THE RANGELAND AVENGER
BY MAX BRAND
Originally published in 1922 in Western Story Magazine under the title of THREE WHO PAID, written under the pseudonym of George Owen Baxter, and subsequently in book form under the title THE RANGELAND AVENGER in 1924.
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."
"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!"
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.
"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."
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?"
"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?"
"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.
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."
"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.
He went out onto the veranda and squinted thoughtfully into the darkness. Bill Sandersen was worried—very worried. The moment he saw Sinclair enter the hotel, there had been a ghostly familiarity about the man. And he understood the reason for it as soon as he saw the name on the register. Sinclair! The name carried him back to the picture of the man who lay on his back, with the soft sands already half burying his body, and the round, purple blur in the center of his forehead. In a way it was as if Hal Sinclair had come back to Me in a new and more terrible form, come back as an avenger.
Bill Sandersen was not an evil man, and his sin against Hal Sinclair had its qualifying circumstances. At least he had been only one of three, all of whom had concurred in the thing. He devoutly wished that the thing were to be done over again. He swore to himself that in such a case he would stick with his companion, no matter who deserted. But what had brought this Riley Sinclair all the way from Colma to Sour Creek, if it were not an errand of vengeance?
A sense of guilt troubled the mind of Bill Sandersen, but the obvious thing was to find out the reason for Sinclair's presence in Sour Creek. Sandersen crossed the street to the newly installed telegraph office. He had one intimate friend in the far-off town of Colma, and to that friend he now addressed a telegram.
* * * * *
Rush back all news you have about man calling self Riley Sinclair of Colma—over six feet tall, weight hundred and eighty, complexion dark, hard look.
* * * * *
There was enough meat in that telegram to make the operator rise his head and glance with sharpened eyes at the patron. Bill Sandersen returned that glance with so much interest that the operator lowered his head again and made a mental oath that he would let the Westerners run the West.
With that telegram working for him in far-off Colma, Bill Sandersen started out to gather what information he could in Sour Creek. He drifted from the blacksmith shop to the kitchen of Mrs. Mary Caluson, but both these brimming reservoirs of news had this day run dry. Mrs. Caluson vaguely remembered a Riley Sinclair, a man who fought for the sheer love of fighting. A grim fellow!
Pete Handley, the blacksmith, had even less to say. He also, he averred, had heard of a Riley Sinclair, a man of action, but he could not remember in what sense. Vaguely he seemed to recall that there had been something about guns connected with the name of Riley Sinclair.
Meager information on which to build, but, having seen this man, Bill Sandersen said the less and thought the more. In a couple of hours he went back through the night to the telegraph office and found that his Colma friend had been unbelievably prompt. The telegram had been sent "collect," and Bill Sandersen groaned as he paid the bill. But when he opened the telegram he did not begrudge the money.
Riley Sinclair is harder than he looks, but absolutely honest and will pay fairer than anybody. Avoid all trouble. Trust his word, but not his temper. Gunfighter, but not a bully. By the way, your pal Lowrie shot himself last week.
The long fingers of Bill Sandersen slowly gathered the telegram into a ball and crushed it against the palm of his hand. That ball he presently unraveled to reread the telegram; he studied it word by word.
It made Sandersen wish to go straight to the gunfighter, put his cards on the table, confess what he had done to Sinclair's brother, and then express his sorrow. Then he remembered the cruel, lean face of Sinclair and the impatient eyes. He would probably be shot before he had half finished his story of the gruesome trip through the desert. Already Lowrie was dead. Even a child could have put two and two together and seen that Sinclair had come to Sour Creek on a mission of vengeance. Sandersen was himself a fighter, and, being a fighter, he knew that in Riley Sinclair he would meet the better man.
But two good men were better than one, even if the one were an expert. Sandersen went straight to the barn behind his shack, saddled his horse, and spurred out along the north road to Quade's house. Once warned, they would be doubly armed, and, standing back to back, they could safely defy the marauder from the north.
There was no light in Quade's house, but there was just a chance that the owner had gone to bed early. Bill Sandersen dismounted to find out, and dismounting, he stumbled across a soft, inert mass in the path. A moment later he was on his knees, and the flame of the sulphur match sputtered a blue light into the dead face of Quade, staring upward to the stars. Bill Sandersen remained there until the match singed his finger tips.
All doubt was gone now. Lowrie and Quade were both gone; and he, Sandersen, alone remained, the third and last of the guilty. His first strong impulse, after his agitation had diminished to such a point that he was able to think clearly again, was to flee headlong into the night and keep on, changing horses at every town he reached until he was over the mountains and buried in the shifting masses of life in some great city.
