Read CHAPTER 4 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

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.

“Absolutely honest!”

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!”