt that he would have no chance. Once he had seen Sinclair in action in Lew Murphy’s old saloon, had seen Red Jordan get the drop, and had watched Sinclair shoot his man deliberately through the shoulder. Red Jordan was a cripple for life.

Suppose he walked boldly down, told his story, and trusted to the skill of his lie? No, he knew his color would pale if he faced Sinclair. Suppose he refused to fight? Better to die than be shamed in the mountain country.

He hurried to the window for another look into the street, and he found that Sinclair had disappeared. Lowrie’s knees buckled under his weight. He went over to the bed, with short steps like a drunken man, and lowered himself down on it.

Sinclair had gone into the hotel, and doubtless that meant that he had grown impatient. The fever to kill was burning in the big man. Then Lowrie heard a steady step come regularly up the stairs. They creaked under a heavy weight.

Lowrie drew his gun. It caught twice; finally he jerked it out in a frenzy. He would shoot when the door opened, without waiting, and then trust to luck to fight his way through the men below.

In the meantime the muzzle of the revolver wabbled crazily from side to side, up and down. He clutched the barrel with the other hand. And still the weapon shook.

Curling up his knee before his breast he ground down with both hands. That gave him more steadiness; but would not this contorted position destroy all chance of shooting accurately? His own prophecy, made over the dead body of Hal Sinclair, that all three of them would see that face again, came back to him with a sense of fatality. Some forward-looking instinct, he assured himself, had given him that knowledge.

The step upon the stairs came up steadily. But the mind of Lowrie, between the steps, leaped hither and yon, a thousand miles and back. What if his nerve failed him at the last moment? What if he buckled and showed yellow and the shame of it followed him? Better a hundred times to die by his own hand.

Excitement, foreboding, the weariness of the long trail—all were working upon Lowrie.

Nearer drew the step. It seemed an hour since he had first heard it begin to climb the stairs. It sounded heavily on the floor outside his door. There was a heavy tapping on the door itself. For an instant the clutch of Lowrie froze around his gun; then he twitched the muzzle back against his own breast and fired.

There was no pain—only a sense of numbness and a vague feeling of torn muscles, as if they were extraneous matter. He dropped the revolver on the bed and pressed both hands against his wound. Then the door opened, and there appeared, not Riley Sinclair, but Pop Hansen.

“What in thunder—” he began.

“Get Riley Sinclair. There’s been an accident,” said Lowrie faintly and huskily. “Get Riley Sinclair; quick. I got something to say to him.”

CHAPTER: 3

~

RILEY SINCLAIR RODE OVER the mountain. An hour of stern climbing lay behind him, but it was not sympathy for his tired horse that made him draw rein. Sympathy was not readily on tap in Riley’s nature. “Hossflesh” to Riley was purely and simply a means to an end. Neither had he paused to enjoy that mystery of change which comes over mountains between late afternoon and early evening. His keen eyes answered all his purposes, and that they had never learned to see blue in shadows meant nothing to Riley Sinclair.

If he looked kindly upon the foothills, which stepped down from the peaks to the valley lands, it was because they meant an easy descent. Riley took thorough stock of his surroundings, for it was a new country. Yonder, where the slant sun glanced and blinked on windows, must be Sour Creek; and there was the road to town jagging across the hills. Riley sighed.

In his heart he despised that valley. There were black patches of plowed land. A scattering of houses began in the foothills and thickened toward Sour Creek. How could men remain there, where there was so little elbow room? He scowled down into the shadow of the valley. Small country, small men.

Pictures failed to hold Riley, but, as he sat the saddle, hand on thigh, and looked scornfully toward Sour Creek, he was himself a picture to make one’s head lift. As a rule the horse comes in for as much attention as the rider, but when Riley Sinclair came near, people saw the man and nothing else. Not because he was good-looking, but because one became suddenly aware of some hundred and eighty pounds of lithe, tough muscle and a domineering face.

Somewhere behind his eyes there was a faint glint of humor. That was the only soft touch about him. He was in that hard age between thirty and thirty-five when people are still young, but have lost the illusions of youth. And, indeed, that was exactly the word which people in haste used to describe Riley Sinclair—"hard.”

Having once resigned himself to the descent into that cramped country beneath he at once banished all regret. First he picked out his objective, a house some distance away, near the road, and then he brought his mustang up on the bit with a touch of the spurs. Then, having established the taut rein which he preferred, he sent the cow pony down the slope. It was plain that the mustang hated its rider; it was equally plain that Sinclair was in perfect touch with his horse, what with the stern wrist pulling against the bit, and the spurs keeping the pony up on it. In spite of his bulk he was not heavy in the saddle, for he kept in tune with the gait of the horse, with that sway of the body which lightens burdens. A capable rider, he was so judicious that he seemed reckless.