And then he recalled Riley Sinclair, lean and long as a hound. Such a man would be terrible on the trail—tireless, certainly. Besides there was the horror of flight, almost more awful than the immediate fear of death. Once he turned his back to flee from Riley Sinclair, the gunfighter would become a nightmare that would haunt him the rest of his life. No matter where he fled, every footstep behind him would be the footfall of Riley Sinclair, and behind every closed door would stand the same ominous figure. On the other hand if he went back and faced Sinclair he might reduce the nightmare to a mere creature of flesh and blood.
Sandersen resolved to take the second step.
In one way his hands were tied. He could not accuse Sinclair of this killing without in the first place exposing the tale of how Riley's brother was abandoned in the desert by three strong men who had been his bunkies. And that story, Sandersen knew, would condemn him to worse than death in the mountain desert. He would be loathed and scorned from one end of the cattle country to the other.
All of these things went through his head, as he jogged his mustang back down the hill. He turned in at Mason's place. All at once he recalled that he was not acting normally. He had just come from seeing the dead body of his best friend. And yet so mortal was his concern for his own safety that he felt not the slightest touch of grief or horror for dead Quade.
He had literally to grip his hands and rouse himself to a pitch of semihysteria. Then he spurred his horse down the path, flung himself with a shout out of the saddle, cast open the door of the house without a preliminary knock, and rushed into the room.
"Murder!" shouted Bill Sandersen. "Quade is killed!"
Who killed Quade? That was the question asked with the quiet deadliness by six men in Sour Creek. It had been Buck Mason's idea to keep the whole affair still. It was very possible that the slayer was still in the environs of Sour Creek, and in that case much noise would simply serve to frighten him away. It was also Buck's idea that they should gather a few known men to weigh the situation.
Every one of the six men who answered the summons was an adept with fist or guns, as the need might be; every one of them had proved that he had a level head; every one of them was a respected citizen. Sandersen was one; stocky Buck Mason, carrying two hundred pounds close to the ground, massive of hand and jaw, was a second. After that their choice had fallen on "Judge" Lodge. The judge wore spectacles and a judicial air. He had a keen eye for cows and was rather a sharper in horse trades. He gave his costume a semiofficial air by wearing a necktie instead of a bandanna, even at a roundup. The glasses, the necktie, and his little solemn pauses before he delivered an opinion, had given his nickname.
Then came Denver Jim, a very little man, with nervous hands and remarkable steady eyes. He had punched cows over those ranges for ten years, and his experience had made him a wildcat in a fight. Oscar Larsen was a huge Swede, with a perpetual and foolish grin. Sour Creek had laughed at Oscar for five years, considered him dubiously for five years more, and then suddenly admitted him as a man among men. He was stronger than Buck Mason, quicker than Denver Jim, and shrewder than the judge. Last of all came Montana. He had a long, sad face, prodigious ability to stow away redeye, and a nature as simple and kind and honest as a child's. These were the six men who gathered about and stared at the center of the floor. Something, they agreed, had to be done.
"First it was old man Collins. That was two years back," said Judge Lodge. "You boys remember how Collins went. Then there was the drifter that was plugged eight months ago. And now it's Ollie Quade. Gents, three murders in two years is too much. Sour Creek'll get a name. The bad ones will begin to drop in on us and use us for headquarters. We got to make an example. We never got the ones that shot Collins or the drifter. Since Quade has been plugged we got to hang somebody. Ain't that straight?"
"We got to hang somebody," said Denver Jim. "The point is—who?"
His keen eyes went slowly, hungrily, from face to face, as if he would not have greatly objected to picking one of his companions in that very room.
"Is they any strangers in town?" asked Larsen with his peculiar, foolish grin.
Sandersen stirred in his chair; his heart leaped.
"There's a gent named Riley Sinclair nobody ain't never seen before."
"When did he come in?"
"Along about dark."
"That's the right time for us. You found Quade a long time dead, Bill."
Sandersen swallowed. In his joy he could have embraced Larsen.
"What'll we do?"
"Go talk to Sinclair," said Larsen and rose. "I got a rope."
"He's a dangerous-lookin' gent," declared Sandersen.
Larsen replied mildly: "Mostly they's a pile more interesting when they's dangerous. Come on, boys!"
It had been well after midnight when Mason and Sandersen got back to Sour Creek. The gathering of the posse had required much time. Now, as they filed out to the hotel, to the east the mountains were beginning to roll up out of the night, and one cloud, far away and high in the sky, was turning pink. They found the hotel wakening even at this early hour. At least, the Chinese cook was rattling in the kitchen as he built the fire. When the six reached the door of Sinclair's room, stepping lightly, they heard the occupant singing softly to himself.
"Early riser," whispered Denver Jim.
"Too early to be honest," replied Judge Lodge.
Larsen raised one of his great hands and imposed an absolute silence. Then, stepping with astonishing softness, considering his bulk, he approached the door of Sinclair's room. Into his left hand slid his .45 and instantly five guns glinted in the hands of the others. With equal caution they ranged themselves behind the big Swede. The latter glanced over his shoulder, made sure that everything was in readiness, and then kicked the door violently open.
