Their trails divided after that. Sandersen and Quade started back forSour Creek. At the parting of the ways Lowrie's last word was forSandersen.
"You started this party, Sandersen. If they's any hell coming out ofit, it'll fall chiefly on you. Remember, because I got one of your ownhunches!"
After that Lowrie headed straight across the mountains, traveling asmuch by instinct as by landmarks. He was one of those men who are bornto the trail. He stopped in at Four Pines, and there he told the storyon which he and Sandersen and Quade had agreed. Four Pines would spreadthat tale by telegraph, and Riley Sinclair would be advised beforehand.Lowrie had no desire to tell the gunfighter in person of the passing ofHal Sinclair. Certainly he would not be the first man to tell thestory.
He reached Colma late in the afternoon, and a group instantly formedaround him on the veranda of the old hotel. Four Pines had indeedspread the story, and the crowd wanted verification. He replied assmoothly as he could. Hal Sinclair had broken his leg in a fall fromhis horse, and they had bound it up as well as they could. They hadtied him on his horse, but he could not endure the pain of travel. Theystopped, nearly dying from thirst. Mortification set in. Hal Sinclairdied in forty-eight hours after the halt.
Four Pines had accepted the tale. There had been more deadly storiesthan this connected with the desert. But Pop Hansen, the proprietor,drew Lowrie to one side.
"Keep out of Riley's way for a while. He's all het up. He was fond ofHal, you know, and he takes this bad. Got an ugly way of askingquestions, and--"
"The truth is the truth," protested Lowrie. "Besides--"
"I know--I know. But jest make yourself scarce for a couple of days."
"I'll keep on going, Pop. Thanks!"
"Never mind, ain't no hurry. Riley's out of town and won't be back fora day or so. But, speaking personal, I'd rather step into a nest ofrattlers than talk to Riley, the way he's feeling now."
Lowrie climbed slowly up the stairs to his room, thinking very hard. Heknew the repute of Riley Sinclair, and he knew the man to be even worsethan reputation, one of those stern souls who exact an eye for aneye--and even a little more.
Once in his room he threw himself on his bed. After all there was noneed for a panic. No one would ever learn the truth. To make suretydoubly sure he would start early in the dawn and strike out for fartrails. The thought had hardly come to him when he dismissed it. Aflight would call down suspicion on him, and Riley Sinclair would bethe first to suspect. In that case distance would not save him, notfrom that hard and tireless rider.
To help compose his thoughts he went to the washstand and bathed hishot face. He was drying himself when there was a tap on the door.
"Can I come in?" asked a shrill voice.
He answered in the affirmative, and a youngster stepped into the room.
"They's a gent downstairs wants you to come down and see him."
"I dunno. We just moved in from Conway. I can point him out to you onthe street."
Lowrie followed the boy to the window, and there, surrounded by half adozen serious-faced men, stood Riley Sinclair, tall, easy, formidable.The sight of Sinclair filled Lowrie with dismay. Pushing a silver coininto the hand of the boy, he said: "Tell him--tell him--I'm comingright down."
As soon as the boy disappeared, Lowrie ran to the window which openedon the side of the house. When he looked down his hope fled. At onetime there had been a lean-to shed running along that side of thebuilding. By the roof of it he could have got to the ground unseen. Nowhe remembered that it had been torn down the year before; there was astraight and perilous drop beneath the window. As for the stairs, theyled almost to the front door of the building. Sinclair would be sure tosee him if he went down there.
Of the purpose of the big man he had no doubt. His black guilt was soapparent to his own mind that it seemed impossible that the keen eyesof Sinclair had not looked into the story of Hal's broken leg and seena lie. Besides, the invitation through a messenger seemed a hollowlure. Sinclair wished to fight him and kill him before witnesses whowould attest that Lowrie had been the first to go for his gun.
Fight? Lowrie looked down at his hand and found that the very wrist wasquivering. Even at his best he felt that he would have no chance. Oncehe had seen Sinclair in action in Lew Murphy's old saloon, had seen RedJordan get the drop, and had watched Sinclair shoot his mandeliberately through the shoulder. Red Jordan was a cripple for life.
Suppose he walked boldly down, told his story, and trusted to the skillof his lie? No, he knew his color would pale if he faced Sinclair.Suppose he refused to fight? Better to die than be shamed in themountain country.
He hurried to the window for another look into the street, and he foundthat Sinclair had disappeared. Lowrie's knees buckled under his weight.He went over to the bed, with short steps like a drunken man, andlowered himself down on it.
Sinclair had gone into the hotel, and doubtless that meant that he hadgrown impatient. The fever to kill was burning in the big man. ThenLowrie heard a steady step come regularly up the stairs. They creakedunder a heavy weight.
Lowrie drew his gun. It caught twice; finally he jerked it out in afrenzy. He would shoot when the door opened, without waiting, and thentrust to luck to fight his way through the men below.
In the meantime the muzzle of the revolver wabbled crazily from side toside, up and down. He clutched the barrel with the other hand. Andstill the weapon shook.
Curling up his knee before his breast he ground down with both hands.That gave him more steadiness; but would not this contorted positiondestroy all chance of shooting accurately? His own prophecy, made overthe dead body of Hal Sinclair, that all three of them would see thatface again, came back to him with a sense of fatality. Someforward-looking instinct, he assured himself, had given him thatknowledge.
The step upon the stairs came up steadily. But the mind of Lowrie,between the steps, leaped hither and yon, a thousand miles and back.What if his nerve failed him at the last moment? What if he buckled andshowed yellow and the shame of it followed him? Better a hundred timesto die by his own hand.
Excitement, foreboding, the weariness of the long trail--all wereworking upon Lowrie.
Nearer drew the step. It seemed an hour since he had first heard itbegin to climb the stairs. It sounded heavily on the floor outside hisdoor. There was a heavy tapping on the door itself. For an instant theclutch of Lowrie froze around his gun; then he twitched the muzzle backagainst his own breast and fired.
There was no pain--only a sense of numbness and a vague feeling of tornmuscles, as if they were extraneous matter. He dropped the revolver onthe bed and pressed both hands against his wound. Then the door opened,and there appeared, not Riley Sinclair, but Pop Hansen.
"What in thunder--" he began.
"Get Riley Sinclair. There's been an accident," said Lowrie faintly andhuskily. "Get Riley Sinclair; quick. I got something to say to him."