Read CHAPTER 6 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

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!”