Riley Sinclair was sitting on the side of his bed, tugging on a pair of riding boots and singing a hushed song. He interrupted himself long enough to look up into the muzzle of Larsen's gun. Then deliberately he finished drawing on the boot, singing while he did so; and, still deliberately, rose and stamped his feet home in the leather. Next he dropped his hands on his hips and considered the posse gravely.
"Always heard tell how Sour Creek was a fine town but I didn't know they turned out reception committees before sunup. How are you, boys? Want my roll?"
Larsen, as one who scorned to take a flying start on any man, dropped his weapon back in its holster. Sinclair's own gun and cartridge belt hang on the wall at the foot of the bed.
"That sounds too cool to be straight," said the judge soberly. "Sinclair, I figure you know why we want you?"
"I dunno, gents," said Sinclair, who grew more and more cheerful in the face of these six pairs of grim eyes. "But I'm sure obliged to the gent that give me the sendoff. What d'you want?" Drawing into the background Larsen said: "Open up on him, judge. Start the questions."
But Sandersen was of no mind to let the slow-moving mind of the judge handle this affair which was so vital to him. If Riley Sinclair did not hang, Sandersen himself was instantly placed in peril of his life. He stepped in front of Sinclair and thrust out his long arm.
"You killed Quade!"
Riley Sinclair rubbed his chin thoughtfully, looking past his accuser.
"I don't think so," he said at length.
"You don't think so? Don't you know?"
"They was two Mexicans jumped me once. One of 'em was called Pedro. Maybe the other was Quade. That who you're talking about?'
"You can't talk yourself out of it, Sinclair," said Denver Jim. "We mean business, real business, you'll find out!"
"This here is a necktie party, maybe?" asked Riley Sinclair.
"It is, partner," said big Larsen, with his continual smile.
"Sinclair, you come over the mountains," went on Sandersen. "You come to find Quade. You ride down off'n the hills, and you come up to Quade's house. You call him out to talk to you. You're sitting on your horse. All at once you snatch out a gun and shoot Quade down. We know! That bullet ranged down. It was shot from above him, plain murder! He didn't have a chance!"
Throwing out his facts as he saw them, one by one, there was a ring of conviction in his voice. The six accusing faces grew hard and set. Then, to their astonishment, they saw that Sinclair was smiling!
"He don't noways take us serious, gents," declared the judge. "Let's take him out and see if a rope means anything to him. Sinclair, d'you figure this is a game with us?"
Riley Sinclair chuckled. "Gents," he said easily, "you come here all het up. You want a pile of action, but you ain't going to get it off'n me—not a bit! I'll tell you why. You gents are straight, and you know straight talk when you hear it. This dead man—what's his name, Quade?—was killed by a gent that had a reason for killing him. Wanted to get Quade's money, or they was an old grudge. But what could my reason be for wanting to bump off Quade? Can any of you figure that out? There's my things. Look through 'em and see if I got Quade's money. Maybe you think it's a grudge? Gents, I give you my word that I never been into this country before this trip. How could there be any grudge between me and Quade? Is that sense? Then talk sense back to me!"
His mirth had disappeared halfway through his speech, and in the latter part of it his voice rang sternly. Moreover he looked them in the eye, one by one. All of this was noted by Sandersen. He saw suddenly and clearly that he had lost. They would not hang this man by hearsay evidence, or by chance presumption.
Sinclair would go free. And if Sinclair went free, there would be short shrift for Bill Sandersen. For a moment he felt his destiny wavering back and forth on a needle point. Then he flung himself into a new course diametrically opposed to the other.
"Boys, it was me that started this, and I want to be the first to admit it's a cold trail. Men has been hung with less agin' them than we got agin' Sinclair. We know when Quade must have been killed. We know it tallies pretty close with the time when Sinclair came down that same trail, because that was the way he rode into Sour Creek. But no matter how facts look, nobody seen that shooting. And I say this gent Sinclair ain't any murderer. Look him over, boys. He's clean, and I register a vote for him. What d'you say? No matter what the rest of you figure, I'm going to shake hands with him. I like his style!"
He had turned his back on Riley while he spoke, but now he whirled and thrust out his hand. The fingers of Sinclair closed slowly over the proffered hand.
"When it comes to the names, partner, seems like you got an edge over me."
"Have I? I'm Sandersen. Glad to know you, Sinclair."
"Sandersen!" repeated the stranger slowly. "Sandersen!"
Letting his fingers fall away nervelessly from the hand of the other, he sighed deeply.
Sandersen with a side-glance followed every changing shade of expression in that hard face. How could Sinclair attack a man who had just defended him from a terrible charge? It could not be. For the moment, at least, Sandersen felt he was safe. In the future, many things might happen. At the very least, he had gained a priceless postponement of the catastrophe.
