Read CHAPTER 30 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

As Arizona had predicted, Sheriff Kern was greatly tempted not to start on the hard ride for the mountains before morning, and finally he followed his impulse.  With the first break of the dawn he was up, and a few minutes later he had taken the trail alone.  There was no need of numbers, for that matter, to tell a single man that he no longer need dread the law.  But it was only common decency to inform him of the charge, and Kern was a decent sort.

He was thoughtful on the trail.  A great many things had happened to upset the sheriff.  The capture of Sinclair, take it all in all, was an important event.  To be sure, the chief glory was attributable to the cunning of Arizona; nevertheless, the community was sure to pay homage to the skill of the sheriff who had led the party and managed the capture.

But now the sheriff found himself regretting the capture and all its attendant glory.  Not even a personal grudge against the man who had taken his first prisoner from him, could give an edge to the sheriff’s satisfaction, for, during the late hours of the preceding night he had heard from Sinclair the true story of the killing of Quade; not a murder, but a fair fight.  And he had heard more — the whole unhappy tale which began with the death of Hal Sinclair in the desert, a story which now included, so far as the sheriff knew, three deaths, with a promise of another in the future.

It was little wonder that he was disturbed.  His philosophy was of the kind that is built up in a country of horses, hard riding, hard work, hard fighting.  According to the precepts of that philosophy, Sinclair would have shirked a vital moral duty had he failed to avenge the pitiful death of his brother.

The sheriff put himself into the boots of the man who was now his prisoner and facing a sentence of death.  In that man’s place he knew that he would have taken the same course.  It was a matter of necessary principle; and the sheriff also knew that no jury in the country could allow Sinclair to go free.  It might not be the death sentence, but it would certainly be a prison term as bad as death.

These thoughts consumed the time for the sheriff until his horse had labored up the height, and he came to the little plateau where so much had happened outside of his ken.  And there he saw Bill Sandersen, with the all-seeing sun on his dead eyes.

For a moment the sheriff could not believe what he saw.  Sandersen was, in the phrase of the land, “Sinclair’s meat.”  It suddenly seemed to him that Sinclair must have broken from jail and done this killing during the night.  But a moment’s reflection assured him that this could not be.  The mind of the sheriff whirled.  Not Sinclair, certainly.  The man had been dead for some hours.  In the sky, far above and to the north, there were certain black specks, moving in great circles that drifted gradually south.  The buzzards were already coming to the dead.  He watched them for a moment, with the sinking of the heart which always comes to the man of the mountain desert when he sees those grim birds.

It was not Sinclair.  But who, then?

He examined the body and the wound.  It was a center shot, nicely placed.  Certainly not the sort of shot that Cold Feet, according to the description which Sinclair had given of the latter’s marksmanship, would be apt to make.  But there was no other conclusion to come to.  Cold Feet had certainly been here according to Sinclair’s confession, and it was certainly reasonable to suppose that Cold Feet had committed this crime.  The sheriff placed the hat of Sinclair over his face and swung back into his saddle; he must hurry back to Sour Creek and send up a burial party, for no one would have an interest in interring the body in the town.

But once in the saddle he paused again.  The thought of the schoolteacher having killed so formidable a fighter as Sandersen stuck in his mind as a thing too contrary to probability.  Moreover the sheriff had grown extremely cautious.  He had made one great failure very recently — the escape of this same Cold Feet.  He would have failed again had it not been for Arizona.  He shuddered at the thought of how his reputation would have been ruined had he gone on the trail and allowed Sinclair to double back to Sour Creek and take the town by surprise.

Dismounting, he threw his reins and went back to review the scene of the killing.  There were plenty of tracks around the place.  The gravel obscured a great part of the marks, and still other prints were blurred by the dead grass.  But there were pockets of rich, loamy soil, moist enough and firm enough to take an impression as clearly as paper takes ink.  The sheriff removed the right shoe from the foot of Sandersen and made a series of fresh prints.