Leaving the mountainside, he struck at a trot across a tableland. Some mysterious instinct enabled him to guide the pony without glancing once at the ground; for Sinclair, with his head high, was now carefully examining the house before him. Twice a cluster of trees obscured it, and each time, as it came again more closely in view, the eye of Riley Sinclair brightened with certainty. At length, nodding slightly to express his conviction, he sent the pony into the shelter of a little grove overlooking the house. From this shelter, still giving half his attention to his objective, he ran swiftly over his weapons. The pair of long pistols came smoothly into his hands, to be weighed nicely, and have their cylinders spun. Then the rifle came out of its case, and its magazine was looked to thoroughly before it was returned.

This done, the rider seemed in no peculiar haste to go on. He merely pushed the horse into a position from which he commanded all the environs of the house; then he sat still as a hawk hovering in a windless sky.

Presently the door of the little shack opened, and two men came out and walked down the path toward the road, talking earnestly. One was as tall as Riley Sinclair, but heavier; the other was a little, slight man. He went to a sleepy pony at the end of the path and slowly gathered the reins. Plainly he was troubled, and apparently it was the big man who had troubled him. For now he turned and cast out his hand toward the other, speaking rapidly, in the manner of one making a last appeal. Only the murmur of that voice drifted up to Riley Sinclair, but the loud laughter of the big man drove clearly to him. The smaller of the two mounted and rode away with dejected head, while the other remained with arms folded, looking after him.

He seemed to be chuckling at the little man, and indeed there was cause, for Riley had never seen a rider so completely out of place in a saddle. When the pony presently broke into a soft lope it caused the elbows of the little man to flop like wings. Like a great clumsy bird he winged his way out of view beyond the edge of the hilltop.

The big man continued to stand with his arms folded, looking in the direction in which the other had disappeared; he was still shaking with mirth. When he eventually turned, Riley Sinclair was riding down on him at a sharp gallop. Strangers do not pass ungreeted in the mountain desert. There was a wave of the arm to Riley, and he responded by bringing his horse to a trot, then reining in close to the big man. At close hand he seemed even larger than from a distance, a burly figure with ludicrously inadequate support from the narrow-heeled riding boots. He looked sharply at Riley Sinclair, but his first speech was for the hard-ridden pony.

“You been putting your hoss through a grind, I see, stranger.”

The mustang had slumped into a position of rest, his sides heaving.

“Most generally,” said Riley Sinclair, “when I climb into a saddle it ain’t for pleasure—it’s to get somewhere.”

His voice was surprisingly pleasant. He spoke very deliberately, so that one felt occasionally that he was pausing to find the right words. And, in addition to the quality of that deep voice, he had an impersonal way of looking his interlocutor squarely in the eye, a habit that pleased the men of the mountain desert. On this occasion his companion responded at once with a grin. He was a younger man than Riley Sinclair, but he gave an impression of as much hardness as Riley himself.

“Maybe you’ll be sliding out of the saddle for a minute?” he asked.

“Got some pretty fair hooch in the house.”

“Thanks, partner, but I’m due over to Sour Creek by night. I guess that’s Sour Creek over the hill?”

“Yep. New to these parts?”

“Sort of new.”

Riley’s noncommittal attitude was by no means displeasing to the larger man. His rather brutally handsome face continued to light, as if he were recognizing in Riley Sinclair a man of his own caliber.

“You’re from yonder?”

“Across the mountains.”

“You travel light.”

His eyes were running over Riley’s meager equipment. Sinclair had been known to strike across the desert loaded with nothing more than a rifle, ammunition, and water. Other things were nonessentials to him, and it was hardly likely that he would put much extra weight on a horse. The only concession to animal comfort, in fact, was the slicker rolled snugly behind the saddle. He was one of those rare Westerners to whom coffee on the trail is not the staff of life. As long as he had a gun he could get meat, and as long as he could get meat, he cared little about other niceties of diet. On a long trip his “extras” were usually confined to a couple of bags of strength-giving grain for his horse.

“Maybe you’d know the gent I’m down here looking for?” asked Riley.

“Happen to know Ollie Quade—Oliver Quade?”

“Sort of know him, yep.”

Riley went on explaining blandly “You see, I’m carrying him a sort of a death message.”

“H’m,” said the big man, and he watched Riley, his eyes grown suddenly alert, his glance shifting from hand to face with catlike uncertainty.

“Yep,” resumed Sinclair in a rambling vein. “I come from a gent that used to be a pal of his. Name is Sam Lowrie.”