"Them that do me a good turn is writ down in red," Sinclair was saying; "and them that step on my toes is writ down the same way. Sandersen, I got an idea that for one reason or another I ain't going to forget you in a hurry."
There was a grim double meaning in that speech which Sandersen alone could understand. The others of the self-appointed posse had apparently made up their minds that Sandersen was right, and that this was a cold trail.
"It's like Sinclair says," admitted the judge. "We got to find a gent that had a reason for wishing to have Quade die. Where's the man?"
"Hunt for the reason first and find the man afterward," said big Larsen, still smiling.
"All right! Did anybody owe Quade money, anybody Quade was pressing for it?"
It was the judge who advanced the argument in this solemn and dry form. Denver Jim declared that to his personal knowledge Quade had neither borrowed nor loaned.
"Well, then, had Quade ever made many enemies? We know Quade was a fighter. Recollect any gents that might hold grudges?"
"Young Penny hated the ground he walked on. Quade beat Penny to a pulp down by the Perkin water hole."
"Penny wouldn't do a murder."
"Maybe it was a fair fight," broke in Larsen.
"Fair nothin'," said Buck Mason. "Don't we all know that Quade was fast with a gun? He barely had it out in his hand when the other gent drilled him. And he was shot from above. No, sir, the way it happened was something like this. The murderin' skunk sat on his hoss saying goodby to Quade, and, while they was shaking hands or something like that, he goes for his gun and plugs Quade. Maybe it was a gent that knew he didn't have a chance agin' Quade. Maybe—"
He broke off short in his deductions and smote his hands together with a tremendous oath. "Boys, I got it! It's Cold Feet that done the job. It's Gaspar that done it!"
They stared at Buck vaguely.
"Mason, Cold Feet ain't got the nerve to shoot a rabbit."
"Not in a fight. This was a murder!"
"What's the schoolteacher's reason!"
"Don't he love Sally Bent? Didn't Quade love her?" He raised his voice. "I'm a big fool for forgetting! Didn't I see him ride over the hill to Quade's place and come back in the evening? Didn't I see it? Why else would he have called on Quade?"
There was a round chorus of oaths and exclamations. "The poisonous little skunk! It's him! We'll string him up!"
With a rush they started for the door.
"Wait!" called Riley Sinclair.
Bill Sandersen watched him with a keen eye. He had studied the face of the big man from up north all during the scene, and he found the stern features unreadable. For one instant now he guessed that Sinclair was about to confess.
"If you don't mind seven in one party," said Riley Sinclair, "I think I'll go along to see justice done. You see, I got a sort of secondhand interest in this necktie party."
Mason clapped him on the shoulder. "You're just the sort of a gent we need," he declared.
Down in the kitchen they demanded a loaf of bread and some coffee from the Chinese cook, and then the seven dealers of justice took horse and turned into the silence of the long mountain trail.
The sunrise had picked those mountains out of the night, directly above Sour Creek. Riley Sinclair regarded them with a longing eye. That was his country. A man could see up there, and he could see the truth. Down here in the valley everything was askew. Men lived blindly and did blind things, like this "justice" which the six riders were bringing on an innocent man.
Not by any means had Riley decided what he would do. If he confessed the truth he would not only have a man-sized job trying to escape from the posse, but he would have to flee before he had a chance to deal finally with Sandersen. Chiefly he wanted time. He wanted a chance to study Sandersen. The fellow had spoken for him like a man, but Sinclair was suspicious.
In his quandary he turned to sad-faced Montana and asked: "Who's this gent you call Cold Feet?"
"He's a tenderfoot," declared Montana, "and he's queer. He's yaller, they say, and that's why they call him Cold Feet. Besides, he teaches the school. Where's they a real man that would do a schoolma'am's work? Living or dying, he ain't much good. You can lay to that!"
Sinclair was comforted by this speech. Perhaps the schoolteacher was, as Montana stated, not much good, dead or alive. Sinclair had known many men whose lives were not worth an ounce of powder. In this case he would let Cold Feet be hanged. It was a conclusion sufficiently grim, but Riley Sinclair was admittedly a grim man. He had lived for himself, he had worked for himself. On his younger brother, Hal, he had wasted all the better and tenderer side of his nature. For Hal's education and advantage he had sweated and saved for a long time. With the death of Hal, the better side of Riley Sinclair died.
The horses sweated up a rise of ground.
"For a schoolteacher he lives sort of far out of town, I figure," said Riley Sinclair.
"That's on account of Sally Bent," answered Denver Jim. "Sally and her brother got a shack out this way, and Cold Feet boards with 'em."
"Sally Bent! That's an old-maidish-sounding name."
