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THE RANGELAND AVENGER
BY MAX BRAND
Originally published in 1922 in _Western Story Magazine_ under thetitle of THREE WHO PAID, written under the pseudonym of George OwenBaxter, and subsequently in book form under the title THE RANGELANDAVENGER in 1924.
Of the four men, Hal Sinclair was the vital spirit. In the actual laborof mining, the mighty arms and tireless back Of Quade had been atreasure. For knowledge of camping, hunting, cooking, and all the loreof the trail, Lowrie stood as a valuable resource; and Sandersen wasthe dreamy, resolute spirit, who had hoped for gold in those mountainsuntil he came to believe his hope. He had gathered these threestalwarts to help him to his purpose, and if he lived he would lead yetothers to failure.
Hope never died in this tall, gaunt man, with a pale-blue eye the colorof the horizon dusted with the first morning mist. He was the veryspirit of lost causes, full of apprehensions, foreboding,superstitions. A hunch might make him journey five hundred miles; asnort of his horse could make him give up the trail and turn back.
But Hal Sinclair was the antidote for Sandersen. He was still a boy atthirty--big, handsome, thoughtless, with a heart as clean as new snow.His throat was so parched by that day's ride that he dared not open hislips to sing, as he usually did. He compromised by humming songs newand old, and when his companions cursed his noise, he contented himselfwith talking softly to his horse, amply rewarded when the ponyoccasionally lifted a tired ear to the familiar voice.
Failure and fear were the blight on the spirit of the rest. They hadfound no gold worth looking at twice, and, lingering too long in thesearch, they had rashly turned back on a shortcut across the desert.Two days before, the blow had fallen. They found Sawyer's water holenearly dry, just a little pool in the center, with caked, dead mud allaround it. They drained that water dry and struck on. Since then thewater famine had gained a hold on them; another water hole had not adrop in it. Now they could only aim at the cool, blue mockery of themountains before them, praying that the ponies would last to thefoothills.
Still Hal Sinclair could sing softly to his horse and to himself; and,though his companions cursed his singing, they blessed him for it intheir hearts. Otherwise the white, listening silence of the desertwould have crushed them; otherwise the lure of the mountains would havemaddened them and made them push on until the horses would have diedwithin five miles of the labor; otherwise the pain in their slowlyswelling throats would have taken their reason. For thirst in thedesert carries the pangs of several deaths--death from fire,suffocation, and insanity.
No wonder the three scowled at Hal Sinclair when he drew his revolver.
"My horse is gun-shy," he said, "but I'll bet the rest of you I candrill a horn off that skull before you do."
Of course it was a foolish challenge. Lowrie was the gun expert of theparty. Indeed he had reached that dangerous point of efficiency withfirearms where a man is apt to reach for his gun to decide an argument.Now Lowrie followed the direction of Sinclair's gesture. It was theskull of a steer, with enormous branching horns. The rest of theskeleton was sinking into the sands.
"Don't talk fool talk," said Lowrie. "Save your wind and yourammunition. You may need 'em for yourself, son!"
That grim suggestion made Sandersen and Quade shudder. But a grinspread on the broad, ugly face of Lowrie, and Sinclair merely shruggedhis shoulders.
"I'll try you for a dollar."
"You're afraid to try, Lowrie!"
It was a smiling challenge, but Lowrie flushed. He had a childish pridein his skill with weapons.
"All right, kid. Get ready!"
He brought a Colt smoothly into his hand and balanced it dexterously,swinging it back and forth between his eyes and the target to makeready for a snap shot.
"Ready!" cried Hal Sinclair excitedly.
Lowrie's gun spoke first, and it was the only one that was fired, forSinclair's horse was gun-shy indeed. At the explosion he pitchedstraight into the air with a squeal of mustang fright and came downbucking. The others forgot to look for the results of Lowrie's shot.They reined their horses away from the pitching broncho disgustedly.Sinclair was a fool to use up the last of his mustang's strength inthis manner. But Hal Sinclair had forgotten the journey ahead. He wasrioting in the new excitement cheering the broncho to new exertions.And it was in the midst of that flurry of action that the great blowfell. The horse stuck his right forefoot into a hole.
To the eyes of the others it seemed to happen slowly. The mustang washalted in the midst of a leap, tugged at a leg that seemed glued to theground, and then buckled suddenly and collapsed on one side. They heardthat awful, muffled sound of splintering bone and then the scream ofthe tortured horse.
But they gave no heed to that. Hal Sinclair in the fall had been pinnedbeneath his mount. The huge strength of Quade sufficed to budge thewrithing mustang. Lowrie and Sandersen drew Sinclair's pinioned rightleg clear and stretched him on the sand.