They were quite distinctive.  The heel was turned out to such an extent that the track was always a narrow indentation, where the heel fell on the soft soil.  He identified the same tracks in many places, and, dismissing the other tracks, the sheriff proceeded to make up a trail history for Sandersen.

Here he came up the hill, on foot.  Here he paused beside the embers of the fire and remained standing for a long time, for the marks were worked in deeply.  After a time the trail went — he followed it with difficulty over the hard-packed gravel — up the side of the hill to a semicircular arrangement of rocks, and there, distinct in the soil, was the impression of the body, where the cowpuncher had lain down.  The sheriff lay down in turn, and at once he was sure why Sandersen had chosen this spot.  He was defended perfectly on three sides from bullets, and in the meantime, through crevices in the rock, he maintained a clear outlook over the whole side of the hill.

Obviously Sandersen had lain down to keep watch.  For what?  For Cold Feet, of course, on whose head a price rested.  Or, at least, so Sinclair must have believed at the time.  The news had not yet been published abroad that Cold Feet had been exculpated by the confession of Sinclair to the killing of Quade.

So much was clear.  But presently Sandersen had risen and gone down the hill again, leaving from the other side of the rock.  Had he covered Cold Feet when the latter returned to his camp, having been absent when Sandersen first arrived?  No, the tracks down the hill were leisurely, not the long strides which a man would make to get close to one whom he had covered with a revolver from a distance.

Reaching the shoulder of the mountain, Kern puzzled anew.  He began a fresh study of the tracks.  Those of Cold Feet were instantly known by the tiny size of the marks of the soles.  The sheriff remembered that he had often wondered at the smallness of the schoolteacher’s feet.  Cold Feet was there, and Sandersen was dead.  Again it seemed certain that Cold Feet had been guilty of the crime, but the sheriff kept on systematically hunting for new evidence.  He found no third set of tracks for some time, but when he did find them, they were very clear — a short, broad foot, the imprint of a heavy man.  A fat man, then, no doubt.  From the length of the footprint it was very doubtful if the man were tall, and certainly by the clearness of the indentation, the man was heavy.  The sheriff could tell by making a track beside that of the quarry.

A second possibility, therefore, had entered, and the sheriff felt a reasonable conviction that this must be the guilty man.

Now he combed the whole area for some means of identifying the third man who had been on the mountainside.  But nothing had been dropped except a brilliant bandanna, wadded compactly together, which the sheriff recognized as belonging to Sandersen.  There was only one definite means of recognizing the third man.  Very faint in the center of the impression made by his sole, were two crossed arrows, the sign of the bootmaker.

The sheriff shook his head.  Could he examine the soles of the boots of every man in the vicinity of Sour Creek, even if he limited his inquiry to those who were short and stocky?  And might there not be many a man who wore the same type of boots?

He flung himself gloomily into his saddle again, and this time he headed straight down the trail for Sour Creek.

At the hotel he was surrounded by an excited knot of people who wished to know how he had extracted the amazing confession from Riley Sinclair.  The sheriff tore himself away from a dozen hands who wished to buttonhole him in close conversation.

“I’ll tell you gents this,” he said.  “Quade was killed because he needed killing, and Sinclair confessed because he’s straight.”

With that, casting an ugly glance at the lot of them, he went back into the kitchen and demanded a cup of coffee.  The Chinese cook obeyed the order in a hurry, highly flattered and not a little nervous at the presence of the great man in the kitchen.

While Kern was there, Arizona entered.  The sheriff greeted him cheerfully, with his coffee cup balanced in one hand.

“Arizona,” he said, “or Dago, or whatever you like to be called — ”

“Cut the Dago part, will you?” demanded Arizona.  “I ain’t no ways wishing to be reminded of that name.  Nobody calls me that.”

Kern grinned covertly.

“I s’pose,” said Arizona slowly, “that you and Sinclair had a long yarn about when he knew me some time back?”

The sheriff shook his head.

“Between you and me,” he said frankly, “it sounded to me like Sinclair knew something you mightn’t want to have noised around.  Is that straight?”