“Sam Lowrie!” exclaimed the other. “You a friend of Sam’s?”

“I was the only gent with him when he died,” said Sinclair simply.

“Dead!” said the other heavily. “Sam dead!”

“You must of been pretty thick with him,” declared Riley.

“Man, I’m Quade. Lowrie was my bunkie!”

He came close to Sinclair, raising an eager face. “How’d Lowrie go out?”

“Pretty peaceful—boots off—everything comfortable.”

“He give you a message for me?”

“Yep, about a gent called Sinclair—Hal Sinclair, I think it was.” Immediately he turned his eyes away, as if he were striving to recollect accurately. Covertly he sent a side glance at Quade and found him scowling suspiciously. When he turned his head again, his eye was as clear as the eye of a child. “Yep,” he said, “that was the name—Hal Sinclair.”

“What about Hal Sinclair?” asked Quade gruffly.

“Seems like Sinclair was on Lowrie’s conscience,” said Riley in the same unperturbed voice.

“You don’t say so!”

“I’ll tell you what he told me. Maybe he was just raving, for he had a sort of fever before he went out. He said that you and him and Hal Sinclair and Bill Sandersen all went out prospecting. You got stuck clean out in the desert, Lowrie said, and you hit for water. Then Sinclair’s hoss busted his leg in a hole. The fall smashed up Sinclair’s foot. The four of you went on, Sinclair riding one hoss, and the rest of you taking turns with the third one. Without water the hosses got weak, and you gents got pretty badly scared, Lowrie said. Finally you and Sandersen figured that Sinclair had got to get off, but Sinclair couldn’t walk. So the three of you made up your minds to leave him and make a dash for water. You got to water, all right, and in three hours you went back for Sinclair. But he’d given up hope and shot himself, sooner’n die of thirst, Lowrie said.”

The horrible story came slowly from the lips of Riley Sinclair. There was not the slightest emotion in his face until Quade rubbed his knuckles across his wet forehead. Then there was the faintest jutting out of Riley’s jaw.

“Lowrie was sure raving,” said Quade.

Sinclair looked carelessly down at the gray face of Quade. “I guess maybe he was, but what he asked me to say was: ‘Hell is sure coming to what you boys done.’”

“He thought about that might late,” replied Quade. “Waited till he could shift the blame on me and Sandersen, eh? To hell with Lowrie!”

“Maybe he’s there, all right,” said Sinclair, shrugging. “But I’ve got rid of the yarn, anyway.”

“Are you going to spread that story around in Sour Creek?” asked Quade softly.

“Me? Why, that story was told me confidential by a gent that was about to go out!”

Riley’s frank manner disarmed Quade in a measure.

“Kind of queer, me running on to you like this, ain’t it?” he went on. “Well, you’re fixed up sort of comfortable up here. Nice little shack, partner. And I suppose you got a wife and kids and everything? Pretty lucky, I’d call you!”

Quade was glad of an opportunity to change the subject. “No wife yet!” he said.

“Living up here all alone?”

“Sure! Why?”

“Nothing! Thought maybe you’d find it sort of lonesome.”

Back to the dismissed subject Quade returned, with the persistence of a guilty conscience. “Say,” he said, “while we’re talking about it, you don’t happen to believe what Lowrie said?”

“Lowrie was pretty sick; maybe he was raving. So you’re all along up here? Nobody near?”

His restless, impatient eye ran over the surroundings. There was not a soul in sight. The mountains were growing stark and black against the flush of the western sky. His glance fell back upon Quade.

“But how did Lowrie happen to die?”

“He got shot.”

“Did a gang drop him?”

“Nope, just one gent.”

“You don’t say! But Lowrie was a pretty slick hand with a gun—next to Bill Sandersen, the best I ever seen, almost! Somebody got the drop on him, eh?”

“Nope, he killed himself!”

Quade gasped. “Suicide?”

“Sure.”

“How come?”

“I’ll tell you how it was. He seen a gent coming. In fact he looked out of the window of his hotel and seen Riley Sinclair, and he figured that Riley had come to get him for what happened to his brother, Hal. Lowrie got sort of excited, lost his nerve, and when the hotel keeper come upstairs, Lowrie thought it was Sinclair, and he didn’t wait. He shot himself.”

“You seem to know a pile,” said Quade thoughtfully.

“Well, you see, I’m Riley Sinclair.” Still he smiled, but Quade was as one who had seen a ghost.

“I had to make sure that you was alone. I had to make sure that you was guilty. And you are, Quade. Don’t do that!”

The hand of Quade slipped around the butt of his gun and clung there.