It was Lowrie who shot the horse.
"You've done a brown turn," said Sandersen fiercely to the prostratefigure of Sinclair. "Four men and three hosses. A fine partner you are,Sinclair!"
"Shut up," said Hal. "Do something for that foot of mine."
Lowrie cut the boot away dexterously and turned out the foot. It waspainfully twisted to one side and lay limp on the sand.
"Do something!" said Sinclair, groaning.
The three looked at him, at the dead horse, at the white-hot desert, atthe distant, blue mountains.
"What the devil can we do? You've spoiled all our chances, Sinclair."
"Ride on then and forget me! But tie up that foot before you go. Ican't stand it!"
Silently, with ugly looks, they obeyed. Secretly every one of the threewas saying to himself that this folly of Sinclair's had ruined alltheir chances of getting free from the sands alive. They looked acrossat the skull of the steer. It was still there, very close. It seemed tohave grown larger, with a horrible significance. And each instinctivelyput a man's skull beside it, bleached and white, with shadow eyes.Quade did the actual bandaging of Sinclair's foot, drawing tight abovethe ankle, so that some of the circulation was shut off; but it easedthe pain, and now Sinclair sat up.
"I'm sorry," he said, "mighty sorry, boys!"
There was no answer. He saw by their lowered eyes that they were hatinghim. He felt it in the savage grip of their hands, as they lifted himand put him into Quade's saddle. Quade was the largest, and it wasmutely accepted that he should be the first to walk, while Sinclairrode. It was accepted by all except Quade, that is to say. That big manstrode beside his horse, lifting his eyes now and then to glareremorselessly at Sinclair.
It was bitter work walking through that sand. The heel crunched intoit, throwing a strain heavily on the back of the thigh, and then theball of the foot slipped back in the midst of a stride. Also the laborraised the temperature of the body incredibly. With no wind stirring itwas suffocating.
And the day was barely beginning!
Barely two hours before the sun had been merely a red ball on the edgeof the desert. Now it was low in the sky, but bitterly hot. And theirmournful glances presaged the horror that was coming in the middle ofthe day.
Deadly silence fell on that group. They took their turns by the watch,half an hour at a time, walking and then changing horses, and, as eachman took his turn on foot, he cast one long glance of hatred atSinclair.
He was beginning to know them for the first time. They were chanceacquaintances. The whole trip had been undertaken by him on the spur ofthe moment; and, as
far as lay in his cheery, thoughtless nature, hehad come to regret it. The work of the trail had taught him that he wasmismated in this company, and the first stern test was stripping themasks from them. He saw three ugly natures, three small, cruel souls.
It came Sandersen's turn to walk.
"Maybe I could take a turn walking," suggested Sinclair.
It was the first time in his life that he had had to shift any burdenonto the shoulders of another except his brother, and that wasdifferent. Ah, how different! He sent up one brief prayer for RileySinclair. There was a man who would have walked all day that hisbrother might ride, and at the end of the day that man of iron would beas fresh as those who had ridden. Moreover, there would have been noquestions, no spite, but a free giving. Mutely he swore that he wouldhereafter judge all men by the stern and honorable spirit of Riley.
And then that sad offer: "Maybe I could take a turn walking, Sandersen.I could hold on to a stirrup and hop along some way!"
He had no answer, for it was not possible. The twisted foot was asteady torture.
In another half hour he asked for water, as they paused for Sandersento mount, and Lowrie to take his turn on foot. Sandersen snatched thecanteen which Quade reluctantly passed to the injured man.
"Look here!" said Sandersen. "We got to split up on this. You sit thereand ride and take it easy. Me and the rest has to go through hell. Youtake some of the hell yourself. You ride, but we'll have the water, andthey ain't much of it left at that!"
Sinclair glanced helplessly at the others. Their faces were set instern agreement.
Slowly the sun crawled up to the center of the sky and stuck there forendless hours, it seemed, pouring down a fiercer heat. And thefoothills still wavered in blue outlines that meant distance--terribledistance.
Out of the east came a cloud of dust. The restless eye of Sandersen sawit first, and a harsh shout of joy came from the others. Quade waswalking. He lifted his arms to the cloud of dust as if it were a visionof mercy. To Hal Sinclair it seemed that cold water was already runningover his tongue and over the hot torment of his foot. But, after thatfirst cry of hoarse joy, a silence was on the others, and gradually hesaw a shadow gather.
"It ain't wagons," said Lowrie bitterly at length. "And it ain'triders; it comes too fast for that. And it ain't the wind; it comes tooslow. But it ain't men. You can lay to that!"