“I’ll tell you,” answered the other.  “When I was a kid I was a fool kid.  That’s all it amounts to.”

Sheriff Kern grunted.  “All right, Arizona, I ain’t asking.  But you can lay to it that Sinclair won’t talk.  He’s as straight as ever I seen!”

“Maybe,” said Arizona, “but he’s slippery.  And I got this to say:  Lemme have the watch over Sinclair while he’s in Sour Creek, or are you taking him back to Woodville today?”

“I’m held over,” said the sheriff.

He paused.  Twice the little olive-skinned man from the south had demonstrated his superiority in working out criminal puzzles.  The sheriff was prone to unravel the new mystery by himself, if he might.

“By what?”

“Oh, by something I’ll tell you about later on,” said the sheriff.  “It don’t amount to much, but I want to look into it.”

Purposely he had delayed sending the party to bury Sandersen.  It would be simply warning the murderer if that man were in Sour Creek.

“About you and Sinclair,” went on the sheriff, “there ain’t much good feeling between you, eh?”

“I won’t shoot him in the back if I guard him,” declared Arizona.  “But if you want one of the other boys to take the jog, go ahead.  Put Red on it.”

“He’s too young.  Sinclair’s get him off guard by talking.”

“Then try Wood.”

“Wood ain’t at his best off the trail.  Come to think about it, I’d rather trust Sinclair to you — that is, if you make up your mind to treat him square.”

“Sheriff, I’ll give him a squarer deal than you think.”

Kern nodded.

“More coffee, Li!” he called.

Li obeyed with such haste that he overbrimmed the cup, and some of the liquid washed out of the saucer onto the floor.

“Coming back to shop talk,” went on the sheriff, as Li mopped up the spilled coffee, mumbling excuses, “I ain’t had a real chance to tell you what a fine job you done for us last night, Arizona.”

Arizona, with due modesty, waved the praise away and stepped to the container of matches hanging beside the stove.  He came back lighting a cigarette and contentedly puffed out a great cloud.

“Forget all that, sheriff, will you?”

“Not if I live to be a hundred,” answered the sheriff with frank admiration.

So saying, his eye dropped to the floor and remained there, riveted.  The foot of Arizona had rested on the spot where the coffee had fallen.  The print was clearly marked with dust, except that in the center, where the sole had lain, there was a sharply defined pair of crossed arrows!

A short, fat, heavy man.

The sheriff raised his glance and examined the bulky shoulders of the man.  Then he hastily swallowed the rest of his coffee.

Yet there might be a dozen other short, stocky men in town, whose boots had the same impression.  He looked thoughtfully out the kitchen window, striving to remember some clue.  But, as far as he could make out, the only time Arizona and Sandersen had crossed had been when the latter applied for a place on the posse.  Surely a small thing to make a man commit a murder!

“If you gimme the job of guarding Sinclair,” said Arizona, “I’d sure — ”

“Wait a minute,” cut in the sheriff.  “I’ll be back right away.  I think that was MacKenzie who went into the stable.  Don’t leave till I come back, Arizona.”

Hurriedly he went out.  There was no MacKenzie in the stable, and the sheriff did not look for one.  He went straight to Arizona’s horse.  The roan was perfectly dry, but examining the hide, the sheriff saw that the horse had been recently groomed, and a thorough grooming would soon dry the hair and remove all traces of a long ride.

Stepping back to the peg from which the saddle hung, he raised the stirrup leather.  On the inside, where the leather had chafed the side of the horse, there was a dirty gray coating, the accumulation of the dust and sweat of many a ride.  But it was soft with recent sweat, and along the edges of the leather there was a barely dried line of foam that rubbed away readily under the touch of his fingertip.

Next he examined the bridle.  There, also, were similar evidences of recent riding.  The sheriff returned calmly to the kitchen of the hotel.

“And your mind’s made up?” asked Arizona.

“Yes,” said the sheriff.  “You go in with Sinclair.”

“Go in with him?” asked Arizona, baffled.

“For murder,” said the sheriff.  “Stick up your hands, Arizona!”