Denver Jim grinned broadly. "Tolerable," he said, "just tolerable old-maidish sounding."
When they reached the top of the knoll, the horses paused, as if by common assent. Now they stood with their heads bowed, sullen, tired already, steam going up from them into the cool of the morning.
"There it is!"
It was as comfortably placed a house as Riley Sinclair had ever seen. The mountain came down out of the sky in ragged, uneven steps. Here it dipped away into a lap of quite level ground. A stream of spring water flashed across that little tableland, dark in the shadow of the big trees, silver in the sunlight. At the back of the natural clearing was the cabin, built solidly of logs. Wood, water, and commanding position for defense! Riley Sinclair ran his eye appreciatively over these advantages.
"My guns, I'd forgot Sally!" exclaimed the massive Buck Mason.
"Is that her?" asked Riley Sinclair.
A woman had come out of the shadow of a tree and stood over the edge of the stream, a bucket in her hand. At that distance it was quite impossible to make out her features, although Riley Sinclair found himself squinting and peering to make them out. She had on something white over her head and neck, and her dress was the faded blue of old gingham. Then the wind struck her dress, and it seemed to lift the girl in its current.
"I'd forgot Sally Bent!"
"What difference does she make?" asked Riley.
"You don't know her, stranger."
"And she won't know us. Got anything for masks?"
"I'm sure a Roman-nosed fool!" declared Mason. "Of course we got to wear masks."
The girl's pail flashed, as she raised it up from the stream and dissolved into the shadow of a big tree.
"She don't seem noways interested in this here party," remarked Riley.
"That's her way," said Denver Jim, arranging his bandanna to mask the lower part of his face from the bridge of his nose down. "She'll show plenty of interest when it comes to a pinch."
Riley adjusted his own mask, and he did it thoroughly. Out of his vest he ripped a section of black lining, and, having cut eyeholes, he fastened the upper edge of the cloth under the brim of his hat and tied the loose ends behind his head. Red, white, blue, black, and polka dot was that quaint array of masks.
Having completed his arrangements, Larsen started on at a lope, and the rest of the party followed in a lurching, loose-formed wedge. At the edge of the little tableland, Larsen drew down his mount to a walk and turned in the saddle.
"Quick work, no talk, and a getaway," he said as he swung down to the ground.
In the crisis of action the big Swede seemed to be accorded the place of leader by natural right. The others imitated his example silently. Before they reached the door Larsen turned again.
"Watch Jerry Bent," he said softly. "You watch him, Denver, and you, Sandersen. Me and Buck will take care of Cold Feet. He may fight like a rat. That's the way with a coward when he gets cornered." Then he strode toward the door.
"How thick is Sally Bent with this schoolteaching gent?" asked Riley Sinclair of Mason.
"I dunno. Nobody knows. Sally keeps her thinking to herself."
Larsen kicked open the door and at the same moment drew his six-shooter. That example was also imitated by the rest, with the exception of Riley Sinclair. He hung in the background, watching.
"Gaspar!" called Larsen.
There was a voice of answer, a man's thin voice, then the sharp cry of a girl from the interior of the house. Sinclair heard a flurry of skirts.
"Hysterics now," he said into his mask.
She sprang into the doorway, her hands holding the jamb on either side. In her haste the big white handkerchief around her throat had been twisted awry. Sinclair looked over the heads of Mason and Denver Jim into the suntanned face that had now paled into a delicate olive color. Her very lips were pale, and her great black eyes were flashing at them. She seemed more a picture of rage than hysterical fear.
"Why for?" she asked. "What are you-all here for in masks, boys? What you mean calling for Gaspar? What's he done?"
In a moment of waiting Larsen cleared his throat solemnly. "It'd be best we tell Gaspar direct what we're here for."
This seemed to tell her everything. "Oh," she gasped, "you're not really after him?"
"Lady, we sure be."
"But Jig—he wouldn't hurt a mouse—he couldn't!"
"Sally, he's done a murder!"
"No, no, no!"
"Sally, will you stand out of the door?"
"It ain't—it ain't a lynching party, boys? Oh, you fools, you'll hang for it, every one of you!"
Sinclair confided to Buck Mason beside him: "Larsen is letting her talk down to him. She'll spoil this here party."
"We're the voice of justice," said Judge Lodge pompously. "We ain't got any other names. They wouldn't be nothing to hang."
"Don't you suppose I know you?" asked the girl, stiffening to her full height. "D'you think those fool masks mean anything? I can tell you by your little eyes, Denver Jim!"
Denver cringed suddenly behind the man before him.
"I know you by that roan hoss of yours, Oscar Larsen. Judge Lodge, they ain't nobody but you that talks about 'justice' and 'voices.' Buck Mason, I could tell you by your build, a mile off. Montana, you'd ought to have masked your neck and your Adam's apple sooner'n your face. And you're Bill Sandersen. They ain't any other man in these parts that stands on one heel and points his off toe like a horse with a sore leg. I know you all, and, if you touch a hair on Jig's head, I'll have you into court for murder! You hear—murder! I'll have you hung, every man jack!"