“You ain’t fit for a gun fight right now,” went on Riley Sinclair slowly. “You’re all shaking, Quade, and you couldn’t hit the side of the mountain, let alone me. Wait a minute. Take your time. Get all settled down and wait till your hand stops shaking.”

Quade moistened his white lips and waited.

“You give Hal plenty of time,” resumed Riley Sinclair. “Since Lowrie told me that yarn I been wondering how Hal felt when you and the other two left him alone. You know, a gent can do some pretty stiff thinking before he makes up his mind to blow his head off.”

His tone was quite conversational.

“Queer thing how I come to blunder into all this information, partner. I come into a room where Lowrie was. The minute he heard my name he figured I was after him on account of Hal. Up he comes with his gun like a flash. Afterward he told me all about it, and I give him a pretty fine funeral. I’ll do the same by you, Quade. How you feeling now?”

“Curse you!” exclaimed Quade.

“Maybe I’m cursed, right enough, but, Quade, I’d let ‘em burn me, inch by inch in a fire, before I’d quit a partner, a bunkie in the desert! You hear? It’s a queer thing that a gent could have much pleasure out of plugging another gent full of lead. I’ve had that pleasure once; and I’m going to have it again. I’m going to kill you, Quade, but I wish there was a slower way! Pull your gun!”

That last came out with a snap, and the revolver of Quade flicked out of its holster with a convulsive jerk of the big man’s wrist. Yet the spit of fire came from Riley Sinclair’s weapon, slipping smoothly into his hand. Quade did not fall. He stood with a bewildered expression, as a man trying to remember something hidden far in the past; and Sinclair fingered the butt of his gun lightly and waited. It was rather a crumbling than a fall. The big body literally slumped down into a heap.

Sinclair reached down without dismounting and pulled the body over on its back.

“Because,” he explained to what had been a strong man the moment before, “when the devil comes to you, I want the old boy to see your face, Quade! Git on, old boss!”

As he rode down the trail toward Sour Creek he carefully and deftly cleaned his revolver and reloaded the empty chamber.

CHAPTER: 4

~

PERHAPS, IN THE FINAL analysis, Riley Sinclair would not be condemned for the death of Lowrie or the killing of Quade, but for singing on the trail to Sour Creek. And sing he did, his voice ringing from hill to hill, and the echoes barking back to him, now and again.

He was not silent until he came to Sour Creek. At the head of the long, winding, single street he drew the mustang to a tired walk. It was a very peaceful moment in the little town Yonder a dog barked and a coyote howled a thin answer far away, but, aside from these, all other sounds were the happy noises of families at the end of a day. From every house they floated out to him, the clamor of children, the deep laughter of a man, the loud rattle of pans in the kitchen.

“This ain’t so bad,” Riley Sinclair said aloud and roused the mustang cruelly to a gallop, the hoofs of his mount splashing through inches of pungent dust.

The heaviness of the gallop told him that his horse was plainly spent and would not be capable of a long run before the morning. Riley Sinclair accepted the inevitable with a sigh. All his strong instincts cried out to find Sandersen and, having found him, to shoot him and flee. Yet he had a sense of fatality connected with Sandersen. Lowrie’s own conscience had betrayed him, and his craven fear had been his executioner. Quade had been shot in a fair fight with not a soul near by. But, at the third time, Sinclair felt reasonably sure that his luck would fail him. The third time the world would be very apt to brand him with murder.

It was a bad affair, and he wanted to get it done. This stay in Sour Creek was entirely against his will. Accordingly he put the mustang in the stable behind the hotel, looked to his feed, and then went slowly back to get a room. He registered and went in silence up to his room. If there had been the need, he could have kept on riding for a twenty-hour stretch, but the moment he found his journey interrupted, he flung himself on the bed, his arms thrown out crosswise, crucified with weariness.

In the meantime the proprietor returned to his desk to find a long, gaunt man leaning above the register, one brown finger tracing a name.

“Looking for somebody, Sandersen?” he asked. “Know this gent Sinclair?”

“Face looked kind of familiar to me,” said the other, who had jerked his head up from the study of the register. “Somehow I don’t tie that name up with the face.”

“Maybe not,” said the proprietor. “Maybe he ain’t Riley Sinclair of

Colma; maybe he’s somebody else.”

“Traveling strange, you mean?” asked Sandersen.

“I dunno, Bill, but he looks like a hard one. He’s got one of them nervous right hands.”

“Gunfighter?”

“I dunno. I’m not saying anything about what he is or what he ain’t. But, if a gent was to come in here and tell me a pretty strong yarn about Riley Sinclair, or whatever his name might be, I wouldn’t incline to doubt of it, would you, Bill?”

“Maybe I would, and maybe I wouldn’t,” answered Bill Sandersen gloomily.