Read CHAPTER 13 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

From the first there was no thought in the sheriff’s mind of riding straight into Woodville, trussed and helpless as he was.  Woodville respected him, and the whole district was proud of its sheriff.  He knew that five minutes of laughter can blast the finest reputation that was ever built by a lifetime of hard labor.  He knew the very faces of the men who would never let the story die, of how the sheriff came into town, not only without his prisoner, but tied hand and foot, helpless in the saddle.

Without his prisoner!

Never before in his twenty years as sheriff had a criminal escaped from his hands.  Many a time they had tried, and on those occasions he had brought back a dead body for the hand of the law.

This time he had ample excuse.  Any man in the world might admit that he was helpless when such a fellow as Riley Sinclair took him by surprise.  He knew Sinclair well by reputation, and he respected all that he had heard.

No matter for that.  The fact remained that his unbroken string of successes was interrupted.  Perhaps Woodville would explain his failure away.  No doubt some of the men knew of Sinclair and would not wonder.  They would stand up doughtily for the prowess of their sheriff.  Yet the fact held that he had failed.  It was a moral defeat more than anything else.

His mind was made up to remain in the mountains until he starved, or until he had removed those shameful ropes — his own rope!  At that thought he writhed again.  But here an arroyo opening in the ragged wall of a cliff caught his eye.  He turned his horse into it and continued on his way until he saw a projecting rock with a ragged edge, left where a great fragment had recently fallen away.

Here he found it strangely awkward and even perilous to dismount without his hands to balance his weight, as he shifted out of the stirrups.  In spite of his care, he stumbled over a loose rock as he struck the ground and rolled flat on his back.  He got up, grinding his teeth.  His hands were tied behind him.  He turned his back on the broken rock and sawed the ropes against it.  To his dismay he felt the rock edge crumble away.  It was some chalky, friable stuff, and it gave at the first friction.

Beads of moisture started out on the sheriff’s forehead.  Hastily he started on down the arroyo and found another rock, with an edge not nearly so favorable in appearance, but this time it was granite.  He leaned his back against it and rubbed with a short shoulder motion until his arms ached, but it was a happy labor.  He felt the rock edge taking hold of the ropes, fraying the strands to weakness, and then eating into them.  It was very slow work!

The sun drifted up to noon, and still he was leaning against that rock, working patiently, with his head near to bursting, and perspiration, which he could not wipe away, running down to blind him.  Finally, when his brain was beginning to reel with the heat, and his shoulders ached to numbness, the last strand parted.  The sheriff dropped down to the ground to rest.

Presently he drew out his jackknife and methodically cut the remaining bonds.  It came to him suddenly, as he stood up, that someone might have seen this singular performance and carried the tale away for future laughter.  The thought drove the sheriff mad.  He swung savagely into the saddle and drove his horse at a dead run among the perilous going of that gorge.  When he reached the plain he paused, hesitant between a bulldog desire to follow the trail single-handed into the mountains and run down the pair, and a knowledge that he who retreats has an added power that would make such a pursuit rash beyond words.

A phrase which he had coined for the gossips of Woodville, came back into his mind.  He was no longer as young as he once was, and even at his prime he shrewdly doubted his ability to cope with Riley Sinclair.  With the weight of Gaspar thrown in, the thing became an impossibility.  Gaspar might be a weakling, but a man who was capable of murder was always dangerous.

To have been thwarted once was shame enough, but he dared not risk two failures with one man.  He must have help in plenty from Woodville, and, fate willing, he would one day have the pleasure of looking down into the dead face of Sinclair; one day have the unspeakable joy of seeing the slender form of Gaspar dangling from the end of a rope.

His mind was filled with the wicked pleasure of these pictures until he came suddenly upon Woodville.  He drew his horse back to a dogtrot to enter the town.

It was a short street that led through Woodville, but, short though it was, the news that something was wrong with the sheriff reached the heart of the town before he did.  Men were already pouring out on the veranda of the hotel.

“Where is he, sheriff?” was the greeting.

Never before had that question been asked.  He switched to one side in his saddle and made the speech that startled the mind of Woodville for many a day.

“Boys, I’ve been double-crossed.  Have any of you heard tell of Riley Sinclair?”

He waited apparently calm.  Inwardly he was breathless with excitement, for according to the size of Riley’s reputation as a formidable man would be the size of his disgrace.  There was a brief pause.  Old Shaw filled the gap, and he filled it to the complete satisfaction of the sheriff.

“Young Hopkins was figured for the hardest man up in Montana way,” he said.  “That was till Riley Sinclair beat him.  What about Sinclair?”

“It was him that double-crossed me,” said the sheriff, vastly relieved.  “He come like a friend, stuck me up on the trail when I wasn’t lookin’ for no trouble, and he got away with Gaspar.”

A chorus, astonished, eager.  “What did he do it for?”

“No man’ll ever know,” said the sheriff.

“Why not?”

“Because Sinclair’ll be dead before he has a chance to look a jury in the face.”

There were more questions.  The little crowd had got its breath again, and the words came in volleys.  The sheriff cut sharply through the noise.

“Where’s Bill Wood?”

“He’s in town now.”

“Charley, will you find Billy for me and ask him to slide over to my office?  Thanks!  Where’s Arizona and Red Chalmers?”

“They went back to the ranch.”

“Be a terrible big favor if you’d go out and try to find ’em for me, boys.  Where’s Joe Stockton?”

“Up to the Lewis place.”

Old Shaw struck in:  “You ain’t makin’ no mistake in picking the best you can get.  You’ll need ’em for this Riley Sinclair.  I’ve heard tell about him.  A pile!”

The very best that Woodville and its vicinity could offer, was indeed what the sheriff was selecting.  Another man would have looked for numbers, but the sheriff knew well enough that numbers meant little speed, and speed was one of the main essentials for the task that lay before him.  He knew each of the men he had named, and he had known them for years, with the exception of Arizona.  But the latter, coming up from the southland, had swiftly proved his ability in many a brawl.

Bill Wood was a peerless trailer; Red Chalmers would, the sheriff felt, be one day a worthy aspirant for the office which he now held, and Red was the only man the sheriff felt who could succeed to that perilous office.  As for Joe Stockton, he was distinctly bad medicine, but in a case like this, it might very well be that poison would be the antidote for poison.  Of all the men the sheriff knew, Joe was the neatest hand with a gun.  The trouble with Joe was that he appreciated his own ability and was fond of exhibiting his prowess.

Having sent out for his assistants on the chase, the sheriff retired to his office and set his affairs in order.  There was not a great deal of paper work connected with his position; in twenty minutes he had cleared his desk, and, by the time he had finished this task, the first of his posse had sauntered into the doorway and stood leaning idly there, rolling a cigarette.

“Have a chair, Bill, will you?” said the sheriff.  He tilted back in his own and tossed his heels to the top of his desk.  “Getting sort of warm today, ain’t it?”

Bill Wood had never seen the sheriff so cheerful.  He sat down gingerly, knowing well that some task of great danger lay before them.