She had lowered her voice for the last part of this speech. Now she made a sweeping gesture, closing her hand as if she had clutched their destinies in the palm of her hand and could throw it into their faces.
"You-all climb right back on your hosses and feed 'em the spur."
They stood amazed, shifting from foot to foot, exchanging miserable glances. She began to laugh; mysterious lights danced and twinkled in her eyes. The laughter chimed away into words grown suddenly gentle, suddenly friendly. Such a voice Riley Sinclair had never heard. It walked into a man's heart, breaking the lock.
"Why, Buck Mason, you of all men to be mixed up in a deal like this. And you, Oscar Larsen, after you and me had talked like partners so many a time! Denver Jim, we'll have a good laugh about this necktie party later on. Why, boys, you-all know that Jig ain't guilty of no harm!"
"Sally," said the wretched Denver Jim, "things seemed to be sort of pointing to a—"
There was a growl from the rear of the party, and Riley Sinclair strode to the front and faced the girl. "They's a gent charged with murder inside," he said. "Stand off, girl. You're in the way!"
Before she answered him, her teeth glinted. If she had been a man, she would have struck him in the face. He saw that, and it pleased him.
"Stranger," she said deliberately, making sure that every one in the party should hear her words, "what you need is a stay around Sour Creek long enough for the boys to teach you how to talk to a lady."
"Honey," replied Riley Sinclair with provoking calm, "you sure put up a tidy bluff. Maybe you'd tell a judge that you knowed all these gents behind their masks, but they wouldn't be no way you could prove it!"
A stir behind him was ample assurance that this simple point had escaped the cowpunchers. All the soul of the girl stood up in her eyes and hated Riley Sinclair, and again he was pleased. It was not that he wished to bring the schoolteacher to trouble, but it had angered him to see one girl balk seven grown men.
"Stand aside," said Riley Sinclair.
"Not an inch!"
"Lady, I'll move you."
"Stranger, if you touch me, you'll be taught better. The gents in Sour Creek don't stand for suchlike ways!"
Before the appeal to the chivalry of Sour Creek was out of her lips, smoothly and swiftly the hands of Sinclair settled around her elbows. She was lifted lightly into the air and deposited to one side of the doorway.
Her cry rang in the ears of Riley Sinclair. Then her hand flashed up, and the mask was torn from his face.
"I'll remember! Oh, if I have to wait twenty years, I'll remember!"
"Look me over careful, lady. Today's most likely the last time you'll see me," declared Riley, gazing straight into her eyes.
A hand touched his arm. "Stranger, no rough play!"
Riley Sinclair whirled with whiplash suddenness and, chopping the edge of his hand downward, struck away the arm of Larsen, paralyzing the nerves with the same blow.
"Hands off!" said Sinclair.
The girl's clear voice rang again in his ear: "Thank you, Oscar Larsen. I sure know my friends—and the gentlemen!"
She was pouring oil on the fire. She would have a feud blazing in a moment. With all his heart Riley Sinclair admired her dexterity. He drew the posse back to the work in hand by stepping into the doorway and calling: "Hey, Gaspar!"
"He's right, Larsen, and you're wrong," Buck Mason said.
"She had us buffaloed, and he pulled us clear. Steady, boys. They ain't no harm done to Sally!"
"Oh, Buck, is that the sort of a friend of mine you are?"
"I'm sorry, Sally."
Sinclair gave this argument only a small part of his attention. He found himself looking over a large room which was, he thought, one of the most comfortable he had ever seen—outside of pictures. At the farther end a great fireplace filled the width of the room. The inside of the log walls had been carefully and smoothly finished by some master axman. There were plenty of chairs, homemade and very comfortable with cushions. A little organ stood against the wall to one side. No wonder the schoolteacher had chosen this for his boarding place!
Riley made his voice larger. "Gaspar!"
Then a door opened slowly, while Sinclair dropped his hand on the butt of his gun and waited. The door moved again. A head appeared and observed him.
"Pronto!" declared Riley Sinclair, and a little man slipped into full view.
He was a full span shorter, Riley felt, than a man had any right to be. Moreover, he was too delicately made. He had a head of bright blond hair, thick and rather on end. The face was thin and handsome, and the eyes impressed Riley as being at once both bright and weary. He was wearing a dressing gown, the first Riley had ever seen.
"Get your hands out of those pockets!" He emphasized the command with a jerk of his gun hand, and the arms of the schoolteacher flew up over his head. Lean, fragile hands, Riley saw them to be. Altogether it was the most disgustingly inefficient piece of manhood that he had ever seen.