Still they hoped against hope until the growing cloud parted and liftedenough for them to see a band of wild horses sweeping along at a steadylope. They sighted the men and veered swiftly to the left. A momentlater there was only a thin trail of flying dust before the four. Threepairs of eyes turned on Sinclair and silently cursed him as if thiswere his fault.
"Those horses are aiming at water," he said. "Can't we follow 'em?"
"They're aiming for a hole fifty miles away. No, we can't follow 'em!"
They started on again, and now, after that cruel moment of hope, it wasredoubled labor. Quade was cursing thickly with every other step. Whenit came his turn to ride he drew Lowrie to one side, and they conversedlong together, with side glances at Sinclair.
Vaguely he guessed the trend of their conversation, and vaguely hesuspected their treacherous meanness. Yet he dared not speak, even hadhis pride permitted.
It was the same story over again when Lowrie walked. Quade rode asidewith Sandersen, and again, with the wolfish side glances, they eyed theinjured man, while they talked. At the next halt they faced him.Sandersen was the spokesman.
"We've about made up our minds, Hal," he said deliberately, "that yougot to be dropped behind for a time. We're going on to find water. Whenwe find it we'll come back and get you. Understand?"
Sinclair moistened his lips, but said nothing.
Then Sandersen's voice grew screechy with sudden passion. "Say, do youwant three men to die for one? Besides, what good could we do?"
"You don't mean it," declared Sinclair. "Sandersen, you don't mean it!Not alone out here! You boys can't leave me out here stranded. Might aswell shoot me!"
All were silent. Sandersen looked to Lowrie, and the latter stared atthe sand. It was Quade who acted.
Stepping to the side of Sinclair he lifted him easily in his powerfularms and lowered him to the sands. "Now, keep your nerve," he advised."We're coming back."
He stumbled a little over the words. "It's all of us or none of us," hesaid. "Come on, boys. _My_ conscience is clear!"
They turned their horses hastily to the hills, and, when the voice ofSinclair rang after them, not one dared turn his head.
"Partners, for the sake of all the work we've done together--don't dothis!"
In a shuddering unison they spurred their horses and raised the wearybrutes into a gallop; the voice faded into a wail behind them. Andstill they did not look back.
At first they thought it was a mirage. They turned away from it bymutual assent. But the horses had scented drink, and they becameunmanageable. Five minutes later the animals were up to their knees inthe muddy water, and the men were floundering breast deep, drinking,drinking, drinking.
After that they sat about the brink staring at one another in a stunnedfashion. There seemed no joy in that delivery, for some reason.
"I guess Sinclair will be a pretty happy gent when he sees us comingback," said Sandersen, smiling faintly.
There was no response from the others for a moment. Then they began tojustify themselves hotly.
"It was your idea, Quade."
"Why, curse your soul, weren't you glad to take the idea? Are you goingto blame it on to me?"
"What's the blame?" asked Lowrie. "Ain't we going to bring him water?"
"Suppose he ever tells we left him? We'd have to leave these partspronto!"
"He'll never tell. We'll swear him."
"If he does talk, I'll stop him pretty sudden," said Lowrie, tappinghis holster significantly.
"Will you? What if he puts that brother of his on your trail?"
Lowrie swallowed hard. "Well--" he began, but said no more.
They mounted in a new silence and took the back trail slowly. Not untilthe evening began to fall did they hurry, for fear the darkness wouldmake them lose the position of their comrade. When they were quite nearthe place, the semidarkness had come, and Quade began to shout in histremendous voice. Then they would listen, and sometimes they heard anecho, or a voice like an echo, always at a great distance.
"Maybe he's started crawling and gone the wrong way. He should have satstill," said Lowrie, "because--"
"Oh, Lord," broke in Sandersen, "I knew it! I been seeing it all theway!" He pointed to a figure of a man lying on his back in the sand,with his arms thrown out crosswise. They dismounted and found HalSinclair dead and cold. Perhaps the insanity of thirst had taken him;perhaps he had figured it out methodically that it was better to endthings before the madness came. There was a certain stern repose abouthis face that favored this supposition. He seemed much older. But,whatever the reason, Hal Sinclair had shot himself cleanly through thehead.
"You see that face?" asked Lowrie with curious quiet. "Take a goodlook. You'll see it ag'in."
A superstitious horror seized on Sandersen. "What d'you mean, Lowrie?What d'you mean?"
"I mean this! The way he looks now he's a ringer for Riley Sinclair.And, you mark me, we're all going to see Riley Sinclair, face to face,before we die!"
"He'll never know," said Quade, the stolid. "Who knows except us? Andwill one of us ever talk?" He laughed at the idea.
"I dunno," whispered Sandersen. "I dunno, gents. But we done an awfulthing, and we're going to pay--we're going to pay!"