Read CHAPTER 3 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

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?”


“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.