"Slide out here, Gaspar. They's some gents here that wants to look you over."
The voice that answered him was pitched so low as to be almost unintelligible. "What do they want?"
"Step lively, friend! They want to see a gent that lets a woman do his fighting for him."
He had dropped his gun contemptuously back into its holster. Now he waved the schoolteacher to the door with his bare hands.
Gaspar sidled past as if a loaded gun were about to explode in his direction. He reached the door, his arms still held stiffly above his head, but, at the sight of the masked faces, one arm dropped to his side, and the other fell across his face. He slumped against the side of the door with a moan.
It was Judge Lodge who broke the silence. "Guilty, boys. Ain't one look at the skunk enough to prove it?"
"Make it all fair and legal, gents," broke in Larsen.
Buck Mason strode straight up to the prisoner.
"Was you over to Quade's house yesterday evening?"
The other shrank away from the extended, pointing arm.
"Yes," he stammered. "I—I—what does all this mean?"
Mason whirled on his companions, still pointing to the schoolmaster. "Take a slant at him, boys. Can't you read it in his face?"
There was a deep and humming murmur of approval. Then, without a word, Mason took one of Gaspar's arms and Montana took the other. Sally Bent ran forward at them with a cry, but the long arm of Riley Sinclair barred her way.
"Man's work," he said coldly. "You go inside and cover your head."
She turned to them with extended hands.
"Buck, Montana, Larsen—boys, you-all ain't going to let it happen? He couldn't have done it!"
They lowered their heads and returned no answer. At that she whirled with a sob and ran back into the house. The procession moved on, Buck and Montana in the lead, with the prisoner between them. The others followed, Judge Lodge uncoiling a horribly significant rope. Last of all came Bill Sandersen, never taking his eyes from the face of Riley Sinclair.
The latter was thoughtful, very thoughtful. He seemed to feel the eyes of Sandersen upon him, for presently he turned to the other. "What good's a coward to the world, Sandersen?"
"None that I could see."
"Well, look at that. Ever see anything more yaller?"
Gaspar walked between his two guards. Rather he was dragged between them, his feet trailing weakly and aimlessly behind him, his whole body sinking with flabby terror. The stern lip of Riley Sinclair curled.
"He's going to let it go through," said Sandersen to himself. "After all nobody can blame him. He couldn't put his own neck in the noose."
Over the lowest limb of a great cottonwood Judge Lodge accurately flung the rope, so that the noose dangled a significant distance from the ground. There was a businesslike stir among the others. Denver, Larsen, the judge, and Sandersen held the free end of the rope. Buck Mason tied the hands of the prisoner behind him. Montana spoke calmly through his mask.
"Jig, you sure done a rotten bad thing. You hadn't ought to of killed him, Jig. These here killings has got to stop. We ain't hanging you for spite, but to make an example."
Then with a dexterous hand he fitted the noose around the neck of the schoolteacher. As the rough rope grated against Gaspar's throat, he shrieked and jerked against the rope end that bound his hands. Then, as if he realized that struggling would not help him, and that only speech could give him a chance for life, he checked the cry of horror and looked around him. His glances fell on the grim masks, and it was only natural that he should address himself to the only uncovered face he saw.
"Sir," he said to Riley in a rapid, trembling voice, "you look to me like an honest man. Give me—give me time to speak."
"Make it pronto," said Riley Sinclair coldly.
The four waited, with their hands settled high up on the rope, ready for the tug which would swing Gaspar halfway to his Maker.
"We're kind of pushed for time, ourselves," said Riley. "So hurry it on, Gaspar."
Bill Sandersen was a cold man, but such unbelievable heartlessness chilled him. Into his mind rushed a temptation suddenly to denounce the real slayer before them all. He checked that temptation. In the first place it would be impossible to convince five men who had already made up their minds, who had already acquitted Sinclair of the guilt. In the second place, if he succeeded in convincing them, there would be an instant gunplay, and the first man to come under Sinclair's fire, he knew well enough, would be himself. He drew a long breath and waited.
"Good friends, gentlemen," Gaspar was saying, "I don't even know what you accuse me of. Kill a man? Why should I wish to kill a man? You know I'm not a fighter. Gentlemen—"
"Jig," cut in Buck Mason, "you was as good as seen to murder. You're going to hang. If you got anything to say make a confession."
Gaspar attempted to throw himself on his knees, but his weight struck against the rope. He staggered back to his feet, struggling for breath.
"For mercy's sake—" began Gaspar.
"Cut it short, boys!" cried Buck Mason. "Up with him!"
The four men at the rope reached a little higher and settled their grips. In another moment Gaspar would dangle in the air. Now Riley Sinclair made his decision. The agonized eyes of the condemned man, wide with animal terror, were fixed on his face. Sinclair raised his hand.
The arms, growing tense for the jerk, relaxed.
"How long is this going to be dragged out?" asked the judge in disgust. "The worst lynching I ever see, that's what I call it! They ain't no justice in it—it's just plain torture." "Partner," declared Riley Sinclair, "I'm sure glad to see that you got a good appetite for a killing. But it's just come home to me that in spite of everything, this here gent might be innocent. And if he is, heaven help our souls. We're done for!"
"Bless you for that!" exclaimed Gaspar.
"Shut up!" said Sinclair. "No matter what you done, you deserve hangin' for being yaller. But concerning this here matter, gents, it looks to me like it'd be a pretty good idea to have a fair and square trial for Gaspar."
"Trial?" asked Buck Mason. "Don't we all know what trials end up with? Law ain't no good, except to give lawyers a living."
"Never was a truer thing said," declared Sinclair. "All I mean is, that you and me and the rest of us run a trial for ourselves. Let's get in the evidence and hear the witness and make out the case. If we decide they ain't enough agin' Gaspar to hang him, then let him go. If we decide to stretch him up, we'll feel a pile better about it and nearer to the truth."
He went on steadily in spite of the groans of disapproval on every side. "Why, this is all laid out nacheral for a courtroom. That there stump is for the judge, and the black rock yonder is where the prisoner sits. That there nacheral bench of grass is where the jury sits. Gents, could anything be handier for a trial than this layout?"
To the theory of the thing they had been entirely unresponsive, but to the chance to play a game, and a new game, they responded instantly.
"Besides," said Judge Lodge, "I'll act as the judge. I know something about the law."
"No, you won't," declared Riley. "I thought up this little party, and I'm going to run it." Then he stepped to the stump and sat down on it.
Denver Jim was already heartily in the spirit of the thing.
"Sit down on that black rock, Jig," he said, taking Gaspar to the designated stone as he spoke, and removing the noose from the latter's neck. "Black is a sign you're going to swing in the end. Jest a triflin' postponement, that's all."
Riley placated the judge with his first appointment. "Judge Lodge," he said, "you know a pile about these here things. I appoint you clerk. It's your duty to take out that little notebook you got in your vest pocket and write down a note for the important things that's said. Savvy?"
"Right," replied Lodge, entirely won over, and he settled himself on the grass, with the notebook on his knee and a stub of a pencil poised over it.
"Larsen, you're sergeant-at-arms."
"How d'you mean that, Sinclair?"
"That's what they call them that keeps order; I disremember where I heard it. Larsen, if anybody starts raising a rumpus, it's up to you to shut 'em up."
"I'll sure do it," declared Larsen. "You can sure leave that to me, judge." He hoisted his gun belt around so that the gun butt hung more forward and readier to his hand.
"Denver, you're the jailer. You see the prisoner don't get away. Keep an eye on him, you see?"
"Easy, judge," replied Denver. "I can do it with one hand."
"Montana, you keep the door."
"What d'you mean—door, judge?"
"Ain't you got no imagination whatever?" demanded Sinclair. "You keep the door. When I holler for a witness you go and get 'em. And Sandersen, you're the hangman. Take charge of that rope!"
"That ain't such an agreeable job, your honor."
"Neither is mine. Go ahead."
Sandersen, glowering, gathered up the rope and draped it over his arm.
"Buck Mason, you're the jury. Sit down over there on your bench, will you? This here court being kind of shorthanded, you got to do twelve men's work. If it's too much for you, the rest of us will help out."
"Your honor," declared Buck, much impressed, "I'll sure do my best."
"The jury's job," explained Sandersen, "is to listen to everything and not say nothing, but think all the time. You'll do your talking in one little bunch when you say guilty or not guilty. Now we're ready to start. Gaspar, stand up!"
Denver Jim officiously dragged the schoolteacher to his feet.
"What's your name?"
"Name?" asked the bewildered Gaspar. "Why, everybody knows my name!"
"Don't make any difference," announced Sinclair. "This is going to be a strictly regular hanging with no frills left marabout's your name?"
"John Irving Gaspar."
"Called Jig for short, and sometimes Cold Feet," put in the clerk.
Sinclair cleared his throat. "John Irving Gaspar, alias Jig, alias Cold Feet, d'you know what we got agin' you? Know what you're charged with?"
"With—with an absurd thing, sir."
"Murder!" said Sinclair solemnly. "Murder, Jig! What d'you say, guilty or not guilty! Most generally, you'd say not guilty."
"Not guilty—absolutely not guilty. As a matter of fact, Mr. Sinclair—"
"Denver, shut him up and make him sit down."
One hard, brown hand was clapped over Jig's mouth. The other thrust him back on the black rock.
"Gentlemen of the jury," said his honor, "you've heard the prisoner say he didn't do it. Now we'll get down to the truth of it. What's the witnesses for the prosecution got to say?"